Acts 15 and the Apostolic Decree

The final and most relevant texts cited by the Watchtower Society (WTS)  in support of its blood doctrine are those from Acts chapter fifteen and twenty-one that deal with the issue of circumcision and the Mosaic Law. Again, let’s start by reviewing the Society’s comments on this passage:

“Note what happened when, years after Jesus death, a question arose about whether someone becoming a Christian had to keep all of Israel’s laws. This was discussed at a council of the Christian governing body, which included the apostles. Jesus half brother James referred to writings containing the commands about blood stated to Noah and to the nation of Israel. Would such be binding on Christians?(Acts 15:1-21)

That council sent their decision to all congregations: Christians need not keep the code given to Moses, but it is necessary for them to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled [unbled meat] and from fornication. (Acts 15:22-29) The apostles were not presenting a mere ritual or dietary ordinance. The decree set out fundamental ethical norms, which early Christians complied with. About a decade later they acknowledged that they should still keep themselves from what is sacrificed to idols as well as from blood . . . and from fornication. (Acts 21:25)

You know that millions of people attend churches. Most of them would probably agree that Christian ethics involve not giving worship to idols and not sharing in gross immorality. However, it is worth our noting that the apostles put avoiding blood on the same high moral level as avoiding those wrongs. Their decree concluded: If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you! Acts 15:29.” (How Can Blood Save Your Life? p.5)

Let’s examine these statements. The brochure states: “Jesus half-brother James referred to writings containing the commands about blood stated to Noah and to the nation of Israel.” Is this really so? Let’s read the verses ourselves and see if we can find this reference:

(Acts 15:1-29) And certain men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless YOU get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, YOU cannot be saved.” 2 But when there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Bar’nabas with them, they arranged for Paul and Bar’nabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute. 3 Accordingly, after being conducted partway by the congregation, these men continued on their way through both Phoeni’cia and Samaria, relating in detail the conversion of people of the nations, and they were causing great joy to all the brothers. 4 On arriving in Jerusalem they were kindly received by the congregation and the apostles and the older men, and they recounted the many things God had done by means of them. 5 Yet, some of those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed rose up from their seats and said: “It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to observe the law of Moses.” 6 And the apostles and the older men gathered together to see about this affair. 7 Now when much disputing had taken place, Peter rose and said to them: “Men, brothers, YOU well know that from early days God made the choice among YOU that through my mouth people of the nations should hear the word of the good news and believe; 8 and God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the holy spirit, just as he did to us also. 9 And he made no distinction at all between us and them, but purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are YOU making a test of God by imposing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we were capable of bearing? 11 On the contrary, we trust to get saved through the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus in the same way as those people also.” 12 At that the entire multitude became silent, and they began to listen to Bar’nabas and Paul relate the many signs and portents that God did through them among the nations. 13 After they quit speaking, James answered, saying: “Men, brothers, hear me. 14 Symeon has related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘After these things I shall return and rebuild the booth of David that is fallen down; and I shall rebuild its ruins and erect it again, 17 in order that those who remain of the men may earnestly seek Jehovah, together with people of all the nations, people who are called by my name, says Jehovah, who is doing these things, 18 known from of old.’ 19 Hence my decision is not to trouble those from the nations who are turning to God, 20 but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 For from ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.” 22 Then the apostles and the older men together with the whole congregation favored sending chosen men from among them to Antioch along with Paul and Bar’nabas, namely, Judas who was called Bar’sabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers; 23 and by their hand they wrote: “The apostles and the older men, brothers, to those brothers in Antioch and Syria and Cili’cia who are from the nations: Greetings! 24 Since we have heard that some from among us have caused YOU trouble with speeches, trying to subvert YOUR souls, although we did not give them any instructions, 25 we have come to a unanimous accord and have favored choosing men to send to YOU together with our loved ones, Bar’nabas and Paul, 26 men that have delivered up their souls for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We are therefore dispatching Judas and Silas, that they also may report the same things by word. 28 For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to YOU, except these necessary things, 29 to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols (eudolothutos) and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If YOU carefully keep yourselves from these things, YOU will prosper. Good health to YOU!

Try as you might, you will not find any reference where ” James referred to writings containing the commands about blood stated to Noah and to the nation of Israel.” He does in fact quote Amos 9: 11,12. But this has nothing to do with the commands given to Noah and the nation of Israel on the subject of blood. This appears to be another attempt to link unrelated accounts and make them imply something they do not say.

The brochure goes on to state: “The decree set out fundamental ethical norms, which early Christians complied with. ” Is this an accurate description? Does this account in fact attempt to set out the “fundamental ethical norms” that true Christians were to abide by. This is not a reasonable conclusion. The account addresses only these issues:

“…to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.”

We know that Christians cannot murder, lie, extort, slander, etc, etc, etc. So this verse does not attempt to set out the “fundamental ethical norms” that true Christians were to abide by.

Another question worth asking is were early Christians in fact required to abide by this decree? Much light is shed on this matter by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter eight. There we read:

(1 Corinthians 8:1,4,7) Now concerning foods offered to idols: we know we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 4 Now concerning the eating of foods offered to idols (eudolothutos), we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one. 7 Nevertheless, there is not this knowledge in all persons; but some, being accustomed until now to the idol, eat food as something sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

Now recall that Acts 15:29 stated: “to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols” (eudolothutos). Simple reasoning tells us that Paul didn’t view this portion of the apostolic decree as some “universal law.”

The WTS appears to realize the problem created by this passage, and it concerns them so much they won’t even consider the real questions generated by a common sense interpretation of it. You can read their attempt to deal with this in the Watchtower of October 15, 1978, pp. 30-1.

Before you do that, however, get out your Kingdom Interlinear and compare Acts 15:29 with 1 Corinthians 8:4. You will note that both use the same identical Greek expression (eudolothutos) literally “(things) sacrificed to idols.” Yet interestingly the NWT, which bills itself as a literal word for word translation, chooses to translate these phrases differently in another attempt to obfuscate the facts. At Acts 15:29 it reads “things sacrificed to idols” and at 1 Cor. 8:4 it reads “food offered to idols.” Even the New King James Version consistently renders this Greek expression as ” things offered to idols.”

Why does the WTS do this? Apparently because they want Jehovah’s Witnesses to believe that the apostles decree had to do with a formal act of idol worship and meat-eating, whereas Paul was talking simply about eating meat that had been offered to idols. But neither of the accounts say anything to that effect. At 1 Cor. 8:10 we read:

“For if anyone should see you, the one having knowledge, reclining at a meal in an idol temple, will not the conscience of that one who is weak be built up to the point of eating foods offered to idols (eudolothutos) ?

Does this sound like “simply eating, as a customary meal…meat that had been sold to the public in general.” – Watchtower of October 15, 1978, pp. 30-1. You decide. The point is that it really doesn’t matter. As we have already seen both Paul and Luke use the same identical expressions – (eudolothutos). A fact that the WTS tries to conceal in the NWT.

Here we find proof that the statement found at Acts 15:29 was not some universal law but perhaps a rather strong recommendation made to help maintain peaceful relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians. What made such a temporary accommodation necessary?

We could illustrate the situation this way. Imagine there was a newly associated brother in your congregation. Before becoming a Witness, he had been an alcoholic and this ruined his marriage. Knowing that he is very sensitive about alcoholic beverages, it would be both loving and reasonable to make some accommodations in his behalf. For instance, if you invited him to your home, wisdom suggests you not serve alcoholic beverages. Because of his weak conscience, he could be stumbled. If you were to consult with the elders in your congregation about the matter, they might strongly recommend that you abstain from serving alcoholic beverages.

A similar situation existed in the first century Christian congregation. The first Christians were Jewish. They had been under law all of their lives. At first, many of them continued to practice their Jewish faith, and evidently some were very “zealous for the law” as demonstrated by the account in Acts fifteen. The resulting tension between Gentile and Jewish Christians was intense. Many heated exchanges took place, and the unity of the Christians was threatened.

In Acts chapter fifteen we find an attempt to resolve this problem. If we analyze the recommendations made by James and endorsed by all of those present, we find something quite interesting. These prohibitions are not only the same as those outlined in Leviticus chapters seventeen and eighteen, they are even listed in the same order. Compare and draw your own conclusion.

“…. to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols (eudolothutos) and from blood and from things strangled (unbled meat) and from fornication.” Acts 15:29

1. Communion Sacrifices (food offerings) were to be made only to Jehovah God (Lev. 17:1-9)

2. The deliberate and intentional eating of blood was forbidden (Lev. 17:10-14)

3. Only in an emergency could an animal that had died of itself or been torn apart be consumed (Lev. 17: 15,16; see also Deut. 14: 21,28,29) – unbled meat.

4. They could not engage in immoral sex acts or incestuous relationships (Lev. 18:1-27)

Naturally we must ask why it is that James choose to duplicate these prohibitions. James himself provides the answer:

“For from ancient times Moses has had in city after city those who preach him, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.” (Acts 15:21)

Here is the reason. You will recall that the regulations in Leviticus 17 and 18 also applied to the alien resident living in their midst. So James is asking Gentile Christians to abide by the same rules as a foreigner who was living in ancient Israel. These foreigners were not required to be circumcised, but they had to abstain from certain practices.

If Gentile Christians observed these aspects of the law, even those Jewish Christians with sensitive consciences would be able to fellowship with them, thus preserving the unity of the congregations. This is the interpretation that most Bible commentators agree on, and in fact it is the interpretation offered by Br. Russell in the pages of the Watchtower when explaining the significance of James comments and the Apostolic decree at Acts chapter fifteen:

“The answer ignored every feature of that law, except four points; and the first three of these were mentioned no doubt as a basis of common fellowship between those who had been Jews and those who had been Gentiles, namely, (1) abstaining from meats that had been offered in sacrifice to idols; (2) abstaining from animal food that had not been killed after the manner of the Jews; (3) abstaining from the eating of blood. It would be almost impossible for those who had been reared as Jews to ignore these three points, and if the converts from the Gentiles did not observe them it would be a constant barrier to their social intercourse.” The Watchtower 05/15/1897, p. 153 (Reprints p. 2158)

….The things here recommended were necessary to a preservation of the fellowship of the “body” composed of Jews and Gentiles of their different education and sentiments….A similar thought attaches to the prohibition of the use of blood. To the Jew it was forbidden, and under his covenant it was made a symbol of life – to partake it would reply responsibility for the life taken….These prohibitions had never come to the Gentiles, because they had never been under the Law Covenant; but so deeply rooted were the Jewish ideas on this subject that it was necessary to the peace of the church that the Gentiles should observe this matter also. – The Watchtower 04/15/1909, p. 117 (Reprints p. 4374)

The answer ignored every feature of that law, except four points; and the first three of these were mentioned no doubt as a basis of common fellowship between those who had been Jews and those who had been Gentiles, namely, (1) abstaining from meats that had been offered in sacrifice to idols; (2) abstaining from animal food that had not been killed after the manner of the Jews; (3) abstaining from the eating of blood. It would be almost impossible for those who had been reared as Jews to ignore these three points, and if the converts from the Gentiles did not observe them it would be a constant barrier to their social intercourse. – The Watchtower 05/15/1897 (Reprints p. 2158)

So clearly then, the Apostolic decree found in Acts chapter fifteen was never intended to be a set of universal laws for all Christians to follow. It was merely a strong recommendation made to preserve the unity of the brotherhood.

When Gentile Christians were admonished to “abstain from blood” they would have understood this to mean they shouldn’t eat blood, as this was something detestable to the Jews, and that it would result in tension and strife within the congregation.

To try to impart additional meaning into these texts and use them as a basis for an all-encompassing ban on the use of blood in any way is wrong in our view. To do so is to ignore the historical situation, as well as the context of the comments themselves.

Additionally, it is worth noting that the Greek word used by James and the apostles (apekhomai) translated as “abstain”, basically means to “stand off from” or “hold oneself from.” The Society has implied that this word has a total, all-embracing, absolute sense. This can be seen in examples like the following:

“abstaining from blood means not taking it into your body at all.” (You Can Live Forever… p. 216)

The fact of the matter is, however, that the word can have a limited or restricted sense. Note how the apostle Peter uses the same Greek word:

Beloved, I exhort YOU as aliens and temporary residents to keep abstaining from fleshly desires, which are the very ones that carry on a conflict against the soul. (1 Peter 2:11) 

Did Peter here mean that we should abstain in a complete, all-embracing sense? If so, that would mean that we would have to give up eating, drinking, sleeping and so forth. As these are all fleshly desires. Clearly, the word is not used in that sense. We arrive at a correct understanding by examining the context in which the word is used. Paul himself makes use of this same Greek word at in his letter to Timothy:

…forbidding to marry, commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be partaken of with thanksgiving by those who have faith and accurately know the truth.(1 Timothy 4:3)

Did Paul think that some professed Christians would come along and forbid the eating of every food? No. Just certain foods – probably those forbidden under the Mosaic Law.

So the Greek word for abstain does not necessarily have an all-embracing, absolute sense. If it did, then we could not submit to something as simple as a blood test or even surgery since this would result in the presence and spilling of blood. Does the context of James comments indicate that he used this Greek word in an absolute, all-embracing sense?

As we have already seen. The use of blood wasn’t even the primary reason for convening the meeting. Circumcision was, along with questions relating to observance of the law. The backdrop was most certainly maintaining peaceful relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians. This was, and continued to be a burning issue. Note James comments some ten years later to the apostle Paul:

“After hearing this they began to glorify God, and they said to him: “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. 21 But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the [solemn] customs. 22 What, then, is to be done about it? In any case they are going to hear you have arrived.” (Acts 21:20-22)

From all of this we can conclude that the injunction regarding blood was never intended to be some all-encompassing blanket condemnation of the use of blood. The context does not require that or even suggest it. Had that been the case, James would have likely chosen a different Greek expression. The well-known Bible Commentator F.F. Bruce had this to say:

“Although NT Greek is well supplied with verbs of commanding authority it is noteworthy, as F.J.A. Hort pointed out, that none of them is used here.” Commentary on the Book of the Acts, 1962, p.315.

The context of the apostolic decree makes it absolutely clear that Gentile Christians were to abstain from eating blood. No more can be implied.

In summary we have seen convincing evidence that Acts 15:28,29 is no universal command, but rather a strong recommendation made to Gentile Christians in an effort to maintain peaceful relations between them and their Jewish brothers.

The apostle Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians chapter eight where he shows that there is nothing wrong with eating things sacrificed to idols as long as this does not stumble fellow believers. This would logically also apply to the use of blood. (Note – This cannot be extended to the matter of fornication as repeated condemnations appear throughout the balance of the Greek Scriptures – NT).

As we conclude this scriptural discussion of blood. There are a few remaining scriptures that we should consider, as they may have some bearing on this whole matter. The first of these is from the book of Mark:

“There is nothing from outside a man that passes into him that can defile him; but the things that issue forth out of a man are the things that defile a man…Are YOU not aware that nothing from outside that passes into a man can defile him, … since it passes, not into [his] heart, but into [his] intestines, and it passes out into the sewer?” Thus he declared all foods clean…. for from inside, out of the heart of men, injurious reasonings issue forth…” (Mark 7:15,18,19,21)

Here Jesus appears to warn against dietary laws. It is a warning that we do well to heed. Is it reasonable to conclude that Jesus included blood as one of those things that cannot defile a man? Consider how Jesus Christ handles this next situation where a desperate woman violates one of the Mosaic laws dealing with blood:

Now there was a woman subject to a flow of blood twelve years, 26 and she had been put to many pains by many physicians and had spent all her resources and had not been benefited but, rather, had got worse. 27 When she heard the things about Jesus, she came behind in the crowd and touched his outer garment; 28 for she kept saying: “If I touch just his outer garments I shall get well.” 29 And immediately her fountain of blood dried up, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed of the grievous sickness. 30 Immediately, also, Jesus recognized in himself that power had gone out of him, and he turned about in the crowd and began to say: “Who touched my outer garments?” 31 But his disciples began to say to him: “You see the crowd pressing in upon you, and do you say, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 However, he was looking around to see her that had done this. 33 But the woman, frightened and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be in good health from your grievous sickness.” (Mark 5:25-34)

If you consider what the Mosaic law has to say about the sin that this woman committed by coming out in public and touching Jesus, you will observe that the punishment is nearly identical to that for eating an animal that’s flesh had not been properly bled and hence contained blood. (Compare Lev. 15:25-30; 17:15,16; 1 Sam. 14:34,25)

Jesus handling of this situation indicates that he recognized the ritual nature of these laws, and that he appreciated that people, like this woman, might on occasion have needs that would justify the breaking of these legalistic rituals.

Did Jesus condemn this woman for breaking the law on blood, did he insist that she even comply with the requirements under the law? He simply states: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be in good health from your grievous sickness.” This brief incident in Jesus life teaches us much indeed.

The next passages also offers some food for thought. Note how Jesus makes use of blood in the following accounts:

Therefore the Jews began contending with one another, saying: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 Accordingly Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, Unless YOU eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, YOU have no life in yourselves. 54 He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I shall resurrect him at the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in union with me, and I in union with him. (John 6:52-56)

“Also, he took a cup and, having given thanks, he gave it to them, saying: “Drink out of it, all of YOU; 28 for this means my ‘blood of the covenant,’ which is to be poured out in behalf of many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27,28) (Note: greek literally says “this is my blood.”)

As we read the gospel accounts, we cannot help but notice Jesus frequent use of hyperbole and his ability to shock his listeners by saying what they least expect. The above examples surely demonstrate the latter.

Why would Jesus use these illustrations when he knew of the prohibitions against drinking blood. Is it possible that he was trying to teach his disciples something about blood? They were already well acquainted with the use of blood in the temple as part of the various sacrifices. They realized that it had sin atoning value, and they knew that they were forbidden to deliberately drink it.

What is the message here about the use of blood? At the very least, Jesus seems to be preparing his Jewish followers for a time when blood will have completed its unique role in God’s arrangement of atonement for sin. Additionally, Jesus may be helping them to think about blood, not as some tainted and repulsive substance, but as a marvelous life-giving fluid. There may be yet more to these scriptures. If we can begin to think in terms of drinking the blood of Jesus Christ, symbolic though it may be, certainly we can think in terms of both giving blood and receiving the blood of others when such donations or transfusions are necessary for life. Most of us will never have the opportunity to give our life in behalf of our brother or sister. But our blood, which is a symbol of life, could in fact save the lives of others. This next passage helps us to get our priorities straight:

After departing from that place he went into their synagogue; 10 and, look! a man with a withered hand! So they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” that they might get an accusation against him. 11 He said to them: “Who will be the man among YOU that has one sheep and, if this falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not get hold of it and lift it out? 12 All considered, of how much more worth is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do a fine thing on the sabbath.” (Matthew 12:9-17)

Yes rescuing a sheep from a pit on the sabbath is the loving and merciful thing to do. Additionally, Jesus performed many miraculous works on the Sabbath. Yet to work on the Sabbath was to bring the death penalty upon oneself. And in fact, the scriptures actually record this penalty being meted out to a Sabbath violator. (See Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36 – Note: There are no Bible accounts where someone was executed for using blood.) No work was to be done on the Sabbath – obviously exceptions were made. Here we see clear evidence that Jesus Christ appreciated that love triumphs over law. That when life is at stake, even an animal’s life, rules can be set aside as circumstances require.

In summary we can state that no valid scriptural objection exists to the modern-day medical use of blood. If some prefer not to use it because of their conscience, we certainly should respect their choice, and do all we can to avoid stumbling them.

“But keep watching that this authority of YOURS does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who are weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)

Clearly, the Bible has surprisingly little to say about blood in the context of our discussion relating to its use as a part of modern medicine. If after carefully reviewing this material one still feels impelled to reject any use of blood, that would certainly be their choice, and we would have to respect that, although it could be argued that such a position might actually show disrespect for life and the Creator.

In the final analysis, each of us must render an account, and bear responsibility for the choices we make. To force the hand of another, as has been the WTS policy, in such matters is unscriptural, unloving and could result in bloodguilt.

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