“And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
“And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
“But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
“And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
“This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven” (Acts 10:10-16, KJV).
The setting is Joppa, a city in Israel, sometime in the first century shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Near the rooftop deck of a house about noon on a certain day a huge sheet of billows in the air, mysteriously suspended without visible means of support. On the rooftop, a man named Simon Peter, sits or lies down hungry, and now in a "trance."
Actually, the house belongs to another Simon, not a man who catches fish, but one who tans animal hides.
Other interesting participants in the Simons' rooftop scenario include beasts and birds and creepers of varied sorts of animals, all writhing togetgher in the sheet that hangs—by its four corners—from nothing. Adding to the mystery we hear a voice, repeat and repeat its instructions to Peter: "Rise, Peter; kill and eat" (verse 13).
Perhaps the goal of all this exercise is to satiate Peter’s hunger (verse 13). After all, the invisible entity three times urges him to kill and eat the beasts in the sheet. Or perhaps it’s a test of Peter’s orthodoxy (verse 14). Hungry though he is, Peter, remembers hundreds of years of Jewish dietary laws given by God Himself that forbid the eating of these sheeted creatures, and refuses to even think of eating them, thus demonstrating his commitment to Hebrew dietary laws.
There is, of course, a third possibility: teaching respect—for the voice commands Peter not to call anything “common” that God has cleansed (verse 15). The focus of respect may be the animals in the sheet, or God's ethics, or something else that the animals represent.
Our passage includes both mental and physical acts, such as prayer and its cessation, hunger and a test of integrity, mysterious appearance and subsequent disappearance of the animal-laden sheet, a voice commanding to kill and eat, repetition of said command, as well as a reproving injunction not to call things common when God has cleansed them. Among its more mystifying attitudes, the passage features the urgency of the invisible speaker of the trebled message, and Peter’s uncharacteristic hesitation and thoughtfulness.
The next time we hear of this event is in verse 28 of the same chapter.eThere we see Peter talking with Cornelius, a centurion from Cæsarea. Cornelius is not an Israelite. According to the laws of the nation at that time, as Peter explains them, no law-abiding Israelite should have entered into his house. Peter states clearly, however, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean."*
And he verifies this unambiguous understanding again in verse 34: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality.” He repeats the concept yet again after rehearsing the rooftop scene to the apostles and believers in Jerusalem when they call him to account for his actions. Not only do they not refute his reasoning, but without debate or demur they glorify God for His mercy in extending salvation to the Gentiles. Perhaps they are reminded of words written by Malachi hundreds of years earlier, after he heard them spoken by God, who also said I do not change: “For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles” (Mal. 1:11, KJV).
The initial speech that prompted this amazingly perceptive understanding by Peter demands analysis, especially since Peter does not act on the surface meaning of the apparently explicit words. In fact, the words seem so transparently obvious that even today many Christians say they mean we can eat anything.
The directive from the invisible Being holding the sheet full of animals was completely relevant—Peter was hungry—and was also apparently perfectly clear and unambiguous. What then could account for Peter's reluctance to act on a direct call from his Lord? This was, after all, the man who had a history of leaping headlong where angels feared to tread. Why, now that he had matured from a fractious sheep to a shepherd, did he see fit to question the very words spoken, as it were, from God’s mouth to his ear? Why didn’t he decide that he, as an apparently gifted person who had just witnessed Dorcas spring to life in connection with his prayer, should be the logical one to initiate a less socially annoying way of eating for Christians who were branching out into new cultures?
Peter had spent a good deal of time walking with Jesus, more than almost anyone else, and listening to Him speak. Surely he recognized Jesus’ voice instantly—yet Peter did not obey what appeared to be the Lord’s call to kill and eat. The only immediate action he took, we are told in verses 17 and 19, was worry—perplexity and reflection as to the meaning of the vision. What made him stop and think?
Perhaps the answer lies in other words Jesus had spoken even before Peter met Him. Back when He was just beginning His public ministry on earth, when He was staggering about in the wilderness, exhausted, hungry to the point of starvation, and horribly alone; at His weakest point Satan approached Jesus with three reasonable-sounding offers: one for food, one for power, and one for a chance to spectacularly demonstrate God’s saving grace.
Jesus’ three answers modeled for Christians of all ages the only safe recourse when one’s emotions are moved by calls to apparently logical action. "It is written," meekly stated the gracious One whose constant care nurtures the growth of every living plant that becomes our human food. "It is written," humbly replied the King of kings, who constructed not only the planet on which earthly kings set their tottering thrones, but whole solar systems and universes. "It is written," firmly answered the Savior, whose strong arm keeps hold of all who cry out to Him, not necessarily to prevent them from falling upon earthly stones, but to keep them standing upon the eternal Rock. "It is written."
“It is written,” said the great Reformer Martin Luther some hundreds of years later when the powers of church and state amassed themselves to grind him and what he stood for into dust. It seemed to be the worst of all possible moments for newly reformed Christianity, but it was not so. The lowest point for the Reformation was not when this one man stood before glittering wealth and capricious rulership, forcing all to listen to the plain truths of Jesus. Luther met those powers head-on, prevailing through Jesus Christ.
No, the most dangerous time for the Reformation was later, when people within the ranks of the Reformers in Germany, those of great piety and leadership skills, individuals who believed in the Word of God, heeded the call from a voice that told them they were now divinely commissioned to complete the Reformation. These men were convicted that they were called to a more effective use of their interests and abilities for God, and that Luther’s old-fashioned habit of speaking nothing but Bible truth was no longer desirable.
In acting upon this conviction, however, they reproached the cause of God. Blood flowed, truth was misrepresented, and God's enemies rejoiced. These deluded people had used their own feelings and impressions as their standard because they had forgotten to compare seductive new words with the Word of God. They had forgotten that "It is written" is the only safe recourse for Christians.
Now, when human wisdom dictates that we trust ourselves, discover power within us, develop our fullest potential regardless of the needs of others, raise our individual consciousness, be affirmed—what should we do when we hear voices calling?
One voice may be God’s own call, as in the case of Peter, to be prayerfully debated and compared with God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit so that consistent interpretations emerge. Another voice, enormously compelling and deceptively disguised, may be from Satan himself, as in the case of Luther’s compatriots, to be prayerfully resisted in the power of the Holy Spirit.
To assist us in sorting out the validity of a call we have the Word of God, the Spirit of prophecy, and the collective wisdom of God’s people who assemble at appointed times in conference. In these days of increasing knowledge with much rushing to and fro, may we be known as Christians who, when faced with seductive, angry, or confusing calls that conflate unchanging Christian duty with changing cultural standards, prayerfully say, "It is written."
* Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Tamara Dietrich Randolph, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of education at Walla Walla University in Washington.