Instructional Letter   1 comment

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The first-century followers of Christ faced several difficult challenges. Among the most problematic were the cultural differences separating the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians. Due to their deep respect for the Law of Moses, many of the early Jewish Christians felt that a faithful follower of God must believe in and obey Christ, but also keep certain aspects of the Mosaic Law, like circumcision. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, adamantly opposed this idea, maintaining that the Law was nailed to the cross and was no longer in force. The other Bible writers concurred. But many Christians in the early church were confused on the issue. Due to this confusion, Paul and Barnabas, along with the elders of the Jerusalem church and the apostles, convened to discuss the issue (Acts 15). During the discussion, the apostle Peter recounted the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 15:6-11). Paul and Barnabas then testified to the miracles that God had worked among the Gentiles through their ministry (15:12). And James, the Lord’s brother, explained that the Old Testament prophesied that the Gentiles would be allowed into the church. From reading the text, it is clear that purpose of the meeting in Jerusalem was not to vote on a policy, but to discover the Holy Spirit’s position on the issue.

The council concluded that God had opened the door of faith in Christ to the Gentiles, apart from any adherence to the Law of Moses. The council then wrote a brief letter to be circulated among the Gentile churches in which the council stated: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:29).

The inspired statement from the Jerusalem council presents point of discussion for Christians in the 21st century. Do these rules even apply today? Were they for the Gentiles then, and adjusted afterward by later revelation to the inspired Bible writers? If they still apply, how would a 21st century Christian practice obedience to the command to avoid “things strangled,” since the details of the slaughter and preparation of store-bought items such as chicken, beef, ham, and turkey are virtually unknown to the general public? In my consideration of what the gospel should look like in the context of the 21 century, an intense, honest look into the inspired council’s letter and its ramifications for today became necessary.

Most Biblical historians feel the Jerusalem council meant pagan, idolatrous feasts when issuing the statement in Acts 15. Pagan worship often included sacrificing and eating animals. Occasionally, the drained blood was offered as a “course” in the meal. These festivities also generally included sexual participation by the guest in various ways. Although the Jews had certainly worshipped at high places in the past, they generally recognized these practices to be immoral and the Jewish Christians recognized these practices to be counter to what they had been taught by Jesus. Remember, it’s been less than two decades since Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Many of the council attendees had known Jesus personally. James was his half-brother and Peter had traveled with him for three years. There was therefore no doubt in their minds what Jesus would have done. Therefore, in order to understand the context of the four prohibitions of the council, it’s important to understand their connection to pagan idolatrous practices.

The New Testament is abundantly clear in other places that such was sexual immorality  is uncategorically condemned by God (1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Hebrews 13:4; Revelation 21:8). There was never a time when faithful followers of God were permitted to engage in sexual immorality. Yes, the pagan cultures surrounding the early churches considered such immorality to be part of life, but it was not to be permitted or tolerated in the life of a Christian, regardless of his or her cultural background.

The Council’s letter, meant to be circulated among the Gentile converts, also included the instruction for Gentile believers to “abstain from things offered to idols.” This is a clear reference to the meat that pagans would sacrifice to an idol and then eat as a part of their feasts. Such meat was not inherently sinful. We know this because the apostle Paul qualified and elaborated on the instruction to abstain from meat offered to idols in other others written only a few years after this. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explained that there is nothing inherently sinful about eating meat offered to an idol. “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one…. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (verses 4-8). He explained to the Corinthian Christians that if an unbeliever invited them to his house, they should have no problems eating the meat that the unbeliever served them, asking no questions about whether the meat was offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27). Thus, it is clear that to eat meat that was offered to an idol was not inherently sinful. Paul clarified in the same passage that if a Christian was informed that the meat was offered to an idol and though their consumption might offend those believers who had a problem with such practices, they should avoid eating it (1 Corinthians 10:28; 8:10-13; Romans 14:21). The mindset, attitude, and intent of the one eating meat offered to idols were the pertinent factors involved in the actions, not any inherently sinful qualities of meat offered to idols. The prohibition to abstain from things offered to idols was not a blanket condemnation of an inherently sinful practice, but was conditioned on circumstances, attitude, and intent.

I don’t think we have a lot of meat offered to idols in our marketplaces today, but given this discussion, it would be permissable for Christians to eat meat offered to idols today, if their attitude were right and there was no one around who objected on Biblical grounds. More on that issue in a later post.

So within this one short letter, the Jerusalem Council prohibited Gentile Christians from the inherently sinful practice of sexual immorality and from the conditionally sinful practice of things offered to idols. They then moved onto “things strangled” and “blood”.

Why? The answer is in the letter.

Jewish Christians were horrified at the thought of eating or drinking blood, so the Council asked the “Gentile Christians to respect this feeling and refrain from eating blood and from undrained meat for motives of brotherly love. Why did Jewish Christians abhor consuming blood. The prohibition against eating or drinking blood predated the Law of Moses by several hundred years. Following Noah’s exit from the ark, God explained to him that he and his descendants could eat animals. God said to him: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). God provided a single regulation regarding the consumption of animal flesh. “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4). Thus the command to avoid the consumption of blood was given several hundred years before the Mosaic Law was instituted.

Later, the Law of Moses instructed the Israelites to avoid eating or drinking blood. “Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Leviticus 17:14) Moses also wrote that the Israelites could eat animals like deer or gazelle, but “Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:16).

If the prohibition against eating blood in Acts 15 is binding, then it shows that in every age—the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian—eating blood has been forbidden and is inherently sinful.

If eating blood is inherently sinful, how can it be differentiated from eating meats offered to idols, which was not inherently sinful, since they appear in the same list? One response to such a question would be that we only know that eating meat offered to idols was not inherently sinful because New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 8, 10 and Romans 14 shed further light on the practice. If these passages were not included in the New Testament, then we would be forced to conclude that eating meat sacrificed to idols was inherently sinful and still prohibited for Christians. Since there are no passages that add information to the prohibition against eating blood or things strangled, and it is included in every age (Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian) it’s logical to conclude that the prohibition is still binding on Christians today.

In other words, Christians shouldn’t be consuming blood sausage, but pork shops and shell fish are okay.

One response to “Instructional Letter

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  1. Pingback: Cultural Dance | aurorawatcherak

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