Acts chapter ten is one of the most pivotal passages of scripture in the entire New Testament. It’s a passage that’s often used to support the erroneous teaching that God has now released us to freely eat every kind of animal, even those He previously defined as unfit for food and thereby human consumption.
Yet we quickly see from Scripture that Peter’s vision wasn’t about being able to eat unclean food at all, rather it was about God accepting the Gentile believer coming into faith and community. This was the great mystery of the ages being revealed to Peter through his vision here in Acts chapter 10 – that God would extend salvation to the Gentiles without them needing to first convert by becoming a legal Jew.
Read what Paul writes about this mystery of the Messiah to the believers in Ephesus:
1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Why was the concept of Gentile inclusion in salvation such a difficult idea to grasp? Until this time, in a Jew’s mind, salvation existed only within the confines of citizenship among legal Israel. So when a Gentile felt drawn to worship Yahweh – the God of Israel – Judaism of that day required the Gentile to undergo a man-made conversion ritual of circumcision, baptism, and offering a sacrifice before he could be counted as being ‘saved’.
Yet God has always had the ultimate plan of all nations and peoples worshipping and serving Him. This was revealed, though only in part, in many passages throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 56:1-8). But when the Messiah came, Yahweh unfolded His ultimate plan of all nations and peoples worshipping and serving Him in a way He hadn’t previously done (Ephesians 3:5).
This is the context and backdrop surrounding Peter’s vision. It has nothing to do with God changing existing Old Testament dietary laws and prohibitions. Now, let’s follow the story as we read through Acts chapter 10 together in the remainder of this article.
Cornelius, the Gentile God-Fearer
As we begin to read the scriptural account in Acts chapter 10, let’s remember the context: until this point it was thought that a Gentile believer could not be considered as ‘being saved’ unless he first converted and became a legal Jewish citizen through undergoing man-made conversion rituals prescribed by the Judaism of that day. We now know, and will see from Scripture, that such a requirement is not part of God’s plan for Gentiles coming to faith and belief in Him.
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
We are presented with a Gentile God-fearing man named Cornelius who was centurion of the Italian regiment. We’re told that Cornelius feared Yahweh, gave generous offerings to the people, and was a devout man of prayer. The above passage tells us that God was moved by Cornelius’ devotion (Acts 10:4b).
God speaks to Cornelius, the Gentile God-fearer, in a vision instructing him to send men to Joppa and bring back a Jewish man named Simon, also called Peter, to Caesarea to stay with Cornelius and his family in his home – an unacceptable thing for a Jewish man to do. Upon receiving the vision, Cornelius is obedient and sends men to Joppa to find Simon Peter and bring him back.
Before the men sent by Cornelius arrive, Peter goes onto the housetop to pray and becomes hungry. As Peter prays, Scripture says he falls into a trance. It’s during this trance that Yahweh reveals a message to Peter through a vision – it’s a message that will completely shake Jewish perception of Gentiles and their coming to faith in Yahweh, God of Israel.
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
What It Doesn’t Mean – “Rise, Kill, and Eat”
During Peter’s vision a voice commands him to “rise, kill, and eat” the unclean animals within the great sheet. Peter is perplexed by the instruction he’s heard, to which he adamantly retorts “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice in the vision repeats the instruction, instructing Peter a total of three times. We should note: at no point does Peter transgress God’s written commandment (Leviticus 11) by eating the unclean animals.
Therefore, this verse cannot be used to support the idea that God has done away with Old Testament dietary laws. Besides, the passage here in Acts 10 will proceed to explain the exact purpose and reason for Peter’s vision.
Beyond the scope of this article, some today teach that Jesus did away with Old Testament dietary laws in Mark chapter 7 (due to some unfortunate inline commentary from translators in the Greek text), but if Jesus did do away with them, why is Peter – 10 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection – emphatically stating that he has never eaten anything unclean? In addition, if Jesus had done away with them in Mark 7 as some teach, then He wouldn’t qualify to be the Messiah.
What It Does Mean – “Call No Person Unclean”
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests.
Peter’s bewilderment concerning the meaning of the vision soon gives way to revelation and understanding. Three times the voice in the vision instructed Peter to “rise, kill, and eat”, and as he was pondering the vision, immediately the three Gentile men sent by Cornelius arrive at the house which Peter is staying at in Joppa. As the men arrive, Peter is still mulling over the meaning of the vision, and the Spirit then speaks to him “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
The Gentile men sent from Cornelius tell Peter the divine reason for their coming; how Cornelius was directed through a heavenly vision and voice to send for Peter, so that Cornelius’ house might hear all that Peter has to speak about God – a word of good news and salvation that would be birthed by the Spirit of God.
The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
Obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit saying “Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Peter makes the journey north to Caesarea, arriving at the house of Cornelius. As Peter enters, he finds a gathering of Cornelius’ relatives and close friends eagerly awaiting the divine message which God was going to speak through Peter.
After awkward introductions, Peter begins by telling them about the meaning of the vision God gave to him while on the roof praying in Joppa. Peter tells those listening the true meaning of his divine vision – “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
The purpose and meaning of Peter’s vision is quite plainly that Peter (and all Jews) should no longer believe that Gentiles coming to faith in the God of Israel are unclean (unacceptable by God) or common (unholy). The reality is that God has, in fact, accepted Gentiles coming to faith in Him without the need for them to undergo a man-made ritual conversion to become a legal Jew.
This idea of Gentiles being unclean (unacceptable) was so ingrained in Jewish thought, that Judaism of the day deemed it to be ‘unlawful’ (though God hadn’t) for a Jew to associate with or enter the house of a Gentile. This is why when Peter enters the house of Cornelius he says: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” (Acts 10:28)
Peter then turns his attention back to his host – Cornelius the Gentile – and asks “So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me?”
30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now, therefore, we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
Cornelius answers Peter’s question by explaining to him the divine vision he also received, then concluding with an invitation for Peter to now share the message God has called them all together to hear. You could probably hear a pin drop.
Gentiles Hear the Good News
It can’t be emphasized enough how significant the words are which Peter speaks following Cornelius’ invitation to share God’s message to all those Gentiles gathered. God had supernaturally orchestrated this unconscionably ‘unlawful’ gathering of Jewish church leaders and unclean Gentile god-fearers, and for what? Why? The message that followed would shock everyone gathered. Furthermore, repercussions would be felt throughout Jerusalem, Israel, and the Gentile world.
34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter opens his mouth and speaks to the Gentile god-fearers who have gathered and says: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter then follows by giving them the good news message of salvation.
But no one was prepared for what would happen next, not even Peter himself…
The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
In the very moment Peter is doing the unthinkable – proclaiming the good news of salvation to Gentiles – something even more unimaginable occurs: the Holy Spirit falls on all who were gathered there listening! Peter and the Jewish brethren who had tagged along for the journey to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea now look at one another in absolute astonishment at what is happening in their midst – Gentiles full of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and extolling God!
At the sight of this Peter now declares in joyous celebration “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?“
This was a major turning point in which God Himself supernaturally orchestrated the coming together of Jew (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised), and in a moment destroyed preconceived walls of separation through a glorious demonstration of His power by His Spirit.
Later on, the Apostle Paul would write about this once concealed truth to Gentile believers, calling them to remembrance about their new identity and the reality of being in the Messiah:
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
Later on, when Jewish brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God, Peter went up to Jerusalem and explained to them all that took place while visiting the house of Cornelius.
However, there were some in Jerusalem who were less than thrilled at the news of Gentile salvation. The Circumcision Party criticized Peter, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:2-3) We’ll see these people again when we look at Acts 15.
Despite the cold reception by the Circumcision Party at Jerusalem, there were still those present who rejoiced and stood in awe of what God did by His Spirit amongst the Gentile believers:
15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
What an amazing encounter Peter and others experienced first-hand! Peter recalls to the brothers in Jerusalem: “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed” and “who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”. After some silence, many of the brothers glorified God by proclaiming to Peter and the remaining brothers “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life!”
When we look at Acts chapter 10 and reduce it down to a proof-text for falsely claiming God has ‘done away with Old Testament dietary laws’, we not only deceive ourselves and others, but we completely fail at seeing the beautiful crescendo of God’s plan – bringing salvation to Gentile believers.
Please read this additional article to learn more about the ongoing struggle between Jew and Gentile in terms of salvation.