Mercy toward animals: A new look at the story of Cornelius in the book of Acts
Now that we have taken a look at the Laws of Noah….here is a new twist.
Let’s take a quick quantum leap forward to the New Testament, stopping at the book of Acts. Jesus, of course, has already been crucified and resurrected. Christ has bestowed certain talents upon his disciples. They now are able to heal, and their mission is to spread the good news about Christ and his teachings. Peter has been given the keys to the kingdom, and all of the disciples have been given the Holy Spirit. Keep in mind that all of the disciples are Jewish, as was Christ, but the good news is being preached to all, Gentile and Jew alike. However, some issues are confusing to the disciples. They are still practicing some of their Jewish traditions. This background sets the stage for the story of Cornelius the Roman centurion. What follows is my idea of what God or Jesus intended the story to mean.
Peter gets a vision in which he sees animals both clean (kosher) and unclean (forbidden to be eaten by kosher law). All of these animals are being pulled down from heaven by a sheet. The actual Greek word Heaven Is for Animals Too 41 for this sheet from heaven is othone, a fine linen. In the plural form, the word is othonion, which is described in Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance, my primary source for translating Bible passages from the original language they were written in, as “strips of cloth with which the body of the Lord was bound.” Here we have the same linen that was used to wrap Jesus’s body being used to pull the animals down from heaven. This word is common to both animals ascending back and forth from heaven in the vision, as well as Christ’s body when he is being prepared in death prior to his resurrection.
As the story continues, Peter hears a voice from God that says to “kill and eat.” Peter refuses, stating that he has never eaten anything impure. The voice replies, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). The sheet with all the animals is then “taken back up to heaven,” as the Bible then clearly states. A voice from God tells Peter that he will be summoned by three men to go to the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Sure enough, the men appear and speak to Peter:
“We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” —Acts 10:22 NIV
Peter now understands what the vision means. When he enters the house of Cornelius the centurion, he finds a large gathering. He said to them:
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” —Acts 10:28 NIV
By this verse, we see that Peter himself said that the vision is not about the killing and eating of animals at all. It is no longer prohibited by Jewish law to dine or associate with the Gentiles. It is about Hebrews and Gentiles being recognized by God alike under the new covenant of Christ. You see, the clean animals in the vision represent the Hebrew people and the unclean animals represent the Gentiles. This is of great significance because many Christians today use the vision of the animals, along with the phrase “kill and eat”, as newfound permission to eat any animal and abandon the dietary laws of the Old Testament.
While we are here, let’s also consider the severity of the English interpretation of the word “kill” in the phrase “kill and eat.” We find that the Greek word for “kill” in this instance is defined with a softer meaning than the English word “to kill” or “to end a life”. The Greek word apokteino means “to kill, to end a life, to slay” according to the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Apokteino is used often in the New Testament specifically for this meaning. But is not present in the verse we are addressing, “to kill and eat.” The word present in this particular verse is “thuo“, which is used as the verb “to breathe hard” and “to sacrifice.” It primarily means “to offer first fruits to a God,” according to Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance. With this understanding in mind, I do not believe that this verse in the Bible frees us to consume any of the animals at free will without concession and, perhaps, without accountability. What if the original writer of the book of Acts meant for the statement to read as follows: “Sacrifice your traditions and go commune with Cornelius. Offer Cornelius’s love unto Christ?” Is not one’s love offered to Christ a fruit unto God? Wouldn’t that change the entire meaning? After all, Cornelius was still practicing kosher dietary rules and preparing his meals in the style of representing life and in gratitude to God. And in actuality, regardless of interpretation, God does tell Peter that “nothing is impure that God created,” and that it is now permissible to eat among fellow men in Christ.
Why was Peter brought to Cornelius’s house in the first place? You see, Cornelius is going to be the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit. Peter is to bestow this blessing upon Cornelius. At the time, only Jews had been brought to Christ and had received the Holy Spirit. And why did God choose Cornelius? Well, he was described as “righteous,” and earlier we learned that a righteous Gentile was a non-Jew who was abiding by the Noahide Laws. And it is clear that Cornelius was honoring the seven Noahide Laws. We know this because later in the story of Acts, Peter is called to a Jewish council to explain why he entered a Gentile’s home and, more so, why he bestowed the Holy Spirit upon a Gentile. Peter then responds to the council of Jerusalem:
“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” —Acts 15:7–9 NIV
Peter has just explained that God showed him, through the vision of clean and unclean animals, and by having him facilitate Cornelius receiving the Holy Spirit, that there is now “no distinction between us and them.” He continues the explanation:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” —Acts 15:19–20 NIV
In this set of verses, Peter tells the council that any Gentile who is following these four points of the Noahide Laws is righteous and deserves to be a part of the following of Christ. (Did you notice that three out of the four points of the Noahide laws described in Acts 15:20 pertain to animals?) According to Peter, all have the opportunity to be purified by God. God, through this vision to Peter, is letting him know that all of mankind is welcomed into his kingdom. All should be given the opportunity to follow the new covenant of Jesus. Now, because Cornelius was following the seventh Noahide Law, he would have been honoring some dietary restrictions related to animals, including avoiding cruelty. This is one of the reasons he was chosen as the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit. Why, all of a sudden, would Peter’s vision change the law and allow newfound followers of Christ to kill and consume any or all animals, as many current Christians have concluded? It just does not make sense. And we should remember that the allowance to consume flesh was a concession by God, but not without consciousness as well as the restrictions that come with it.