“Modern progress has made the world a neighbourhood and God has given [the church] the task of making it a brotherhood.”1 Those words by Sir Philip Gibbs are a wonderful summary of the contents of Ephesians 2:11–22. And perhaps the timing of our study of this passage could not be any more apropos.
Division is everywhere in nearly every sphere: religious, ethnic, economic, political, educational, vocational, generational and a host of other areas. Division is a fact of life. Often, this division is hostile. The recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Jacob Zuma was a case in point.
SONA 2015 was certainly another low point in South African history. Anyone watching would have felt a huge sense of shame and embarrassment for the nation. The hostile disrespect—on several fronts—was unsettling. It served as a reminder of the deep disharmony that pervades our society and the need for help beyond ourselves. South Africa needs the gospel. And, I might add, many of our churches do too.
Lamentably, division and disharmony, even hostility, sometimes characterise churches. Sometimes such ugliness dwells within local churches. I recall speaking to an estate agent in 1990, who told me that he was an elder in his church, but who told me that his church’s policy was “no blacks allowed.” How shameful! Such an attitude is inexcusable, unconscionable and ungodly. I would go so far as to suggest that it may reveal an unregenerate heart. In Ephesians 2:11–22 Paul makes these very points as he emphasises that, in Christ, a whole new race of man has been formed. We call this the Body of Christ, the church. As John Stott describes, “Jesus has succeeded in creating a new society, in fact a new humanity, in which alienation has given way to reconciliation, and hostility to peace.”2
In this study, we will take a bird’s-eye view of this passage, highlighting its theme: the “one new man” that God has formed in His church (v. 15). There are three emphases in this statement: “one,” which highlights unity; “new,” which speaks of something completely, essentially different in comparison; and “man,” which points to the new race of persons, one that looks like the last Adam, the second man from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a huge theme, which will take serious reflection and should result in radical changes in our life—as well as in our world.
Again, it would be understatement to say that we live in a nation and a world that is divided. Ethnic divisions in South Africa have sadly become increasingly apparent over the past few months, as have political and economic schisms. There is not a lot of “feeling the love” in our country. Sadly, it is what it is. Yet, thankfully, it will not always be so. And the church will be the instrument through which God will do away with the division and replace it with unity—true unity.
We will approach this passage under several headings.
What We Need to Remember
First, in vv. 11–13, Paul urges us to remember what we were and what God has done to put us where we are.
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
The word “therefore” commences another long paragraph in this epistle (see 1:3–14; 1:15–23; 2:1–10).
This opening word connects with the concluding theme of the immediately preceding paragraph: God’s “workmanship” or Masterpiece (v. 10), His “one new man,” the church of God composed of Jew and Gentile; those once both alienated from God and from each other.
God’s masterpiece includes individuals and their individual works. That must never be denied. Yet the emphasis on these individual works is corporate in nature. In other words, God’s glorious masterpiece, which He is even now sculpting, is the “one new man” of which Paul speaks in v. 15. We call this the church.
The church is “one new man” in the sense that it is neither Gentile nor Jewish. That is, it defies superficial ethnic distinctions. In fact, it defies any and all the distinctions that we seem to find so important in our world. It is for this reason that the church is such a unique work of God. It really is a remarkable, and is to be a mesmerising masterpiece (3:4–6). This is the point which Paul is making here in these twelve verses.
Paul’s emphasis is how God has reconciled man to man (Luke 2:14) by reconciling man to Himself. To drive this point home Paul reminds the Gentiles what they were (v. 11), where they were (v. 12) and where they now are (v. 13).
John MacArthur helpfully writes, “Nothing more inspires gratitude in a saved sinner than a look back to the pit from which he has come.”3 This is no doubt why Paul begins this section with this very important “therefore.” Paul wants to remind these Christians (particularly Gentile Christians) to remember what they were so that they will more deeply appreciate what they now are. Arnold Mol has written a book about Christian growth titled, Becoming What You Are. This is in essence what Paul is doing here. And he knows that reminding them of where they have come from will help them to get to where they need to be.
Remember What You Were
Paul begins by urging his readers to, “remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands” (v. 11).
The word “you” is emphatic and serves the purpose of highlighting a distinction between Gentile and Jew in order to blow away that distinction.
It was important for the Gentile believers of Ephesus, as well as their Jewish brethren, to remember what and where they were in order that they might more fully appreciate the deep unity that God had accomplished in His new household (v. 19). Such remembrance was necessary in order to help them to live out this amazing unity, in the midst of their diversity. The same holds for you and me in 2016. As each of us remembers the pit from which we were rescued, as each of us lives daily reminded of the glorious place where we now dwell—in Christ—unity will mark our community of faith.
In vv. 1–10 Paul described the horrible condition of all of those who are outside of Christ: spiritually dead, satanically deceived, self-centredly driven and seriously damned. “But God who is rich in mercy because of His great love with which He loved us … made us alive together with Christ.” By grace, God saves sinners (vv. 1–5). What Paul says in the opening paragraph of the chapter was true of Jew and Gentile. But in this paragraph it is clear that Paul is focusing, at least at first, on the Gentile Christians and their unique predicament before they were saved.
Of course, before conversion, Jews and Gentiles are equally alienated from God. They are at enmity with Him. Regardless of ethnicity, both groups need to be reconciled to God. In the words of Paul, spiritually, “there is no difference” (Romans 3:22). Yet there was a difference, ethnically. And, by God’s design, this was significant.
“Gentiles,” of course, is a term that distinguishes the nations from the Jewish nation. God made this distinction. There was nothing genetically different, yet God chose to separate one nation from the rest. God is the author of diversity.
This separation was religious, political and social—in almost every way. And, of course, this was by God’s design. The separation was signified by circumcision.
God separated Abraham from the rest and promised a separate land for his progeny. He separated the Jews from all other nations by “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (v. 15). Exodus 19:5–6 shows how God separated Israel particularly from the other nations as His special people. The distinction was highlighted by religious (“cultic”) laws, marital laws, dietary laws, fashion laws, land laws, and a host of other laws peculiar to Israel as a nation (see Deuteronomy 4:1–8).
This, of course, was God’s prerogative, and God’s plan of redemption included Gentiles (Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, Ninevites, etc.). But Israel was the vehicle, the instrument through which Messiah would come. Therefore, God separated Israel from the Gentiles in every way as a means to preserve them. Even their slaughter of pagan nations was for the ultimate redemptive purpose of saving pagans.
This separation, of course, produced hostility between Jew and Gentile. The sinfulness of those from both groups produced further alienation and hostility between the groups.
From the Gentile side, envy and a sense of being threatened produced hostility that often overflowed into murderous assaults (e.g. the slaughter of innocents under Pharaoh and Herod; the murderous attempts of Naaman in the book of Esther).
However, from the Jewish side, the alienation and hostility was also sinfully fuelled. Let me explain.
What was a gracious privilege unfortunately became an arrogant assertion. Generally speaking, the Jewish nation became puffed up. They lost sight of God’s clear statement that they were God’s chosen nation solely because of His grace (Deuteronomy 7:6–11). The consequences then became very ugly. Self-righteousness always is.
It is clear from both biblical and secular history that the Jewish people in the latter days BC and early days AD felt largely nothing but contempt for Gentiles. Some Jews believed that God created the Gentiles as fuel for hell. Many believed that God loved Israel and hated every other nation. Consequently, some Jewish women refused to help a non-Jewish woman give birth, because to do so would make them responsible for bringing another despised Gentile into the world.
Of course, within such an ugly context, it is small wonder that there was deep hostility between the two ethnicities.
This is so sad when you consider that one reason God chose Israel was so that she would serve as a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6).
One area of particular application in South Africa’s current political climate, and sometimes in other settings, is the ugliness of name calling. Hostility is often expressed by name calling, and Paul alludes to this in v. 11.
The term “uncircumcised” was one of contempt used by Jews towards Gentiles. David, for example, spoke of Goliath as “this uncircumcised Philistine” in 1 Samuel 17:26.
But Paul also makes the important point that this is completely unjustified because, after all, true circumcision is of the heart and not merely of the flesh (Romans 2:25–29).
He drives home the very real—and ugly—hostility between Jew and Gentile in order to highlight the glorious healing power of the gospel to reconcile man to man.
Name-calling has an ugly history in our own nation. It is fine to have laws to guard against such open disrespect but laws will not change hearts. Only the gospel as the ability to end hate speech once and for all.
Remember Where You Were
In v. 12 Paul reminds his audience of where they were: “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” They were cut off; not only separated, but also alienated.
Paul now points to several historical disadvantages of the Gentiles before their conversion.
They were, in the first place, Christless; they were “without Christ.” Jesus Christ was not on their horizon as He was for the Jews (via sacrifices, prophecies, etc.). They had no Messianic expectation. “For the Gentiles, history was going nowhere. There was no Messiah, no hope. This is the way it is today also, apart from Christ.”4
Second, they were stateless—“aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.” The term “aliens” speaks of being outsiders. It “expresses generally the idea of being a stranger as contrasted with one who is at home with a person or an object.”5 “Commonwealth” speaks of a state or political entity. Though, of course, Gentiles were citizens of nations, they were not a part of the theocracy of Israel. They were, in a sense, disenfranchised.
Third, the Gentiles were aimless and friendless. They were “strangers from the covenants of promise.” Because God had not made a covenant with them to be their God and they to be His people—because they were not in a covenanted relationship with God anticipating the promises of Messiah—they were, in a real sense, aimless, because in a very real sense, they were friendless. Chapell helpfully comments, “The covenants of promise were not only the basis of Israel’s relationship to God, but also the social glue that united neighbours, worship communities, and families. To be foreigners to the covenants of promise was to live without intimacy in community, worship, and family.”6
Fourth, the Gentiles were formerly hopeless. They were characterised as “having no hope.” This almost goes without saying, but Paul says it nonetheless. He wants them to appreciate that, because they did not share in the spiritual legacy bequeathed to the Jews, they were basically hopeless in this world. As Salmond comments, “It is not only that they had not the hope, the Messianic hope which was one of the distinctions of the Israelite, but that they were utterly without hope. Ignorant of the Divine salvation and of Christ in whom it was found, they had nothing to hope for beyond this world.”7 After all, if you are not in a covenant relationship with God you have nothing to live for but to eat, drink and be merry before you die and face the judgement. This is a bad place to be.
Fifth, they were formerly godless—“without God in the world.” This language can refer to any of three possibilities: ignorance of God, denial God, forsaken by God. In a real sense, of course, all three would be true of those who are Christless, lawless, aimless and hopeless. Such is the composite of one who is godless.
We can add one more phrase that describes the horrible predicament of these Gentiles before the dispensation ushered in by Jesus Christ: they were homeless; they were “far off” (v. 13). In fact, this phrase summarises their deplorable condition. They were basically homeless in this world.
The phrase “far off” was used to speak of one who was distant from Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was the city of God, to be outside of it was to be without a true spiritual home. It was, perhaps, the ultimate statement of spiritual alienation.
All of this once characterised the Gentiles. “But now…” (v. 13).
Remember Where You Are
Paul continues: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). The songwriter put it well: “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought, since Jesus came into my heart.”
Though at one time they were “far off,” now Gentiles had been “brought near.” The Greek tense speaks of an ongoing, continuous reality.
God, in His grace, had saved them by the blood of Jesus and they now had Christ and had purpose and aim in their life. They were now lawful and hopeful and godly. They no longer denied God, for they knew God and, most importantly, they were known by God (Galatians 4:9).
As they remembered where they had come from, they would appreciate that they now truly belonged. But so would the Jewish believers. Paul is not only saying this for the sake of the Gentiles; this is instead a double-sided argument. God clearly sees no difference between believing Gentiles and believing Jews. And such a corporate embracing of this truth would go a long way towards healing of any existing or potential division.
What We Need to Know
In vv. 14–16, Paul tells his readers what they need to know: The material cause of disunity has been annulled—manward and Godward.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.
The significance of the opening verses of this paragraph now become apparent as Paul drives home, in more specific terms, the huge change, the culturally cataclysmic change, that the gospel has wrought between Jew and Gentile. Paul wanted the Ephesians to know this, and God wants us to know it too.
Specifically, God wants us to know that, in Christ, all superficial distinctions fall away. And they fall away because, in Christ, God is creating a new man—one new man. (cf. 4:17; 4:24; Colossians 3:10, 12).
But the change was not merely cultural and cultic; it was fundamentally a spiritual change, a change of relationship between God and man—both between God and Gentiles and between God and Jews.
We need to know three things.
Jesus Has Removed Animosity
First, we need to know that Jesus has removed animosity: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (vv. 14–15).
This particular passage helps us to appreciate the hugely counter-cultural effect of the gospel in the ancient world, and what God expects of the church with this gospel in our world. God expects the healing of unjustifiable division.
The construction of the temple, particularly Herod’s temple, is testimony to the animosity between Jew and Gentile. This may be what Paul is referring to in v. 14.
The temple was designed as a place of worship for all nations. The Scriptures are clear that it was to be the place where worshippers would gather from all nations; it was for Jew and converted Gentile alike (Isaiah 56:7; Matthew 21:13). Sadly, this instrument of gospel grace was also perverted by self-righteous behaviour, and the temple became the ultimate edifice of spiritual apartheid.
In Jesus’ day, there was a court known as the court of the Gentiles, which was a clear statement of the separation and alienation that existed between these two groups of people in the ancient world. It literally stood as a barrier between Jew and Gentile. An inscription has been unearthed from that time, written in both Greek and Latin, which reads, “No one of another nation to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple. And whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.”8 This is hardly welcoming to worshippers from foreign nations.
Paul, in fact, experienced this alienation when he was falsely accused of having violated this very law (Acts 21:26–29). He was accused of having taken Trophimus, an Ephesian Gentile, into the temple. It is no doubt significant that Trophimus is said by Luke to have been a Gentile. Clearly, the Ephesian Gentile believers were very aware of the hostility of which Paul here speaks.
One other historical point of reference: It is clear that there were a considerable number of Jewish people and Jewish Christians in Ephesus (Acts 18:24–28; 19:1–10, 13, 17). The point is that, in both the wider culture and within the Ephesian church itself, ethnic tensions were present. Therefore, Paul writes to instruct these Christians to live differently—to live as Christians, as God’s “workmanship” (v. 10).
Jesus Has Remade a New Humanity
Second, we need to know that Jesus has made a new humanity. He has broken down the wall of partition “so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace” (v. 15). We will develop this in future studies, but let’s note a couple of practical truths.
First, there is no place for ethnic discrimination in the church. The reason is simple: The church is a fundamental new and different race of men.
“Racism” is a useless word, for everyone who is in Adam belongs to the same race: the human race. Yet, in another sense, there are in fact two races: those in Adam and those in Christ. And those who are in the latter race do not look down on those who are still in Adam; rather, as Paul highlights, we desire for all to be brought into the race of this “one new man.” Love, not hatred, recognises the two races.
If we are Christians, then our relationships with other Christians is to be at the same time both homogenous and not homogenous. That is, our church and our relationships are not to be limited to sameness of ethnicity and other demographic issues. Sadly, much church planting violates this in seeking to plant homogenous churches. But, in fact, any church should both reflect the diversity of its community and make efforts to break through a mono-ethnic congregation.
On the other hand, because Christians are part and parcel of God’s “one new man,” there will be a homogenous characteristic about us. We call this love. This love will manifest itself in serving one another, forgiving one another, ministering to one another, forbearing with one another, teaching one another and admonishing one another. In short, we will work with one another in such a way that we grow more fully into this “new man” (4:13–16).
Chapell summarises it well: “My identity is no longer fixed by my birth, determined by my heritage, or spoiled by my sin, but is renewed, transformed, and reborn by my Saviour’s blood.”9
Second, though there is no place for discrimination in the church, we are at the same time to celebrate diversity in the church. Unity does not require uniformity (see Revelation 5:8–10; 7:9–10). Thabiti Anyabwile illustrates the principle with reference to the All Star Football Team, which is a team comprised of the best players from different teams in the league. When the All Star team plays, each player wears his own team jersey, but the team works together for the common cause of winning the game. No player loses his identity, but there is wonderful, victorious unity in the midst of diversity.
Jesus Has Reconciled the Hostility
Third, we see that Jesus has reconciled the hostility: He has done this all in order “that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (v. 16).
John Stott writes, “The grand theme of Ephesians 2 is that Jesus Christ has destroyed both enmities.”10 Paul is referring to the hostility, not merely between Jew and Gentile, but fundamentally to the hostility between man and God. It is this hostility that is the source of all other hostility.
Paul here tells us that both Jew and Gentile were hostile to God. With or without circumcision, man in his sin is an enemy of God. Yet Jesus Christ by His cross work has literally killed this hostility for all who will believe the gospel. When Jesus was crucified, so was the hostility between me and God. How hypocritical then for me at enmity with another!
We need to realise and reckon and respond to the reality that the healing of divisions will only come about through the Prince of Peace. The gospel is the only hope for the healing of divisions. So preach it. And practice its implications. Diplomacy will never be a full solution to end hostility. As MacArthur comments, “‘Peace’ comes only when self dies, and the only place self truly dies is at the foot of Calvary.”11
What We Need to Do
Paul next makes the point, in vv. 17–18, that we are to do something: to preach and practice the gospel. “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (vv. 17–18). We need to do what God expects for us to do, which is to preach the gospel.
Jesus Christ is the one who reconciles. He is the only one who gives a home to the homeless and peace where there was enmity. And just as He came and preached this message of wholeness, this hope-filled message of shalom, so he does today through His emissaries: Christians such as you and me. It is the gospel that make the difference.
We see this played out in Acts. In Acts 2, the gospel resulted in communal care as the church corporately sacrificed to meet the needs of the body at large. In Acts 6, the gospel resulted in counter-cultural selflessness when seven Gentile men were selected to serve widows in the church. In Acts 13, we see the gospel resulting in colour-blindness as the text mentions a very ethnically diverse leadership in the church at Antioch. The gospel made a difference.
Finally, not only are we to preach this gospel, but we are to pray together because of and for the gospel. Verse 18 makes it clear that both Gentile and Jew have been introduced to God by the Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by the Holy Spirit into the throne room of God where we make our praises and petitions known.
What a beautiful and culture-defying scene it is when believers—different in many ways—kneel together in prayer, and sing and listen together in worship, and work together for the spread of the gospel and the making of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The chaos in parliament during SONA was a revelation to me of the work that we have to do in South Africa concerning the Great Commission. If our president and Julius Malema were Christians, we would not have witnessed what we did the other night.
If you and I believe, and behave like we believe, then division in our homes will be healed. If you and I believe, and behave like we believe, then divisions in our congregation will be healed. If you and I believe, and behave like we believe, then much ethnic disharmony and its ugly hostility will be put to death.
What We Are to Value
Finally, in vv. 19–22, Paul shows us what we are to value: God’s dwelling place, the “one new man” (i.e. the church).
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
If you have been following me thus far, it will be clear that what we are to value is this “one new man,” which here is likened further to a citizenship, to a household, to a temple: the dwelling place of God. Austen is correct when he writes, “The reconciliation of sinners to the creator God through the Lord Jesus cannot be separated from what it means to be the church.”12 And Foulkes strengthens this assertion when he comments, “The purpose of Christ’s work for human salvation is not limited to the giving of new life to individual men and women, previously dead in sin…. It involves the bringing of those individuals, whatever their race or background, into unity in the people of God.”13 The church is the entity that God uses to exalt His work of reconciliation. Certainly we must value it.
We recently examined the biblical teaching about the sanctity of life and concluded that every human being carries the the image of God. For this reason, every human being is to treated with dignity. But there are individuals whom God has designated as having a measure of dignity that transcends even this: those who compose God’s new man, the church of the living God, the Body of Christ. Let that sink in.
The church of Jesus Christ is the dwelling place of God. This is a unique privilege that is reserved for those whom God by His grace has saved. Yes, those who are Christians are special. God sees us as His children and as the apple of His eye. Jesus Christ view us as His Bride, for which He willingly laid down His life. He did not die for us because we are special, but His dying for us is what makes us special. We do not boast in any worthiness on our part, but rather we boast in God alone. Nevertheless, we must never diminish what God so highly values. The church, the “new man,” is very unique. And so we are to appropriately value it—every part of it.
This is why this passage seems, at least to me, to be especially relevant at this time in world history, and particularly in South African history. The church is to be a witness in and to our culture of what the gospel can do in an otherwise broken world (2:7; 3:8–9). Unity—truly God-honouring, Christ-centred, Spirit-empowered unity—is to mark our community of faith. There is to be no ethnic or any other kind of demographic divide. Rather, those who observe us are to see something very odd; they are to see, in the words of our text, not Jew nor Gentile, but rather a new man. And who is this new man? His name is Jesus Christ. That is who the world is to see. That is why the new covenant church is called the Body of Christ.
So, church member, are you fulfilling your responsibility? There is a radio advert that asserts, “Demand your rights, be aware of your responsibilities.” In fact, it is precisely because people demand their rights that our society is in the mess it is in. Instead, let me suggest that we should be aware of our rights but fulfil our responsibilities. As you are focused on fulfilling your responsibilities, you will likely no longer find yourself so obsessed with your rights.
If we are Christians, then our church—corporately comprised of Christians—will be an anomaly in the world. And that is precisely what we are called to be (John 13:35; 17:20–26; cf. v 15). Again, though the world today is considered a “global village,” the task of the church is to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ among all nations, with a view to making the world one big family: from merely a neighbourhood into a brotherhood. This is not pie-in-the-sky; it is rather where history is heading and where one day we will be. Believe this and behave like it.
- John F. MacArthur Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 66. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 93. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 70. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 89. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:292. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 97. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 3:292. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 89. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 102. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 92. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 76. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 87. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 86. ↩