The apostles’ council took place in about the year 50 AD. Described in Acts 15, the interpretation of the result of this meeting has been of crucial influence; based on this outcome the church thought that, with the exception of only a few provisions, the apostles had annulled the Torah for the gentiles. Nearly every discussion about the applicability of the Torah invokes the outcome of this meeting. So let’s take a closer look at what happened there.
The four provisions
The apostles’ council results in four provisions that are then sent out in a letter. Mentioned in one breath, they are found three places in the book of Acts: during the meeting, in the well-known letter and in the context of a review of the meeting. First, the text of the letter itself:
28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. Acts 15 (AKJV)
In any case it is clear that the four provisions are about necessary things. To me, as a gentile, these four provisions really make me wonder about a few things. They seem so arbitrary. Why are specifically these four things mentioned?
· Do these four provisions replace the entire Torah?
· Have these four provisions replaced circumcision?
· Are these provisions what is left of the ritual cleansing requirements?
· Are the four provisions conditions upon which the gentiles may enter the synagogue?
· Are the four provisions the requirements to be met in order to participate in taking communion?
These are logical questions for any gentile. We will have to seek answers to them and perhaps then the significance of the four provisions will become clear.
These provisions are first stated during the meeting itself (Acts 15:20), immediately followed by the comment:
21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (NKJV)
It seems as if those at the meeting are being reassured. Here the Torah, by reference to Moses, is mentioned as something to which attention is being devoted every week. Could that mean that in addition to the four provisions, the rest of the Torah is being covered over the course of the year as the synagogues read the Torah portion for each week? The four provisions are summarized (for the third time) in Acts 21, and here they are, for the first time, presented in a certain context.
24 them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. 25 As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.” Acts 21(AKJV)
This portion of scripture concludes with the four provisions, but what is mentioned at first is interesting. Paul and his men purify themselves by offering a sacrifice and having their heads shaved. This refers to a voluntary sacrifice in connection with the promises they have made, but not in connection with any sacrifice to atone for sin. For Paul is was also clear that Christ is the perfect sacrifice for sin. The sacrifice referred to here is of some other sort, an offering made as part of a provision for ritual purification. So those sort of things are things that the gentiles need not do. These are summary indications, yet they are not without significance, and at least we get somewhere with them.
I conclude the following from the three texts: the Torah will be read out to the gentiles every week, so that in the normal course of the years’ readings the gentile believers will receive further instruction in the Torah. Now, at this point they must in any case do what is necessary: comply with the four provisions. In order to purify themselves they need not offer any sacrifices, shave their heads and the like, as to which I conclude that the purification provisions of the Torah do not apply for the gentiles.
Search for their meaning
Those four provisions seem rather arbitrary to us - as if the apostles came up with them using a process something like “pin the tail on the donkey” and just selected four items. Of course that is not the case, but for me, as a western Christian, it seems that way. So indeed why these four items, when there could be so many others?
Do the four provisions replace circumcision?
This is not a strange thought, because after all, circumcision was the subject that led them to call this meeting. This was the matter in dispute with which Paul and Barnabas were sent to confer with the apostles (Acts15:1,2). Circumcision had been the minimal requirement for approaching God. Those who were circumcised were permitted to enter the boundary enclosure of the tabernacle, and later, the temple. Those who were uncircumcised did not get any further than the court in front of the tabernacle or to a wall surrounding the temple called the “soreg”.
Circumcision had always been considered the external sign that you were one of the people of God (Gen.17:14). As one circumcised, you could draw near to God. A gentile who converted to Judaism made that clear by undergoing the baptism of a proselyte - and circumcision. After a gentile had undergone these two things, he became a proselyte. Such individuals were taken up in the Jewish community; they could enter the temple, no longer held back by the “soreg” (the wall mentioned above dividing the gentiles from the Jews). He ate of the sacrifices and received instruction in Torah (Ex.12:48). No longer merely present, he had been adopted, and was now included in the household of Israel.
And yet circumcision alone was not sufficient to approach God. In the days preceding the high holidays of the biblical festivals, those who were circumcised also had to be clean, which is why there were purification requirements to approach God. These purification provisions were in addition to the requirement of being circumcised.
The council made it very clear that circumcision was not necessary. Physical circumcision was replaced by circumcision of the heart, conversion (more about this in paragraph 11.2). The discussion moved on to the additional requirements to approach God, in this case: purity. If circumcision is not necessary, then what about the rituals of purification? Neither do the gentiles have to comply with these. I think that is the case based on the part of Acts 21 (verses 24-25) mentioned above.
Try for a moment to stand in the shoes of a Jew. They have always had a variety of obligations to fulfill before they were permitted to approach God and the gentiles don’t have to meet any of these requirements! The Jews must purify themselves and the gentiles can just appear before God in their dirty boots! Does God have two faces? So do the gentiles really not have to comply with anything?
But that cannot be true! Ok, there were four requirements to which the apostles agreed, but is that really all that the gentiles have to do?
Do the four provisions replace the entire Torah?
The Torah contains many provisions: 613 to be precise. If context and culture are not included - and these four points are the only things left of the Torah - then for me it is all abracadabra. Even the ten commandments have six more requirements than these. And stranger yet, from the standpoint of content, there is no trace of the ten commandments to be seen in “the four” items chosen by the apostles. Any understanding of the interpretation of the four provisions is certainly not obvious. I understand that I am not allowed to eat any blood, and things that have been strangled; but am I allowed to eat unclean meat? And incidentally, am I permitted to lie? Because that is not stated in the four requirements. I am not to engage in fornication, that is one of the four requirements. However, no prohibition against breaking and entering is mentioned. Am I allowed to rob a bank? Can crime then be permitted to benefit the perpetrator?
Of course I am exaggerating, but if it is really the case that the four requirements are the only things left of the entire Torah then what I have written is not so strange. It is clear that this option – that the four requirements replace the entire Torah – must be rejected. There is no logic in that interpretation.
History of the church
I can’t deny though that throughout the ages many believers have indeed regarded the four provisions resulting from the council of the apostles as if these had replaced the whole Torah. The apostolic letter is clenched tightly as a banner and proof that the rest of the Torah does not apply for the gentiles. Yet even these four remaining rules have not been taken seriously by the church. I have never heard a preacher or minister warn the congregation about eating the meat of wild game, which has generally been killed by some form of strangulation. Nor as to blood sausage or products that in the past were colored with blood have I ever heard any mention in any bible study. You could still attribute this to ignorance, but where has there ever been any research into these matters? And could it be that halal meats (*trans. note: as is widely available wherever there are Islamic butcher shops) constitute meat sacrificed to idols? If Christians are really subject to the four requirements then there should at least be some discussion about what we currently understand to be the meat of strangled animals and that of animals which have been offered as a sacrifice to idols. But we never hear anything about any of this. Even if the four requirements were indeed the only ones with which the gentiles have to comply, then the gentiles have taken even that small remainder with a grain of salt.
And … I do understand that. As I see it, the nonchalance with which western Christians have treated the four requirements (and continue to treat them) is due to the fact that we have so little insight or understanding of them. The meaning of them is so obscure to us. Somewhere in the back of our heads we suspect that the four requirements have to do with that culture, that they do not in fact pertain to us, but rather, to the culture of the first churches. So we do not feel like they are addressed to us personally. I can go a long way with this train of thought. I think we have to seek an answer in this direction.
Cultural sins corrected
Of course these four provisions did not just drop out of the sky. They were precisely the right ones. They point the finger at the sore spot: The place where there was a rub between customary Greek cultural practices and values in the Kingdom of God. Many customs found in the Greek culture were not labeled as sins because the law of God was unknown to them. According to Greek law what they did was fine. Here I introduce the concept of cultural sins: customs inherent within a culture, so ingrained in what everyone does and what is considered to be normal. You could also refer to them as societal sins, sins in connection with the way the society in question operates.
Greek men had intercourse with temple prostitutes, a practice believed to compel the gods to grant them prosperity in their work and family life. And Greek people attended services to worship their idols. This involved the offer of sacrifices, consumption of meat and a sort of communion. Paul refers to the idolatrous meals, calling them the “demons’ table”:
21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 1Cor.10 (RSV)
Four necessary action points
The four provisions mentioned, which came out of the apostles’ council, were very relevant. On those points all of the believing gentiles were defective without feeling guilty or sinful. These sinful customs were part of their cultural heritage. It is only in the light of God that they are seen as sins. It is as if revelation is necessary to be able to recognize these customs as sins. When the lamp of God goes on, neutral customs apparently damage His Name.
The gentiles who have come to faith must repent of these practices. The four points requiring action were definitely not the only sins in Greek culture, but they were the ones with the most significant impact. They were very detrimental and had to be addressed immediately.
Sins become more starkly illuminated when you participate in the Lord’s Supper: communion. Sins are always injurious, but even more so if you take communion.
29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 1Cor.11 (NKJV)
You can attend a service like a tourist and view all of it from a distance, but as soon as you participate in the Lord’s Supper/communion, you partake of the Lord Jesus himself. You enter the circle of the Holy One. Improper participation can harm us, so a warning is appropriate. In any event, the four provisions are also intended as a requirements which must be met in order to take part in the Lord’s Supper. In order to be able to take part, the gentiles really must refrain from these cultural sins. You can’t take part in communion and continue going to the temple prostitute, or participate in a sacrifice ritual and eat of it. This is really quite logical. The conditions the apostles set for the gentiles protect them from being harmed by the effects of God’s holiness. It shows the concern of the shepherd for the flock.
The 2nd apostles’ council
Now let us return to the observation that we do not feel that the four provisions speak to us personally nor do we feel held to account by them. It should now be clear that all of this has to do with the fact that our society has its own cultural sins that are different than those of the first churches. Every age and culture has its own societal sins. Christians do not generally visit any mosque in which they bow down to Allah. They do not attend a Satan’s church or visit any other creepy sect. Nor does any believer require revelation about visiting prostitutes or other forms of adultery, fornication or sexual uncleanness. These things do happen, but they are properly labeled and considered to be sin. And yet, given the apostolic letter that was distributed, to refrain from the consumption of blood sausage and wild game that has been strangled should be a normal Christian choice.
Suppose another such meeting were to be held again in Jerusalem and not Greek culture up for discussion this time, but rather, current western culture. Which provisions would be designated for us? Which wrongful elements from western culture has Christianity embraced? Is Christian culture so entangled with worldly culture that sins are no longer recognized? In short:
Our action points
I would like to cautiously offer four things for consideration. Four things which I suspect the apostles would find to be stumbling blocks to us in the practice of our faith:
1. Our culture is prosperous. Our prosperity is not only based on the fact that we (the Dutch) are a hard-working people. There is another side to this. Our prosperity can, to some considerable extent, be explained by the fact that it has been possible to get products at the lowest prices due to the low wages elsewhere on earth. Our prosperity is based on child labor, oppression and/or failure to pay the true/fair cost for labor and resources. This is also the basis of our throw-away culture. We ransack our way through special deals, always in search of the cheapest option, and ...we think it very normal to do so. In this area Christians are no more aware as consumers than are unbelievers, nor are they expressing any clearer critique about it than are unbelievers.
2. Another point is the general acceptance within Christian circles about wearing sensual and provocative clothing. Anyone offended by clothing with revealing or low necklines and excessively short miniskirts is just considered old fashioned - no longer keeping up with the times. In our culture this is a completely normal phenomenon. So has that become one of our blind spots? Would the apostles have had an opinion about this? I assume they would indeed have something to say about it.
3. Our youth culture, and perhaps the adult culture as well, is inclined to accept worldly things. The youth do convert to the faith, choose to be baptized or are confirmed, but there is little inclination to pursue a path of sanctification. And in any case the matter of sanctification is not a strong point of the western church. It is one thing for a smoker to come to faith while still addicted to smoking, but it is something entirely different for a believer to take up smoking after having come to faith. It is fair and reasonable that an individual might bring along an addiction that they have not yet overcome, but to take up a bad habit after having converted to the faith is simply not appropriate for us. And immoderate consumption of alcohol is also accepted among Christian young people. Subsumed under the category: freedom. Yet the Bible clearly labels drunkenness as a work of the flesh. It is even so serious that it can imperil a person’s chance to inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal.5:21)! And finally, there is the part of youth culture involving the freedom to engage in sexual conduct. Sex has come to be considered a normal part of every dating relationship….. And as long as that premarital sex is a preliminary to an actual marriage, the damage is limited. But how many girlfriends/boyfriends/sweethearts went before the one that became a spouse? The apostles would definitely call into question Christian youth culture and inquire of us about these matters.
4. As the fourth point I will raise the question about a christian custom that has little or no biblical foundation: the celebration of Christmas. The “story of Christmas” itself can be found in the Bible, but that is as far as it goes. The date, the customs surrounding it, even merely the idea of celebrating it at all – none of this can be found in the Bible. The date is derived from a culture of idolatry: worship of the sun. It is celebrated in connection with the solstice, and accordingly, falls on the shortest day of the year. The celebration of Christmas is clearly of extra-biblical origin and actually everyone knows that. Both believers and non-believers know that Christ was not born on the 25th of December. But nonetheless it is still celebrated because …. well, it is ingrained in our culture. Would the apostles write to us about this customary so-called christian cultural expression? I think so.
At the time of the apostles’ council the Greeks needed correction about the four requirements. How long is our list? And consider what would occur if such a letter reached our church. Would we be angry at the apostles? Or would we take their points seriously? Are we open to being corrected or do would we just defend ourselves because we have come to love some of our cultural sins so much that we are not willing to label them as sins? It takes courage to shine the light of God on your own culture and traditions. The Holy Spirit will convict you about the most needful things. This is how the apostles’ council finally becomes relevant to our times.
This text is a copy of chapter 5 from the Dutch book Vrij van de Wet?
Publisher: Sola Scriptura, Wijngaarden, The Netherlands
Author: E. Noordermeer. Translated by D.A. Schechter