The Council of Jerusalem in around 48 AD was a watershed in the Early Church. It was the turning point which guaranteed unity between Christians who had previously been Jews and Christians who had not been Jews but Gentiles – non-Jews. The Council made it possible for the gospel to spread more widely than ever in the non-Jewish world. It was probably the most important church meeting in church history – ever! The central issue was the relationship of the Christian church to Judaism and Jewish Law. So it is relevant even for us today as we seek to understand and apply the Old Testament to our Christian lives.
I want to focus on the conclusions which the Council reached as they are summed up in the letter which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including the surviving apostles, sent out to the Gentile Christians throughout Asia Minor. But first let’s notice that the whole discussion depended on three foundations. The first foundation was theological principles, the second was testimonies and the third was Scripture. Peter appealed to the principles God had revealed to him in a vision of a sheet of unclean animals where God said to him, “Get up, kill and eat. Do not call unclean that which God has called clean. We thought about that story a couple of months ago. God doesn’t show favouritism but accepts all peoples equally, both Jews and Gentiles. Then Barnabas and Saul shared their testimonies of signs and wonders and Gentiles becoming Christians. Then James clinches the argument by appealing to Scripture and the prophet Amos. If only all church discussions today rested on the solid foundations of theology, testimony and Scripture! But out of that, the apostles and the elders and the whole church came to a unanimous conclusion. So they were able to write, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” There is church government at its best! And the practical outcome was a letter from the Jewish Christians to all the new Christians who had not been Jews before. For such an important letter it was remarkably short and sweet.
Acts 15 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
That’s all there was. In our translation, only 50 words! It was a surprising letter, in at least three ways.
The first surprise – what the letter did not say
The question which had sparked the council in the first place was the place of circumcision for Gentiles who become Christians. Do they need to become Jews as well?
Acts 15:1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
For fifteen hundred years and more the Jews had been God’s chosen people. Now the church are the new people of God. Does a person also need to become a Jew before they can become a Christian? (And male converts would show that they were becoming Jews by being circumcised. The answer from the letter is clearly “no”, because there is no mention of circumcision at all. And there were other elements missing from the letter which some might have expected.
There is no requirement to obey the Jewish Law.
Acts 15 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’ 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
Were Gentiles required to keep the Jewish Law. Again – no mention of the Law of Moses in the letter. Were they required to keep the Jewish Sabbath? Or how about the Ten Commandments. These are parts of the Old Testament many people expect Christians to keep. Hear what the apostle Peter said.
Acts 15:7 ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’
So the letter from the Council doesn’t mention the Circumcision, or obeying the Jewish Law. Or the Sabbath. Or the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Law shows us that we are sinners. But we are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus. The letter doesn’t give the Gentile Christians a huge list of rules to keep! And when new Christians come to faith, we long-time Christians must make sure we don’t burden them with our long list of unwritten rules about what a Christian should and shouldn’t do. The Christian life is not just a list of dos and don’ts. By then the apostle James was the leader of the Early Church in Jerusalem, and he summed things up like this.
19 ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
And the letter from the Council puts it this way. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:
The Jewish Christians didn’t burden the Gentile Christians with a whole load of unnecessary baggage. And we must make sure we treat new Christians the same way. But there is a second surprise in this letter from the Council.
Why did the letter bother to say anything at all?
No Christians are bound to obey the Jewish Law. Jesus said
Matthew 5:17‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.
In his sinless life, Jesus had completely fulfilled the Jewish Law. So we don’t have to. Obedience to the Jewish Law has been replaced by obedience to Christ.
The Jews had laws about clean and unclean foods. But Jesus had already declared all foods clean.
Mark 7:14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
So Jesus brought the Jewish food laws to an end for every Christian. And with his vision of the unclean animals Peter had realised this great truth. As he said at Cornelius’s house,
Acts 10 28 He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. …. 34 ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
So if all foods are ritually clean, it is surprising that the letter talks about foods at all.
Some people think that certain foods are mentioned because of Jewish scruples. Jewish Christians were refusing to eat with Gentile Christians because of what was on the menu. Paul had already had arguments with Peter about this. So some people suggest that the food rules in the letter from Jerusalem were just designed to keep the peace between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians who were still sensitive about such things. But surely there are more important reasons why Christians should avoid “food polluted by idols.
In the marketplaces, a very common source of meat was from the temples to the multitudes of false gods which the Romans and the Greeks and other cultures worshipped. Meat offered in sacrifices to these false gods was then sold off in the market. In 1 Corinthians Paul tells us that eating food which has been offered to idols is participating in that idol worship, and actually communing with demons.
1 Corinthians 10 18 Consider the people of Israel: do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
So in that culture there was a big problem with eating food which had been used in sacrifices to idols. And there are principles here which still apply to all Christians even today. So let’s look at the third surprise –
What this short letter from the Council of Jerusalem actually says.
Acts 15 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
It’s been called the Jerusalem Quadrilateral, because it has four sides.
Abstain from food offered to idols. This may not appear obviously important to us, but it really is in countries which worship pagan gods. It still matters in churches in Africa and India and South America and China where people worship idols and false god. It reminds us that evil is real. Spells and curses and potions and charms can carry great power. Anything associated with the occult, witchcraft, fortune telling, spiritualism, all these things can be dangerous. We should avoid anything which can open our lives to demonic powers. You will do well to avoid these things.
Abstain from blood. And abstain from the meat of strangled animals. These two commands have their roots in the Old Testament.
Leviticus 17 10 ‘ “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.’
13 ‘ “Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, 14 because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, ‘You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.’
In the original context this command about not eating blood is again concerned with idol worship. Leviticus 17:7 forbids the worship of Egyptian goat idols or satyrs, a word which can also mean demons. Christians even today must make sure that we are not drawn into worshipping false gods. The false gods of Money and Success and Entertainment and Celebrity are as dangerous to us today! And false can even bring us into contact with demons. You will do well to avoid these things.
Abstain from sexual immorality. The fourth command in the letter from the Jerusalem Council should not surprise us. The Jews had always considered sexual purity to be very important whereas the Gentile world generally did not care about such things. So it is understandable that Jewish Christians would want to emphasise this aspect of discipleship and holiness to the Gentile Christians more than most others.
Abstain from sexual immorality. Here is a timely warning for the church in these days. Because more and more churches and Christians are compromising with the world around. Many churches are adopting the attitudes of the world around and saying that when it comes to sex, “anything goes.” You read of preachers teaching that sexual sins are no more important or serious than any other kinds of sins. At one level that is true. But it is significant that the Jerusalem Quadrilateral draws attention to sexual immorality in a way that it does not challenge any other sin. Paul challenges the Corinthians in the same way.
1 Corinthians 6 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.
So at least as far as both the Council of Jerusalem and Paul are concerned, sexual sins ARE more serious than other sins. Abstain from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. All four of these things have a common theme. They are concerned with purity and holiness. They are warnings against activities which can pollute the individual Christian and which can also pollute the church. The Jewish Law with its ceremonies and rituals and moral principles was designed to keep the nation of Israel pure as God’s chosen people. What sets Christians apart from others is not outward observance of a set of rules. Not the Jewish Law and not any other set of man-made rules either. There is no great long list of dos and don’ts for Christians living. Our holiness comes from an inward relationship with God and from the activity of the Holy Spirit making us more like Jesus. But we must not neglect the importance of purity and holiness for Christians. Any kind of sin can get in the way of our relationship with God. And the Council of Jerusalem recognised just a few kinds of sin which are dangerous for all Christians in all places at all times. Their wisdom comes down to us across the centuries. Avoid all forms of idol worship. Avoid anything which can open your life to demonic powers. And abstain from sexual immorality. You do well to avoid these things!