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
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon 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. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    67 replies to "Was James Being Legalistic in Acts 15? or “Can I Eat a Rare Steak?”"

    • John Metz

      Thanks for all the responses.

      Charles, you are correct. I think I did misunderstand your post. You, I think if I have it right, were referring to the account of a visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2, which I agree was at an earlier time than Acts 15. Because of that fact, I did not address it in my posts (although I considered it but did not want to bring in more points). Sandwiched between the two visits (Gal 2 & Acts 15) was the incident in Antioch, which was my focus in referencing Gal 2.

      JB: Peter’s hypocrisy was not that he ate with the Jews but that when some came from James, Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles–which was against the vision and commandment he received from the Lord in Acts 10 and faithfully recounted in Acts 15. His actions in Antioch were hypocritical. I do not see support beyond Acts 10 and Gal 2 (negatively) that Peter considered himself a practicing Jew.

      Daniel: I guess we will disagree on this. Actually, the men in Gal 2 did not “claim” to be from James, Paul made the statement flat out. If indeed you hold a high view of scripture, you should not try to bend scripture to your view.
      Daniel, are there any doers of the law who are justified? I think most on this blog agree that justification is by grace though faith and not by works of the law. Your interpretation of Romans indeed sounds like something I think James would say. I never claimed Satan wrote a book of the Bible. I merely used that example to illustrate a point: we should interpret the Bible according to what is being said by whom and why. Do you disagree with this?

      What we need is a clear analysis of the situation involving Acts 15 that takes all the scriptural evidence into consideration. As Daniel said, Paul was strong to call the Judaizers “false brothers” and he never called Peter or James such. The false brothers were indeed false and preached another gospel. Peter and James were not false and neither Paul nor I said they were; there was, however, a dispute that threatened the “truth of the gospel.” Pretty serious I would say. This dispute led to Acts 15 in Jerusalem because Jerusalem, under the influence of James, was the cause of the problem in Antioch.

      Daniel, I have a question for you. If James was the pillar of light and truth you claim, why did he not deal with the false brothers himself but instead countenanced them throughout the early visit to Jerusalem recounted in Gal 2 & during the problem in Antioch?

      Michael, once again I apologize.

    • Daniel

      The “men from James” may indeed be from James. However, it is possible that they still misrepresented James’ theology. From time to time, students can distort the teachings of their mentors.

      During the early visit in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10), James takes Paul’s side and gives him the right hand of fellowship. There is no indication in the text that James approves of the “false brothers” in Gal 2:4.

      In regard to the crisis at Antioch (Gal 2:11-13), James was not in Antioch. I assume that Galatians was written prior to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Therefore, when James does get a chance to deal with this situation (i.e. at the Jerusalem Council), he takes Paul’s side and disagrees with the “certain men from James.”

      I think that it is possible to do the Law. However, this brings up the issue of justification as an “already but not yet” event. In the present time, we are justified by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1-2). However, justification is also a future event. When Christ returns, he will judge the works of men (2 Cor 5:10).

      This future justification will be in accordance with our works (Romans 2:6-11; James 2:24; Matthew 12:37; John 5:28-29). These works are the evidence of saving faith.

    • JB Chappell

      John, it seems to me that Paul spells out what he consider’s Peter’s hypocrisy to be in Gal. 2:14, when he says to Peter: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
      I find this puzzling because:
      1. Paul presents no evidence that Peter “lives like a Gentile”, aside from the fact that he ate exclusively with Jews when the folks “from James” were around, but felt free to eat with Gentiles otherwise (which he probably felt comfortable doing because of his personal revelation/dream in Acts 10). But from Acts 10 it would also seem that Peter considers himself an observant Jew.
      2. There is no evidence that he forced Gentiles to follow Jewish customs.
      You claim that Peter was being hypocritical because he “refused” to eat with the Gentiles, but i only see evidence that he chose to do otherwise under certain social conditions. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but to me this doesn’t demonstrate hypocrisy. It could also demonstrate that Peter was utilizing the “weaker brother” principle, or that he was fickle, buckling under the pressure… and as for the latter, well, we kind of already knew that about him!

    • John

      Either way, I can’t see that it has anything to do with rare steak. Cooked blood is still blood, but I don’t think a bit of blood in meat is what Jews prohibited.

    • JRPrice

      I’m happy to inform you that according to the Jewish laws of Kashrut (the laws determining what is and isn’t kosher) that medium rare is the rarest you can go and still be kosher! So, enjoy!

    • Isha

      The part that convicts me the most is in verse 28 where the authority of the Holy Spirit is mentioned! Do we dare say that the Holy Spirit was wrong? Oh no no no. There must be something to this, and just because the world around us does or does not do something doesn’t mean that we as Christians should follow.

    • JB Chappell

      I understand your trepidation, but I would point out that saying that something *seemed good* to the Holy Spirit is not quite the same thing as saying “Thus saith the Lord!” Regardless, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that Christians are held to a different standard. If the Holy Spirit were to say “Don’t eat rare steak,” then we shouldn’t. The question, of course, is that what was said? Probably not.

    • Rich

      I believe Paul addressed the eating of meat in the book of Romans. He stated that he who eats meat must eat of faith because he that eats not of faith is damned if he eat. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

    • J Scott

      Like most I like view number 4 with one caveat. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that all four of the things James instructs the gentile converts to observe must all one singular theological motive. I don’t know any Greek or Hebrew and am not schooled in theology from any formal educational process so I may be missing something but I see a modified view of number 4 or perhaps a 5th option however you might classify it.

      It seems unanimously clear that;
      -The council is speaking to the gentile converts.
      -The council is addressing some disagreements between gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity.
      – The central theme and motive for most or perhaps all of these instruction is based in preserving fellowship and doing due diligence to avoid offending other believers of mixed backgrounds.

      The question I have is why must we assume all four of the itemized instructions are strictly for preserving unity? Most gentiles of this society would not necessarily be aware of or have a sensitivity to Jewish laws, customs and morality.

      Regarding the “refraining from sexual immorality” I have to wonder if this issue may not have immediately been assumed to be wrong by very new converts. It would be unexpected to me for a gathering of the apostles to limit themselves to one and only one underlying issue that could undermine the church. Perhaps there were other issues of concern that were identified to the Apostles beforehand. It would seem prudent to address this issue as well and at the same time if it was on James radar. Is it possible that some sexual immorality was not immediately abandoned by recent gentile converts which along with the other three concerns were understandably a point of contention for Jewish Christians?

      Just a thought but feel free to correct me if there is strong reliable evidence that would indicate all four instructions to the gentiles had to all be supported by one and only one purpose.

    • Jeff Ayers

      Both the Acts 15 and Acts 21 passages dealing with the 4 “commands” to the gentiles are tied in with gentiles not being an offence to the Jew.

      Both times the commands were given , they were iterated by James.
      And both times the commands for the Gentiles was specifically tied in with not offending the Jews.

      It is SIGNIFICANT that James tells you the reason for the 4 commands to the Gentiles:

      “FOR” (because of, the reason thereof)
      Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

      These that preach Moses and listen in the Synagogues are JEWS!!

      So the point is there is a 5th option (similar to #4) these commands are not for fellowship, but for NOT giving offence to the JEWS!!! So that their Blood eating, things strangled, food offered to idols and fornication do not provide a barrier to evangelizing the Jews.

      1 Corinthians 10:32 Give none OFFENCE, neither to the JEWS, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:
      1 Corinthians 10:33 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, THAT THEY MAY BE SAVED!

      1 Corinthians 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might GAIN THE JEWS; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
      1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might BY ALL MEANS SAVE SOME

    • JB Chappell

      Jeff, you’re comment brought a question to my mind… I wonder if James were to make such a list *today* – of things that should be avoided in order to not bring offence to the Jew – what would they be?

    • Jeff Ayers

      Swastikas, pork eating, supporting Muslims and Jewish jokes (about their noses, wealth, running the world etc) 🙂

      BTW it is impossible to avoid offending the Jews to reach them…

      Galatians 5:11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.

      Lets just make sure our offensiveness is based on the person of Christ and not on Jewish customs

      1 Corinthians 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

      The cross is offensive and foolish, and the exclusivity of Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews (Acts 4:12 and John 14:6)

      1 Corinthians 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

    • Christina

      I’m late coming to this article, but I was searching for more explanation on this part of Scripture. From what I’ve learned in the last year by studying the Old Testament with Hebrew speakers, we have a Creator Who doesn’t just make random laws and regulations for the fun of it, or to randomly test us. Life provides all the tests we need, and to pass these tests is not just to show the Father how obedient we are and how much we care for HIm, but “it is for your good”! In Deuteronomy 10:12-13, Moses said, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, too serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today FOR YOUR GOOD.” (Capitals mine for emphasis). We seem to have forgotten that we are indeed “like sheep”, one of the dumbest animals on the planet. We think with our “modern” technology and “discoveries” that man today (especially Western culture, of course) never had it so good. But the truth is, we are surrounded still by things science and medicine can’t figure out, by sickness, by violence and war and hunger. There are ancient civilizations who knew things we still don’t know (how to embalm mummies, how Titian created the pigments in his lustrous paintings, how to cure certain ills without life threatening side effects, etc. However, the One Who made us all knows exactly what is for our good, whether we understand it or not. So in giving the laws in Acts, it is certain on levels we do understand (easy to see how sexual immorality can cause grief and destruction) and on those we don’t (what’s so bad about a little blood in my rare steak?) that these laws are “for our good”. Somehow, we and or others will literally be harmed by going against theses laws. On the most basic level, its not a stretch to say that eating meat with blood in it 1)means it wasn’t cooked long enough to kill all harmful organisms in it, and 2) blood is what carries disease throughout a mammal’s system. I’m giving the simplest possibilities, here, but they are based on scientific knowledge. Do our children understand every rule we give them? We tell them when they’re tiny not to eat something from the ground. Can they understand why? No, but that doesn’t mean we let them do it. If we don’t see the sense in any command from the Father, are we then supposed to whittle it away because we are blind, or TRUST and OBEY, because He said it is “for our good”? It seems Christians have lost that sense of awe and reverence for the Father’s commands because we think we’re so smart. We will never be smart enough, or advanced enough, to understand all His ways, and to think so is foolishness. Yes, its very hard to give up our favorite beliefs and habits that go against His commands, but we are not smarter than He is! If we consider ourselves believers, our position would be more like appreciation for a Father that tells us how to live in His universe in the way that is most physically, spiritually and mentally beneficial for us. Don’t we thank someone when they point out some danger in something we were doing, that we were totally unaware of? We do if we’re not too proud or stubborn. There is a reason for everything He does, and it is for our good!

    • John

      The best quote I’ve heard on the epistle of James is it’s Christianity in jewish diapers.

      My take is James had a real tough time fully understanding the Gospel in his early years.
      First he was Christ’ messed up is that? It is quite possible that he heard more of His preaching than anyone…BUT BEFORE HIs mission started. So James heard Jesus Before he started to transition away from the law to its full meaning.

      These mistakes in interpretation are even made by many Scholars today. They cant seem to grasp Jesus was a real jew under the law walking the fine line of teaching a new way while keeping the law. This must be why Paul was chosen. He was not influenced by what Jesus the man said. Being saved on the spot in the very act of persecuting Christ eliminated all ideas of clinging to the law.

      The apostles didnt completely shake their old ways. The book of James is not even to us, it to jews, it even uses the jewish mantra “God is one ” for faith, the very code they used to reject the son of God. .Thats why it makes me livid when people use James to explain or even correct Paul. It just a book of interest. It says nothing of saving faith in God .
      These were great men but its a mistake to think they’re infallible, that they weren’t growing in knowledge. James is certainly, it seems to me, such a case. We dont get it cause we’re gentiles but it couldn’t have been easy just jettisoning their whole religion stat. People making excuses for james because of inerrancy do violence to the clear meaning of the text.

    • Laura

      Thank you! I have had the same 4 or 5 verses in acts underlined with “huh?” Written next to them for years and finally decided to google them today. This cleared up a few of them because I also didn’t know about the transitional thing and was confused by the Holy Spirit not entering people immediately.

    • barnettgs

      Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

      I think that this verse preaches Jesus, not Moses, concerning that it was the blood of Jesus that was shedded for us and also that the old laws of Moses point to Christ. The Lord God said that the life is in the blood so we should not eat it. The life is in the blood of Jesus which he gave up for us so we may not eat the blood, which is what I was thinking.

      Also the letter wasn’t just about food only because clearly on first 2 things that are not about food: “But that we write unto them, that they abstain from *pollutions of idols, and from *fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”

      Also regarding the pollutions of idols, it wasn’t about food but that we should not have any idols in our home etc.
      And then, Fornication has nothing to do with worshipping idols, isn’t it? All kind of fornication were pointed out in the old testament and that we should avoid them.

      On flesh and blood of Christ Jesus:
      Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

    • RichardAB

      The red stuff oozing from a rare steak is not blood. We now know that it’s a protein called myoglobin. The steak problem has, therefore, been solved by science.

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