After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:13-21 ESV).
Does the New Testament require believers to abstain from eating meat with blood in it? In short, are there food laws in the Old Testament that New Testament believers must keep? I will come to a conclusion at the end of this post!
To correctly interpret this passage, there are two relationships that must especially be studied and understood: the Inference in 19-21, and the Ground within it, in 21a-b.
- The Inference that the believers shouldn’t “trouble” the Gentiles is based on James’s quotation of Amos 9:11-12 (with some alterations). The prophecy was that God would rebuild the house of David (or perhaps “tent” refers to the temple), and that this was being fulfilled in both Jews and Gentiles, who together formed the church. And Gentiles who believed “are called by my name,” God says—thus making them full members of his people, without the need for circumcision or observance of food laws. “Therefore,” James says, “we should not stand in God’s way,” as Peter had concluded in Acts 11:17, “by forcing them to observe the Mosaic Law.”
They should not “trouble” the Gentiles (by telling them they had to be circumcised to be saved, or as something necessary for the Christian life - see verses 5-11). Rather (the Positive shows this), they should ask them to abstain from four practices. (And this was not a human idea, as the text of the letter says in verse 28: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”)
- And the Ground in 21a-b is vital for understanding James’s decision to instruct the Gentiles to do this. Why did James think they should tell the Gentiles to abstain from four things? Because the Mosaic Law is proclaimed in every city, and has been for centuries. Thus the Gentiles knew what practices were against the Jewish law, and so could abstain from them.
But these four practices cannot be something necessary for obedient Christians at all times, because the whole point for James is that they not prescribe such things as necessary for salvation.
There is one exception in this list, however, since “sexual immorality” (20c) is condemned elsewhere in the NT. But the other members of this Series are not; in fact, several other places in the NT show that Christians are free to practice them (with the possible exception of “things polluted by idols,” depending on its exact meaning here - see 1 Corinthians 10:27-30).
For example, Acts 10:9-16 shows that we are not bound by Jewish food laws, since all foods are now clean to us. That means that a regulation like Deut 12:23 isn’t binding for us. Also, Colossians 2:16-17 and 20-23 says that we should not let ourselves be judged by anyone regarding “food and drink” (v. 16). There are other passages in the NT are clear that believers are not under the law as a covenant that prescribed what not to eat and so on.
So why did this church council ask Gentile believers to abstain from these things? The likely reason was to promote peace within the church; thus the motive behind it was love.
Paul wrote about this elsewhere, so this idea fits in the overall context of the New Testaments and food laws. For example, in Romans 15, Paul addressed a controversy within the Roman church about this, and urged seeking the good of one’s neighbors, so that they could glorify God together in unity, in spite of their difference conclusions (v. 1-6). In 1 Corinthians 8:13, Paul stated that if eating meat offered to an idol would cause his brother to sin, he would “never eat meat” in that case! He wrote in 1 Corinthians 9 that he “became as a Jew, in order to win Jews,” doing that "
for the sake of the gospel" (see verses 19-23).
So, to conclude, believers are not bound today by the food regulations in verse 20; however, we are bound not to do anything that would lead a brother or sister into soul-destroying sin.
Any thoughts from anyone on this difficult passage?