Readers of Acts are impressed with the transitional character of the book: it begins in Jewish territory, with Jewish leaders, and an assembly composed of believers who were racially and religiously Jewish. However, as the narrative moves forward, there is a transition until we are out of Jewish territory, there are converts from paganism, and even the thinking of the leaders is less Jewish in its character. Jerusalem is the centre at the beginning of the book, but it shifts until Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome assume more importance. Peter is the key figure in the early chapters, but he fades and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, assumes a greater role.
In ch.15 the Spirit of God gives us a detailed picture of how part of this great transition took place. It was a great transition because the types and shadows of Judaism were giving place to the reality and substance of the Christian faith. It was a divine movement, but real, living men and women were involved, and God graciously supplied the necessary wisdom for what could have been a very bitter parting of the ways between Jewish and Gentile converts.
Chapter 15 is unique in that it contains a description of a meeting the like of which has probably never been repeated. It does not provide the pattern for meetings in our own day; it was not a meeting in an assembly even though there were men there from a number of assemblies. The subject of discussion was doctrinal and it had been triggered (v.1) by the assertion of "certain men" (as is often the case in the New Testament, trouble makers are given the anonymity they deserve) who had come from Jerusalem to Antioch insisting that Gentile believers must be circumcised "after the manner of Moses". Paul and Barnabas countered this very serious doctrinal error and, along with some of their fellow workers, they decided to go to the source, and proceeded to Jerusalem where they went to the assembly to meet the apostle and elders. Both along the route to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem itself they gave accounts of God's blessing on their work among the Gentiles.
There were, however, certain converts in the Jerusalem assembly who were not as clear as Paul and his fellow workers on the relationship of Christian believers to circumcision and the Law of Moses. These Jerusalem Christians insisted on Jewish rites for Gentile believers. This is the background, then, to a dispute that had the potential to ruin a work for God because it was loaded with tradition, emotion, personalities, and doctrine. There were fundamental issues at stake, issues that Paul had to contend with throughout his life of service for the Lord, but Paul was equipped by the Lord Himself to deal with the difficulties. Paul was a Spirit taught believer with a good mind, convictions, and a kindly and diplomatic way of dealing with others even in difficult situations. Paul did not retreat from those who were the enemies of the Cross, but he did his utmost to accommodate others when it did not involve compromise of truth on his part.
The issues were important - important enough that they were discussed by those competent to deal with them; "And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter" (v.6). Peter was a key figure, pointing out that God had used him in taking the gospel to the Gentiles and that no legal burdens should be put on the Gentile converts (vv.7-11). This is the last mention of Peter in Acts so let us remember him as a man who stood for truth at a crucial moment! James, another pillar of the Jerusalem assembly, addressed the group referring to the Scriptures which predicted blessing on the Gentiles (vv.13-21). It is interesting to note that James in v.15 says that the words of the prophets "agree" that the Gentiles would be blessed, but that the then blessing was not a fulfilment of the Scriptures he was quoting; the fulfilment will come later when Israel is restored.
James also proposed four points which, if the Gentiles observed them, would go a long way to satisfying the scruples of the Jewish converts in the Jerusalem assembly and elsewhere. The four points which are listed twice in the chapter (vv.20,29) are in slightly differing order. In v.29 they are, "That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well".
The first three have to do with what is eaten - any of these foods would have been repugnant to Jewish converts because they had been taught all their lives about the evils of idolatry and of eating foods connected with idolatrous practices, and they had also been taught about the sanctity of the blood of their sacrifices. "Things strangled" would have been prohibited because, once again, there was a question of eating flesh that had not been properly bled. That leaves the issue of "fornication". Since the Scriptures are clear that illicit sexual activity is prohibited, it would seem redundant to repeat what would have been well known among the believers both Jewish and Gentile. Furthermore, it would be unthinkable that Paul would have tolerated such behaviour among Gentile believers. Could this "fornication" have been marriage between two Gentile Christians that, although acceptable according to the laws and customs of the society in which they (the Gentiles) lived, was not acceptable to Jewish believers, because of the forbidden degrees of marriage listed in Leviticus 18, and other customs that they (the Jews) had grown used to? Perhaps the Gentile believers could accept marriage between two people that the Jewish believers would consider to be forbidden. In other words, these godly men in those early days were saying that there was no possibility of compromising on fundamental truth i.e. that Gentile believers should have to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, but rather that Gentile believers should desist from eating food that was offensive to their fellow Christians who were Jewish, and that they should not be married to partners that would violate the Jewish sense of forbidden marriage partners.
The tone of these recommendations is conciliatory rather than imperative; especially v.29 - "from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well". Apostles could have commanded Gentile believers and these commands would have been repeated elsewhere and explained for our own benefit, but they did not.
Someone has rightly said, "Not all Scripture is about us, but all Scripture is for us". So we have to ask how this unique chapter is "for us". Certainly we can see how godly men dealt with difficulties in the past. They appealed to Scripture, they were confident in the goodness and mercy of their God, they were open and transparent, and they used common sense. These are salutary lessons for us in our time.
Sometimes the question arises as to whether Christians should refrain from eating blood in our own day. It is very interesting that the Lord, through His servant Paul, has given us valuable instruction on this matter along with the matter of marriage in 1 Timothy 4.1-11. Here is a short quotation from that chapter: "Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer" (vv.3-5). From this passage we can clearly see that the spiritual descendants of those who sought to subvert the work of God in Antioch were still busy, but thankfully Paul was still busy too - consistently countering the rules and regulations that they would impose as they sought to put Christians under bondage.
Many earnest and godly Christians in our own day have scruples about eating blood and their beliefs are based in part on Acts 15. Could it be that those men were dealing with a local and temporary problem that does not apply to us since we, for the most part, are not Jewish, but rather the importance of this unique chapter lies in the godly way in which difficult questions were settled in those days?