It has been said by many, and on many occasions, that being a member of the church is an inestimable privilege. But no one has said it more clearly, more emphatically, more authoritatively and more persuasively than the apostle Paul. Paul was radically moved by the power of the gospel and by that which is produced by the gospel: a new race of humanity (“third race,” as early Christians said). We call this the church. God has taken people from both genders and from every ethnicity, and while not denying their unique diversities, has formed them into one united “man”; one united race. This is the theme of Ephesians 2 and it is a theme that, though always appropriate, may in the history of South Africa be most appropriate for us today.
Perhaps you are familiar with the non-profit organisation Habitat for Humanity. This NPO builds houses in disadvantaged communities including coming to the aid of those affected by natural disasters. Since their inception, they have helped some 6.8 million people around the world, including South Africa. They describe themselves as “a non-profit, ecumenical Christian housing organization building simple, decent, affordable housing in partnership with people in need.” Their vision is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Our mission is to put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope.”
This is a wonderfully practical means of helping our society. Some two billion people worldwide live in slums, including 1.9 million informal settlements in our own country. Helping people to have a house and home is noble, and this should be encouraged. Yet helping people to have a spiritual home is far more important. And this is what the church is about. The church is made up of humans and so, in this sense, it is a habitat for humanity. But, fundamentally, the church is the dwelling place of God. The church, therefore, is the habitat of deity. Wow! That is quite a truth!
As Paul brings this chapter to a close, he is ready to clang his exegetical cymbals to a crescendo as he uses three metaphors to describe the church of Christ. Specifically, Paul speaks of the church as a kingdom, a family, and a building (a temple).
Each of these is an important designation, as we shall see. Each speaks to specific blessings of being a member of God’s new people (v. 15). But perhaps the most stupendous description of all is found in the last phrase of the last verse: “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” If for no other reason, this alone should make the believer appreciate his or her privilege.
One of the challenges of our day is the self-centred individualism that pervades society, including the church. Tribalism abounds. “Us four and no more” is the motto of many. And the result is a sense of alienation. We find ourselves feeling disconnected from others and even from our own self.
Of course, we are not the first to have experienced this—Adam and Eve have that infamous claim. When they rebelled against God, when they chose to be god rather than to live under God. They immediately died spiritually (they were separated from God), died psychologically (they were alienated within themselves) and relationally/socially (they hid from each other behind fig leaves). Not to mention that they began to die physically (the ageing process began as God cursed the creation). Following on this, we have the history of the digression of human society and it is the history of barriers: Cherubim with flaming swords guarded the entrance to Eden; murderous hatred in families quickly arose; language and eventually ethnic barriers between peoples quickly arose.
When you think about it, the history of the world really is the history of alienation. And this alienation and division holds today. Syndicated columnist (one of my favourites) Cal Thomas, recently writing about the funeral of Nancy Reagan, commented,
Former ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer observed this about Mrs. Reagan: “Unlike so many people these days, she never seemed to harden differences into definitions. She was way too interested in people and who you really were and what you really were and what you really knew.” What a contrast to what passes for political dialogue today, which is too often crass, injurious, and mean. And defining. And hardening.
“Ungodly” would be a brief and apt description.
But it is precisely right in the middle of this ugly alienation that the light of the gospel, as lived out by the church, is to shine—and to shine so brightly. This, in fact, is what Paul is laying a foundation to say (in chapter 3). The church of God, those who are citizens of the same kingdom, children of the same household, and the construction material of the same building, are to be an example to the world, not of alienation, but of reconciliation. Stott comments, “God intends his people to be a visual model of the gospel, to demonstrate before people’s eyes the good news of reconciliation.”1
When each church member comes to appreciate that they belong to a group of people inhabited by God, then the impact on those around us can be significant. This is what Jesus prayed for in John 17 and what He expects to occur.
As we bring our study of Ephesians 2 to a close, I trust that we will come away with a greater appreciation of who we are because of what God, in Christ, has done by the power of His Spirit. We call this work the gospel.
Who We Are
In vv. 19-22a, Paul details who we are as the church in Christ. He shows, as I have already said, that believers are citizens of a kingdom, members of a family, and materials in a temple.
The Who sings the song Who Are You? Roger Daltrey may not know, but the Christian should. We are the dwelling place of God. In these closing verses, Paul uses these three metaphors to drive home the truth that he has articulated concerning the unsurpassable power of God to make us a new race of people.
Introducing the Conclusion
Paul’s customary statement of summary—“now, therefore” (v. 19)—can be paraphrased, “In the light of all that I have said, what more can be said? What more should be said?” We now find out.
Paul’s theme, pretty much since 1:15, has been the remarkable, resurrecting power of the gospel. He has given to us many aspects to consider concerning the power of God and of His gospel. But the greatest display is that of God creating one new man. This involves regenerating power, reconciling power and residential power. The result is that Christians enjoy relational privilege.
Have you ever thought about the hugely tragic results of the fall of man by and into sin? So much was forfeited, so much was quite literally lost, but nothing compares to the loss of fellowship with God.
In the Genesis account, one gets the distinct impression that, daily, Adam and Eve, the first humans on the planet walked closely and intimately with God. Think about that. The Creator, the one who made everything by the breath of His mouth, was the close companion of these two. Talk about peace and security! Talk about a reason to be joyful and content! Talk about a reason to live! Eden was a dwelling place of God.
Of course, at some point, Adam and Eve lost sight of this inestimable privilege and they sinned against God. Communion and fellowship were broken. The serpent’s seduction led to the silence of God—at least for a while.
After God restored fellowship by the shedding of the blood of a sacrificial offering,2 no doubt communion occurred, but they were still barred from the previous place of relationship.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, one of the first things He did was to reveal to Moses the plans for the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with His people. Though the people nearly blew their privilege (Exodus 32), God in His grace dwelt with them anyway.
Later, Solomon would lead the nation in the building of the temple, and God would manifest His glory in a supernatural demonstration of fire devouring the sacrifices. God continued to dwell with His people.
But as wonderful as this was—and it was wonderful—nevertheless not everyone enjoyed the presence of God. The priests, and especially the high priest, had access to God, but not the ordinary Hebrew. No, ordinary Hebrews were barred from entering the temple. Further, under God’s design, this access to God was primarily the birthright of Jews and not of Gentiles. As we have noted, when Herod’s temple was built, the court of the Gentiles was a clear reminder to them that they were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenant promises and they were therefore without God in the world.
But once we turn the leaf from Malachi to Matthew, we sense that the door to the presence of God is beginning to open wider. And with the death of Jesus Christ, the veil that was a barrier to Jew and Gentile alike was removed once for all. Now, through Jesus Christ, those who repent and believe on Him are blessed to enjoy what I will call the relational presence of God. But this “relational presence” is also a residential presence. That is, the Christian is a loci of the presence of God. God by the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 22) indwells the individual Christian (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) and He indwells Christians corporately as the church (1 Corinthians 3:9–17). Paul makes this abundantly clear in this passage.
Subjects in God’s Kingdom
In v. 19, Paul argues that we are subjects in God’s kingdom: “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints.” This has deep-rooted implications for the way we are to live.
Having painted a bleak picture of their past spiritual alienation as Gentiles outside the covenant, Paul now brings in a powerful contrast as he exclaims that they are no longer spiritually disenfranchised but are rather now spiritual citizens of the kingdom of God with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. In the words of Hughes, they are now “supernaturalized”3 citizens. The terms are important.
“Strangers” translates the Greek word xenos, which speaks of those who live in a place yet are treated as outsiders and often treated with contempt. (The English word xenophobia derives from this Greek word.)
“Foreigners” refers to one who lives in a place that is not his native home—an alien, in other words. This, in fact, is what I officially am. Though I am a permanent resident in South Africa, there are some rights that do not belong to me. In some ways, I am an outsider. But I am in good company, for so it was with John Calvin in Geneva (and that is where the comparison ends!).
Yet now, Paul says, these Gentiles are “fellow citizens with the saints.” “Saints” here is a reference to the old covenant people of God—Jewish believers. And, by the way, the Jewish believers were just as much “fellow citizens” with Gentile saints. You see, by the gospel of God there is, in Christ, no longer Jew or Gentile, but rather there is one people—a whole new race of people. The church is this one new man (v. 15).
Paul does not actually use the word “kingdom,” but this would be consistent with the kingdom motif throughout Scripture. The kingdom of God is not a geographic entity (though it includes this); rather, the kingdom of God speaks of the rule of God in the heart of people. As Jesus once said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
Paul was trying to help these Gentile believers to appreciate the incredible blessing of belonging to God and being a part of what He has been doing since creation—establishing His eternal kingdom, which one day will fully come (Revelation 11:15). This kingdom is sometimes likened to a city, the city of God, which will encompass the entire earth (Revelation 21:1–4).
This is what we are to be seeking. This is where our hearts are to be invested. This is where our pursuits, and even our possessions, are to be invested (Matthew 6:33).
This has everything to do with our identity in Christ. We are the King’s kids. Don’t allow the abuse of this truth to keep you from the treasures it provides for us. We belong to the King! As Stott helpfully puts it, “Now you ‘belong’ in a way you never did before. You used to be refugees; at least now you have a home.”4 And this brings us to the next point.
Siblings in God’s Family
Paul speaks, further, of believers as “members of the household of God” (v. 19). This speaks to how we are to love.
We are members of God’s “household.” This word speaks, of course, of a family. The root word points to a house, an inhabited building. The picture, therefore, is that of a full house; a house filled with those who, by God’s grace, belong to Him—those who have been powerfully saved by Him.
Again, for a Gentile to be considered a member of the family of God—which was, historically, uniquely identified with Israel—was a radical realisation. It really went to the root of the matter that God has really formed a new man in Christ.
BBC is a community of faith. At BBC, we use that designation a lot—and rightly so. But perhaps closer to the point is that we are a family of faith. We have the same Father, and that makes us brothers and sisters.
The well-loved Gaither song points us poetically to this truth:
I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.
You will notice we say “brother and sister’ ’round here,
It’s because we’re a family and these are so near;
When one has a heartache, we all share the tears,
And rejoice in each victory in this family so dear.
From the door of an orphanage to the house of the King,
No longer an outcast, a new song I sing;
From rags unto riches, from the weak to the strong,
I’m not worthy to be here, but praise God I belong!
These lyrics serve as a wonderful summary of Ephesians 2:1–19. Do we appreciate this privilege? Are we appropriating this privilege? Are we extending this privilege? Are we seeking the growth of the family by evangelism? Are we seeking the growth of the family be hospitality?
But we must be careful here, for the family of faith is not limited to our local congregation. In fact, this passage is describing the church in more universal terms. In other words, BBC is a part of the universal household of God—the household of God that is in heaven and on earth (Hebrews 3:1–6; 10:21; 12:22–24; 1 Peter 2:5).
We must balance the tension between our responsibilities to our local household of faith and our responsibilities to the worldwide household of faith. (We will see more of this in Ephesians 4.)
We should be concerned about the members of God’s household elsewhere and, when possible, we should do what we can to help them to be a happy, healthy, because holy, family. At a recent prayer meeting at our church, one item on the prayer list was “other churches in South Africa.” As I prayed for that, I was struck by the number of churches that rolled off my tongue as I prayed. It struck me as I prayed that all is not lost in South Africa; there are a good many churches in our country that are faithful to the gospel of God. I spend time on almost a weekly basis exchanging counsel with other pastors in our country. This is important: We should do what we can, when possible, to help surrounding churches to become healthy churches.
We need to be careful about isolationism. Local churches that preach against personal individualism may at the same time become guilty of corporate individualism. We need to remember that all of those who are in Christ are members of the family of God—including Baptists, paedobaptists, charismatics, cessationists, emergents, fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, KJV-onlyists, ESV-enthusiasts, Calvinists, Reformed, Arminians, Lutherans, etc.
This is not to say that these differences are unimportant nor to minimise the significance of these differences, but it is to say that we had better be careful how we speak of our brothers and sisters.
But since we often fall off one side of the horse, only to remount to fall off the other side, let me also say that we must be careful to prioritise our own local assembly. In fact, I am persuaded that we do the most good globally, when we are the most faithful locally.
It is not healthy to be visiting from church to church to “be a blessing” and to “strengthen the bonds of fellowship” if this means that you are becoming disconnected from your family, which is closer to home.
Stones in God’s Temple
Next, Paul shows that believers are stones in God’s temple: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together” (vv. 20–22). This highlights how we are to labour.
For a Gentile to hear these words would have been unbelievable were they not inspired revelation!
Of course, as we have been repeatedly reminded, the temple was considered (erroneously) by the Jews to be exclusively for them. Though God indeed had prescribed the wall of “ordinances contained in commandments” (v. 14) that did separate Jews and Gentile, the Jews took this to unwarranted extremes when it came to the temple. The Gentiles were clearly treated as outsiders when it came to this religious structure, this appointed dwelling place of God. But Paul informs them, and us, that in Christ we are one new man who make up one new temple; a temple without ethnic distinctions.
The Construction of the Temple
This spiritual temple is constructed like a physical temple. That is, it has a foundation, a cornerstone and building blocks. And, very significantly, it has a builder.
The Plans for the Temple
As David planned and prepared for the temple that his son (Solomon) would build, so God planned from before the foundation of the world for His Son to build the temple of God (see John 2:18–22; Hebrews 3:1–6).
It is important to note that this temple, the one new man in Christ, was not a new idea. In fact, though the church was a mystery in the Old Testament, it was not a very well-kept secret! The history of the people of God under the old covenant was for the purpose of bringing to pass, under the new covenant, this glorious temple that we call the Body of Christ, the church. The idea that the church is merely a “parenthesis” in history is completely wrongheaded and misguided. In fact, it is preposterous. The temple of God, the church of God, is the result of history unfolding according to plan; according to God’s plan.
This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it helps us to realise that we are not a part of some passing fad in world history. The church is the institutional focal point of history. We are therefore justified in giving the church our time, our treasures and our talents.
The Foundation of the Temple
Any sound building must have a sound foundation. So with the church. And it has one.
The foundation is the teaching of the apostles and new covenant prophets.5 It is true that Paul says that Jesus Christ is the only foundation that can be laid (1 Corinthians 3:11) and this verse, rather than contradicting that, actually undergirds it. The apostles and prophets revealed truth and proclaimed truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. They laid the doctrinal foundation, which was Christ-centred. As Austen notes, “It is their teaching which the church is called upon to preserve, proclaim and obey. Without their teaching, God’s new humanity has no foundation.”6
The Word of God is inseparable from healthy and holy church life. If we will be the temple that enjoys the presence of God, then we must be faithful to God’s Word. In other words, we do not get to pick and choose how we want the church to be. We do not design God’s temple according to our own whims. Rather we submit to God’s revealed plans and we follow them accordingly.
The temple of Artemis may have been one of the famed wonders of the ancient world, but it was useless; it was worthless. Why? Because, fundamentally, it had nothing to do with God’s Word. We need to be careful concerning on what we build our lives, and therefore on what we build our church. If we want God’s blessings, then we must follow His inspired plans.
This is why all biblical churches share so much affinity with one another: We have the same foundation. And though the expression of the “building” may be different, nevertheless what is obvious is that we share the same faith grounded in the same foundation.
I can vividly recall, some twenty years ago, sitting in my study reading Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. As I was reading I remember thinking, “This guy is saying the same things that we have been saying.” I had never heard of or met Dever, but we were reading the same Bible and learning the same things from it.
The Cornerstone of the Temple
The cornerstone of an ancient building was vital for its strength and durability. “It denotes the stone placed at the extreme corner, so as to bind the other stones in the building together—the most important stone in the structure, the one on which its stability is dependant.”7 MacArthur notes,
The cornerstone was the major structural part of ancient buildings. It had to be strong enough to support what was built on it, and it had to be precisely laid, because every other part of the structure was oriented to it. The cornerstone was the support, the orienter, and the unifier of the entire building.8
In excavations of Herod’s temple, a cornerstone was unearthed that measured twelve metres in length. This indicates how important and foundational it was to the structure. Paul uses this metaphor to highlight that this “is what Jesus Christ is to God’s kingdom, God’s family, and God’s building.”9
The reference to Jesus as the cornerstone is from Psalm 118:22–24. Jesus used it self-descriptively in Mark 12:12. Peter spoke of Jesus as the cornerstone in Acts 4:11 and then again in 1 Peter 2:6. It is Jesus Christ who provides the stability for the church. It is Jesus who is the plumb line that enables the church to be built according to plan. He is the plan! We will see this again in chapter 4, but for now we must see and be persuaded that if a church is not centred on Jesus Christ then it has no right to be called a church of Christ. Austen summarises well, “Without it the building could not be stable and could not therefore be extended and developed. It was fundamental to the integrity of the building in the same way that Jesus is fundamental to the integrity of the church.”10
God’s temple, which He is building up, is focused on and therefore faithful to Christ Jesus the Lord—as Lord. I recently saw an advert for a church with the tag line, “Where Jesus is Lord.” My first reaction was, “Of course!” Jesus is Lord everywhere.
Verse 21 reveals this principle further by the words “in whom.” As the church remains focused on Jesus Christ it becomes more like Jesus Christ. And this is essential for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is in Jesus Christ where the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9). So, if we want to experience more of God, then we as a church need to be faithful to Christ (see John 14:21–24).
The Stones of the Temple
First Peter 2:4–7 describes Jesus as the cornerstone and believers as stones in the temple.
Every time someone is converted, every time someone is raised by the power of God from spiritual death to spiritual life, they became another brick in the wall. These bricks will be valuable, forever.
Jesus told the disciples that there was coming a day when the stones of Herod’s temple, the Jews’ pride and joy, would be torn down—every one of them. Not one would remain standing (Matthew 24:1–2). In 70 AD this is precisely what happened. That event—the Jewish Wars (66–70 AD)—was one of the most significant (and most often ignored) events in human and redemptive history. When that temple was torn down, it was all according to plan. The time had arrived for God’s judgement upon the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). But that judgement was for a greater purpose than condemnation, it was for the purpose of making room for new construction. The dead stones would be replaced with living stones: Christians. The destruction of the physical temple marked in a significant way what God was going to do throughout the rest of history—the construction of the spiritual temple, one that would last forever.
Peter picks up on this theme in his first epistle. This is a rich passage, which requires more space than we have allotted, but we should not miss the point that each stone in this temple is selected and sculptured and “fitted” just as God sees fit. Each stone is considered by God as precious. Foulkes comments, “In Christ all that is built into the edifice ‘is joined together.’ All find their true place and function in relation to Christ and as they are built into him.”11 We should therefore be careful how we treat each other, including how we treat those who may serve the body as kidney stones!
Jews and Gentiles, male and female, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, dark or light—each is a stone in the temple that is to be honoured because each has been chosen and changed by the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Builder of the Temple
Note these important words: “built on” (v. 20); “being joined together” (v. 21); “are being built together” (v. 22).
The natural question is, who is doing the building? The text does not say, but if you look carefully at this chapter the answer is all over the place: God! And because God is doing the building it “grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21).
Boice summarises, “Believers are mortared together with Christ, as God the architect through his workmen, the preachers of the gospel, builds his church.”12
I will not belabour the point, but Jesus did say that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). This provides great comfort to us that indeed all will go according to plan—His plan, that is.
I was recently asked by a pastor for some advice concerning planting a church. I told him that it is the same advice that I would give to any pastor: pray, persevere and preach. We are called to do all three and to leave the results with God.
Christian, we are part of the plan. We are part of a perfect plan. We are part of a predestined plan. We are part of a guaranteed plan. So make the most of your opportunities to get in on this plan. Let us be faithful to live like the church to the glory of God, trusting Him for its growth.
What We Are
Paul has made it clear who we are: subjects of God’s kingdom, siblings in God’s family, and stones in God’s temple. But as he brings this chapter to a close, he tells us precisely what we are: the dwelling place of God—“ a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22).
In fact, all Paul has said points to the goal, which is “that the church should become God’s residence.”13 As Salmond notes, “Union with Christ, life in the Spirit—this explained what they were; this meant that they, as well as other Christian bodies, were being built up so as to be a habitation of God.”14
We have touched on this already, but let this phrase sink deep into your psyche: You are “a dwelling place of God by [in] the Spirit.” Paul’s emphasis here is the church corporate rather than the individual Christian. God dwells in the Brackenhurst Baptist Church—not, of course, in the building but in the body of BBC.
In the earlier days, under the old covenant, as God moved, so did the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34–38). In a sense, under the new covenant, God moves as the church does. Now, of course, we want to be careful about this. But the fact remains that, if our congregation moved premises, if we moved geographically, so would this particular local dwelling place of God. Practically speaking, this is the case. And it is practical in its implications and applications.
Do others get the sense of the presence of God when they are in our midst (see 1 Corinthians 14:23–25). We have a massive privilege, coupled with a massive responsibility. How are we doing?
Do we enjoy this privilege? Are we humbled by it? Are we motivated to holiness by it Practically, we must avoid both a ruinous isolation and relational alienation.
Are we taking seriously our responsibility to make the most of this privilege. Are we demonstrating the power of the gospel to reconcile? Are we living and loving like we are indwelt by God? Perhaps the ones best poised to answer this question are those who are observing us.
I recently heard of someone in the community, by her own profession one who has never considered church membership a priority of any description, telling one of our church members that what she has seen in our church has started to convert her in this direction. Our members have been involved in the community in a way that she has witnessed, and that ministry has started to convert her.
Christian, if you are not a member of a local church, then you are a disconnected and dysfunctional member of the church at large. You need help. So be an obedient subject of God’s kingdom, behave like a loving sibling of God’s family, and fulfil your purpose of being a living stone in God’s temple. Or as Stott says, “You are no longer the aliens you were, but the kingdom over which God rules, the family which he loves and the temple in which he dwells.”15 Let’s live like it.
Christian, if you are a member of a local church, then make much of this privilege. Prioritise the church, serve the church, persevere with the church, pray with the church and support the teaching and preaching of the church by obeying God’s Word. As each member does so, we will increasingly enjoy the experience of knowing and showing God.
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 111. ↩
- Note that death, while did enter the world, by God’s grace it did not fall on those deserving it. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 96. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 104. ↩
- The order of these words, along with 3:5, make it clear that these are not old covenant prophets. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 93. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:300. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 82–83. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 83. ↩
- Austen, Teaching Ephesians, 93. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 94. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 93. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:42. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 3:301. ↩
- Stott, The Message to Ephesians, 110. ↩