In trying to understand what parts of the Law of Moses (Torah) Gentiles are obligated to obey, there are certain key biblical texts which must be considered. One text in particular, the story of the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, appears to definitively teach that Gentiles are not obligated to keep Mosaic Law.
The Apostles were responding to a claim that Gentile believers needed to convert to Judaism and submit to a Jewish way of life in order to be saved. The Apostles renounced this error, and followed by saying that it seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit to lay on the Gentiles “no greater burden than (four) necessary things.” Their conclusion was that if the Gentiles abstained from these basic problem practices that they would “do well.” (Acts 15:28)
On the surface, without a careful reading, and without a working knowledge of the Apostolic perspective and relevant history, it is easy to conclude from these statements that the Apostles were relieving the Gentiles of any obligation to obey the rest of Torah, assuming that Torah itself is a “burden,” and that the Apostles only wished to impose a very small subset of Torah on Gentiles, or only a very small burden. However, one may easily observe the following:
- The Pharisees intended to impose on Gentiles an entire system of man-made rules and customs, the Oral Torah, which they had added to Torah, supposedly in order to help people keep Torah.
[A] Yeshua renounced many of these customs as “heavy burdens, grievous to be borne,” yet exhorted Jews to keep them out of respect for civil authority.
[B] These customs were observed by most all Jews as equivalent to Torah.
- The “necessary things” in the apostolic response are not a subset of Torah, but include additional rules derived from the spirit of Torah, similar to Oral Torah, that would:
[A] Help Gentiles follow the spirit of Torah in their pagan cultures
[B] Mitigate conflict between Gentiles and Jews bound to rabbinic tradition as Gentiles sought to attend Jewish synagogues in order to learn Torah.
- In their response, the Apostles did not say that any part of Torah was optional for Gentiles; they acknowledged that Gentiles could be right with God without converting to Judaism and submitting to Oral Torah, Jewish custom and tradition, which is much different.
In the Bible it is written: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.'” (Acts 15:1) The early church was faced with a very difficult question: When a non-Jewish person receives Jesus Christ (Yeshua) as their Lord and Messiah, what is expected of them? Must Gentiles convert to Judaism in order to be right with God? The answer was not clear to the early believers at first, and was pursued by the Apostles in a long and prayerful debate.
First, we may note that the source of the controversy at hand were the Pharisees, who rose up early in the apostolic discussion and repeated their position: “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) From their initial teaching (vs 1) it is clear that the Pharisees were asserting that conversion to Judaism was essential for salvation: conversion to Judaism is what “circumcised after the manner of Moses” meant to people of that day. These Pharisees believed that only Jews could be in a right relationship with God and included in God’s spiritual kingdom, and whenever the Pharisees taught Jews about keeping Torah the Pharisees included their own burdensome traditions right along with Torah and positioned them as equivalent to Torah.
Peter eventually provided some clarity by saying, “God… put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” (vs 9) Peter made it clear from his experience with Cornelius that God fully accepted Gentiles while they were still in a Gentile state, without having to convert to Judaism. This proved beyond question that justification and inclusion into the family of God came not through works or conversion to Judaism, but through faith in Messiah.
Peter then continued, “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (vs 10) Peter refers to an onerous and burdensome “yoke” which the Pharisees were attempting to impose on the Gentiles: it was something intolerable, unbearable. Could this be a reference to Torah? If so, this text would be the only negative reference to Torah in the entire Scripture, and it would contradict all of the other descriptions of Torah available to us. Torah itself is considered a delight (Ps 1), holy, just and good (Rom 7:12), a lamp to our feet (Ps 119:105), more desirable than gold, and sweeter than honey. (Ps 19) It hardly seems like Peter could have been referring to Torah.
There is, however, as we have already mentioned briefly, something else very similar to Torah that the Pharisees also wanted to impose on Gentiles. This was an entirely different set of laws under which the Apostles and other Jews were also living: Oral Torah, or rabbinic tradition, or the customs. The Pharisees taught, and the Jewish people (for the most part) believed, that the authority God had given to Moses had been passed down to others, who had in turn over time devised an entire system of rules, regulations, traditions and customs which they had added to Torah, supposedly to help keep people from violating Torah. These rules, traditions and customs were thus considered “fences” built around Torah, having the equivalent of Mosaic authority, as obligatory as Torah itself. Could Peter have been referring to this Oral Torah?
Consider what Jesus said of the Pharisees: “ The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” (Matt 23:2-4) This is a clear description of the motivation, character and work of the Pharisees. Jesus referred to their man-made laws as, “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne,” yet He taught the Jews to obey them since the Pharisees had the right to impose such regulations upon the Jewish nation: they had the same kind of civil authority, both legislative and executive, which God had conferred upon Moses.
As an example of the kind of tradition the Jewish leaders had developed over time, and how their rules and customs were viewed by both the Pharisees and the Jewish people, consider the following story in Matthew 15:1-9: “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The Pharisees evidently expected that they had the right to impose their laws upon God’s people and they challenged Yeshua for not complying with all of their traditions. However, Christ chided the Pharisees for imposing their own man-made laws on God’s people in addition to Torah. He did not deny their right to do so, or even justify His disciples in their violation of it (which may have been due to their own poverty, itinerant lifestyle and accompanying lack of resources much of the time) but He definitely considered what the Pharisees were doing to be an abuse of the power that God had given them. It is certainly very likely that Peter was referring to this Oral Torah in his comments about the unbearable “yoke,” and not the Torah itself.
Peter follows his initial testimony with another critical observation. “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” (vs 11) Peter is speaking about disciples: about himself, his Jewish brothers in the faith, as well the newly converted Gentiles. He is not speaking in the past tense, but in a tense that is not time-sensitive (shall be is in the aorist passive infinitive tense). Peter is also not mentioning the initial grounds of justification (i.e. faith in Messiah). It therefore appears that Peter may be speaking of salvation in a more generic or holistic sense, thinking of sanctification as well as justification, and observing how the Law is relevant in the context of our present and future deliverance from sin. He is stating that no part of our deliverance is ultimately accomplished merely through moral efforts to obey the Law, which might be facilitated by the addition of man-made rules, traditions and customs designed to help us obey Torah. Rather, Peter appears to be asserting that salvation in every aspect is by grace (divine enablement, Strong). Salvation is the work of God producing obedience, not the result of man’s own independent efforts to obey. Paul, in dealing with this same doctrinal difficulty in Galatians, follows this same pattern of thought by including the process of sanctification in the gospel itself: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Ga 3:3) This is a compelling counter argument to the underlying non-legalistic facet of the pharisaic justification for Oral Torah (external enablement to obey Torah, not for justification but for sanctification).
Finally, toward the end of the debate, when all of the discussion had subsided, James called the entire body of brothers together and begins to conclude the matter. He begins by noting the biblical consistency of Peter’s experience, proving that God does not require Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to be in right relation to God: “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” In this, James is evidently confidently understanding the overall picture of how Gentiles are to relate to Torah and so therefore concludes the debate by saying: “Wherefore my sentence is that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” (vs 19-20) This statement is the central one to consider in the overall context.
In summary of the overall context first then, as the Apostles and elders discussed the matter before them, we can see that they are clarifying the role of Torah in the lives of believers, both Jew and Gentile, from a number of different angles. The discussion initially re-affirmed the nature of salvation from a holistic perspective: (1) justification — which the Apostles asserted was by grace through faith, not by obedience to the Law or conversion to Judaism, and (2) sanctification — which the Apostles also asserted was by grace, the enabling and life-giving power of God, not merely through moral effort or obedience to the Law, and therefore not enabled or facilitated by the imposition of extensive man-made customs and traditions to be kept in addition to Torah.
Additionally, the Apostles concluded that Gentiles need not to convert to Judaism, and they saw this as distinct from their assertions concerning both salvation and sanctification. James evidently realized that converting to Judaism does not necessarily mean converting to legalism: James and Peter and the rest of the Apostles were devoutly observant Jews yet they were not legalistic: they are all teaching salvation by grace through faith. James also realizes that Paul and other faithful Jews have for some time been clarifying this concept of salvation by grace in their ministries in the Gentile churches, and he is confident that they will continue to do so.
It is important to note, however, that in his response James does not mention any of these things; he does not mention salvation by faith nor does he mention his conclusion concerning Gentile conversion to Judaism. It seems that James understands that his overall recommendations to the Gentiles will answer all concerns and questions related to Gentile responsibility to obey Torah, and that he must address a more general topic that is of concern to all.
Finally, note that James clearly states his motivation in reaching out to the Gentiles in this manner: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (vs 21) The Tanakh (the Old Testament), the only scripture existing at the time, was being read and taught to Jews in most every city of the Roman Empire on a weekly basis. For Gentiles to grow in their knowledge of God and in their faith in Messiah they also needed to be exposed to the Tanakh. Since most Gentiles could not read, even if they had access to a copy of the Tanakh, exposure to the scriptures would have to come through someone speaking it aloud. This could be someone quoting it from memory, but was generally through public reading of the scriptures. Since copies of the Tanakh were very expensive, the only way that most Gentiles could access the Scriptures was through these Jewish synagogues. The apostolic intent was evidently to facilitate regular fellowship between Messianic Gentiles and their Jewish neighbors, leveraging the synagogues to expose new believers to God’s Word. Any conclusion failing to resonate with this motivation is certainly incomplete.
Finally, we see that the entire church agreed with James, and they all decided to write to the Gentiles and encourage them, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.” (vs 28-29) The entire church considered that what they were imposing on the Gentiles, even in these for basic rules, was a type of burden, but that it was a necessary one for them at the time. Their advice to the Gentiles was that if they would accept this very light burden, rather than the vast and burdensome yoke required by the Pharisees, that it would be a good thing in the long run for their continued growth in the faith.
Much later, in Acts 21, years after the above scenario, we have some additional context to affirm the above, when the Apostles advised Paul in his last visit to Jerusalem. “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: and they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.” (vs 20-21) Note that their concern was to clear Paul, who had evidently continually respected the apostolic counsel given years earlier, of the charge of having encouraged the Jews dispersed among the Gentiles to ignore Torah as well as “the customs,” Oral Torah, the rabbinic traditions added to Mosaic Law. The Jewish people as a whole evidently generally considered this behavior equivalent to forsaking the Torah itself, although the Apostles clearly did not think this way. It was a natural concern of zealous Jews since Paul taught Gentiles to live free of the rabbinic yoke among their dispersed Jewish brothers, and Paul also did not impose the entire Torah on any of his Gentile disciples (since he did not require anyone to be circumcised, 1 Co 7:18).
To counter this accusation, the Apostles encouraged Paul to demonstrate to their Jewish brothers that he was not forsaking either Torah or the Jewish customs added to Torah. However, in this context, the Apostles repeated their earlier provision for the Gentiles: “As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.” (vs 25) From context, we would not assert the absurd, that the Apostles were claiming that these four things were the only parts of Torah that were obligatory for Gentiles, and thus that murder and blasphemy were now acceptable. Rather, it can be understood that these recommendations were based on the parts of Torah that were of particular concern in their current situation which the Gentiles might be tempted to violate due to their ignorance of Torah and the general pressures of their culture.
Now, more fully understanding the broader context of the situation, let’s look carefully at the content of the Apostle’s reasoning and their response.
The Heart of the Matter
It is clear from the overall context that the Apostles rejected all forms of legalism (salvation by works), as well as the idea that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism in order to be in a right relationship with God. The Apostles saw from scripture that Gentiles were to remain as distinct peoples and need not convert to Judaism. James also asserts that it is inappropriate to require Gentiles to submit to the same overall system of rabbinic regulations, traditions and customs derived from Torah and imposed on the Jewish people. This overall system included the Torah itself, as well as all of the man-made commandments of Oral Torah. Rather, James proposed a small subset of this overall system: no greater burden than these necessary things. It is his sentiment in this phrase which seems to provide a key to what James and the rest of the Apostles were thinking.
“No greater burden” indicates that there was something quite burdensome being forced on the Gentile disciples by the Pharisees. We have already noted that Jesus considered Oral Torah to be quite burdensome. Clearly the Apostles were rejecting the notion that Gentiles should be required to submit to Oral Torah, and were requiring only a minimal set of burdensome requests. In other words, in contrast to the vast system of inconvenient and onerous regulations that the Pharisees had attempted to impose on the Gentiles in addition to Torah, the Apostles recognized the need to recommend only four simple but necessary rules in addition to Torah.
Now, one must be careful to observe that the Apostles never clearly stated that Torah was only for the Jewish people. The Apostles did not suggest that Torah was not good for all people, or that it was not relevant to the Gentiles. This kind of thinking does not appear in the text itself, and must be presumed and imposed on the text.
Further, the Apostles are not stating that their recommended rules were a part of Torah: the immediate context does not show these rules to be a subset of Torah that applied to Gentiles (which is evidently commonly understood today). It is evident that the Apostles viewed these recommendations as guidelines that should be considered in addition to Torah, comparable to the rabbinic system but approved by the Holy Spirit and therefore healthy in this context. The four rules were key principles derived from the spirit of Torah that were particularly helpful for Gentiles in that day.
The Apostles evidently assumed that the general applicability of Torah to Gentiles was so obvious that it need not be directly stated for clarity. In order to understand the Apostolic intent, we do well to look carefully at the general nature of Torah and what it would have implied in Gentile life for the Apostles to require of the Gentiles immediate and comprehensive obedience to it, even though all of Torah is good.
The Nature of Torah
When God initially gave Torah to His people Israel, they were a unique and isolated people group, a nation with a common legal, cultural and moral fabric. They were also largely unregenerate, stubborn and rebellious. The Torah as a whole was perfectly suited to this people group to reveal to them the nature of God and holiness. It was not designed to provide an arbitrary distinctive that would help this nation maintain their uniqueness from other people groups, but to reveal God and His righteousness to all people groups and nations.
In the context of His delivery of Torah to Israel at Sinai, it was entirely appropriate for God to impose the entire Torah on this nation with civil authority and to demand their complete and comprehensive obedience to it. God did so: He demanded that the entire nation of Israel obey His Torah fully and completely, and they agreed to do so. God told them that if they would obey all of Torah that He would bless them greatly, and that if they did not do so, but turned from Him in rebellion, that He would punish them severely. This agreement formed the basis and structure of what we call the Old Covenant, or Old Testament.
Now, more than a thousand years later, after the nation of Israel had miserably failed to walk after God and obey His Torah, the Apostles were considering how to apply this same Torah to an entirely different kind of people in an entirely different context. This new group was not a single nation under a single civil authority. They did not have a common cultural or ethnic identity. This group comprised tiny fragments of every nation, every ethnic group, and every conceivable kind of culture and social structure. These people were part of communities, extended families, and even immediate families and marriages, where others in their immediate company were likely to be ignorant of Torah, and perhaps even deeply opposed to many parts of Torah with which they were familiar. Imposing a comprehensive and holy standard on such a group as this, vulnerable to the abuses of immediate family and community who willfully and deliberately persist in violating Torah, was a daunting and difficult task. James clearly understood that it would be impossible to do such a thing in good conscience. There were only two realistic options, require that all of these people renounce their families and cultures and assimilate into the Jewish nation, or re-think how to apply Torah to the nations.
Applying Torah in Wisdom
In the context of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15/21, the Apostles never state that Torah is non-obligatory for Gentiles, only that they saw wisdom in not rigorously imposing Torah on Gentiles. While the apostolic intent may seem “obvious” to people who have already decided Torah is non-obligatory for Gentiles, let us not forget the old maxim: “Obviousness is the enemy of correctness.” Refusing to impose Torah on a group of people, refusing to demand that they obey it fully and completely, is not at all the same as saying that Torah does not apply to these people, that it is irrelevant to them, or that it is not applicable to them. The two concepts are indeed quite different.
It is one thing to impose Torah rigidly on a nation which has collectively and formally agreed to obey it, a nation with a common geography, ancestry, religion, culture, tradition, language, moral ethic and civil government (as at Sinai). When people grow up being taught the Torah, both by word and deed, in a culture where Torah is taught and obeyed all around them, there is no harm in demanding that each and every individual in that society obey it. However, it is quite another thing to do this with tiny fragments of multiple people groups dispersed throughout the nations having diverse cultures, norms, customs, ethics and civil governments, especially when these tiny fragments:
- remain inextricably imbedded in and entangled with and in these pagan cultures,
- are often persecuted by their own cultures for defying core cultural norms and religious beliefs, and
- have very little practical knowledge of Torah.
Imposing the entire Torah on such isolated believers with any compulsion, rigor or force is indeed problematic, even though Torah is the perfect standard of holiness for all people and applicable to every generation.
In other words, Torah was not intended to be rigorously imposed on believers living in relative spiritual isolation, separated from others who are also keeping Torah. For example, what does it mean to demand that a lone brother keep Shabbat when he is by himself in his new faith, when the rest of his family – his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters, his parents and friends and neighbors, his colleagues and employers, and his civic officials are all treating Shabbat as any other day? What does it mean to demand that a wife eat only clean food who daily lives out her faith in isolation, with an unsaved, insensitive, controlling husband who loves his breakfast bacon, his Thanksgiving and Christmas hams… while all of the rest of her family, friends and neighbors remain deeply Catholic? What of a little girl who comes into an understanding of biblical feasts yet dreads the thought of having to tell her domineering, abusive anti-Semitic mother that she doesn’t want to eat her mamma’s freshly baked rolls during Unleavened Bread? No, do not tell me that it is charitable to DEMAND that such people keep all of Torah or that God will be angry with them and that you are going to write them off. No, my friend, do not go there.
The Apostles acted with divine wisdom in refusing both the legalism proposed by the Pharisees as well as their rigid insensitivity to Gentile believers. The Apostles never did make any statement to suggest that Torah was not the perfect standard of holiness and righteousness for all people, but they certainly understood God’s purpose in giving us Torah and the proper context in which to demand obedience to it. They knew that the Torah is good for all, so long as it is used lawfully. (1 Tim 1:8)
Basically, we see in the Apostolic response a sentiment something like, “Obey all of Torah that you can find the strength to obey and find rich blessing in it. But you will not be condemned or alienated for non-compliance so long as you are not bringing shame to the name of Messiah in your own cultural context.”
The Four Rules
In this analysis, it is also wise to consider the notion that the Apostles were identifying in their response a subset of Torah that was applicable to Gentiles. The negative sentiments the Apostles expressed in the context of their concerns over mandating Gentile obedience to Torah can be understood (if the remaining context is ignored) as an assertion that Torah was not obligatory for Gentiles at all and that Torah was merely obligatory for Jews. If these four rules are all, in fact, clearly stated in the Torah, then this notion is perhaps plausible. However, if one or more of these four Apostolic instructions are not clearly stated in Torah, then we may reasonably conclude that the Apostles were not actually limiting the applicability of Torah itself to the Gentiles, but that they were rather presuming the universal relevance of Torah and were not attempting to alienate Gentiles from it. Rather, they were looking at how to apply Torah in the Gentile situation and concluding that the four rules they identified were critical for Gentile health, and therefore a good place to start in their understanding and application of Torah.
In examining the Apostolic response, we find that the four rules are not a subset of Torah.
- Abstaining from foods offered to idols is not mentioned in Torah. Paul even explicitly taught that this practice is not, in itself, sinful. However, Paul did observe that this practice often causes weaker believers to stumble. (1 Cor 8) It was rampant in the surrounding culture, of concern to the Apostles, and clearly needed to be addressed. Partaking in symbolic meals where food had been ceremonially dedicated to false gods was repulsive to Jewish thought and contrary to rabbinic custom. Technically, someone with knowledge of spiritual principles would recognize that such a dedication did not, in fact, cause a material change in the food and that it was still safe to consume so long as one did not associate the eating of the meal with worshiping any idols. However, it seems few people were this mature and that the better move was to abstain from the practice for the sake of weaker believers.
- Fornication, a general reference to sexual immorality, is never explicitly defined in Torah. Torah specifies many types of sexual sin, from which one may easily derive what is sinful and what is permitted, but does not, for instance, in its letter, forbid relations with prostitutes. Consider that Paul, in dealing with this subject, does not appeal to any clear statement in Torah, but infers from the one-flesh principle that believers should not, “take the members of Christ and make them the members of an harlot.” (1 Cor 6:15) Prostitution was certainly of concern to the Apostles; it was quite harmful, woven into the very fabric of Gentile society as part of ritual temple worship, and likely expedient in many cases for conducting business, etc. In requiring believers to abstain from any sexual activity outside of marriage, the Apostles were clearly adding to Torah in an effort to help believers understand the Spirit of Torah and apply it in a healthy way.
- Eating strangled animals is not mentioned in Torah. This is certainly aligned with Torah and consistent with the rabbinic tradition governing butchering, designed to minimize the amount of blood remaining in the flesh of an animal being dressed for the table. Blood is much more difficult to remove from the flesh of a strangled animal than from one killed by rabbinic technique. In encouraging Gentiles to avoid eating the flesh of animals killed in this way, the Apostles were covering all the Torah commands, as well as the applicable, early post-Deluvian command, to abstain from consuming blood with the flesh. It also covers the context of eating animals that died of natural causes or sickness, which was allowable for those outside Israel and for any stranger sojourning temporarily within Israel, but not anyone who was an integral part of the community. (De 14:21) This may be derived from the spirit of the command: if an animal is killed purposefully so as to keep the blood in it, this is in all appearances less harmful to eat than an animal that dies of sickness or old age. If the former is forbidden, then how much more the latter. This is a strong indication that the Apostles did not consider Gentile believers to be equivalent to the stranger or the alien, which would be permitted to eat such things.
- The command to abstain from blood is somewhat redundant with the last one, and should perhaps be understood in light of it. What might motivate this kind of redundancy in the Apostolic admonitions (after all, they were only giving four rules so it seems unusual for two of these to be so overlapping), other than some particularly objectionable and common practice in which some uninstructed Gentile believers might defile themselves in spite of common knowledge of the universal command provided in Genesis? It was in fact common in ancient pagan practices to drink blood apart from the meat. (Gaertner, ActsDennis 1993, p. 240-241, Joplin, MO: College Press) While Torah could not appropriately require complete abstinence from ingesting blood, since eating flesh was permitted and since it is virtually impossible to remove all of the blood from any kind of meat regardless how it is prepared, anyone familiar with Torah would recognize that the spirit of Torah certainly implies abstinence from drinking blood. However, it is clear from a careful examination of Torah that most all of the references related to this prohibition are in a context of eating flesh saturated with blood. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that Apostles wished to clarify and emphasize with newly converted Gentiles, raised in cultures steeped in such offensive pagan rituals, that ingesting blood should be avoided in every possible form.
It is clear that the Apostolic response is not explicitly defining a subset of Torah that is applicable to Gentiles; each directive is genuinely derived from and is fully consistent with the spirit of Torah in the context of the pagan cultures of the time, and is clearly expedient for anyone wishing to fellowship with Jews pursuing Torah, especially since most Jews remained under the burdensome yoke of rabbinic tradition. It is clear from context that these four directives were not required for salvation, and that they were provided in contrast to the Pharisees’ demands, who would convert Gentiles to Judaism and subject them to the vast and burdensome yoke of rabbinic tradition. Rather than telling Gentiles that they need not obey the rest of Torah, the Apostles were evidently providing strategic examples of the kinds of inferences to be drawn from Torah, and the kinds of things to be especially careful of, as Gentiles began fleshing out what it meant to pursue holiness and righteousness in their pagan cultures.
Carefully consider that Torah is written in such a way that its principles can be applied in any situation to derive principles of health and holiness, principles that are not themselves clearly specified in Torah but which are consistent with its spirit. Torah provides boundary conditions in a perfectly detailed manner (not too much detail, and not too little), such that one can, by the Spirit that wrote Torah, discern what is holy and just and good in every circumstance of life. In doing so, mature believers make application of Torah in their particular cultural environments, deriving extra-biblical “rules” which follow the spirit of Torah, and instruct immature believers in these extra-biblical rules to help them walk in the full spirit of the Law. This is essentially what the rabbis in Judaism had attempted, except that the rabbis, being largely unregenerate and not knowing the Spirit of Torah, had often failed to understand and/or capture the spirit of Torah in their man-made systems, and as a result had often contradicted Torah in the process.
Also consider, as part of the general context, the fact that the Tanakh (Genesis to Malachi) was the only scripture available to anyone at that time, and that it was generally only available in Jewish synagogues. We must be careful in our interpretation of the text to avoid thinking that there was any kind of a “New Testament” to which Gentiles could turn for instruction and encouragement. At this point in the history of the Church, the four Gospels were unknown, the Pauline epistles were not available, there was no New Testament scripture. The only concept of bible that believers in this day had was the Hebrew Scripture, the Tanakh: Genesis through Malachi.
Also, we must observe that in order for Gentiles to hear the Word of God, they would generally have to either be in the presence of someone they trusted who had memorized it and could quote it accurately, or be in regular attendance at one or more Jewish synagogues so that they could hear a scribe read it aloud. Biblical texts were hand-copied by Jewish scribes and were therefore extremely expensive. The synagogue was generally the only place that any portion of the Bible could be accessed, but synagogues did exist in most every major city of the Roman Empire. While attending synagogues regularly in order to learn the scriptures, it was inevitable that Gentiles would come into close association and relationships with Jews (both believing and unbelieving), which for the most part were living under the burdensome system of rabbinic tradition. In order to facilitate this fellowship, Gentiles who did not wish to become strictly Jewish and submit to rabbinic traditions definitely needed some guidelines — some minimal set of extra-biblical recommendations that would provide some toleration for them among the strictly observant Jews. This is exactly what the Apostles provided.
We may also note that the Apostolic response is carefully worded such that it does not exclude any part of Torah. In other words, the Apostles did not actually state what many infer from the text: that some portion of Torah is not obligatory for Gentiles. The Apostles certainly could have done so; they could have pointed out certain parts of Torah that the Gentiles need NOT obey, if indeed some portion of Torah was not applicable to them. This would have been the perfect time to do so. However, rather than doing anything like this, the Apostles added and emphasized certain “necessary things.” Again, the Apostles, in their response, never stated that any portion of Torah was not obligatory for Gentiles.
Torah’s Obligatory Nature
Acts 15 is clearly not a context which supports an anti-Torah perspective. There is nothing in the account to even suggest that there are parts of Torah that are relevant to Israel in general and yet irrelevant to Gentiles. While there are other texts which may be construed more easily to this end, there are also a few texts that are very difficult to consider from an anti-Torah perspective. These texts clearly teach that Torah is generally applicable to all.
The clearest of these is perhaps Matthew 5:19: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus, speaking of Torah, provides no option for anyone to break any part of it. James completes the idea in saying: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (Jas 2:10) One cannot legitimately separate the Law into obligatory and optional, picking and choosing one law as moral and another as civil or ceremonial, for one simple reason: God didn’t. (Keep My Commandments) If certain laws appear unreasonable or absurd to keep in this present age, perhaps the article Use It Lawfully may be helpful.
Finally, now that the obligatory nature of Torah is clear for all men, it remains to apply this in practice today. We ask: What are the consequences when a Gentile violates Torah? This simple question is easily answered: It depends on what the Gentile understands, and the circumstances of their non-compliance. “But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” (Lk 12:48) For one in Jewish culture, fully aware of Torah and its relevance, the consequence, say, for willfully breaking Sabbath, is much different than for the sincerely ignorant, or for those whose life and well-being are directly threatened by obedience. God judges all men based on the heart. As we grow in maturity, and in understanding God’s ways, we become more accountable to follow what we know, and what we have the opportunity to know. God does not bless willful ignorance, but is very patient with those who are sincerely seeking Him in the context of their limited understanding. Gentiles are consistently taught by the enemy, in a thousand ways, to believe that Torah is not for them. Let us therefore, knowing that Torah is for all men, not be overly critical of our Gentile brothers and sisters, but patiently try to help them understand, to grow into a full maturity and knowledge of the beauty of God’s complete revelation.
In full view of the context, we find convincing evidence that the Apostles were not distancing the Gentile disciples from the Torah itself, relieving them of any obligation to obey Torah, but delivering Gentiles from a burdensome set of rabbinic traditions that had been added to Torah. The Apostles intended for Jews to honor their man-made traditions, yet saw a clear difference when it came to imposing this system on the Gentiles. However, in either case, the Apostles made it very clear for both Jew and Gentile that both justification and sanctification were accomplished apart from mere mechanical obedience to any system of rules and regulations. They also, while recognizing a kind, gentle leniency in how new believers in antagonistic communities and cultures began obeying Torah, the Apostles carefully and deliberately made no ultimate distinction between Jew and Gentile concerning the general applicability of Torah itself.
This conclusion is consistent with the Apostolic motivation to encourage fellowship between Jews and Gentiles, which was their clearly stated motivation, and also provides for consistency with Christ’s clear statement that all of Torah is binding on all men (Mt 5:19), and squares with Paul’s claim that the entirety of the Tanakh is profitable for instruction in righteousness for all men in all times and cultures. (2Ti 3:16-17)