James, the brother of Jesus and a pastor of the Jerusalem church, lays out in Ac 15:13-19 why it is acceptable for Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to worship together, without the latter converting to Judaism. However, one problem remains if the two groups are to mix freely within church life: how can the Jewish Christians truly keep their law, as they desire, if Gentiles are among them at church? This issue, albeit in a different form, is still a live one for Christians. How should we lovingly handle non-sinful differences which threaten to divide us?
To answer that in Jerusalem, James looks to the Old Testament. His words aren’t easy for us to understand but it seems that he’s thinking of some ancient laws which stem from Noah’s time. After the flood, Noah offered an animal sacrifice to thank God (Ge 8:20). In response, God said that Noah should now share the meat (Ge 9:3). However, he was not to eat like a wild animal tearing at living flesh; Noah was to treat the animal’s life with care, as shown in how he handled the blood (Ge 9:4). God wanted Noah always to take seriously the violent evil humanity is capable of and which triggered the flood (Ge 6:13). However, Noah’s son Ham did not do that and his delinquency came out in an odd incident. Discovering his father drunk and naked, Ham did not cover him but went to tell others (Ge 9:22), despite nakedness having strong links to Adam’s fall into sin (Ge 3:11). This showed his careless spirit about sin (Ge 9:25).
Noah, then, learned that: meat is a gift; life is precious; and sin is serious. And he was told to respect these three by how he handled food, blood and nakedness. But since he was the restarting of humanity, these rules were for all people. So when Moses, years later, wrote up God’s laws for Israel, Noah’s rules reappeared – most notably in the laws of Le 17 & 18, which are explicitly linked to Ham’s descendants, the Canaanites (Le 18:30). Of course, the laws are tailored to the environment of the Israelites’ time. So, for example, wrongly exposing nakedness is expressed in various forms of sexual relations (hence some English Bibles translate it that way in Le 18). But they do link back to Noah’s experience and that’s seen in how Le 17 & 18 are applied not only to Israelites but to any other people who live in the land with them (Le 17:8,13; 18:26).
Well, it seems that James has all this in mind as he develops guidance to help Jewish Christians feel that they are still faithful to their law despite the presence of Gentile brothers in the church. He summaries the Leviticus laws which enabled Jews and Gentiles to mix within Israel (though not in the worship) and asks that non-Jewish Christians abide by them (v20), for the sake of their fellow believers (v21). Firstly, he asks them not to eat the market meat which comes from the pagan sacrifices (cf Le 17:1-9). Secondly, he asks them to be very careful in how they conduct themselves sexually (cf Le 18). Thirdly, he asks them not to eat meat where the blood hasn’t been properly handled, such as when the animal is strangled (cf Le 17:10-16). James believes these will enable the churches wisely to handle Jew/non-Jew differences, and his fellow leaders agree (v22). So two men are chosen to travel back to Antioch to explain all this, with Paul and Barnabas, using a formal letter (v23-29). The letter makes clear that anyone who demanded Jewishness from Gentile Christians has no backing from Jerusalem (v24) and it boldly asserts that this plan for unity has the support of the Holy Spirit himself (v28).
The issues highlighted by this letter remain a cause for our concern. We live in a country which takes for granted its food and gives no thanks to God, where violence against those we regard as not (fully) human is accepted and where nakedness is freely used. But these things should bother Christians. We ought to live grateful for meat, careful how any life is treated and wary of body exposure for casual purposes. But the humble spirit of the letter should also be our concern. We must be willing to suppress our own preferences if that helps to unite the church. We must ask of our words and actions whether they help other believers to live with a good conscience before the Lord. Christians will have differences but we deal with them in love (1Co 10:31-33)