Friday, 3 November 2023
“But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Acts 21:25
Paul was just told that he should consider going with four men who were completing their vows and to participate in their purification rites according to the law, also paying their expenses. That was intended to show all who saw that the things they heard about him were untrue and that he also walked in an orderly manner and kept the law.
With that remembered, James once again upholds the edict of the Jerusalem council. By doing so, he is determined that the Gentiles are to be considered acceptable to the Jews in the church regardless of their nature. Therefore, he begins with, “But concerning the Gentiles who believe.”
James has set a line between the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are doing their thing, but what they were doing was not to be imposed on the Gentiles. The thing the Jews were doing is what he just said, they “kept the law.” On the other hand, he says, “we have written and decided.”
This refers to the formal edict published by the Jerusalem Council based upon the judgment rendered there. That explicitly said “that they should observe no such thing, except...”
In other words, they were not bound to any restriction, law, precept, custom, or tradition of the Jewish nation, nor to the Law of Moses. They were given complete freedom to live out their lives in the manner of their culture, laws, customs, traditions, diets, holidays, etc. All of this was to be without any question of impropriety in the minds of the Jewish believers.
However, the word “except” is given to introduce four points agreed on by the council that the Gentiles should avoid. And even those four things were not given as laws, but as hoped-for recommendations as evidenced by the words of their letter which said, “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:29).
James next repeats the four recommended prohibitions, beginning with “that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols.” The word “should” is not in the original, even if it is implied. It more literally says, “to watch themselves from that sacrificed to idols” (SLT).
In Acts 15, it was clear that this doesn’t merely mean practicing idolatry, but abstaining from anything that is connected to the service of idols, such as partaking in sacrifices and offerings, etc. James does not go into the depth of the Law of Moses concerning this. Rather, it is a general statement set forth as a guideline for right living among believers. His words distance the decision of the council from the weight of the law in his words.
He next says, “from blood.” The words form a general statement concerning a matter that is carefully detailed in the law. It is stated many times and in exacting ways concerning what was to be done with the blood. James’ decision completely separates the matter from the Law of Moses. But its main intent was surely to have the people consider why they were drinking blood in the first place. Several reasons were surely behind the decision.
One is that drinking blood was, and even today in some cultures is, intended to assimilate the power of the one whose blood was being drunk into the person drinking. Another reason is related to idolatry, where the blood of an animal that was sacrificed was consumed by the offeror as a way of fellowshipping with their god or gods.
Also, the shedding of blood has almost universally been considered a means of atoning for sin. This is seen in cultures around the world. But Christ’s blood is the only effectual sacrifice for the atonement of sin. This then is an object lesson concerning the nature of Christ’s sacrifice as much as anything else.
James next says, “from things strangled.” The Greek simply reads “and strangled.” The Greek word is pniktos, and this is its last use in Scripture. It signifies something killed without letting the blood out. Vincent’s Word Studies extends the thought to animals killed in snares. This is an inference, but it is probably the case.
The laws within the Law of Moses are detailed and explicit on how to treat the blood of animals sacrificed or simply slaughtered for meat. James, once again, gives a general statement concerning the matter, completely distancing the decision from the Law of Moses. With that, he finishes the thought with, “and from sexual immorality.”
The word in Greek is porneia. It signifies “selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity, promiscuity of any (every) type” (HELPS Word Studies). Quite often, it is associated with idolatry. James gives this general word, never mentioning the very strict laws associated with such things as set forth in the law of Moses. As such, it was another clear indication that the Law of Moses had no bearing on the decision.
In Acts 15, James said, “to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.”
In Acts 21, he says, “except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
His words, though being in a different order, are essentially the same. These were the only restrictions placed upon the Gentiles, and they are clearly only recommended prohibitions.
Life application: The words of James, repeated from Acts 15, are not words of law. If they were, then the Gentiles would be under their own set law, and grace would be excluded. But Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, has clearly indicated this is not the case in his epistles. These are recommendations given for a set purpose, which is to not cause conflict between the Jews that believe and the believing Gentiles they would encounter.
The Jews eventually stopped observing the Law of Moses as well, it being impossible to observe without a standing temple. Even if believing Jews continue to observe various aspects of the law as cultural customs, they are not under the Law of Moses any longer. That is made explicit in the book of Hebrews.
It was during the time that the temple was standing, a time when observing the law was culturally mandatory, that believing Jews continued to observe Moses. Paul includes himself when he confirms this in Romans –
“For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” Romans 6:14, 15
The law is not grace. But believers are under grace, not law. Therefore, even if Paul observed Moses for set purposes that have been seen in Acts and in his epistles, he also did not observe Moses for set purposes as well. He did these things to win people to Christ. Do not let anyone steal you from the proper path. Your salvation is not dependent on what you do or do not do. It is dependent on your faith in what Christ has done, nothing else.
Glorious Lord God, today we rejoice in You and in Your goodness toward us through the giving of Your Son for our sins. He has freed us from the bonds of the law and set us on a path of grace. May we be all the more willing to please You in our walk of faith and holiness because of this wonderful blessing that rests upon us! Amen.