Some claim that this Scripture shows us that Gentile Christians are only obligated to abstain from the four things which are specifically mentioned in that passage, and that they are otherwise free from the “Old Testament” law. Others claim that today, they don’t even have to abstain from these four things anymore.
However, Acts 15:19-20 does not teach anything of the kind. It quotes James as saying: “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” This concept is reiterated in Acts 15:28-29.
To fully understand this passage, we must review the context. The Jerusalem Council was held because the charge had been made by some that Gentiles could not be saved unless they became “circumcised according to the custom of Moses” (Acts 15:1) and unless they kept “the law of Moses” (verse 5; compare Acts 15:24).
During the discussion, it was emphasized that God had called Gentiles to repentance irrespective of circumcision and the observance of ritual laws (verses 6-9). As mentioned, the discussion evolved strictly around the “custom of Moses” and the “law of Moses.”
The law of Moses included ALL kinds of commandments, including the spiritual law of the Ten Commandments (Romans 7:14) as well as the temporary laws of animal sacrifices, physical circumcision and ritual washings. All these laws were written in the “book of the law of Moses,” sometimes referred to as “the book of the law” or “the law of Moses” (Deuteronomy 17:18; 28:58; 29:21; 30:10; 31:26; Mark 12:26).
The decision, which was pronounced in Acts 15:19-20, did not address the Ten Commandments. It would have been a rather strange conclusion to say that Gentiles were entitled to kill someone, steal from someone, lie to and about others, commit adultery, or dishonor his or her parents. In the entire New Testament, it is emphasized time and again that true Christians must keep the Ten Commandments, and since the law of the Ten Commandments is a package (compare James 2:8-11), they are therefore obligated to keep the first four commandments as well, including the Sabbath commandment.
But, why was it specifically mentioned that the Gentiles must abstain from things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, strangled meat and blood? These four aspects can be found in the law of Moses, where they are listed in connection with religious worship at the tabernacle, including temporary rituals and animal sacrifices (Leviticus 17:7, 10).
Please note that it was commanded in the law or the book of Moses to abstain from things polluted by idols (Exodus 34:15-16; compare Psalm 106:28, 37-38); from sexual immorality (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17-18); from things strangled (Leviticus 22:8); and from blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17).
These four prohibitions were especially mentioned in Acts 15 to emphasize to the Gentiles that they were still binding on Christians, to avoid any misunderstanding. Prior to their conversion, many Gentiles would engage in those practices. They would of course sacrifice to idols; they would often times drink blood with their sacrifices or they would eat their sacrifices with the blood still in the meat (as happens when animals are strangled); or they would commit fornication with temple prostitutes in their religious services. Even though it would be made clear to the Gentiles that temporary ritual laws, animal sacrifices and circumcision were not binding on them, the apostles and elders clarified to the Gentiles that those four categories, although mentioned in the context of the sacrificial system, were still valid and in force and effect. The emphasis here was not on what had to be done, but on what was NOT to be done.
At the time of Acts 15, the temple still stood, and animal sacrifices were still being given (even though it was no longer a necessity to do so, since Christ’s death did away with the need to bring animal sacrifices, compare Hebrews 9:9-10). But since the priests would bring daily sacrifices and perform other ritual washings, until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, it was needful to explain to the Gentiles, so that there would be no misunderstanding, as to what was clearly NOT permitted in the law of Moses in the context of the sacrificial system and religious practices.
Many say today that these four things were specifically mentioned to the Gentiles as not to offend “Jewish” sensitivities, but as more and more Gentiles became converted, it became no longer necessary to abstain from these four categories. Even though it should be obvious to converted Christians that sexual immorality will never be permitted by God, this is, sadly, not obvious today to many professing Christians.
With their liberal “live-and-let-live” attitude, they condone and justify more and more the concept of sexual immorality and fornication, including living and sleeping together without being married, while attending and participating in religious services; or functioning as practicing homosexual priests and ministers. In addition, many nominal Christians have no compunctions eating food with blood in it, or dinking blood (blood sausage is very common in many Catholic and Protestant countries). Finally, they may enjoy eating food sacrificed to idols (including Easter or Christmas cakes, compare Jeremiah 7:18).
Even though Paul made clear that true Christians can eat food which has been sacrificed to idols, as long as they do not approve of the sacrificial idolatrous practice, they should not do so when the conscience of others becomes defiled (1 Corinthians 8:4-13; 10:25-33). Still, it is clearly wrong to eat food which is sacrificed to or “polluted” by idols in the context of religious practices [For instance, one participates in a wrong kind of “communion” (compare 1 Corinthians 10:14-22), or one partakes of an Easter or Christmas meal as part of Easter or Christmas celebrations, which are polluted by pagan sun and moon gods and goddesses].
Note what the New Testament has to say about these kinds of wrong practices, mentioned in Acts 15:19-20, which are still clearly prohibited for Christians today.
Regarding “sexual immorality,” Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:18: “Flee sexual immorality. Every SIN that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.” Compare also 1 Thessalonians 4:3.
In a prophecy for the end time, God condemns those who are eating, drinking or sacrificing the blood of animals, as well as those who are eating unclean animals.
We read in Isaiah 66:3 (Living Bible): “But those who choose their own ways, delighting in their sins, are cursed. God will not accept their offerings. When such men sacrifice an ox on the altar of God, it is no more acceptable to him than human sacrifice. If they sacrifice a lamb, or bring an offering of grain, it is as loathsome to God as putting a dog or the blood of a swine on his altar! When they burn incense to him, he counts it the same as though they blessed an idol. I will send great troubles upon them—all the things they feared…”
In addition, we read in Isaiah 65:2-6: “I have stretched out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in a way that is not good According to their own thoughts; A people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; who sacrifice in gardens, and burn incense on altars of brick; who sit among the graves, And spend the night in the tombs; who eat swine’s flesh And the broth of abominable things [Margin: unclean meats] in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils, A fire that burns all the day. Behold, it is written before Me: ‘I will not keep silence, but will repay—Even repay into their bosom…’”
The Living Bible renders verse 4 as follows: “All night they go out among the graves and caves to worship evil spirits, and they eat pork and other forbidden foods.”
Finally, in a message to the church in Pergamos, we read this dire warning: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam… to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality… Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth (Revelation 2:14, 16).
It is clear that all Christians must still abstain today from the four categories mentioned in Acts 15:19-20, but it is also clear that these are not the ONLY four things which they must avoid doing. Those who believe the contrary are condemned with the strongest terms in the book of Revelation.
“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake of fire, which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
“But outside [the new Jerusalem] are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:15).
We must avoid doing what God condemns, by following the deceitful doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1-2). Rather, we need to listen to Christ who tells us: “If you want to enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17; compare also 1 Corinthians 7:19).
Lead Writer: Norbert Link