“And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.”Acts 15:19-21
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision. The men chosen were two of the church leaders—Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas. This is the letter they took with them:
“This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings! We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
The messengers went at once to Antioch, where they called a general meeting of the believers and delivered the letter.Acts 15:20-30
We will look at these two portions together as they help strengthen our understanding of the things that James said at the Council of Jerusalem. If we look carefully at what James said and then at the letter that was written things are clarified for us. As you can imagine there is much debate about this passage. It is key to understanding what the main focus of the Council of Jerusalem was and the nature of the letter that was sent to the Gentile church in Antioch. Antioch was the first focal point. After all that was where the issue came to a head and forced the apostles and elders to ask for a ruling from the church in Jerusalem. But it is clear that this letter became prescriptive and applied to Gentile churches everywhere. Note the letter was sent not just to Antioch but also to Syria and Cilicia. This became the ruling for how the Jewish believers were to treat their Gentile brothers and sisters and how the Gentile congregations were to respond to Judaism. All of this had been sparked by the Judaisers.
James recommendation was to write to the Gentile church firstly in Antioch and to tell them to abstain:
- from eating food offered to idols
- from sexual immorality
- from eating the meat of strangled animals
- from consuming blood.
Much has been debated about the words of James’ recommendation. Essentially it is clear but sometimes when we debate something we humans like to make clear things cloudy. We seem to do that to allow compromise regarding the opinions over the things that are hotly debately. The first three points are the clearest but there are some who like to cloud the issue with a different interpretation on James’ last point. Was James simply repeating the point and clarifying the issue or was he making a separated unrelated point?
Literally what we have written is:
- but to write to them to hold back (abstain) from the pollutions of idols,
- and from fornication (porneia – prostitution, fornication unchastity)
- and that strangled, (from eating animals that had been strangled) and blood. (LITV)
The question we must ask concerns the last thing they must abstain from. Does it mean to not eat the meat of animals with the blood still present or does it mean not to shed blood, i.e. to murder? There are many commentators who read into the words of James’ recommendation a fourth prohibition unconnected with the third. The third is not to eat to the meat of animals that have been strangled. Do the words that follow clarify the third prohibition or do they add a fourth point? Why are these three extra words added? Because such meat still contained the blood of the animal. In the Levitical laws the Jews were told not to eat blood because the life is in the blood. Not only is life in the blood but also death is in the blood. We know from modern scientific research that there are many blood-borne disease. It is not only spiritually offensive to eat animals sacrificed to idols but also animals which have been strangled still contain the blood of that animal – and therefore life and death.
You can read the words of James as containing three prohibitions not four. The fourth is not a separate point but one which goes with the third and further clarifies what is being said. The word “abstain” is not listed four times but only once. All points that James made hang on the idea of abstention. The last one is literally “and from blood”. Some read into it “from shedding blood” others see a link to “the blood of Christ and the atonement” but how that fits in this context is a mystery. Some interpret the vague translation “and from blood” seen in some early literal translations as relating to the commandment not to murder. The majority of modern translations see the last three words [καὶ τοῦ αἵματος] “and from the blood” as strengthening the reason for not eating strangled meat, not to add a fourth point.
When you look at the letter that was written I feel that serves to clarify what James meant. We have to assume that the letter sent on behalf of the church in Jerusalem was carefully worded to ensure the sense of what the leaders wanted to communicate was clear. The wording of the letter on this point is: “You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well.” (Verse 29) Now it has been made clear. The phrase “and from the blood” is the clarification of the reason as to why they should not eat the meat of strangled animals.
One strong principle of good exegesis (drawing out of Scripture what was intended and not reading into Scripture what was not intended) and sound interpretation is to make sense of the parts in the whole context. Rather than to examine the possible meanings of each little element and allow yourself to introduce new possible concepts which were never intended by the original speakers or writers. Allow the natural flow of the text to lead you in the direction of rightly interpreting the text before you.
I imagine that when the debate was so impassioned and vehement (15:2) then the letter that was written as their collective conclusion was made clear in order to sum up the debate and their conclusion. I am sure the leaders present would have made sure the words in the letter that was sent would have conveyed the meaning they wanted to communicate. I liken this Council meeting to a Wycliffe meeting where when a group of linguist-translators debate the wording of something then the end result has to be precise. If it is not then there would have to be another Council held. I am sure that was the case here and the resultant letter clearly communicated what James, Peter, Barnabas and Paul intended.
We will look at verses 20 to 30 in the next Gem and pull all these threads together before moving on to the reason why Paul and Barnabas parted company.
Always assume the meaning of each verse of Scripture is clear and communicates well in the context of the other verses around it.Ian Vail
The flow of the text as a whole should make sense.Ian Vail
Women always worry about things that men forget; men always worry about things women remember.Anon
Sometimes the wrong choices bring us to the right places.Anon
I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries a raincoat.Harold Wilson
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.Upton Sinclair