This week we’ve been studying the debate in the book of Acts over whether new Christians needed to become Jewish first, marked by having their males circumcised, or if they could simply become Christians.
The Christian leaders who’d been caring for each group, the Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians, came together and decided that since God’s Holy Spirit had acted in the same way for both groups, and since Jesus had taught against manmade religious burdens, and particularly since God had saved the Jews by grace, not by their nationhood or their circumcisions, there was no requirement that new Christians be circumcised first.
But….they did ask the new, non-Jewish Christians to make some concessions:
Here was the compromise they reached, and the communications strategy they used: Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,  with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,  it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  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. Farewell.”
(Acts 15:22-29 ESV)
So, they just decided that the Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised, or become culturally Jewish, but then they imposed four new rules. What’s up with that?
These four decrees were meant to allow unity and harmony. The rules were not some new way to earn salvation, but for preserving Christian unity. There would always be some Christians who kept to the law, it was all they knew. There still are today, even though they are now the minority rather than majority, as they were when this all happened.
With those four rules, the Gentile Christians could associate with the Christians who kept the Jewish law. Both sides would make some compromises – the Jewish ones would associate with non-Jews, normally considered unclean and unfit to be around. The Gentiles would refrain from doing some things that would make them most unclean.
- Don’t eat what’s been sacrificed to idols. So many temple sacrifices, chances are if you bought meat at the market it had been sacrificed to one god or another. Central tenet of both Judaism and Christianity is that there is one God. The Ten Commandments say to have no other God, and not to worship idols. So it’s no problem for a Christian to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols, it makes clear that they worship the one true God.
- Don’t eat any blood,
- Don’t eat what has been strangled. These are almost one and the same, since something strangled will still have the blood in it, unlike something slaughtered by the neck. Again, keeping in line with the kosher laws.
- And keeping away from sexual immorality. I’m a bit surprised this even needed to be said. It’s possibly that this was connected with idolatry, again. Worshipping all these pagan gods and their idols often involved temple prostitution, and so it’s possible the Christian leaders just wanted to be clear that this was completely out of bounds, since the new Christians from pagan backgrounds were probably used to thinking this was a part of religious practice. Certainly for both Christians and Jews, it should have been clear from Jesus’ teaching and the early Christian leaders that sexual immorality is not okay, but it’s here all the same, so I guess it needed reinforcing.
Question: Were these concessions worth it for unity? Which side do you think sacrificed more?
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