Acts 15 and the matter of the two covenants, old and new

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There are many different interpretations of chapter 15 in the book of Acts. Some may have thought that it is mostly about circumcision and foods, but the facts are that when the saints in Antioch sent Paul, Barnabas and certain others to Jerusalem, it was not only those things that were at question but much more. It was regarding the matter of the two covenants, old and new – whether the disciples were to follow the law of Moses, the rules of the Old Covenant.

Acts 15:1–2 – some men from Judea had come to Antioch and caused confusion.

We read:

Acts 15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (NKJV)

Verse 2, “no small dissension and dispute” – in other words, there was a sharp disagreement between certain men who had come from Judea to Antioch, and Paul and Barnabas. This led to that the saints in Antioch sent a group of people to Jerusalem, to settle the matter. We cannot know whether they did this because they were not sure what was right, or simply because they wanted to stop the mouths of the men who were spreading confusing teachings. But, we know the end result.

A note: For some people, this matter might be hard to understand, because they have been caused to think that the New Covenant is merely a continuation of the Old Covenant, or a modified form of it. But, the New Covenant is indeed something new. The article nca090.htm has some notes on that subject.

Another note: Many translators have put into certain Old Testament passages wordings which make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”, but that is not correct. The article nca130.htm sorts out that matter.

A number of people, including Paul and Barnabas, travelled from Antioch to Jerusalem.

We read:

Acts 15:2 […] they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (NKJV)

After this, the apostles and elders considered that matter. Then, the apostle Peter spoke. We read:

Acts 15:6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 “and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (NKJV)

A note: This matter must not be misunderstood in any way. The New Testament makes it clear that much more was expected, in the way of just, righteous living, of the saints who were under the New Covenant, than what had been demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant. But, new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant. The article nga080.htm has some notes on what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.

Regarding the above-quoted Acts 15:6–11: There are a number of important things to note, in what Peter said. Read on.

Acts 15:9, ‘and he made no difference between us and them’.

Verse 9 records how the apostle Peter, a Jew, was talking to other saints who also were Jews, and said, “and he made no difference between us and them” (WEY). In that sentence, the word “us” refers to Jewish saints, while “them” refers to non-Jewish ones.

Note those words – “and he made no difference between us and them”. For some reason, some have claimed that one set of rules applied to disciples of Jewish (or Israelitish) descent, and that there somehow was another set of rules for those of other ethnic background. It was not so, of course. It was the same for all. Consider these passages:

It is fully clear that there was no difference between the Jewish and non-Jewish saints, neither in regard to “rules” nor in regard to other things.

Acts 15:10, ‘why do you tempt God?’

At first, some felt that the rules of the Old Covenant should be followed.

Acts 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. (NKJV)

Verse 6, “this matter” – referring back to the thought that it was “necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses”, verse 5. The apostle Peter commented on that:

Acts 15:10 “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (NKJV)

Again, these things might be hard to understand for those who have been caused to think that the Old Covenant is still in force, “in a modified form”. Peter’s words do not give any support to that concept. Here, one must keep in mind that the Old Covenant was “added because of transgressions”, Galatians 3:19, and that it was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the promise had been made”, same verse – that is, until Jesus came. The article nca080.htm has more on this.

The saints in Jerusalem wrote a letter to those in Antioch.

Acts 15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23 They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NKJV)

Verse 24, last part: The saints in Jerusalem noted that the men who had gone from Judea to Antioch and troubled the disciples there, were speaking their own thing.

Verse 25: Did the saints in Jerusalem have anything bad to say about Paul and Barnabas? No. They called them “our beloved Barnabas and Paul”. Also: Did they disagree with Paul and Barnabas? No; the context shows that after they had carefully considered the matter, they were on the same lines as Paul and Barnabas.

Further:

Acts 15:25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. 30 So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. 32 Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words. (NKJV)

Why were Judas and Silas (Silvanus) sent to Antioch? Was it not enough to send back Paul and Barnabas and those who had travelled with them? It may be that Judas and Silas were sent along, from Jerusalem, so that they could in Antioch give witness to the fact that Paul and Barnabas had been right.

Acts 15:20 and 29 mention idolatry, sexual immorality, strangled things and blood.

Why were especially those things mentioned? That is not fully clear, but it may be that some customs and practices which were specific to the Greek and Roman cultures, were a problem for the non-Jewish disciples – perhaps especially the idol-temples which often were a central thing in a town.

Here it is good to know that the part of the world where Antioch lay, had been under Greek respectively Roman control and influence, for centuries. It is said that the Greco-Roman temples often were, not only places of idolatry but also brothels, butcheries and meal-houses. And, we see that Acts 15:20 and 29 mention idolatry, sexual immorality, blood and meats – things that were connected to those idol-temples.

Most Jewish disciples had probably always kept away from such things, but we can assume that many of the non-Jewish ones had been accustomed to them, before their conversion. It may be that it was for that reason, that their Jewish brothers in Jerusalem wrote a special warning regarding those things. Here is the passage in question:

Acts 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)

Let us consider the four things which are mentioned in verse 29, one by one.

Things offered to idols’.

Acts 15:29 […] abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)

Other bible-passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:21 show how the apostle Paul made it clear that the saints could not “drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of wicked spirits” and that they could not “partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of wicked spirits”. 1 Corinthians 10:14 records how the apostle wrote, “shun the worship of idols” (20CNT). This included that they were not to eat or drink things that had been offered (dedicated) to idols or were in some way connected to them.

The instructive letter which is recorded in Acts 15:23–29, was written to non-Jewish disciples, people who lived in a largely Greco-Roman culture. There, in contrast to the Jewish culture, the flesh of many slaughtered animals was ceremonially dedicated to idols. So, it was necessary to warn and instruct the non-Jewish disciples in regard to that matter. They were told to keep away from food and drink that had been offered (dedicated) to idols.

A note: Outside Acts 15, it is 1 Corinthians 8:1–12 and 10:14–32 that mention this with idol-meats. A number of bible-versions render those passages in confusing ways. Some writers have then quoted such confusing translations and made people believe that Paul supposedly meant that the saints could eat idol-meats. But, the facts are that Paul said that if someone knew that some food or drink had been offered (dedicated) to idols, then he or she was not to eat or drink of it. The article nha020.htm has more on this.

Another note: Casual bible-readers might be confused and even misled by the way 1 Corinthians 6:12 and Titus 1:15 are translated in some bible-versions (such as “all things are lawful unto me” and “to the pure all things are pure”). Those passages and their translation and meaning are sorted out in the articles noa110.htm respectively nea050.htm.

‘Sexual immorality’.

Acts 15:29 […] abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)

A note: In verses 20 and 29, many translators have rendered the Greek noun porneia as “fornication”, but that word had many different uses. The above-quoted NKJV translates it as “sexual immorality”. Apparently, the original and literal meaning of the word porneia had to do with prostitution, but over time, it had come to have a wider use, referring to sexual misconduct in general.

Again: It is said that the Greco-Roman temples could even serve as brothels, with both male and female “temple servants” who offered their “services”, against payment. The saints were to keep away from those idol temples – away from idolatry and sexual immorality.

‘Blood’.

Acts 15:29 […] abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)

(“Abstain” – in the Greek text of verses 20 and 29, the verb is apechô which meant “to keep away from”.)

Some writers have claimed that this was connected to the Old Covenant’s rules regarding blood. Is that correct? Let us consider this matter.

What the apostle Peter and others on that occasion said in regard to the Old Covenant, makes it clear that the rules of that covenant were not a factor here. The apostles and elders in Jerusalem noted that the Old Covenant’s rules were not applicable. At first, some felt that it was “necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (see verses 5 and 24), but regarding such claims, the apostle Peter said this: “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Verse 10.)

As was shown above, the context makes it clear that it was not the rules of the Old Covenant that were the reason for the blood-related instruction which is recorded in verse 29. So, why was that instruction given? Again, the Greco-Roman temples served also as brothels, butcheries and meal-houses. The details regarding how animals were slaughtered in those temples, and what role blood had in connection with the rituals there, are lost in the mists of history, but it appears that at least the worship or Artemis (Diana) included the ritual use of blood. And, it is said that even Mithraism had that.

In short: The book of Acts records that the saints in Jerusalem warned their non-Jewish brothers in Antioch about some blood-related matter. We do not know the details, but it is reasonable to assume that that had to do with the ritual use of blood in the Greco-Roman idol religion.

‘Strangled things’.

Acts 15:29 […] abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV, highlighting added)

Some have suggested that that instruction not to eat flesh of strangled animals, might have been connected to the fact that the flesh of animals which are strangled instead of being slaughtered in a proper way, is not properly drained of blood. But, it is likely that even the instruction not to eat the flesh of strangled animals was in some way connected to the Greco-Roman temples. Perhaps there were in those temples some rituals where animals were ritually strangled. – But, see also this note:

It is not certain that those words regarding strangling are original, genuine. The entry for Acts 15:20 in Robertson’s ‘Word Pictures in the New Testament’ says, “[…] Harnack argues ably against the genuineness of the word πνικτου (strangled) which is absent from D Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian” […]. Robertson further notes that “the Western text omits the word also in verse 29”.

Let us summarise this with Acts 15:29, by noting that the saints in Jerusalem instructed their non-Jewish brothers to keep away from idol meats and blood, and sexual immorality. Those things were commonly connected to the Greco-Roman idol religion whose temples served also as brothels, butcheries and meal-houses.

Is there a connection between Acts 15:29 and the rules of the Old Covenant?

It appears that some writers have thought that the four things of Acts 15:29 were taken from the rules of the Old Covenant. Regarding that thought: We must keep in mind that the Old Covenant was an indivisible package. One could not “pick and choose” which of its rules one wanted to keep. The thought that the apostles and elders would have created a rule-set, consisting of four points extracted from the Law of Moses (the Old Covenant), is absurd.

Again, the New Covenant is indeed a new covenant, and not a “continuation” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. The article nca090.htm has more on this.

What about Acts 15:21? That is, why did James mention Moses and synagogues?

James said:

Acts 15:21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (ESV01)

That is what the whole matter was all about – the law of Moses. Again, we read:

Acts 15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” […] 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (NKJV)

It was that matter, that the saints in Antioch wanted to get settled, when they sent Paul, Barnabas and some others to Jerusalem. There, some felt at first that it was “necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses”. Verses 6–10 show that when the apostles and elders had considered that matter, they noted that there was no need to follow the law of Moses.

So, why did James then mention the reading of the books of Moses in the synagogues, verse 21? Did he mean that the non-Jewish disciples should nevertheless go to the Jewish synagogues, in order to be taught the Old Covenant and its rules? Of course not. What Peter and others said, as recorded in the context, makes it fully clear that it was not so. Here is a part of that:

Acts 15:10 “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (NKJV)

Again, the Old Covenant was a temporary arrangement which was “added because of transgressions”, Galatians 3:19. It was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the promise had been made”, same verse – that is, until Jesus came. When Jesus came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside.

The above-quoted words of the apostle Peter (verses 10 and 11), and other things in the context, make it clear that Acts 15:21 does not mean that the non-Jewish disciples should go to the Jewish synagogues in order to learn the law of Moses.

So, really what did James then mean, by noting that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him”?

When one carefully considers those words in their wider context in that chapter, what crystallises is this: James was simply explaining the reason why it was necessary to write the letter which is recorded in verses 22–29. Clarification:

Verse 21, “for from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him” – in other words: Even in many non-Jewish towns, there were Jews who kept on proclaiming the Old Covenant and its rules, despite the fact that that covenant had come to its end. Those Jews could have easily misled the disciples. That was also what some men from Judea had done, Acts 15:1. That is why the saints in Jerusalem wrote the letter which is recorded in Acts 15:22–29. In other words: The purpose of that letter was to tell their non-Jewish brothers in Antioch that they were not to listen to Jews who claimed that the rules of the Old Covenant were to be kept. Obviously, that is what even verse 21 refers to.

A note: Those who have studied the New Testament with care, know that Jesus and his apostles, including Paul, taught that the saints were to keep away from sin, and live holy and pure and righteous lives. – Again, the article nga080.htm has some notes on what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → nca090.htm

On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Many bible-versions render it in ways that make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”, but that is not correct. → nca130.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm

On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm

On 1 Corinthians 8:1–12 and 10:14–32 and their translation and meaning. Did the apostle Paul mean that the saints could eat and drink things that were offered to idols? → nha020.htm

The apostle Paul and his teachings. → noa110.htm

On Titus 1:15 and the translation “to the pure all things are pure”, and what that verse really means and refers to. → nea050.htm

Does the New Covenant have “food rules” of the kind the Old Covenant had? → nha010.htm

Other articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.


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