We have just studied Paul’s conversion, call to apostleship, and the beginnings of his ministry. Acts 9:19-26 covers the time from Paul’s conversion to his first visit to the apostolic team in Jerusalem, a period of about three years (Gal. 1:17-18). The bulk of this time seems to include an extended season of personal preparation by the Lord for apostleship and church ministry in Arabia, a region near Damascus.
During Paul’s initial visit to Jerusalem, he met and resided with Peter for about two weeks (Gal. 1:18). I am not sure when to date Peter’s ministry experiences recorded in chapters 9-10. It is likely they took place spanning the three years until possibly a bit after the Jerusalem meeting.
More importantly, the ministry in Samaria recorded here teaches us something pivotal: The ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law, which had so governed and shaped God’s people during the dispensation of the Law, have been overturned because they are fulfilled in Christ. Pointing to God’s own distinctness from all that is unholy and profane, the laws governing what one could eat, do, and touch (with consequences of being barred from temple worship or even death) were a meticulous and constant presence with the Jewish people. Indeed, reared to believe this was the only way to be ceremonially pure to approach God, most Jews would have nothing short of a conniption if they violated a ceremonial law, or if someone else did. But God is here teaching us that all those who are His people in the current dispensation—an economy characterized not by law but grace—are free from those restrictions because the wonderful fullness and reality has come in the Lord Jesus. The text shows us three ways Peter’s actions and experiences demonstrated the abrogation of the ceremonial law.
A. Peter Walks with the Unclean (9:32-35)
As alluded to above, the ceremonial law is that portion of the Mosaic Law which deals with how to maintain and (when it has been lost) regain the purity needed to rightly approach and represent God in both formal worship and national life. (I include representation because it is evident some of these laws were particularly intended to identify the Jews in the eyes of pagans as a distinct people belonging to Yahweh. Dietary and dress law is especially pertinent here.) These laws included everything from kosher requirements to religious holidays to sacrificial standards to which foods, places and activities were permissible (“clean”) and which were not (“unclean”). The laws also stipulated how an unclean person could be made ceremonially clean again.
These laws were deeply important to the Jewish people, and because of their comprehensiveness and importance were the ones most frequently abused, over-extended, and encrusted with centuries of extra-biblical and legalistic traditions of the rabbis. Because of that, it is important to note that not everything Peter does here is considered unclean by biblical standards (i.e., there is a direct command or an inferred principle against them), but everything would surely have been considered unclean by the rabbinic exposition, application, and tradition of these laws. The beauty is Peter’s actions overturn both, with God’s authority.
So thus we come to Peter’s travels in the same regions as Paul. What is Peter doing here? He is apparently visiting those believers who escaped into Samaria and the countryside during Saul’s persecution begun in chapter 8. These believers were doubtless busy (recall 8:4 says the scattered ones “went about preaching the word”), and had established local churches. Most of the founders Peter would have personally known, as they were all members of the Jerusalem church which he and the other apostles founded and pastored. So he is both visiting the scattered sheep of his flock (cf. John 21:15-17), and providing much-needed encouragement, prayer support, and doctrinal instruction to the fledgling assemblies to ensure their fruitfulness and purity for the glory of Christ. But note this: Peter is in Samaria (cf. v. 31). And if anyone was considered unclean by rabbinical and Jewish standards, it was the Samaritans. Born of mixed marriages between Jewish refugees and pagan settlers after the Assyrian devastation of the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C., Samaritans were half-breeds from a heritage standpoint and apostates from a theological one (they accepted only some OT books, worshipped in their own temple on a different mountain, and had many strange and syncretistic beliefs due to the long history of pagan intermarriage). Jewish people loathed them, to the point that if traveling between Jerusalem and Galilee they would take a massively long detour through pagan territory to avoid having to even see, let alone walk though, the Samaritan region. Of course, Messiah revealed Himself in grace and joy to a Samaritan whore (John 4). Samaritans have already joined the body of Christ (8:4-8, 14-17). By traveling in Samaria, Peter is continuing the trend already begun. The ceremonial law, and the legalistic Jewish traditions which apply it, have been set aside in Christ. Jews and Samaritans can be in one body together.
Moreover, we see Peter touching and healing a Samaritan (possibly, though not certainly, a full Gentile) man who had been paralyzed for a long time (the Greek text can mean either that he was paralyzed for eight years, or since he was eight years old). Peter’s wording is instructive: “Jesus Christ heals you” (v. 34, emphasis mine). Here is a brilliantly concise understanding of apostolic authority, Jesus, ruling from heaven as exalted Lord, uniting heaven and earth, is the Doer, the Actor. Through an appointed man, yes. But Jesus is the one doing, speaking, ruling, and acting. Is this not a stamp from Heaven saying the ceremonial laws separating God’s Jewish people from others have, in the church age, been overturned for the fullness in the One doing the healing?
The response? Jesus acts from heaven again, creating faith in many dead Samaritan hearts, and they become willing slaves of the heavenly Lord (v. 35; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9).
B. Peter Touches the Unclean (9:36-43)
Under ceremonial law, touching a dead body (human or animal) was a cause for uncleanness (Num. 19:11). Moreover, rabbinical convention assumed Gentiles and anything associated with them were unclean (cf. Gal. 2:15, Eph. 2:11). Both of these pieces come into play here. For a godly woman, Tabitha (a Hebrew name) has just died, thereby ceremonially defiling anyone who came near her. Additionally, the widows whom she faithfully served in life were probably the ones who named her Dorcas—a Greek name, indicating these women were likely Greek believers. So the whole place is absolutely off-limits for any observant Jew. But Peter is the herald of a new era, the emissary of the One with the authority to overturn shadows and dispensations and inaugurate the fullness of God’s promises. Since he is in a nearby town, the believers send for him, and he comes into the room where her body is (vv. 38-40a). He kneels in prayer to seek the Lord’s direction—he does not presume on God’s power, nor His manifested authority through His risen Son—and receiving the go-ahead, he commands Dorcas’s soul back into her body. She is whisked out of the Lord’s presence, and mystery of mysteries, is “un-glorified,” placed back under the Curse, and imprisoned in her fallen humanness once again. Were this not the act of a wise, good, and ineffably holy God, it would appear to be an act of gravest cruelty. But as with all things, the Lord’s plan is far bigger than one person, and everything that happens is tied to everything else: The display of sovereign, miraculous power over death itself rocks the local community, and many there experience another resurrection as the Lord acts in power to save them by faith (v. 42). He is powerful to rule, save, and heal from heaven, creating many freewill offerings in the day of His power (Psa. 110:3).
Another note: Where does Peter stay after leaving Dorcas’s home? With a tanner (v. 43). This man would have made a living by touching dead animals—all day, every day. In even little things Peter is teaching a new day has dawned in God’s program.
C. Peter Eats the Unclean (10:1-16)
The import of all of chapter 10 is clear: The final boundary is removed, as Gentiles themselves are incorporated into the new body God is building. However, verses 1-16 provide an important precursor. Just as Gentile people will be declared unclean and welcome, so will the foods the Lord had once prohibited (vv. 11-15). The dietary laws were perhaps the differentia between Jews and Gentiles. Of note is that the sheet contains all kinds of animals—in other words, clean and unclean, mixed together, with no distinctions. All of them are available for Peter to eat and enjoy as good creations of God (“kill and eat,” v. 13).
The time of ceremonial distinctions is over. They pictured radical distinctiveness from the other nations, nations that were not Israel and thus not God’s people. They pictured God’s inexorable divergence and otherness from the fallen, sinful, and profane. But in Christ, our distinctiveness is in obedience to the rule of grace and its proper application by separating from those aspects of the culture that are ungodly and unfitting for worship. God commanded ceremonial cleansing to show how dire approaching Him was—how necessary and how comprehensive (worship involved every aspect of life). But the food laws, sacrificial system, temple worship, and many other aspects of Jewish life pointed to greater things: the perfection only wrought by Christ’s work, the power He would give by the new covenant to be truly distinct from the fallen world, and the absolute blinding holiness of God which would one day not work against us as a judge but be the very thing that most delights, enthralls, and captivates us—not merely externally, but as possessing the promise of one day perfectly reflecting it and gazing upon it with open, unashamed face. The ceremonial laws are beautiful and wonderful in their context, but they were inherently designed to be temporary and pictorial. The reality we have in the Lord Christ is the most satisfying, beautiful reality in the world—one we freely enjoy in the light of the new day which has dawned in Christ. May God enrapture our hearts with the vision of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ!