Instead, we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood. For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat. Acts 15:20-21
Frankly, this is a verse that took me a long time to understand. Reading it, I always interpreted it this way:
From the law, Christians only have to keep four things: eat no meat sacrificed to idols, don’t be sexually immoral, and do not eat meat from strangled animals and blood. Because the Jews from the beginning have read Moses in the synagogues, and as we know from Paul and from experience, it has not worked out. Nobody can keep the law. Jesus has done it, OK, but hey, he is the son of God, and since he has done it, it is fulfilled, and we live under grace.
Worse even, Paul later tells us that if you do not play with the faith of others around you—and your own—, you might well eat idol sacrifices. And today we customarily eat meat that still contains blood as well as blood products. Thus, only sexual morality remains. Could it be that this is why the church today is so big on sexual immorality?
But I have come to read this verse totally different.
Because this reading conflicted with too many other scriptures, especially those telling us that Jesus did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. And the one that says that he is going to give us a new covenant, where the law is not written on stone tablets, but on our hearts.
Great parts of the law have been done away in the new covenant—all of the priestly and ceremonial laws of the levitical priesthood, for example. But other parts remain as strong as ever. Or should we have other gods, take his name in vain, steal and kill?
So, how do I read the verse today?
First, who is the verse directed to?
James said these words at the end of the apostolic counsel in Jerusalem that discussed the question of what burdens to put on new believers, now that heathen had access to the Gospel as well. More to the point, do heathens have to be circumcised to become Christians.
Translated into our language: do heathens have to become Jews, take on the law—as circumcision was the outward sign of it—to become Christians.
And the clear answer was: No.
So what would somebody have to follow as rules to become a Christian?
- Abstain from things polluted by idols—sacrificial meat being just an example.
- Abstain from fornication—extramarital sex, adultery, infidelity, incest, and yes, all sexual forms outside of a relationship between a man and a woman.
- Do not eat strangled animals—killed without the shedding of blood—or the blood itself.
James was clearly establishing a starting point here. This he established with the next sentence. Let me rephrase it:
Because they will hear the rest of the requirements and will be taught to observe a Christian life-style for sure, as the parameters of such a life-style—as given by Moses—are taught, and have been taught in the church for quite a while now every week. Acts 15:21
You know why I misinterpreted the verse at first? Because of the use of synagogue and sabbath.
My mind jumped to the Jewish service on Saturdays immediately. And since the words were directed to the non-Jews, the heathens, that part could only stand in contrast to the first part, telling heathen Christians that they didn’t have to follow the law.
But now, using the new interpretation, things are far more real, yet more complicated too.
Because now, the verse only gives us a starting point of a life long process of sanctification and changing your thinking.
Because now, we have to ask the question: which part of the mosaic law has to be taught, caught, and followed.
And frankly, this is what we need the Holy Spirit for. There is no easy cop out, no way to reason out things—in the details, as it works for the rough chunks.
It seems clear that we do not have to follow—as I said—the levitical ceremonial laws. Nor the laws that are shadows for the true things to come that have already come. What do I mean by that?
According to Paul, circumcision of the flesh is an outward sign of the circumcision of the heart. The circumcision of the heart is prophesied in here:
But this is the agreement which I will make with the people of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law in their inner parts, writing it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people. Jer 31:33
We therefore do not need the outward sign, the shadow any longer.
Think of the Jewish feasts. The true lamb has come. Pentecost was fulfilled. God came to live with us in Tabernacles. We do not have to live in the shadows any more.
And the sabbath? It is a shadow for the rest we have in Jesus. This rest has come, his name is Jesus. We fully have it, yet we do not understand and take hold of it. Thus, in the process of our growth, we still live partly in the shadow and thus keep the Lord’s day. Until we fully grasp the rest that is still available for God’s people today.
And the rest of the law? Do we still have to keep it?
Actually, no. But.
We can live a life circling, swinging from sin to repentance and back.
Or we can grow up and, from an ever growing intimate relationship with God, want, even desire to follow his teachings, rules, laws, principles—how ever you want to call it.
One word to Paul. When he later allowed people to eat sacrificial meat, then only for mature people. How do I know? Mature people care about their next. If they pose a problem for somebody else if eating sacrificial meat, they abstain for the good of the other. And obviously, we abstain from anything that is a problem for ourselves, that we do not feel comfortable with. When we grow, we might come into bigger freedom—and I am not talking about bigger laxness or looseness of conscience.
And again, we need the Holy Spirit to discern.
I do not drink alcohol, because our network works with native people that often have a problem with alcohol.
I do not eat pork, because I don’t like it.
I do not fornicate, because it is and remains sin. No matter what the world thinks.
In practice, the verse gives us a clue what to deal with first when somebody becomes a Christian. Teach them to
- get rid of things that are a gruel to God—esoteric stuff for example.
- get their love life in order.
- change the habits of what they consume.
And then, go from there.
What’s your next step?