As Christians, we have been taught that we are no longer under the “Old Testament”, and that the commandments of old have no bearing on us. But what if I told you that the decision made by James in Acts 15 is also from the Old Testament? Acts 15 is most often used as a clear indication that we are free from the Old Laws. And it is generally taught to all Christians that Gentiles, unlike Jews, need to only abstain from the four things decreed in Acts 15:20. If these 4 abstentions were proved to be from the Old Testament, would we see things differently?
In this study, we will attempt to look at the context of Acts 15 and the origins of these four abstentions, making it clear to all of us that James and the Jerusalem Council did not set Gentile converts free from God’s Law, but gave them a good starting point. The four Abstentions are as follows.
Act 15:20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
(Abstain from 1.Pollutions of Idols 2.Fornication 3.Things strangled 4.Blood)
If you want to skip the lead up and the context of the Abstentions, and want to know about the origins of the 4 requirements and their connection to the Old Testament Scriptures, please move on to point no.7 given below. But I highly recommend you follow through, if you have the time on your hands for serious study.
1.Context of the events leading to this decision (Acts 14)
Leading upto Acts 15, we see that Paul and Barnabas sail in their missionary journey, ending up at Antioch (Act 14:26). It is here, in Antioch, that men from Judea come and teach the brothers as written in Acts 15:1.
2. What was the teaching that led to this Jerusalem council meeting? (Acts 15:1)
It is very important to know what exactly these men from Judea were teaching the congregation of Antioch.
Act 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
The teaching was that, “Whoever is not circumcised according to the custom of Moses, cannot be saved”. In other words, “you need to get circumcised to be saved”. This is obviously an unbiblical doctrine which Paul and Barnabas both opposed(Acts 15:2). Nowhere in the Scriptures do God require anyone to get Circumcised as a requirement for Salvation. Even the patriarch Abraham got called by God when he was 75 years old(Gen 12:1-4) but was given Circumcision as only a “sign” of the covenant between God and himself, when Abram was 99 years old (Gen 17:1,11). In a similar fashion, Joshua circumcised the Children of Israel before entering the promised land, as none of them had gotten circumcised along the way in their wilderness journey for 40 years(Jos 5:3-6). Circumcision was a commandment given by God, but nowhere does keeping any of God’s Commandments guarantee us salvation. Salvation, was, is, and ever will be, a free gift of God.
These men from Judea were making a claim that you needed to do a specific act to earn Salvation. It’s like someone saying to new converts that unless you’re baptised, you cannot be saved. Baptism is a commandment, but it does not guarantee us salvation.
3. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2,3)
This dispute led the believers in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, so that they could return back to them with a favorable answer.
4. A question of what basic requirements are needed from a new convert (Acts 15:4-6)
After Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by everyone at Jerusalem, some of the believers of Christ who were from the Sect of the Pharisees (Yes, there were pharisees who believed!) expressed there views on what a new convert should be “required” to do.
Act 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
The view of some of the believers from the sect of Pharisees, was that they should indeed circumcise them and command them to keep God’s commandments. Zealous as this sounds, making or forcing anyone to obey God’s Law does not bring true obedience. This is why the Apostles and Elders considered this question and came to discuss what the basic requirements of a new convert should be (Act 15:6).
5. Peter’s Speech (Acts 15:7-11)
After there were disputes regarding the matter, Peter addresses the council proclaiming how through him, God declared the Gospel to the gentiles and how God did not see any difference between the Jew and the Gentile giving them the Holy Spirit, referring to Cornelius’ household as we see in Act 10.
Acts 15:10 is of special importance as we must clarify what Peter is talking about. He says “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?”. Some Christians believe that the “yoke” Peter is talking about in this verse is the Law/Commandments. This does not make sense as Peter talks about tempting God by placing this yoke on disciples. If the yoke was God’s Commandments, this would mean that Peter is saying that they were tempting God by placing God’s Commandments on the disciples. furthermore, the next verse clarifies what Peter meant. Peter says “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” So the yoke can mean only one thing. Peter was saying that we should not make adherence to God’s Commandments a prerequisite to Salvation. In other words, we are saved through Grace and not through any commandment we keep. (Please note that this does not mean that Peter or any other member of the Council agreed or ever thought that new converts do not have to obey God’s Commandments. The issue was in keeping laws for salvation)
The other part of the statement he made, reads “which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear”. What does Peter mean by this? The religious establishment of his day believed that one could be saved only by keeping God’s Law. This is the yoke he is saying neither their fathers or they could bear. It is Obeying God to earn Salvation. (This fact is true in Orthodox Judaism even today. If someone wants to convert to Judaism, that person must prove that he is keeping God’s Law and be Circumcised prior to being accepted as a follower of Orthodox Judaism)
6. James’ speech and judgement/decision (Acts 15:13-20)
James makes it clear that God indeed had plans to bring Gentiles back to him, giving proof to the council from the Scriptures by quoting Amos 9:11,12 and paraphrasing Isa 45:21(read Isa 45:22 as well to understand James’ point). Finally, James makes his decision known. Firstly, he says that no one should trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God. But that they write asking them to abstain from Pollutions of Idols, Fornication, Things strangled & Blood.
7. Why these specific 4 abstentions and where do we see these in the Scriptures
We must spend a bit of time studying these 4 abstentions and where it comes from. The reason for these 4 abstentions would have originated because of the society they lived in. The abstentions themselves originate from the Old Testament, more specifically Lev Chapter 17&18. Let us read through each of the abstentions looking at the Old Testament origins of these as well.
1.Pollution of idols/Meat offered to idols
The Greek speaking world of the first century was known to be a culture that had many gods. A particular person at that time would worship many gods, depending on the day, season or circumstance. For some YHVH(God Almighty’s name) would have been another god that they could believe in. A restriction on sacrificing and partaking in any rituals to other gods was an understandable abstention. And the origins of this commandment is clearly from Lev 17 where God specifically says not to offer sacrifices to foreign gods, and that whoever does so would be cut off from being one of His people.
Lev 17:7-9 And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations. And thou shalt say unto them, Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers which sojourn among you, that offereth a burnt offering or sacrifice, And bringeth it not unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, to offer it unto the LORD; even that man shall be cut off from among his people.
Fornication or sexual immorality was rampant in the 1st century Greek society. The Congregation in Corinth is said to have a big problem with fornication as it is recorded in 1Cor 5:1. This makes it clear, why James would mention “Fornication” as one of the 4 things to abstain from. And just like the other 3 abstentions, this is also found in the Scriptures. The whole of Leviticus Chapter 18 is descriptive of what sort of sexual activity is abominable to God. (Please read the whole chapter to go through each description. I have provided a shorter version highlighting a few, so as to prove the point. There are many more abstentions described in this portion of Scripture)
Lev 18:6-24 None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD. … Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you:
3. Things Strangled
Just like in the society today, most of the butcheries in the 1st century did not know or adhere to killing an animal in the way which is stipulated in the Scriptures. “Strangled” by it’s mere definition means that it was not bled to death, letting the blood drain out of the meat. God made it clear in the Scriptures that no one was to eat blood. And even gave clear orders on how a person should kill an animal so that its meat could be consumed. Christians erroneously believe that they are free to eat what they like. Not only do we have to eat what is stipulated in the Scripture as “clean”, this abstention of things strangled, means we need to eat things which are prepared according to how it is commanded in Scripture. This abstention is also clearly described in Lev 17.
Lev 17:13 And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.
Eating meat of animals which have been “strangled” is closely connected with “Blood”. If the blood is not drained out properly, the consumer of the meat will inadvertently be consuming blood. This abstention, just like all the others proclaimed by James came from the Scriptures in Lev 17 as shown below. Historians say that most of the ancient pagan rituals even had people consuming blood of animals, to attain strength (such as from a bull). These practices of the first century might have also led James to bring out this abstention specifically.
Lev 17:10-12 And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.
8. Final words from James (Acts 15:21)
Now some of us will have a hard time believing the evidence shown above in the 4 abstentions and their connection to Lev 17&18. Some would say, that it still does not prove that we need to keep any other commandments from the Old Testament. This is why the following verse is of so much importance. James finishes his speech and his decision with why he thinks it is enough to command these 4 abstentions only. He says “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” Why would he use such a statement to finish his speech? We should look at his judgement again, reading it altogether.
Act 15:19-21 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
His judgement hinges on a simple fact. For Moses is preached in every city being read in the synagogues every Sabbath. In other words, he is telling the council that they should not trouble the Gentiles, but only ask them to abstain from 4 things as the rest of the commandments can be heard in every city on every Sabbath. This statement proves two important facts and clears up a major misunderstanding.
1. The Jerusalem Council did not decide that the Gentiles are free from obeying God’s other Commandments
2. They knew all of the Gentile converts would attend synagogue and listen to the Old Testament (Moses) on the Sabbath
If this was not so, there would be no reason for him to make such a statement at the end of his speech as it is recorded in Acts 15:21.
Acts 15 and the decision made by the Jerusalem Council is one of the biggest misunderstood chapters in the New Testament today. I hope you have clearly understood the reason for this decision, the origins of these abstentions in Scripture and that it does not give us freedom to throw out all of God’s other commandments. No one should keep His commandments to earn salvation (which is impossible), but we must obey Him and His Commandments because we love our Heavenly Father. Just because “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not steal” was not mentioned in the decision of James, does not mean Gentiles were exempt from obeying those Commandments. We cannot pick and choose what we obey and what we don’t from God’s everlasting Word, which will not loose even a jot or tittle, till heaven and earth pass away.