Acts 15, an interpretation question

2 10 2008

Can I get some help interpreting the meaning of Acts 15?  Particularly the following two passages… they are nearly identical.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” [Acts 15:19-20]

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 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. Farewell.” [Acts 15:28-29]

Why does it say “not to burden you with anything beyond” these requirements?  I know that this letter was directed at the Gentiles that were turning to God [verse 19], so does that mean that these are the first steps to following God?  That these 4 things are somewhat of the bare minimum of obeying God?

I also was wondering what the 4 “requirements” meant.  I found a good website that breaks these 4 requirements down, so here it goes.

  • “abstain from food sacrificed to idols” – This seems pretty straight forward, dont eat any meat from an animal that was given to another god because that would be a form of worshipping that other god.
  • abstain “from blood” – Upon reading this passage, I thought this meant murder, but upon reading W.J. Wolfaardt’s (author of website mentioned above) interpretation it appears to mean eating or drinking blood, blood that “which when shed causes death”.  But does this include abstaining from murdering someone, or just make sure that you don’t drink the blood of someone you kill?
  • abstain “from the meat of strangled animals” – This also has to do with blood.  If an animal is strangled, the blood of that animal is not properly drained, and the person eating that animal would be eating the blood of that animal.  So, it seems that animals need to be killed in a certain way in order for the blood to drain from that animal.  Also slitting the animals throat is said to be more humane than killing the animal by strangling it (seems true, quick and easy compared to slow and painful).
  • abstain “from sexual immorality” – This one is also pretty straight forward, any sexual relationship other than a married man and woman is considered immoral to God.

So by how it is written here in Acts, are these the bare minimum requirements of being a Christian?  Lots of people say (as does the Bible) that all sin is the same, which may be the case, but then why start with these 4?  Are these more important somehow?  Also, is the blood one still relevant today, because many of the verses dealing with blood were taken care of by Jesus?

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4 responses

2 10 2008
Jason

When reading scripture we must always pay attention to a couple of things. First, the context from which we are pulling the verses, what is happening, what are they writing about, who is doing the writing, and so on and so forth. Second, we must realize the historical context and what was going on in the world of the writer. Third, and this is terribly important, we must acknowledge that one verse or one chapter, or one book even, is part of a larger narrative and is just one piece to the story.

That being said, the text we are questioning here seems to be a text which is about purity, and not only purity, but Jewish purity. Let us remember that what brought this whole need for Paul to write to the Gentile brothers was the preaching of circumcision by the brothers who were given no instruction. To be honest, I’d be a little freaked out about it too. So when Paul says that he doesn’t want to burden the Gentile brothers with anything beyond this he is partaking in the discussion within the early church about whether or not the Gentiles were to follow the Jewish law or not.

I would not say that these things are the bare minimum for following G-d because, obviously, that leads us down dangerous roads of legality and action oriented holiness. Jesus doesn’t lay down too many rules and neglects specifying things, on purpose in my opinion, because what he talks about is the position of the heart. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In the sermon on the mount we see a few very important things which can help us clarify this verse. We read Jesus saying, “you have heard it said…but I tell you” so many times throughout this particular sermon that, if we are paying attention, we see that Jesus is ready to push the envelope. Jesus is not interested in a religion of bare minimums but rather in a way of life that is always straining and attempting to go further. We also see in this sermon that Jesus is not talking about outward actions so much as he is talking about the attitude of our heart (or mind). Jesus spent much of his time speaking against the religious people of his day. He was fed up with outward action based holiness while the heart was in a dire state. The pharisees received the brunt of this verbal abuse because of their extreme hubris and lack of a servants heart. Remember that we serve a savior who rules with a towel, washing the feet of creation.

In regards to blood, we have grown up in a “Christian” society which has told us that it is okay for Christians to kill in war. Questioning if it’s okay to murder or not is completely irrelevant because we serve a savior who told us to love our enemies. Killing someone is never done out of love, even if you are protecting the weak. Christians are called to go and do life with those who are in exile around us (the poor, destitute, etc.) and if need be to suffer and die along side of them. We are not to come in and save the day as the white knight on a war horse. If we ride in, we ride in on a humble donkey. If we save, we do it through peace and enemy love. Let us take a queue from the first three centuries of Christians, before the church was co-opted by the state, and realize along with the church fathers that when Jesus disarmed Peter before he was arrested he disarmed all Christians.

Finally, I would like address the straight forwardness of sexual immorality as interpreted here. I think that reducing sexual immorality simply to the sins of a homosexual couple is a dire misinterpretation. What we do as Christians when we read scripture is that we read it through the revelation of G-d, which is Jesus the Christ. Here I am going to draw on the Sermon on the Mount again and say that sexual immorality doesn’t stop at homosexuality but goes all the way into issues of looking at a woman with the wrong thoughts. Again, Jesus is concerned with the heart. It is extremely easy, not to mention a cop out, to simply go through the motions of a “holy life.” I lived that way for years and still find myself falling back into it from time to time because it’s an easy way out of letting G-d change me. Holding to a set of rules is simple, but allowing G-d to change our hearts is what Jesus was more concerned with. Even Paul realizes that actions are petty in the grand scheme of things. He was a perfect Jew as far as the law was concerned and then Jesus found him and he came to “count it all as shit,” (the word here translated as ‘loss’ is more properly translated this way).

I hope this helps.

3 10 2008
chadabshier

Jason,
Thank you for your input. I just want to make it clear that I did not reduce sexual immorality to “the sins of a homosexual couple”. I said anything other than a married man and woman… this includes prostitution, sex with animals, rape, pre-marital sex, orgies, adultery, homosexuality, etc. I purposely wrote it the way I did to NOT reduce it to only homosexual couples.

3 10 2008
chadabshier

I understand what you are saying, and that you need to take into account the whole Bible and figure out the context of the situation. I also understand that Christianity is not an action oriented holiness, however, I think that many of my questions are still relevant. Also, don’t get caught on the words of “bare minimum” … maybe that was a poor way to write it, I like the way I worded it better when I said that maybe “these are the first steps to following God”.

With that being said, Jason, you talk about how Jesus is concerned with allowing God to change our hearts, obviously I agree with that, I have read the Bible and I am not trying to take things out of context. But why write to new believers, or people that are in the process of “turning to God” that they “will do well” to avoid these 4 things? Maybe it is impossible to truly allow God the privilege of entering your heart if you are committing one of these 4 (for lack of better word) requirements. Can you really allow God to enter if you are worshiping other gods? Or if you are living a life as a prostitute, homosexual, etc. Or if you are drinking the blood of animals or people therefore disrespecting God and His blood covenant with the world?

All I’m saying is that this verse is very interesting.

3 10 2008
Jason

Please forgive me. I misread the interpretation of sexual immorality. I would like to talk about this more, however, I don’t think this is the correct avenue through which to pursue this conversation.

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