Prophetic Momentum

Jon Cressey writing mostly about church, prophets and prophecy...

What’s required?

instructionsIn all the excitement of the Book of Acts, we sometimes need to apply the brakes on the narrative rather than accelerating through significant moments onto the thrilling spectacles of signs, wonders, healings, and miracles.

A case in point is Acts 15, where, upon realising that the Gentiles were also privy to the greatest opportunity in history (the Gospel), the apostles, headed up by James quickly form a ‘constitution’. With a determined sense of unity and clarity, they roll out their expectations for the Christian Gentiles: “…abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Acts 15:20 (ESV).

The message was clear: stay away from things tied to idols, sexual immorality, strangled animals, and blood. They didn’t delve into all the extras—no discussion about festivals, fasting, tithing, or sacrifices. It’s as though they were saying, “Let’s keep it simple and focus on what truly matters.”

This moment in the history of the early church is not merely a theological crossroads; it also represents a profound demonstration of how the church was wrestling with its identity and mission within the context of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. It would be short-sighted to dismiss this as irrelevant to our contemporary culture, because it remains significantly relevant. With the current surge of interest in the Book of Revelation, it’s particularly noteworthy that among the seven churches it mentions, two (Pergamum and Thyatira) are specifically highlighted for their challenges related to food offered to idols and sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14; 2:20)

What’s required of us?

The early Christian community was wrestling with a significant question: What requirements should be placed upon Gentile believers turning to God? Up until this point, Christianity had been seen largely as a sect within Judaism, with many believing that Gentile converts should adhere to Jewish law, including circumcision. Painful! However, leaders like Peter, Paul, and Barnabas had witnessed the Holy Spirit’s work among Gentiles apart from the law of Moses. The ‘council’ in Acts 15 convened to address this very issue, and the outcome is of importance to us.

Sending a letter with the instructions found in Acts 15:20, rather than an apostle having to make a visit, reflects deep pastoral and theological wisdom. The issue was clear and unambiguous enough. It didn’t warrant a visit – just read the letter! These instructions mirror their understanding and the simplicity of the gospel. In God’s wisdom, James identified for the early Christians the answer to the question, “We’ve come to trust, follow, and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour – what do you want us to do?”

Full penal substitutionary atonement

The answer was straightforward. Have an understanding of full penal substitutionary atonement, fast often, tithe, read your Bible, and witness to someone every day… after you have been baptised, become a church member, and take communion… Not at all! Whatever theological understanding the new followers of Christ had, it came with the expectation that they were being made disciples of Christ. There are many things we learn and experience as we grow in Christ, but for us  (as for them), some elements are essential to understand more fully, to “help us on our way.”

Idols have no place

Our culture is different, yet the shadows remain the same. First on the list for the Gentile believers was to abstain from things polluted by idols. This might not seem a significant challenge today, but idolatry was pervasive in the ancient world, and food offered to idols was a common practice. Abstaining from such practices was a call to purity and devotion to the one true God, distinguishing Christian behaviour from pagan practices. This would be a topic the Apostle Paul would address in his writings.

James talks about things—the stuff of life—polluted not by age or misuse but by idols. These idols, false gods, were a vulgar reflection of everything the true God represented. They offered no hope, comfort, assistance, promise, or intervention, yet the demand for attention and crushing service was unbearable.

21st Century idols

But what of us? How does this relate to us? The answer is that it’s a call to firmly reject the idols of our age—including not only the material and visible but also the ideologies and narratives that distort and undermine the paramount sanctity of our calling in Christ. Our cultural idols, including self, money, sex, and power, are different, and seeing them for what they are may be a challenge; nevertheless, our call is to be vigilant against the worship of self, the elevation of personal desires above God’s very clear instructions in the Word, and to avoid the temptation to conform to cultural norms that conflict with Biblical truth—perhaps even being awake to ‘woke’ concerns!


I’m going to jump to the third instruction given by the apostles, as I want to emphasise something really important about the second one later, rather than distract you with this instruction, which was to abstain from what has been strangled and from blood. In context, these practices were associated with pagan rituals and also violated Jewish dietary laws; it would help maintain a sense of community identity and respect between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apostles were keen to promote unity; no one would be tripping up over the behaviour of another. It’s clear that it’s a call for us to champion the cause of life and stewardship of creation, acknowledging the gift of life in all its forms as sacred. Moses was clearly instructed about this: life was in the blood, and if God would never accept a sacrifice that had been strangled, then it certainly should never be something on the dining table. Something strangled for food was intentional cruelty; even as repulsive as it is, ‘roadkill’ would have more value!

In the shadows

I left sexual immorality until last because, although it does not “thunder” at us any louder than the other two instructions, it continues to be a loud proclamation to the church: Abstain from, avoid, and flee from sexual immorality. It is a sword upon which many have fallen. The Greek term ‘porneia’ broadly refers to unlawful sexual relations. We know it better in its more vulgar term, “pornography.” This instruction reinforces the Christian commitment to holiness and the sanctity of the marital relationship. Anyone feeling sexual temptation today must realise that it’s nothing new—the apostles had identified it as a significant issue as they wrote these three simple instructions or admonitions. Moreover, God made it clear to Moses and the people of God—do not commit adultery; don’t covet your neighbour’s spouse!

There were many other safeguards in the law too—leave the virgins alone, leave your father’s spouse out of it, etc. It seems that humankind, almost from the beginning, has been obsessed with sex. We are not told what particular form of sexual immorality is being referred to, but the individual involved would know—and the message was simple: Stop! And stop it as it happens! If we want to know why we need to nip things in the bud, James 1:12-14 gives us a good reason, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But… each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire… Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”

The one to ponder here is to guard our heart by watching desire, and for that, you need to ask the Holy Spirit’s help. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control (among others) but there you have it—it’s the character that God builds that helps us to resist. If we ask God for help, He will give it, but it probably starts with wisdom.

The terrible snare

Sexual immorality has always been somewhat taboo. Certainly, as a 22 year old pastor at Bible College many years ago, it was never introduced as a safeguarding measure, not just for the church’s life but for personal ministry. It was merely assumed that one had read the pertinent scriptures (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) and was adhering to them. This underscores why accountability is so crucial and vital today, whether to church leadership, small group leadership, or within our friendships. No one is immune to the allure, and, regrettably, many well-known Christian leaders today have fallen into the snare of sexual immorality; it doesn’t have to be you!

It’s a great shame to acknowledge that currently, there are well-known individuals who should have known better but have fallen into the enemy’s iron-teethed trap. It harms lives, marriages, relationships, and churches and signifies the death knell for ministries, regardless of which ‘superstar ministry’ is overseeing restoration. Perhaps this is one of the enemy’s most effective strategies to cripple the church—guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23) and remember to pray for others that they may resist temptation!

As an aside, if you find yourself saying “guilty,” then know that if you repent, there is forgiveness, and God’s capacity to forgive is greater than your capacity to sin. That is not the issue, though; you need to deal with your sin, and that may very well mean talking to someone, being painfully honest so that you can be prayed for and comforted. It’s worth it—and it’s likely the only way forward. You’ll be astonished at how much grace, forgiveness, and love is available.

The path of righteousness demands our full obedience and unwavering dedication. It is not always easy, and it often requires us to swim against the current of popular culture. Yet, we are not alone in this journey; the Holy Spirit empowers us, and the community of believers stands with us.

What’s required?
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