Peter and the Great Sheet – common and unclean animals

Let me share a few thoughts on Peter’s vision of a great sheet descending with all kinds of animals in it. Did the vision meant the abrogation of the food laws as traditional Christian theologians claim? Or perhaps the passage was meant to communicate a different idea. Let us read it:

Acts 10:9 The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common [koinon] or unclean [akatharton].” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common [koinon].” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Well, the first thing you shall notice is that the sheet did not only have unclean animals in it. It had “all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air”, not only unclean. God did not say that everything on the sheet was clean!

We also find that two terms are used here: “common” [koinon - e.g. koine Greek meaning "common Greek"] and “unclean” [akatharton]. The former means profane, being defiled by touching the unclean, therefore, becoming ritually unclean, while the latter is unclean because the law declares it so. Thus, a Gentile would be called “common” because he ate unclean meat (or touched unclean things), and for this reason a Jew could not eat with him at the same table.

Now let us examine a few passages where the Greek term for “common” appears.

Acts 10:28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man [i.e. believing Gentile] common [koinon] or unclean [akatharton].

The term “unclean” when referring to people or things it often means (leprous) disease in the law.

Acts 11:8 But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common [koinon] or unclean [akatharton] has ever entered my mouth.’

Heb 10:29 How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned [koinon] the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?

In the following verses the term is mistranslated. The translators should have used “common” or “profane”, rather than the incorrect “unclean”. This proves a theological bias.

Rom 14:14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean [koinon] in itself; but it is unclean [koinon] for any one who thinks it unclean [koinon].

Rev 21:27 But nothing unclean [koinon] shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

So, returning to Peter’s vision in Acts 10, there were some animals in the sheet that were clean animals that could be eaten. So why didn’t Peter eat those? Three times Peter refused to do what God commanded. It was because Peter thought these clean animals had been made profane, ritually unclean by being near the unclean animals that were also on the sheet.

Similarly, Peter and other believing Jews had been observing rabbinic rules of avoiding being near all non-Jews. God was telling Peter that Gentiles who were believers were no longer profane, for God had made them clean. This whole chapter is about acceptance and fellowshipping with the believing Gentiles. It is not about food laws.

Commentary

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