For the entirety of Israelite history and a major section of God’s dispensational program, God’s people were identified by their ethnic, racial distinctiveness—Israel vs. the non-Jewish nations of the world. Living for over a thousand years under this framework meant the Jewish people eventually built up arrogant, uncharitable, and unloving attitudes toward Gentiles. As such, the idea that (1) God’s people was, for the duration of this age, no longer ethnic Israel but a spiritual entity called the church and (2) the church was made up of people from every major ethnic group (not just Jews) was extremely difficult to adjust to for many Jewish believers. That is why Acts contains the crowning narrative of the gospel’s expansion—Cornelius’s conversion, thus signifying the full inclusion of Gentiles in God’s people. It served as an object lesson that the once cast-off pagan nations were being reclaimed by Yahweh (cf. Psalm 82:8, Isa. 49:6).
Peter is the natural choice for this transition, being one of the main apostles and having authority from the Lord Jesus to open the kingdom of heaven to people with its keys (Matthew 16:13-19). Moreover, the Lord wishes to correct some of Peter’s thinking that needs to adjust to the new day that has dawned in Christ. He will use Peter to complete the paradigm shift into the New Covenant and the New Humanity (Eph. 2:11-22).
A. A Heavenly Vision (vv. 9-12)
Verse 9 of course continues the narrative begun in vv. 1-8, which concerns a Gentile God-fearer, Cornelius, who has begun worshipping the God of Israel along with his household (wife? Slaves? Children? Servants? Possibly all of the above), and at least one other soldier (v. 7). Seeing the emptiness of paganism and the truth of the Jews’ God, he has affiliated himself with Israel by worshipping their God, fearing Him, reading His Word, and even giving financially to the Jewish people (v. 2). An angel comes to Cornelius and assures him that his prayers and worship have been accepted by God and that he will soon understand the fullness of God’s truth beyond even what the observant Jews have (vv. 3-6). So he sends some of his servants and another soldier to find Peter (vv. 7-8). While this is happening, Peter, still at Simon the tanner’s home (9:43) has a vision of his own. Since Peter is hungry for lunch, the Lord takes this opportunity to instruct him about the new era in Christ.
Peter sees a massive tarp come down from heaven, carrying all kinds of animals—both clean and unclean. We know it contained unclean animals because of Peter’s response in verse 14 (it would make no sense if there were no unclean animals involved). Of course, a major distinctive of the Mosaic Law was the prohibition of certain kinds of food, as a means of distinctiveness from the other nations (Leviticus 11, cf. 20:24-26). As such, obedient, observant Jews would never consume any animal which God had forbidden, and because observance of the ceremonial law was so deeply tied to proper worship of and acceptance by God, it was deeply emotionally repugnant to them to even be near unclean food. But God has a point in showing Peter this vision, which we will explore in the next section.
B. A Familiar Voice (vv. 13-16)
The heavenly vision is accompanied by a voice: “’Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’” (v. 13). It is as if God is saying, “You’re hungry? Don’t wait for the people downstairs to make you lunch. Have one of these animals!” Peter is flabbergasted. He recognizes the voice as God’s—possibly that of Jesus Himself, which Peter would have known well—and cannot make sense of God telling him to kill and eat an unclean animal. So his only response is, “’No, Lord!’” (v. 14). He cannot square this revelatory experience with what he has always understood and lived out from the Word of God. He cannot violate his conscience, so all he can say is no.
But the heavenly voice responds—do not consider unholy what God has cleaned (v. 15). Moreover, this vision and voice happened three times in all (v. 16). Peter needed to get the message.
If the kosher aspects of the ceremonial law have been overturned (and they have; cf. Mark 7:19), then by extension the whole Mosaic paradigm has been overturned as well. The way God’s Jewish people lived under His Lordship—what that required of them in their behavior and religious worship—is by and large not how church saints are to submit to Him. (I do not intend to get into the debate over the applicability of the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law for New Testament believers. I tend to see enough discontinuity in Scripture that, while God has only one moral law, it is expressed in distinct ways and contexts for different groups of God’s people. The moral law was contained in the entire Mosaic code for Israel, while God’s unchanging moral precepts are expressed in the New covenant “law of Christ” for the Church—the entirety of commands, doctrines, precepts, and principles enjoined upon us by Christ and His Apostles. However, this is not to say church saints have no relationship to the OT or its moral principles.) This is a massive shift in framework and religious practice. Truly a new day has dawned in Christ.
C. Timely Visitors (vv. 17-22)
Verse 17 says Peter was “greatly perplexed.” Why? Because his whole framework for understanding God and the right way to approach Him—not to mention how to very practically relate to His world—has been radically overturned. His whole life he has worshipped God in a particular way, being confident he was obeying what God had said and was accepted by Him. Now, God’s requirements have shifted at a foundational level. How is Peter to understand this?
Well, perhaps he is remembering things the Lord Jesus did during the days of His flesh—ways in which He too began to overturn Mosaic paradigms. He cleansed lepers apart from the stipulations required by the Law (even though He did require the prescribed sacrifice; Matthew 8:2-4) and gave His apostles authority to do the same (Matthew 10:7-8). He’s remembering things like Matthew 15:17-20, where Jesus underscores the point that even though some foods are ceremonially unclean, it isn’t anything in the food that is defiling; the problem is the sinful human heart. Like his Lord, as His representative, Peter is called upon to complete the shift.
And once again, as Peter is experiencing this new shift from God’s hand, at the very same time Cornelius’s men arrive and are asking for him. He is pondering the vision when he hears their voices—and he hears a second voice, too. The Holy Spirit tells him to accompany the (Gentle!) men literally “doubting nothing” (v. 20) because He Himself has sent them, for the accomplishment of His purposes. He immediately obeys, introduces himself to the men, and they tell him why they are there (vv. 21-22). The import of this meeting is seen in the final verse.
D. A Change of View (v. 23)
We have already established that Peter is staying with a tanner, Simon, whose whole means of employment was working with dead (thus unclean) animals all day. But now, Peter is inviting Gentiles, including a soldier, into his home—a custom considered taboo by Jewish people (v. 28; cf. Matthew 8:8), traveling with them to see not only another Gentile but another Roman solider. This last point is especially noteworthy. Roman soldiers were possibly the most hated Gentiles in the eyes of Jewish people, as they were visible—and often violent—reminders of Israel’s oppression and occupation by Rome (which was only an extension of the divine subjugation promised in Deuteronomy 28 because of their ancestors’ idolatry). Peter’s willingness to welcome one into his lodging, and going out of his way to travel to share the fullness of the gospel with another, is a clear indicator that his mind and heart are already changing. Peter has heard God’s voice announcing the completion of the shift from the Law of Moses to the Law of Christ, from ethnic Israel to the spiritual church, from Old Covenant to the far superior New. As Christians united to our loving risen Messiah, we too share in the fullness of His fulfillment of the laws which pointed to Him, we share His mind outlined in the Word of God (with power to understand and live it from the inside out) and enjoy His power and authority over the flesh and its works which creates—unlike the foods we eat or the borders we have on our robes—our real distinctiveness from the nations of the world.
Most importantly, as Gentiles, we can enjoy full acceptance with God as His people and complete joint heirs with His Son. We are no longer cast-off, dirty Gentiles, but beloved children of holy God and the promised queen-bride betrothed to the ruling King of all the nations.