Paul and Barnabas are settled back in Antioh, and there came some men from an outside group to tell the gentile converts that they not only needed to follow Jesus, they must also follow Moses in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas argued with these men, but the church there in Antioch realized this was a big issue. It needed to be discussed by more than just a few believers, and taken to the most authoritative gathering of believers, which at that time was in Jerusalem. So the church sent Paul and Barnabas along with some others to go and seek further counsel on the matter of circumcision and salvation.
I find it interesting that as they traveled to Jerusalem, they stopped in every town where there were believers and shared testimony of what God was doing in bringing gentiles to faith in Jesus. And as they arrive in Jerusalem, they begin the conversation with praising God for what he had done through them to reach the lost. They didn't start by coming in all angry and contentious, looking for a fight, they came in doing what each of us should do when we are faced with difficulty, they gave testimony to God at work in their lives.
Paul and Barnabas let the opposition bring up the issue of circumcision and salvation. They came praising God, and someone from a Pharisee tradition—which Paul had also followed devoutly before his conversion, stood up and in one sentence, discounted all of the great things Paul and Barnabas were praising God for. Can you imagine? Someone comes in praising God for working in their lives to bring others to Christ, and someone else saying, “They aren't really saved unless they add...to God's grace.” It seems outrageous to us, but people do it all the time. We say we are saved by grace, through faith and that it is a gift from God; then when someone actually takes those words literally, we tack on a list of our own pet rules that people have to follow in order to gain salvation. Don't get me wrong, there is a big difference between what is required for salvation and what is required to maintain and grow in our faith. Just like there is a difference between what it takes for there to be a new life and what it takes to keep that life going. Today it we often see added something like God's grace plus baptism, or God's grace plus church membership, or God's grace plus doing good things in order to gain salvation. For them, the original addition to God's grace was converting to Judaism and following the law of Moses, particularly circumcision.
Peter doesn't lay out a theological argument here, although he does that in many other places. Instead he simply appeals to each person sitting in the assembly. He asks them why they think the law of Moses, which they have already admitted was not effective for salvation in their lives, why that law would affect the salvation of another. And above their judgment, he calls on God's testimony to their conversion in that they had also received the Holy Spirit. If their salvation was incomplete or not real, why would God confirm it with the gift of the Holy Spirit?
James agree that the Gentiles need not convert to Judaism in order to be saved. In fact they also don't put all kinds of rules on them to follow in maintaining their new life in Christ. I love the way James puts it, “why should we make things more difficult for them? They are already turning to God.” So the general rules they propose are to keep accord between Jewish and Gentile believers, they are also an echo of the very first commands God gives to Noah after the flood. They are basic guidelines for living a life glorifying to God.
The first is to not encourage and engage in idolatrous practices. Meat sacrificed to idols was often sold in the marketplace, sometimes it was eaten as part of a ritual celebrating or invoking the idol. It seems obvious why one who does not believe in the power of idols to offer salvation would avoid supporting the system of idolatry with their money and why they would not want to engage in anything resembling an idolatrous ceremony. The second guideline is that they abstain from sexual immorality. That might seem obvious to us as well, but it was not seen as a bad thing in Greek society. In fact it could help one gain power and position. It makes sense that someone who puts their trust in God to provide for their needs that they would put aside empty pleasure in exchange for eternal pleasure. The third guideline is to abstain from meat of strangled animals which directly relates to the final admonition to abstain from blood. There is some discussion as to whether the abstaining from blood means not eating blood or not taking life. Either way, the point is to respect the life that God gives and not try to claim power over that life by consuming blood or by killing those we are trying to reach with the gospel.
These guidelines bring relief and hope to the gentile brothers. Their salvation is confirmed by the brothers in Jerusalem, and they have not been given an impossible list of rules to abide by. And I want to emphasize that in the letter, the brothers tell them the gentile believer will do well to avoid these four things, they do not make them a condition of their salvation, but a result of a desire to continue to do well in the faith.
I want us to ask ourselves what it is we are most likely to add to the gospel message. Are their subtle or even blatant requirements we are heaping on the backs of others, telling them that these things are required for salvation? Have we let someone else convince us that we have to add something of our own in order to gain salvation? Yes, we have to make a choice to believe and follow, but if we add onto that we are saying that God's grace is not enough. Or perhaps even worse, that God's grace is not free. Once we choose to accept the gift of salvation, we will find there are many things we are no longer free to do. Most if not all of these things have obvious reasons why we should give them up. They are not a condition of our salvation, but continuing in those practices damages and destroys the life that God has given us in Christ.
We cannot expect to maintain life when we are constantly feeding it the things of death. We cannot follow Christ and continue to worship idols. We cannot follow Christ and continue to practice sexual immorality. We cannot claim to believe that God holds the power of life, while trying to gain that power in the pagan practice of drinking blood. They are contrary to the faith we profess just like poison is contrary to health and life.