Friday, January 29, 2016

Reboot's Commentary on Acts 15, Part VIII: v.20

Acts 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.”

What James is doing here is referencing what are sometimes called the Noachide Laws. This was a common Jewish practice at the time to teach Gentiles, and basically it goes like this: God gave some commandments to Adam’s descendants and Noah’s descendants (which is all of us, including Gentiles), and a different set of more detailed commandments to the descendants of Abraham and Moses (the Jews).

So the idea goes, any time that God made universal laws and proclamations, then God-fearing Gentiles should follow them, regardless of culture. But the cultural-specific mandates given in the Law were fulfilled by Jesus and even if they had not been fulfilled they weren’t given to Gentiles anyway.

Later Jews would expand the list to seven commandments, but generally at the time these were summed up into three or four laws, as you see here; even the Jewish Encyclopedia—which makes this all sound like a grand conspiracy—admits that this passage is settling on the Noachide Laws.

These were the laws given to Adam and Noah, and their meanings are:

1.    Idolatry – eating food sacrificed to animals was the most common form of idolatry at the time Acts 15 was written, but the Noachide laws generally prohibited all forms of idolatry. It goes without saying that one is harming their relationship with God by “cheating on Him” with other gods.

2.    Sexual Immorality – to ‘complete’ Adam, God created a woman whose male/female ‘parts’ matched and said in Gen 2:24 that a man and woman each leave their family and are joined together as one new flesh. The joining of flesh through sex bonded them together and also was used to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply. Sexual immorality was the pursuit of the joy of sex in any way that was outside of this desire, such as incest (failure to leave your family), adultery (1+1=1, so you can’t join with others as well), homosexuality (male and female are meant to go together), bestiality (that is not the role of the beasts); prostitution (trying to enjoy the fruits without the commitment envisioned by God); and Jesus expanded this list to include lusting after someone who isn’t your wife (saying it was as bad as incest) and sex after remarriage (as once you are married it is intended to be for life). All of these are pictured in the Scripture as not the ideal for marriage.

(It also goes without saying that all of us have committed at least one of these at some point in our lives, so we will come back to this).

There is little doubt that this is what was meant by James when he quotes sexual immorality as that is what is always meant in every Jewish document by that term.

3.    Meat of strangled animals – it was not uncommon in the ancient world (although not today) to strangle an animal rather than exsanguinate it, and eat it with the blood still in it (or drink the blood along with the animal’s meat). This was particularly common among pagans. It is forbidden after the Flood with the covenant between God and Noah, because the Scripture says that the life is in the blood.

4.    Blood – this is a reference to the shedding of blood, which was also forbidden post-Flood in the Noahic Covenant. We are not to kill others ourselves, or tolerate the killing of others.

So what James is doing, explicitly, is affirming the legitimacy of the universal laws that God assigned to us via Adam and Noah.

Sexual immorality is really the only one that is a sticking point to some people; most would agree wholeheartedly with the others. Why sexual immorality?

It is because we have a false view of sex. In our society we are ubiquitously surrounded by the teaching that we are all just basically smart animals, who are pre-programmed instinctively to spread our seed widely. So we say that it is something that we all have to do to be healthy, and that having sex as often as possible with as many people as possible is normal. In Big Bang Theory, it is made as a joke that Penny at one point has over 30 sexual partners with over 180-something sexual activities. And it is seen as normal.

But this view does not make sex more special or valuable, it doesn’t elevate sex—it takes it below the Biblical view.

The Biblical theology of sex is that it is a sacred activity that has spiritual significance. There is an entire book of the Bible—Song of Solomon—that is downright raunchy, as the description of two lovers on their wedding night. And God is pictured as watching and approving of it. Sex is used throughout the Bible as a symbol of our relationship with God—He is the groom, we are the bride; He is coming to wed us, and we should be prepared; He is building us a house at His father’s estate (as the Jews did) and we should be prepared to leave our family to join Him; we will live together forever faithfully; and when we are not faithful to Him it is described as being adulterous.

Our situation before God is that we are missing something crucial that only He can provide; that we cannot possibly have joy apart from Him; that we cannot multiply the kingdom without His help; that we need Him literally to complete us; that we have flaws but are accepted in all our vulnerability by His love; and that we must be willing to leave our family here on Earth and commit to being with Him forever in heaven.

That is shown as a picture when a bride leaves her family and joins a husband for eternity. She stands before him naked and vulnerable, and he can see every flaw yet accepts and loves her anyway. When they join together, their parts mate and they are complete, both physically and spiritually. And through this activity are they fulfilled and are they capable of multiplying to create others who will one day do the same.

So sex becomes a picture of our relationship to God. It is therefore meant to be sacred, and Jews and Christians have always held it as a special thing. It is not to be cheapened and traded. If we pursue sex as the naturalists would have us do it, then yes we will feel the physical pleasure…but that is all. We lose the sacredness and spiritual fulfillment of it.

We cheapen it dramatically when we turn it merely into a physical pleasure, like eating a meal or a nice bottle of wine. Sex is that way for many people—but it can be far more. It can be existentially fulfilling in a way that is hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. This is why the Jews and Christians treat it so carefully…because to get the full joy and pleasure from it requires that one treat it appropriately.

Furthermore, sexual immorality is one of the big problems that led to the Flood, along with violence: these two issues together led to the greatest anger God has ever had at mankind. Hence it is logical for it to be a part of God’s commands.

This seems strange to us in our culture today. We have done a strange thing in our culture by cheapening sex and yet simultaneously treating it as more important. Generally speaking, laws of supply and demand dictate that the rarer something is in supply the more valuable and special it is treated. However, Americans want to have our cake and eat it too: we want sex to be omnipresent, on every billboard and in every TV show and in everyone’s personal life whenever and however and with whomever they want; if you do so, then you must accept that its value will lessen. So it is strange that when someone says that they are going to wait or abstain or follow a narrower path to give it greater value, the society looks down on them as “prudish”—as though they do not like or value sex, when in fact the opposite is true!

The picture and theology that God has for sex is that it is incredibly powerful and valuable and indeed sacred; that having sex is in fact practically an act of worship to God if done in the proper way. It is treated that importantly, and encouraged that strongly, as one sees in Song of Solomon. And yet in our society it is a commodity, to be traded for a movie and dinner or sometimes just straight-out cash.

Indeed, consider how often you have seen in movies and television that two people are having sex with each other when one says, “I love you.” The other invariably isn’t ready to “take that step”. This shows how far removed from the Scriptural view of sex our culture’s has become; we view saying I love you as a bigger deal than sex; sex is a glorified hug or kiss. In fact, sex in the Bible is far more powerful and more passionate and more sacred and important than this. It is something to be treasured and valued and enjoyed…like a fine wine, it is to be properly prepared, allowed to age, and savored properly, not cheap booze to be drunk quickly and then forgotten.

Furthermore, we see in the Scripture a very different view of sex and identity than we see in the modern world. Modern America’s view of sexuality (and, more recently, gender) is that these are identifications or orientations which one is born having or (in the case of gender) one may change as time goes on. In either case it is seen as inherent to your basic consciousness and personality. Scripture, however, does not view identity in that way. Gender is seen as a given at birth, and the methods someone has sex are seen as equal possible by all people; that is, Scripture doesn’t view anyone as a person to be homosexual, rather it views any person as capable of performing homosexual acts. Your core identity is about how you relate to God, not about how you are attracted to other people; and indeed it seems quite clear from Scripture and the Greco-Roman worldview that they saw any person as a sexual being who, given certain situations, might perform a wide variety of acts. They did not, therefore, see your brain as “wired” gay or straight; rather they saw you “wired” sexually and how you express this determines whether it is within or without God’s purposes for sexual activity.

More to the main point:  there are no “further burdens” placed on mankind by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The only things which are sins for us are those things which were already sins for us and are universal to all mankind—murder/bloodshed, idolatry, pagan practices, and the contemptuous treatment of sex.

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