The Gentiles were specifically told to mind certain things:
(ACTS 15: 19-20) 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.
(ACTS 21: 25) But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
A common question brought up is, “Why would only these 4 points be brought up, which are from the law of Moses, and nothing else?” I would like to look in to that.
Even though all four of these points can be found in the Old Covenant law, the beginning of the answer is – these points are not a continuation of the Old Covenant. I see several possible contributing factors.
Here is one possibility.
According to some Jewish groups, there are 613 laws in the Torah binding upon all Jews. Conversely, there are 7 “Noachide laws” that had existed from the beginning and are binding upon all mankind.
As far as I can gather, these laws were oral until the second century AD when they were codified by the Sanhedrin 56a, taking the form we see them today. A Gentile was righteous if he kept only these 7 laws. And they are:
1. Prohibition of Idolatry: You shall not have any idols before God.
2. Prohibition of Murder: You shall not murder. (Genesis 9:6)
3. Prohibition of Theft: You shall not steal.
4. Prohibition of Sexual Promiscuity: You shall not commit adultery.
5. Prohibition of Blasphemy: You shall not blaspheme God's name.
6. Prohibition of Cruelty to Animals: Do not eat flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive. (Genesis 9:4)
*cruelty to animals included a prohibition against blood
7. Requirement to have just Laws: You shall set up an effective judiciary to enforce the preceding six laws fairly.
Gentiles needed only to learn about these and they would be considered righteous by any Jew. This is in no way a “primer to Judaism” as I’ve heard it described. They were in no way officially expected to learn the remainder of the 613 laws.
This could very well represent the understanding of the Jews who were zealous for the law, including the Apostles.
Some would ask, “What does this have to do with anything?” Well, in order to understand what James, who appears to regard both written and oral law in certain instances, did, one must understand where he was coming from. Selecting 4 points from the Old Covenant law to arbitrarily bind upon the Gentiles, or to bind on them as a primer to introduce the rest of the law later, was certainly not what he was doing.
The mistake the converts from a Pharisaical background kept making is they assumed Gentiles were converting to Judaism first in order to be Christians, thus subjecting them to the rest of the law - which they were not subject to. That they would not be eventually brought in to the rest of the physical law is clearly evident in all of Paul's works and the words of James.
(ACTS 15: 24) Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” —to whom we gave no such commandment.
So, the law of clean and unclean meats was most certainly not on its way later, as Armstrong professes vehemently. At the very least, if that were indeed so, we should hear something of it from Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin… somebody! We do not.
Here is another possibility. All four of those points were common in pagan rituals.
As Paul pointed out time and time again, a Gentile convert would do well to avoid paganism.
In many places we see how God hates idolatry. God doesn’t hate idolatry by law; He hates it by nature of who He is – the true and Living God. Even if the covenant is removed, God by nature hates idolatry because a lie is contrary to God's nature; idolatry itself is a lie.
All of these things mentioned in Acts 21: 25 are common practices in idolatry.
As an asside.. an interesting thing about the eating of blood - it was symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice. In the blood is the life (GEN. 9: 4; LEV. 17: 11; DEU. 12: 23), and in Christ is Life (JOHN 1: 4; 14: 6; COL. 3: 4). All things belong to God. He gave us the use of meat for our bodies, but blood is only for the atonement of man to God.
In the Old Covenant we see this:
(LEV 17: 10-12) 10 ‘And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’ 12 Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.’
But now Christ tells us we SHOULD take that into us (symbolically):
(LUKE 22: 19-20) “19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.”
(JOHN 6: 52-58) “52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
Of course the Jews were quarreling. As with this debate on food laws, they saw things only in the Old Covenant terms, not in the New Covenant terms. So, we can see that the New Covenant is (at least symbolically) contrary to the Levitical prohibition. Even so, since animals were first given to Noah as food, God has never plainly condoned the ingesting of actual blood.
Going back to the original point, did Worldwide ever explain these things? No. They said, “[certain] meats were created unfit for human consumption," and left it at that. First, the Bible never says any “unclean” animal is “unfit for human consumption”. That isn’t a striving over words, it’s an important fact, since “unclean” means “ceremonially unclean”. If we are to say these things were an abomination from the beginning, then we nullify Genesis 1: 31. If we are to say they were unclean from the beginning, then we nullify Romans 14: 14. In order to claim both of those things, without actually saying either of those things, the phrase “unfit for human consumption” was thrown in. The Jews do not teach 'food was unfit from the beginning'. No Jewish group that I am aware of teaches such.
Worldwide would always quote Romans 3: 2 to bolster their theology when they were in symmetry with Jewish teachings. I wouldn’t suppose they will quote it in this instance.
There were two distinct groups in the early church: the Jewish converts – those Paul referred to as “of the circumcision”, about whom James remarks “they are zealous for the law” (ACTS 21: 20) - and then there were the Gentile converts. It is clear that the two groups were indeed distinct. They were separate in conscience due to their backgrouns, but unified in Christ.
Paul stopped in to Jerusalem and went to James. In Acts 21, James showed Paul all the converts from Judaism who were zealous for the law (verse 20). But those same Jewish converts were disturbed by what they heard about Paul’s teaching. And what disturbed them?
(ACTS 21: 21) 21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
They only cared if Paul was teaching THE JEWS to forsake the customs of Moses. They already knew what the church’s policy was towards the Gentiles.
(ACTS 21: 25) “But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing [referring to the laws of Moses], except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
Once again, they appear to be in line with Jewish teaching about the Mitzvahs and the Noahide laws. Yet some love to overlook that while they let slip judgment and condemnation, saying we must all observe all the laws of Moses (even while they themselves really do not).
Why was this decision made about the Gentiles in the first place? Because of Jewish converts to Christianity causing trouble among the Gentile converts, teaching them they had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.
(ACTS 15: 24) Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” — to whom we gave no such commandment
Notice what happened between Paul and James then:
(ACTS 21: 22-24) 22What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.
The Jewish converts in Jerusalem wanted to make sure Paul, a convert from Pharisaical Judaism, was keeping the law, including circumcision which we clearly see Paul did teach against - not that they wanted to make sure the Gentiles were doing these things. Paul had a policy about that sort of thing:
(I COR. 9: 19-20) “19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law”
The Gentiles were already decided to not be under the law. Everyone understood that (almost). However, the zealous converts from Judaism were none too happy with Paul. James’ solution? Have Paul obey the ceremonial laws of washings, which even the Worldwide Church of God in all its zeal for the law teaches were done away with. Worldwide said, “Paul only taught against the ceremonial laws of washings and sacrifices and the keeping of Jewish traditions added throughout the years.” Yet those are exactly the things James coached Paul to keep here.
If Armstrong sees Acts 21: 22-24 as such proof of the law still being in effect, why then do we see Paul being compelled to keep the washings which Armstrong sees were done away with? And why was circumcision mentioned by James which was done away with? Also, if Paul kept the law so closely, why do we only one time ever see Paul returning to Jerusalem to keep the Holy Days while the temple still stood? If the law was in effect, wouldn’t he be obligated to travel there regularly while the temple still stood? Worldwide simply didn’t make very good arguments. I suspect the reason is because no one can show the whole Old Covenant is still in effect alongside the New without great wrangling and twisting, adding to and taking away from.
Now notice that these wonderful and law abiding zealots, who constantly beset Paul and the Gentiles with trouble, also then plotted to KILL Paul! We see that in the next several chapters, starting here in verse 27 of Acts 21. And for what did they insist on this evil? For supposedly, though not actually, taking a Gentile into a physical temple which they supposed to still yet house the spirit of God, not understanding whatsoever that God’s temple is in His faithful believers.
Not that we can prove it, but according to tradition, James himself was killed by these same legal zealots after they failed to kill Paul.
I painfully conclude, being zealous for the law does not necessarily equal being zealous for God.