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Acts 15 - So misunderstood!

Updated: Jul 28, 2023



One of the most misunderstood passages of scripture is Acts 15. In particular, those four strange prohibitions that the apostles gave to the Gentiles.


  1. Don’t eat blood.

  2. Don’t eat the meat of strangled animals.

  3. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols.

  4. Don’t commit sexual immorality (porneia) (Acts 15:20)


Why would God give the Gentiles just four laws?

  • Were they allowed to steal?

  • Could they defraud their neighbor?

  • What about murder?

  • Jealousy? Pride? Bitterness?


To even ask these questions is to not understand what the Jerusalem Council was about—but don’t worry, you’re not alone. The Jerusalem Council was a huge earthquake-size turning point for the growing Ecclesia, but as we will see, it was not about ethical or moral living.


Background

In Acts 10, two people have powerful visitations. First, Cornelius, a Roman soldier and follower of the God of Israel, is met by an angel. The angel tells him that he is known in heaven for his good deeds and that he should “send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.” (Acts 10:5)


Meanwhile, Simon Peter is in a trance on a roof in Jaffa, an hour south by car. We always take our tour groups down to the exact house, and I always tell them that we know it's the exact house because there is a sign in English that says, “Simon the Tanner!” It's good for a few laughs, but if Peter was not there, he wasn't far away.


Peter has a vision where three times he is told to eat unclean food. If you're not used to eating kosher, imagine seeing cockroaches, horses, dogs... you get the picture. That is how a Jewish person viewed unclean food like swine or shrimp. Peter tells the voice, whom he calls ‘Lord,’ that he has never eaten unclean food. The Lord says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (v. 15). This happens three times, and then Peter comes out of the trance.

Ham or Humans

We know one thing did not happen at that moment and two things did. 1) Peter did not go downstairs and announce that the kosher laws are null and void. He did not ask Simon the Tanner to fire up the Weber grill because they were going to have pork chops! No, that did not happen.


Here’s what did happen: 1) Peter wondered what the meaning of the vision was (v. 17) because he knew that God was not outlawing what was clearly written in the Torah about kosher and non-kosher meats. And 2) men from Cornelius’ house knocked on the door and asked for Peter. If Peter had not had the vision that he did, he would not have gone with them. Jews did not enter the homes of Gentiles. This had less to do with any type of racism or superiority complex and more to do with ritual purity and Levitical laws. But Peter does the unthinkable, he goes with them to Cornelius’s house and enters. Peter understands already what many scholars still stumble over—the vision had nothing to do with food laws but about God accepting Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.


Peter goes into his house, preaches the gospel, and the Holy Spirit falls. Then Peter says something that I find quite comical in 2023: who can stop these Gentiles from being baptized? To ask such a question today would be ludicrous. Today, the opposite sentiment is expressed, how dare you baptize these Jews.


But here we have a situation where the entire body of believers was Jewish, and baptism was the rite of entrance into this spiritual Kingdom. Baptism was not a new concept but had a rich tradition within Judaism. But baptizing Gentiles into the body of Messiah had not yet been done. That is why God gave Peter the vision telling him not to call unclean that which he has made clean. Listen to Peter's own words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10: 34-35).


This causes a huge controversy. Other Jewish disciples have gone out from Jerusalem, and they are teaching that in order for the Gentiles to believe, they must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. It is important to understand something. When they talk about obeying the law of Moses, it is already assumed that these new Gentile believers are living according to the 10 Commandments and the law of Messiah. They are already learning the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount, where lust is equal to adultery, and hatred is equal to murder. They’ve already been called to forsake jealousy, bitterness, and pride.


Moral or Ritual?

So when we get to Acts 15—which is a debate over whether or not Gentile believers have to embrace ritual Torah—and by that, I mean the kosher laws, the clean/unclean laws of Leviticus, the Sabbath, and certainly, the feasts of Israel—and don't let me forget the most painful one to any adult male: circumcision. The debate was not over whether or not Gentiles could lie, steal, and murder. That would be ridiculous. They were already being discipled in the moral aspects of Torah, which are universal, as John Polhill states:


“The moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, were 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.” [1]

The Jerusalem Council was about liturgy—practices in worship. What liturgical commands from Leviticus would the Gentile believers have to maintain in order to be right with God and have table fellowship with Jews?


“If Gentiles were not being required to observe the Jewish ritual laws, how would Jewish [Believers] who maintained strict Torah observance be able to fellowship with them without running the risk of being ritually defiled themselves?" [2]

A Jewish believer, who is still very much committed to the kosher laws, would not eat with someone who is eating meat sacrificed to an idol. “The four requirements suggested by James were thus all basically ritual requirements aimed at making fellowship possible between Jewish and Gentile Christians.” [3]


Thus, they made two decisions that enabled table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles.

  1. The Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised or practice ritual torah.

  2. They were given four prohibitions that were all connected to Leviticus so that they would not be in an unclean state when they sat down to eat with Jewish believers. (Note: to be unclean according to Jewish law was not to be in sin. It was merely a state of being that had to be addressed. But there were many different reasons why someone would be deemed unclean for a season, from a woman going through her menstrual period to someone who touched a dead body.)


Don’t bring that in here!

I do believe there was another reason why these laws were given to the Gentiles. Again, the context is worship. They could not bring their pagan practices into a Messianic worship experience. There is a lot of freedom when it comes to worship: you can dance, shout, be silent, sing, etc. But you cannot drink blood or bring meat that was sacrificed to a Roman god to the potluck! [4]


These were expressions from paganism that could not coexist in the ecclesia. There are certain things that are not a matter of worship preference but sin. The Hebrew Bible says that the life of the creature is in the blood, and the blood is for atonement. “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. You must not eat the blood of any creature because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.” (Le 17:10, 14).


But pagans would use blood in horrific ways, which was an abomination.


In the Taurobolium, a bull sacrifice practiced from about AD 160 in the Mediterranean cult of the Great Mother of the Gods. The person dedicating the sacrifice lay in a pit with a perforated board placed over the pit’s opening. A bull was slaughtered above him, and the person in the pit bathed in the blood streaming down. [5]

Sexual immorality is not liturgical? Or is it?

Now you might ask, what about sexual immortality? What does that have to do with liturgy? A big part of pagan worship was temple or sacred prostitution. People would enter into sexual acts with temple prostitutes, often slaves. Dr. Bruce Barton sees this as a possibility as to why the Council put it on the list. “They were also to abstain from sexual immorality, which was often a part of idol worship,” [6] but concedes it could have been referring to other forms of forbidden sexual expressions: incest and homosexuality, which are listed in Leviticus 18:6-20.


I disagree that it could refer to anything but temple prostitution because the abominable acts of Lev. 18 (incest, etc.) are universally condemned and have nothing to do with pagan worship, whereas temple prostitution was specially connected to paganism. Elena Butova shares in her dissertation, “The prohibition of porneia (immorality) was associated with pagan ecstatic worship involving nakedness and sacred prostitution, in contrast to true worship, which demanded that worshipers wear garments before God, covering their nakedness.” [7] If Luke meant general adultery, he would have used the Greek word moicheuō, but he uses porneia, (you can probably figure out what word we get from it!). Butova contiunes, “Torah regularly associates porneia with pagan cultic activity.” [8] Finally, scholar Bradley Chance agrees that this was the case, that “the exhortations to avoid porneia refer to the avoidance of [pagan temple] prostitution...” [9]


In Acts 15:21, James sums things up by saying, “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” Some have taught that the four prohibitions were just for the beginning, and the Gentiles could go to synagogue to become good Torah followers later. The problem with this is that Paul is adamant in the epistles that Gentiles have no need to be circumcised. What is more probable is that the four prohibitions could be confirmed by Leviticus 17-18, which could be heard in Moses (the Torah), which is read in the synagogue. Ironically, all the commands in Leviticus 17-18 are for “the native-born and the foreigners residing among you.” This is repeated six times between Lev. 17-18 as to say that these laws are universal.


Understand, the Tanach was the only Bible around—the New Testament was still being written. So the apostles encouraged Gentile believers to go to synagogues in Ephesus, Corinth, etc., to hear the scriptures read. Pohill agrees, “Perhaps this is what James meant in his rather obscure concluding remark (v. 21): the law of Moses is read in every synagogue everywhere; so these requirements should come as no shock to the Gentiles.” [10]

Conclusion

As the church begin to distance itself from the synagogue, the four prohibitions in Acts 15 were reinterpreted. Without many Jewish people in New Testament congregations, the concern for table fellowship was no longer a concern at all. Thus, people began to teach that this was simply a new moral code for Gentiles. Some said it was based on the laws of Noah. However, in context, it is very clear that the apostles were making a way for the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers to be able to fellowship without 1) forcing the Gentiles to become Jewish or 2) forcing the Jewish believers to compromise Torah in order to fellowship the Gentiles.


Of course, the great revelation is that the gospel is not just for the Jewish people. In fact, the most famous person in the entire world, followed by more than a billion Gentiles, is a Jewish man!


 

[1] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 331–332.


[2] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 330.


[3] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 331.


[4] Meat that was sacrificed to idols was often sold in the market. While Paul is clear that such meat has no real power since there is no such thing as an idol, for a Jew it would make them ritually unclean. Therefore, it would be offensive to bring such meat to a gathering of believers.


[5] The Editors of Britannica, “Taurobolium ancient rite,” accessed on July 23, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Taurobolium


[6] Bruce B. Barton and Grant R. Osborne, Acts, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), 261.


[7] Elena Helen Butova, The Four Prohibitions of Acts 15 and their Common Background in Genesis 1-3, PhD Theses 2016, A vondale University


[8] Butova, 244. Emphasis mine.


[9] J. Bradley Chance, Acts, ed. Leslie Andres and R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2007), 260.


[10] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 332.


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I agree the four things non-Jewish believers were asked to refrain from (more like guidelines then “restrictions”) revolved around not eating food from pagan rituals.


But I believe the emphasis was more on not giving offense to the Jews among who they lived (where Moses was preached regularly), rather than in worship gatherings with believing Jews. Paul’s instructions were “to give no offense to Jews, or to Greeks or to the ecclesia of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). Offended Jews or Greeks won’t be as open to hearing the gospel from us. And we don’t want to cause weak believers to stumble according to our freedom to eat anything, as he explained in that chapter. And in Romans 14. Because “the…


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