In the book of Acts we see that the gospel starts in Jerusalem then it moves through Judea, Samaria, and then out to the nations. It is at the point that the gospel begins to go out to the nations that conflicts begin to arise. Do the nations need to be fully converted to enter into God’s Kingdom? Yes…and no. Yes, fully converted to Jesus as the Messiah in their hearts, and No to full conversion as Jews. God had given the Holy Spirit to those coming out of the nations. The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit without being circumcised according to the tradition of the Jews. When Paul and Barnabas see this happening Paul reasons that circumcision is not necessary to enter faith in the Messiah. So where is the line? God showed Peter that he considered the Gentiles acceptable (Kosher). So Peter could not call unacceptable what God called acceptable. So Paul and the Apostles could not deny Gentiles entrance into the Kingdom if God had already granted them access. So this is the issue of the first council in Jerusalem concerning the Gentiles entering the commonwealth of Israel.
This is the position of the Pharisee’s who believed in Jesus as the Messiah:
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” -Acts 15:5 (ESV)
Notice they wanted the leaders of the church to issue an ‘order’. Notice also that they did not believe that the Law of Moses had been done away with. They had accepted the Messiah and they were continuing to follow everything they had been taught. They had made Jesus their Messiah which means they studied His teachings as fervently as they studied the Torah. It also shows that they would not have followed a Messiah who did not take the Torah seriously or taught others to break it. We know this because they wanted the Gentiles who were coming in to be as fervent as they were.
So the debate is joined.
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. -Acts 15:7-9 (ESV)
Peter was the first to go speak to the Gentile Cornelius. He took some heat for it but God had used a vision to show that the Gentiles were acceptable (Kosher). Peter already knew what kosher food was, so God wasn’t try to teach him what to eat. God was showing Peter which people were acceptable to Him. This would be the first instance of the gospel going to someone outside the commonwealth of Israel. So the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius and his entire household. God had accepted them so Peter could not reject them. Then Peter goes on to say this:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? -Acts 15:10 (ESV)
Now we see that Peter is still following the Torah (Law of Moses). Pharisees would not be joining their ranks if he was not. Peter says what I hear from many Jews. The Law is impossible to follow! (even for the most righteous Jew). It does not mean that they did not try their best, but in the end they knew it was ultimately impossible and so they needed God’s mercy and grace. This was well known both before and after Jesus walked the earth. Then Peter says the following:
But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” -Acts 15:11
So the logic goes if the Pharisees are relying on the grace and mercy of God, and the Gentiles are relying on the same thing will they not all be justified the same way? The obvious answer is, “YES!” So then it is not necessary for them to follow the Law (Torah) perfectly to enter in. The Jews had the Law for close to 1,500 years at this point. They had been perfecting their walk for all this time. That being the case they had a deep appreciation for, love of, and desire to follow it to the best of their ability. Even so, they knew they fell short of it. So what hope did Gentiles just coming in 1,500 years later have of matching what the observant Jews of the time were doing? The answer is slim to none. So it was not how practiced a person was at following the commandments, but their heart for God. If God cleansed their heart from sin then they would begin to walk in the commandments.
The council falls silent. Then Paul and Barnabas relate how the Holy Spirit is being poured out on the Gentiles. After this James recalls the writings of the prophet Amos:
“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.” -Acts 15:16-18 (ESV)
The reason God will rebuild the house of David (through the Messiah) is so that the Gentiles will seek the LORD. So the precedent was set by God through the prophets that the Gentiles would come to Him and learn His ways. So the only matter left is, how? James continues and gives an answer to that question:
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, -Acts 15:19 (ESV)
In other words, “Don’t hassle the Gentiles and give them a lot of grief if they turn to God!” James offers this as a starting point for Gentiles coming into the faith:
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. -Acts 15:20 (ESV)
How do we know this is a staring point? It is because the next verse is this:
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 (ESV)
The Law of Moses is read every week in the synagogue. Anyone can go and hear how to follow the commandments. They will get the information about the Law that they need. So what did the apostle James think was so important that the new converts should start to observe right away?
1. Things polluted by idols. Idolatry was to be avoided. Images, statues, temples, food, anything having to do with false worship. That is still true today, all believers should put away any form of idolatry.
2. Sexual immorality. – Sexual sins should immediately be forsaken. Pornography, fornication , adultery, homosexuality, etc. That is also true today, all believers should live lives free of sexual sin.
3. From what has been strangled and from blood. -This one is a bit more curious in that most of us do not know what James is talking about here. James is talking about a commandment given in Scripture in regards to meat. The animal could not be strangled because then the blood would remain in the meat. When the animal is bled out by a quick stroke of the knife the heart pumps the majority of the blood out of the animal. So an animal that is not strangled but is slaughtered by a knife has much less blood remaining in it. The rest of the blood is taken care of through other preparation methods. The reason for this is because:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. -Leviticus 17:11 (ESV)
For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off. – Leviticus 17:14
and not just for Israel but anyone living with them as well, “Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them…” (Leviticus 17:13a). God also gave this commandment to Noah:
But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. -Genesis 9:4 (ESV)
So this is an important commandment to the LORD. The question remains, “Where would one get such meat?” There is only one place you could get this type of meat, and that is from a Jewish butcher. There are very specific laws handed down for the slaughter of animals for human consumption according to the Jews. These laws were in place at the time of Jesus. The only people on the planet who slaughtered animals according to the Bible at the time (and even today) were Jews. So there is only one place where you could get meat that fulfilled the Apostle’s criteria here in Acts –the Jews. They were telling the Gentiles to eat kosher meat!
You may disagree with this point but it is pretty clear in the text and even in early Christian history that this was the case. Here is a passage from the Didache (The Teaching of the 12 Apostles):
See that no one cause thee to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teacheth thee. For if thou art able to bear all the yoke of the Lord, thou wilt be perfect; but if thou art not able, what thou art able that do. And concerning food, bear what thou art able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly on thy guard; for it is the service of dead gods. -Didache 9.1-3
Concerning the whole ‘yoke of the Lord’ that is following all that Jesus taught. ‘And concerning food’ they were to do what they were able to do. So it was not the intent of the council of Jerusalem or the Apostles to ‘do away’ with what the Bible taught in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. They were giving a starting point by which those who were already saved by the grace of God could begin to walk in His commandments. Never did any Apostle ever teach that following the commandments led to salvation. However, they all believed fervently that salvation would lead to following the commandments.
So the council came to these conclusions:
- We all come to God the same way, by His mercy and grace.
- We are all saved and partakers in the family of God if we have our hearts cleansed no matter how well we follow the commandments.
- Some are better at following the commandments than others.
- Those who are not as practiced should not be discouraged or feel unwelcome.
- Those entering should observe the minimum standard set forth by the Apostles.
- Those entering should strive to understand more and do more as they are able.
No where does this council abrogate the commandments of God. Nor do they release themselves from following anything previously written in the Scriptures. Nor do they destroy the Law in any way. They uphold the Law by allowing the Gentiles to come in and learn as they go, and by not keeping them from salvation or following the commandments. On the contrary they encouraged both.