Peter, in Acts 10, learns an important lesson as Jesus prepares him to meet with a Gentile. But what does the apostle mean when he says he no longer regards anyone as ‘unclean’ (v28)? To start to get into his thought process we need to ponder: (a) creation; (b) Israel; and (c) Jesus.
Creation Some think of the universe as having an impersonal beginning. There’s no ‘design’ or ‘point’ to it, and it has no rules about how we should behave. Our appreciation of beauty, our longings for justice, and anything else we may value about human life, all are just the jostling of particles in our brains; they don’t link to anything greater. But the Bible teaches otherwise. We are not the creation of unfeeling forces but of a personal God who designed and built this universe with plans, purposes and care (Ge 1). And he made us to follow in his footsteps by discovering, enhancing and enjoying the world he made, in the ways he intended (Ge 1:26-28).
But whilst we have used our power in amazing ways, we have also abused it. To love creation & develop it properly, we need first to love our creator (Mt 22:37-39). But instead of humbly doing so and learning from Him how to live, we deviated into proud self-love, seeking to be our own gods (Ge 3:1-7). This polluted our souls so that we learned evil alongside good, leading to all the wickedness humanity has indulged. And as we fell, creation fell with us. God cursed his earth, causing it to fight us as a reminder of what we’ve become (Ge 3:14-19). Features and creatures twisted away from their good beginnings. The world was vandalised. And it was our fault.
Israel God’s response, however, was not to walk away. A day was marked on his calendar for a new beginning. His eternal Son would come to unite heaven and earth, to bring us back to God (Jo 3:16,17). But long before his Son came, God was preparing the way and key to that was the family of Abraham (Ge 12:1-3), the nation of Israel. There God’s Son would be born (Is 9:6,7). So God carved out a small piece of earth for them – Canaan (Ge 15:18-21) – where Israel would live under laws from him which dealt with the pollution that sin has brought. Laws that punished human wickedness, like adultery (Ex 20:14). Laws that managed the effects of the curse, like poverty (Le 19:9,10). Laws that held off those parts of creation which exhibited twistedness, such as birds of prey (Le 11:13). As it were, God set up a protective bubble upon the earth under which Israel could live a better, though still imperfect, life (De 28:1-14). But that also meant separation: the Israelites could not mix freely with those who didn’t keep God’s laws. If they did they’d make themselves ‘unclean’ and be in danger of losing God’s blessing. So they learned to live apart.
In Acts 10, Peter says that is what he has done. Careful to keep God’s laws (v14), he has never mixed casually with Gentiles (v28). But now he has grasped something else, which has changed that policy. Israel’s laws couldn’t do one thing: change the human heart. As one of her prophets noted, it remains corrupted by sin (Je 17:9). So Israel’s safety zone was regularly ruined not by those outside, but by the people within it. As Paul would later write, the Jews were no better than the Gentiles before God (Ro 3:9-11) and so her law became her condemnation. Peter now sees that too. However, he has also discovered the way by which we can be saved from ourselves.
Jesus Peter met God’s Son who can make the world clean: Jesus. He heard the Lord forgive, watched him heal, and saw him defeat death. And though Jesus did things which should have made him ‘unclean’ (like touching a leper – Mt 8:2-4), he always remained one who pleased God (Mt 17:5). He could not be spoiled, and through faith in him others received the same. Peter now sees that. Visiting a Gentile, eating pork, and a host of other things, are no longer an issue. He is acceptable to God through faith in Christ & that cannot be harmed. Every Christian has the same. Nothing can keep us away from the Lord because he has dealt with all the barriers which sin has erected. Nothing need frighten us in the world because the Lord has made us safe. Nothing need keep us from talking to others because we cannot be spoiled. In him we are secure (Ro 8:38,39)