To understand what was really decided there, we need to look at and understand the historical, cultural and scriptural background.
From the beginning of gentile conversions, "certain men . . . from Judea" insisted that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Notice that they viewed circumcision as a matter of salvation. It was a huge issue to them!
So Paul took the matter before Church leadership to be officially resolved (Acts 15:2). "But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'" (Acts 15:5). By the "law of Moses" they meant the imperatives of the Sinai Covenant, which would have included perhaps some of its rituals and ceremonies—and definitely circumcision.
At the Church conference in Jerusalem, both Peter and Paul addressed the assembled elders. The matter of circumcision, Peter noted, had already been settled by God Himself (Acts 15:7-9). Peter's testimony gave proof that God gave the Holy Spirit to gentiles who were not circumcised (Acts 10:44-48). As a result, they could only conclude that God does not require the circumcision of male gentile converts.
Paul and Barnabas then spoke, describing how God had performed miracles through them in calling gentiles into the Church (Acts 15:12).
Four restrictions on new gentile converts
James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, then issued a concluding statement: "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20, NIV).
Some people seize on these words to argue that nothing more was required of early Christians—that they (and we) need not keep other laws found in the Old Testament.
But does this view really make sense? James said nothing about murder, stealing, lying, taking God's name in vain or a host of other sins. By this rationale, should we conclude that Christians are now free to do these evil things? Of course not! So why, then, did James list only these four restrictions—"to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood"?
The link connecting each of these requirements is idolatry. Specifically, each was directly associated with the pagan forms of worship common in the areas from which God was calling gentiles into the Church. Each also violated specific biblical commands (Exodus 20:2-6; Leviticus 20:10-20; Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 7:26-27).
It is evident, however, that the apostles also had another reason for singling out these links to idolatry. They wanted to make sure that new non-Jewish converts would have immediate access to learning the teachings of God's Word—the Holy Scriptures (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:15).
Notice the reason James expressed for listing those particular prohibitions: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (Acts 15:21, NIV). The purpose for this somewhat puzzling concluding statement now becomes clear: The apostles wanted to ensure that every new gentile convert would be able to avail himself of that instruction as the words of Moses were "read . . . every Sabbath."
Access to the Scriptures
In that day no one had their own copies of the Bible. Scrolls were handwritten and enormously expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford any kind of personal library. The only places where one could hear the Bible regularly read was at the Jerusalem temple or in the Jewish synagogues that existed in larger cities of the Roman Empire.
By renouncing any associations with idolatry and choosing to worship only the true God of the Scriptures, these new gentile converts could attend the Jewish synagogue. There they would be able to learn the basic teachings of the Holy Scriptures every Sabbath. In areas where Christian congregations were not yet established, the synagogue was the only organized training center where the Scriptures could be learned.
Paul plainly confirms the importance of new converts being instructed from the Scriptures. In his letter to Timothy—a young minister who helped him serve these gentile converts—Paul makes the point that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable . . . for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
He even reminded the gentile converts in Rome that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). At that time, the only "Scripture" and "word of God" they knew was what we today call the Old Testament. The New Testament didn't yet exist.
Paul clearly expected his gentile converts to put effort into both hearing and learning the inspired Word of God. Yet when the Church first began accepting gentile converts, it did not yet have the capacity to instruct non-Jewish believers in the Scriptures in every city—especially in those cities having no Christian congregations.
But the Jews welcomed uncircumcised gentiles into the synagogue to learn God's truth—providing they made a commitment to serve only the true and living God of the Bible.
The New Testament shows that the earliest gentile converts quickly became familiar with those Scriptures. Because the Scriptures used by the Jews and Christians were exactly the same, the apostles were comfortable having new gentile believers join the Jews and Jewish Christians who attended synagogue services each Sabbath.
The Bible itself records that many gentiles first heard Paul's preaching in the synagogue where they were attending alongside the Jews (Acts 17:1-4; Acts 17:10-12; Acts 17:16-17). Both the synagogue and the Holy Scriptures were central to Paul's work in converting Jews and gentiles alike.
Both Paul and his converts regarded the Holy Scriptures—as taught by the Jews in the synagogues—as the foundation of their beliefs. Thus he did not always have to explain every detail of the way of life these new converts were to learn. When he was in a city for only a short time, Paul could concentrate his efforts on explaining the role and mission of Jesus Christ and then move on to another city.
He knew that gentile converts could continue receiving basic instruction in the Scriptures and God's way of life by attending the regular synagogue services. And the fact that, in his letters to gentile congregations, he quoted extensively from the same Scriptures used by the Jews provides clear evidence that all gentile converts had access to that instruction regardless of where they lived.