Saturday, 26 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 3: Peter's Vision

Peter's Vision of a sheet
with animals.
by Domenico Fetti
A Christian’s theology needs to be based on Scripture. If what we believe theologically cannot be found in the Bible, then we need to put it on the shelf of opinion. If what we believe contradicts the Bible, we need to file it under 'T' for Trash. Very few people who claim to follow Jesus would disagree with that. The problem arises, however, when this becomes a case of proof texting. “Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing” (Theopedia). An extreme example is using Psalm 135:5 (“…our Lord is above all gods”) to support polytheism, while ignoring verses like Isaiah 43:10. Or how Jehovah’s Witnesses use 1Thess 4:16 (…the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel) to 'prove' that Jesus is an angel, while ignoring passages like Hebrews 1. It is actually scary what you can make the Bible say with proof texting, turning exegesis into an episode of Bad Lip Reading: saying something they're really not.

As we discovered with Matthew 5 and Mark 7, saying that these passages prove Jesus abolished the food laws is an example of proof texting. I know I used them, but once I looked at their context, as well as realising the implications of Jesus doing away with any commandment, I realised they weren’t saying what I thought they said. Jesus taught nothing about abolishing the food laws, rather, he challenged the Pharisee’s unbiblical traditions. But maybe there is something in the Apostolic period (ascension to the closing of the canon) that teaches the food laws were done away with after Jesus’ ministry. In fact, there are a few verses that appear to be saying just that. But is this the case, or is this just more proof-texting?

Our first example is Peter’s vision in Acts 10. This was my go to when I was challenged on my bacon eating at a BBQ, and when I would challenge other people on why they adhered to the food laws of Leviticus. Let’s review the encounter:
Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)
So here, it is argued, the Holy Spirit has just declared that unclean animals are now clean. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary said something similar:
As the Book of Acts makes clear, Christians are not obligated to follow this holiness code. This is made clear in Peter's vision in Acts 10:15. Peter is told, 'What God has made clean, do not call common.' In other words, there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience.

John Piper said something similar in a sermon from 1991:
And so Peter's vision has two points: the food laws are fulfilled and ended in Jesus (Mark 7:19), and the people they kept you separate from (the nations, the Gentiles) are not to be considered unclean or common.

Let’s move beyond the proof-text and consider the context to see what this vision really was about.
What did the vision really mean?
This vision is smack in the middle of Acts 10 which details Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, and Cornelius’ encounter with the Gospel. In the opening verses, just before the vision, we are told by Luke that Cornelius had a vision to send for Peter and thus sends his servants to Joppa to get him. Then comes the vision, after which the Spirit says, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Then we read about Peter going and sharing the Gospel and Cornelius, and his household believing, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptised. This is what the vision was all about; Peter going to a Gentile’s home. As I wrote in an earlier post (here) the Jews, (mostly in Judea), were reluctant to associate with the Gentiles, especially in their homes, lest they become contaminated, or as I explained in the previous post (here), be made ‘common’. This was reflected in Peter’s words to Cornelius when he arrived:“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28). This word for unlawful is actually not related to the Law. There is no commandment prohibiting Israelites from interacting with Gentiles. Rather, it is best understood as something ‘taboo’, or culturally forbidden. This is the wall of separation, as reflected in the anti-Gentile ‘Edicts of Shammai’, that were destroyed through the crucifixion of Christ (Eph 2).
So, the narrative context is pointing us to the conclusion that the vision is about challenging Peter’s perception of Gentiles. Is there anything in scripture that interprets the visions for us? This is important in scripture as the symbolic nature of visions are wide open to interpretation. Just look at the various candidates for the ‘whore of Babylon’.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look to far to find an interpretation. Shortly after telling Cornelius he shouldn’t be at his house, Peter says: “but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean…Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:28, 34-35). Notice the lack of mention about food. Maybe there’s another interpretation that mentions food? Peter explains his vision and encounter with Cornelius in Jerusalem in the following chapter:
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me.  Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction… When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Finally, we can eat some bacon.” (Acts 11:1-11, 18). 
No, that last bit doesn’t actually say that, but that’s how some people read it. What they actually said was, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Again, no mention of food, just Gentiles. The Spirit told Peter not to make a distinction between himself as a Jew and the men as Gentiles. If the scriptures that describe the interpretation of the vision are silent of food laws, then we need to seriously question whether that was happening in the vision at all. Consider, in light of the historical context, how significant this change would be. If there was a change in food laws, it is bizarre that Peter never mentions it. To account for this, many point to God’s words in the vision themselves: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
So our second question is, what did God really say?

Some suggest that although the vision was indeed about Jews and Gentiles, it is symbolically based on the literal removal of the food laws. For example, as John MacArthur explains:
I believe God was abolishing the Old Testament dietary laws. Why? Because they were designed to separate the Jew from the Gentile. But what is the body of Christ designed to do? Unite them. Therefore, the social barrier had to be removed for them to come together. Both groups had to learn to socialize around the table together because they were now one.
This claim is similar to one of John Piper’s argument for why the food laws were abolished and, as I explained in part one, Gentiles become a part of Israel, and the need to be set apart from the rest of the world is still there. So this connection is moot. But is there something else in the purpose of the food laws that changed after the cross? 

Interestingly, the Early Church Fathers don’t discuss food laws too often, and when they do most of them like Tertullian (Fasting, 5), Clement of Alexandria (On Eating, 2.1), and Justin Martyr (Trypho, 20), say the reason God gave the food laws was to control the gluttony and sin of the Israelites. And therefore, for them the reason Christians don’t keep the food laws (as with many other things wrongly perceived as ‘Jewish’) is because ‘we’re better than those immoral Jews.’
Some argue that it was about hygiene and health, and now that food like pork can be stored better, that need is gone. But, the scriptures say ‘be holy as I am holy’, not ‘be healthy as I am healthy.’ Furthermore, this would be no different to saying the sexual morality laws are no longer applicable because we have contraception.
I used to argue that the food laws no longer apply because Jesus makes us clean, thus putting an end to the purity laws. But, as I explained in a previous post, there was no ceremonial washing for eating shellfish, so that cannot be the case. And yes, the cross cleanses us from our guilt and sin, but that it not an invitation to disobey the commandments of God.
There are many possible reasons for setting the distinction between clean and unclean animals, which in fact had occurred by the time of Noah (Gen 7:2, 8:20), but ultimately it is somewhat of a mystery. However, our obedience should never be based on our ability to understand why, or whether we can find ways to avoid the consequences and reasons, excuses, and loop-holes to not obey.

But we still have this declaration from the Spirit. How do we make sense of this?
Firstly, look at what Peter said in response to the command, ‘rise and eat’: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” Because the sheet contained clean and unclean animals, in Peter's mind the clean creatures are now made common (koinen) because they had touched the unclean animals, thus the sheet has common and unclean. That Peter considered them separate but related categories is evidenced by his use of “the disjunctive conjunctive E (koinen E akatharton)” (House, 146). Then compare this with the Spirits response: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 
Peter: common and unclean
Spirit: common
Note that the Spirit makes no mention of unclean, just common. If this vision was about food as well, the Spirit would have said: “What God has made clean, do not call common or unclean.” But He doesn’t. The Spirit is saying, as Jesus did in Mark 7, “get the idea of koinen out of your mind, especially with the Gentiles. Go to visit Cornelius, for just as the lamb is not contaminated by the pig, neither will you be contaminated by the Gentile's home.”

So, as with Mark 7, because we fail to recognise the cultural context, namely the difference between common and unclean, this encounter is easily misunderstood. As we have seen by considering the context, claiming this vision is permission to put some pork on your fork is nothing short of proof-texting.

In our next part, we will consider the words of Paul and what he has to say about food. Perhaps there is something in the Pauline corpus that says eating pig and prawn is okay now.


Clement of Alexandria, On Eating.
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in
       Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983. P 143-153
John Piper, “What God Has Cleansed Do Not Call Common”, Sermon 20 Oct 1991.
John Macarthur, “Salvation Reaches Out”
Justin Martyr, Trypho the Jew.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. (May 21, 2012). "The Bible condemns a lot, but here's why we focus on              
        homosexuality". My Take. CNN. Retrieved 2012-05-21.
Tertullian, On Fasting.
Theopedia, Proof texting


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