What does Acts 15:20 mean?Jewish Christians who still clung to the standards of the Pharisees have demanded that Gentiles first convert to Judaism before they can receive salvation through Christ. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas respond with practical and theological measures. They explain the entire argument is moot since they have witnessed the Holy Spirit indwell Gentiles whom they had not circumcised, baptized, nor laid hands on (Acts 15:1–11). James, not an evangelist or apostle but as the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, sees a different side to the danger of the legalistic demand. It deeply threatens the unity of Jesus' church.
James starts by going back to Hebrew Scriptures, using passages in Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah to show it was always God's intention to call Gentiles to join Jews as His people (Acts 15:15–18). Since God had always intended to join Jews and Gentiles, the Jews should seriously consider what they need to maintain that unity. What did Jews really need to be able to be in community with Gentiles—including to eat with them? Sexual purity and dietary considerations.
The inclusion of "sexual immorality" is a bit puzzling. It seems obvious that Jesus calls His followers to refrain from adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexual acts, lesbianism, and bestiality. It's possible James is referring to marriage between close relatives—like Herod Antipas' marriage to his divorced sister-in-law (Mark 6:17)—and serial divorces and remarriages, which Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11.
The command to refrain from blood is clearer, and an animal that was strangled is one that still has the blood in the meat. Spartans ate a soup made of pork, salt, vinegar, and blood. God prohibited all mankind from eating blood because the life is in the blood (Genesis 9:3–4). God deepened that prohibition for Israel, explaining that blood pays a ransom, clearing the debt owed by a human for sin in the taking of an animal's life in the sacrificial system (Leviticus 17:11). The Talmud says you can't ingest more than the volume of an olive, and it's the lifeblood that matters, not the blood that oozes out later or the blood in the meat. Others were so strict they wouldn't eat eggs that had a spot of blood. Today, many believe that when Jesus lifted the kosher restrictions on food, He also lifted the ban on blood (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9–16). Others believe that since God restricted blood at the time of Noah, long before the Mosaic law, the commandment stands. Today, it is a matter of personal conscience.
James' assertion that Gentiles should avoid food sacrificed to idols is interesting because in the field, Paul doesn't enforce it. That is, he frames it as sometimes necessary for unity, but not a moral issue. He affirms that sacrificing food to an idol does nothing to the food; idols represent gods that don't even exist. In addition, scholars say in large cities outside the Jewish homeland, it is difficult to find meat for sale that hasn't been dedicated to a god. But the believers in Corinth who understand this need to think about others. Some, like Jews, find the practice sacrilegious. Others may be Gentiles who had worshiped those gods and still feel a strong connection to that worship. If the group at mealtime includes those who strongly object to eating food sacrificed to idols, the others should honor their concerns; community is more important than having meat at one meal (1 Corinthians 8). On the other hand, if an unbeliever were to invite a Gentile Christian to a meal and boast that the meat had been sacrificed to an idol, the Christian should refrain from eating it. Not because the meat is tainted, but because the Christian should be clear he or she does not worship that idol (1 Corinthians 10:27–30).
Paul summarizes James' intent nicely: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved" (1 Corinthians 10:31–33). James' dietary restrictions are for unity, not morality.