Last week I went to lunch with a student here in Edmond, OK. While I rarely get the chance, whenever I can, I go to a stake joint just down the road. I love steaks. After I ordered, the waitress asked the normal question: “How would you like that cooked?” “Medium rare” I responded. As always I am informed that “medium rare” means that it will be very red inside. Translation: it will be bloody. “I know what it means . . . give it to me.” But am I sinning by eating blood? According to James in Acts 15, I may be.
In Acts 15, we find the first council of church history (at least, that we know of). It is sometimes called the “Jerusalem Council”. Let me explain the occasion of the council. In Antioch there were large numbers of Gentiles who had come to the faith. However, there were certain Jewish Christians who were teaching these Gentiles that they had to be circumcised in order to be truly saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas did not like this much (as you can imagine). Therefore, they began to dispute with these Jews. The Christians in Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all with the head honchos (Acts 15:2).
It starts out tremendously. If I was in the crowd at the council, I would have been so excited I probably would have started the wave. Peter nails it with an epic argument for the Gospel of grace: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:10-11; emphasis mine). Kaboom! Issue settled. Let’s go home. Right? Not so fast. James has yet to speak.
After Paul and Barnabas were able to add their 2 cents, James began speaking. And those of us on the side of grace don’t really know what to do. We thought James was on our side, but it is hard to tell. Let me give the play-by-play.
First James affirms that the Gentiles have been called by God just as the Jews had by giving a hat-tip to Peter’s ministry (Acts 15:14). Then he roots the conversion of the Gentiles in Old Testament prophecy (Acts 15:16-18). Good stuff so far. He then seems to fumble the ball with these words: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood (Act 15:19-20). My paraphrase: “Listen boys. Peter was right. We cannot expect the Gentiles to follow the Law that we could not follow. [I wish he would have stopped there] Therefore, let’s just make them do four things: 1) Eat no meat sacrificed to idols, 2) stay away from sexual immorality, 3) no eating animal which are strangled, and 4) no drinking blood.” What is that all about? They cannot abide by the Law, so no circumcision necessary. But here is the three main things that they must do? You chose those four things James? Those four things are the most important? Really? I can understand the sexual immorality stuff, but not the rest. Why not: 1) abstain from selfish living, 2) help the widows, 3) do not neglect the fellowship of believers, and 4) love your children? Or any number of random commands that could have been given. Or just tell them to “remember the poor” as they told Paul to do as they sent him on his way (Gal. 2:10).
I am not the only one who has had some trouble with this. It would seem that some early western scribe did not like James’ choices either, so he changed the text. The three stipulations in the Western Greek text are that Gentile Christians should abstain from idolatry, immorality, and blood (that is, murder). I like that. It let’s me eat my steak without breaking fellowship with my conscience. It also seem to be much more in tune with the Gospel of grace.
So, the queston of the hour: Why did James include these four?
There are a few options here:
1. James was wrong and was being legalistic.
The apostles are not perfect so recording this in the book of Acts is not an endorsement of the stipulations. After all, didn’t Peter have similar scruples that Paul had to confront (Gal. 2:11-14)?
- It is hard to see why Luke would have included this if it were not a legitimate pronouncement.
- Acts 15:22 says that this “seemed good to all the Apostles and elders”. This would include Paul.
- Is seems to still be in practice many years later (Acts 21:25).
2. James was right, but this was only one of those confusing “transitional” or timely issue in the book of Acts.
In other words, like so many confusing transitional occurences like the instant death of Ananias and Sapphria (Acts 5:1-10), the post belief baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2-6), and Peter’s replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15-26), this was not meant to be normative.
- The idea of “transitional” issues in the book of Acts, while necessarily present, is hard to be definite about, especially with this issue.
- It is hard to see how abstaining from sexual immorality is a transitional or timely issue.
3. James was right and these stipulations still apply to believers today.
This would mean that the four requirements were not merely descriptive of what was going then, but prescriptive to all believers of all times. We are not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, eat or drink blood, eat anything that has been strangled, and abstain from sexual immorality.
- It seems to be placing the yoke of a modified law upon all people.
- Paul has no problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols, even calling those who do as “weak” (Rom. 14; see also 1 Cor. 8:4-8).
- I would not be able to enjoy my steak.
4. James was not being legalistic nor transitional, but practical for the sake of fellowship.
These stipulations are included because the issue, at this point, was not a definition of the Gospel, but a way to make fellowship between the believing Gentiles and the believing Jews in Antioch more attainable during the current crisis. While James did not encourage the Gentiles to be circumcised, he did encourage them to keep from being ceremonially defiled. The reason why these four things are singled out is due to the fact that they were particularly heinous to the Jews, making fellowship almost impossible. Therefore James lays down these four things not because of his own scruples, but because of the scruples of the Jews.
- This would make sense of the meat sacrificed to idols, blood, things strangled, but would not make sense with the issue of sexual immorality. How is this a ceremonial thing? It is a moral thing.
- Considering the teachings of Paul on the subject of meat sacrificed to idols, it is hard to see how he would have stood in approval of such a cyclical admonishment which has the potential of obscuring the Gospel of grace.
What do you think? The first is what I was taught long ago. The last is the position taken by most commentators.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]