God had to break through some pretty great barriers to get the gospel to the Gentiles. Ironically, one primary barrier that he had to break through was one he had pounded into the Jews’ minds, the idea of clean and unclean.
If you look at the book of Leviticus, this is an idea that is repeated time and again. “Don’t do this. It’ll make you unclean. But if you do this, you’ll become clean again.”
Or, “Don’t eat this. It’s unclean. But this other food is okay. It is clean to you.”
What was the whole purpose of these laws? It was to imprint in the minds of the Jews the need to be holy as God is holy.
The problem was, the Christians failed to recognize that these (and other such Mosaic laws) were mere pictures of their relationship with God, and that with the coming of Jesus, these pictures were fulfilled. And so throughout the early church, you see this battle between those who contended that these ritualistic laws (as opposed to moral laws) were no longer relevant, and those who contended that they were.
At this point, Peter and the rest of the Jews were squarely in the realm of the latter.
But with one fell swoop, God knocked it all down. He gave Peter a vision in which he presented a number of “unclean” animals, and told Peter to kill and eat them.
Peter was appalled. Perhaps he thought God was simply testing his faithfulness. So he said,
Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean. (14)
But God’s rebuke was sharp.
Do not call anything impure that God has made clean. (15)
And to make the point crystal clear, he repeated the vision two more times.
At that point, Cornelius’ men came, and God told him,
Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them. (19-20)
Prior to the vision, there is no way Peter would have gone to them. To enter the house of a Gentile and fellowship with him would have made Peter, “unclean.” But with the vision still fresh in his mind, he went.
And when Peter heard the story of Cornelius, and saw the Spirit fall upon Cornelius, his family, and his friends, the church was changed forever.
So what do we get from this? I think the main thing is what Peter told Cornelius.
God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. (28)
Nowadays, we don’t have the problem of whether to follow Jewish laws and rituals or not. But how do we look upon the people around us? Do we see certain people as beneath us? As unworthy of salvation? Do we loathe to even hang around them because of their race or social status?
Or perhaps we think they’re beyond salvation because of how badly they’ve treated us or how badly they’ve hurt us.
Jesus died for us all, including them. And we have no right to call them “impure” or “unclean.”
Yes, like Cornelius, they are stained with sin. But Jesus can take anyone and make them clean. And like Peter, we may just be surprised that the same Spirit that fills us can fill them if we will only take the gospel to them.
What barriers of prejudice or bitterness have you set in your minds against the people around you?