The idea that God deemed certain animals unclean in order to show people that they are unclean, might raise a few eyebrows. But it is a thoroughly biblical idea. Acts 10:9-45 is a key passage where it is most clearly explained. The story begins with a giant sheet-like object descending from the sky:
Acts 10:9-16 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.
What an extraordinary vision! The apostle Peter witnessed this strange object fluttering down out of heaven, which, oddly enough, was covered with animals that God had previously, in no uncertain terms, declared unclean. Nevertheless, the authoritative voice of God told Peter to rise, kill, and eat.
Being a good Jewish man, Peter refused to obey God (what an irony!). Indeed, he was greatly confused by this command to eat. In his mind, God was being inconsistent, since Leviticus 11 clearly forbade him from eating the unclean animals. But God surprised him, stating that these animals once declared unclean have now been declared clean. But why? What could this mean? What brought about the change?
Earlier in verses 1-8, God had come to a man named Cornelius, also in a vision. God commanded Cornelius to make contact with Peter and to invite him to come to his home in Caesarea for a visit.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, a Gentile. Don’t miss that – he was a Gentile! To the Jewish mind, Gentiles were deemed to be unclean right along with the pigs. In distinction from the ceremonially clean Israelites, who symbolized a right relationship with God and purity before him, the Gentile nations symbolized wickedness, impurity, and unclean ways of life (Ephesians 4:17, for example). In Peter’s mind, Cornelius was unclean just like a muddy pig. However, through the two visions, God was arranging a meeting of the clean Israelite and the unclean Gentile.
After seeing the sheet full of unclean animals, and hearing the voice to rise and eat, Peter sat and pondered what this might mean. Acts 10:17 says he was perplexed about it. It was at this time that he was brought to Cornelius (10:17-33). Here is what Peter said to him and the crowd of Gentiles who had gathered there:
Acts 10:34-35 Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
It was his vision of the sheet that gave Peter this understanding. After making this declaration, Peter then preached the gospel to them, heralding that Jesus was the Messiah who was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Finally, he challenged these Gentiles to trust Christ for salvation: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
Once they trusted Christ and the Holy Spirit fell upon them, we read this summary of what had taken place:
Acts 10:45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
“The circumcised” were the clean Jews who had become Christians. At this point they were astounded that the Holy Spirit had been “poured out even on the Gentiles,” that is, even on unclean people.
Do you see the connection? Peter had a vision of unclean animals, including pigs. God said rise and eat, declaring these animals clean. Immediately, Peter was sent to an unclean Gentile to preach the gospel. Through the saving grace of God, the unclean Gentiles were declared to be clean through Christ and were given the Holy Spirit as evidence.
This passage helps us clearly see the purpose God had in mind in declaring certain animals unclean. It was to show us that what is unclean can be made clean! God can take nasty swine and turn them into clean and pure creatures.
Modern people can be quite confused about why God forbade the eating and touching of swine. But seen in the context of his ultimate plan to save guilty sinners, his intentions become clear. As it turns out, muddy pigs are a major part of his plan. They teach us about our sinful, wicked condition, and they show us we need to be saved. We need to be declared clean:
Hebrews 10:22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
As difficult as it might be, we have to see ourselves in our natural, sinful state as nasty, unclean people. Our only hope is a righteous cleansing. Only when we see ourselves this way will we see our need for a Savior.[This post is taken from Drowning Swine, Chapter 10.]