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The Gentile Four: A Study Of Acts 15:20

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Often when dealing with whether or not Christians, especially those from a Gentile heritage—meaning that they are not Hebrew, Jewish, or Israelite by blood—many today contend that The Bible is clear: Christians are not bound to follow Torah. In general, these arguments are narrowed down to a rejection of commandments that are deemed “ceremonial” despite the fact that in Torah these matters applied to all of the people, including “the stranger that lived among them” (a reference to individual gentiles who joined the congregation of Israel).

Among the many passages that are used to support the anti-Torah views of mainstream Christianity, Acts 15 stands out because it involves a debate about whether or not adult men among the converts from the surrounding Gentile communities were required to be circumcised upon acceptance of Yeshua. Let’s take a look:

Now some men coming down from Judea were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” ~Acts 15:1 (TLV)

The first thing I want you to notice here is the use of the word “custom” in the text. This indicates that they were not referring to any commandment. Now, Leviticus 12:3 does in fact state: “In the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin is to be circumcised.” But this commandment doesn’t actually address what to do with a male convert to the faith. In addition to this, there is a lot to circumcision, particular when dealing with adult men as compared to newborn infants.

What I will say before moving on, as my focus in this message is not actually pertaining to circumcision, is that there were multiple issues at hand when this issue came up before the Apostles. One thing that many today are unaware of is that there was a debate among the two major schools of thought regarding whether a person is required to be circumcised as an adult convert, even if they were circumcised at birth. One school, the House of Shammai, said that this was necessary and if someone was already circumcised they need to at least draw a few drops of blood to solidify conversion. The other school, the House of Hillel (from which the Apostle Paul was a part), said that this was not necessary. This would, perhaps, help explain not only why the ruling was made against a requirement to circumcise adult men who had converted, but also reconcile Paul’s decision to circumcise Timothy “for the sake of the Jews”—as Timothy was half Jewish on his mother’s side (Acts 16:1) and may have been circumcised, meaning Paul simply drew the few drops of blood required by the Shammai Pharisees.

Something else to bring up is the matter of circumcision of the heart. Many Christians don’t actually realize that this was not a new thing when Paul spoke of it in Romans 2:29. It is actually first mentioned in Deuteronomy 10:16 where it is stated: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart therefore, and do not be stiff-necked anymore.” It should also be noted that even in ancient Israel there were circumstances where people were either not circumcised or circumcision was delayed for many years. As Messianic Jewish author and Bible teach Avi ben Mordecai points out in his book Galatians: A Torah-Based Commentary In First Century Hebraic Context says: “After the rebellion and judgment of Israel’s fathers in the wilderness (“...and they were all circumcised who came out of Egypt”), the new generation of Hebrews not affected by that judgment were not circumcised for the next forty years, until they were ready to enter into the promised land.” This is all because circumcision on the eighth day was commanded and beyond that (should that not have taken place for any reason) was, as noted in Acts 15:1, a custom—not a commandment. It seems it was either optional or a decision not made in haste but after one had come to a place of true heart-circumcision first. And this doesn’t even get into more complicated issues such as those who are considered “born circumcised” through conditions such as hypospadias and aposthia.

So we find ourselves dealing with a question that was posed, but the real question, as we read through the text—and I encourage you to take time to read through the entire fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts—is: What should be imposed on Gentile converts, if anything, from the Torah? It is from this point we will pick up the text, after the narrative of the debate, in verses 19 and 20 where we find a list of four commandments that some would like us to believe are “the only things commanded to Christians today”.

Therefore, I judge not to trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God—but to write to them to abstain from the contamination of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what is strangled, and from blood. ~Acts 15:19-20 (TLV)

Now, let’s think about what is not on this list before we continue on with a look at each of these four things. “Do not commit murder” is not on the list. “Do not steal” and “Do not lie?” Nope, don’t see those two. How about “Do not commit adultery”? Or what about this one: “Honor you mother and your father”?

Of course I could go on and on, but it does seem a little silly when you start to bring some of these other commandments into the picture to say that Acts 15 presents a short list of “the only four requirements” to be imposed on Christians. So let’s take a closer look at these four things, as clearly they must be important, even though they clearly cannot be exclusive.

Abstain From The Contamination Of Idols

Simply put, this is a general commandment against eating things that were sacrificed to idols or pagan gods, though it also encompasses anything that is in some way tainted by idolatry. The Living Bible, a paraphrase of Scripture, actually renders this part of the verse to say: refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols. So we are clearly dealing with pagan sacrificial meats more than anything else.

Some have contended that this prohibition covers not only the issue of idolatry but also the clean/unclean food laws as found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. This may have some merit as an extension of the instruction. It is well known and documented from archaeological findings that among the animals sacrificed in Greek and Roman temples to their gods included a variety of biblically unclean animals that included pigs, horses, and dogs. Some even believe wild beasts like boars and bears were among the sacrifices offered as well. A display of the statue of the Greek goddess Demeter at The British Museum in London says: “...pigs were the most common sacrificial offering in the chthonic rituals of Demeter and Persephone (Kore). Bones of pigs are often found in association with sanctuaries of the two goddesses.”

Since sacrificial meats were ultimately consumed after the slaughter and offering to the deity involved, the practice in the pagan temples obviously included eating these unclean meats as well. So it is reasonable to conclude that by refraining from eating pagan temple sacrifices the new converts would naturally be refraining from eating unclean animals also, since it is very apparent from the record of Acts that the community of Believers continued on with adherence to the food laws given in Torah (we see Peter in Acts 10 stating that he has never eaten anything unclean, and Paul is shown to be maintaining a biblically clean lifestyle enabling him to enter God’s Temple to offer a sacrifice in Acts 21:26).

Regardless of the connection with the food laws, however, it is clear that this prohibition against eating meat offered to idols was a part of pagan temple rituals. Unlike the later ruling by Paul that if meat from a pagan sacrifice were being sold at the market and you were not aware it was from a pagan sacrifice, you were free to purchase the meat and eat it. But even in that, if it was made known to you that the meat in the market were offered to an idol then you were to refrain from buying and consuming it—this would be like meats today that are sold with the Islamic halal certifications on them as this requires the animal to be offered to the Muslim god Allah and slaughtered facing Mecca, Believers are not to purchase and eat those meats.

Abstain From Sexual Immorality

Now, with this one we need to dig just a little bit. On the surface this appears to be a general prohibition against sexual perversion. Thus, the Christian might argue that adultery, fornication, incest, homosexuality, pedophilia, and bestiality are all a part of this general prohibition. While those things are certainly met with their own commandments against them in Torah, in this case the text is actually very specific to something that is easily missed from a surface reading of the text out of a modern language translation.

To begin with, the Greek word translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia (πορνεία). This is the origin of the modern English word pornography. But make no mistake about it; the passage is not actually talking about pornography in the modern sense either, though there is a close relationship between modern pornography and what we are dealing with in Acts 15.

I nterestingly enough, this Greek word porneia (πορνεία) is not merely linked to sexually immoral practices, but also according to Strong’s Concordance: idolatry. This may seem like a strange connection until you realize what was being addressed here in Acts 15 regarding “sexual immorality”. The specific issue the Apostles were telling the converts from the surrounding non-Jewish communities to flee was anything and everything connected with temple prostitution.

It should be considered that temple prostitution—also referred to as sacred prostitution, sacred sex, cult prostitution, or sexual rites—was not merely intercourse for payment. These were idolatrous religious ritual practices that didn’t even involve payment for sex in all cases.

These acts of temple prostitution had a long history of captivation in the history of Israel as recorded in the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible, what Christian wrongly calls the “Old Testament”). One form of idolatry Israel got involved in that I want to highlight is worship of a Canaanite god named Molech.

In the practice of worshiping Molech children were brought to a large statue of the god and “offered” to him. Many today automatically believe that the children were cast into an inferno that burned in the belly of the idol, but actually that was likely not the case in the general offering of children to this god. Some scholars suggest that children were rarely harmed at all in these rituals and that it was only the most extreme cults that actually practiced ritual slaughter of children, with those children being born exclusively to the temple prostitutes. Consider what Calum M. Carmichael says in his book Law, Legend, and Incest in the Bible:

Molech worship … involved the sacrifice of children by fire. These children were typically those born to cult prostitutes.

The Levitical lawgiver’s association of Molech worship with the events of the Judah story strengthens the arguments of Karl Elliger and Walther Zimmerli that Molech worship involved sacrificing to Molech the children who were newly born to cult prostitutes. [Leviticus, Elliger, 1966; Ezekiel, Zimmerli, 1979)

This concept of temple prostitution was quite a broad subject and involved much more than mere “sexual immorality”. While sexually immoral practices are the core of it, it included idol worship, infanticide (not far removed from abortion), and so much more.

In common practice, regarding children born outside of temple prostitution, the ceremony appears to have involved placing the child on the lap of the statue in a manner very similar to the way parents today place their children on the lap of a man dressed as “Santa Claus”—a character referred to as the “god of Christmas” and who has his origins in the Norse pagan god Odin. Services held in Christian practice today called “baby dedications” are probably much more related to things like Molech worship than anything remotely biblical as well. The concept is said to be taken from the dedication of Samuel, but what people don’t seem to get is that Samuel’s mother gave her child to the priest to be raised by him in Yahweh’s Temple. Baby dedications held in most Churches today are much more closely related to pagan dedications of children to idols and false gods, particularly when the parents leave the religious service and raise their children in the ways of the world.

This is what the Apostles were telling the converts to get away from, not merely the acts of sexually immoral practices (though that was certainly part of it). The prohibition was directed more than anything toward coming out from among the pagan temples and separating into the community of Believers.

Abstain From Things Strangled

This one begins to get quite interesting as we dig into it. For example, David Instone-Brewer suggests in his article Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15 that this was not a reference to the strangling of animals, either in sacrificial worship or in general slaughter for food preparation, but that this prohibition is actually connected to infanticide. His argument is that the Greek word used here, oniktos (πνικτός), is more appropriately translated “smothering” and refers to an act of killing infants by suffocating them. He also draws a connection in his article between this “smothering” of children and the aforementioned worship of Molech. As you can see, these four prohibitions seem to build one on the other and all connected to pagan religious practices.

Messianic author and Bible teacher Tim Hegg offers another proposal as to what this prohibition was dealing with. He suggests the following in his article Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council—Did they conclude the Torah was not for Gentiles?

That the sacrifices in pagan temples were usually killed by cutting the throat is well attested. But strangulation is also known to have been used. This inhumane killing of animals was contrary to the spirit of Torah. But while the Torah prohibited eating blood, there is nothing in the written Scriptures describing exactly how an animal was to be slaughtered. The Sages therefore felt the necessity to make such rulings in order to fully comply with the Torah commandments against ingesting blood. Meat from animals that had been strangled was therefore prohibited be-cause of the high probability that the meat was saturated with blood.

Gentile believers were to have no participation whatsoever in the cruel strangulation of animals nor in the rituals that included such practices. Nor were they to eat meat of animals that were strangled. As such, meat for sale at the local pagan temple was out of bounds for the Gentile believer. The chances that the meat had been strangled were too high. The Apostles therefore required the Gentiles to submit to the more stringent rulings of the Sages when it came to meat and the kosher slaughter rules they had developed.43 This was no doubt a burden, since meat from local temples could be more accessible and perhaps less expensive. But even beyond the is-sue of ingesting blood, being the product of pagan idol rituals this meat was not allowed.

Again, we are dealing with practices of worship conducted in the pagan Greek and Roman temples in the region during that time period. The message of the Gospel was spreading into those regions and the Apostles were teaching their new converts how to come out from among them and be separate.

Abstain From Drinking Blood

I’m not going to go too deep into this one as this is not likely something a modern Believer would really think of doing. This refers specifically to ancient pagan practices of drinking blood in various rituals and forms of worshiping their gods. There is some evidence that at least pagan priests in the Roman and Greek religions drank blood in ceremonies to their gods, even if the common people did not.

Some today use this objection to say that we should not eat meats that are what they might consider undercooked, such as a rare or medium-rare steak. This, of course, is because such a cut of beef retains some of the juices of the meat and being red meat these juices hold a reddish color to them. What many today mistakenly conclude, then, is that eating these meats breaks the prohibition against eating blood. This is not actually the case, however, as the juices in these meats is not blood, but a protein called myglobin. So you are not actually violating Scripture by eating a cut of meat from a biblically clean animal if it still contains some of the natural red juices from the meat.

In at least some ancient pagan cults and even today in various forms of witchcraft and the occult it is common practice to drink blood in various ceremonies. In fact, in many cases it is the blood of pigs that is used—pigs of course being the most shunned and despised of all unclean animals among true Believers. This again shows that this too is a prohibition related to coming out from among them and being separate.

Let me also say that blood is central to our faith in a way far different from that found in ancient pagan and modern occult worship. First of all we see the blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle/Temple on the Day of Atonement. Then we see the blood of Yeshua shed for the remission of sin. Drinking blood, then, as it is a practice associated with ancient pagan religion is also the ultimate affront to the salvation we have through the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Come Out Of The Pagan Temples And Follow Torah!

Therefore, come out from among them, and be separate, says Adonai. Touch no unclean thing. Then I will take you in. ~2 Corinthians 6:17 (TLV)

The bottom line is that the entirety of the context of the list of four prohibitions in Acts 15:20 was to tell converts from the surrounding Greek and Roman culture to come out of the pagan worship that was part of their culture. But that’s not the end of the story. There is more to this passage that most of Christianity misses. Take a look at what the very next verse says:

“For Moses from ancient generations has had in every city those who proclaim him, since he is read in all the synagogues every Shabbat.” ~Acts 15:21 (TLV)

Understand that what this is saying is that after coming out of the pagan worship and worldliness that they are to leave behind—the first order of business for any convert—they were to come into the Synagogues on the Sabbath where they would be taught to fullness of God’s Torah. That’s what this verse is saying!

So much of the time I find myself telling people about the sin they are still bound by. It could be eating unclean things like pork and shellfish, not keeping The Sabbath, listening to secular music from artists who openly praise evil and say they’ve sold their soul to the devil, celebrating secular holidays that likely originated from literal pagan religion, or many other worldly and evil things. Often I get backlash like “All you do is say that everything is bad” or “I guess I’m just a rebel and God hates me”. Such responses, of course, are quite telling in regard to the condition of these people’s hearts. But I am merely following the pattern of the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council. It does no good for me to tell someone about all the amazing good things you can make a part of your life from The Bible as a Believer until you first eliminate the ways of the world from your life. Is your idea of “living life” based on what you see people in the world around you doing or what you read in The Word? Of course, if you don’t read The Word, the answer is probably quite obvious. Many people believe “you only live once” and thus want to enjoy this life. Just remember, the moment this life is over you will stand before God in judgment.

Now look, I’ll be straight up and say something that a lot of people who follow my teachings won’t like, but that’s never stopped me before. Today most Christian Churches meet on Sunday. This isn’t a problem so long as they aren’t misled into thinking Sunday—the first day of the week—is The Sabbath. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a religious meeting on the first day of the week or any other day, so long as Believers acknowledge and keep The Sabbath on The Sabbath—the seventh day of a biblical week (what we would today call sunset Friday evening through sunset Saturday evening).

So, as such, if a Church were shunning all forms of worldliness and paganism and at the same time teaching the congregants to follow Torah, even if they did it on Sunday, they would be following the parameters of the Jerusalem Council. It’s the anti-Torah message and the acceptance of worldliness along with the embracing of pagan beliefs, traditions, and religious practices that violates what was taught by the Apostles in Acts 15. Sadly, a great majority of so-called “Christian Churches” today do not seem interested in Torah—including some that just a few years ago were pushing Torah-obedience with a fiery revival-style passion.

If you look at Torah, the five books of Moses, the middle book is Leviticus. Within Leviticus, if you pay close attention, chapters 17 through 19 have a unique parallel to our text from Acts 15:20. Leviticus 17 speaks in detail about the blood of sacrifices and verse 10 specifically says anyone who consumes blood will be cut off. Then we go to chapter 18 and it's all about sexual immorality. After that, chapters 19 and 20 are often referred to as a holiness code, because at the beginning of chapter 19 and the end of chapter 20 we find the phrase: "be holy, as I [Yahweh] am holy". In fact, this phrase in chapter 20, just as in Leviticus 11, is linked directly to the food laws—just as I have shown above the “things contaminated by idols” portion of Acts 15:20 appears to have ties to the Torah food laws. In these two chapters there is a strong emphasis on not being involved in idolatry. All of the things covered in Acts 15:20 are covered in Leviticus 17-19, what my friend Pastor Scott Hillman of River of Praise Fellowship in Greeneville, TN refers to as the heart of the Torah. It is no coincidence that these matters, of which are said will cause people to be cut off from Israel, are given four full chapters right in the middle of the Torah and happen to also be the foundation of pagan worship that converts needed to come out of before they could be prepared to come into a place of being separate unto Yahweh.

Proverbs 28:4 (TLV) says: “Those who forsake Torah praise the wicked, but those who keep Torah stir them up.” Romans 2:13 (TLV), the Apostle Paul writing, says: “For it is not the hearers of Torah who are righteous before God; rather, it is the doers of Torah who will be justified.” From about the year 2010 (perhaps earlier than that) through about 2015 I noticed a number of large and influential Christian Churches and Ministries moving heavily toward a Torah-observant message. Today many of these places have deviated from that and now they are extremely worldly. They’ve embraced the mantra “Love God-Love People”, a movement that promotes a gross misinterpretation of Yeshua’s “two greatest commandments” nearly as bad as the hyper-grace teachings that it stems from. Why are they doing this? Because those words of wisdom ring true: Those who forsake Torah praise the wicked—they are in love with the world and all it has to offer BECAUSE they have turned from the Torah they were once teaching.

It was once said by the late Dr. Lester Sumrall, a pioneer of early Pentecostalism and a man who stood firm in his beliefs and convictions to the day he passed from this world: There is much to be gained by a return to the discarded values of the past. I think it’s long past time that the Christian Church returns to Acts 15—but not some misrepresentation of the text. It’s time for Christians to actually come out from among the world and the pagan culture and be separate. From there it’s time to embrace the Torah and, as Peter quoted from the Torah: Be holy, as our God is holy. I can only hope that messages like this one will one day inspire many to commit to such an expression of faith.

~Blessings And Shalom~

©2019 Truth Ignited Ministry

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