Paul’s experiences, as would only be right and proper, play an obvious role in his soteriology and his ecclesiology. It is not in the least bit difficult to discern that, along with his knowledge of early church traditions about Peter that had a hand in what we have examined to this point in Romans (the first five chapters), what he has experienced as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Acts has a heavy influence on a later portion of his letter to the Romans. As we have indicated, while others were concerned about maintaining a certain understanding of propriety concerning food that would allow for Jews and Gentiles to join each other at a meal table, Paul appears to want to allow love to have its say, tempered with compassion, mercy, patience, and understanding. For Paul, it is the expansion of the kingdom of God that is the abiding concern, rather than the ability for some to maintain their dietary provisions (identifying features) in such a way that may limit the impact of that kingdom and of the new creation it portends.
At this point, because we are concerning ourselves with Paul’s letters and their content, it behooves us to hear the letter from Jerusalem. This letter places us in the enviable position of knowing the precise situation that stood behind the production of the letter, which cannot be said of Paul’s letters. When placed side by side with Paul’s letters, and especially with those that focus on the unity of believers under covenant, the difference in tone and spirit is marked. So we read: “From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings! Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they said, we have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in person. For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us no to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell” (15:23b-29).
This letter from Jerusalem could be construed in such a way that may cause some to think that Jewish dietary sensibilities are more important than the unity of believers. As can be seen, the instructions contained in the letter are quite clear. The implications of the instructions are that Gentiles must do certain things that will allow for them to join with Jewish believers (or that will allow for Jewish believers to join them) at the church’s society-altering meal table. Understandably then, since Paul was concerned with the positioning of Gentiles in relation to the covenant, and was quite insistent that the basis for entrance upon the covenant (justification) was the same for all people (belief in Jesus), with Abraham as the model, anything that could conceivably stand in the way of full unity and full equality under that covenant was problematic. Interestingly, Luke never gives us a report of Paul’s response to the debate in Jerusalem or his opinion concerning the letter. One could say that the silence is deafening.
The tripartite directive to the Gentile believers concerning the food that could be placed upon and consumed at the meal table of the believing assembly could easily be utilized as a means of creating a second-class of kingdom citizens, as it was the dietary restrictions of the Jewish believers, and the attendant and implied morality of those restrictions, that could be seen to have trumped the apparently lax morality of the Gentile believers (as indicated by their lack of concern with the history of their food, its association with idolatry and sexual immorality, and its lack of proper preparation). Now, this is not to say that Paul did not value the dietary restrictions or that he believed that the Jewish believers should abandon the law-based restrictions that they observed. He never insists that Jewish believers violate their conscience, but he does insist that it is, in fact, a matter of conscience, and that the presence of certain foods, if they are not eaten, should not be an issue for the Jewish believer.
The Jesus tradition, as it would have been known at that point in time, would have spoken to this matter quite clearly. Though we must reiterate that the Gospel accounts, in their written form, were years from being completed and shared amongst the believing communities, the oral traditions of Jesus would been making their rounds. Based on Paul’s position concerning joint table fellowship, with no real concerns being expressed by him about food (as indicated by his words from Galatians and the report of “no small disagreement” in Acts fifteen), we can reasonably and profitably conclude that the apostle was aware of that which is presented in the seventh chapter of Mark.
There we read “Then He (Jesus) called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing outside of a person that can defiled him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.’” (7:14b-15) A few lines later, we hear Jesus expanding and expounding on this statement, saying “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out in the sewer” (7:18-19a). Mark parenthetically adds “This means all foods are clean” (7:19b). We can only imagine how this record of Jesus’ life and ministry would have been received within the church communities that had seen the dust-up between Paul and Peter, learned about the Jerusalem council, or received the letter that resulted from that council.