Alienation -- A Case Study
Intro -- What are we going to learn in Ephesians 2:11-18? We are going to learn that peace with people starts with peace with God.
The Cabots, one of Boston’s leading families, were held in low esteem by Miss Amy Lowell (1874-1925, US poet and critic). She would go to the extent of refusing invitations to parties and dinners if she knew that one or more Cabots had also been invited. One day, as she set off for her annual trip to Europe aboard the Devonian, she happened to glance at the passenger list and promptly disembarked. “There are sixteen Cabots aboard the Devonian this trip,” she told a newspaper reporter, “and God isn’t going to miss an opportunity like that.”
There was a little bit of a feud going on apparently – a little alienation – the New England version of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s! Of course, as we’ve discussed before, alienation has always been with us, and it will be as long as sin continues, for it is sin that brings alienation, hatred, fighting and conflict. You will recall, however, that the book of Ephesians is about God’s ultimate plan to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Of course, this won’t happen in its ultimate and final state until Christ comes again, but Ephesians teaches us that He is setting the stage even now for that ultimate victory – and He is using the church to do so.
Verses 1-10 of Ephesians 2 have shown us how the alienation between man and God has been overcome by the amazing grace of God. Through redemption in Christ, those who were the walking dead have become new men and women built for good works. Now – for the rest of chapter 2, Paul reminds his readers of the unbelievable strides they have made in relations with their fellowmen. Not only have they been reconciled to God, but they have been reconciled to their bitterest enemies. So they become for us a case study – an example, a pattern of how peace among men can be had. Peace between husband and wife, parent and child, peace between ethnic groups and the most hostile rivals.
His starting point is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. A study of the history of the ancient world tells us that none of today’s social distinctions — none of our racial barriers, our narrow nationalisms, our iron curtains — are more exclusive or unrelenting than the historical separation between Jews and Gentiles in Biblical times. The Jews believed the Gentiles were created to fuel the fires of Hell. A common motto was, “The best of the serpents crush … the best of the Gentiles kill.” It was not lawful to aid a Gentile woman in giving birth, for that would bring another heathen into the world. Jews had utter contempt for Gentiles. If any child married a Gentile, a funeral was held for that boy or girl. And, of course, the feelings of the Jews against the Gentiles (a word the Jews made up by the way. The Greeks and Romans did not call themselves Gentiles) – those feelings were returned in kind by the Gentiles against the Jews. The barriers were UP.
You will also recall that we have noted that these two cultures clashed in Ephesus as in few places, for here east and west met. Jews and Gentiles both had interest in this area, but they did not live together in harmony – not, that is, until God began to build His church in Ephesus. That is when the miracle happened. Here in Ephesus, under the direst of circumstances, peace happened! Peace! Alienation cured! A foretaste of what is to come under the economy of God and an example of what is to be true in His church at all times. Beloved, we must have peace, for that reflects our God and Savior.
So Paul reminds the Ephesians, particularly those of Gentile extraction, from whence they have come and they become a case study for us to see how God can bring peace in alienated relationships, whatever their origin. Let’s look. First the cause of alientation and then the cure.
I. The Cause – Separation from God
As usual when conflict arises, there are two sides, and so there are here. The emphasis here is on the Gentiles, but the Jews are here too, and we will see that the cause of alienation is the same in both cases. Both sides, it turns out, are without God. Both have false gods, and both are without the true God. Both have made self god, but in so doing, both have become godless. Let’s look first at the Gentiles condition and then at the Jews. Many Bible students miss the fact that both Jew and Gentile have the same problems!
A. Gentiles – Totally Separate From God
The previous plight of the Gentile believers is described in detail in verses 11-12. In Verse 11 we read: Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— The word “therefore” is a strong conjunction. It could be translated “therefore, for this reason”.
Drawing from whole of 1-10, everyone was bad off, but Gentiles were even worse off than the Jews. Because of their rejection of God dating from the time of the Tower of Babel, they had not had God’s special revelation as had the Jews. This didn’t prevent Gentiles from coming to God, but they were far off. It would have been a long trip.
Paul is noting here is that they were looked down upon right from the outset and socially ostracized by the Jews for lack of the outward sign of circumcision. If for no other reason, the lack of this signature physical condition rendered them anathema to those who were God’s representatives and keepers of God’s revelation. We will return to talk about what is revealed about the Jews here in verse 11 later, but the overall message concerning the Gentiles here is that they were on the outside looking in. They were like the window washer in New York City who went to see a psychiatrist. He said he was tired of being on the outside, looking in! I don’t know that the Gentiles were tired of that condition, but it was their lot if life, that’s for sure.
Now, in verse 12, we see their condition described by 5 different elements, and it is not a pretty condition. Paul says: remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. Let’s look at these individually to see how each contributed to the condition of alienation that existed between them and God and between them and those who later became their Jewish brothers in Christ.
1. Christless – “Separated from Christ”
First we see that they were Christless. Paul says they were “separated from Christ.” I don’t know about you, but that description just sends chills down my spine. To be separated from Christ – without Christ in the world is to be miserably lost.
Why were they without Christ? Well, remember that the word “Christ” means Messiah. The Gentiles, both personally and nationally, were without any hope of a Messiah. Worse, they did not even know about a Messiah. All revelation about the Messiah, about Christ, had come through the Jews, so those people and nations who had not contact with the Israel, or worse were enemies of Israel, were absolutely in the dark about Christ.
You say, “Well that hardly seem fair. If word of the Messiah came only from the Jews, these poor people were without Christ because God had failed to give them the same revelation He had given the Jews.” But before we condemn God, we need to consider what had happened historically. At the time of Adam and Eve, everyone in the world had the revelation of God, did they not? So we can hardly blame God that over the next hundreds of years, that knowledge was dissipated, unappreciated and eventually lost, can we? You will recall that eventually, in his mercy, seeing that virtually all mankind had chosen against Him, God sent the flood, an act intended to punish the wicked and give the earth a new start. This he did, so once again at the time of Noah, all the world once again knew God.
Of course, it did not take many generations before that knowledge was once again largely ignored and unwanted. Rather than continue to worship the God who had been so gracious to them, mankind reached the point by Genesis 11 where he was totally concentrated on building a tower to heaven to “make a name for ourselves”. This time God confused their languages and dispersed them across the face of the earth, but, in His mercy, He chose Abraham to become a friend of God and continued to provide revelation to mankind. He chose a nation to be blessed and to be a blessing to others – all by His grace. Then, by his grace, he allowed that nation to go into captivity in Egypt providing further opportunity for others to be touched by His revelation and come to him. This touching of other nations was a continuous pattern in the life of OT Israel, but, of course, the general trend was away from God, away from His revelation, away from His grace and consequently, separation from revelation concerning Messiah and the hope that He could bring to the world.
Couple this with God’s continuous revelation through His creation – a revelation which He consistently maintains is sufficient to bring an honest inquiry to faith in Him, and you can see that it is anything but God’s fault that the Gentiles were separated from Christ. The blame was their own and that of their ancestors, but nevertheless, there they were without Christ.
Their religion by this time was totally pagan. They did not even have the expectation of a Savior.
How many today are without Christ? And, of course, to be without Christ is to be lost in sin, for we read in Acts 4:12: 12) And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Beloved, we must be doing all we can to make sure that Christ is known – to at least give people the opportunity to come to Him for without Him, they are like these Ephesians were – lost and without Christ.
2. Stateless – “Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel”
Secondly we see that the Gentiles were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. Now, please understand that these Gentiles probably would not have thought it a bad thing to be alienated from Israel. But the fact that they didn’t want it, didn’t mean that they didn’t need it. And why was that?
Well, Jesus said it very succinctly when he was talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Remember what He said in verse 22? 22) You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Think of how stinging that indictment was. Most of the Gentiles did not lack religion. They had religion all right. They worshipped something, but according to Jesus, they didn’t really know what they worshipped because true salvation is from the Jews. This didn’t mean, by the way, that all the Jews got it either, as we will see. The vast majority of them did not – but at least they had true revelation. They had the truth of God contained in their Scriptures and so true salvation came from them. Alienation from the Jewish nation meant, in effect, alienation from God.
As usual, God was always illustrating this truth in some way all the way through history. One such example is in II Kings 5. Let’s turn there. This is the story of a Syrian general named Naaman, living in the 800’s BC. He was a mighty commander, favored at court, but he came down with leprosy – a dread disease at that time. Now, it just happened that on one of their raids, the Syrians had taken a young Israeli girl captive and that young lady ended up in the service of Naaman’s wife. God’s providence, you see. Long story short, the young girl, as she settled in and became part of the family, said, “I wish Naaman could be in Israel, for there is a man of God there who could cure the leprosy.” What faith, huh? On the part of one so young. Anyway, Naaman applied to the king, who favored him so much that he said, “If you can find a cure, go. I’ll give you a letter to the King of Israel”, and that he did.
Of course, when Naaman came, the king was scared to death. He knew he couldn’t cure leprosy and supposed that this was a ruse to pick a fight that he surely did not want. But Elisha heard about the problem and we pick up in verse 8 of II Kings 5: 8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. (Isn’t this so human, folks? God provides a solution, but we want to say – that’s not how it’s done! Isn’t that human? Not like that Lord? I don’t want to be humbled. I just want to be cured and here’s how it should be done. What arrogance. What arrogance? Exhibited every time we say, “I will be saved, but I’ll do it by my having my good works outweigh my bad. I’ll have it by baptism. I’ll have it by keeping the 10 commandments. I’ll have God’s grace in my life by following my own rules. Oh, we do it all the time) 13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
You see the main point. Salvation was of the Jews from the time of Abraham on, and to be alienated from the commonwealth of Israel was to be on the outside looking in. How did Ruth, the Moabitess, become a believer? She came to Israel. Not that Israel could save, but God had essentially made them the keeper of the truth.
Of course, today it is not a particular nation that God has so favored, much to our chagrin as Americans I suppose. It is the church. Bad as it may be at times, it is the messenger of God to a lost world, just as Israel was in those Old Testament times. That’s why we have the obligation to touch as many lives as possible with this message of the gospel.
3. Friendless – “Strangers to the covenants of promise”
Thirdly, we see that the Gentiles were according to verse 12, strangers to the covenants of promise. What in the world does that mean? Well, if you’ve studied much at all in the Old Testament, you are aware that there are a series of covenants that God makes with His people. We do not have time to study all of those in detail, but let me give you a very brief overview so that you have some idea what the Gentiles were strangers to.
The first, the pivotal and the supreme covenant of promise is the one that God makes with Abraham, first found in Genesis 12:2-3: 2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” By this covenant, God essentially separated out Israel, prior to there even being an Israel – and in fact, 25 years before there was even a legitimate heir to Abraham, to be the means by which blessing would come to this world. It’s a broad, inclusive, and most importantly an unconditional covenant. It is not based on anything that Abraham or his descendants would do, but is purely based on the grace of God. This covenant is reiterated to Abraham several times in Genesis 13, 15, 17, and 22.
I think God also had in mind here the Davidic covenant, also unconditional and adding the detail that there would be a single person, a descendant of David, who would sit on the throne of David forever – a prophesy of Jesus Christ, of course. Then there is the “new covenant”, unconditional, in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 which included the promise to write God’s law in His people’s hearts, not just on tablets. It included a promise of redemption and forgiveness of sin – also looking forward to the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Thus, progressively through the Old Testament, we see these covenants developing and furthering the message of redemption and the promise that becomes Jesus Christ. I find it very interesting that Paul speaks of the “covenants [plural] of promise [singular]”. This has given some commentators pause, but I find little mystery there. There clearly are multiple OT covenants, but they all amount to one promise, for every one of these covenants is ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. What we have is a beautiful depiction of progressive revelation – and those Gentiles, prior to the gospel being delivered to them by Paul, were absolute strangers to all of this. You talk about being on the outside looking in. They were a little bit like the guys living on the edge of the dessert who had a sign at their gas station: Don’t ask us for information. If we knew anything, we wouldn’t be here. And yet, there they were.
Today, those promises are so available to most of the world, though not all. But what do we find? Those who have those promises in the Bible, leave the promises collecting dust on the shelf, unsearched, unwanted, unappreciated and uncared for. What a tragedy. And those who don’t have these promises because they don’t even have the Bible in their language are much like these. That’s why we are so motivated to support people like Wayne and Amy Losey who are translating the Bible for people who do not have it. We have a job to do, don’t we?
4. Hopeless – “Having no hope”
Paul’s next characterization of these Gentiles believers is quite interesting. It is a devastating word. They were “having no hope.” That’s a present tense word indicating this was the ongoing experience of their life. Jews always had hope in Messiah even in their darkest days. Gentiles had no such hope, knew nothing of Messiah. For Jews history was always going somewhere. Whatever the present might be like, the future was glorious. For the Gentiles, history was going nowhere.
Historians tell us that by the time of Christ a great cloud of hopelessness covered the ancient world. Philosophies were empty; traditions were disappearing; religions were powerless to help men face either life or death. People longed to pierce the veil and get some message of hope from the other side, but there was none – no hope for this life and no hope for the life to come. Martyn Lloyd-Jones notes, rightly, I think, that apart from Christ the deeper a man thinks the more pessimistic he becomes. Of course, the frivolous are not pessimistic. They see the glitter, not the tarnish beneath. They are the Bucket List crowd. Get it now while you can and don’t even think about the future! Let’s face it, that’s most people.
But those who think—the great philosophers, artists, poets, and writers—all these are increasingly pessimistic without Christ. Certainly, the Greek and Roman world of Paul’s day was a hopeless world . According to the Greek (and afterward also the Roman) Stoic conception, there was no future for the body, which came to be regarded as the soul’s “prison-house.” As for the soul of man, it reluctantly departs from the body with the dying breath or by means of open wounds. This soul, in its separate existence, is not entirely immaterial. Its texture, however, is very thin. It retains many of the characteristics of its former body and is therefore immediately recognized when it appears in the other world. It enters Hades, a very dismal realm of “shades.” Compared to its former life on the sunny earth, sunless Hades where the dead bemoan their existence, failed to inspire any comfort. At length the soul is swallowed up in the fiery substance which is identical with deity. Hopeless.
The Epicurians adopted a position which amounted to this as summarized by one writer: “The punishments of Tartarus are not to be feared, for the soul, being material, will share the fate of the body. As long as we are alive, death does not exist for us, and when death appears, we no longer exist.” Aristotle did not believe in any life after death either. No hope.
The Greek philosopher Diogenes said, “I rejoice in sport in my youth. Long enough will I lie beneath the earth bereft of life, voiceless as a stone, and shall leave the sunlight which I love, good man though I am. Then shall I see nothing more. Rejoice, O my soul, in thy youth. Soon others will take my place and I shall be black earth in death. No mortal is happy under the sun.” That is the basic philosophy of many people in our own day, reflected in such sayings as, “Grab all the gusto you can” and “You only go around once.” No hope beyond the grave.
The first century was an age of suicide. Tacitus tells of a man who killed himself in indignation that he had been born. The French philosophers are not so nouveau after all! For the Gentiles, history was going nowhere. I don’t really think things have changed much. Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer wrote: “My own feeling respecting the ultimate mystery is such that I cannot even try to think of it without some feeling of terror so that I habitually shun the thought.” I think that’s the answer of most people. I’ll live without thinking about it and maybe it will go away. Before his death in 1981, William Saroyan (1908-1981, US writer) phoned in to the Associated Press a final Saroyanesque observation: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
5. Godless – “without God in the world”
Finally, Paul characterizes the Gentiles as having been without God in the world. By this he did not mean that they were without some kind of belief in a supreme being. In fact, typically they believed in a lot of gods. There were statues, altars, ceremonial memorials, stonehenges and temples everywhere. Witness the great temple to Diana resident right there in Ephesus. But they were without God in the same sense that our world today is without God. They were without the true God and that is to be truly Godless in the world.
False gods are nothing. Religion is nothing. Ceremony is nothing. Worship of anything or anyone apart from the true God is nothing. The truth is that though they believed in many gods, or in a pantheistic concept that everything is god, they did not know the true God, not because He had rejected them, but because they had rejected Him.
The indictment of Romans 1 has rung so true down through the ages of time. Look again at what Paul says beginning Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Note that it is a moral issue, not an intellectual issue that causes this. People reject truth because they want to sin) 19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Skip down to verse 25) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!
Here’s what the Bible teaches in simple language. People refuse the truth of and about God because they want to sin. However, when they sin, they feel guilty, so to assuage guilt, they worship something. That something is always something created -- whether it be an idol, a religion, a philosophy or self – but it is never the Creator. Thus they always come up one step short and are Godless in the world.
This was the plight of the Gentiles in the pre-conversion days. Whether they realize it or not, it is the plight of every person who has ever lived outside of Christ. They have no status with God, no faith, no promises, no real God and no hope. They remind me of the truth spoken by Thaddeus Stevens as he neared his death in the late 1860’s. Thaddeus Stevens was a Pennsylvania Congressman and leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War. He was slightly built, small in stature, but always aggressive in his pursuit of equality between races as a radical abolitionist. By 1868, ill-health was about to claim his life. One of his visitors remarked on his appearance and Stevens replied, “It’s not my appearance that troubles me right now. It’s my disappearance.”
Folks – he had it just right. Outside of Christ, without God in the world, that is all there is to look forward to. That’s it. That’s all there is. No wonder there is alienation. Consciously or unconsciously, we are living in a world full of people who have no goal except to get all the gusto they can at whosever expense. God help us to get the message of the gospel to those without hope all around us.
B. Jews – Form of Godliness, but also without God
Okay, so that’s the Gentiles – totally and demonstrably without God in the world. But the ones that I find really intriguing in this passage are the Jews. A cursory reading of the passage would lead one to believe that the only problem with the Gentiles is that they did not have the advantages of the Jews and that what they needed was to get what the Jews had – and yet that is exactly what does not happen. For the Jews were also without God and if anything even worse off than the Gentiles. Why? Why because they did not know they were without God. They thought they were okay. They were not writing morbid literature philosophical literature. They were not feeling hopeless. In fact, they felt superior and informed and turned out! But in reality they were even worse off because 1) they thought they had no need, and 2) they had failed miserably in God’s plan for them. Not all of them, but in large measure.
Now, this is subtle, but look with me. Let’s start in verse 11: 11) Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— Do you see how Paul notes that the Gentiles were looked down on by the Jews because of the issue of circumcision? So what’s wrong with that? Hadn’t God Himself established the rite of circumcision? And, of course, the answer is yes, He had. But that there is something wrong here is shown in at least two ways.
First, note that Paul says the Gentiles were derisively called “the uncircumcision” by “what is called the circumcision.” What he is saying is the “so-called circumcision” – meaning they ain’t real, folks. They think they are. They believe they are. They are convinced they are – but they are not.
Second, note that Paul says they were called the circumcision “which is made in the flesh by hands.” Anytime you see the word “flesh” in the Bible, be on the lookout. It may sometimes be neutral, but it is never good; it is usually bad and it is not good here. Finally, note the words “by hands”. That is a single word in Greek. It is used in the OT to speak of making idols. And, whether Old or New Testaments, it always speaks of work done in contrast to the work of God. So, what is the subtle meaning of all this? What in the world is the problem here?
The problem, Beloved, is that for the vast majority of Jews, it had become all about the outward rite or ritual, and not about the heart. This is the saddest of all states – to have the revelation of God, even to revere it in a certain sense, and yet to miss the whole message because we forget that the outward must be a true reflection of the inward or it’s no good. To me that is sadder than sad and that was just the position of the Jews.
In the ancient world the Jews were well known as those who practiced circumcision and far from being ashamed of the fact, they took great pride in this distinction. You will remember that Paul, in listing those things of which he had once been most proud in Philippians 3 mentions in verse 5 that he was circumcised on the eighth day. It was a badge of honor. Nor was there anything wrong with the fact of their circumcision. God had indeed commanded it. So what was the problem?
Let’s let Paul answer, since he had once been so proud of this distinction himself. Look at Romans 2 where Paul gives a whole tutorial on circumcision that you can read sometime, but let’s see the culmination of his argument starting in verse 28: 28) For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29) But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. There is the answer in language so plain that a child could understand. Circumcision, as is the case of any issue of faith, must start with the heart. It must come from the inside. Merely to have the outward form without the inward reality is not only ineffective, it is to disparage God. As this verse says, it is to appeal to man for praise and not to God and that is, and forever more will be, wrong. Their attitude showed that they possessed only the sign and not the thing signified.
And lest you think that we are just applying New Testament truth to OT truth and being too hard on these folks, listen to these verses from the Old Testament. It’s graphic but it makes the point and renders those who missed it all the more culpable. You will recall that at the time Moses came down from the mountain with the law written in stone, he found the people already worshipping a golden calf that Aaron had made for them – essentially adopting the pagan ways of their Egyptian captives that God had just removed them from. Great turmoil followed with Moses finally addressing the people as found beginning in Deut. 10:12: 12) “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13) and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14) Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15) Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16) Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. Do you see? Circumcision was always to have been an outward reflection of an inward reality.
Jeremiah gave basically the same message 800 years later to a nation that was by then racked with idolatry. He says in Jeremiah 4: 4) Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” What goes on with the outside of a person is meaningless unless it reflects a true inward submission to God – a heart that is pure and true. That’s why Paul referred to the Jews as “what is called circumcision” – because they were not the real thing at all.
We’re no less susceptible today, folks. How many people believe they are fine with God, on their way to heaven, because they have been baptized? Is baptism a good thing? Of course it is. Just like circumcision of old, baptism has been ordained by God. But, also like circumcision, it is ordained to be an outward show of an inward reality. Without the inward reality – in and of itself – it is worse than useless. Worse than useless because it has the tendency to make people think everything is okay where it is decidedly not okay. It leads to people becoming proud – proud of nothing it turns out.
Charles Hopkinson’s impressive portrait of Just Oliver Wendell Holmes hangs in the library of the Law School at Harvard. It is a full-length picture of the judge in judicial robes, with distinguished white hair and mustache. When Justice Holmes saw the finished picture, he said, “That isn’t me, but I’ll give you this; it’s a good thing for people to think it is.”
See, that’s people who are counting on something outward. They are fooling others, but even worse, they are fooling themselves. Justice Holmes was at least discerning enough to realize he was not the man in the portrait, but those Jews were not. They thought they were all right and no doubt took that pride with them right into eternity. It reminds me of Madame de Pompadour, the famous French courtesan and mistress of King Louis XV. It is said that as she was dying, with her last strength, she called to God, “Wait a second,” and dabbed her cheeks with rouge one more time. We say, how foolish. I say, no more so than depending on any outward rite or ritual, be it baptism, church membership, philanthropic works, whatever it might be – fine in themselves, but if not reflective of an inward heart devoted to God it is no more than rouge helplessly and foolishly applied on the way out the door to present to God that which He has already condemned. He wants your heart, Beloved. He wants your LIFE.
So the Jews were depending on outward rites to save them, but they had another problem. God sovereignly chose the Jews to be His special people. “You only,” He told Israel, “have I chosen among all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). God chose the Jews not only to receive His special blessings but also to be a channel of those blessings to others. Far from looking down on the Gentiles, as they had done for centuries, they were to have been the ones through whom the Gentiles found God and found blessing.
From the beginning it was God’s plan that through Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Israel was called to be a vessel through which the knowledge of God would be spread to the entire world. Unfortunately, Israel never fulfilled that calling. She preferred to condemn the Gentiles rather than witness to them. A rabbinic writer tells of an incident that explains the common Jewish attitude toward Gentiles. A certain Gentile woman came to Rabbi Eleazar, confessed that she was sinful, and told him that she wanted to become righteous. She wanted to be accepted into the Jewish faith because she had heard that the Jews were near to God. The rabbi is said to have responded, “No. You cannot come near,” and then shut the door in her face.
You may recall that Peter had such an attitude of disdain for Gentiles before he had the vision of the unclean animals that the Lord commanded him to eat (Acts 10:9–16). Peter later explained to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean”
It has always been God’s plan to extend his grace and forgiveness to every person on earth. God made Israel distinct for two reasons. First, He wanted the world to see and notice them, to realize that they did not live and act like other men. Second, He wanted them to be so distinct that they would never be amalgamated with other peoples. He gave them such strict dietary, clothing, marriage, ceremonial, and other laws that they could never fit easily into another society. Those distinctions, like the special blessings God gave them, were intended to be a tool for witness. But Israel continually perverted them into a source for pride, isolation, and self–glory.
Jonah is a prime example of this attitude, even on the part of a truly believing Jew and prophet of God. Remember how, after a slight detour, he got to Nineveh? And do you remember the result – how the city repented from the king right on down. So Jonah was pleased, right? Unfortunately, not hardly. His response is recorded in Jonah 4:1-3: 1) But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2) And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3) Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
How many times have you been taught that Jonah fled in the beginning because he was afraid to go to Nineveh. That’s what I had heard all my life. But guess what? That wasn’t it at all. The reason Jonah fled was this – he just knew that those people were going to repent and he could not stand the thought of that. He wanted them condemned! He hated them and still God used him. Isn’t that a remarkable story? Is it any wonder that we live in a world filled with alienation?
Now, listen, folks, because the application here may not be so easy. We have to ask, are we demonstrating any of these tendencies in our own lives? I know our first reaction is to say, “Not me. Never. No alienation because of me.” But suppose I were to ask how we express ourselves regarding the alienated in our world? How do we talk about the illegal immigrants? How do we express ourselves about the drug addicts and prostitutes and homeless, who are there only because they choose to be and have made their own bed. How do we talk about homosexuals? How about atheists with an agenda to destroy our children? You say, “Well, those are all sinners!” Exactly – just like you and me. And yet, somehow, we feel, act and think superior so often.
Somehow, by the grace of God, we must make sure that while it is our function to condemn the sin, it is equally our responsibility to love the sinner. We’re pretty quick to condemn the ancient Israelites for not getting this right, but let’s acknowledge we often fail ourselves.
During a strike by British firefighters in January 1978, the British army assumed firefighting duties. Thus, when the cat of an elderly lady in South London became trapped up a tree, she summoned an army unit. They came; they saw and they rescued, whereupon the grateful lady invited them all in for tea. A good time was had by all, and then the army unit went out, got into their vehicles and drove off, running over and killing the cat in the process.
Folks, just like Israel, in our enthusiasm to condemn the sin, we are in grave danger of killing the cat. We must remember, we are here to be a witness and a blessing. Condemnation is God’s job. One of the great causes of alienation is when we take on God’s job instead of just doing our own. Please understand, I am not saying we should not take a stand against sin. We should, but we must always be sure we have examined our hearts carefully, that we are right with God ourselves, that we are not coming from a position of pride and arrogance and that we are loving the sinners, realizing we are in that same boat.
Now, let’s review for just a moment. What has our case study of alienation yielded so far? We have seen that the Gentiles were “far off” from God because they did not have ready access to his revelation, leading to lives of despondency when they bothered to consider their ultimate end. But the Jews were also in sin. They had the revelation and the advantage, but they had squandered it by equating outward ritual with salvation when, in fact, God has always been after the heart. Both sides were contributing in different ways to a great hostility. So, what was the solution?
II. The Cure – The Cross of Christ
The cure for alienation? Found in verse 13. Stated very simply. 13) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Note that the “far off” are “brought near” by the blood of Christ. It is His death that causes this remarkable transformation.
The terms “far off” and “near” were common in the Jewish lexicon. The Jews were very proud of their heritage and relationship with God – so much so that they designated anyone who was not a Jew as “far off”, meaning “out of it” in our modern terminology. This terminology was driven by the physical manifestation of God’s presence at the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle first and later in the temple. To be near God, one had to be physically in the proximity of Israel, and spiritually related to the revelation given to them. The Gentile nations were obviously “far off.” They were considered way out there.
Even the OT prophets spoke of those outside Israel being “far off” or afar in passages like Isaiah 49:1 and 57:19. And the only way they could be brought near was becoming a proselyte – a ceremony by which an outsider could become a Jew. On the rare occasions when that happened – for it was neither encouraged nor readily accepted – that person was said to have been brought near. That, Paul is saying, is what has happened to the Ephesians Gentiles, but not through any ritual, rite or ceremony. It has happened through the blood of Jesus Christ. Their faith has brought them near.
We also see in this verse a twofold emphasis on the part that Christ plays in this. The new position of nearness to God by these Gentile believers is both in Christ Jesus and in (or by) the blood of Christ. It is essential, if we are to be faithful to the apostle’s teaching, to hold onto these two expressions, and not to emphasize one at the expense of the other. For ‘the blood of Christ’ (as in 1:7) signifies his sacrificial death for our sins on the cross, by which he reconciled us to God and to each other. We read in Heb 9:22: 22) Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Why all those sacrifices over and over again in the OT? Why to teach all of us that sin means sacrifice and sacrifice means blood. It was to be a constant reminder to the people – that should be me on that altar. That should be me taking the penalty for my sin. Praise God for His grace, yes even in the OT, for by rights, that should be me. That way when the ultimate sacrifice came in Christ we would understand what He did. His shed blood is the objective means of being brought near to God.
On the other hand in verse 13, ‘in Christ Jesus’ signifies the personal union with Christ today through which the reconciliation he made provision for on the cross is received and enjoyed. Thus the two expressions witness to the two stages by which those ‘far off’ are ‘brought near’. The first is the historical event of the cross, and the second Christian conversion, or the contemporary experience of union with Christ.
The cross is the basis for the reconciliation – but the personal union with Christ (the being “in Him”) is the means by which the reconciliation is made effective. Take away either one and there is no cure. Faith in God, but without the substitutionary death of Christ, would still render all of us subject to the punishment of God for our own sins. No reconciliation with God – no reconciliation with others. On the other hand – Christ’s death on the cross provides a basis for reconciliation, but unless one comes individually by faith to accept the gift for oneself, there is still no reconciliation. Do you see? Both are required. His death and my acceptance of his gift based on that death.
I could be sinking fast in the quagmire of some quicksand. It’s not going to be long before my nose and mouth are under and it’s good-by Dave. But here comes my hero, Trevor. Turns out those cowboy boots aren’t all just for show! Here he comes mounted on a horse, throwing a rope. He is the basis for my rescue as he throws the rope out. But unless I reach out and take that rope and hold on for all I’m worth – his presence will not matter, will it? Unless I take the rope, I am lost. That’s what we have in verse 13, folks. Two sides to salvation. To be brought near to God, we must be “in Christ” on the basis of our faith in Him, grabbing the rope, -- all of which is provided on the basis of His blood shed on the cross. People don’t like to talk about the blood anymore. It’s not 21st century PC, but without it, I assure you there is no peace.
Now, look at verse 14: 14) For he himself is our peace. Notice it doesn’t say that Jesus brings peace or that he facilitates peace or that he makes peace. It says that He is peace. He, in his own person, He is peace. That is because of His work on the cross. Apart from that there would be no peace. There would be no end to alienation. But because of Him, the passage goes on to describe three specific hurdles, barriers to peace, which the cross of Christ removes, thus bringing an end to alienation. He, himself, is the critical link in the removal of each impediment. Let’s look.
A. Removes Law as an Issue
First of all, Paul tells us that Christ’s death on the cross removes the Law as a barrier to peace. Look starting at verse 14: 14) For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15) by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances. It is very clear here that the first way Christ has removed alienation is by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” That much is clear. The question is, what in the world does that mean? There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion on this issue, so let me try to simplify it for you.
First, look at the word “abolish”. Many have taken that to mean “destroy”, but that is not the sense of the word that Paul uses here. Paul uses the word καταργεω, and everywhere that Paul uses that word it means “to render inoperative, or of no effect.” It doesn’t destroy at all – it just makes it a non-issue for us who are in Christ.
Take a look with me at Romans 7:6: 6) But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. See that word “released”? That is the same word that is translated “abolished” in Ephesians 2:15. God has not done away with His Law. He has not abrogated it. He did not abolish it by doing away with it. He abolished it by perfectly fulfilling it, and as a consequence, we are released from it.
Now follow closely here. There are two ways in which we are released from the Law and both ways help remove alienation. First of all, the ceremonial Law has been set aside, rendered inoperative for all time because in Christ, the ultimate sacrifice has been made. Not a single one of those Old Testament sacrifices was of any merit on its own. Hebrews 10:3-4: 3) But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4) For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. All that blood – all those sacrifices – never took away a single sin. So Why? Why were they required? They were required as a reminder that an ultimate sacrifice would be required for sin. They were a reminder, always pointing ahead to what was to come.
Then, Hebrews 10:12-14: 12) But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13) waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14) For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. You see, when Christ died on the cross, He became that one supreme, ultimate sacrifice that would literally take away the sin of the world. Why? Because he had been prepared by His perfect life, by His absolute fulfillment of the Law to be the one sacrifice for all time. So now we look back on the reality. There is no more need for reminder. All the ceremonial law is done away and removed as a requirement which facilitates reconciliation with God and, since no group has an edge anymore, removes one element of alienation between people. That is the first way in which Christ has released us from the Law. The ceremonies are no longer binding on us.
But far more important is the second way. Christ has abolished the whole law by fulfilling it all, but keeping it perfectly, by doing what we could never do on our own. The Jews thought they could keep the Law. That was part of the alienation. They were all outward form and looking down their noses at those who could not. Talk about a cause for alienation! But Christ’s cross demonstrates that no one could keep the Law, no one but Him. Thankfully He could and did and in fulfilling the Law, He has rendered it inoperative for us.
Now, does that free us from any obligation to the moral law? Many commentators say that Christ freed us from the Ceremonial law, but the moral law, as restated in the NT remains in effect. That, you see, misses the point. Christ has fulfilled all the law for all time to free us from it completely. Are we to keep that moral law to love God and love our neighbor? Of course, but we are forever freed from the requirement to keep it to be saved. That is a non-issue. It’s just that having been freed and having been saved and having accepted Christ’s righteousness, we will want to keep that law. In true believers, the desire to keep that law is written in our hearts just as it is written in the heart of God. We will desire to keep it, not as an obligation but as an act of love for the one who has freed us.
Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor." the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail."
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. That’s what it means that Christ has rendered the Law a non-issue. He’s completely fulfilled it on our behalf. We are under no obligation having given our life to Him and accepted His gift of salvation.
B. Removes Alienation as an Issue
The second way that the cross provides reconciliation is by removing alienation as an issue. Two types of alienation are mentioned in this passage and the cross addresses both. The two types are the alienation between man and God and the alienation between man and man. Because his emphasis in this section is on the alienation between man and man, Paul mentions that solution first. However, logically, it is the alienation between man and God that must first be addressed chronologically. If you look at the second chapter of Ephesians as a whole, you will note that the first 10 verses were devoted to this issue of man’s alienation from God. You can never be right with anyone else until you are first right with God – not in any ultimate sense. So we will take these in logical order starting in verse 16.
1. By Killing Hostility Between God and Man
In this verse we see that the cross kills the hostility between God and man.
16) and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. As you can see, it is all there in one short verse. Christ reconciles us to God through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. I love the phraseology, don’t you. We have the ugly word “hostility” to deal with. Most of us do not like to be in hostile situations. It is uncomfortable. The stomach gets tied up in knots just thinking about hostility and here we are in hostility with God. It’s a sin problem, of course. Sin is what brings on this hostility. God loves the sinner, but He could not be God and allow the sin, so there is hostility. This shows the very dire nature of the problem. Sin brings danger, threat and hostility.
But look what the cross does. It kills the hostility. That ugly word hostility meets its match with an equally ugly word, kills. The hostility of sin is no match for the cross. The cross brings peace, reconciliation, and restoration. It absolutely annihilates the hostility. What a picture.
It reminds me of a scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie. Do you remember Harrison Ford being in battle against some of the evil forces, all of whom are dressed in black and wielding hostile looking swords? In one particular scene, Ford is surrounded and at the other end of the circle, one of the enemy expertly twirls his sword, clearly anticipating the kill. The whole theater is sitting in tense anticipation. Ford himself looks on with seeming concern – but then he gives that little sneer, calmly pulls from its holster the revolver that everyone has forgotten about and shoots the enemy dead in his tracks! Remember that? Folks, that’s what Christ on the cross did to sin, only obviously at great cost to Himself. Nevertheless, in paying that price, he absolutely, once and for all absolutely obliterated the power of sin.
Now, to really get the sense of this passage, you must understand something of the temple layout. When we hear the word “temple”, we tend to just think of a big building, but the temple layout that the Jews knew and that is the backdrop for the imagery that Paul uses in this passage of Scripture was somewhat more complex than that. Let me describe it in simple terms. The Temple was surrounded by a wall with gates around the perimeter to allow entrance. Inside the wall, the temple consisted of a series of courts, each one a little higher than the one that went before, with the Temple itself in the inmost of the courts. First there was a Court of the Gentiles; then the Court of the Women; then the Court of the Israelites; then the Court of the Priests; and then the Holy Place itself, the actual building. This building was divided into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place. As you can see, Gentiles were allowed only into the most outer court (this is where the moneychanging activities of Mark 11 and Matthew 21 were going on). Progressively fewer people were allowed as one went closer to the actual building.
The centerpiece of the whole thing, the Holy of Holies, could be entered only by the high priest and only once a year to make atonement for sin. The Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a huge veil, a curtain that stretched across the entire width of the temple building. From the time of Moses until the ultimate loss of the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark formed the main part of the Holy of Holies. It was there that God met his people and that God dwelt in visible form. Everyone had to come through the mediation of the priests.
That’s why what we read in Matthew 27:50 is so significant: 50) And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51) And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. At the very moment when Christ died, the veil was torn asunder. Folks, that cutain was 6 inches thick. It was no accident and it was no trivial thing that that happened. Why? Why did that happen? What was the point? It happened to provide a graphic and dramatic indication that everything had now changed. The ultimate and final sacrifice had now been made. Every other sacrifice that had ever been offered had point toward this one singular event and now it had happened. As a result, access to God was no longer through human priests. The barrier between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was killed, destroyed, removed, utterly demolished.
In a moment in time everything had changed. Access to God was wide open being mediated only through the person of Christ. The hostility was over. The provision for sin was done. The way to God had been paid for and was now directly through Jesus Christ. That is why he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.” That is exactly what was depicted by the tearing of the temple veil. The cross removed once and for all the hostility between God and man, and for everyone who would accept the provision made there by Christ access to God is wide open. Our human minds just cannot grasp the infinite worth of that event, but there is the truth of the matter.
Listen to this by Brennan Manning, explaining more eloquently than I ever could what happened on the cross: ’For our sake he made the sinless one a victim for sin, so that in him we might become the uprightness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Every form of sin and its consequences, sickness and disease of every kind, drug addiction, alcoholism, broken relationships, insecurity, hatred, lust, pride, envy, jealousy, cancer, bone disease, arthritis, and on and on were experienced and carried by ‘one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard’ (Isaiah 53:3) who knew the nadir of an agony such as no one has ever dreamed. ‘I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus Christ nailed to the wood has carried our pain into the peace of grace. He has made peace through the blood of His cross (see Colossians 1:20). Jesus journeyed to the far reaches of loneliness. In His broken body He has carried your sins and mine, every separation and loss, every heart broken, every wound of the spirit that refuses to close, all the riven experiences of men, women, and children across the bands of time.” Yes, Jesus died, but even as He died, He killed the hostility that existed between man and God. Only one question remains. Have you experienced the peace and reconciliation He offers in exchange for you giving your life to Him? If not, why not? What is holding you back? What more can we do, what more can He do to urge you to be reconciled to God?
2. By Killing the Hostility With Others
So, we have seen that the cross kills the hostility between man and God. Having done that, it also kills the hostility between men. Let’s look beginning in verse 13: 13) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (that’s the cross). 14) For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Think of the reconciliation between men as a two step process. First of all, Christ breaks down hostile barriers. Second, he forms a whole new man where all human barriers are eliminated.
Between Jews and Gentiles, the great divider was the law with all of its regulations, its Israel-centric orientation, and its staggering requirements. Paul here describes that law as a wall of hostility, and that it was.
This is very picturesque language that Paul uses here and we are driven once again to the Jerusalem temple that we discussed earlier. Remember how it had barriers at various points on the temple grounds. The ultimate barrier was within the temple building itself between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. We’ve seen how in His death, that barrier was torn asunder, but now as we move backward from the temple, we find other barriers. There was the barrier that divided Jewish men from Jewish women, and beyond that was the wall that divided the Gentile section in the outer court from the Jewish section.
Some have argued that Paul did not have that wall in mind when he wrote this passage since the wall still stood. He was simply using the term metaphorically. I would agree that Paul was speaking metaphorically here; however, I, along with most commentators, think there is no doubt that he had the barrier at the Jerusalem temple in mind. It was a very visible and blatant reminder of the separation that existed between these antagonists in general. The wall at the temple stood about 4-1/2 feet tall, but the real enforcer of the separation was a series of signs located at intervals along the wall. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus spoke of these inscriptions, and in excavations made in 1871 and in 1934, two of these were found. They read: “No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” These Thanatos (death) inscriptions are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. As we will see later, Paul was actually in prison at that very moment, falsely accused of violating these rules by bringing a Gentile into the Jewish court area.
All of this is another indication of just how radically the Jewish people had failed in their God-given purpose to be a blessing to the whole world. Remember that when God gave His covenant to Abraham, it was not done merely for Abraham’s benefit. Listen again to God in Genesis 12:2-3: 2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Yes, blessing is promised to Abraham, but it is further intended that in him and his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The Mosaic Law and the outer court of the temple are just two examples of that very intent, but the Jewish people had turned both into avenues of hostility instead of blessing.
God allowed the outer court of the temple so that the ceremonies there could be witnessed by outsiders and those “far off” could be brought near. Do you not see? What God had intended for blessing had been turned into a cause for hostility by the arrogance and pomposity of the Jewish people, completely nullifying God’s plan.
That is, nullifying it until Jesus Himself brought peace. The phraseology that Paul uses in verse 14 is very interesting. “14) For he himself is our peace. The word “he” is emphasized in the Greek text. He has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. See, it is all Him. The work that he did in this life, fulfilling the Law in its entirety, and the work that He did on the cross, taking on Himself the sin of the world – that and only that is what brings peace.
Rather than inviting the Gentiles in to meet God, the Jews, by their pride in position, and extreme adherence to the Law as they interpreted it, (or better, misinterpreted it) created as much hostility as the world has ever seen. But in one fell swoop, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the Law without sin thus relieving us of any obligation to do so for justification, then fulfilled in His sacrifice on calvary all that the ceremonial law, removing forever the need for these forward-looking symbols. And with that He broke down every advantage for the Jews and every disadvantage for the Gentiles, rendering all the same before God, each group equally capable of accepting or rejecting His sacrifice. The hostility was over in His own person. John Stott sums up the teaching here very well when he says, “To sum up, Jesus abolished both the regulations of the ceremonial law and the condemnation of the moral law. Both were divisive. Both were put aside by the cross.”
One New Man
Now, how did all of this work out in practice? That was the thing that was so totally unanticipated that it blew minds on both sides of the fence. It’s right there in verse 14 “who has made us both one” and again in verse 15, the middle: “that he might create in himself (note the ever present “in Christ”) one new man in place of the two, so making peace.”
We tend to take this for granted today and it kind of rolls off us without much thought or attention, but put yourself back in that time again. Think of yourself as a Jewish believer, suddenly seeing some Gentiles coming to God too. What would your expectation be? Well, your expectation would be that if they are getting in at all, it is that they will become Jews and thus attain through the God-given Jewish rituals the forgiveness and access to God. That’s the way it has always been done. And now Paul comes along and announces that in Christ, there is no more Gentile; fine by me, says the Jew. Then comes the next clause, “And there is no more Jew.” Say what? “There is no more Gentile and there is no more Jew. There is in place of the two one new person where everything is equal.” Listen, you don’t understand Jewish culture if you think that message wasn’t mind-blowing. This, Beloved, was radical theology.
There are two Greek words for new. The first means “new of the same kind.” One would use that word to describe a new car rolling off the line with thousands more on either side of it just like it. The word used here, however, refers to a difference in kind and quality, to a completely new model, unlike anything that existed before. The new person in Christ is not simply a Jew or Gentile who now happens to be a Christian. He is no longer a Jew or Gentile but only a Christian. This new man is revolutionary – never seen before. It is not a matter of the Gentiles being elevated to the status of Jews or vice versa. It is a matter of all becoming a whole new being – the body of Christ, the church, the bride of Christ – equally members all.
The church father Chrysostom says, suppose that there are two statues, one of silver and one of lead. Now suppose that they are melted down and a new one made of gold is created. That is what has happened here. Paul sums it up elsewhere in Romans 10 as follows: 12) For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13) For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He even goes that one better in Galatians 3:27 where he says, 27) For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. This is now the pattern for the church, Beloved. No divisions based on race or gender or class. We are all loved by Jesus Christ. We are all reconciled to God by Jesus Christ. We are all saved “in Jesus Christ.” And therefore, in terms of how we become part of this body of Christ there is no distinction, no preference, no hierarchy, no favorites. We are all equally sinners, those of us who sit here this morning as well as those working the streets selling drugs, lining up bets for the games today, working the prostitution rings – anyone who has or will come to Christ is equal. Equally sinners. Equally saved by grace. No distinctions. This rocked the ancient world of the Ephesians.
Bishop John Reed tells about driving a school bus in Australia which carried whites and aborigines. Tired of all the squabbling, one day far out in the country he pulled over to the side of the road and said to the white boys, “What color are you?” “White.” He told them, “No, you are green. Anyone who rides in my bus is green. Now, what color are you?” The white boys replied, “Green.” Then he went to the aborigines and said, “What color are you?” “Black.” “No, you are green. Anyone who rides on my bus is green.” All the aborigines answered that they were green. The situation seemed resolved until, several miles down the road, he heard a boy in the back of the bus announce, “All right, light green on the right side, dark green on the left.” Sometimes we just can’t get it right, but in the church we cannot afford not to get it right. We are part of God’s plan to bring reconciliation to the entire universe!
And how is it all done? Is it done by getting the groups together and getting them to appreciate each other’s respective cultures and backgrounds? Is it done by having therapy meetings where everyone shares about themselves and their hopes and dreams and voila, we discover that we are all alike? Is that how it’s done? With all due respect to all of those ideas, it is not the horizontal relationship that does it. It is the cross that does it. It is the cross that draws us together. It is our common love for the Lord Jesus Christ who loves us equally, who died for us equally, who forgave us equally, who lives for us equally whom we love equally – that is what brings us together.
So in the end, the cross absolutely blows away all of the barriers in the temple structure which had become symbolic of the differences that separate people from God and people from people. Like a mighty wind sweeeping through the ancient traditions, prejudices and fears, faith in the crucified Christ leaves in its place a whole new entity – the church, composed of men and women from all cultures, all classes, all educational backgrounds, all previous creeds, all tongues without differentiation. It is to the praise of the glory of God that this has been done, all resulting from the death of Jesus Christ and the common faith in him that has brought release from sin and guilt, freedom to keep the law out of love, not necessity, and the sharing in common the new life found in Him. And out on the doorstep lies the hostility – dead as a doornail as we live our lives by faith. The cross removes alienation as an issue.
C. Removes Privilege as an Issue
The final thing we would note from this passage is that the cross removes privilege as an issue affecting alienation. We’ve hit this peripherally as we’ve gone through this passage, but the point is specifically addressed in verses 17-18.
1. Shown by a Universal Message
We see first that privilege is removed as an issue as shown by the fact that there is a universal message. If the Jews were the caretakers of God’s revelation for 2,000 years, that era has come to an end. Notice verse 17: And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. Such a wonderful message is proclaimed here. You know, I notice that almost every verse I come to becomes one of my favorites, but here it is again. Let’s look at it in detail.
There is no doubt that the “he” in verse 17 is Jesus Christ. We have to go clear back up to verses 13 and 14 to find the antecedent, but there it is in the person of Christ. Jesus is the one who came and preached peace.
The bigger question is, just when did he come and preach peace. Several opinions are offered. Some think it refers to the time between his resurrection and ascension – those 40 days when he was busy being seen, preaching, tying up loose ends to allow for his departure and the coming of his replacement. Certainly, that is part of what is envisioned, although, it cannot be the totality of it because he was working exclusively with Jewish people at that point in time. He preached to those who were near, but could hardly have been said to have preached to those who were far off.
So some say what is intended here is a reference to the extension of his ministry through the Holy Spirit as he ministered through the apostles and prophets in the New Testament. This position is supported by passages such as John 14:12 where Jesus says, “12) “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Without question, the apostles were extending the earthly ministry of Christ and as Paul was one of those and specifically sent to the Gentiles, both those who were near and those who were far off are addressed. Throughout the book of Acts, the ministry of the apostles is attributed to the power of Jesus Christ. He is alive, working and preaching through them. I believe this is in view in this passage as well.
But I believe there is even a deeper meaning to this verse. The word “preached” used here is the verb form of the word “gospel”. It literally means to proclaim the good news, in this case the good news of peace.
But look at verse 14 again. Peace is also uneqivocally defined there. 14) For he himself is our peace. And now, let me ask you. If Jesus preached the good news of peace, and he himself is peace, was he not preaching himself, and where did he most eloquently, most visibly, most clearly, most comprehensively preach himself? Where did he supremely show himself? Was it not on the cross? Is it not true that every one of the millions of Old Testament sacrifices pointed directly and squarely forward to the cross of Jesus Christ. And is it not true that every person who has ever come to Christ as Savior has looked back at that same cross for salvation and peace with God? Is it not true that there has never been such a demonstration of the love of God for man as at the cross? Is it not true that the plan of God is opened to us completely and the heart of God bared absolutely at the cross?
I firmly believe that when the Bible makes the simple but elegant statement in verse 17: And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, it is simply saying that as he hung in agony on that cross to which he willingly and gladly went, Christ’s suffering screams down through the centuries backward and forward the message of peace. He said not a word about it, but was a more articulate, clear and compelling message of the gospel ever preached? I think not. If you don’t get the message by looking at Christ in your place on His cross, you will never get it. You just won’t. God’s message of love of peace and desire for you is crystal clear there. It will never get plainer than that. Turn that down and there is no hope.
And, of course, that message is for everyone. His apostles do make that clear. Paul was specifically designated as the apostle to the Gentiles, but even John says in I John 2:2 2) He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. The cross shatters the air with the message, “This is for everyone!” This is not for a select few. God did not send His son to suffer and die for a select few. It is at the cross that all vestige of human differentiation is peeled away. The cross is the great leveler and every person stands in his or her finite humanness alone and naked before God stripped bare of any supposed advantage of birth, culture, position, power, money, gender, or accomplishment. For what could ever measure up to the Son of God facing separation from His own Father for me?
The cross obliterates for all time any concept of privilege, rendering every person not Jew, Gentile, black, white, red, American, Chinese, president, peon, Ph.D., or M.D, -- no , none of these, but only one thing – sinner! That’s where we all meet regardless of whatever else we may be, we have in common that we are human and we are sinners. No one is privileged above any other. And having heard that message at the cross, we have two choices. We may leave as we came – as sinner, or we may leave redeemed. But the message is universal; it is for everyone and it demonstrates for all time that no one is privileged except through Christ. The cross removes privilege as an issue by the universal message it delivers.
2. Shown by Universal Access
Then finally, the cross removed privilege as an issue by providing universal access to God. Look at verse 18: 18) For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. There is no more going to the temple to reach God. No more animal sacrifice required on a yearly basis for atonement. No more high priest entering the Holy of Holies under pain of death for any violation. No more advantage to the Jews because the revelation is coming through them. No more special ceremony or ritual required. Now the way is wide open. The veil has been rent from top to bottom opening the place of God’s residence accessible to all once for all.
But notice the work of the entire Trinity in this process. Look again at verse 18. It is through “him” (Jesus, because of his sacrificial death) that we have access in “one Spirit” (the Holy Spirit, who when we pray intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words), all giving us access to the Father. Dear people, do you see what Christ has done for us on the cross? He has not only opened the way to God – He is the way to God. Just as He is peace. In His person He embodies all that is required to access the Father. Are you beginning to appreciate the supremacy of Christ?
Donald Gray Barnhouse tells of living in France during his student days where he pastored a little Evangelical Reformed Church in the French Alps. Once a week he went to a neighboring village for an instruction class. Always, he passed a local priest, going on a similar mission the opposite direction. They became good friends and often chatted. On one occasion he asked Barnhouse why Protestants did not pray to the saints. Barnhouse asked why we should. The priest launched into an illustration of the way one might get an interview with the president of the French Republic. One could go the Ministry of Agriculture or Department of the Interior to get an open door to the president. The priest’s triumphant smile implied the simplicity and clarity of the argument and precluded any reply. Now Raymond Poincare was President of the Republic at the time, so Barnhouse said, “But Monsiuer le Cure, suppose that I were the son of Monsieur Poincare? I am living in the Elysee with him. I get up from the breakfast table and kiss him goodbye as he goes off to this office. And now I should go down to the Ministry of the Interior for assistance in getting an audience with him?”
In Him anyone on earth can have access directly to the throne of God. It doesn’t get any better than that, Beloved, and it surely removes any alienation caused by the idea that one person or group is privileged over another. In Him, we are all ultimately privileged.
What is the bottom line on this case study for alienation? The bottom line is that we must realize that the solution is realized in the person of Jesus Christ. He first and foremost provides by means of His cross peace with God. Then secondly, we see that Jesus’ cross kills the hostility between people, so once peace with God is established, a basis has been formed for healing human relationships. The realization that none of has an advantage; none of us deserves God’s salvation; we are all equally lost in ourselves and all equally recipients of God’s grace -- that forms a bond that is unique in this world.
I read an article not long ago by an author whose cousin from Norway had recently moved to America. Surprisingly, the cousin chose not to live in the author’s largely Scandinavian area of rural Minnesota. Instead she went to New York City. Finally she paid the family a visit, and they asked her why anyone from a land of open and beautiful fjords would want to live in such a crowded urban setting. Her answer was both revealing and challenging. “You see,” she said with a gentle accent, “in Norway we have only Norwegians. But in America you have everybody!”
I pray with all my heart that in our church we will have everybody, and we will make everybody that we have feel at home. I pray that we will proceed with unity and harmony and grace realizing that every one of us has experienced the same forgiveness at the cross of Jesus. No one is superior; no one has all the answers; no one is supreme. No one but Christ our head. If we truly get that right – the rest will fall into place.