A New People Abstaining from Old Ways
Topic: Repentance Passage: Acts 15:22–15:35
Life Is Worship
It’s good to sing the praises of our God. He’s worthy of all praise and devotion. But he’s worthy not just in this hour; he’s worthy in every moment. Life is worship; and we pray that our gathering equips you to live every moment for his glory.
But what if I told you that without even knowing it, Christians sometimes participate in society in ways that sanction the idolatry and immorality pervading it?[i] A fish scarcely discerns that it’s in water; sometimes Christians scarcely discern their participation in idolatry and immorality. When it comes to things like hoping in a political ideology, or pursuing financial security at all costs, or sacrificing the family at the altar of career, or consuming image-bearers for sexual gratification, or risking babies’ lives to control our own, it’s sometimes hard to tell the church apart from the world.
The Holy Spirit refuses to let the church live in such a manner. The new life in Christ abandons the old ways of sin. Today’s passage touches on this, as the Gentiles receive a letter from their Jewish brothers. We pick it up in verse 22…
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
The last time we looked at Acts 15, I said it had two parts that answer two big questions. The first question, we answered: What’s required to enter the kingdom of God? Answer: we enter the kingdom of God by faith in Christ alone. The covenant people are no longer marked by the Law of Moses, but by faith in the risen Jesus. What, then, did that mean for Gentiles? If Gentile believers didn’t have to keep the Law of Moses, how then were they to live? That leads us to the second question: How does one live in the kingdom of God? The answer comes in the form of a short letter circulated to the Gentile churches. But to understand it, I want to do so under five headings.
The Letter’s Context
First, I want to look at the letter’s context. I conflated two groups last time that I want to distinguish this time—and I want to thank Joel for bringing this to my attention. I viewed the group of men in verse 1 to be identical to the group in verse 5. But a few clues reveal that they’re likely different groups.
The group in verse 1 is vaguely identified as some who came down from Judea. But the group in verse 5 is specifically identified as some believers. Also, the group in verse 1 is saying that circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses are necessary for salvation. But that language disappears with the group in verse 5. They seem to be asking whether it’s necessary for Gentiles to keep the Law once they’re in.
Also, the group in verse 5 eventually agrees with the decision of the apostles on the basis of salvation by faith alone. They then unite with the whole church in separating themselves from those in verse 1. In fact, look at verse 24. The same group of verse 1 is again described this way: “we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions.” The same language appears in 1 John 2:19 to speak about false teachers, antichrists: “They went out from us, but they were not of us.”
So what we have is a twofold problem; and both relate to what bearing the Law of Moses has on Gentiles. One problem is with outsiders saying you must keep the Law to enter God’s kingdom. It’s legalism with a capital L. The other problem is with believing insiders really wrestling with whether Gentiles must keep the Law of Moses once they’re in God’s kingdom. We might call it legalism with a lower case l. The apostles and elders care for the church by answering both problems.
They protect the church by distancing themselves from the false gospel of the outsiders. That’s primarily what we covered last time—salvation by faith alone. Then they also nurture the insiders by clarifying whether Gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. The answer is an emphatic No.
Gentiles in Christ don’t have to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. That was James’s conclusion in verse 19: “my judgment is that we shouldn’t trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” Trouble them with what? Circumcision, keeping the Law of Moses. Well, what does that mean? If they don’t have to keep the Law of Moses, does that mean they can just live however they please? What’s going to regulate the way they live, if Moses is out?
The answer is the apostles’ instruction. The apostles’ authoritative instruction regulates the church, not the Law of Moses. We can see this in that the Law of Moses commanded circumcision, but here the apostles tell the Gentiles it’s not necessary. But James does go on to say some other things are necessary.
The Letter’s Command
That leads to our next heading, the letters command. James says this in verse 20: “but [we] should write to them to abstain from the pollution of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” It’s repeated in verse 29 with slight nuance and a different order. How should we understand these requirements? Why these four? Interpretations vary.
The first interpretation we might call the ethical interpretation. They’re just an abstract of ethical principles, at least one of which stems from the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:4—“you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” The command in Genesis 9:4 does precede the Mosaic covenant. It also applies more generally to all humanity across time. Perhaps there’s some merit to this observation. But it fails to explain the other prohibitions like idolatry and sexual immorality.
Far more popular is the societal interpretation. These requirements form a compromise of sorts to promote unity between Jews and Gentiles. Now, advocates of this view usually approach it from two different angles. Some see the laws in Leviticus 17-18 as the primary source. The idea would be that Gentiles aren’t obligated to the Law of Moses, but they should at least keep those parts of the Law that would enable them to live with the Jews, especially since the Law is read so often (Acts 15:21).
However, the linguistic connections between Acts 15 and Leviticus 17-18 are minimal. The requirements in Acts 15 are never grounded in Moses but in the apostles’ (and the Spirit’s) instructions. It also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense about why these laws were chosen over others. And, according to verses 10-11 and verse 19, the whole point has been not to force Gentiles to keep the Law.
Others still within the societal interpretation see the requirements as created for a specific situation. The requirements reflect things particularly offensive to Jews. I don’t buy this either. You might be able to make a case with the food offered to idols and the blood and so forth. But the requirements extend beyond what might offend Jews ceremonially. They also include basic morals like avoiding sexual immorality. That applies universally and isn’t just a matter of Jewish sensitivities.[ii]
The best interpretation I find is the cultic interpretation. The requirements, when taken together, point to pagan practices associated with idolatry.[iii] All four items are practices associated with the paganism of the day. In particular, idolatry (and the feasts associated with it) and sexual immorality. Both saturated the Gentile culture. So they really needed to watch how they lived in society, especially now that they belonged to Christ.
This interpretation agrees with Luke’s building polemic against idolatry.[iv] The “turning” of the Gentiles in verse 19 matches Paul’s language elsewhere about Gentiles turning from idolatry—that’s in Acts 14:15 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9. Also, thematically, this view fits some of Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation where idolatry, the food associated with it, and sexual immorality come together. You’ll find this in 1 Corinthians 10:7-8 and 19-22 and also in Revelation 2:14, 20.
What does that mean, then? It means that even though Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to be saved; even though the Law of Moses doesn’t regulate their covenant relationship with God; they must still renounce their old pagan ways. The new covenant as well forbids any association with idolatry and sexual immorality.
What about verse 21, you might ask? “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he’s read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Verse 21 simply points out the reason for delivering a circular letter to all the Gentile churches. The idea is, “Hey, the Gentiles are going to keep running into this issue since Moses is still read everywhere. So let’s write a letter stating not to worry about circumcision or Moses. But that doesn’t mean you just keep about your life as normal. No, renounce your pagan ways; Jesus is risen and you’re called by his name.”
Don’t miss this. These aren’t just bare commands. These are commands rooted in the gospel of grace. Don’t miss the big “therefore” to start verse 19, because it links everything to the grace of God already explained by Peter and James.
Why abstain from idolatry and sexual immorality and anything else that may give the appearance of sanctioning it? Why? Well for starters, you’ve been filled by the Spirit. Verse 8, “God bore witness by giving them the Holy Spirit.” They’ve become God’s dwelling place. We don’t bring unholy things into the presence of the Holy One. Moreover, the Holy Spirit who is in them also commands them. Look carefully at verse 28: “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit…to lay on you these requirements.” The Spirit who fills the church also drives idols and immorality out of the church.
Moreover, you’ve been cleansed from sin. Verse 9, “[God] made no distinction…having cleansed their hearts by faith.” You know what that imagery sounds like? The new covenant in Ezekiel 36 but now applied to Gentiles: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Why abstain from idols and sexual immorality? Because the true believer can’t help but do so. God cleanses the idols. He gives us a new nature that wants to walk in God’s ways. That wants not what perverts but what pleases God.
More than that, you’ve been called by God’s name. Verse 14, “God visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for his name.” Verse 17, “the Gentiles who are called by my name.” This is ownership. Once we were estranged from God. But in Christ we now belong to God. Believer, you don’t belong to yourself or the world—you belong to God. We’re called by his name to live for his name. Therefore we must abandon everything that rivals his name. That means every form of idolatry and sexual immorality, and everything that would seem to sanction them in our culture.
The Letters Carriers
Now, we’ll return to the way this command affects us more directly. But for now let’s move to the letters carriers. Verse 22, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” So Paul and Barnabas were already heading back to Antioch. Why not just send the letter with them? They didn’t have UPS running the mail back then; you just sent your letters with whoever happened to be going that way.
You know how long it’d take them to travel from Jerusalem to Antioch? It’s 300 miles. At a good pace of 20 miles per day, that’s at least 15 days. Why make all the extra effort and send some of their best guys? Because they hadn’t sent the other guys. The other guys—the false teachers we looked at in verse 24—had no commission from the Jerusalem authorities. These guys did.
The extra effort makes it crystal clear that the Jerusalem church stood behind the gospel of Paul and Barnabas and the inclusion of the Gentiles quite apart from the Law. In other words, they aren’t minimalists when it comes to protecting the church and nurturing the church. The minimalist is always looking for excuses to make things easier “Why bother going? Isn’t it enough to send the letter with Paul and Barnabas?” No! They do everything they can to ensure these brothers and sisters are rightly cared for.
What’s more amazing, these are Jews making the concerted effort for Gentiles. That’s what the gospel does for relationships! It turns enemies into people who make sacrifices to keep each other walking closely with Christ.
The Letter’s Consolation
Our fourth heading is the letter’s consolation. Verse 30, “So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.” What a remarkable response, huh?
It seems rather straightforward that they’d rejoice over the decisions about circumcision and keeping the Law. There’s a lot of freedom in knowing that nothing in their salvation or in their sanctification depends on keeping the Law of Moses. It depends wholly on Christ. But what’s more remarkable is how they respond to these other four requirements. There’s no “legalism” objection to these requirements. There’s no feeling of those requirements becoming a burden. The changed heart doesn’t find God’s commands a burden but a delight to walk in the Father’s ways.
They rejoice because of its encouragement. I hope we’re in a place as a church where we can rejoice when other brothers and sisters tell us, “Hey, you need to abstain from these idols over here. I’ve been watching your life, and I’m pretty sure that by participating in this, you’re sanctioning our culture’s idolatry. Bro, you need to get rid of your iPhone and any other screen you use in private to feed your addictions.” I hope we can rejoice more at this kind of encouragement.
The Letter’s Consequences
That leads me to close with one final heading, the letter’s consequences. What does this letter mean for us? We can’t forget that Acts is primarily about the acts of the risen Lord Jesus. This is his work in the church; we need to take it to heart.
Expose false gospels; encourage others with the true gospel.
In this passage, Jesus teaches us to expose false gospels and encourage others with the true gospel. I said something similar last time, but we only addressed one kind of false gospel—the false gospel of works righteousness. But there’s another false gospel—the false gospel that lacks the call to repentance, the notion that grace says we can just stay in our sins, since “After all, Jesus has you covered.”
Wrong. That’s not the gospel of Christ; that’s the gospel of self. Keep doing what you want to do, and forgiveness makes you feel better in it—that’s not the true gospel. The true gospel transforms. The true gospel commands repentance. Hear verse 19: the Gentiles who turned to God. God took them for his name. Now they must live for his name by abstaining from idolatry and sexual immorality. Any message that enables us to keep our sinful patterns and have forgiveness too is a sham. Forgiven people renounce whatever keeps them from Christ, or that would confuse others about Christ’s worth.
Abstain from the idolatry and sexual immorality saturating our culture.
That also means we must abstain from the idolatry and sexual immorality saturating our culture. These requirements applied to all the Gentile churches across the board. Moreover, the commands to flee sexual immorality and keep yourself from idols fill the New Testament letters. But sadly, Christians sometimes participate in society in ways that sanction the idolatry and sexual immorality pervading it.
For example, who’d question an iconic national event like the Super Bowl? But say we paused and asked what the Super Bowl’s theology of women is. In a 2013 article, Matt Vos observes that “women play minor roles in most parts of the Super Bowl, and when they’re…featured, they’re usually eroticized.” He also observes that “women are depicted…in ways that proclaim, ‘This world is for men, about men, and because of men.’” He then illustrates this with a Doritos ad. A woman can’t get the attention of her man while he’s glued to the TV. Only when she covers herself in Doritos does he find interest. The ad teaches that women, like Doritos, are nothing but consumables.[v]
Now, Mr. Vos doesn’t share these observations to disdain the sport of football itself. He simply brings them up to ask what it teaches the world—and even more, what it teaches our daughters—when Christians get more excited about a Super Bowl than the prayer meetings, or their time with the Lord, or spreading the gospel to others. And it’s not just the Super Bowl and women. What does it teach others when any sporting event starts replacing the regular gathering of believers? If we’re not careful, our participation can lie to the world that the game is greater than God.
Or, maybe it’s our devotion to entertainment. Some of us will sacrifice time and sleep and work responsibilities and relationships at home and time with the Lord to appease the god of entertainment. Or maybe it’s the god of national security. Christians launch into lengthy arguments about national security. But when you ask the last time they shared the gospel with anybody, they just shrug their shoulders? Is this because we fear the god of security more than we fear the God of the Bible? I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to work through these issues. But there’s a way to do it that doesn’t sanction the notion that our security is in something man-made.
Or, we all know that our culture is willing to sacrifice children in the womb to worship the god of convenience. It’s morally deplorable. But at the same time, some Christians are willing to do the same thing to worship the god of their own goals. Not all artificial reproductive technologies must equally lead to this result, but many regularly compromise the sanctity of life by destroying some children to have others.
Or, it’s also true that some Christians buy into the god of careerism. Work yourself to the bone, even if it costs your family. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking that because we can make more money for the family, then we’re loving our family. Or, vocational ministers can think that as long as it’s “kingdom work,” then our family can take a back seat. No. If your job or ministry keeps you from loving your wife as Christ loved the church; if it sucks all your time so that there’s none left for your children or others; then you’ve elevated your career to a place it ought not be.
Elevating our career is sometimes coupled with maximizing company profits. While maximizing profits may benefit others, sometimes doing what’s honest can be financially ruinous and so some will risk lying, fudging the truth. Profit or money becomes the new god steering one’s life instead of justice and integrity.
Or, let’s take sexual immorality. In the first-century, it was regular visits to the temple prostitutes. Paul had to rebuke and warn Christians in the church in Corinth to flee this kind of immorality. Some of them started dabbling with prostitutes because they didn’t understand their body belongs to the Lord.
Today’s temple prostitute is pornography, and if not explicit porn then other forms of sensual entertainment—shows like Game of Thrones and the like. Just like the culture around us, men and women in the church have been dabbling with virtual prostitutes of all kinds. When you’re in sin, one of the biggest lies you can tell yourself if that your sin doesn’t affect others. You’re sacrificing your marriage and your children; you’re sacrificing your church family and how you can minister effectively within it. You’re sacrificing other people made in God’s image. And you’re sacrificing your own soul to worship the gods of sex and self.
Other Christians fall into another kind of idolatry, and one that’s very subtle. Idolatrous attachments are hard to see because they’re often just so normal. But let’s call this one a doctrinal idol. Here’s what I mean. Christians can sometimes rely on the rightness of their doctrinal position for a right standing with God instead of relying on God’s grace alone to save them. When this is the case, instead of being gentle and gracious toward others, you become a scoffer of all who disagree with you. I owe this observation to Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods.
Brothers and sisters, these things can’t be. You’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit. You’ve been cleansed from that former manner of life. You’ve been called by the name of the risen Jesus. He is your Lord and you belong to him and he is glorious. His beauty outshines the sun, and it will fill the New Heavens and Earth. His riches are infinite; his presence brings the fullness of joy. Don’t be duped by the world’s idols. All of them lie; none of them save. None of them will prepare you a Table like this one.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul deals with this question of idolatry and sexual immorality. There’s some Christians who’re still eating at pagan temples; and their doing it at the expense of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, they know that there’s no such thing as an idol; there’s only one true God and one true Lord, Jesus Christ. But they’re destroying the church to keep the comradery of the pagan temples.
Paul says, No. You can’t keep eating at those places. Not because an idol is anything. But because “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
When we come to this Table today let it do two things: let it be a reminder of what Christ has done on your behalf. He gave his life to pay the full penalty of your guilt; he rose again for your justification. Then, let it remind you of who you are in him. You’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit. You’ve been cleansed from your former manner of life. You’ve been called by the name of the risen Jesus. You’re a new person in Christ. Abstain from your old ways. Bring him the worship due his name in every moment.
[i]Cf. Keener, Acts, 2270.
[ii]This view misses how it is not simply an occasional matter for churches in a specific locale. It’s applied to all the Gentile churches universally—it keeps spreading in Acts 16:4 and 21:26. Also, Luke will address how Paul deals with Jewish sensitivities later on, like when we get to circumcising Timothy in Acts 16:3 (cf. also 21:17-26).
[iii]Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, NSBT 27 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 186.
[iv]Acts 14:16; 17:24-31; 19:26.
[v]Matt Vos, “Prizes and Consumables: The Super Bowl as a Theology of Women,” Comment (February 1, 2013), accessed at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3864/prizes-and-consumables-the-super-bowl-as-a-theology-of-women/.