Acts 10

Visions of Sugar Plums

"God told me to kill my children."

I had a dream the other night in which a voice from Heaven told me clearly to wake up and kill my children. I refused at first, but the voice spoke again, "Wake up! Kill your children!" I was in horror that such a thing would even be spoken, but even more horrified by the source of the command. "Never!" I screamed. "I will not murder anyone!" But the heavenly voice came a third time saying, "Wake up! Kill your children!" Now I am here with this dilemma of what to do. Should I obey God and kill my children? Why or why not? I need your help to know what to do.

That’s an eerie thought, isn’t it? What kind of images came to mind when you read the opening lines to this article? Most likely, it was Charles Manson-type serial killers and religious cult members who have slain their families and others, claiming a directive from Heaven. It’s clear that anyone is this state of mind has lost their moral sensitivity. But what if you were the one who had the dream? Could a heavenly voice direct you to mutilate your children? Would you be in turmoil as to whether or not to obey that "heavenly voice"? Would you even consider it to be a directive from the Almighty? How would you react? Would you rebuke the dream, or obey the voice? Would it disturb you and cause you to wonder if there could be any alternative meaning behind the dream?

This is exactly parallel to what happened to the Apostle Peter during the early days of the Messianic movement. It happened to one of Jesus’ disciples, named Peter. I know that we’re all familiar with Peter’s dream in which the sheet was lowered from Heaven, but I believe we’ve overlooked something that on the surface has to do with a very important point that God is trying to make to Peter. Let’s look at his encounter once again, but perhaps a bit closer than we have previously.

Peter’s Dream

"At Caesare’a there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." And he stared at him in terror, and said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them." And Peter went down to the men and said, "I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?" And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say." So he called them in to be his guests.

The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. And on the following day they entered Caesare’a. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; and he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean."

Acts 10:1-28

The first question one might have regarding this account after reading my introduction is, "What does murder have to do with pork chops?" How do these two examples relate, and do they have anything in common other than both of them being a dream? One would most likely think that my example seemed to be addressing a moral issue, while Peter’s dream was not. However, if we look closely, I believe they have more in common than we think. There are two primary problems with a literal interpretation of Peters dream. Let’s discuss these in detail.

Dreams and Visions

The first problem with a literal interpretation of Peter’s dream has to do with dreams themselves. Can you name an instance in the Bible where dreams were to be interpreted literally? Here are a few examples. Was Joseph’s dreams about the stars, the sun and the moon literal? What about Pharaoh’s dream about fat cows and thin cows, or fat stalks and thin stalks literal? Were the dreams of either the baker or the cup-bearer to be understood literally? What about the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar showing him the image composed of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay? How many of these dreams interpreted in a literal sense? The overwhelming answer is "none." This is a good reference point by which to approach Peter’s dream.

Peter thought the same thing. He was bewildered as to the meaning of the dream. We are clearly told that he was "inwardly perplexed" (vs. 17) as to its meaning, and continued to "ponder" it (vs. 19) in order to bring some sense of understanding. It was obvious to Peter that the dream could not be interpreted literally, and therefore he was curious as to its intended purpose. Why isn’t it obvious to us? Because Peter knew what we do not—God’s words are eternal. That brings us to our next point…

The second problem with a literal interpretation of Peter’s dream lies within the misconception that God is mutable, and His character changes from one "dispensation" to the next. However, Scripture clearly tells us something we have long forgotten—that God cannot and does not change—"For I the LORD do not change," Malachi 3:6. He cannot deny himself or His Word (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; II Timothy 2:13; James 1:13,17).

We also have the issue of ritual uncleanness. In essence, the voice in the vision told Peter to call טהר, "tahor" (clean), what God had called טמא, "tamei," (unclean). We know that this command cannot be taken for face value, because God has clearly spelled out the animals which are clean (tahor) and unclean (tamei) in his Word (e.g. Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). To say an unclean animal is now clean would be rejecting God’s very own words. This leads us to the more critical issue at hand.

What is the absolute, bottom-dollar reason that Peter’s dream cannot be interpreted literally? Because the literal meaning of Peter’s dream is in direction opposition to a direct command from God (again, Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). In short, it contradicts Scripture, and therefore must be either rejected as a deceiving spirit, or pondered for the proper interpretation. Peter understood this correctly. God could not be contradicting Himself, therefore Peter continued to search for the key to understanding. Couldn’t we use more of this kind of Scriptural exegesis in the Body of Messiah today?

The argument for a non-literal interpretation of Peter’s dream is that he clearly tells us the meaning of the vision himself. When he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he enters very reluctantly and let’s Cornelius know that he is not comfortable about it, but that "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (vs. 28). He tells us clearly that he now understands the meaning of his dream, and that it has nothing to do with animals, but with people.

But Eating Is Not a Moral Issue

But some might still object on the basis that the eating of unclean meats is not a "moral" issue, and therefore has been abrogated by the coming of Messiah in some way. Let’s take a quick look at this theory and see if it holds water.

In the minds of most people the issue of diet is in no way connected to morality. What we put into our bodies by way of food seems disassociated with any kind of moral code. However, if we look at God’s perspective on clean and unclean meats, as revealed in His very own Words, we might find out otherwise.

The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is the primary source for the Biblical guidelines of determining the distinguishing factors for the edibility of meats. The chapter begins by addressing the types of land-dwelling animals which may or may not be eaten, specifying that only those which qualify as both having a completely split hoof and "chewing the cud," are available for food (vs. 1-8). The animals which only have one of these distinguishing traits are not to be considered as food. They are merely an animal. It then moves on to the creatures which dwell beneath the waters, classifying only those which have both fins and scales as food material (vs. 9-12). If either or both of these elements were missing, then it was simply a creature of the sea, and not a menu item. The third area of food classification is in regard to fowl (vs. 13-19), simply a listing of restricted fowl, which are not to be a part of our next rice and curry dish. The last area addressed is among the insects (vs. 20-23). The insects which are classified into the food category are strictly limited to "winged insects that go on all fours," saying "you may eat those which have legs above their feet, with which to leap on the earth" (vs. 21). I’m afraid that somehow chocolate-covered ants didn’t make it onto the menu.

But what does this have to do with morality? Let’s see if we can find a connection. Here are some passages dealing with moral issues, along with God’s feelings about committing such acts?

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22

The graven images of their gods you shall burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it; for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. Deuteronomy 7:25

There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD; and because of these abominable practices the LORD your God is driving them out before you. Deuteronomy 18:10-12

There shall be no cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel, neither shall there be a cult prostitute of the sons of Israel. You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog (i.e. a male prostitute), into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God. Deuteronomy 23:17-18

A full and just weight you shall have, a full and just measure you shall have; that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God. Deuteronomy 25:15-16

The graven images of their gods you shall burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it; for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. Deuteronomy 7:25

These are several examples of "moral" commands in which God spells out that these practices are all "an abomination"—detestable— in His sight. In short, they make His skin crawl. He can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. Merely the thought of these things should sour our stomachs as well. And we would all agree. But yet we don’t feel the same way when it comes to shrimp scampi, pork tenderloin, or the all-you-can-eat fried catfish buffet. But God has a perspective on these things as well that might surprise us:

"Anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is an abomination to you," Leviticus 11:10.

"All winged insects that go upon all fours are an abomination to you," Leviticus 11:20.

"But all other winged insects which have four feet are an abomination to you," Leviticus 11:23.

"Every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is an abomination; it shall not be eaten. Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, all the swarming things that swarm upon the earth, you shall not eat; for they are an abomination," Leviticus 11:41-42.

"Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following the one in the midst of [a] those who eat the flesh of pigs and rats and other abominable things—they will meet their end together," declares the LORD. Isaiah 66:17 (NIV).

In God’s mind there is no distinction between the "moral" act of sacrificing one’s children or bowing down to an idol and the "amoral" act of eating crawfish gumbo. What may make our mouths water, turns God’s stomach. Why? Because He says,

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts," Isaiah 55:8-9.

Too many times we are lured into believing that God thinks like us. But this just isn’t the case. He does not think like us, nor do we think like Him in our natural way of thinking. However, we can train our minds to think along the same lines as Him, just as Peter had done.

Let’s ask ourselves one more question. What is morality? Isn’t morality knowing the difference between right and wrong? And how do we determine right and wrong? Through our own subjective morality? Or through the Word of God? Who sets the standards of morality—God or man? And would God ever tell us that something is wrong, and then tell us it is right? Or tell us that something was right, and then tell us it is wrong? Wouldn’t He be flipping the tables on us? If this is the case, then why do we feel we are wiser than God, and can determine morality through anything other than His timeless Word? And why would we attempt to turn God’s moral wrong into a moral right?

No, Peter didn’t get it right all of the time, but on the issues that were spelled out in Scripture he didn’t have to second guess the mind of God. Although there were difficult issues (such as the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Jewish faith) that were not as clear-cut within a Scriptural context and caused him to stumble at times, Peter understood the basis of good Scriptural hermeneutics. He had done what we must—conformed his way of thinking to the Scriptures. Paul tells us, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect," Romans 12:2. This is a passage we quote often. But what does it really mean? Here’s the complete thought:

"I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect," Romans 12:1-2.

Our way of thinking is "dead-head" theology. It is a subjective spirituality and will only cause us grief in the long run. Paul knew the requirements for an acceptable sacrifice unto the Lord, and knew that blemished animals are not acceptable sacrifices for a holy God (Leviticus 22:21). Yet we have the mentality that "anything goes" as long as we have the "right motive." But is this really "holy and acceptable to God"? Do we even have a concept of holiness? Peter beckons us,

"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy,’ " 1 Peter 1:14-16.

But he is quoting the Torah. There are two passages that use this phrase, the first of which is Leviticus 11:44-45. It is most likely this passage Peter has in mind when he addresses his listeners, due to its double-emphasis on this particular phrase "be holy, for I am holy." It says,

"For I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls upon the earth. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy."

But what is that holiness supposed to look like? Rather than leave holiness to some ethereal notion, as has been the case in most of Christendom, Torah is explicit in regard to holiness. God tells us throughout Torah (the New Testament is equally explicit) how we are to define and live out holiness. It invades every facet of our lives from speech and deed to dress and food, even to our very thoughts. It is holiness that sets us apart, and holiness that keeps us from assimilating into popular culture and theology. It is living a life of holiness that consecrates us to Hashem and draws people’s attention to a "peculiar people" who can direct them to the One True God. Instead of needing to figure out how to make the Scriptures relevant to our lives, it is living out holiness that makes our lives become relevant to the Scriptures.

Peter was living out the Scriptures, and this dream caused a real problem in his spirit. Ultimately, he rebuked the directive, and questioned the implications of the dream. Yet the popular theology of today says that Peter allowed the vision to override a clear-cut Scriptural issue. But we wouldn’t do that today, if we really believed in the Scripture we taught. Just as in the shocking example that introduced this topic, a level-headed, God-fearing person wouldn’t allow a dream or a vision to override the Word of God.

Why would we struggle with one commandment and not another? Is it because one is "moral," and the other is not? Or is it something deeper? Is the real reason due to our perception of God? Is it be cause we have a mental snapshot of God, and therefore whatever looks different than the photo, we disregard?

But where did we get the picture? Was it handed down as a family heirloom? Was it given to us by our pastors and seminary professors? Or did it come from another source? Whatever the source, we must admit that we’ve been duped. We’ve been given a snapshot of someone else, rather than the God who has revealed Himself through the Holy Scriptures.

While the issue of whether or not the laws of kashrut (biblical dietary laws) apply to Gentiles is a more difficult matter to address, the observance of them by Jewish followers of Yeshua is not. To conclude that Peter’s dream was a command to break the commandments of God would be blasphemous. And to interpret Peter’s dream in a manner which he did not, would be simply "visions of sugar plums" dancing in our heads. Peter knew the God of Scriptures. Do we?