These verses are often touted as “proof” that God’s law concerning clean and unclean animals have been abolished. However, in the final analysis, this passage is not even about clean and unclean meats!
In Peter’s vision, a huge sheet full of unclean animals is lowered from heaven, and a voice says, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” However, without hesitation Peter replies, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (verse 14). The Voice then responds, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (verse 15).
First, what is the subject of Acts 10? It is evident from a thorough reading of the chapter that it is entirely devoted to the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (verse 1), the first Gentile baptized into God’s church. Peter’s vision must be understood against this background to be understood correctly.
Second, it is apparent that Peter himself does not at first understand what his vision meant (verse 17); he certainly does not jump to the conclusion that all meats are now clean. While he is pondering it, a delegation from Cornelius arrives and requests that he travel with them to Caesarea to speak to the centurion. God tells the apostle directly to go with the men, “for I have sent them” (verse 20). Obviously, God was orchestrating the whole affair.
Third, if unclean meats had been approved, would Peter have not understood this from what he had learned from Jesus? He lived with his Savior for over three years. If anyone knew that the law of clean and unclean meats had been abolished by Christ’s sacrificial death, it would have been Peter, but at this point, a decade later, he is operating under no such notion.
Fourth, his reply to the Voice, which Peter identifies as the Lord’s, is quite confident, even vehement: “Not so, Lord!” In our colloquial English, this is equivalent to “No way!” This was a command that the apostle knew went against everything he knew about God’s law. Even though the Voice repeats the command twice more (verse 16), Peter never changes his mind!
Fifth, within the context, Peter himself reveals what the vision meant. To those assembled in Cornelius’ house, he says, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (verse 28). The vision of unclean animals was merely an illustration God used to help Peter understand that salvation was open to those previously held at arm’s length (see Acts 11:18). This is further evidenced by the Holy Spirit being poured out visibly on these Gentiles (Acts 10:44-47). Neither Peter nor Luke, the author of Acts, makes any further commentary regarding clean or unclean foods, as the vision had served a greater purpose.
Lastly, nowhere in the context is it ever said that God had cleansed unclean meats—this is something assumed by readers with a predisposition against this statute regulating what we should eat. As Paul says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Acts 10:1—11:18 confirms that “what God has cleansed” is the Gentiles, not unclean foods.