A Brief Redemptive-History of Animals

Acts 10:1-23 puts a very specific focus on Peter’s vision which leads to the conversion of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. While Peter was praying he got hungry. The Lord then caused him to fall into a trance, in which Peter saw a sheet with four corners full of clean and unclean animals. The four corners of the sheet probably refer to the same thing as the “four corners of the earth,” representing all the nations from the north, south, east and west. The Lord then commanded Peter to rise, kill and eat. Peter refused to do so until the Lord showed him the vision for a third time. It’s interesting to note Peter’s opposition to the Gospel, which is clearly seen in the fact that he argues with the Lord in the face of his own desire for food. Peter was hungry when the Lord showed him the vision. Satan’s first temptation of Christ was subtle and powerful because He was hungry. Peter’s opposition to the Lord’s new revelation is seen in that it is done in the face of his own desire for food. While it is certainly instructive, Peter’s negative example is not the main point of the passage. This text has several Redemptive-Historical lessons and application. First, it serves as the redemptive-historical key to understanding the distinction of the clean and unclean animal laws in the Pentateuch. The distinction between clean and unclean animals served as a picture of Israel’s realtionship to the Lord, and, by implication, to the surrounding nations. It was never meant to be a practical help for a healthy dietary lifestyle, as some have suggested. Jesus made this clear when he said, “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles a man…(Mark 7:19). ” Rather, it showed the covenantal holiness of Old Covenant, national Israel.

It was not that the nation was better than their Gentile neighbors. Rather, it was because they were chosen by the holy God to be a holy people. That distinction was only to remain until Christ came and fulfilled all things in His own person. The dietary laws–as is clear from the text–were eliminated after the death and resurrection of Christ. In Ephesians 2:14-17 the apostle Paul wrote, “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one [i.e. Jew and Gentile], and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near.” Nevertheless, prior to the Gospel age, the Jews were commanded to strictly observe the dietary laws to remind them of their covenantal separateness. In a very real sense, the particular dietary laws were a kindness from God to keep Israel from mingling with the nations. David Gooding notes:

These ceremonial and ritual laws would have both a positive and a negative effect. Positively, they reinforced in Israel’s thinking that as a nation they were separated to the Lord; specially set apart for Him. However morally and spiritually clean the members of another nation might have been, they did not have the role that Israel as a nation had. Israel’s role, as a kingdom of priests, was special, indeed unique. The ceremonial separation from certain kinds of food which other nations ate reinforced and underlined the fact that they were in a special sense separated to the Lord, especially “holy” in a ritualistic way.

Negatively, these food laws had an immediate practical effect: they made social mixing with Gentile nations difficult, since Israelites could not eat Gentile food. This would not only reinforce the fact that Israel was a special nation, but also act as a constant reminder that Israel was to avoid the moral and spiritual uncleanness of the Gentiles.

The redemptive-historical nature of the clean and unclean animals is most clearly understood from Peter’s vision, however, it is also symbolized at the beginning of the Bible. Interestingly, clean and unclean animals are first mentioned in the flood account in Genesis. There we find the Lord commanding Noah to gather seven clean and two unclean of every kind of animal into the Ark. The animals, clean and unclean alike, are saved in the same way. This was, of course, both preparation for the distinction to be made in redemptive history, as well as the abolition of that distinction in the death of Jesus at the cross. 1) In order for there to be a sacrificial system in Israel’s history, the Lord spared clean animals in the Ark. 2) In order for there to be a distinction made between Israel and the Gentiles, prior to Christ’s coming, clean and unclean animals were brought into the Ark. 3) The final reason why clean and unclean animals were gathered in was to show that Jew and Gentile would be saved in the same manner. The Ark was a type of Christ. Everyone, and everything, in the Ark was saved. Everyone united to Christ will be saved.  The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:4, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” There is now no distinction, for the same Lord is good to all who call upon Him in truth.

2 Responses

  1. Very helpful. We’ve recently been reading through Acts in our family worship. It is striking how this RH theme is so dominant – the inclusion of the Gentiles. As Christians who have for one if not many generations been inside the covenant community, it is easy to forget this great reality. We were once on the outside, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise. But the Lord opened the door of faith to us – whether to us in this generation or to our ancestors further back.

    I can’t help but reflect also on the myriad of dietary fads that look to Scripture for their imprimatur. How many of them would survive after the RH test?

  2. Pingback : Animals and their voice for God | All for Christ – a pastor's blog

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