Pharisees: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses.”
James: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
The council went with James – and with the Holy Spirit.
Yet, what they wrote to the Gentiles is one of the most puzzling letters that Christians have attempted to interpret. Modern day Christians at least. No doubt, the original readers knew exactly why the Jerusalem Church communicated what they did.
They distanced themselves from those who were demanding that Gentile Christians submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses. “We didn’t send them,” they said.
Then they said that all they wanted was for the Gentiles to:
1. Abstain from food polluted by idols
2. Abstain from sexual immorality
3. Abstain from the meat of strangled animals
4. Abstain from blood
Those four things are recorded by Luke in the conversation in Jerusalem, his reproduction of the letter sent with Paul and the others (15:29), and later in remarks by Jerusalem Christians about how Paul can be protected when he arrives in Jerusalem (21:25).
Why did they ask the Gentiles to abstain from these things? At least three arguments stand out (see: John Proctor, “Proselytes and Pressure Cookers: The Meaning and Application of Acts 15:20,” International Review of Mission, vol. 85). These things could have their origin in Leviticus 17-18 where sojourners in Israel (Gentile God-fearers) are given instructions about living in the Promised Land. Others have suggested that these are linked to the commands given after Noah’s flood. They suggest that these predate the covenant with the Hebrews and are, therefore, for all people and for all time. Still others, including me, suggest that eating food sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, eating the meat of strangled animals, and eating blood were practices affiliated with idol worship that were particularly offensive to Jews. Abstention from these things was important, then, for the sake of continued fellowship with Jewish Christians. Secondly, abstention was important because while Jews were not to mix Christianity with the law of Moses, neither were Gentiles to mix Christianity with their idolatrous practices of life before Christ.
Jesus had said, “"No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old” (Luke 5:36; NIV). I think that helps us understand what James and the others intended with their abstentions. Basically, they were saying “We are not requiring that you mix Moses with your turn to God. Don’t mix your idol worship with it either. That will make it easy on all of us.”
Are you mixing any of your own preferences with your approach to God and expecting others to conform? Keep it simple for yourself and others. That’s Life at Work!