I'm constantly amazed at just how much ink is spilled in the NT regarding the place of the Torah in Paul's "new humanity":
Eph 2:15 KJV - 15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
Despite the long, drawn out polemics in scripture, the letters of Paul and the accounts in Acts, people are usually very fuzzy about the bottom line and many groups and individuals remain convinced that Torah observance is required in the new creation.
To avoid confusion regarding the Acts 15:20-21 passage I would point to these pieces of background:
- Paul claimed to be "born prematurely":
1Co 15:8 KJV - 8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
Normally one would not survive an untimely birth:
Job 3:16 KJV - 16 Or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light.
Psa 58:8 KJV - 8 As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Ecc 6:3 KJV - 3 If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial; I say, that an untimely birth is better than he.
By this he seems to refer to the fact that he was born before the obviation of the Mosaic covenant. So Paul was gathering in the gentiles while the elect Jews were still beholden to Moses and charged with teaching the same things that Jesus taught, which included fidelity to the Torah.
So Paul's teaching of justification by faith alone was not relevant to the elect Jews since they were in the new covenant, which was about having the Torah written upon their hearts. The old and new covenants would not be set aside until the temple was destroyed:
Heb 8:13 KJV - 13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
Heb 9:26 ASV - 26 else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
Mat 24:1-3 NKJV - 1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." 3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
So while the Jewish apostles, Peter, James, John, etc. were, for example, were given a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the Torah being written on their hearts and while they kept and taught the Jews to be faithful to Moses and not forsake the law or the temple, Paul was teaching the gentiles justification by alone:
Heb 10:25 KJV - 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
Jesus had said the "heaven and earth would pass away", referring not to the "biodome" but rather to the covenant and political fabric of Judaism. For Peter, their dissolution and the establishment of a whole new non-temple righteousness:
2Pe 3:13 KJV - 13 Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
So what James is saying is, "While we keep the Torah, the gentiles do not'. The old covenant, like the new covenant, was not a covenant which involved the gentiles.
The commands he refers to appear to be a reference to Genesis 9 where God commanded Noah (a gentile) in some basics.
So the Jewish apostles agreed to take their faith + works gospel to the circumcision while Paul took his faith without works message to the gentiles:
Gal 2:3-10 KJV - 3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: 4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: 5 To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. 6 But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: 7 But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; 8 (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) 9 And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. 10 Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.
- the second insight is found in Paul's writing to Timothy:
1Ti 1:8 KJV - 8 But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully;
What does "use it lawfully" mean? It means that the law must not be used to incriminate a righteous person (IE: a gentile who is already righteous by faith alone):
1Ti 1:9-10 KJV - 9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
In other words, the gentiles, are justified by faith ala Abraham who was counted righteous while still uncircumcised:
Rom 4:8-12 KJV - 8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. 9 Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: 12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
So, back to the question. James, ever the pragmatist, is saying that the gentiles need to live godly lives but without regard to the covenant terms of the Torah. Any wisdom they can apply to their lives from the Torah is freely available so they need not be ignorant of God's nature and ways and they need no litany of commands. But James and the believing Jews were to keep the sabbaths, feasts, food laws, etc. This practical and pastoral injunction given to the gentiles is akin to the charge he gave to Paul:
Gal 2:10 KJV - 10 Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.