In Acts 10 the apostle Peter is granted three visions of clean and unclean animals descending from heaven. A heavenly voice tells Peter to kill and eat these beasts. When the apostle objects to this violation of God’s Law the heavenly voice responds “what God has cleansed (ἐκαθάρισεν), you must not consider polluted (κοίνου)” (Acts 10:15).
While pondering the significance of these perplexing visions Peter is commanded by the spirit to depart with the messengers who have come to his door without hesitation. Peter obeys and is brought to a Roman centurion named Cornelius, “a devout man who feared God with all his household” (10:2). Peter eats with Cornelius and relates to him the gospel. To Peter’s surprise, the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his family. As the spirit moves among these Gentiles, Peter suddenly understands the meaning of his parabolic visions; he announces “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean… I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:28, 34-35).
The barrier preventing Jewish-Gentile admixture has thus been removed; Gentiles, at least those Gentiles who fear God, have been made clean. They are now worthy of association and Peter need not fear defilement in Cornelius’ company.
Peter’s revolutionary realization begs some important questions for us: when did God cleanse Cornelius and people like him? How did his purification take place?
Polluting idols and cleansing waters
As with many New Testament episodes, the answers to these questions may be found in an unfamiliar Old Testament subtext. The story of Elisha and Naaman in 2 Kings 5 may be that explanatory subtext (cf. Luke 4:27). In 2 Kings 5 we find a tale quite similar to the one in Acts 10, one in which God cleanses a Gentile military leader of impurity. In this case the patient is a leprous Aramean military commander named Naaman.
When the king of Aram requests magical help from the king of Israel on Naaman’s behalf, the prophet Elisha takes the opportunity to shame his faithless Israelite king by proving that he is a true prophet of Israel (5:1-8). Despite some initial hesitation on the part of Naaman, the Aramean general is cleansed (ἐκαθαρίσθη) by God through the prophet in the waters of the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:14).
With Elisha triumphant and Naaman cleansed of leprosy, the story turns to highlight the theo-political ramifications of what has just transpired. Naaman declares “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel… your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord” (5:15, 17).
Having been thus granted this mercy from Israel’s God, the pagan Aramean commander abandons the idols that once defiled his heart. Like Jethro (Exodus 18:9-12) and Rahab (Joshua 2:8-14) before him, and like Cornelius after him, Naaman the Gentile comes to fear God.
Since idolatry was widely considered a grave source of contamination in Judaism and early Christianity, Naaman’s decision to spurn the idols he once worshiped is itself an act of cleansing (cf. Ezekiel 20:7, 23:30, 35:25, Jeremiah 3:9, 7:30, 16:18, 2 Cor 6:15-17, Ephesians 5:3-5, Acts 15:20). Paul, for instance, believed Christ had “washed” former pagans of their demonic idolatry (1 Cor 6:9-7:1) and says this about the soiling effects of idolatry on the human heart:
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity (εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν), to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Naaman was therefore cleansed on two levels. On the physical level his leprosy was washed away and on the spiritual level his moral faculties were purified from the polluting influence of idols. The cleansing of Naaman’s body was in effect a sign pointing to the cleansing of his soul.
So when was Cornelius cleansed?
When we read Acts 10 in light of Naaman’s story, the answer to our initial questions become clear. Cornelius’ cleansing occurred not when he put his faith in Christ, nor when he received the Holy Spirit, nor when Christ died and was raised; Cornelius was cleansed when he rejected idols and began to serve Israel’s God. Commenting on Luke’s description of Cornelius as “God-fearing” and “devout,” James Dunn writes “Cornelius already believed Israel’s God to be the one true God” (Beginning from Jerusalem, 391). Consequently, the message Peter delivers to Cornelius does not require mention of Jewish monotheism or pagan idolatry (10:34-43). When compared to Paul’s message in Athens, a message which waxes eloquently on God and idols (cf. Acts 17:22-31), Peter preaches as if to a Jew, not to a pagan. So in as much as Cornelius was an idol-averse, God-fearing Gentile, God had made him fit for association with and membership in God’s people. The spiritual leprosy that had once prevented Cornelius from entrance into Israel’s camp was washed away when he shunned his idols and began to serve the one true God.
The import of Peter’s enlightened declarations also shift under this framework. Peter’s realization that he should “not call anyone profane or unclean” must be taken with a more limited scope. God did not purify Gentiles without exception; he purified those Gentiles who turned from polluted idols to the holy fear of God.
In sum, it seems Peter the Jew associated with Cornelius the God-fearer, not with Cornelius the pagan.