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Clean = Godly?

“The voice spake unto [Peter] … What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15).

Is cleanliness considered to be next to godliness? It certainly was in the minds of many Jews, not only in Peter’s day, but through much of Israel’s history. The difference between that which was “clean” and that which was “unclean” was vital to the devout Jew. It was obviously vitally important to Peter. In Acts 10, when God commanded Peter to “kill and eat,” Peter quickly responded, “No way!”

Avoiding Uncleanness

Like Peter, many Israelites prided themselves in abstaining from anything “unclean” and disdained the Gentiles as “sinners,” as “unclean.” This provided them with the opportunity not only to look down on the Gentiles, but to avoid contact with them—all in the name of holiness.

The roots of this problem of Jewish separatism go very deep into the Old Testament. They begin in the distinctions which God drew between the “clean” and “unclean” animals which were to be put on Noah’s ark (Genesis 7:2). Then, in Genesis chapter 12 we are told that God chose Abraham, and especially his “seed” to become a source of blessing to “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). For Israel, being God’s chosen people was a place of privilege, but also one of great responsibility.

The Attitude of Jesus

If the Jews of Jesus’ day felt that holiness was measured in terms of the distance one kept from “sinners,” then you can imagine the impact that Jesus’ words and teaching had on them. These Jews looked for a Messiah who would bless Israel and who would overthrow the Gentiles. Yet Jesus taught that He had come to bring blessings on the Gentiles, too.

And if this were not enough, Jesus actually sought out and fellowshipped with “sinners” at the meal table. Defilement, Jesus taught, was not a ceremonial thing, but a matter of the heart. Sin begins in the heart and works outward. Thus, Jesus made it clear that foods cannot defile a person. What one eats does not make one sinful or holy. In teaching this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.” 

Peter’s Vision

God’s timing is always perfect. Just before three men arrived to invite Peter to share the Gospel with a group of Gentiles, Peter had a vision. Peter “saw heaven opened, and a … great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:11-15).

The scene was repeated three times, so that its certainly was underscored. Peter was contemplating what he had experienced when the three men arrived. It was only then that the Holy Spirit told Peter what to do. He was to go with these Gentiles, to the home of a Gentile, without agonizing over the “defilement” which such an act had formerly implied to Peter.

Equals in Christ

Peter now understood that Jews and Gentiles are equal. They are equally sinful, and worthy of God’s wrath. They are equally lost. They are equally undeserving. But when they have trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they are equally saved because their cleansing and worth are based upon the work of Christ, not on their own good works. When one’s righteousness is based upon God’s work, through Christ, there is no room for self-righteousness, and thus no basis for superiority or pride.

The Lesson For Us

The primary lesson for Peter—and for us—is that the gospel must be preached to all men. Further, we are taught that even though God wants His people to be distinct from the world, they are not to be distant and removed from it. They are to be lights in the world, and salt, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-16). Light that is hidden and salt that is tasteless has no value. God’s people are “in the world” but not “of the world” (John 17:14-19) so that His salvation may be proclaimed, and His holiness may be demonstrated.

—Adapted from “Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness?” by Bob Deffinbaugh, Copyright ©2016, reprinted with permission.