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. (Acts 15:29)
In Sunday morning’s sermon, I was tight for time. Within the squeeze of a brief exposition, it wasn’t possible to say much on Acts 15 v 20, 29. Yet these intriguing verses may have raised a bunch of questions in our minds! All this talk about meat, blood and sexual immorality. What on earth is it all about?
Well, here’s a quick Q & A follow up…
Having emphasised grace alone, why did James give the Gentiles four restrictions? Most certainly it wasn’t to help them obtain salvation! That would go against the overall tide of Acts 15, which makes it abundantly clear that we are saved by grace alone (v 11) through faith alone (v 9) in Christ alone (v 19). I would suggest there were two likely reasons for giving these directions. One, they made table-fellowship between Jewish and Greek Christians possible. And two, they removed some unnecessary barriers in the evangelisation of Jews.
Can you explain the part about idols, meat and blood please? “Meat sacrificed to idols” was simply meat that had been offered to idols in worship. This meat was then consumed in temple feasts or sold in shops for purchase. “Blood” refers to meat that still had blood in it (Leviticus 17:8-13), while the “meat of strangled animals” is exactly what it says on the tin. The reason eating strangled animals was forbidden was because the creature’s blood hadn’t drained and it amounted to eating blood.
Isn’t sexual immorality the ‘odd one out’ on this list? The other directions seem to be ceremonial, whereas this one is moral. Yes it does stand out from the rest – it definitely seems to be in the moral category. However, we should also bear in mind that in the eyes of a Jew sexual immorality would have also made a Gentile ceremonially unclean. In that sense, it is not out of place on this list. Here were four Gentile behaviours which would have restricted fellowship between Jews and Gentiles.
What exactly is meant by sexual immorality in this passage? That’s actually a hard question! The Greek word (‘porneai’) is a broad term referring to a wide range of unlawful sexual behaviours. In this context, I think there are three possibilities as to what the word means…
1. James is just speaking broadly about all forms of sexual immorality.
2. It refers sexual immorality particularly associated with the pagan temples. This view (which I personally lean towards) would dovetail well with the mention of food polluted by idols. James may be reminding Gentile believers to steer well clear of the temples and their sacred prostitution.
3. Some, such as John Stott, believe that the “sexual immorality” here refers to breaking Jewish marriage laws. In Leviticus 18:6-8 the Jews were forbidden from marrying their distant relatives. However the Gentiles didn’t follow these guidelines (they were only restricted from marrying their most immediate relatives). Given that Leviticus 18 is located in such close proximity to Leviticus 17 (dealing with food laws and blood), this interpretation may have some mileage to it.
Is it wrong for Christians today to eat blood? A difficult question, and one over which Bible believing Christians disagree! Some would argue that the prohibition against eating blood predates the law of Moses (Gen 9:14). They would say it is therefore a universal restriction. However others (including myself) would argue that it is ultimately part of the ceremonial law, which was fulfilled in Christ. Jesus declaration that all foods are clean (Mark 7:19) seems to set a strong, universal principle that all foods are allowable – even those with blood in them. But if we are happy to eat a rare steak with a clear conscience, we should be sensitive to those who don’t see it as acceptable (Rom 14:13-18). In all things, love should be pre-eminent.