The older one gets, the more difficult it is to give up long-held beliefs and notions about all sorts of life items. I grew up being taught that even going to a movie theatre to see a wholesome film was wrong for a Christian to do, the idea being that supporting the industry in any way was making possible all of the other morally corrupt productions. I struggled always to see that logic, and though I reject that association, it remains very rare that I will enter a theatre. On the other hand, I was also taught that alcohol consumption was sinful in any degree. Whereas that is surely true for drunkenness, I acknowledge the Christian liberty to partake, though continue to this day to think that any participation is unwise for the believer. Yes, I understand what a minority I am in this regard.
Jewish folks of the first century grew up in a culture that was filled with many restrictions and detailed obligations. It is difficult for us to imagine what a complete worldview change it was for those first Jews who accepted Christ as the Messiah. Beyond that, they had to grow to understand that this church thing was not “Judaism Version 2.0.” No, this was a totally new thing (a “mystery” – to use the biblical description – something hidden in the past, but now revealed). This new experience was never something they anticipated, yet it did have all of its roots in the Jewish background of the sacrificial system of atonement, etc. So what elements of the past were to be kept, and what were to be discarded as now obsolete?
The theology of grace through faith in the once-for-all finished work of Christ’s atoning blood meant the eradication of much of the Mosaic Law. Even so, there were timeless moral principles in the Law that were honorable to be kept and valued. Immorality was forbidden by the Law, though it was the common experience in many Gentile circles. Jesus didn’t set people free to indulge in such activity. This remained a black and white item. While on the other hand, there were dietary restrictions of the past that did not necessarily constitute a sin if now participated in doing, yet if Gentiles and Jews were to successfully meld together in this new institution of the church, it would be best for the Gentiles to willingly abstain from certain practices and associations.
James takes the lead in bringing the intense Jerusalem Council to a conclusion by suggesting a plan of action and communication for new Gentile believers – both affirming and welcoming them, while also seeking from them a high level of moral decorum …
Acts 15:19 – “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Acts 15:22 – Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
A most important truth was established – that the Gospel message was fully of grace and did not contain the requirements of the Law of Moses. In the face of the Jewish world around them, this was not going to play well, yet the truth needed to be established. This would facilitate the rapid expansion of the Gospel in the Gentile world. Paul and Barnabas were affirmed, along with their mission.
As well, the Gentiles were encouraged to be sensitive at the same time to certain Jewish cultural backgrounds, particularly related to dietary matters that, if participated in publically, were going to be difficult for the Hebrew Christians to accept and fellowship around. The exhortation was to avoid these things for the greater good of the church and for family unity.
So essentially, one side was told to not make precepts of beliefs that were in reality preferences, but the other side was encouraged to be sensitive to not live out the freedom of their every preference in the face of those who struggled from a cultural background of rejection toward such things.
Beyond the great message of the love and grace to be found in God and his provision in Christ, there is hardly any other message so pervasive in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) than that of giving away personal values and tastes in order to rather serve others. This is the essence of Christian living – of having the mind of Christ who did not hang onto the glories of heaven, but rather took on humanity to the extent of being subject to death for sins he did not commit.
We can be people who live with such others-oriented values!