“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” Acts 15:28-29
When I was a kid, I always ate my beef well-done.
If there was any pink, I wasn’t interested. I think my aversion to rare beef had something to do with a warning I had seen, at Fudrucker’s of all places, about the dangers of consuming undercooked meat products.
I must not have seen any similar warning about raw eggs, because I ate cookie dough by the spoonful. But raw beef? No thank you. It was not for me. At least that’s what I thought until my senior year of high school.
Drury, the university I would eventually attend, hosted a catered dinner for the applicants of a competitive full-ride scholarship they offered at the time. When the entrée came, the servers set in front of me large, medium-rare steak. I was seated with staff, faculty, and current Drury students, and the last thing I wanted was to make scene. So I ate the steak.
It was a revelation.
Why had no one ever told me what I was missing?
From that day forward, I was a changed person, at least when it came to my meat. I never ordered a well-done steak or hamburger again.
Nowadays, even pretty rare meat doesn’t usually bother me, as long as it’s hot all the way through. At least not on a dietary level. Most of the time, though, when I cut into a rarer steak, and it bleeds onto my plate, my thoughts drift back to this passage in Acts.
What exactly does it mean to abstain from blood? Was I disregarding a scriptural mandate simply because I liked the way this sirloin tasted?
When I was planning this blog series, Acts 15 was one of the passages I was most anxious and most nervous to study. This is really the only place in the New Testament that gives specific guidelines about the what of eating, and I wanted to be sure to get it right.
But what in the world does any of this mean?
Acts 15:29 comes in the context of a letter that was going to be carried to the new churches that had been birthed as a result of Paul and Barnabas’s ministry. In some of these churches, Gentile believers (that’s you and me, friends) were being taught that they must adhere to the entire Law of Moses (including circumcision, fellas!) to receive salvation.
They were wrong, praise God.
The law was a weight that not even the most righteous Jew could bear. Jesus’ sacrifice, according to Galatians 3:13, “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
So the primary tone of this letter is gracious, embracing the freedom that we have in Christ.
So instead of the vast Old Testament law, they required four things from Gentiles turning to the one true God: no food sacrificed to idols, no blood, no meat of strangled animals, no sexual immorality.
Three of those things involve food.
So what does that mean for us today, and the things we eat?
At first glance, none of these things seem to have much relevance in a modern Western context. While I am a firm believer that idolatry is possible whether or not you have physical, statue-type idol, no one I know presents food offerings to their money or hobbies or careers.
The admonition against blood, did not, as I previously worried, have anything to do with how long a cut of muscle tissue was cooked, but rather, whether or not the blood was drained from the animal’s body when it was butchered. (This was also the reasoning for avoiding the meat of strangled animals.) To the best of my understanding, most meat-packing plants do this because it speeds up the amount of time in which they can process a cow. If you were still concerned, though, certified kosher meat is widely available. Moreover, the pagan practice of drinking blood, which was widespread in Christ’s time, is now associated with fringe, cultic practices.
So then can we ignore this whole passage as something that is no longer culturally relevant?
I don’t think so.
Most of the commentaries I read suggested a two-fold purpose for the elders of the early church choosing these things, specifically, to ask of the non-Jewish believers. The first was to protect their witness to those within the Jewish community who had not yet believed in Jesus as Messiah. The second was to allow Jews and Gentiles who had received salvation to gather around a common table and share meals together.
“The rules’ specifics and their rationale (Acts 15:21) show they are given to promote table fellowship between uncircumcised Gentile converts and Jewish Christians who observe the dietary laws,” says the IVP New Testament Commentary.
It goes on to say:
“The decree’s prohibitions still come into play today, either universally in the case of sexual practices or particularly in the case of dietary regulations–wherever Gentile Christians encounter Jewish Christians who are keeping a kosher table. By extension these rules guide all Christians to use their freedom to abstain from practices that would offend the cultural sensitivities of another. What interethnic and intergenerational harmony the church could know if all rushed to give up their ‘rights’ to please the others!”
I want to be a part of that kind of church. Don’t you?
This post is part of a 31-day series. A list of all the other posts in this series can be found here.