Peter’s vision and food laws
Editorial note: I originally wrote this post about food laws and Peter’s vision over a year before I published it. I still hold to its conclusion that God still intends us to follow his laws, and that they aren’t “done away with” as most of Christianity believes. But one thing has changed. I’m no longer hell-bent on convincing The Church at large on it. I went on a mini-missionary attempt to talk to friends about it, and in turns out that Christians don’t want to be convinced that we’re doing anything wrong. I understand that. Really. But…maybe I’ll go into this in another post, as this is just supposed to be a brief note. So, on to the post…
I wrote the response (below) to a couple of posts on comereason.org (see the links below). I don’t know that they’ll be published there, so I thought I might record my response here. My response is in context to the issues brought up in the posts, and not to the overall question of whether God’s Laws have been selectively abolished. That is a much larger issue, so I limited my questions to the author in regard to a couple of specifics. He made a statement as to how we are to sift the Law: what is still applicable and what is not. I also addressed his interpretation of Peter’s vision, one that is trumpeted by nearly every Christian writer/speaker/pastor in regard to the Law. My response regarding food laws is below, as submitted on the comereason.org site.
My original response
I have some questions about the larger issue of Levitical laws and how they do/don’t apply, but I’ll limit it to things you’ve brought up in this and the previous post. You mention a distinction between the laws given in Leviticus: “However, designating such practices as ‘abomination,’ ‘defilement,’ and ‘perversion’ distinguish these acts as wrong intrinsically.” How does this weigh against Deuteronomy 14:3? Just before specifying again what is clean and unclean, God says, “You shall not eat any abomination.” I suppose we could quibble about different translations, whether it’s “abomination” or “detestable,” but I believe definitions of both are equivalent.
I’d also like to ask your reasoning behind Peter’s vision in Acts 10, in claiming all food to be clean. The literal interpretation might show this to be the case, but that doesn’t seem to be what Peter understood. In verse 17, Peter was “inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean.” Given the plain meaning, God would have been saying, “Peter, break my law.” While he’s still pondering the meaning, three gentiles come to him…our first connection, three men, three repetitions of God speaking to him in the vision.
Peter realizes what the vision means, and says as much in verse 28: “…but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” He says nothing about food here. The vision isn’t about breaking God’s law. It’s about breaking the traditions the Jewish leadership had put in place…the same “traditions of men” that Jesus speaks of to the Pharisees.
Peter mentions this vision again in Acts 11, when he returns to Jerusalem and answers the “circumcision party.” These are the believers who hold the view that you must adhere to the Law for salvation. In their accusation, they say, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” He answers them by recounting his vision, saying he was to go with the three men without making distinction. After hearing him, the group conclude with this in verse 18: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” There is no mention of food or food laws. There is no mention of the Law being done away with. There is only the falling away of a tradition that says the Gentiles are unclean—something the Law never says.
There’s certainly more to be discussed about the Law and what still holds true, but I don’t think it’s best represented by the mainstream message that modern Christianity proclaims. If the Law is abolished, there are too many statements in the Bible that suddenly become false, and then there is contradiction. The Law can’t give us salvation, but I can’t set it aside as abolished and still find a harmony across all scripture. But that is a larger issue for another day.
I’ll add something here that I didn’t in my response. There’s the question, I suppose, of whether Peter actually ate something unclean when he visited these Gentiles. The members of the circumcision party might be accusing him of this when they say, “…and ate with them.” I suppose there’s enough wiggle room here to suspect that. But I don’t believe that’s the case. One can be a vegetarian and still go to dinner parties to eat. That leaves wiggle room as well for Peter to have eaten with them and still not have eaten anything unclean.
But what convinces me most is in two facts. Food still isn’t mentioned in the group’s conclusion. More importantly, the group never says anything about what would be a ground-breaking realization…that parts of the Law have been abolished. If they were thinking of this at all, that would truly be the more groundbreaking realization. There are accounts of Gentiles throughout the scriptures receiving God’s grace…not to mention that the Law was given to Israel and those that were with them. Yes…they were in the wilderness receiving the Law with Gentiles in their midst. God even told them that the Law applies to the others as well as Israel.
The bottom line
Peter’s vision had nothing to do with food laws and everything to do with the “traditions of men” that were part of the Jewish culture of the time. Peter and the council realized it. But here we are, 2000 years later, and we’re also holding on to the “traditions of men” instead of God’s word. The traditions are just different now.