10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” – Matthew 9:10-11 NLT
1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! – Luke 15:1-2 NLT
For some in the Jerusalem church, the idea of Peter eating with Gentiles was unacceptable. To think that he shared the gospel with them was even more disconcerting. How could he do such a thing? Well, Peter goes out of his way to tell them. He explains all that had led to his decision to make the journey to Caesarea. And he makes it clear that this had been God’s decision, not his own. He had simply obeyed orders and followed the divine directions given to Him by God. He recounts the vision he had received from God. And he once again makes note of the fact that the sheet containing all the unclean creatures had descended to him out of heaven. It had come from God’s very throne room, which meant that the very creatures Peter had viewed as unclean and defiled, had come from God’s presence. He had sent them. And at the end of the vision, the same sheet, full of supposedly unclean creatures, ascended back into heaven. And three separate times, God had told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 11:9 ESV).
Notice what God said to Peter. He was very specific in His word choices. God had told Peter that he had “made clean” these once unclean animals. The Greek word Luke used is katharizō, and it means to cleanse or purify. In a levitical or sacrificial sense, it means to pronounce something clean that has been purified by sacrifice. In a moral sense, it means to free something from defilement of sin and from faults (“G2511 – katharizō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). God was telling Peter that He had made a divine determination to purify what had at one time been considered unclean. He had done it. God had declared the creatures to be clean. He had passed judgment and declared His decision. And He had expected Peter to accept it.
And the vision had been just that: A vision. It had been a visual tool used to teach Peter a real-life lesson regarding Gentiles and his view of them. God was about to let down a sheet full of unclean creatures, in the form of Cornelius, his family members and friends. But God had cleansed them through the sacrifice of His Son. Their sin debts had been paid for on the cross. They had once been defiled by their sin and separated from God as a result of their impurity, but God had done something to redeem and restore them. He had sent His Son to die for them. And long before Peter and his six companions had made the trip to Caesarea, God had already chosen those who would be saved there. And Peter was not to call common what God had already made clean. God had chosen to remove the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, wrote of this important determination on God’s part.
13 But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:13-14 NLT
Peter had seen this happen first-hand. He had seen God bless the Gentiles with the same blessing He promised to Abraham. He had watched in amazement as the Holy Spirit filled those Gentile converts and empowered them in the very same way He had the disciples on the day of Pentecost. And Peter could only say, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17 ESV). Peter knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what he had witnessed in Caesarea had been of God. His vision, Cornelius’ vision, the coming of the Spirit, the gift of tongues – it had all been evidence of God’s divine hand. And he had no desire to stand opposed to the will of God.
And Luke simply records that when the Jewish believers in Jerusalem “heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ESV). Like Peter, they saw that this was of God and that they had no business standing in opposition to what God had predetermined to do. If He had decided to deem Gentiles worthy of receiving the gospel, who were they to stand in His way.
As we will say later in Luke’s account, many of the same individuals who had called Peter to task over his association with Gentiles, would raise their voices again in protest over the growing movement to convert Gentiles to the faith. In fact, in chapter 15, we will see where Paul and Barnabas are accused of not requiring circumcision of all Gentile converts. Luke records, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5 ESV). These men were teaching that Christianity was nothing more than a kind of reformed Judaism. They were demanding that all the requirements of the Mosaic law be kept in order to any Gentile to be accepted as a true believer. This matter will come up repeatedly in the later chapters of Luke’s account, as we see Paul and others continue to spread the good news regarding Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
There were those who could not accept what God was doing. It went against their preconceived notions of religious right and wrong. They had put God in a box and determined that there was only one way for people to have a right relationship with Him – and that was through some form of law-keeping or adherence to a set of religious rules. But Paul, the apostle who spent his life ministering the gospel to the Gentiles, would later write:
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
29 After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. 30 There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. – Romans 3:27:30 NLT
Peter and Paul were ministering in a new day. The rules had changed. The Redeemer had come. The way of salvation had been paved by the blood of Jesus Christ. No more hopeless attempts to try and live up to God’s holy standards on your own. No more need for physical circumcision. God was circumcising hearts and setting apart a people for His own, whom He had declared to be clean. And that would include Jews and Gentiles.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.