It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:
This is a powerful verse for several reasons.
First, it seemed good “to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Decisions of the elders shall not be made separately from the Holy Spirit. The decision of the Council of Jerusalem is given after much discussion and searching of the Scriptures so that they may be certain of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Second, we are not burdened with anything beyond the requirements. Anything. 613 laws of the Torah, and they are instead whittled down to four. Again, remember that this is not Christians choosing what they can and cannot follow; this is the apostles telling us that Jesus already fulfilled the Law so that we no longer have to do so. For the Judaizer, this is a total and crushing defeat. There is no compromise in this statement: the entire Law is fulfilled for the Gentiles and they need to take on none of it.
Finally, “beyond the following requirements.” These requirements as mentioned before were already considered to be universal morals and would not be surprising to hear; furthermore – other than the sexual concerns – it is doubtful that any would have caused concern on the part of any listener.
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.
So again, the Noachide laws are repeated here. Again recall that “blood” implies not only the drinking of blood but also the shedding of blood, as Noah’s covenant demanded.
The choice of “abstain” here is interesting, as they avoid any sense of forbiddances. Abstaining does not carry the idea of something being inherently evil, but rather that it is something that is better to avoid. Some commentators take this, along with verse 21, to infer that such things are fine as long as they are not done in the presence of Jews. However, this seems a risky stretching of the text.
Rather, it is more likely that the sense is that while they are sins, they are forgivable sins. The Scripture says on numerous occasions that there is but one unforgivable sin—the sin of disbelief or of unwillingness to bow before a holy God. Everything else can be forgiven. So the sense of this passage is—these are things that are important to follow. They are things God asked of you. They will make you spiritually healthy and blessed. They will make your life a valuable witness. You will be a “good and faithful servant.”
The question it arises is—why would one not be willing to do such things. If you actually believe that God, the creator of the entire universe and who holds life and death in His hands, is willing to humble Himself and die to forgive your sins, in what possible way can you claim to appreciate and love and be committed to Him, and yet still claim that something like sex or other religions are of enough value that you won’t give them up?
For true believers, who have received the Holy Spirit, these are not going to keep them from God’s kingdom. However, they remain sins—and universally recognized as sins. It is concerning when we hear those claiming the name of Christ also claiming that these are not sins, instead of saying, these are sins that I struggle with. It is completely fine to struggle with a sin type, even for a lifetime; but it is concerning when one essentially says, “I love Jesus…but I love a certain type of sex more.” So while doing these things is not unforgivable, it is concerning if someone does them and feel no remorse or regret; in that case one should seriously pray and consider their commitments.
To live in this way will be “well” in our lives. God can use someone who takes these basic steps and mature them well. Don’t worship other gods or eat at sacrifices to other gods—this is a pretty easy one in our culture. Don’t eat meat that keeps the blood inside of it—also easy as this is basic FDA rules (a rare steak isn’t filled with blood; that is a different compound, not hemoglobin); so skip the blood pudding or blood sausage and you’ll be just fine. Don’t kill other people. Don’t commit sexual immorality—this last one is the tough one for most of us today, for as I have said, our culture says sex is important but treats it as a common and valueless thing to be done on every third date or in exchange for a bit of flirting, of little more value than a pair of movie tickets.
Now, idolatry might sound simple but I would argue that our challenge in today’s society is actually tougher than the Gentiles first receiving this letter. For them, idolatry was in their face: a literal statue to which one was killing an animal and drinking its blood. Idolatry throughout the Bible is paired with, an analogized by, sexual immorality: Idolatry is, essentially, “cheating on God with someone else.” In the old days that was literally other gods. But our Enemy, I submit, has become much more cunning than he used to be. Now it is not gods of wood and stone that become our idols, but rather that old god Mammon that Jesus preached against: money.
Our society has elevated free-market capitalism to a place where it feels blasphemous to speak out against it, as though we are doing wrong by criticizing an economic theory. Our society has made money our god; we gobble it up and spend what we don’t have. We measure our happiness by things that we purchase, and become depressed if we can’t keep up with the guy next door. (This is why Teddy Roosevelt once said that “Comparison is the thief of joy”—as soon as we begin comparing ourselves to someone else, we always manage to find ourselves lacking and needing to go buy something, upgrade the house, etc.) We make elaborate gifts to show you how many dollars worth we love each other. We work insane hours, day and night, in the pursuit of a bigger bank account. We spend as a country 96% of whatever we gain. We seek our security in our savings accounts.
We have made money our god. And there are certain sacrifices—work—that you are expected to make at the altar of this god in order to receive the blessings of money. That’s why so many look down on the poor on welfare—those lazy bums are complaining about the lack of blessings from the god of money but they haven’t made the sacrifices at the altar, the work hours and education!
You see, it is subtle but powerful. Never ever forget that money is not the god of this world. You should be wise with money. And you should be able to give away HUGE amounts to charities. In the Jewish world, it was ASSUMED you would give 10% of your gross to those less fortunate, and up to 20% for those who were wealthy. And this wasn’t a big deal, because people didn’t worship money. It wasn’t an idol for them. For many of us, it is—and I will be honest, it is my biggest idol as well. I am not a guy who struggles with panic attacks…until my bank account gets low. Then I start really stressing out. Why? Because at times I trust money more than God to provide for me.