After Peter spoke, “The whole group kept quiet and listened to Barnabas and Paul while they explained all the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (15:12). So here we have the repetitive theme of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and therefore confirmation of Gentile justification (covenant inclusion) as indicated by the reporting of miraculous signs and wonders. Consequently we find that, “After they stopped speaking, James replied, ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has explained how God first concerned Himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for His name” (15:13-14) and “Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19).
With this James stands in solidarity with Paul. All that is necessary for Gentiles is that they believe the Gospel and so participate in the covenant in equal standing with those who are members of Israel (as indicated by their own covenant markers). This belief in the Gospel corresponds with the story of Abraham, so all is well. Unfortunately, he could not leave well-enough alone. Apparently, the idea of Gentile inclusiveness apart from some form of outward covenant marker was untenable to James and the others in Jerusalem.
Part of Paul’s indictment of Peter in the letter to the Galatians makes mention of James, as it was “Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles” (2:12). Luke softens this in Acts to “some men came down from Judea” (15:1a). When we consider that the issue of table fellowship was prominent in Antioch, there is little wonder that James adds “we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood” (15:20). We should take notice that all of this has to do with food. We know this because the issue at Antioch sprang from the withdrawal of Jewish believers from table fellowship, with circumcision as a natural follow-on issue, though it was secondary.
There are not three separate issues here, with two having to do with moral behavior and one having to do with food. Thinking along such lines pulls us away from the appropriate context and the issues at hand amongst the believers. The table was where the believing congregation gathered, and because the meal table was of paramount importance for the shaping of societies and communities in the day in which the church first came into existence, so also the church’s meal table was of paramount importance. We must understand that. Once we comprehend the community-shaping-and-identifying power of the meal in the Greco-Roman world, we can comfortably come to terms with Paul’s being quite exercised at the way that it being misused in Corinth, and why it is foundational for Paul’s challenge to Peter in Galatians, which sets him off on the path of writing about the nature of justification in that letter.
James is not suggesting that they “abstain from things defiled by idols” and to “abstain from sexual immorality” out of a concern that the believers be circumspect about the moral and spiritual condition of those with whom they are dining. If that was the case, the addition of “abstain from what has been strangled and from blood” would seem wholly out of place. Instead, we must hear this as a single directive, all of it having to do with food and the meal table. James apparently does want the Jews and Gentiles to be able to share the same table (the divisions and problems at Antioch began at the meal table), so these particular directives are what will allow the Jewish believers to join the Gentile believers at the same table. James wants the Gentile believers to abstain from food that has been defiled by idols, food that has been defiled by sexual immorality, food that has been defiled by strangling, and food that is defiled by the presence of the blood. If they do this, then they will be able to join the Jewish believers (the true people of the covenant?) at their meal table. Failing this, in his estimation, table division should not continue.