“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” Acts 15:19-20 NASB
Contaminated – What’s in your refrigerator? That might be the appropriate modern-day question to introduce James’ pronouncement. Far too often Christian theologians have suggested that this passage eliminates all Torah requirements except the rules given to Noah. That’s probably because most interpreters in the last millennium have ignored the context of this announcement. We will not. Let’s take a longer look at what James has to say.
James is Jewish (despite the Anglicized name). He is Ya’aqob, recognized leader of the Jerusalem assembly (qehillah) of the followers of the Way. Everything about him stems from his Jewish roots and his understanding and worship of Yeshua Ha-Mashiach. When he speaks, he speaks from the authority of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures). His concern is not about how his fellow countrymen become “Christians.” His concern is about all the Gentiles who are joining the Jewish qehillah. After listening to the discussion, he determines that only four things are really required of these Gentile converts. He agrees with Sha’ul that outward circumcision is not a requirement. A Gentile does not have to become a Jew (the ritual process of becoming a Jew included circumcision) in order to be a participant in the fellowship of the qehillah. That is settled. What a Gentile must do, however, is meet four specific requirements. These requirements begin with the idea of pagan contamination (in Greek, alisgema, a word occurring only here in the New Testament). Of course, Ya’aqob wasn’t speaking Greek. So whatever he said must be related to a Jewish-Hebrew perspective. And once we begin to look there, we find something very interesting, not found in the Genesis account of Noah.
Whoever participates in table fellowship in the qehillah has fellowship with YHWH. The Tanakh makes it clear that table fellowship incorporates “clean” food and specific kosher rituals. Gentiles who are entering the qehillah fellowship are required to participate in the table fellowship according to Tanakh practice. They may not participate in sacrificial meals to pagan deities because table fellowship was a symbol of worship. In other words, a person could not participate in pagan rituals and, at the same time, participate in table fellowship with YHWH. This requirement has nothing to do with “earning” salvation. Salvation is God’s gift. But it has everything to do with living a life in honor of YHWH and participating in the community called apart by YWHW. James effectively says, “You can’t keep on doing those things associated with pagan table fellowship. You have to leave all those behind.”
Now look at the four requirements. In the context of the first century, Jewish culture in Jerusalem, each of these four actions would have been considered signs of pagan worship (offerings to idols, sexual worship rituals, strangulation rather than kosher slaughter, drinking blood or using blood in ways other than those prescribed by God). So James says, “None of these can be allowed,” not because he is making a pronouncement about food but because these fellowship-related behaviors are associated with idolatry.
If you are going to participate at God’s table, you need to give up your idolatrous ways. Today, James might have a different list, a list that includes our symbols of serving other gods. Table fellowship with YHWH comes in only one flavor – His.
So, what’s in your refrigerator? And what’s in your heart? Have you put aside all those actions and elements that signal idolatry in any form? Have you determined that you will sit at God’s table according to His directions? Or are you trying to eat from your own menu?
Topical Index: table fellowship, pollution, alisgema, food, idolatry, Acts 15:19-20
 cf. 1 Samuel 9:13, Jeremiah 11:15, Haggai 2:12, Zechariah 14:21