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Posts Tagged ‘acts 15’

I want to share with you some teaching today that speaks to the big picture of how we interpret the Scriptures, but which also deals with some specific aspects of Christian obedience; things that are rarely or never talked about.

We begin with the big picture question, which is: Are Christians supposed to keep the Law of Moses? For instance:

  • Are Christians to keep the Sabbath, that is, Saturday, as a day of rest?
  • Should Christian men be circumcised?
  • Should Christians eat only clean foods and abstain from foods like pork?
  • Should we maintain ritual purity for example, if we touch a dead body?
  • Should Christians tithe according to the precepts of the Law?

It seems like there has always been confusion among Christians about the role of the Law of Moses in the Christian life. Didn’t Jesus change things? Didn’t Paul teach that it is no longer binding?

Well, I want us to look at the answer given by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28-29. But first we have to note, by way of background, that . . .

Jewish Christians continued to follow the Law of Moses

Jesus himself was Law observant, all the way down to wearing four tassels on his garment (Deuteronomy 22:12/Matthew 9:20). Oh, he stretched some things now and again, like touching a leper (Matthew 8:1-4; Numbers 5:1-4), but this was to heal the leper. And even in this case, he told the leper to follow the Law of Moses to be certified as clean.

And not only was Jesus Law observant, he also taught his Jewish disciples to keep the Law. As he said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them.” (See Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23).

Now for sure, Jesus rejected the human traditions, or the “tradition of the elders” (the oral law) which the Pharisees used as a guide for keeping the Law (Matthew 15:1-9). Rather, he gave his disciples his own teaching and example as a guide (Matthew 23:10) which clarifies and perfects the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17). So for instance, with regard to the Sabbath: his Jewish disciples should keep it, but recognize that mercy has priority, which is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14).

Paul also kept the Law. James, the brother of Jesus, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem, who was himself famous for his strict observance of the Law, bears witness that Paul was Law observant in Acts 21:20-24:

  • When Paul came to visit Jerusalem, James spoke of how the Jewish Christians there were zealous for the Law.
  • But, they had been told a rumor that Paul was teaching Jewish Christians to forsake the Law.
  • To counter this, James had Paul publicly go through a Mosaic vow ceremony.

James says in v. 24, “Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”

Now, these Jewish believers, didn’t keep the Law in order to be saved by it. Jesus is the Messiah and Savior. They kept the Law because Moses is the authority that God has placed over them, just as we submit to the authorities that God has placed over us and the laws of our land. And the authority of Moses for Jews will not pass away until the coming of the kingdom in its fullness, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:18.

The Jerusalem Council

But what about Gentiles? Should they keep the Law? There was a heated debate about this because Jesus didn’t leave any specific instructions on this point.

  • Some taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and become fully Law observant Jews in order to be accepted by God (Acts 15:1; 5). [To be circumcised is to commit to obey the whole Law of Moses – Galatians 5:3]
  • Paul and others taught that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised and keep the Law, to be fully accepted by God (Acts 15:2).

So, there was a gathering to settle this issue, the apostles, along with the elders of the church of Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas, called the Jerusalem Council.

They decided that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15:13-19). As Peter said:

  • Gentile Christians, like Jewish Christians, are “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).
  • They are “disciples” of Jesus, that is, they obey Jesus’ teaching (Acts 15:10).
  • They have received the “Holy Spirit” as a witness to their salvation (Acts 15:8).

But Jewish Christians would continue to keep the Law, not for salvation, but in submission to Moses.

So this helps us to understand the bigger picture of Scripture, why some passages sound like the Law is to be followed; talking to Jewish Christians (see again Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23). And why others sound like the Law does not need to be followed; Paul talking to the Gentile Christians.

Now to the issue of specific behaviors – that are rarely if ever talked about. It was also decided at the Jerusalem council that there was one portion of the Law that Gentile Christians should observe.

We see this in what is called . . .

The Apostolic Decree

. . . a letter that was sent out to the Gentile churches. It says in part,

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” – Acts 15:28-29.

This letter gives three essentials that apply to everyone: 1) Do not eat idol food. 2) Do not eat blood (or what is strangled, because the blood hasn’t been drained). 3) Do not practice sexual immorality

If we ask, where do these essentials come from? It is quite clear. These refer back to Leviticus 17-18, which talk about these same issues in the same order as in the Apostolic Decree: 1) Idol food – Leviticus 17:1-9; 2) Eating blood – Leviticus 17:10-16; 3) Sexual immorality – Leviticus 18.

So the decision of the council was that, Gentile followers of Jesus do not need to submit to the Law of Moses, except for a particular part of it that comes from Leviticus 17-18.

What does this mean practically in terms of specific behaviors? 1. Do not eat idol food. This isn’t a pressing issue in our context today. It was huge for them, and still is in some parts of the world. But basically it means, if you know the food has been offered up to an idol, don’t eat it.

2. Do not eat blood. This means that our meat needs to be butchered so that the blood is drained, which is the common practice today. (The widespread acceptance of the Decree in the Gentile churches and the later influence of the church on society no doubt played a role in this being common today). And also don’t eat dishes that have blood in them.

3. Do not practice sexual immorality. This seems self-explanatory, but Leviticus 18 gets pretty specific, you know, beyond just the basics, (you can read the whole chapter yourself, I rate it at PG 13 or above). Here are three examples:

  • Do not marry close relatives – vs. 6-18
  • No sexual relations during menstruation – v. 19
  • Do not engage in same-sex acts – v. 22

Alright, as I said, some of this is never really talked about, but this is God’s will for our lives. As the letter said, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (the apostles and elders)” – Acts 15:28. It really doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Why these three items?

It’s because they teach a ‘creation righteousness’ that is not Jewish specific, but applies to all people, everywhere.

  • Why can’t we eat food sacrificed to idols? Because God is our Creator and we are to have no participation with idolatry or false gods, including idol food. This applies to everyone, since God created everyone.
  • Why can’t we eat blood? Because the life is in the blood, (Leviticus 17) and the life belongs to the Creator. Originally God only allowed a vegetarian diet. God gave Noah permission to eat meat, but then only without the blood (Genesis 9:4). So this command applies to all the children of Noah; that is, to all people.
  • Why can’t we engage in sexual immorality? Because our Creator has established the boundaries of sexual behavior. And as the end of Leviticus 18 makes clear, Gentiles are held accountable to these boundaries. The Canaanites were judged, in part, for the sexual immorality described in Leviticus 18. These boundaries apply to all people.

Finally, what about Paul and the Apostolic Decree?

Well, he was there, he shared, and he supported the Decree – which, in fact, vindicated his position. Act 16:4 says, “As Paul and Timothy went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.”

He supported the specifics of the Decree. Now, there is no discussion of eating blood in Paul or anywhere else in the New Testament, other than Acts 15. But on the issue of idol food, Paul taught his people not to knowingly eat food sacrificed to idols – I Corinthians 10:14-22. (See also Revelation 2:20). And on the issue of sexual immorality, numerous examples could be given. Here are two: no incest (I Corinthians 5:1) and no same-sex behavior (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

He also supported the general principle of the Decree. This gets us back to the big picture level. All were to follow Jesus’ teaching and example as Christians, and then according to the Apostolic Decree:

  • Jewish Christians continued to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 21:20-24)
  • And Gentile Christians were only to keep the three essentials from the Law (Acts 21:25)

Paul affirms this in I Corinthians 7:17-20:

“Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision in nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

He is saying, if you are a practicing Jew when you become a follower of Jesus, don’t give up your observance of the Law; don’t remove the marks of circumcision. But, if you are a Gentile when you become a follower of Jesus, don’t seek to start obeying the Law of Moses; don’t seek circumcision (at least not as a means of salvation).

Remain in the condition in which you were called, when you were saved. The Jew remains a Jew, the Gentile remains a Gentile. Just make sure, whether Jew or Gentile, that you are obeying God; that you are following Jesus’ teaching and example.

This is the mystery of God, according to Paul, that was hidden from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 3:1-6).

God has chosen to put together both Jews and Gentiles as the people of God.

  • Gentiles should not be forced to become Jews, which is what Paul fought.
  • And Jews should not be forced to be Gentiles, which is pretty much what has happened ever since the time of Paul.

Both Jews and Gentiles come together in Christ as one, on an equal footing.

____________

A footnote: The teaching of the decree was followed in Gentile churches for centuries as is evidenced in various church manuals and other writings:

  • No idol food: Didache 6:3; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:21.
  • No eating blood: Irenaeus Fragments xiii; Tertullian Apology 9; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:20.
  • No sexual immorality: The Apostolic Tradition 16:20; Apostolic Constitutions 6:5:28 forbids same-sex practice, intercourse during menstruation, etc. and appeals to Leviticus 18.

For an earlier version of this teaching – Should Christians Obey the Law of Moses

For a version of this teaching that focuses on sexual immorality and in particular same-sex practice – The voice of the Spirit and the Jersusalem Council on same-sex practice

William Higgins

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