Peter is a central figure in the context of Jesus’ ministry. Peter was both impulsive and direct. You always knew where you stood with Peter, because he would just say what he thought, without mincing words. He wasn’t always right in his decisions because he was so quick to act. After the resurrection however, he gained new courage that sprang from an internal power to manage his naturally impulsive nature. So, what did Peter’s life look like? What were his daily practices in reference to the Law? Dr Luke does not leave us guessing on this point.
Surely not, Lord!
According to first century historian Gene Edwards, the story in Acts 10 occurs 11 years after that amazing Pentecost in Jerusalem. You know the story. (If not, please read Acts 10 & 11 before continuing) Peter has a vision recorded in Acts chapter 10. When the vision appears to suggest that Peter violate the kosher laws he cries out “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:14)
Think about it. That is quite a statement. For 11 years following the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter has closely followed the commandments regarding clean and unclean foods. His reaction is almost visceral. Today, he might have said, “No way!” Does it sound to you like Peter stopped obeying the Law somewhere along the way? Do we hear him say, “Oh, I stopped eating that way years ago, after grace freed me from the requirements of the Law?” Hardly.
The false narratives
For decades now (it may in fact be centuries), pastors, scholars and teachers have painted false narratives about these clearly stated words. In these narratives, the inconvenient facts of Acts 10 are twisted to suggest that God is telling Peter that he can now eat whatever he wants to eat – with no consideration for the obvious instructions in Scripture. Is this really what’s going on here?
What does Peter conclude?
When Peter reached Caesarea and the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion but a devout man, he found a crowd of people gathered in the house and started talking to them with these words: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him.” (NIV)
Let’s stop right there and unpack what he just said. First, we must note that the law to which Peter refers is not found anywhere in Scripture. Can you come up with any Biblical reference where it states that an Israelite must never go into the home of a Gentile? Scholars know where this instruction came from – the Mishna. (A commentary on the Torah, which also included many additional stipulations intended to be protective “hedges” against violation of the law.)
Second, Peter makes it clear that this restriction was common knowledge, even to Gentiles who lived in Israel at the time. Peter than goes on to say, “But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” The context makes it clear that he is referring to the vision Peter had back in Joppa. So what had Peter concluded about the vision? It seems very clear he concluded the vision was about men, not animals.
What do the other apostles and elders conclude?
When we turn over to chapter 11, we read what happened when Peter returned to Jerusalem and word leaked out that “Peter entered the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (v 2) Peter was called in and asked to explain his conduct. The fact that this meeting took place, makes it abundantly clear that all the other apostles and elders in Jerusalem were shocked to hear that Peter had violated this restriction in the Mishna, their law. Why else would he be expected to explain his conduct?
So, Peter takes them back in time to Joppa and describes the vision he had in agonizing detail. Then he describes the events that occurred in Caesarea, including the fact that the Holy Spirit filled this group of eager Gentile listeners. What did the elders conclude? Did they say, “Wow Peter. Cool vision! Now we can eat pork and snakes and vultures!” No, no, NO. They concluded no such thing. They concluded exactly the same thing that Peter did. God was telling them to accept spirit-filled Gentiles as brothers and sisters and to stop treating them like lepers. Was this a clear departure from the Mishna? Absolutely. Was this a departure from the teachings of Scripture? In no way.
A rather inconvenient story
For some Christians, the facts in this case are rather inconvenient. They would like us to believe something different than what the Word teaches. The historical evidence of Acts shows that: 1) Peter was following the kosher laws of Scripture AND the restrictions of the Mishna 11 years after Jesus returned to glory; 2) The other apostles and elders in Jerusalem were following the kosher laws of Scripture AND the restrictions of the Mishna 11 years after Jesus returned to glory; 3) The apostles concluded that Peter’s vision over-ruled a law in the Mishna; 4) There is no evidence, either at that point or later, that the apostles practice of eating only Biblically “clean” foods changed in any way.
Some modern Western Christians would have us believe that they know more than the apostles – even though they are now removed by more than 2,000 years of history and have spent their entire lives outside the Jewish cultural context. I guess I’m not convinced.