The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 5
by John Lowe
James began by referring to Peter’s just-completed witness to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles at Cornelius’s home and described it as God’s “taking from the Gentiles “a people for His name” (a people for Himself) (v. 14). James now showed how the coming of the Gentiles into the people of God was grounded in the Old Testament prophets. Basically, he quoted from the Septuagint text of Amos 9:11–12, with possible allusions from Jeremiah 12:15 and Isaiah 45:21. In the Hebrew text of Amos 9:11-12, the prophet spoke of the coming restoration of Israel, which God would bring about. The house of David would be rebuilt and the kingdom restored to its former Glory. Edom and all the nations over which David ruled would once again be gathered into Israel. The Greek text differs significantly and speaks of the remnant of humankind and all the nations seeking the Lord. In both traditions, there is the concept of “the nation’s which are called by my name,” which links directly with “a people for His name” (v. 14). That is the very essence of the church. It is a called-out assembly of believers. That calling-out process began at Pentecost with the Jews. It was extended by Peter, in the house of Cornelius, to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas had just put before the church the record of how great and vast a work that calling-out promised to be among the Gentiles. There is no more appropriate description of the church in the New Testament—it is essentially a company of called-out ones gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. As such it is distinct from both Israel and the nations. This is the main concept James wished to develop. In the Gentiles, God was choosing a people for himself, a new restored people of God, Jew, and Gentile in Christ, the true Israel. What they were now beginning to see, and what James saw foretold in Amos, was that these promises included the Gentiles.
God’s present purpose in the world is to call out from among all nations the church. After that God will turn his attention to the falling fortunes of “the tabernacle of David.” Certainly, God was now going to work more and more among the Gentiles. Sure, he was now at work building the church. But that did not mean He has forgotten His promises to the nation of Israel, and to David in particular. God is going to restore the ruined tabernacle of David; He is yet going to reestablish Davidic rule over the nations. But everything in its own order. Davidic rule will indeed be reestablished over Israel, but in God’s time. David’s rejected son is at God’s right hand, still bitterly rejected by the nation of Israel.
“The residue of men” refers to the Hebrew remnant still alive at the end of the Great Tribulation, those who will recognize in the returning Christ their long-awaited, long-rejected Messiah. At the second coming of Christ, the Jewish believing remnant will go into the millennial kingdom along with a residue of believing Gentiles.
God was not taken by surprise by Jewish unbelief. Although he could have responded to their faith by immediately restoring the kingdom, He foreknew their rejection of Christ and he used it to bring in the church. The church age has superseded the kingdom age. Kingdom prophecies will yet have a literal fulfillment. But in the meantime, prophecies regarding the Gentiles coming into salvation blessing are now having an initial him partial fulfillment in the church. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.”
19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
Having established from Scripture the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, James drew his conclusion to the question of requirements for Gentile membership. Gentiles should not be given undue difficulties; no unnecessary obstacles should be placed in their way. Though somewhat more restrained in expression, his conclusion was basically that of Peter (v. 10): Gentiles should not be burdened with the law and circumcision. The leading apostle and the leading elder were in agreement. The issue was all but settled. Resolving it, however, raised another problem. If Gentiles were not being required to observe the Jewish ritual laws, how would Jewish Christians who maintain strict Torah observance be able to fellowship with them without running the risk of being ritually defiled themselves? James saw the question coming and addressed it in his next remark (v. 20). Gentiles should be directed to abstain from four things: from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.
So that was that. Paul had won, and the Gentiles were free. The Holy Spirit had worked His will. Man had fought and prayed and struggled and differed, and the Holy Spirit had overruled it all to bring about His own sovereign, perfect will. Jews and Gentiles were one in Christ. The way of salvation was the same for all—faith in Christ.
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
When looked at closely, all four of these belong to the ritual sphere. Meat offered to idols was an abomination to Jews, who avoided any and everything associated with idolatry. Pollution would be caused by eating unclean food. Much of the meat for sale in Gentile markets had been ritually offered to idols. Eating such meat, in Jewish eyes, would be the same as participating in idolatry. Second, there was “Strangled meat” which was a prohibition against eating animals that had been slaughtered in a manner that left the blood in it. Third, there was the “blood” itself. It was considered sacred to the Jews, and all meat was to be drained of blood before consuming it. Meat in which blood remained was forbidden on the ground that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” and the blood belonged on God’s altar (see Leviticus 17:10-13. Again, this prohibition was warranted in order to make fellowship easier between Jews and Gentiles. These three requirements were thus all ritual, dealing with matters of clean and unclean foods. The fourth category seems somewhat less ritual and more moral: sexual immorality. It is possible that this category was also originally intended in a mainly ritual sense, referring to those “defiling” sexual relationships the Old Testament condemns, such as incest, marriage outside the covenant community, marriage with a close relative, bestiality, homosexuality, and the like. And the Gentile sexual mores were lax compared to Jewish standards, and it was one of the areas where Jews saw themselves most radically different from Gentiles. A Jew would find it difficult indeed to consort with a Gentile who did not live by his own standards of sexual morality.
The four requirements suggested by James were often referred to as “the apostolic decrees,” they belong to a period in the life of the church when there was close contact between Jewish and Gentile Christians, when table fellowship especially was common between them. In a later day, by the end of the first century, Jewish Christianity became isolated into small sects and separated from Gentile Christianity. There no longer existed any real fellowship between them. There are thus four moral prohibitions: no idolatry, no sexual immorality, no murder (“blood” now viewed as the shedding—not consuming—of blood), and “do not do to another what you wouldn’t wish done to yourself.”
21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
The moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, we’re already assumed. All Christians, Jew, and Gentile, lived by them. The Gentiles needed no reminder of such basic marks of Christian behavior. Morality was not the issue at the Jerusalem conference. Fellowship was, and the decrees were a sort of minimum requirement placed on the Gentile Christians in deference to the scruples of their Jewish Brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, all four of the apostolic decrees are found in Leviticus 17 and 18 as requirements expected of resident aliens: abstinence from pagan sacrifices (17:8), blood (17:10-14), strangled meet (17:13), and illicit sexual relationships (18:6-23). Perhaps this is what James meant in his rather obscure concluding remark: the Law of Moses is read in every synagogue everywhere; so these requirements should come as no shock to the Gentiles. They are in the Old Testament and had been required of Gentiles associating with Jews from the earliest times. This last statement was probably intended to calm down the Pharisees in the Jerusalem church.
The Torah was especially important in their eyes. It was important to them that Moses, whom they revered, should be preached to all those who were inquiring after God. Any attempt to diminish the authority of Moses would be suspect in their eyes. Throughout the Gospels we see them opposing Christ with Moses. James’s remark could also be taken in another sense, which would fit the context well: there are Jews in every city who cherish the Torah. Gentile Christians should be sensitive to their scruples and not give them offense in these ritual matters, for they too may be reached with the Gospel.
With the conclusion of this speech by James, all outward opposition collapsed. It only remained to put the decision of the council into operation.