Acts 15 -- The Turning Point for Historical Worship:
Are Gentiles Still Bound to a Part of the Law?
|Copyright © 2003 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
Worship Without the Law
Acts 15 is the critical fulcrum point in history when historical Judaism formally and with finality gave way to Christian worship within the fledging church. The Law, along with its ceremonies, feasts, Sabbaths, diets, sacrifices, ordinances, and traditions was pronounced null, void, and not binding on the Gentiles whom God had brought into His body. Suddenly, the world of worship was born afresh without the trappings of temple worship directing the future.
If that were the full extent of the teachings in Acts 15, it would be of sufficient warrant to eagerly tear this passage apart and understand it from all possible nuances. Yet, there is much more here. We will examine with some attention just two of these "side" themes:
The Debate: Salvation Apart from Circumcision and the Law
With "great dissention and debate" Paul and Barnabas counter-argued with the believers who once had been Pharisees. These ex-Pharisees were teaching "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Simply stated, the ex-Pharisees had created a new condition for salvation: circumcision. This was causing upset to the church in Antioch, and doubtless threatened the future spiritual stability of the faith in uncounted churches beyond.
It is with abiding interest that we read that Paul and Barnabas initiated a public and spirited debate with these men. It is true that these men on both sides of the issue were brothers ("some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed" v. 5) and it is equally true that they were found to be theologically incorrect. But here we have a living example of Paulís repeated counsel (oft repeated in his letters to the churches) that errors in theology that are publicly taught need to be debated and refuted in public (Titus 1:9-16).
This assertion, that circumcision was "necessary" for salvation, was so powerful and so sincerely believed by those who had come out of the sect of the Pharisees, that it seems that Paul and Barnabas were unable to fully quell the corrupt theology within Antioch. This is troubling when you consider that both Paul and Barnabas were called "apostles" (Acts 14:14), and that Paul himself had been taught for three years by the resurrected Christ just for this mission (Galatians 1:12, 16-20, 2 Corinthians 12:1-7), and that the doctrine of the apostles was considered equal in reliability and stature with those of the Law and Prophets (2 Peter 3:15,16).
The Church Takes Action
So how did the church choose to handle a direct theological assault on such a core doctrine as that of salvation itself? They chose to send their best theological advocates (Paul and Barnabas) to counsel with the other apostles, the elders, all the church congregation who cared to attend (v. 4), along those with whom they had the actual disputes (v.5).
I fear that if such a major theological assault on the doctrine of salvation were to occur today that the church en masse would not respond in a similar manner. Instead, I can imagine that the first thing most church members would do is argue from the perspective of "unity". As those who fancied themselves as peace brokers they would argue that since the individuals espousing and proselytizing for the new doctrine of salvation were sincere believers with good reputations that we must give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their doctrine is not truly "new" after all and that they were simply being "misunderstood" and "distorted" by those who desired to be contentious. Then, I can further imagine, that those who sought to publicly repudiate the attack on the historic doctrine of salvation would themselves be disparaged as "breaking the unity" and maligned for not keeping their disagreement private. Ultimately, I can see how all but the aberrant theologians would be silenced, not through stirring debates around the meaning of Godís Word, but by Christians who have had their mental faculties desensitized to heresy by the cultural morass of "unity at all costs", and that cost includes faithfulness to the very Word of God.
In Acts 15 we find the church has now opened the public debate to the apostles, elders, and to those asserting a new doctrine of salvation (by "new" we mean a doctrine other than what the apostles and Christ taught), and every bit of the debate was within the hearing of the congregation. The ex-Pharisees had their full say, arguing that circumcision (the Law of Moses) was "necessary" for salvation (v.5). Do not become confused by the short sixteen word summary statement in verse five; there is little doubt that multiple ex-Pharisees were given ample time to detail their more expansive arguments and fully explain why they believed as they did. To assume that verse five states all that was said ignores that verse seven clearly offers that this was a lengthy debate. Indeed, the very question of whether uncircumcised Gentiles had indeed been granted salvation was at stake, thus all but demanding a thorough hearing of all arguments.
And how was this critical debate finally resolved? Peter, the apostle to the Jews, stood up and reminded the audience, comprised of Jews, Gentiles, apostles, and ex-Pharisees, that God Himself had sent him to the Gentiles. Peter reminded them that this was Godís own choice (v.7) and not that of Peter because Peter did not want to go. Peter reminded the congregation that God poured out His Holy Spirit on these uncircumcised Gentiles, saving them and cleansing their hearts. That God chose the Gentiles for salvation, even though they were uncircumcised, was an eloquent argument that Gentiles not only could be saved without circumcision or the Law, but had already been saved.
Then Paul and Barnabas explained the signs and wonders that took place that verified not only that the gospel had gone out to the Gentiles, but that it had been received by them. In short, these uncircumcised Gentiles were already cleansed, already granted the Holy Spirit, already chosen by God, and already saved--and all without needing circumcision. Therefore, it was obvious that circumcision, and the Law, were unnecessary for salvation.
To conclude the apostlesí arguments, James, the brother of Jesus, stood and quoted the Scriptures explaining that God had always intended to bring salvation to the Gentiles as part of His plan for mankind, to make a name for Himself among these previously unchosen nations.
The Debate is Resolved--Unity Around Theology is Restored
This public theological debate ended in a most encouraging manner. Virtually all the apostles, elders, and church members agreed together that the Gentiles had indeed received salvation from God and should not have to submit to circumcision or to the Mosaic Law (v.22). Even more surprising and satisfying is the fact that apparently even the ex-Pharisees came to agree with this position and to endorse the letter of greetings to the Gentiles (vs.24,25). The entire matter was concluded by a public statement of theology which was written and sent to the Gentile churches explaining that bad theology had gone out by well-intentioned men, but that the Gentiles need no longer be bothered by such things.
If you would contemplate for just a moment the enormity of what happened. Poor theology attacks the doctrine of salvation. The matter is not quietly covered over, rather, a massive public debate follows. Good theology based on apostolic testimony and the Scriptures triumphs over the poor theology of the Judaisers. Again, instead of quietly ending the matter, the final decision is written down in a letter for all to read, and is eventually made a part of the Bible itself. Public debate, public outcomes, published letters, for all Christians to read.
However, Is the Letter a Victory for the Mosaic Law?
Within the letter that is finally written and sent out to the churches are some "essentials" that the Gentiles are supposed to adopt. Presumably these are "essential" with regard to the salvation of the Gentiles, since this was the core subject of the entire debate. While circumcision is not one of these "essentials", the other items listed do have the surface appearance to be fragments of parts of the Mosaic Law.
Many commentators have tried to find very imaginative ways of explaining why such tiny and even obscure fragments of what they assume to be the Mosaic Law are considered salvation "essentials" which would be binding on the Gentiles. Most often they argue that this was just an imperfect compromise position to placate the ex-Pharisees so that they would sign the letter. They argue that the "essentials" in the letter were not truly essentials at all, but rather temporary "good ideas" until the sect of the Pharisees had passed away.
However, the letter itself denies such possible imaginative interpretations. The letter clearly states the Holy Spirit gave the apostles and elders the content of the letter (v.28) including these "essentials" abstainances. Further, the men who reported to the Gentiles that what the letter contained was indeed the perfect will of God were Judas and Silas, prophets of God (v.32). This letter was no man-made compromise, this was the very edict of God which has become the very Word of God.
To make matters even more perplexing, Paul later writes to both the Romans and to the Corinthians that the first prohibition is not really all that binding or essential. He literally tells the Christians in those churches that eating meat sacrificed to idols is acceptable because idols are not real gods. If the prohibition in the Acts 15 letter was a genuine prophecy regarding the essentials of salvation, how could Paul simply contradict that commandment by instructing both Rome and Corinth that they must allow their members to eat meat sacrificed to idols because it is in fact just a Christian liberty? By definition, a liberty is not an "essential".
One Prohibition, Not Four
But these "essential abstainances " were not references to fragments of the Mosaic Law at all. This short list of things to avoid were the very essentials that divided believing Gentile from unbelieving Gentile. They divided Christian from idolater.
Each of these four "essential" things to avoid were not four things, but one. They were meant to be read as "never again worship idols by eating with the idolaters in the sacrificial meals, drinking the cup of blood at the idol sacrifice ceremonies, do not ceremoniously eat the flesh of animals strangled during the worship of idols, and abstain from ritual acts of fornication with temple prostitutes".
In other words, these four seemingly disassociated prohibitions were completely unified around one theme: Christians cannot serve God and idols. One cannot worship God and also worship idols.
This is why these prohibitions are labeled as "essentials" by the Holy Spirit. They are indeed essential for salvation. If one feels comfortable to continue worshipping idols (by participating in their sacrificial meals, drinking their sacrificial blood, eating the sacrificial flesh, and becoming one with an idolís prostitute) then that person would have difficulty explaining how he is a re-born Christian. This is quite essential.
Also take note of the things cited: idols, blood, flesh, unity. Idols are the false gods. Drinking blood is the false wine of the idolís communion cup. Strangled flesh is the false body of the idolís communion dinner. And the temple prostitute is the false unity of the idolís servants. The things listed are the false communion in the service of the idol. Again, to abstain from those things is essential.
Evidences from the Word
What evidences exist in the Word that the list of Acts 15 "essential" prohibitions are not four held-over fragments of the Mosaic Law but are actually just one prohibition against worshipping idols while also claiming to worship God? This is a most proper question to ask since one must assume that all these prohibitions truly apply to idol ceremonies. The phrase "idol ceremonies" is not actually present in the Acts 15 text and it is necessary to assume it into existence if the interpretation offered above is be accepted.
For help we turn to the Bible. Acts 15 tells us that the letter initially went to many of the Gentile churches. In fact, we know for a certainty that the Acts 15 letter, along with the letters of Paul, James, and others, went to all the churches in the world--for all the churches in the world have them even today in a bound volume we refer to as The New Testament.
As a result of the Acts 15 letter being sent and shared broadly, Paul spent quite a bit of time trying to explain the meaning of the Acts 15 letter to the Gentiles and to the churches. That this is a hard to understand letter is evident from the record we have of Paul explaining its meaning to the churches.
Virtually all of 1 Corinthians chapters 8, 9, and 10 appear to be dedicated to explaining the prohibitions given in the Acts 15 letter. Core to understanding the Acts 15 letter is Paulís explanation in chapter 8.
"For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idolís temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?
For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died."
All the prohibitions in the Acts 15 letter, are related to the participation in the temple worship ceremonies of idols--eating sacrificial meat, drinking sacrificial blood, strangling your sacrifice to the idol, sex with temple prostitutes.
Paul Compares True Communion to the False Communion of Idolatry
Later in 1 Corinthians 10 all of Paulís explanations regard equating the acts of drinking to idols, eating to idols, and worshipping idols with the worship of all-too-real demons. It is here that Paul directly compares the worship of idols (and, by extension, demons) with the very worship of Christ during the communion ceremony. He compares the false communion of idolatry to the true communion with Christ.
It is easy to see how the Acts 15 letter caused the church at Corinth to become obsessed, if not a bit confused, about eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Therefore, it was necessary for Paul to write to them more explicit instructions regarding the worship of idols.
In all this, Paul never undermines the original Acts 15 prohibitions, rather, he supports them while also qualifying the "do not eat meat sacrificed to idols" statement. If the Acts 15 letter had not meant "do not eat meat in the pursuit of worshipping idols" but had truly been an outright ban on eating any meats sacrificed to idols then Paul would have been denying the letterís intent in 1 Corinthians 10:25-30 (where he says it is acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols just so long as you are not worshipping them by doing so). The four "essentials" are not four different prohibitions, but merely one, "do not worship idols".
Roman Christians Forsake Meat
Again, in Romans 13:12-14 and all of chapter 14 we are reminded that eating meat and drinking beverages are acceptable activities, but only if we are doing them in thankfulness and in submission to God.
Further, we are reminded that some Christians in Rome are now fully convinced that eating any meat at all is a sin. Where did these Christian men get such an idea, and in the city of Rome where eating meat is utterly common place? They did not get this notion of vegetarianism from the Old Testament, nor did they get if from Christís own examples. Up to this point in history, eating meat was considered a perfectly acceptable and spiritually legitimate activity in which to engage.
It is not a difficult stretch to think that they obtained a copy of the authoritative Acts 15 letter, addressed by apostles and elders, and interpreted its prohibition against "eating meat sacrificed to idols" as a general prohibition against eating meat.
Why a general prohibition against all meat? Given the absurdly idolatrous nature of the city of Rome in Paulís day, with an idolís temple on almost every street corner and in every civic center, how could anyone ever be guaranteed that their meat was not in some way tainted by idol worship? One could literally never be certain that the meat they were eating was not sacrificed (or slaughtered) in the name of some major god or minor household idol, perhaps owned by the very meat merchant himself. This type of doubt could easily have driven the Christians to declare that in order to meet the letter of the law of prohibitions detailed in the Acts 15 correspondence that they had best avoid all meat. Only by avoiding all meat could one be certain that he and his fellow Christians were abiding by the edict of the Holy Spirit to avoid meat sacrificed to idols.
Still, Paul mercifully explains in verse 14 of Romans 14 that every piece of meat is actually "clean" and is worthy to be eaten, however, he dutifully avoids condemning these Christians even while gently educating them. It is not the meat that is unclean, nor is it the manner or name in which it was killed that makes it unclean, it is the belief system, the conscience, and the intent of the meat-eater that makes all the difference between sin or righteousness.
We once again see that the Acts 15 letter is not intended to keep Christians from eating any meat sacrificed to idols (whether intentionally or accidentally), the letter is meant to keep Christians from participating in the ceremonies of idol worship.
Other passages of Scripture provide some perspective on the nature of idol worship as well. These are given here, not as proof texts, but as references that paint a larger picture of the interplay between idol worship, temple prostitution, and eating meat that "still has the life in it". The last phrase means that an animal was killed, possibly even cooked, without first draining its blood (its "life") imbuing the eating and drinking with mystical significance to the idol worshipper and the spiritist.
This passage in Ezekiel is a rebuke to those who wanted to possess the land but not serve God alone. They were worshipping idols, and during that worship they ate animals that had not had their blood drained. In some way they felt this gave them "renewed life" at the feet of their idol god. The animal was killed by strangulation with the intent to keep the blood inside of it specifically for the purpose of this idol worship practice.
Therefore say to them, ĎThus says the Lord God, "You eat meat with the blood in it, lift up your eyes to your idols as you shed blood. Should you then possess the land?" Ď (Ezekiel 33:25)
Even at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we see that idol worship is not merely resumed as a world practice, but is used to entice away Christís own bond-servants. Notice that the act of worship of idols is directly associated with eating "things sacrificed to idols" along with other acts of immorality. Keep in mind that the word "immorality" used here is the Greek word "porneuo" which means "to commit fornication" (porneuo is derived from the word, "prostitute"). In short, idol worship is again linked explicitly to eating the animals sacrificed to the idols and to fornication, probably meaning temple prostitution.
ĎBut I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)
Hosea provides us a sad look at this practice of "temple prostitution". Here Hosea states that the men committed adultery with the temple prostitutes while at the same time offering sacrifices to their wooden idols and burning incense to their false gods (v. 13).
I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot
Or your brides when they commit adultery,
For the men themselves go apart with harlots
And offer sacrifices with temple prostitutes;
So the people without understanding are ruined. (Hosea 4:14)
Of course many of the Gentiles who were saved did forsake their worship of idols. In pointing this out here, my only intent is to emphasize that when Paul says they turned aside from idolatry, it has the fuller meaning of what we just previously saw, that what they turned away from was the worship of idols through the eating of the sacrifices, eating and drinking the blood of strangled animals to "gain life", and temple prostitution. It meant far more than simply having a small statuary on the fireplace mantel. It was a way of life, a social community, a set of worship practices that had to be evacuated and replaced with communion with true believers and with the true God.
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
It is in this larger perspective that we must understand Johnís warning against idolatry. Idolatry is a system of worship as much as it is a fixation on our own lust. When John warns us to guard ourselves against idols, he means for us to guard against false communions, participating in evil sacrificial ceremonies, attempting to gain renewal of life through worldly means, and unifying ourselves with prostitutes of other gods. It is of particular noteworthiness that this warning is the last verse in the book of 1 John.
Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Acts 15 is neither a primer on how to conduct a theological referendum nor is it a guide on how to resurrect obscure fragments of the Mosaic Law with which to bind the Gentiles. Nonetheless, Acts 15 is a beautiful example of what it means for Christians to come together in the unity of the Holy Spirit to resolve a deep theological debate, find the one correct answer, and then publicly announce that we have been united in one mind and in one spirit. Unity, being of one mind, is the painstaking process of isolating doctrinal difference, publicly working through the Scriptures while relying on God for clarity, and all together embracing the most honest interpretation of the Scripture that guides us to the most correct answers.
Likewise, Acts 15 shows us the absolute necessity, the essential nature, of worshipping God alone and rejecting the worship of demons and idols. Christians cannot commune with Christ while also attempting to commune with Satan. And let us be certain to guard our brothers in love by not enticing them to participate in activities we have come to understand as an activity of God-given grace without first fully training their minds and hearts so that their consciences are not violated. For in fact, the Law and the Prophets are summed up in the commands to love God and to love our neighbors.
Paul sums up this love for the brethren in his discussion about the worship of idols. He tells us to help our brethren avoid falling into sin (specifically the sin of idolatry) by first considering how our eating habits will impact the spiritual development of our fellow believers. If we feel we might cause a fellow believer to be emboldened to sin then we need to stop eating or exercising openly whatever liberty we might have in Christ for the sake of that other believer. It is in this context that Paul gives his great summary of what it means to "love the brethren" and to "do all to the glory of God"--not seeking his own profit, but the profit of the many:
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God;
just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)