Acts 15:19-20 – “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
In isolation, it can seem like James means Gentiles should only try to obey four aspects of God’s law and nothing more. However, this interpretation causes new problems. For example, here are some questions that arise if Gentiles are only required to obey these four laws and nothing more:
- Beastiality (human sex with animals) is forbidden in the Torah (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 18:23, Leviticus 20:15-16 and Deuteronomy 27:21) but not mentioned specifically anywhere in the New Testament. Does Acts 15 mean beastiality is now permitted for Christians?
- For those that believe the law of God was abolished by Jesus, did Jesus only abolish most of the law with the exception of these four rules?
- Why didn’t any of the Ten Commandments make the list of four?
There’s another solution that doesn’t create a host of new problems.
According to Dr. Craig Keener (who wrote a 5744 page commentary on the book of Acts), the issue in this part of the meeting was the minimum requirements for Gentiles to have table fellowship with Jews; something that had been previously forbidden by the tradition of some Jewish leaders (54:19 in this video). The table fellowship issue was mentioned in Acts 11.
“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.“” (Acts 11:2-3)
We also find evidence of the table fellowship issue in the confrontation between Paul and Peter mentioned in Galatians 2:11-14.
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Paul was right. Peter should not have refused table fellowship with Gentiles because God had given him a vision to show that he should not call any person unclean.
“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
Regardless of what the circumcision party said, table fellowship with Gentiles was fully sanctioned by God via Peter’s vision. Still, many Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus had little understanding of God’s law and had been immersed in idol worship their whole lives. Their background often included sacrifices to idols, unions with prostitutes (or even becoming a prostitute), eating what had been strangled and consuming blood. Sound familiar?
In Acts 15, the four laws mentioned were common practices associated with worshiping idols in Greek temples. This was not a declaration of every possible thing new Gentile converts must do to please God. It was the place to begin. Step 1: Stop practicing the ways of idol worship.
First century documents outside of Biblical writings also provide evidence that forsaking idolatry became the minimum requirement to associate with Jews.
One document refers to a status known as “half converts”. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia explanation of a proselyte, “By “half-converts” is meant a class of men and women of non-Jewish birth who, forsaking their ancestral pagan and polytheistic religions, embraced monotheism and adopted the fundamental principles of Jewish morality, without, however, submitting to circumcision or observing other ceremonial laws.”… “Their number was very large during the centuries immediately preceding and following the fall of Jerusalem; Ps. xv. has been interpreted as referring to them.” … “In order to be recognized as one of these the neophyte had publicly to assume, before three “ḥaberim,” or men of authority, the solemn obligation not to worship idols, an obligation which involved the recognition of the seven Noachian injunctions as binding (‘Ab. Zarah 64b; “Yad,” Issure Biah, xiv. 7).”
“The more rigorous (rabbis) seem to have been inclined to insist upon such converts observing the entire Law, with the exception of the reservations and modifications explicitly made in their behalf. The more lenient were ready to accord them full equality with Jews as soon as they had solemnly forsworn idolatry.“
The views of the rigorous rabbis compared to the lenient rabbis is just what we see in the Acts 15 discussion. So if separating oneself from idol worship is Step 1, what comes next? We find the game-changing answer in Acts 15:21.
“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:21)
Step 1: Stop practicing the ways of idol worship.
Step 2: Go listen to the words of Moses read in the synagogue to learn the rest of God’s ways.