Acts 15:20 KJVBut that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

Pollutions of idols – The word rendered “pollutions” means any kind of “defilement.” But here it is evidently used to denote the flesh of those animals that were offered in sacrifice to idols. See Acts 15:29. That flesh, after being offered in sacrifice, was often exposed for sale in the markets, or was served up at feasts, 1 Corinthians 10:25-29. It became a very important question whether it was right for Christians to partake of it. The Jews would contend that it was, in fact, partaking of idolatry. The Gentile converts would allege that they did not eat it as a sacrifice to idols, or lend their countenance in any way to the idolatrous Worship where it had been offered. See this subject discussed at length in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13. As idolatry was forbidden to the Jews in every form, and as partaking even of the sacrifices of idols in their feasts might seem to countenance idolatry, the Jews would be utterly opposed to it; and for the sake of peace, James advised that the Christians at Antioch be recommended to abstain from this. To partake of that food might not be morally wrong 1 Corinthians 8:4, but it would give occasion for scandal and offence; and, therefore, as a matter of expediency, it was advised that they should abstain from it.

And from fornication – The word used here πορνεία porneia is applicable to “all illicit sexual intercourse,” and may refer to adultery, incest, or licentiousness in any form. There has been much diversity of opinion in regard to this expression. Interpreters have been greatly perplexed to understand why this violation of the moral law has been introduced amidst the violations of the ceremonial law, and the question is naturally asked whether this was a sin about which there could be any debate between the Jewish and Gentile converts? Were there any who would practice it, or plead that it was lawful? If not, why is it prohibited here? Various explanations of this have been proposed. Some have supposed that James refers here to the offerings which harlots would make of their gains to the service of religion, and that James would prohibit the reception of it. Beza, Selden, and Schleusner suppose the word is taken for idolatry, as it is often represented in the Scriptures as consisting in unfaithfulness to God, and as it is often called adultery. Heringius supposes that marriage between idolaters and Christians is here intended. But, after all, the usual interpretation of the word, as referring to illicit sexual intercourse of the sexes of any kind, is undoubtedly here to be retained. If it be asked, then, why this was particularly forbidden, and was introduced in this connection, we may reply:

(1) That this vice prevailed everywhere among the Gentiles, and was that to which all were particularly exposed.

(2) That it was not deemed by the Gentiles disgraceful. It was practiced without shame and without remorse. (Terence, Adelphi, 1, 2, 21. See Grotius.) It was important, therefore, that the pure laws of Christianity on this subject should be known, and that special pains should be taken to instruct the early converts from paganism in those laws. The same thing is necessary still in pagan lands.

(3) This crime was connected with religion. It was the practice not only to introduce indecent pictures and emblems into their worship, but also for females to devote themselves to the service of particular temples, and to devote the avails of indiscriminate prostitution to the service of the god, or the goddess. The vice was connected with no small part of the pagan worship; and the images, the emblems, and the customs of idolatry everywhere tended to sanction and promote it. A mass of evidence on this subject which sickens the heart, and which would be too long and too indelicate to introduce here, may be seen in Tholuck’s Nature and Moral Influence of Paganism, in the Biblical Repository for July, 1832, p. 441-464. As this vice was almost universal; as it was practiced without shame or disgrace; as there were no laws among the pagan to prevent it; as it was connected with all their views of idol worship and of religion, it was important for the early Christians to frown upon and to oppose it, and to set a special guard against it in all the churches. It was the sin to which, of all others, they were the most exposed, and which was most likely to bring scandal on the Christian religion. It is for this cause that it is so often and so pointedly forbidden in the New Testament Romans 1:291 Corinthians 6:131 Corinthians 6:18Galatians 5:19Eph 5:31 Thessalonians 4:3.

And from things strangled – That is, from animals or birds that were killed without shedding their blood. The reason why these were considered by the Jews unlawful to be eaten was, that thus they would be under a necessity of eating blood, which was positively forbidden by the Law. Hence, it was commanded in the Law that when any beast or fowl was taken in a snare, the blood should be poured out before it was lawful to be eaten, Leviticus 17:13.

And from blood – The eating of blood was strictly forbidden to the Jews. The reason of this was that it contained the life, Leviticus 17:11Leviticus 17:14. The use of blood was common among the Gentiles. They drank it often at their sacrifices, and in making covenants or compacts. To separate the Jews from them in this respect was one design of the prohibition. The primary reason of the prohibition was, that it was thus used in the feasts and compacts of idolaters. That blood was thus drank by the pagans, particularly by the Sabians, in their sacrifices, is fully proved by Spencer, De Leg., p. 377-380 But the prohibition specifies a higher reason, that the life is in the blood, and that therefore it should not be eaten. On this opinion see the notes on Romans 3:25. This reason existed before any ceremonial law; it is founded in the nature of things; it has no particular reference to any custom of the Jews; and it is as forcible in any other circumstances as in theirs. It was proper, therefore, to forbid it to the early Christian converts; and for the same reason, its use should be abstained from everywhere. It adds to the force of these remarks when we remember that the same principle was settled before the laws of Moses were given, and that God regarded the fact that the life was in the blood as of so much importance as to make the shedding of it worthy of death, Genesis 9:4-6. It is supposed, therefore, that this law is still obligatory. Perhaps, also, there is no food more unwholesome than blood; and it is a further circumstance of some moment that all people naturally revolt from it as an article of food.

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible