God’s Word for You
Acts 10:9-11 A vision and a sail
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, February 28, 2020
9 The next day, while they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray at about noon. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he had a vision. 11 He saw heaven being opened, and an object like a huge sail being let down to earth by its four corners.
Luke shows that the vision Peter had, took place while the three emissaries from Cornelius were approaching the city of Joppa. The home of Simon the Tanner had the usual flat roof common to the region, where a family would make what we might call a three-season porch, a guest room furnished with a cot, a table and chairs, lamps, chamber pot, and whatever else a guest might require. Peter used it as a place for private prayer. When he asked for his lunch to be prepared, he saw a vision.
The word for vision here is ekstasis (ἔκστασις). While this is not the same word that was used for the vision of Cornelius in Acts 9:10 (horama, ὅραμα), the two were similar in that they were messages from God that could be seen as well as heard. The difference between the words is this:
A horama (vision, Acts 9:10) is something that is truly seen as opposed to a figment of the imagination. The sight that the apostles saw at the Transfiguration is called a horama by Jesus (Matthew 17:9), and Moses’ vision of the burning bush is also called by this word (Acts 7:31). A horama is something seen by the eyes and not only by the mind or the heart (cp. Exodus 3:2, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up”).
An ekstasis or ‘ecstasy’ is defined by one lexicon as “a state of being, brought about by God, in which consciousness is wholly or partly suspended” (BAGD Second Edition). The ancient physician Galen called ecstasy “a short-lived mania.” It is the Greek translation of “the terror of the Lord” in 1 Samuel 11:7 and 2 Chronicles 14:14, and appears in other places such as Psalm 31:22 (Greek “in my vision/alarm I said…”). Perhaps the distinction we should make here is not that Luke chose one word in one place and another word later on, but that (as is more likely) Cornelius described what he saw as a horama (a vision he saw), but Peter described what he saw as an ekstasis (a sight he saw while ‘out of his body’ for a short time).
The thing Peter saw is described by two words that have connections to sailing ships. The first term is a skeuos, “an object.” This word can mean a piece of pottery, a vessel, or even a human body (1 Peter 3:7), but it can be used in a technical sense aboard ship for a sail rigged as a sea-anchor (Acts 27:17).
This object is then described as a “sail.” The word othonē (ὀθόνη) can mean a piece of linen such as a garment (Judges 14:14; Hosea 2:5), strips of linen such as those used to wrap the body of Jesus after the crucifixion (Luke 24:12), or the sail of a ship. In the early Christian account of “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” there is an interesting passage: “The fire took the shape of an arch like a ship’s sail (othonē) filled with wind” (MPol 15:2). Many translations of Acts 10:11 call this object a “sheet.” This is not incorrect, but readers unfamiliar with sailing should not think of it as a “sheet” in the nautical sense. In a sailing ship, a “sheet” is not a sail, but a rope used to adjust the corners of a sail. The object here in Peter’s vision is a sheet only in the sense of a bedsheet, or (as is more likely) a huge ship’s sail.
The contents of the sail will be given in the verses that follow, but I thought it would be a good idea to understand some of the words before we get to the animals Peter saw. One of our seminary professors used to tell his classes, “Before a man dares to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ he jolly well had better know just what it is the Lord hath said.” May your understanding of the word of God be ever enriched by your growing understanding of the language of the Holy Scriptures. All of these things were written that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name.
Pastor Timothy Smith