Are the commands of Acts 15:20 still applicable today?

by Luke Wayne
1/14/2019

In Acts 15, the Apostles and other leaders of the church in Jerusalem gather to discuss the issue of whether or not Gentile Christians must be circumcised or submit to the law of Moses. The unanimous decision was that Gentiles need not do so and are free in these matters. They, however, did charge such believers to abstain from a few specific things, not for salvation, but rather "if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well," (Acts 15:29). There is some debate among Christians today as to whether these commands were meant as temporary concessions to Jewish sensibilities for the sake of unity or whether they were binding moral principles applicable to all generations.

The Texts

These commands, first introduced in Acts 15:20, are actually listed three separate times in the book of Acts:

"but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood," (Acts 15:20).

"that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell," (Acts 15:29).

"But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication," (Acts 21:25).

Luke (the author of Acts) tells of James proposing to write these commands to the Gentile believers, then tells of the Jerusalem church actually writing them, and then later mentions James commenting on the fact that they had written them. Though the order in which they are listed changes, the same commands are repeated each time. Such explicit and full repetition seems to put an emphasis on the specific content of these commands, an indication (at the very least) of their importance at the time. So what are we to make of these commands? What do they mean for us today?

Not for Salvation

Before addressing the two major positions, it is important to point out that these commands are not offered as a way to obtain or to maintain one's salvation. In context, Peter plainly states:

"He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are," (Acts 15:9-11).

Peter makes it clear that the Gentiles were cleansed by faith. They were saved immediately upon believing and apart from any works. Even Jewish believers who were still keeping the law were saved by the grace of Jesus Christ apart from the law. Thus, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. The issue is simply how the believer ought to best honor God in an obedient life. For Gentiles then, these guidelines were to help them in faithful living. I will contend that they do the same for us today. But the guidelines were not requirements which must be fulfilled in order to gain or to keep salvation. Salvation is the gift of God in Jesus Christ and we come to it entirely by faith.

Temporary Concessions for the Sake of Unity?

The typical position you will hear from most evangelical scholars today is that the rules laid out by James and the brothers at Jerusalem were only given out of sensitivity to contemporary Jewish convictions and were not meant to be binding instructions for future generations of believers. This view is not new. It was articulated, for example, nearly 400 years ago by John Calvin:

"This necessity reached no farther than there was any danger lest the unity should be cut asunder. So that, to speak properly, this necessity was accidental or external; which was placed not in the thing itself, but only in avoiding of the offense, which appeareth more plainly by abolishing of the decree. For laws made concerning things which are of themselves necessary must be continual. But we know that this law was foredone by Paul so soon as the tumult and contention was once ended, when he teacheth that nothing is unclean, (Romans 14:14;) and when he granteth liberty to eat all manner of meats, yea, even such as were sacrificed to idols, (1 Corinthians 10:25). Wherefore, in vain do they gather any cloak or color out of this word to bind men’s consciences, seeing that the necessity spoken of in this place did only respect men in the external use lest there should any offense arise thereupon, and that their liberty before God might stand whole and sound."1

Or as a recent scholar more concisely put it:

"These requirements may have been intended to facilitate social intercourse between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Some Gentile practices were especially offensive to Jews, and if these practices were given up, Jewish Christians would feel that an obstacle in the way of table-fellowship and the like with their Gentile brethren had been removed."2

This is a compelling position held by many brilliant men of the faith and should not be swiftly dismissed. Yet, carefully considered, there are good reasons to think that these thrice repeated commands were, indeed, meant as enduring moral prohibitions for the churches of all generations and not just as temporary concessions for the sake of immediate unity.

Blood and Things Strangled

The New Testament makes it clear that Gentile Christians are not bound by the Mosiac dietary laws. No animal God created is "unclean" to us. If any plant or animal is safe to eat, we are free to eat it. This does not mean that there are no moral restrictions on eating. We are not to be gluttons, for example, and cannibalism is off limits, but there are no "unclean" animals today. I can eat bacon-wrapped crab cakes with a clean conscience. The prohibition on eating meat with the blood still in it (i.e., things "strangled," things killed without draining the blood) is of a different sort than prohibitions on pork or shellfish. As a Gentile Christian grafted into the New Covenant, I am free to eat the meat of a rabbit, a pig, even a horse if such a need arose, but I still ought not to eat that meat without first draining the blood from the animal.

The command against eating blood goes back to long before the law of Moses. It is part of the covenant God made with Noah and all his descendants after him (i.e. all mankind). where he says:

"Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man. As for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it," (Genesis 9:3-7).

God has declared life to be sacred, and life is in the blood. To shed a man's blood is wicked. For the same reason even animal blood, while we may shed it, we may not eat it. We must drain the blood before eating the meat (which all modern butchers do). Interestingly, when God promises the future salvation of the Gentiles, He does so in words like:

"And I will remove their blood from their mouth And their detestable things from between their teeth. Then they also will be a remnant for our God, And be like a clan in Judah" (Zechariah 9:7).

Likewise, we see these same four things paired together when God pronounces judgment on Judah at the exile:

"You eat meat with the blood in it, lift up your eyes to your idols as you shed blood. Should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you commit abominations and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?" (Ezekiel 33:25-26).

Shedding blood, idolatry, eating meat with blood in it, and sexual immorality. Thus, to me, it seems that the New Testament does not revoke the universal Noahic command against eating blood any more than it revokes the universal Noahic command against murder. That is what is going on with the restrictions on "blood" and on "things strangled" (i.e., killed without draining the blood).

Things Polluted by Idols

Now, when it comes to the issue of "things polluted by idols," the issue does get a little more complicated. This is the primary issue that drives most modern, Bible-believing Christian scholars to take the position they do. Paul seems in places to say that eating meat offered to idols is actually permissible and that it is only because of the sensitivities of others' convictions that we abstain. For example, he writes to the church at Corinth:

"Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, 'This is meat sacrificed to idols,' do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks? Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God," (1 Corinthians 10:25-32).

Isn't that saying exactly what Calvin and F.F. Bruce said above? If that is all we had, it would sure appear to be. Yet, other passages seem to go another direction on the matter. Note, for example, what Christ says through John in Revelation:

"But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols," (Revelation 2:20).

And even Paul himself says:

"What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?" (1 Corinthians 10:19-22).

Paul says that eating food that is a part of idolatrous worship is participating in demons in the very same way that eating the bread and cup of communion is participating in Christ, and Paul forbids doing the former for those who do the latter. So, then, why does Paul elsewhere (in the very same chapter) seem to say that it is a mere matter of personal conscience? The reason is that Paul, as the Apostle shepherding the Gentiles, had to work out more careful distinctions not plainly stated in the general rule. Paul had to explain, in a world so full of idolatry, what was and was not truly polluted by idols. To put it briefly, Paul drew a line between food actively being used in idolatrous worship and food that had at one time been sacrificed to an idol but was now being sold in the market as common meat or served by your unbelieving neighbor as a common meal. The issue is not that the food had become ceremonially unclean. The meat itself is fine. The issue is to avoid eating in a context in which the eating was, in fact, a form of worship to the idol. Thus, it is always wrong to join in an overtly idolatrous feast where eating is perceived as an act of worship. It is not objectively wrong, however, to eat common meat from the market that was sacrificed to an idol at some earlier time. If, however, one's conscience is bothered even by this, you should abstain for the sake of conscience without binding your brother who does not share your concern. Likewise, you should not flaunt your freedom by eating something in front of a brother who may have stricter personal convictions on the matter than you do.

Sexual Immorality

Little needs to be said about the command against sexual immorality since every sincere Christian on all sides of the issue would agree that sexual immorality is wrong. Still, it is worth noting that the very presence of a clearly universal moral prohibition such as this on the Acts 15 list does lend itself to the idea that this list was not meant as a mere cultural concession for first-century Gentiles trying to get along with first-century Jews. It is also worth noting that, like the prohibitions related to blood and idolatry, sexual immorality is specifically singled out in the Old Testament as a moral absolute applicable even to unbelieving nations who have not received the law. In Leviticus 18, for example, after giving a lengthy and detailed list of sexual sins and prohibitions, God says:

"Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants," (Leviticus 18:24-25).

The pagan Canaanites were guilty of sexual immorality and that was, indeed, the reason God was taking the land away from them and giving it to Israel! This was something already wrong for all people to do even before the law of Moses was delivered, and it is still universally wrong for all people of all nations today. These are the kind of universal moral prohibitions with which Acts 15 was dealing. Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to come under the law of Moses, but that did not mean "everything goes" either. There are still things that are wrong, wholly apart from the Sinai covenant.

 

 

 

  • 1. John Calvin, Commentary on Acts - Volume 2, Acts 15:22-29
  • 2. F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Send the Light Publishing, 1981) 185