Acts 10:16

ESV This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
NIV This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
NASB This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
CSB This happened three times, and suddenly the object was taken up into heaven.
NLT The same vision was repeated three times. Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven.
KJV This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.

What does Acts 10:16 mean?

Peter is in Joppa, near modern-day Tel Aviv, praying on the rooftop of a tanner named Simon. While he waits for lunch, he has a vision of a sheet filled with different animals being lowered from heaven. A voice tells him to kill the animals and eat them, but some are prohibited by the Mosaic law (Leviticus 11). Peter refuses, and the voice tells him that God has lifted the dietary restrictions and made what was unclean clean (Acts 10:9–15).

Throughout the years, people have tried to figure out why God prohibited the animals He did. Many of the animals He banned are carnivores or eat carrion, but not examples like camels or rabbits. Certainly, God had reasons for those specific animals at that time, but in a way, they are just as arbitrary as the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

That seemingly arbitrary line is a major part of the purpose of such laws. The point isn't the literal physical food, it's whether God's people trust Him enough to do what He asks. This is why Jesus explained that trying to avoid a hidden particle of unclean food was unnecessary—especially while hypocritically avoiding more obvious commands from God (Matthew 15:1–11). The kosher laws were designed to show the neighboring nations that the Israelites were different. The worship of Yahweh was largely hidden from Gentile eyes, but eating was more obvious. If someone tried to sell a Jew pork, the Jew could refuse, explaining his God forbade it.

This prohibition grew into a general rule against eating with anyone who wasn't Jewish, including Gentiles who worshiped the Jewish God but were not circumcised and proselytes, such as Cornelius (Acts 10:1–8). Eating together is still a significant even in Middle Eastern culture; for a devout Jew to eat with someone who was unclean was to become unclean.

Whether or not the number three has specific importance in God's point of view, it is significant for Peter. While Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter denied knowing Him three times (Mark 14:66–72). After Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, and told Peter to take care of Jesus' followers (John 21:15–17). It's possible Peter sees the animals or hears the voice three times because that will make him recognize it is a message from Jesus. It certainly seems to link the newly-clean animals with Peter's responsibility to proclaim Jesus' message and care for His followers with what is about to happen: three messengers coming to bring Peter to a Roman centurion to share the gospel.
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