The letter to the Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul to a largely Gentile church - and he writes to encourage this strong Christian community to keep building toward maturity together as a united family of believers in Christ.
It's in this second part of chapter 2 that Paul explains how Old Testament Israel were historically the only nation given a privileged relationship with the true and living God and the hope of an eternal relationship with God and each other under the rule of an eternal, rescuing King (Messiah).
It may seem foreign to us today but in the early 1st century the first Christians were Jewish. They saw Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah. It took quite a while before they came to terms with the fact that Jesus was for gentiles too! It is with the coming of Jesus that Israel’s national exclusivity has become an international inclusivity that is offered to everyone in every tribe, tongue and nation.
I think this passage in Ephesians particularly resonates with me given that I have a Jewish/Gentile family background. Jewish on my mother’s side and Scottish on my father’s side. Most of my brothers and their families are Jewish - although we also had some Roman Catholic teachings during early childhood! (long story). We have some interesting family gatherings. Add this to growing up in South Africa and you can be sure I’ve seen a great deal of racial and religious prejudice - in and outside our churches.
In my early 20’s I came to faith in Christ and it has been something of a delight for me to learn more and more that Jesus is the Gentile and Jewish Messiah (King). I’m saved by Jesus on both sides! And both sides are saved in the same way, through faith in Jesus!
This great chapter in Ephesians explains both the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Gospel.
I believe this horizontal aspect is becoming all the more critical in a day and age where our world is becoming ever more polarized. In much of our social, political and economic world we are seeing more walls than bridges. Even the crusaders for ‘tolerance’ are proving to only be tolerant of those who believe and say the same as what they believe.
You have seen this in Australia particularly in the fallout over the Israel Folau saga - which has rippled around the world and has seen social media creating caricatures of Christianity depicting us as hateful and judgmental (and, ironically, showing much hate and judgmentalism in the process). The reality is, if you take the time to truly look at the gospel, you will discover that Christ is not a barrier builder, but rather the ultimate and eternal, barrier breaker.
From Exclusion to Inclusion (Verse 11-12)
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (NIV)
Paul is using language common to the 1st century Jesus world. The great divide of the 1st century world was between Jew and Gentile. The Jews were so fanatical about their “separateness” that even the ruling Roman Empire made special allowances and exemptions for them, so that they could maintain their religious exclusivity. The language of verse 11 refers to the derogatory way Jews referred to Gentiles of that day: “Uncircumcised”. Much like English Christendom referred to the unbelieving nations as “the great unwashed masses”. Paul reminds these Ephesian gentiles that before Christ came this Israelite ‘closed circle’ kept them from any chance of a relationship with the living God.
The Old Testament nation of Israel was God’s chosen people.
You will see in these verses 5 distinctives of our ‘exclusion’
In the Bible scholar William Hendriksen’s famous summary, the Gentiles were: ‘Christless, Stateless, Friendless, Hopeless and Godless’. But the gospel tells us that all those exclusions have all been overcome with the coming of Jesus in verse 13.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (NIV)
The language here of “Far - Near” has its roots in the Hebrew book of Isaiah 57:19. It refers to Jew from Gentile. Gentiles were “far away” from God. Israelites were said to be “near” to God. Paul says that now that Jesus has come, ‘far away’ gentiles have been brought ‘near’ to God, just as Israel was. By the Blood of Christ (v.13) which refers to death of Christ on the cross as payment for our sin. Jesus’ saving death makes it possible for all Gentiles who come to faith in Christ to be brought near to God - to the same covenant relationship (binding / certain / promise) given to Israel through the death of Jesus for their sin. Being “in Jesus” (v.13) means we are “in” all the promises given to Old Testament Israel. An eternal King, Citizenship, Country, Hope, God.
There is much to love and be patriotic about living in this most magnificent country. But even here your citizenship is limited to this one country and to this one life. In Jesus, that privilege of citizenship extends into eternity as he makes you citizens of the Kingdom of God.
From Hostility to Peace
Few people in history have managed to attain the level of reconciliation and peace that Nelson Mandela achieved in our country in 1994. Those late 1990’s were years of great excitement and reconciliation, yet as great as it was – that time has passed. Tensions and divisions have grown again, everyone seems to be at odds with each other again. The reality is this is the same all over the world - brief periods of unity and peace - usually around sport or nationalism - till brewing prejudice and conflict takes over.
The UN and many other organizations are trying to do a noble task in achieving world peace. But it’s not going to happen because the fundamental problem is we look for PEACE in the wrong place. Look at verse 14.
For he himself is our peace (NIV),
it’s NOT some Constitution or Political party or social movement
it's not an ideal or philosophy
it’s not even a religious system
It's a person, not a Statesman or a Guru, but a unique person. How has he achieved this peace? (Verse 14)
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. (NIV)
This language connects us to the Jerusalem temple. The Jews knew what the “dividing wall of hostility” was. It was the wall that stopped gentiles from entering the Temple precinct. The Temple was the visible dwelling place of God in the midst of Israel. But only Jews could enter into the Temple courts - only Jews could “enter into God’s presence” in a sense. On the dividing wall the Jews had erected signs basically saying “Gentiles Keep Out” or, more precisely: “No Foreigners shall enter on pain of death”!
Paul tells us that in Jesus, this barrier is truly removed. Just as when Jesus died, at the moment of his death the Temple curtain was torn in two. So too the spiritual barrier that kept the nations from entering into God’s presence has been “destroyed” (v.13) Not a physical destruction because the wall was still there when Paul wrote this letter, but an ultimate destruction - the Law that stood behind the Wall. It’s the law that exposes our sin and excludes us from relationship with God and His people. Jesus takes that punishment for sin “in his flesh” and so sets it aside, opening the door for us to enter a relationship with Him.
Together - Jew and Gentile believers together in Christ. (Verse 15)
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (NIV)
In Jesus, Jew and Gentile believers become one humanity, this is really the key verse to Ephesians. Both of them reconciled together to God IN THE SAME WAY! How are Gentiles able to be reconciled to God? Through the cross of Jesus! How are Jews able to be reconciled to God? Through the cross of Jesus!
And so the same message is preached to both: (Verse 17)
He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. (NIV)
The message preached to Jews is the same message preached to Gentiles. Christ by His death on the cross has made it possible for us to have peace with God - and with each other. (Verse 18)
For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (NIV)
I’m conscious of a trend in some Christian circles to say there is a separate way to God for Jews. There is nothing in the Bible to support that and its actually quite dangerous to teach that there is a Jewish way to salvation and a Gentile way to Salvation. Jesus is the one way for both Jew and Gentile.
From Foreigners to Family (Verse 19-22)
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (NIV)
We have here 3 pictures of the “blended family” of heaven.
Now I’ve realized that this magnificent picture is often more talked about than witnessed. The reality is demonstrating this united relationship in practice is hard work and many Christian communities take the easier route of keeping church to their own culture or tribe. But that’s not the picture the Gospel gives us. More importantly, we miss something of the power of the Gospel at work in our diverse unity in Christ.
I recently had the privilege of seeing a quite dramatic example of our ‘new humanity’ in Christ during my visit to Israel. As you know a long standing and violent barrier exists between Israel and the Palestinians with no solution in sight. I was curious to learn more and a helpful young Arabic speaking missionary from USA took me into the West Bank to meet a Palestinian family living in a village near Bethlehem. So I met with my Palestinian family and learned that the father “Abdul” was an ex-Hamas fighter who joined the movement as a teenager and was caught and jailed by the Israelis. In jail, this angry young man cried out to God with much despair and doubt. “Who is right?” was his cry. And God answered him, he shared about a dream he had. After his release he went back to his village and some time later a Christian worker happened to be walking through the village and wandered into the shop where Abdul was working. As soon as he saw this ‘foreigner’ he asked him ‘are you going to tell me about Jesus?’ and so the surprised Christian worker did exactly that and Abdul came to faith in Christ.
We spent the day sharing our stories with each other - including me having an opportunity to share the message of salvation and reconciliation in Jesus with some of his Muslim family. The most memorable statement I remember from that day was Abdul telling me how he grew up learning to hate the Jews and being full of violent anger against them. “Then I came to know Jesus” he said, “and now I love them, and I love their Book.”
So we sat and enjoyed a meal together, a Jewish Anglican Evangelical Bishop from South Africa and a young American Missionary from the Mid-West and an ex-Muslim Palestinian terrorist - and truly it felt more like family than even my blood relatives back home. There was a depth of relationship between us that only exists because of Jesus.
That’s the power of the Gospel. That brings peace with a Holy God – and true, lasting and eternal peace between the most diverse groups of people on the planet.
Sometimes people challenge me on this point and say ‘but there are groups that unite across the barriers using music or sport. You don’t need Jesus.’ It’s true that some unity does come through other means for a time. But its only in Jesus that both reconciliation with God and with each other is possible into eternity. If only for this life we pursue reconciliation it’s an incomplete, at best, and even futile exercise.
So, my brothers and sisters, the task and challenge for us is to continue to flesh out that gospel truth for the world to see. This means demonstrating the reconciliation we have with God in Christ AND with each other. It's all too easy to ‘stick with your own kind’ and even justify it with some Scripture twisting. It's remarkably easy to let grudges and divisions become a part of your church life. You can be members of the same church and share communion together and yet not be speaking to each other. That’s not just a personal issue, for Christians, that’s a gospel issue.
If God can change the heart of a Palestinian believer towards Israelis. Can he not also change your heart toward a fellow church member? Community member? Family member even? Perhaps even the lack of reconciliation with others has exposed the deeper reality that you lack reconciliation with God? It's only when you have come to Christ and truly turned to him by faith that the Spirit of God can work and convict us of the reconciliation we must seek with others.
Maybe that relationship is where some of you need to start today?