Passages Taken Out of Context, Part I: Acts 10:9-16

As I was reading today, I came across a Bible passage that is often misunderstood.  We often use this passage to say something that it was never intended to teach.  As I thought about it, I realized that there are many passages that this applies to.  So, I am beginning a series that will explore some of those oft-misunderstood and misquoted passages.  Today’s post will be about Acts 10:9-16.  The passage reads:

 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its 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, “By no means, 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 made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.  (Acts 10:9-16, ESV) 

I cannot tell you how many times I have either heard or read someone use this passage as proof that the Old Testament dietary laws no longer apply to the Christian.  It is argued that God tells Peter in this passage that all food is now to be considered “clean.”  Well, I agree that Christians do not need to adhere to the Old Testament food laws, but the proof does not come from this passage (For a proof about what is lawful to eat, look at Mark 7:14-23).

In fact, this passage really has nothing to do with food at all.  Peter’s vision is to teach him that the message of Christ is not for Jews only, but also for Gentiles (all non-Jews).  The Jewish thought of the time was that Gentiles were unclean and had nothing to do with the things of God.  This vision was to correct Peter’s thinking and prepare him to spread the Good News to all nations indiscriminately.  When you read the rest of chapter 10 and into chapter 11, this message is obvious.  The emphasis comes out very plainly in Acts 10:28 where Peter, speaking to his Gentile visitors, says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”  God showed him this in the vision of Acts 10:9-16.

When Peter reports to the church leaders in chapter 11 and they ask him why he has been preaching to the Gentiles, he tells them of his vision and the fact that God has declared that all people are to be considered clean (or worthy) of the gospel (read Acts 11:1-18).  It is not a message only for Jews.  It is for all people because they are all clean in God’s eyes.

So, this passage has nothing to do with food, but with people.  As Christians, we are to proclaim the Good News to all because God has told us that no person is to be considered common or unclean.

Have you ever heard this passage used incorrectly?  Are there any other passages that you know of that are commonly taken out of context?  Do you think that this passage has anything to say concerning racial prejudices held by some Christians (look at Acts 10:28 again)?

 

If you would like to look at the passages discussed in this post, you can go to Biblegateway.com .

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17 Responses to Passages Taken Out of Context, Part I: Acts 10:9-16

  1. ophalm says:

    do you believe the NT in some way “overrides” the laws of the OT? you say that that passage is often used (incorrectly) for that purpose (nullifying the laws) but if it’s not (which I agree with you on), how do you feel about the laws?

  2. Tim Farley says:

    ophalm:

    Good question. I have already addressed this question in another post. You can read it at this link: https://timothyfarley.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/the-bible-says-we-should-execute-sabbath-breakers-should-we/

  3. Ben A says:

    I heard a sermon on this just a little while ago. I can’t wait to see more.

    I have heard many taken out of context or taken out of genre.

    One that I’ve been thinking on recently is Genesis 1-2, which is often taken to be scientific genre instead of theological. Science was invented thousands of years later. Moses wasn’t saying “This is an exact calculated chronical of everything that has happened from then until now.” When people get so excited about evolution and Big Bang Theory, etc, they miss the whole Good Creation–Fall–… part of the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration story of the whole Bible.

    I wonder if Christian slave traders enjoyed taking Acts 10 out of context. Or Christian apartheid advocates.

  4. I agree with your analysis. The passage in Acts was about people.

    Your Mark7v14-23 passages show what Jesus believed and taught. However these verses are about challenging the Pharisees over their traditions which made the Word of God to no effect. It didn’t challenge the proper food laws.
    I therefore am certain that Jesus obeyed the dietary Laws, (not the Pharisees) throughout his ministry.
    Mar 7:5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat loaves with unwashed hands?
    Mar 7:6 But He answered and said to them, Well has Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.
    Mar 7:7 However, they worship Me in vain, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
    Mar 7:8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, the dippings of pots and cups. And many other such things you do.
    Mar 7:9 And He said to them, Do you do well to set aside the commandment of God, so that you may keep your own tradition?

    Probably the key passage about dietary law for the Gentile believers is.—

    Act 15:10 Now therefore why do you tempt God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples, a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

    (Peter dismisses applying Moses Law to Gentiles when the Jews hadn’t been able to obey it.)

    Act 15:19 Therefore my judgment is that we do not trouble those who have turned to God from among the nations,
    Act 15:20 but that we write to them that they should abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

    Here Peter goes back to well before the Law of Moses, and puts the recommendations in its most basic form. The reasons are quite obvious.
    Pollution of idols and fornication both bring you into demonic bondage.
    Avoiding blood and things strangled (still containing blood ). This goes back to Noah.-

    Gen 9:4 But you shall not eat of flesh with the life in it, or the blood of it..
    The Law of moses was based on this. We are free from Moses Law, but we are still sons of Noah.

    I am not saying we are under legalism over these issues. The first two, idols and fornication, you would have to be stupid not to agree with these.
    The blood issue is different. They were vegetarians until the flood, therefore didn’t need such a law about blood. After the flood and even now, the blood issue still counts, notwithstanding the death of Jesus.

    I don’t know how to look at this any other way. Maybe you have a view.

  5. Tim Farley says:

    francisdrakeprivateer:

    I agree that the passage in Mark is primarily about Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and their legalistic attitude towards the law. The reason I mention it in connection with the dietary laws of the Old Testament is because of verses 18-23 which read, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And He said, ‘What comes out of a man is what defiles him. For from within the heart of man, come evil thoughts…”

    I bolded the text above that I think brings out my point. This passage says it does not matter what we eat. Food does not defile us. Our problem is sin, which comes from our heart. Our problem is not something physical that we can touch (or eat), but it is a moral/ethical issue. A list of some of our problems is found in vv. 21-22: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness”. Notice that all of these are moral/ethical issues of the heart, not physical things we touch or eat.

    I believe this same principle can be applied to the consumption of blood. It is not the blood that was/is the issue (remember, it is not what goes into the body that defiles it), it was what the consumption often represented. The consumption of blood was, and still is, associated with pagan religion and the worship of other gods. Followers of God should have nothing to do with pagan religions or rituals associated with them. However, if you want to eat your steak rare, I think it is OK. 🙂

    Thanks for your comments and I agree with you, Jesus would have kept the dietary laws since he was a Jew and lived under the Law.

  6. Tim Farley says:

    Ben, I am wondering what the content of that sermon you mention was. I also agree with you an Genesis 1-2.

  7. Francis says:

    Actually I would take the view that blood was specifically refered to because of the blood sacrifice requirement indicated from genesis. The coats of skin for Adam and Eve was a blood sacrifice. Abel’s sacrificial animals continued it and so on. The blood belongs to the Lord from the very beginning. (I believe it was also the reason for Cain’s rejection.)

  8. Tim Farley says:

    I can understand where you are coming from with your thinking, but I am left wondering how Christ’s sacrifice plays into this. Did not Jesus’ sacrifice fulfill all of God’s requirements for sin? Why would God still require the blood if Jesus’ death was the fulfillment the Old Testament sacrificial system?

  9. Absolutely!
    Without question!
    The blood of Jesus did it all.

    Prior to the cross, all the sacrifices pointed forwards to the future, the cross, whether they comprehended it or not.

    Afterwards, the wine of communion points back to the completed work of the cross.

    However I also believe that, as the death of animals have been both sacrificial and incidental ie. for food, then God was just maintaining the point that the “life is in the blood”.

    I don’t know what else you can make of it. I agree with you that all food is clean from a spiritual view point. Yet Peter said what he said.
    I don’t believe it was about Law, as Paul makes it clear when he deals with the Judaisers entering the church.

    I don’t think we can just dismiss such a significant point. It took a lot of effort for the early church to get to that place?

  10. Tim Farley says:

    Francis:

    I have to admit that I have never really thought about this. I’ll have to look into it some and get back to you. It is an interesting question.

  11. Jeff says:

    Satan was the master of using scripture out of context as proven in Genisis and during the temptation of Christ. Everytime we take scripture out of context we follow the trail he blazed.

    There are three ways in which scripture is taken out of context: deliberately, ignorantly and blindly (suspecting it may be out of context but accepting it anyways).

    There are various reasons we take it out of context. We are told that certain behavior — but not others– can be dismissed because it was unique to Jesus’ culture. At other times, it can be implied that we have to follow the traditions of our own leaders and trust them because of the difficulties in translations (or understanding of cultures, etc).

    I think it is interesting that we can be very rigid in our interpretations of some scriptures (in fact, giving them an air of certainty when actually they can be open to interpretation) but ignoring others. For example, consider this scripture from John 13:

    John13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

    Very few Christians wash one anothers feet, yet Jesus has just made the command to follow his example. Perhaps, it is best to interpret this in a broader context, but if we do so, then shouldn’t the same be true of other scriptures?

    In the end, I think there will be many disappointed Christians (me included) that will stand before the Lord and recognize the many ways we used scripture to support or own beliefs and biases. It is the responsibility of the individual Christian to carefully study the scripture using a variety of sources, and apply the teaching to our own life, even if it seems unorthodox to those with whom we worship.

  12. Tim Farley says:

    Jeff:

    I believe you make some great points. We do often bend Scripture to support our own personal biases. In the end, as you stated, we are each responsible for our own obedience and therefore need to personally study to be sure we are living in such a way that honors our Lord.

    By the way, I know of some churches that do wash one another’s feet every time they serve communion. They use the passage you refer to and say Jesus commanded us to do so. Should we be washing feet? What do you think?

  13. Tim, or Jeff,
    Is there any chance you could wash my feet if I email them to you?
    No one over here will come within a mile of them.

    Sorry Jeff. I wasn’t making light of your points. You are right, I think there will be many red faces when we come before Jesus.

  14. Jeff says:

    I thought of a passage that I feel is frequently used to justifying ignoring our responsibilities to the poor. Sad to say, it was used in this context during an adult Sunday School class by a leader in my church.

    John 12:8
    You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

  15. Tim Farley says:

    Jeff:

    Interesting. Saying that we will always have the poor is definitely not the same as saying we should not help them. I am a bit amazed by that.

  16. Kelsey says:

    I’ve often been surprised by the number of people who have pointed to this passage to tell me it’s unbiblical to be a vegetarian! Seems WAY off the mark to me.

  17. Tim Farley says:

    Kelsey:

    That’s funny. Even if this passage were about food, which it is not, it would not create a requirement to eat meat! It would only say it is Ok to do so.

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