In Acts 15 James pointed out that the Messianic Age had dawned upon mankind, and because it has, the previous age, the Age of the Law, was coming to a close. The gentiles did not have to be circumcised and become Jews in order to seek the Messiah (cp. Amos 9:11-12 in the LXX). The Mosaic Law was no longer the mediator between God and man. Jesus, to whom both the Law and the Prophets pointed, is our only Mediator between God and us. To force circumcision upon the gentiles who are seeking the true God would be to reject Jesus as our Mediator in favor of the Law of Moses.
That is the theology, but how could this become reality, knowing gentiles and Jews have different traditions, some of which are very objectionable to both parties? Circumcision, repugnant to gentiles, has been satisfied in that gentiles don’t have to be circumcised, but what about the Jews’ objection to repulsive gentile traditions? Both groups must be satisfied, if both are to eat at one table.
James spells out the gentile responsibility to the Jewish brethren in what most scholars call the Apostolic Decrees. They are four abstentions which gentiles need to embrace for the sake of unity with Jews. In reality, these decrees have to do with how we worship God, and James’ whole argument seems to come from Leviticus 17:1-16.
First, gentiles are to abstain from eating things sacrificed to idols, because to a Jew eating meat that was once used in a pagan sacrifice would be participating in the worship of the idol to which the animal was sacrifice. Secondly, gentiles were to abstain from eating or drinking blood (Acts 15:29). While the drinking of blood was sometimes done in pagan worship, blood was never to be eaten by Jews. God had set aside the blood for the purpose of atonement, and it pointed to Christ. The life was in the blood, and drinking blood could be seen as insulting Jewish worship, as well as a mockery of what pointed to Jesus’ Sacrifice.
Next, James’ concern had to do with draining the blood from the meat. It simply was not a good practice to eat food that was not properly prepared, and for reasons shown above concerning blood being set aside for the purpose of atonement, only those animals that were properly bled should be eaten (cp. Leviticus 17:10-16).
Finally, gentiles are to abstain from fornication. We need to remember that the context of James’ letter is table-fellowship not morality. Morality is addressed in the two laws of love. We cannot faithfully love our spouse if we are immoral, or if we engage in adulterous behavior. Neither can I express a loving respect for the opposite sex if I were single and engaged in such behavior. The Pharisees taught that one could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever (Matthew 19: 3, 7), but that didn’t keep them from enjoying table-fellowship with one another. What James’ refers to is the spiritual side of fornication (cp. Ezekiel 23:7-35; Jeremiah 3:6-8). This particular spiritually lewd behavior had to do with being one’s own priest and follows the theme of Leviticus 17 as the above abstentions do. All sacrifices were to be brought to the gate of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 17:3-4). This showed one looked only to God. The practice of sacrificing in the field led to the worship of demonic powers, and, as such, was seen as spiritual fornication (cp. Leviticus 17:5-7). This was also a part of Paul’s preaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:18-19). Such things are not innocent parlor games. When one turns to God, it should spell the end of all other forms of pagan worship. If the gentiles practiced the principles laid out in James’ letter, which in reality points to respectful worship of God, then there would be no obstruction in the way of common table fellowship between Jew and gentile.
Later tradition in Christianity interpreted these voluntary abstentions to basic moral principles, but this is not the case. Morality is covered under the two laws of love. As long as we love one another, there would be no murder or behavior leading to the physical act of fornication etc. The Apostolic Decrees have to do with table fellowship, not morality.