Why are the Ten Commandments not included in the apostolic decree in Acts 15:20?
Let’s carefully examine Acts 15 to understand the problem faced by the nascent Christian church, then pay close attention to the decree itself. The context of the passage is always the safest guide for interpreting it.
1. Understanding the Problem: The problem is clearly expressed at the beginning of Acts 15. Some Christian Jews are telling Gentiles converts that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (verse 1). Circumcision was the ritual of entrance into the Jewish faith. It, so to speak, incorporated Gentiles into the redemptive history of God’s people reenacted during the Passover feast (Ex. 12:48, 49). It would appear then that the statement “unless you are circumcised . . . you cannot be saved” is not strictly legalism. It assumes that salvation comes through the Jews (cf. Rom. 9:4, 5), and that in order to experience salvation one has to become a Jew. In other words, a Gentile has first to become a Jew in order to benefit from the salvation Christ brought to all.
But there was more. Some Jewish believers expected Gentiles to be circumcised and “to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). It could be that, according to them, Gentiles would be keeping the law of Moses by being circumcised, but perhaps they had in mind something else. Peter seems to suggest that the problem included ritual laws of uncleanliness. Speaking of the Gentiles, he says that God “made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (verse 9). In other words, God did for Jews and Gentiles what the ritual laws could not do, i.e., He purified their hearts (cf. Acts 10:15; 11:9).
2. Understanding the Decree: The decree establishes that circumcision would not be required from Gentile converts; that they would not have to become Jews in order to be saved. The statement made by Peter was assumed to be true: “We believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:11). Salvation reaches both groups the same way: through Jesus. The decree itself is based on Leviticus 17 and 18, and establishes that Gentile Christians are expected to do four things (Acts 15:29): First, “abstain from things offered to idols” (Lev. 17:3-9); second, “from blood” (verses 10-14); third, “from things strangled” (verses 15, 16); and fourth, “from sexual immorality” (Lev. 18:1-30).
We are dealing here with three closely related aspects of the Christian life: The first is basically a statement against idolatry and is a reaffirmation of the first commandment of the Decalogue. This suggests that the Ten Commandments were not being set aside. The next two are related to the health laws found in the Old Testament (Lev. 11). They forbid the consumption of blood by drinking it or by eating the flesh of animals whose blood was not drained out. These stipulations reaffirm the validity of the health laws found in the Bible by assuming that the flesh of the animals mentioned here is that of clean animals. The last one is about moral purity based on the seventh commandment; but it includes all kinds of sexual immorality. The decree promotes the spiritual, moral, and physical well-being of Gentiles believers, making it easier for them to relate to Jewish Christians.
3. Understanding the Law: Based on our previous comments it could be stated that the decree not only assumes the validity of the moral law of God, but reaffirms its value in the lives of Gentile Christians. This is not new in Acts. According to Acts, many Gentiles attended synagogue during the Sabbath and kept the law, but they had not formally become Jews. These were called “God-fearers” (see Acts 17:4, 17). When many of them became Christians, they were already keeping the Sabbath. It may be that Acts 15:21 is pointing to the practice of Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, of attending the synagogue every Sabbath, where they were instructed about the moral and religious aspects of the law of God. Circumcision, as part of the ritual law, was not imposed on Gentiles.