What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy
Much of modern Christianity is based on presumption and dogma. Often, people can become so distracted trying to maintain their hold on what (they think) is a cohesive understanding of Bible doctrine, that they tie themselves into a mental knot which they cannot undo.
Like a lion and a tamer, they cannot get past the legs of the chair in order to focus on the real objective of the text.
In a theological sense, the “legs of the chair” are dogmas, assumed meanings and “core” principles which they have been taught but never proven or tested in the light of critical analysis. Woe to the man or woman who attempts to engage in such analysis with them. You could be labeled a heretic, a legalist, and apostate, a divisive person, or worse yet, a Democrat!
I’ve had quite a large number of people challenge my decision to follow the dietary laws of the Bible. They usually use the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 as a proof text. Sometimes the challenge is direct, and sometimes it comes from out of the blue. But it always, in the end, results (it seems) from their discomfort or incredulity about the fact that I won’t eat pork or shellfish. It seems that Peter’s vision of the sheet is the preeminent passage in the evangelical world to refute this position. (There are others which a more astute Bible reader may attempt to use, but this seems the most popular).
Sometimes, though not often, we are invited to someone’s house for dinner. If they don’t know us well, they will usually ask if we have any food allergies or other concerns. At this point, we inform them that we don’t eat pork or shellfish in any form. We don’t make a big deal about it, but since they asked…
This will often provoke the idea that we must be Jewish. We say no, we don’t follow rabbinic kosher laws (though we respect and endorse them for Jewish people), but we do follow the Bible’s dietary laws. We do this because we are convicted that we should for several reasons, not the least of which is as a form of solidarity with the Jewish people and as a form of personal discipline and sanctification from the lust of the flesh. We believe this position accurately represents the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
From the reactions we get from others by explaining our conviction, you might think I was declaring myself to be the President of Judaizers of America. (I don’t know if there is such a group, but I’m not part of it).
The truth is, people simply don’t understand the Bible. They don’t understand the context, the social factors, or the religion of the men who wrote it.
There are many, many places in the Bible from which I could make my argument in favor or our position on this issue, but recently, a conversation with a ministry leader concerning Acts 10 brought about the inspiration for this post. The question came from nowhere, and was unrelated to what we had been talking about. It went like this:
“Do you think that Christians should follow the dietary laws?”
“Yes, I do.”
“But what about Peter’s vision in Acts 10?” (I knew what was coming but played along out of respect)
“What about it?” I asked.
“God told Peter that those laws were done away with and we can eat what we want.”
“That vision had nothing whatsoever to do with the dietary laws.” I replied.
“Well, sure it does.”
“No. It had to do with people. Calling Gentiles unclean; God was sending Peter to the house of a Gentile God-fearer. Nowhere does Peter state that the dietary laws have been cancelled.”
“Sure. It’s right there in the passage. It says: ‘No longer call unclean what I have called clean.'”
“Let’s look at the text, shall we?” I opened the Bible to Acts 10.
Peter sees the vision of a sheet full of animals forbidden for him to eat. It descends and ascends three times. In the meantime, three men have been sent by Cornelius, the Roman Centurian, to fetch Peter.
Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in his mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be…While Peter was reflecting on the vision…(Acts 10:17,19)
Notice that, even though most Christians simply assume that this vision has to do with the abolishing of the dietary laws, that Peter, the man who actually had the vision, isn’t thinking this at all. Luke records (at Peter’s direction and testimony) that he was greatly perplexed by the vision. It made no sense to him.
The most astounding aspect of the normative Christian understanding of this is that (like this woman I was speaking with) they are so convinced that this is what the vision means, that they ignore Peter’s own interpretation, which he provides right in the story for us:
He said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean…” (Acts 10:28)
Two things should stand out for the astute Bible reader in this verse.
First, Peter himself gives the interpretation of the vision. He declares that it was about the men coming to fetch him for their master. That was the immediate interpretation. (The vision descended three times and there were three Gentile men.) This means, first and foremost, that the vision is not at all about food but about people. But the larger implication had more impact. This is the second thing to notice, which is not so obvious unless you look carefully:
The statement, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him…” Wait…what?
What is Peter talking about? It’s not against the Torah for a Jew to visit or associate with a Gentile. It happens all the time in the Bible and God never rebukes it. So why is Peter declaring that it is?
This should be a red flag for us. Peter is not talking about the dietary laws when he is speaking to Cornelius. As a God-fearer (meaning a person who worshiped the God of Israel alongside the Jews, and attempted to follow their customs), Cornelius followed the dietary laws himself, and he certainly would not have served pork to Peter or to any Jew. So Peter would not have hesitated to go to Cornelius based upon the biblical dietary laws. What Peter is talking about are the strict ordinances set in place by the leading rabbis concerning table fellowship and community with Gentiles, most of whom were idolaters.
Peter was breaking the halacka of the strictest orders of his faith, to which he and the rest of the apostles were adherents.
We must understand that God would never encourage us to disobey His laws. Any of them. But there is a distinction many times between a law and a customary practice.
An example of this can be found in the church as well. Some denominations forbid leaders from consuming alcohol or watching R-rated movies. This is not because it’s against the Torah of Moses to drink alcohol or to watch a movie. These by-laws are in place to prevent the appearance of evil and to prevent the stumbling of a weaker brother into sin. What the church calls by-laws, the Jewish people call halacka.
Contrary to what many people think, a church organization has every right to establish such rules over its leadership, if it is convicted that there are good reasons for them. If someone refuses to submit to these rules, then they can leave the organization, or fight to change them. But they are not to be confused with biblical law. They are by-laws. They are customs of the community.
This is a complexity that is lost on the average Bible reader who does not understand the religion of Jesus and his disciples. This was the world in which they lived. Ritual purity was a big deal to the Jewish people, especially since they were being oppressed by an idolatrous kingdom (Rome). This made any action which gave the appearance of acquiescing to Roman culture particularly taboo for an observant Jewish person, and especially a leader.
When Peter returned home, he was not questioned about the miraculous faith of Cornelius and his family, but about the fact that he had the gall to go into the man’s home!
This cultural reality was challenged by Jesus, and it is the point of Peter’s vision:
“What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
In like manner, what God has commanded, this we will do.