Last week there was a terrible story of war which came out of Afghanistan. It seems that an American soldier took it upon himself to kill a bunch of civilians in their homes. What is even worse is that the acrimony between Americans and Afghans is so bad that Americans will be blamed even though it was the act of one man.
Our world provides so many terrible stories of war, like those coming out of Sudan which has seen war for the lifetime of most people under 50 years of age.
Many of these stories of war are so horrible and so intense that we wonder if there will ever be peace in these regions. But then we remember that there have been other places where we thought war would never end. For example, remember Northern Ireland? Today we seldom hear about conflicts there. It seems they have found peace.
In the last while we have been talking about Jesus and today we will look at Ephesians 2:11-22. Once again, we will talk about Jesus and wonder at the way in which He is our peace.
There is a common method of writing in the Bible called a chiasm. Basically a chiasm is a way of structuring material by repeating it. Sometimes theme A is followed by theme B which is followed by theme B again and then concluding with theme A. In the chiasm in this passage, we have the following structure.
What happens is that the theme at the center is the most important idea. It is like an arrow pointing to the most important thing. Tom Neufeld points out how it happens in this passage.
A –Once you were strangers and aliens without God (2:11–12)
B - Christ has brought near the far (2:13)
C - Christ is our peace (2:14–16)
B’ - Christ proclaimed peace to the far and the near (2:17–18)
A’ – Now you are no longer strangers, but part of God’s home (2:19–22)
So we will look at both ends of theme A first of all and then end by looking at the center, which once again allows us to focus on Jesus and what He has done.
The history of hatred between Jews and Gentiles goes back all the way to the time when Israel came out of Egypt and God told them to destroy the nations and not to intermarry with the nations. As they failed to live up to that separation and began to follow the gods of the nations, God exiled them to Babylon and when they returned, they became even more insistent upon holiness and separation.
One feature of conflict is the language of separation. The technique the Jews used was that of name calling. Jews referred to the Gentiles as "uncircumcision." Yet we notice that Paul does an interesting thing as he refers to the name calling indicating that circumcision is done by those who are circumcised, but only in a physical sense. Wood says, "As a Jew, however, he is quick to point out that the self-styled circumcisionists have nothing to boast about, since an external man-made mark in itself holds no spiritual significance. The real circumcision is of the heart (Gal 5:6)."
The separation between Jew and Gentile involved separation, hatred and conflict, but the Gentiles also had some serious debits.
The Gentiles were without Christ. That is not to say that they were without Jesus. Rather, they were without Messiah, which is what Christ means. The promises about someone who would come to redeem humanity were promises which were made to the Jewish people and the Gentiles had no knowledge of the coming Messiah.
The people of Israel were God's chosen people. He had indicated that Israel was chosen as the nation to which God would pay special attention. Abraham received promises that he would become a great nation and that God would bless him. Although the promises to Abraham included promises to the nations, those promises were always through Israel and the nations did not know of those promises.
Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and led them to the promised land and on that journey they discovered God's special love for them. The Gentiles did not have any of this knowledge. Along the way God promised to lead them, to never forsake them and also made many other great promises to them. The Gentiles were not only strangers to the people of God, they were strangers to all the promises which God had made to the people of God.
Because they did not know God's promises and because they did not belong to the people of God, the text also says that they were without hope. Apart from a relationship to the living God, there is no hope and that is where the Gentiles found themselves.
The Greek word which is translated "without God" is the word from which we get our word "atheist." Interestingly Gentiles referred to Jews as atheists because they had only one God and you could not see that God because there were no images of Him. Yet the Jews believed that it was the Gentiles who were atheists because although they had many gods and many likenesses of gods, none of those gods were living.
Barth points out that the separation between Jews and Gentiles was ceremonial and external because Jews had circumcision and Gentiles did not. It was political, legal, sociological and psychological because they did not have Messiah, were excluded from citizenship, were strangers and were bare of hope. It was also theological in that they were without God.
Last week we read in Ephesians 2:1-10 that we were dead, BUT God made us alive. Once again the word "but" appears in this text indicating the great change that has taken place.
In the Old Testament, Jews had access to the God because the temple was in their land. Although they had access, that access was limited to the temple. Gentiles, on the other hand, had no access to God. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two on the day Jesus died, it symbolized that the way was now opened up for everyone into the presence of the Father. The key idea of verse 18 is that both Jews and Gentiles now have access to God. There is nothing that separates them. No longer are Gentiles without God and without promises and without hope because they now have access to God. That access is through the work of the Spirit who now enters into everyone who comes to Christ and because the Spirit of God indwells those who belong to Christ, we all have the same right to enter into God's presence.
If you have ever lived abroad or if you are an immigrant to Canada, you understand what it means not to be in your own country. In those settings, you observe cultural differences and may have difficulty understanding things that everyone else assumes. That is the separation once felt between Jews and Gentiles, but that is no longer the case. Now, those who were strangers and aliens are fellow citizens with the saints. They have become full citizens of the country of heaven. During the last winter Olympics, Canada came together as a nation as never before. We even had a song and with every win, we were more and more proud of being Canadian. It was a great feeling of national belonging. That sense is the reality that is ours because Jews and Gentiles are fellow citizens.
But the bond between Jews and Gentiles is even stronger than that of being fellow citizens. The other word used here is "members of the household of God." When we get together for a family gathering everyone knows they belong. There is a comfort and a sense of belonging that is very deep. Because God is our Father and every believer is our sister or brother, we are members of God's household and we belong to each other in that very close sense. Neufeld says, "Gentiles are invited to make the family history of their enemies their own, in effect, to come home (2:19–22). Thereby the family of God is opened to include those whose exclusion at one time defined the very borders of that family."
The passage ends not only with this present reality, but also with a becoming reality.
In the Old Testament God lived with His people and made His presence known in the temple. When the tent of meeting was constructed in the wilderness, on a particular day God came into that tent and everyone knew that God was present in it. When Solomon built his temple, on a particular day God made his presence known in that temple and everyone knew that was where God was. On the day of Pentecost a similar event occurred. The Spirit of God came upon the new temple of God, the church and its people. The cornerstone of that new temple of God is Jesus Christ. The foundation of the temple is the apostles and prophets who began the building. They are closely associated with the beginnings of the church because of their early relationship with Christ. Every person who comes to Christ – Jew or Gentile – is now a part of the temple. It is not a completed temple, but one that continues to be built into a dwelling place for God.
Recently I spoke with someone who told me that they believe in God, but they do not believe in the church. Admittedly there is much to criticize in the church, but this passage tells us of God's plan. He desires that everyone who knows Christ will be joined together and will be built up into a dwelling for God. This is the church and so for someone to say that they believe in God and not in the church is to miss what God is doing. He is gathering together all those who have previously been separated and is bringing them together into a place where He Himself will live. When we see that, we surely see that enmity has been set aside and now there is a single, unified body which is made up of all those who belong to Christ. It is the Spirit who is doing the work of unifying and building the body.
Verse 13 is the last verse that speaks about what we were at one time. It says, "you who once were far off have been brought near." This is point B in our structure of chiasm. The first verse which introduces what we are now, verse 17, says, "So he came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near." This is a summary of what has happened, which we have examined in some detail. The far have been brought near.
Gentiles had no hope, they didn't belong, they were far away. Now, they have been brought near. They do belong, they are citizens and members of God's household.
These summary statements function as more than just summaries. They form the arms of the arrow which point to the center of the passage.
All of this work of peace making and reconciliation has happened because Jesus is our peace. God didn't just say "get along" or "why don't you stop fighting." As is so often the case the distance was just too great for that to work. The only way that peace could happen was if someone would make peace. That someone is Jesus. Jesus is the center of focus in Ephesians 1 & 2. In this section Jesus is the center as the one who has brought those who were far near. As so often in Ephesians, the phrase "in Christ" appears once again in this passage in verses 13 and 14 because Jesus is the center of making peace.
This idea of pointing to Jesus as peacemaker is more than just pointing to Him as an ambassador, but more importantly pointing to the extreme means Jesus employed to make peace.
Jesus made peace "in His flesh" which tells us that He employed the method of incarnation in order to make peace. He did not legislate peace from heaven or even just teach and model peace. Jesus is God Himself who came into this world and by coming into this world has made peace.
He made peace in the most radical way possible and that is through His blood as we read in verse 13. In most conflicts the rhetoric is a rhetoric of "death to you." When the American soldier killed the civilians, the language that was coming back from the Taliban was that there will be bloodshed. After 9/11, the Americans vowed to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The language they used was, "If we kill him, then we will have peace." Jesus took a very different path to peace. He said, "I will die" and then you will have peace. Neufeld says, "Though early Christians might have heard of the emperor being called peacemaker, Caesar typically made “peace” by putting his enemies (including Jesus!) on the cross. The cosmic Peacemaker of our text dwarfs Caesar in might and power. But his way of dealing with hostile and unruly subjects is to offer up his own life, his own body, for the sake of the reconciliation of humanity to each other and to God."
Because Christ came to earth and because He gave his life, He actually was able to make peace.
We read that He made "both groups into one." Before there were two and now there is only one group. Sometimes when peace is made in a conflict, it happens because people are tired of fighting and peace is made by satisfying some concerns on each side. If they abide by the treaty, there will be peace. What Jesus did is much greater and far deeper than that. He didn't just stop the hostilities by making a treaty. He made two groups of people into one. When we were in Israel, we saw the evidence of this unity. We met Palestinians and we met Jews and we heard the language of conflict. We also met Palestinian and Jewish Christians and saw that they were brothers and sisters.
When we were in Israel, we were shocked, when we drove into Bethlehem, to see the huge wall between Jewish territory and Palestinian territory. Jews call it a security fence. Palestinians call it a wall of separation or a wall of shame. It is a symbol of the wall between Jews and Gentiles. The whole world rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down. How much greater the joy because the wall between Jews and Gentiles comes down when people enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The primary barrier between Jews and Gentiles was the law. The law was perceived by the Jews as the way to God. The Jews had the law, but the Gentiles did not. Jesus took away the law. Not that he removed the law as a good way of following God, but rather he removed the requirement to follow the law as the way to enter into a relationship with God and in its place put the requirement of a relationship with Jesus which is accessible to everyone.
Through His death on the cross, Jesus made it possible to be reconciled to God. The heart of all conflict is that people are at enmity with God. Because of that, they are unable to be at peace with others. But Jesus has made a way for each person to enter into a relationship with God and having entered into that relationship, it is now possible for them to be at peace with each other. Neufeld writes, "In other words, the peace of Christ makes both you and us—Gentiles and Jews—the beneficiaries of Christ’s overcoming of all enmities, all dualisms, and all divisions. The one who has broken down the wall dividing heaven and earth has also overcome our enmities—he is our peace."
Jesus made peace, "putting to death that hostility through (the cross)." The language is interesting. Death is common in conflict. It is interesting that Paul says that Jesus killed enmity. By His death, He killed all hostility. And so we discover the expansive power of the truth that Jesus is our peace.
I have never been to South Africa, but I love the story of Nelson Mandela. A few years ago I read his biography called A Long Walk to Freedom and came to appreciate how he led his country to make peace around the issue of apartheid. I love the story of what Jesus has done even more because it is a greater separation overcome at a greater cost to accomplish a greater peace. Just understanding this story is to grow in love with Jesus because He is our peace.
But some aspects of this story seem a little distant to us. Although we are Gentiles, we don't have much of a connection with Jews and so we don't feel the anguish of separation nor the joy of peace. Yet what is described in this passage is important for all of us. It first of all tells us of the peace which Jesus has made between us and God. It reminds us that, therefore, every conflict can be overcome in Christ. It challenges us to invite all those who do not have peace with God into such a relationship. It challenges us to make sure that the peace Jesus has brought is being lived in every one of our relationships.
May the truth that Jesus is our peace deeply impact the way we relate to God, to one another and to all others.