I thought Christians are not under the Law, but now I don’t understand Acts 15. At the Jerusalem council, the churches who brought questions about obeying the Law are told by James that there are some laws, and everyone seems to agree. What’s going on?
The specific references are Acts 15:20 (James’ statement) and v.29 (the written letter), and later in Acts 21:25 we see the instruction was still circulating.
For context, note that Acts describes a transition period. The Lord wisely did not drop His Jewish followers directly into a pile of Pauline letters; they were not ready. Time was needed to establish “the Way” as it was known (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 24:14,22). Of course, the believing Jews received salvation by the Lord’s grace, and not by the Law. But they were allowed to continue in many of their traditions while new teachings were revealed for establishing the Church.
God then opened the Way to Gentiles, which was a stunning development for the Jews. Gentiles had no claim to Abraham and no basis for understanding the Jewish system. Many Gentiles were saved from openly wicked things that they needed to reject, and some struggled with that process. Friction resulted.
Groups of Jewish legalizers arose. They taught that Law-keeping was necessary for salvation, or at least for righteous living. Paul and Barnabas pushed back strongly. A council was convened to search out and publicly confirm the Holy Spirit’s instructions. What standards applied to Gentile believers?
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28–29).
We can observe that these things were referenced in the Law. Why did the council confirm these things for Gentiles? Are these four things really just “Law, but for Christians?” Are they transitional rules only? Let’s take a closer look at each point.
“What has been sacrificed to idols”
After Israel left Egypt and was led into the wilderness, God gave them the Law, starting with the Ten Commandments. These began:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exd. 20:2–5).
The Law prohibited idolatry for Israel. But idolatry was not new; Romans 1 shows how idolatry was at the root of the Gentile world’s departure from God, and there was no excuse for it (Rom 1:20). Idolatry had even been a problem in the families of Israel’s patriarchs. Abraham’s father, Terah, “served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). A notable step in Jacob’s spiritual progress was collecting and burying his household idols before answering God’s call to go worship at Bethel (Gen. 35:1–4). Some of those idols had belonged to his father-in-law (Gen. 31:30–35).
The Greeks and Romans had a pantheon of false deities and the first Gentile believers were saturated in that culture. They needed strong cautions against continuing with those associations, and that meant food was a problem. Idol temples often occupied the center of a public space where vendors might set up booths. Worse, vendors sometimes offered their goods to idols before selling them to the public.1
In Acts 15, the council determined that Gentiles should not eat anything associated with idol worship. A few years later Paul provided a better understanding while writing to the Corinthians. He stated that any food could be freely received from the Lord, since God owns the earth and its produce. But if an idol association was known, it was sometimes necessary to refuse the food. With other believers, there was the risk of tripping someone who had a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8). For any unbelievers who were publicizing their idolatry, it was necessary to stand against it (1 Cor.10:25–32). The food itself was neither good nor bad but the decision to eat must give glory to God.
“And from blood”
Once again, we can find a link to the Law and the offerings:
“If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats 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 for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. No person among you shall eat blood…” (Lev. 17:10–12).
All of Leviticus 17 deals with this topic, and more aspects of the blood and its role in the sacrifices are found elsewhere in the Law. It is important to see this, because Christ’s death as the substitute under the Law’s punishment for sin also required His blood to be offered (Heb. 9:11–28). These connections provide a “pattern of truth” regarding atonement.
But this understanding of blood did not start with the Law. When Cain murdered Abel, God told him “the voice of your brother’s blood cries up to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). When Noah was first given the right to eat animal flesh for food, he was prohibited from eating the blood (Gen. 9:4). The unique value of blood in association with life was something God intended for the whole human race to understand and respect. It was something that Gentiles regularly violated, and Gentile believers needed a reminder that this command was from God for all people.2
“And from what has been strangled”
This one is more difficult because I can not find Scripture that directly explains it, and a few commentaries I reviewed had no citations. At minimum, I believe it attaches to the prohibition against eating blood. Traumatic asphyxiation causes severe damage to organs including the circulatory system, and blood may diffuse into other tissue. When an animal is strangled, the preparer typically has no intention of draining the blood, and a full drain may not even be possible after that point.
There may be another application. As noted, strangulation invokes trauma upon the blood and tissues of the animal. The retained blood also causes the meat to spoil much more quickly. So, a strangled animal presents the inner corruption of death. Christian life should exist in contrast to the inner corruption of spiritual death that hangs over this world. The activity of Christ’s life in me should prove that an inward source of life is present. The requirement not to eat strangled animals may be intended as a practical illustration of a spiritual truth.
“And from sexual immorality”
Sexual immorality is arguably the most widespread form of corruption in the human race. It is uniquely destructive and was a major topic that Paul took up with the Corinthian believers: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18).
Once again, the Law had much to say about sexual sins, but the Law did not invent the definition. Sexual immorality is any deviation from God’s pattern, first given in Genesis 3:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That statement is referenced at least five more times in Scripture, including 1 Corinthians 6:16 which is a warning against sexual immorality! Sexual activity is only authorized by God in the context of that one-man, one-woman relationship and it forms “one flesh”—a unique bond and a lifetime union.3
Greek and Roman culture was filled with sexual immorality. In Corinth just a few years later, past sin and present cultural pressure was shaping attitudes and actions in a local gathering of Gentile believers and Paul had to strongly rebuke them. Sadly, today there are many people today who claim to be Christians while justifying all possible deviations from God’s pattern.
Law, commandments, and “the one who keeps My word”
Acts 15 is not giving Law to Christians. Gentiles might be tempted to think that these were just Jewish Laws and they could move beyond them, but these are requirements God has placed upon the whole human race.
Since these principles were also addressed in the Law, the Jews did have a cultural context for obeying them when the gospel was first preached. They were also maintaining their Jewish traditions somewhat adversarially against the Greek and Roman influences. But the power to obey was never found in the Law. Instead, all believers in Jesus Christ are given power to live for Christ by the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:16–26). The Law condemned us, leading to death; Christ died as our substitute and now gives life through His resurrection.
In John 14:21–24, the Lord tells His followers that “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (v.21). For that reason alone, if Christ is enthroned in your life and in mine, then both of us should willingly submit to His requests. But the Lord also wants a deeper relationship. In the same passage of John, He adds: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (v.23). Real love produces the desire to please the other person in every way, and not just waiting for commands.
I hope this discussion was helpful! Acts 15 is a challenging passage, and all of us must be careful to place the Law in its proper context. But if you have another perspective on this passage, or an unanswered question about these issues, please post in the comments section below! The Patterns of Truth team would like to hear from you.
1. Gentile idolaters must have been doing this for a long time, because God required something different from Israel under the Law of Moses. Remember that an ox, lamb, or goat all had prominent roles in the sacrifices and corresponding representations of Christ’s future work. If one of these three animals was killed for food, the Israelite who slaughtered it was supposed to present it before the priest and give up the blood and fat, which the priest then applied to the altar. In giving this commandment, God specifically rebuked another practice Israel had adopted which somehow involved “goat-idols” or “demon images” (depending on the translation of Lev. 17:1–9).
2. There is one more thing people sometimes wonder about with red meat. What is the reddish liquid that comes out of some meat tissues even after a normal slaughter and draining process? It is not blood, but an intracellular transport fluid called myoglobin. Israel was permitted to eat several animals which present myoglobin, so the visual similarity does not need to cause concern.
3. An astute reader might ask, “What about Old Testament polygamy?” I believe we can show, starting again with Genesis 3:24, that this was never God’s plan for human relationships. We should note that the first polygamist in the Bible was from Cain’s descendants (Gen. 4:19), and these generally did not show evidence of faith. But polygamy also continued even with Israel’s patriarchs and leaders. God seems to have tolerated it at the time because He was not yet ready to reveal the “mystery” of what marriage fully represents: the union of Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:22–33). The New Testament places stricter boundaries on how marriages should be formed and maintained, starting with the Lord’s teaching on divorce and adultery (Matt. 19:3–12) and expanded further in the inspired writings of both Paul and Peter.