The Letter to the Gentiles

There are three questions that are essential to living the Christian life raised in Acts 15: 1) What must I do to be saved? (Salvation). 2) What kind of life pleases God? (Morality) and 3) How can Christians from different backgrounds and cultures live together in love? (Charity). It is important to recognize that these are different questions with different answers, or we will get all tangled up trying to understand how the Jerusalem Council can decide that some laws (like circumcision) are not to be enforced on Gentile converts, while some (like not drinking blood) are required. If we only see one question being asked or answered, we will end up confused, with unsettled minds (ala verse 24), instead of joyful, encouraged, and strengthened (ala verses 31-32).
The first question concerning salvation was the main one asked and answered by the Jerusalem Council: you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not faith plus law-keeping. But just because you are not saved by the rules doesn’t mean there are no rules. Keeping God’s rules is a necessary part of the Christian life, just not the part that saves you.
Four of the rules show up in verse 29, and they are not all of the same kind. They are presented together because they are a rough and ready summary of Leviticus 17-18, which, the council recognized, was presented from the beginning as a list of rules to govern life together between circumcised Jews and uncircumcised sojourners who attached themselves to Israel, and which they applied to the Gentiles. But of these four issues, some deal with morality and some with charity.
We might want to think “They are all moral questions.” But Paul’s treatment of meat offered to idols in 1 Cor. 8 and Romans 14 doesn’t fit with that. In those passages Paul says that it does not offend God to eat meat offered to idols. It does offend God to cause a brother who doesn’t realize this to stumble, an offense against charity.
We might then say, “They are all about charity.” But the Bible nowhere speaks about sexual immorality that way. Paul does not say, “So long as no one stumbles, then fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lust, and so on are fine.” These kinds of behaviors are moral matters, always and everywhere to be regarded as sinful.
The middle two prohibitions are especially tricky, and they are both are concerned with consuming blood, either by drinking or by eating strangulated flesh with the blood still in it. Why is this a big deal? Lev. 17:11 teaches that life is in the blood, and that the use of life-blood is for making atonement for sin. Only God had the right to receive blood sacrifices, to make claims on the life that He created and gave in the first place by “drinking” blood.
But here’s the question: Is this an eternal expression of God’s character that nothing can change like sexuality, or is it a temporary command like circumcision or eating idol-meat? Consuming blood is not directly addressed in other passages like idol meat and sexuality are, but if we look at the Lord’s Supper as a guide, we see that drinking blood is acceptable under the new covenant. Blood is no longer reserved for making atonement; atonement has already been made through the blood of Jesus. Christians are permitted to drink blood in a sacramental way, and as long as pagan notions are avoided (just as with meat offered to idols), consuming blood in everyday contexts is not forbidden.
The council themselves might not have even known what we know now, but as verse 28 notes, the coauthor of the letter was none other than the Holy Spirit. He knew that these things would be made clear later through the apostles’ teaching, and so during the overlap of old and new creations, He led the council to declare these things off limits in order to preserve fellowship between Jew and Gentile until the Spirit completed the work of inspiring Scripture. And fellowship was preserved. The Gentiles rejoiced when they heard that circumcision was unnecessary, and they were willing to keep these laws so that they could please God and not give offense to the consciences of the Jews.
Here is why this letter should give you joy, as well: Do you have different convictions on certain matters than the people sitting around you? You are still fully a member of God’s people, and you have joined a community of people more dedicated to loving you than to being right. Do you want to please God? He has given you a clear law to follow, and His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. Are you worried that your sin, even serious sin, keeps you from being accepted by God? Remember that morality doesn’t save you. The blood of Jesus has atoned for your sins. Trust in Him alone, and rejoice in His salvation.

Posted on Wednesday, October 08, 2014 by CJ Bowen