For centuries, Christians have used Acts 10 as a text to support their teaching that the Law ended at the cross and that Christians are not expected to teach it. However, when we analyze the chapter, we discover that there is more going on here than a text about food.
CORNELIUS – A “GOD-FEARER”?
The chapter begins by introducing us to “Cornelius, a Roman centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:1-2). From this brief description, we learn that –
- Cornelius is a Roman centurion. According to various sources, a centurion was a professional officer in the Roman army that had to be literate since he would receive orders in writing, be at least thirty years old, and have demonstrated his proficiency as a soldier for a number of years. He was personally held responsible for the training and discipline of his men, and centurions had a reputation for handing out harsh punishments. The thing I found interesting about them is that they had to be vigilant, temperate, and always ready to act to execute any order as soon as they receive it.
- He is leading the “Italian cohort.” A cohort is the standard tactical unit, and it would have consisted of about 500 men.
- He is “a devout man.” This tells us that Cornelius was not an atheist or an agnostic, but he was someone who was fully committed to his religious beliefs.
- He is “one who feared God with all his household.” This actually tells us more about him. Although it is translated as “one who fears God,” it should be translated as “God-fearer.” The God-fearers during the Second Temple period of Judaism were Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel, attended synagogue services, kept many of the same commandments that the Jews did, i.e., prayed at the same times, but they had not gone to the extent of getting circumcised and becoming full converts. More than likely, Cornelius would have lost his position, income and home if he had done so.
- He “gave many alms to the Jewish people.” Cornelius has been financially helping to support the Jewish community where he lives. In fact, his financial support of the Jewish people is mentioned three times in this one chapter.
- He “prayed to God continually.” Finally, he had a well-established prayer life with God.
In examining each of these points, we can see that Cornelius is not a typical Gentile without any faith in God or knowledge of His Word. In some way, he had been brought to faith in God through the Jewish people. He was one who had given God His allegiance and loyalty, and demonstrated his love for Him by his attendance and financial support of the synagogue and Jewish people, and in keeping as many of the commandments as he was able. Therefore, to present Cornelius as an “unbeliever” is a misrepresentation of where he was spiritually.
After we are given this introductory material about him, we then read about his vision,
About the ninth hour of the day he [Cornelius] saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, “Cornelius!” And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; he is staying with a certain tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea. (Acts 10:3-6)
In this vision, we can see God giving Cornelius clear instructions on what he is to do in order to find Simon Peter and have him come to him to share with him about Messiah. An interesting question to ask is “Why does God have the angel appear to Cornelius in a vision?” When Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and then later Mary, he did not appear to them in a vision, so why does this angel appear to Cornelius in a vision? The Bible doesn’t really explain. Perhaps due to his military training, God had it happen this way so he would not attempt to attack the angel when he just suddenly appeared, or maybe this was necessary for him to believe that this angel was really from God.
In true to form, as we read about centurions, Cornelius did not waste any time in actively executing the order that he had received from God. We read,
And when the angel who was speaking to him had departed, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were in constant attendance upon him, and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:7-8)
As I said, Cornelius did not spend any time pondering about the instructions, or speaking with anyone about what he was to do, but he called three of his men, including one of them who was also “devout” to go to Joppa and bring Simon Peter back to him.
A CONTRAST IN EXPERIENCES
The next day as these men are making their way to Joppa, Peter “falls into a trance.” What I found interesting here is that the Bible does not come out and call Peter’s experience “a dream” or “a vision.” The word “trance” is from the Greek word ekstasis [G1611], which means “a trance, a state in which the soul is unconscious of present objects, being rapt into visions of distant or future things” (New Testament Dictionary). By identifying Peter’s experience differently than the one Cornelius had, Luke is signaling to us as readers that we are not to read Peter’s experience in the same way as Cornelius’.
It is not uncommon for us to see God speaking to a Gentile in one way and a Jew in an entirely different way, even about the same events. For example. in the book of Daniel, God spoke to Nebuchadnezzar through the use of a huge human statue where it was comprised of five different elements: gold, silver, bronze, iron, and iron mixed with clay (Daniel 2:1-49), but later, God gave Daniel “a vision by night” about the same series of empires, but Daniel saw them as “four great beasts coming up from the sea” (Daniel 7:1-12).
And just as God spoke to Nebuchadnezzar differently than He did to Daniel, so as we shall see, He gives clear instructions to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, but to Peter, He approaches Peter quite differently.
About the sixth hour, Peter goes up on the rooftop to pray, and while the people below are preparing lunch, Peter starts getting hungry and falls “into a trance.”
…and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” (Acts 10:10-14)
In this portion of the vision, we are shown an object that resembled or looked like “great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground.” The text does not say it was “a great sheet,” but that it was “like” it, meaning that’s what it resembled to him. Now some have tried to identify this “great sheet” as a giant tallith (Jewish prayer shawl), because it mentions it being lowered “by the four corners;” however, if that was the case, it would seem that Peter would have automatically recognized it as such and not attempt to describe it as something that resembled “a great sheet.”
Another point here is that all of these animals are “unclean animals.” There are no “clean animals” included within this sheet. Although what animals are “clean” (allowed to be eaten and used for sacrifice) and “unclean” (those that are not allowed to be eaten or used as a sacrifice) are specifically listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:1-23, this distinction actually goes all the way back to Noah. For example,
You shall take with you of every CLEAN animal by sevens, a male and a female; and of the animals that are NOT CLEAN two, a male and his female; also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth. (Genesis 7:2-3)Of CLEAN animals and animals that are NOT CLEAN and birds and everything that creeps on the ground, there went into the ark to Noah by twos, male and female, as God had commanded Noah. (Genesis 7:8-9)
As we can see, the popular myth that Noah took only one pair of all animals upon the Ark is not biblically accurate. He took on the ark one pair of UNCLEAN animals but seven pairs of CLEAN animals. Consequently, this means that Noah knew the difference between what was CLEAN and UNCLEAN centuries before it was written down by Moses during the exodus from Egypt. Therefore, since these distinctions were known by Noah who is the ancestor of all human beings, this dietary distinction is also expected to be kept by all human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike.
But in this sheet, there is not a mixture of clean and unclean animals, because when “the voice” (God) tells him to “kill and eat,” Peter would have simply chosen one of the clean animals to eat, but instead, we find him telling God, “By no means, Lord, for I have NEVER eaten anything unholy and unclean” (emphasis added). This clearly tells us that the dietary laws can be kept by ordinary people since Peter here, a flawed human being like the rest of us, was able to keep it and never violate it. This is just an example to show that the Christian argument that the commandments cannot be kept is flawed and not true. Obviously, Peter is not perfect, and he is able to keep them; therefore, any one can keep them as well.
PETER’S VISION (CONTINUED)
After Peter protests, we read,
And again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” And this happened three times: and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate. (Acts 10:15-17)
In the context of the chapter, we understand that the vision that Peter received was to prepare him for the arrival of these men and his upcoming ministry to Cornelius and his household.
There are four distinct differences between the accounts of these two visions:
- IN SET-UP: In Cornelius’ case, we are told that he “clearly saw in a vision an angel,” but in Peter’s case, we are told that he “fell into a trance.”
- IN DELIVERY: In Cornelius’ vision, God sends an angel to speak to him, but in Peter’s case, a great sheet with unclean animals are lowered down to him, and then a voice from heaven speaks to him.
- IN CONTENT: In Cornelius’ case, the instructions are clear and to the point what he is to do, but in Peter’s case, the imagery in the vision is symbolic and not clear at all.
- IN RESPONSE: After the vision, there was no question what Cornelius was to do, and he does so right away, but when Peter awakens from the trance, he is perplexed and questioning what that vision was all about.
As we can see, there two visions are very different experiences, and although Cornelius was given clear instructions in his vision, Peter’s vision should not be interpreted literally because God said that this is how the dreams and visions He gives to His people should be understood.
DREAMS AND VISIONS – “DARK SAYINGS”?
In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam were murmuring against Moses, and God comes down and He says to them:
Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a VISION, I shall speak with him in a DREAM. Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, Even openly, and not in DARK SAYINGS, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses? (Numbers 12:6-8; emphasis added)
Here we can see that God says that He will speak to His prophets in visions and dreams, which He contrasts with how He speaks to Moses, which is clearly and openly. But He also identifies “visions and dreams” as being “dark sayings.”
But what does God mean by “dark sayings”? This is the English translation of the Hebrew word chiydah [H2420] (pron. “khee-daw“), and it means “a puzzle, a riddle – a conundrum, a dark saying.” The note under this word says that this is “a feminine noun possibly meaning enigma.” This indicates that dreams and visions are not to be taken literally; they are “puzzles” and “riddles” that need to be solved.
Obviously, this raises the question, “Why is the vision given to Cornelius clear and easily understandable; whereas, the vision given to Peter is symbolic, and not literal?” It could have been that Cornelius hasn’t been a believer in God very long, He is still learning the Scriptures and what God is like; whereas, Peter has been brought up in the Scriptures, and Peter, unlike Cornelius, has the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we should see Cornelius’ vision as the exception, and Peter’s vision as the norm.
INTERPRETING PETER’S VISION
This is actually not a vision about animals or food, but about people. Just as the wild unclean animals in Daniel’s vision represented Gentile empires, so the unclean animals in Peter’s vision represents Gentile people.
So if the vision is about Gentile people and not food, then why does God tell Peter to “Arise, kill and eat”? Again, we have to understand this symbolically, not literally. When we eat something, we are actually making it a part of ourselves, a part of our lives. So by telling him to “rise, kill and eat,” He is indicating that Peter needs to make Gentiles a part of his life and ministry.
So when God says, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” He is not speaking about food, but people. God is not actively seeking to cleanse food, but He is actively seeking to cleanse people of their sins. And what many Christians do not realize is that God does not bless or cleanse food He has told us not to eat. When we eat something He has told us not to eat, that is an act of disobedience to God, i.e., sin.
In fact, this is how Peter interprets his own vision later on in the chapter. He does not see it to be about food, but people. He says, “God has shown me that I should not call ANY MAN unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (Acts 10:28c-29a; emphasis added). Notice that Peter interprets his own vision to be about people – not food. So how arrogant can one be to reject Peter’s own interpretation of his own vision, which he experienced, and to replace it with our own?
In part 2 of this study, I want to continue the chapter, and to examine what happens when Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius. I hope you will join me in the second part of this interesting study.