Leviticus (sort of) – part ten

Before we say goodbye to our series in Leviticus, there’s one more interesting (I think) place in which Leviticus interacts with an important issue in the New Testament.

We’ve already seen how Peter’s dream in Acts 10 showed that God had abolished the distinction between clean and unclean food because he had abolished the distinction between clean and unclean people. Which means that Jews can eat with Gentiles – there’s no longer a cultural barrier for the gospel to cross. And Gentiles don’t have to commit themselves to circumcision and obeying the law of Moses (that we’ve been looking at in Leviticus).

Although Peter’s been convinced, it takes a bit longer for the rest of the church to get on board. To the point where the mother church in Jerusalem is starting to get worried about the success Paul and Barnabas had in sharing the gospel to Gentiles, and what it might mean for the future of the church. So there’s a big council meeting in Jerusalem, to try to settle the dispute once and for all:

Acts 15:4-6 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

Peter then stands up and presents the case against the hardline Judaizers:

15:7-11  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Peter’s argument is essentially a theological one: in verse 9 he says that purity in God’s sight is by grace through faith, just as it is even for the most law-abiding Jew. Salvation does not come through observing the law. At any rate, no Jew has been able to keep the whole law – why should it now be imposed on the Gentiles?

His argument is then backed up by the evidence presented by Paul and Barnabas; the outward evidence of the Holy Spirit at work:

15:12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 

After the evidence is presented, James the brother of Jesus speaks. By this point he’s become the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church. He agrees with Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, and adds a supporting argument from the Old Testament prophet, Amos:

15:13-18 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago.” 

That is, it has always been God’s plan to save people from among the nations. James’ recommendation, therefore, is that non-Jews who come to follow Jesus don’t have to obey all the purity codes:

15:19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”

But interestingly, he still suggests some restrictions:

15:20 “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.”

Later in the chapter, the council writes a letter back to Antioch confirming that James’ recommendation has been adopted by them all. In part, the letter says

15:28-29 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. Farewell. 

Again, it mentions these restrictions: abstain from food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and sexual immorality. Why these four things? Out of all the Old Testament laws, doesn’t it seem a little random? [

Scholars have debated this for centuries, and so here I’m just expressing my opinion. But I think the best explanation is that these are four things that could be found in pagan temples: four things associated with idol worship. (See Witherington, Acts.)

And this is where it links with Leviticus. In effect, they are telling the Gentile converts: look, you don’t have to fulfil the Old Testament purity code in all its details. And that’s because most of the reasons for the laws have been done away with by Jesus. Remember:

  • our uncleanness to approach God has been dealt with by Jesus’ once-for all sacrifice;
  • the revelation of the character of God has been superseded by Jesus turning up in the flesh;
  • the symbolic distinction between Jew/Gentile has been done away with, as God has purified the Gentiles by faith.

All these are now out-of-date.

But you might remember there’s still one reason that hasn’t been done away with: keeping God’s people away from idolatry and pagan religion. Not mixing sex and worship. Not doing the kinds of things that the surrounding culture did when worshipping their idols. That’s still very much a good idea!

The Jerusalem council therefore tells them: even though the letter of the law has been done away with, make sure you fulfil the spirit of that reason by staying away from all forms of idol worship. Stay away from meat sacrificed to idols, from meat strangled in pagan rituals, from the drinking of blood by pagan priests, and from the sacred prostitution found in most temples. Keep yourselves from idols.

So what?

But what does all that mean for us? Well depending on whom we identify with in the story, we get a slightly different lesson.

The Antioch Church

Firstly, let’s place ourselves as the Antioch church. We’re Gentile converts to Christianity, so that’s the most natural place for us. The obvious message for us is – we don’t have to obey the law of Moses. That’s the reason we’re not making purification offerings and undergoing ritual baths. That’s the reason we can eat pork and keep the end on our bits if we so choose. Yay us.

The Judaizers

Secondly, however, we need to realise that most of us are no longer the ‘newbies’ in the church. A danger for us is that we become the Judaizers, in a cultural sense: we insist on dress standards, or ways of speaking, or methods of bible study, or styles of music, or belief in certain non-core doctrines – we add stuff to the gospel. Normally we’re not as blatant as the Judaizers in saying ‘you need this in order to be saved’. But we can still give the subtle signals that you’re only ‘doing it right’, you’re only accepted if you adopt our brand of Christian culture.

The Jerusalem council

But finally – and this is probably the most difficult, the least clear-cut lesson to apply – we often find ourselves in the place of the Jerusalem council, in the place of James. We’re not the new kids on the block, nor are we the hardline legalists: often we’re the ones having to make a call on what behaviour is acceptable in the church.

You see, there’s a difficult tension in the council decision, as it tries to guard against two errors. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to impose outward cultural symbols or ‘purity markers’ on those who want to become followers of Jesus; it wants to keep cultural preference separate from the gospel. Yet at the same time the council insists on standards of behaviour to ensure new converts come out from the idolatry of the world. It’s not easy, but it’s this same tension that the church needs to work out in every generation and in every culture. How do we discern what parts of our society’s culture are OK, and what parts are idolatrous and must be avoided?

It’s even harder for us, I think, in that idols aren’t as obvious in Australian society as they were in the first century. Nor are they as obvious as outwardly ‘idolatrous’ cultures like parts of Asia, where the idols take an easily recognisable physical form. Our idols are less tangible: material goods, status, sex, celebrity, the opinions of others, TV, career – even our family. An idol is anything that takes the rightful place of God at the centre of our loyalties and affections. How do we make wise decisions?

Let me suggest three principles that might help us:

(1) Firstly, we can’t simply avoid all of these things. It’s just not practical, or indeed possible. And unlike pagan gods, many of the idolatrous things I just listed are also good things – or at least neutral things – when they are kept in proper perspective.

(2) Secondly, different things are idolatrous for different people. For example, no matter what kind of car I drive, it won’t ever even come close to being an idol for me. I just don’t care. For someone else, though, it might be their pride and joy, their source of status; it might be a temptation to idolatry that they need to flee from. For me, it might be something else. So if you know that something is potentially idolatrous for you – be radical in avoiding it. Just like the council told the Gentile converts – stay completely away from anything to do with pagan worship!

(3) And thirdly, this means for the most part we can’t make these kinds of judgements on behalf of others. If we do, we risk becoming Judaizers – insisting that others follow our own behavioural code. Something that James and the council of Jerusalem definitively rejected almost 2000 years ago.

To think about

What are the idolatrous influences you need to flee from?

What are some of the “Jerusalem Council” type decisions your church is having to make? What guidance does this passage in Acts 15 (and its background in Leviticus) give us?

Post responses and questions

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