Acts 10:9-16, focus on vv. 11-16: “He (Peter) saw the heavens opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken to heaven.”
The background of this passage is that Peter went up on a roof to pray, but then he got hungry. God used the opportunity to show him an image of a banquet feast of animals, many of which were not kosher/clean. Peter thinks God is telling him to eat the unclean animals, and he’s confused, because he knows that God would never contradict anything in God’s word, so why is God telling him that He has made these animals clean, and that Peter should not call them unclean or profane?
We know from past readings/study that this refers to the gentile Cornelius, whom God used to pour out the Holy Spirit on gentiles. But in this moment, Peter did not know that. It was only revealed to him later.
Though it is an interesting image, especially when read next to 1 Corinthians 7:17-20, which states:
“…let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”
Circumcision and uncircumcision are usually used as metaphors for Jew and Gentile. Normally, because of the law, Jews are circumcised. Gentiles are not, because they don’t have that law. So what Paul is saying here is that if you are an observant Jew who believes in Jesus, you don’t need to change anything you’ve been doing except to obey God’s commandments, especially as revealed in Christ. (Remember Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees, who were adding to and interpreting God’s laws in ways that God never said). The same goes for Gentiles. They don’t need to become circumcised. Just obey God.
This reminds me of the different Christian groups who believe they have to live exactly like the early Jewish believers in order to be righteous/in order to obey God. That is so not the point. We have the freedom to follow these laws, sure. It’s not going to affect our righteousness, though. God’s commandments in Christ are simple. Love God and love your neighbor. What you eat and drink, whether you are circumcised, ultimately means nothing.
I was born into an observant Jewish family, but since following Jesus (and being old enough to make my own decisions–because I believed in Jesus when I was still really little–it’s a long story), I know that I can continue to follow those extra laws if I wish or I can choose not to. As long as I am following the simple commandment to love God and others, which I also believe is reflected in the distribution of the Ten Commandments, I’m fine.
We are not justified by our works, but by our faith. The extent to which our works justify us is if we are obedient to what God tells us to do. God doesn’t need extra fancy sacrifices, but a pure and obedient heart.
Featured image: “Biblical illustration of Acts of the Apostles Chapter 10.” 1984. Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0. Jim Padgett.