Acts 15:20

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Tuesday, 21 March 2023

“but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. Acts 15:20

Note: You can listen to today’s commentary courtesy of our friends at “Bible in Ten” podcast. (Click Here to listen)

You can also read this commentary, with music, courtesy of our friends at “Discern the Bible” on YouTube. (Click Here to listen), or at Rumble (Click Here to listen).

In the previous verse, James said that believers should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God. The meaning was to not require them to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. With that stated, he continues with a short list of things that would bring about defilement within the church and which should thus be abstained from. He says, “but that we write to them.”

More precisely, it merely says, “but to write.” It is something that is general in nature to be written down and conveyed to anyone at any time the matter arises. In this decision, there is a new word in Scripture, epistelló. It signifies to send by letter. One can see the root of the word epistle in it.

This was needed to avoid any confusion and to firmly set what was decided. Knowing the propensity of man to add or take away from such a matter, James wisely directed that the decision would be written down as an authoritative word from the council. Understanding that, he continues with, “to abstain from things polluted by idols.”

The original reads, “to abstain from the pollutions of idols.” The word translated as “pollutions,” alisgéma, is found only here in the Bible. It is also not found in any classical Greek literature. It is a word associated with defiled food. This then doesn’t merely mean practicing idolatry, but to abstain from anything that is connected to the service of idols, such as partaking in sacrifices and offerings, etc.

James does not go into the depth of the Law of Moses concerning this. Rather, it is a general statement set forth as a guideline for right living among believers. He is clearly distancing the decision of the council from the weight of the law in his words.

In general, anything that could be considered as being connected with idols should be abstained from. This, however, will be clarified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10. James continues with his short list, saying, “from sexual immorality.”

The word in Greek is porneia. It signifies “selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity, promiscuity of any (every) type” (HELPS Word Studies). Quite often, it is associated with idolatry. James gives this general word, never mentioning the very strict laws associated with such things as set forth in the law of Moses. As such, it was another clear indication that the Law of Moses had no bearing on the decision.

The next item is “from things strangled.” Rather, the words are singular, “and the strangled.” It is another new word in Scripture, pniktos. It signifies something killed without letting the blood out. Vincent’s Word Studies extends the thought to animals killed in snares. This is an inference, but it is probably the case.

The laws within the Law of Moses are detailed and explicit on how to treat the blood of animals sacrificed or simply slaughtered for meat. James, once again, gives a general statement concerning the matter, completely distancing the decision from the Law of Moses. Finally, and in connection to the previous thought, he says, “and from blood.”

Once again, a general statement is made concerning a matter that is carefully detailed in the law. It is stated many times and in exacting ways what was to be done with the blood. James’ decision completely separates the matter from the Law of Moses. But its main intent was surely to have the people consider why they were drinking blood in the first place. Several reasons surely were behind the matter.

One is that to drink blood was, and even today in some cultures is, intended to assimilate the power of the one whose blood was being drunk into the person drinking. Another reason is idolatry where the blood of an animal that was sacrificed was consumed by the offerer as a way of fellowshipping with their god or gods.

Also, the shedding of blood has almost universally been considered a means of atoning for sin. This is seen in cultures around the world. But Christ’s blood is the only effectual sacrifice for the atonement of sin. This then is an object lesson concerning the nature of Christ’s sacrifice as much as anything else.

Luke’s narrative provides a description of what occurred, but James’ letter is prescriptive in nature. However, this must be considered with what will later be included in the canon of Scripture. In other words, just because James’ words are prescriptive at the time, if they are later qualified in Scripture, it renders the decision as a prescription that is temporary in nature.

And more, these things were not a matter of salvation, but of life after salvation. Thus, they have no bearing on the gospel which is by grace through faith.

Life application: Of the words of this verse, Charles Ellicott writes –

“The grounds on which the measure thus defined was proposed are not far to seek. (1) It was of the nature of a compromise. The Gentiles could not complain that the burden imposed on them was anything very grievous. The Pharisee section of the Church could not refuse admission to those who fulfilled these conditions, when they had admitted the proselytes of the gate on like conditions to their synagogues, and had so treated them as no longer unclean. (2) The rules on which stress was now laid found a place among the seven precepts traditionally ascribed to Noah, and based upon the commands recorded in Genesis 9:5. These were held to be binding upon all mankind; while the Law, as such, was binding on Israel only. These, therefore, had been thought sufficient for the proselytes of the gate before, and were urged now as sufficient for the Gentile converts by the teacher who represented the most rigid type of Judaism.”

His words concerning admission into the church must be highlighted. The matters conveyed by James do not address the issue of salvation but of life within the church. A violation of the sexual immorality issue addressed above is found in 1 Corinthians 5. The person was a saved believer in Christ, but he was in violation of the mandate concerning sexual immorality. Therefore, Paul explained that he was to be cut off from the fellowship of believers.

And yet, he clearly indicates that this person was saved and would remain saved, even if he continued in his present lifestyle. Also, as noted above, some of the matters in James’ decision are more fully clarified by Paul, demonstrating to us that the decision in Acts is now a descriptive account of what was determined necessary at the time to maintain proper order and decorum within the church.

The later writings, meaning the epistles, are set forth for the doctrine of the church. It is to them that we should turn when matters of dispute arise among believers.

As a final note, certain cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will not accept blood transfusions because of this verse. Drinking blood and the transfusion of blood are completely different issues, and one cannot be conflated to mean the same as the other. The decision is as stupid as a football bat and is to be rejected outright.

Lord God, help us to rightly divide Your word, applying precepts that pertain to the time in which we live. Those things that are set aside or obsolete are no longer binding on us. But those things that You have given for our right conduct within the church are matters that we should carefully attend to. Help us in this so that we will be pleasing to You in all ways. Amen.