The Vision Peter Saw
1. The man Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. All of his disciples were Jews, too. All of the first people baptized were Jews. The place for preaching the gospel was the Jewish synagogue. [Christians] were considered a sect of Judaism. Actually that's how they even saw themselves. Whenever [someone] confessed Jesus as the Christ, they were always Jews and never anything else but a Jew.
2. We're a part of the history of the church that had its beginnings like that. We're not Jews. As seen by the Jews, we are "Gentiles." We don't think it is especially unusual that Gentiles are in the church. We might think it unusual if there were Jews in the church and might wonder, "Why are there Jews [in a church]?" But, it's really the other way around. Originally they must have wondered, "Why are there Gentiles [in the church]?"
3. Why are there Gentiles in the church? It's because at a certain point the gospel of Christ jumped out of the frame of Judaism; for, the mission to the Gentiles began upon crossing the dividing wall. That was the church's great turning point. No, wait, it might even be better to say it was a major turning point in the history of the world. For, had Christianity stayed as a sect in Judaism, the history of the world would have been completely different. Of course, there would not have been a church in Japan. We couldn't be Christians.
4. [It was] a major turning point in the history of the world -- but, it was [such] a small event in a corner of the world [somewhere], that would hardly attract anyone's attention. How is it that that gospel came to be given to and communicated by the Gentiles? Why were we Gentiles made into worshippers of the Lord? As we ponder these points, I would like for us to turn our attention to this small but remarkable event.
The Vision Peter Saw
5. That day Peter was in the home of a man named Simon the Tanner. About noon he went on the rooftop to pray. That's when people would prepare the midday meal. As he was praying and fasting, he entered a trance and he began to see one of his visions there. It was a vision of food. He saw the heavens open and a great cloth like container with four corners hang and come down. The text says, "All kinds of animals, animals that creep on the field, birds of the air were in it," (verse twelve). Then, a voice came, "Peter, get up, slay and eat." It was the voice of the Lord. But, Peter replied, "Lord, no way! I have never eaten a thing that was impure or defiled," (verse fourteen). [He said that] because all the things that were in it were "unclean things" prohibited by the law for eating.
6. The Jewish dietary regulations are given in Leviticus chapter eleven and elsewhere. When it comes to animals, one is not to eat the animal unless it is an animal whose hooves are completely divided and which chews the cud. Therefore, pigs are not to be eaten. Camels and badgers are no good either. As for fowl, bald eagles and species of preying birds are unclean and are not to be eaten. The reptile species are also considered unclean. Lizards are not to be eaten. Some foods were made unclean, some were made clean. We don't know all too well the reasons for this. But, even in modern times Orthodox Jewish followers will strictly observe these dietary regulations. Because there are a lot of processed foods around today, they must choose their foods exercising great care over the basic raw ingredients in them.
7. Why would they have to use such great care over these food laws? It was not because of what they term "cleanness and uncleanness." It was because it had to do with their relationship with God. It was not just about food, "unclean" in the Old Testament meant the condition of not being permitted fellowship with a Holy God. If one put something unclean into one's mouth, the person would become unclean himself or herself and would be in a condition of not being permitted fellowship with God. What's more the text doesn't tell how this defiled condition is purified. That point is different from the case of defilement by touching a corpse, which has a ceremony of purification prescribed for it. Therefore, when one tried to live strictly by the law, it lead to a high sensitivity and carefulness in the dietary regulations. When Peter was commanded to "Slay and eat" the unclean things that were hanging and coming down to him, the response that he gave of "Lord, no way!" was not unreasonable.
8. However, the response from the Lord was something that threw him a complete surprise. The Lord said, "You should not call impure what God has purified," (verse fifteen). This exchange between them went on three times. God let Peter with his empty stomach see this food vision. It is really a funny story but, actually, into this very vision a decisive message was inserted, one that would change history from there after.
9. Peter mused around in his thoughts regarding this vision. While he was doing that, three men arrived at the home of Simon the Tanner calling upon Peter for a visit. The Holy Spirit spoke out to Peter. "Three men have come seeking you. Get up and go down. Do not hesitate but depart with them. I have sent them," (verses nineteen and twenty). When he went downstairs, it was not Jews who were there. It was Gentiles. It was men that the Roman centurion Cornelius had sent. "Could these men be the ones that the Lord had sent?..." Peter must have had some doubts. He inquires. "The one you seek is me. Why have you come here?" Then, this is the answer they gave Peter, "The Roman centurion Cornelius is a just man, he fears God, and is of a good reputation among all the Jews, but [now] he has received a notice from a holy angel to invite you to his home to hear your words," (verse twenty-two).
10. To a Jew a Gentile was "an unclean person." Thus, for an Orthodox Jew, one was never to call upon or have a meal with a Gentile. It was not surprising even though Peter hesitated to travel with them when he was invited. But, the Lord told Peter, "Do not hesitate but leave with them." Peter followed the voice of the Lord. He welcomed them and left with them for Caesarea the following day.
11. When he arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius already had his relatives and close friends gathered together and they were waiting. On the road, Peter must have been musing about that vision. At last, he came to clearly understand the meaning of the vision he had. In verse twenty-eight it tells us how he understood it. This is what he said to the people assembled there. "As you also know, it is forbidden in the law for the Jews to associate with foreigners or to visit with them. However, God has shown me that we should not call anyone unclean or defiled," (verse twenty-eight).
God Does Not Show Favoritism
12. "We should not call anyone unclean or defiled." -- We need to be careful with these words. They do not simply mean "Do not discriminate because everyone is the same and all people are equal." We should not take this on a dimension of humanism. What did the Lord say in the dream? He said, "You should not call 'what God made clean' unclean." The very phrasing of "what God made clean" has significant meaning.
13. Please recall that Jesus used to have meals with sinners and tax collectors. The Pharisees and the scribes of the law criticized him saying, "He welcomes sinners and even takes a meal with them," (Luke 15:2). Why would the Lord dare to take a meal with sinners and tax collectors even though he would be criticized for it? It wasn't simply that "All people are the same, right?," that's not why he was having those meals with them. That's not why at all, rather he had taken meals with them in the sense that "they too were being invited to fellowship with God."
14. Since they were being invited to fellowship with God, it should go without saying that forgiveness of sin and purity were prerequisites; for, fellowship with God is not possible unless one is forgiven and cleansed by God. And the Lord's table would have included at it the blessing of God's forgiveness as well. That's because there would have been the sacrifice for the atonement of sins there as well. Jesus the inviter was himself the atonement sacrifice. As the one crucified for the redemption of sin, the Lord had invited sinners and had meals with them.
15. Only because of the redemption that comes through the cross of Christ can humans have fellowship with God. Only through the atonement of the cross of Christ is the sin of a person forgiven and cleansed. Since that is so, in this point there are neither Jews nor Gentiles. It was just as the voice from heaven that Peter had heard said. "You should not call impure what God has purified."
16. And Peter had addressed the assembled people further as follows: "We clearly see that God does not show favoritism to anyone. No matter the country of a person, the person who fears God and practices righteousness is accepted by God," (verses thirty-four and thirty-five). Differences between Jew and Gentile not only exist between them but also there are differences in nationality in this world. There are differences even within a people group. Also, distinctions exist based on gender, age, social standing, and academic background. And I'm sure they'll keep on existing even after today. The main thing is not that all the distinctions disappear from the world we live in or that we become all one. There should be differences. We should be different. There should be distinctions between people. The fundamental thing we are to know is that "God does not show favoritism to anyone." God does not even consider all these differences as of any decisive importance.
17. That God does not even consider all these differences as important is because the important thing ultimately and decisively lies elsewhere. It [lies] in the relationship between God and the individual. [The Bible] says, "No matter the country of a person, the person who fears God and practices righteousness." "Fearing God" and "practicing righteousness" are not two separate acts. It's one condition. For example, it means to turn to God and be willing to live with God just as Cornelius here and his friends were doing. The decisively important thing for God is whether a person fears God, humbles himself or herself, and lives with Him or a person turns his or her back on God and lives focused only on things in a person's life.
18. As a result, it has come to pass that the gospel has been passed on to us Gentiles as well. We too have been accepted by the Lord. Truly, our very existence is nothing but a witness to the fact that "God does not show favoritism among men and women."