While we continue our previous discussion on the subjects of Church History (and the related field of Historical Theology), it’s important to remember that there is much that we, the Body of Christ, can learn from our extensive history and we would be foolish to overlook the rich resource these subjects provide for us. And as one studies the history of the church, one will surely notice that conflict played a significant role in the formation of what we refer to as “orthodoxy.” Thus, when one surveys the history of the early church through the Book of Acts, one will note two conflicts, one more significant than the other.
The first is relatively minor in scope. We find that a dispute arose between two groups within the young growing Messianic Jewish movement. On one side where the “Hebrew Jews” and the other consisted of the “Hellenistic Jews.” One group was very “Jewish” while the other was more cultured in the sense of being very “Greek.” We find this historical event documented in Acts 6:1-6. The dispute was rather simplistic and the Apostles handled it quickly and effectively. So much so that we find that after this conflict, the “word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
However, the second conflict was much more serious and required an extensive amount of apostolic discussion, debate, and ultimately correction. The conflict was one that still raises its head within certain wings of the modern Messianic movement. Just how “Jewish” do Gentiles need to become in order to be “saved”? Paul’s letter to the Galatians and Luke’s Book of Acts are the two primary sources that help us understand both the cultural background that led up to this controversy and how the apostles dealt with the issue at hand. Let’s trace the backdrop of the problem and note the solutions that the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to give…
While Paul was going about his ministry of preaching the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, he began to encounter opposition in the form of men who stated that one had to be circumcised in order to be saved. This more or less destroyed the fruit of Paul’s labors! The Galatian Christians appear to have been most affected by this teaching, so Paul took up his sword in the form of his pen. Thus, the letter to the Galatians is a strong letter that is full of theological clarification regarding the doctrine of Justification. According to Paul, man is justified by faith and not by works of the law (cf. Gal. 2:16; 3:34)!
Shortly after Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he traveled to Jerusalem in order to meet with the other Apostles and Elders in what is known as the Jerusalem Council (cf. Acts 15:1-29). The Council’s primary purpose was to address whether or not one had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). After much debate (v. 7), Peter testified of the work that God was doing with Gentiles, no doubt recalling the powerful conversion of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). Soon after Peter’s testimony and the previous debate between the Apostles and Elders, Barnabas and Paul shared the signs and wonders that had been characteristic of their preaching (cf. 1 Thess. 1:4-5). Finally, James stood up to make a point. James was one of Jesus’ brothers and had not been one of the original twelve disciples who later became apostles. Yet shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James became a leading figure among the church in Jerusalem and among the other apostles. Thus, his statement held significant and convincing merit. After giving Peter’s testimony positive affirmation, James quotes Amos 9:11-12 as evidence for his judgment of the situation, which was…
“My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” – Acts 15:19-21
I have found that this passage is either overlooked or misunderstood, but rarely understood in light of its context and the rest of the Scriptures. There is good reason for the difficulty. The main question is in regards to the application of this passage in light of what Paul writes in texts such as Romans 14 and Peter’s dream in Acts 10 (i.e., God has made clean that which was once unclean). In fact, our congregation had a missionary who spoke last year who actually taught that it was a sin to eat blood sausage becaus eof this text! Others, especially in the United States, rarely show concern for what kind of foods they eat (e.g. McDonalds!). At any rate, there are many questions and problems that can arise. Messianic Jewish scholar Stern notes three possible interpretations of this passage:
“(1) The four prohibitions are a variant of the Noachide laws, presented in the Talmud as what God has required of all mankind since the days of Noah (i.e., before “jew” and “Gentile” were defined:
“Our rabbis taught, ‘The sons of Noah were given seven commandments: practicing justice and abstaining from blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, robbery and eating flesh torn from a live animal.’ Rabbi Chananyah ben-Gamli’el said, ‘ Also not to drink blood taken from a live animal.'” (Sanhedrin 56a).
There follows the scriptural basis for these laws in the form of a midrash on Genesis 2:16. Thus Judaism is not only a particularistic national religion specifying God’s requirements for Jews but also a universalistic religion that states what God demands of non-Jews as well. Possibly the Jerusalem Council based its prohibitions on this tradition, although its four requirements neither state nor imply anything about practicing justice or eschewing robbery. On the other hand, the Council may have specified only minimum requirements, with the exception that other moral attributes would be acquired later, possibly as a result of Gentiles’ attending synagogue services and learning there the Jewish moral traditions (v. 21&N)
(2) Some manuscriptus lack “from what is strangled.” If this is the correct reading, the three remaining prohibitions correspond to the three acts a Jew must die rather than commit:
“Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shim’on ben-Y’hotzadak, ‘By a majority vote it was decided in the upper chambers of the house of Nitza in Lud that in every law of the Torah, if a man is commanded, “Transgress, or you will be put to death,” he may transgress in order to save his life – with these exceptions: idolatry, fornication and murder.'” (Sanhedrin 74a)
In other words, Gentile believers must avoid idolatry, fornication and murder because they are such serious moral trangressions that a Jew would die ‘al kiddus-HaShem (7:59-60N) rather than commit them.
(3) The requirements were only secondarily ethical; they were primariliy practical social requirements for fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. A Gentile who did not immediately observe all four prohibitions would so offend his Jewish brothers in the faith that a spirit of community would never be able to develop.” (David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, 277-278).
I am convinced that neither (1) nor (2) are correct. I cannot square (1) with Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 or with the testimony of Peter in Acts 10. The second proposal (2) is also unconvincing because the phrase “from what is strangled” is only missing in the Western text. Therefore, it is a moot point.
The concept that the prohibitions are given for the sake of social issues and for the purpose of unity makes the most sense and is, in my estimation, the most convincing. However, I share this lightly as I believe each person should study and come to their own conclusion regarding this issue.
Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that Jews are not commanded to refrain from following the Mosiac Law! Acts 15 seems to support the concept of Jews living “Jewish” for the sake of their cultural identity and in the hopes of reaching other Jews with the Gospel of Yeshua (Jesus). As Stern also notes,
“if the third interpretation is correct, then these food laws were given only as practical guides to avoid disruption of the fellowship betwen believing Jews and Gentiles in the social context of the first century. Today, when Messianic Jews are a small minority in the Body of Messiah, a few if any of them take umbrage at Gentles’ eating habits, the issue is irrelevang, and there is no need for Gentile Christians to obey a command never intended as eternal. However, in Israel, Gentle believers may find it convenient to keep at least a semblance of kosher, simply to fit in with a pattern widespread in the Land, or to be able to invite tradition-keeping Jews to dinner; and there are not a few Gentile Christians who do so” (Ibid., 278-279).
In conclusion, we should note that the first major conflict brought about a great result for the sake of the Gospel. What we must realize is that at the very heart of this conflict was the subtle undermining of the nature of Justification and Salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Praise God for the wisdom and apostolic correction of the Jerusalem Council (and Paul’s letter to the Galatians)!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.