Recently, South Africa’s State President, Jacob Zuma, implored parliament, and the country at large, “Let us not emphasise the colour, let us emphasise us being South Africans. We should all stand up against racism and be united.”
On Friday, the ANC led a March Against Racism. The ruling party said that the Freedom Charter on which the party was founded called for an end to all discrimination and to all forms of racism, across the board. This, of course, is a welcomed call for unity in our nation.
On the other side of the pond, two candidates seeking the presidency of the United States, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, addressed the predominately black congregation of Victory Missionary Baptist Church in the state of Nevada. From the report I read, each attempted to outdo the other in demonstrating how black Americans would fare much better under their administration if they are elected president. To me, it seemed like nothing but crass and shameless politicising of what is otherwise a very serious issue: systemic racism. And so we have been exposed to two nations, on opposite sides of the world, addressing the age old problem of hostility between peoples.
But, practically, how will such barriers be overcome? By political will? By people’s goodwill? No. There is only one way, and that is through the proclamation and the believing of the gospel of God. After all, as John MacArthur comments, “It is a part of sinful human nature to build barriers that shut out other people.”1 And as Paul reveals, such barriers can only be removed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:13). The blood of Jesus Christ is stronger than any and all barriers produced by sinful man.
Unfortunately, Christians, who should hold tenaciously to this truth, and therefore who should be at the forefront of proclaiming, practicing and promoting reconciliation, often respond unhelpfully.
On one hand, there have been many who have advised “patience” while endorsing the status quo. It was such advice by white pastors in the American south that led Martin Luther King to pen one of the most brilliant pieces of literature: Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This was a several-page letter, written longhand by Dr King as he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, jailed for basically no other reason than the fact that his skin was black.
In his letter, Dr King voiced his concern that people kept telling him, and those he represented, to be “patient” while their civil rights, protected by the constitution, were being openly trampled on.
Many of those pastors argued that over time, as the gospel was preached, hearts would change and there would be more open equality among the races. Until then, Dr King and his fellow protesters should be “patient” and stop “agitating.” Though there was much truth in this (the advancement of the gospel and its reconciliatory fruit will happen over time), nevertheless these pastors were failing to practice the implications of the gospel in their own churches. Their congregations practiced sinful segregation. Dr King, rightly so, I think, rejected, such otherwise pietistic counsel.
On the other hand, there are those who have no patience with either the gospel or with the church (as it is) and so they more militantly pursue social justice. In fact, Martin Luther King had to take a stand against this group as well. He often found himself between a rock and a hard place.
Years ago, I was speaking at a conference hosted at s particular conference centre in Johannesburg. At the same time, the South African Communist Party (SACP) Youth League was holding its meeting at the same venue. Over lunch one day I struck up a conversation with one of the young men from the SACP, who told me that he blamed Christianity for much of the hostility between South Africans. I gave him a New Testament and urged him to read it, assuring him that, while it may be true that churches historically exacerbated race hate in our country, he would find such hostility incompatible with the Bible and therefore with biblical Christianity.
Nevertheless, division persists. So what is the answer? What is the solution to ethnic disharmony? What is the answer to the evil and ugly barriers that man, in sin, constructs between people and between peoples? We find the solution in Ephesians 2:11–22.
In this passage, Paul reveals that it is the blood of Jesus Christ that is able to cure the world of what ails it: hostility. The cross of the Lord Jesus Christ proves that blood is thicker than hatred. The blood of Christ is stronger than the sinful barriers of man.
Previously, we took a bird’s-eye view of this passage. We concluded that, in Christ Jesus, all superficial distinctions fall away as, through the gospel, He creates something completely different, a whole new race, which Paul calls “one new man” (v. 11; see 4:17, 24).
There is much here for our edification, and so we dare not rush our study of this great passage. We don’t want to miss the wood for the trees. And with reference to the divisions in our society, we want to be very careful.
We want to guard against superficial solutions (like the pietistic patience advised by those who seemingly were happy with their status quo).
We want to guard against simply trying to conform to the political correctness of our culture. In fact, the church should be leading the way in this rather than taking our cues from the political climate.
We want to guard against minimising the instrumental means that God has provided to confront such divisions: namely, the gospel and that which is to steward that gospel: the local church. This will be our focus in our studies.
In this study, we will consider this truth under three headings. May this help us to behave like the one new man we are.
The Presence of Prejudice
First, in v. 11, Paul reminds his readers of the presence of prejudice: “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” (v. 11).
We live in a divided world. We live in a world of the haves and the have-nots. And this tempts people to sinful division. We see this in v. 11.
The approach to overcoming this reality is to confront it, to confess it and to crush it.
We Must Confront the Reality of Barriers
The Bible is an honest book. In fact, it is because it is so honest that, like Jesus, it is often despised and rejected. When Paul begins to speak about the unity that believers share in Christ, he does not shy away from the historic reality of the horrific hostility between these believers before experiencing an entirely new identity through the gospel.
The passage begins with the word “therefore.” This conjunction connects what is about to be said with what has just been said. Paul has just shown us the masterpiece (“workmanship,” v. 10) that God produces in Christ through the gospel. “Therefore” exhorts us to marvel at the masterpiece that God is producing: a diverse, yet unified, people.
Paul urges us to “remember” this masterpiece and what it means for division. This word is often used in a covenantal sense, particularly when it has reference to God. God never forgets, but when He “remembers,” He acts in covenantal faithfulness.
We need to remember the covenantal connection of the community that we participate in. In other words, we were one thing, but we are now another thing. “The remembrance of that past will make them more thankful for their present privilege, and more careful to walk in the good works which God has in view for them.”2 The covenant of grace has made the difference.
Paul contrasts Gentiles “in the flesh” with “what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh.” He appears here to be using sanctified sarcasm. His use of “in the flesh” makes the point that, in the end, physical distinctions are merely physical. These distinctions are not determinative. They do not assign value. Be careful how you judge others.
Note that Paul does not shy away from acknowledging the ethnic barriers that had been, and still were, in existence. This is always a very important step toward the healing of division: recognizing historical barriers. We must face up to the reality of hostility between people and between peoples. Merely glossing over the issue is not helpful. We must begin by confronting it.
My mother was recently visiting our family from America. During her time here, we visited—I for the first time–the Apartheid Museum. It was a moving and eye-opening experience for me. I strongly advise people to visit it in order to expose themselves to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.3
Before advancing much further, let me make a pastoral observation: Until you acknowledge the reality of division, there is little likelihood of reconciliation. This is true fundamentally concerning our relationship with God, and it is equally true concerning our relationships with others. Redemption involves recognition, repentance and reconciliation.
We should also note that this truth applies beyond the issue of ethnocentrism. There may be division in our homes and even within our church families that need to be confronted with the healing balm of the gospel.
We Must Confess the Reality of Barriers
Paul makes clear in this verse that name-calling was in abundance on both sides of the barrier. The problem was not that there were differences; the problem was that those differences became sinful barriers. In fact, the name calling was itself a barrier. Paul does not gloss over the ugly truth. In a sense, he includes himself as a former guilty party to this ethnic hostility. In fact, he seems to put most of the blame upon those who were at one time the most privileged (see v. 12). Let me explain.
Paul’s use of the word “called” is pointed. At first, he highlights the arrogant name-calling by the Jews towards Gentiles. Their use of “Uncircumcision” was said with a bite. It was caustic and, by the way, not fully true. The fact is that many Gentile nations practiced circumcision—not, however, for the purpose that God instituted it for Israel. God intended the circumcision of His people to be a sign of their covenant relationship with Him, a relationship that was to include the circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6). But Paul takes an honest dig at this when he speaks of his fellow Jews as merely “called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands.” He is bringing to light not only the very real hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles but also the ungodliness of those who boasted in their privilege. He is especially highlighting the sinful hostility of the Jews towards the Gentiles. They cannot escape the charge. They must acknowledge and humbly confess their sin of ethnocentric hostility.
For the church to make progress in the removal of sinful barriers between peoples, confession of such sin needs to be made. This is the task of the church as individuals, and in some cases it calls for corporate confession as well.
But this brings us to the next and very important consideration. What is to motivate such confession? Is it merely to be politically correct or is it gospel driven? This makes all the difference in the world. It makes all the difference to the world as well.
We Must Crush the Relational Barriers
This is the heart of the matter; it is precisely where Paul is heading in his argument: ethnicity, socioeconomics, gender, and any other distinctions, are annihilated in Christ, by Christ, as we are formed into an entirely new race of men. Kent Hughes helpfully observes, “Jesus didn’t Christianize the Jews or Judaize the Gentiles. He didn’t create a half breed. He made an entirely new man.”4 We call this the church.
When Jesus came to crush the serpent’s head, He also crushed the enmity that existed between God and those whom He came to save (2 Corinthians 5:21). Further, the Lord Jesus Christ also crushed Satan’s sinful inventions, including hostility between man and man, between person and person, between peoples and peoples. Jesus is still doing this (Romans 16:20). His chosen means to do so is this one new man: the church.
The church is called to labour to conquer, to overcome, to crush the hostility in this world. And when I say “church” I mean the gospel-saturated, gospel-intoxicated, gospel-confident and gospel-proclaiming church.
Think of it this way: Adam was the first man, and he failed to crush the serpent when he had every opportunity to do so. The result is that he himself was crushed. The consequence was hostility toward God and hostility between people. Adam and Eve his from each other. Cain killed Abel.
But then the Last Adam came to earth and, rather than being crushed, His heel was merely bruised. That same heel then crushed the head of the serpent as He died on the cross, offering up a God-satisfying substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of sinners. As someone has said, the slain became the slayer.
Those whom He has saved are now “in” the Last Adam. The “one new man” to whom we are united is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. This is our identity. We are intimately in union with this Man who is a sin crusher. The “one new man” is, quite literally, the body of Christ. And this body has a powerful heel, one that is able to crush the evil serpent and all of the evil division that he has brought into this world.
In summary, the church is the means by which the cruel sin of division is brought to an end. Sinful barriers, the sinful way in which we view other people, is brought to a crushing end through the power of the gospel of Christ. We are to preach it and to practice its implications (see 2 Corinthians 5:14–21).
The Providence of Privileges
In v. 12, Paul highlights the providence of privilege. He writes to his largely Gentile audience: “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” (v. 12).
He shows the Gentile Christians that they were at one point without access to Christian privileges. In order to appreciate the power of the blood, they needed to appreciate the peril of their condition. So must we. “The Gentile dilemma (which is the world’s dilemma) produces alienation from God and alienation from man with all its dehumanizing and debilitating results.”5
Understanding the Barriers
We need to appreciate the astounding, revolutionary nature of what Paul was writing about when he penned these words. We need to try and appreciate the deep hostility that was almost palpable between Jew and non-Jew (Gentile) in the first century; and long before it. The hostility was on both sides.
Three key words in v. 12 point to the barrier that existed between Jew and Gentile, a barrier that, humanly, seemed impossible to overcome. These words are “without,” “aliens” and “strangers.”
“Without” speaks of an absence. It speaks of being separate. It connotes being on one’s own, being alone. Paul identifies particularly what he means when he says that the Gentiles were “without Christ.” They were separate from Christ. What does this mean? It means that they had no expectation of the Messiah in the same sense that the Jews had. The entire purpose for the nation of Israel was to carry Christ into the world. The Israelites carried the promise of Genesis 3:15 and were meant to use it as a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1–3). Gentile existence, on the contrary, was Christless. It was very much a vain and purposeless existence. It was the ultimate example of the haves and the have-nots. “For the Gentiles, history was going nowhere. There was no Messiah, no hope. This is the way it is today also, apart from Christ.”5
Of course, in their lost state the Gentiles never thought of this; just as neither you or I did before we were saved. John Heywood was correct: There are none so blind as those who will not see.
What I have found both perplexing and relevantly interesting in considering this passage is the reality that, in a very serious sense, the Gentiles were terribly disadvantaged, spiritually, while at the same time also very much advantaged materially. The Jews, on the other hand, were greatly advantaged spiritually (Romans 3:1–2; 9:1–5) while being very disadvantaged materially. For a long time they had no land of their own, and when they obtained it they were frequently oppressed in it or exiled from it.
The point we must see is that this matrix of advantage/disadvantage led to enormous barriers between these groups of people. But the gospel overcomes this.
The root word behind “aliens” connotes “belonging to another,” and negatively to thereby be estranged from the rest.
“The commonwealth of Israel” speaks of citizenship. In a very real sense, the Gentiles were disenfranchised from the greatest nation on earth.
Though they for the most part of world history ruled the world, the Gentiles were nonetheless stateless. They were not a part of the theocracy. They may have ruled, but they were not under the Ruler. This makes one think of many contemporary countries in places like Northern Europe, which, while boasting a healthy economy and effective health care, are spiritually bankrupt.
It should be noted that these Gentiles would never have felt disadvantaged or disenfranchised until they were converted. Again, the gospel opens our eyes to the glory of what it means to belong to God. The Gentiles despised the laws of God, of which Israel was the steward. But now that these readers were saved, they counted it a privilege to be under the law to God. Grace had opened their eyes to read the Old Testament with love and wonder and praise.
The blood of Christ cleanses us from sin, connects us to the kingdom and opens our eyes to true advantage.
“Strangers” translates the Greek word xenos, from which we derive our word xenophobia. The idea here is that of being a foreigner and therefore outside of the covenantal, constitutional privileges enjoyed by Israel. The covenantal connection that Jews experienced included every aspect of life, not only the “religious.” Socially, politically, legally and economically, the covenant of promise informed their worldview. This provided a communal cohesiveness, which most Gentiles did not enjoy. Further, because the Jews had been graciously granted the covenant of promise by God, they were counted to be His friends (see Isaiah 41:8).
The Gentiles essentially were living in a hostile world without God as their friend. That is a terrible place to be. It is a terrible place, where many in our day still are. This is where, before your conversion, you were.
All of this is important for us to understand because it helps us to grasp that each group had its reasons for angst towards the other.
The trouble started almost immediately after God’s call of Abraham. Conflict arose in the early days of Abraham’s sojourn and intensified in the book of Exodus. Egypt, a mighty Gentile nation, abused God’s covenanted people (chapters 1–15). The Amalekites then oppose those with Christ (chapter 17) followed by the Moabites, Ammonites and all kinds of ites.
In the book of Joshua, the Gentiles opposed God’s people, and this continued throughout the book of Judges. The Old Testament contains ample evidence of the hostility of Gentile peoples towards the Jews. This culminates in what Daniel prophesied of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes.
As we open the pages of the New Testament, the hostility is writ large. The Gentile king Herod sought to destroy the promised Messiah (Matthew 2). It is clear that the hostility was returned by the Jews towards the Gentiles. This becomes apparent in many ways, including rise of the Jewish zealots who viewed the only good Gentile to be a dead Gentile. Such hostility dwarfs the current ill will between certain political parties in our country. In fact, the hostility in biblical times between Jew and Gentile makes the tensions in our own nation seem like a tempest in a tea pot.
It is this context in which Paul makes the astounding claim that God has brought Jew and Gentile into the unity of the one new man—not merely by amalgamating their differences but, as Chrysostom once said, “It is as though God melted down a statue of silver and a statue of silver and formed a statue of gold.” A unique work indeed! In Christ the barriers are broken down.
Without entering into a lengthy debate concerning the matter of white privilege a couple of things do arise from our text that are relevant.
First, we must not deny the existence of such a matrix of the advantaged/disadvantaged. If we do, we are simply not facing up to reality. This is undergirded by the next, most important, observation.
All advantages and disadvantages are under the providence of God. This text could not be any clearer.
We do not live in a “fair” universe. Even celestially, some stars burn out, while others retain their luminescence. Yet this does nothing to diminish the justice of God. He is always impartial in His justice.
Finally, whether advantaged or disadvantaged, the only hope that anyone has is the grace of God. The advantage of the Jews, in many ways, disadvantaged them (by their prideful, self-righteous neglect of their blessings) and the disadvantage of the Gentiles, in a sense, reduced some obstacles to faith in Christ. But in either case, they were only saved by the grace of God (2:5–10).
A painful past makes way for a powerful contrast. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20 vision (v. 13a). We all need such vision. We often do not appreciate the mess that we were in until after we are out of it. This seems to be Paul’s point here. He wants for them to realise their predicament before experiencing the power of the gospel: Christless, stateless, friendless (and even aimless), hopeless and godless.
They were “hopeless” because, although God had planned and promised to include them one day, they did not know it, and therefore had no hope to sustain them. And they were “godless” (atheoi) because, although God had revealed himself to all mankind in nature and therefore had not left himself without witness, yet they suppressed the truth they knew and turned instead to idolatry.7
This was true of all of us. In fact, if you are Jewish, then this was equally true of you. The destruction of the temple in 70 AD put the Jews on equal footing with the rest.
As with lost Gentiles, the Jews too were godless in this world. In spite of wailing walls, Shabbat schools, Yom Kippur, etc., like lost Gentiles, lost Jews were ignorant of God. They had rejected God and, in a profoundly true way, were forsaken by God.
The point is simply this: Regardless of our differences (socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, etc.), we share the same plight and need the same power of God (1:19; 2:1–5).
The Power of the Blood
Finally, in v. 13, Paul points us to the power of the blood: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13).
Prejudice may be powerful, but it is no match for the work of Christ. The church is called to demonstrate this. As Austen points out, “The reconciliation of sinners to the creator God through the Lord Jesus cannot be separated from what it means to be the church.”8
“But now” introduces the cataclysmic contrast. “In Christ Jesus” (or “in Jesus” or “in Christ”) is used some 145 times in the New Testament—twenty times in Ephesians. In Jesus Christ, the believer, regardless of former disadvantages now has a Deliverer, a hime, a Friend, hope and God.
This is a very significant statement, which highlights that the “one new man” is Christ Jesus. The Christian is therefore the most unique person on the planet. He is part of a whole new race of men. The cross is indeed the crux of the matter of reconciliation. As Foulkes highlights, “‘In’ Christ there is a new humanity; and it is a single entity.”9 Austen calls it “a new ‘body’ reconciled to God through the cross (v. 16).”10
Since both Jew and Gentile are “in Christ,” they share a whole new identity. So, remember your old identity so that you will appreciate your new identity and so that you will resist any and all temptation to return to such a former identity. Further, such remembrance will empower us to move beyond all attempts to minimise this identity by clinging to external distinctives.
Paul continues, “You who once were far off have been brought near.” We who were separated from God, and from His messianic salvific blessings, have once and for all been brought near to Him by Him. This is not a geographic relocation but a spiritual, and a very real ontological, transformation. This work of God transcends any and all ethnic, socio-economic, cultural, political, and gender related walls of division (see Galatians 3:28).
This all happened “by the blood of Christ.” The blood of Christ is thicker, and more powerful, than any and all barriers.
In future studies, we will look more closely at how Jesus’ cross work broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. But for our purposes here, we need to focus on the fact that He did do so.
The problem of sin is a cross-cultural problem that requires a countercultural solution.
It is essential to understand that it is only by the blood of Christ that the barriers are broken down. This highlights the nonnegotiable conviction that the gospel of God is the solution to divisions, to the barriers that divide a people. Christ’s blood is thicker than sinful barriers. The sooner we embrace this conviction, the sooner we will set about the right application of this solution. As Wood notes, “The death blow was dealt to the longstanding antipathy between Jew and Gentile and between man and God. So Scott can allude to ‘the destruction of everything that meant disunion.’”11
In other words, doctrine matters. It matters a lot. Without it, we are left with the nonsense in Nevada of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
The goal is not first and foremost that of equality; rather, the goal is first and foremost that of evangelism and discipleship. As we grasp this and teach its implications, then our language will undergo an overhaul.
We must understand that the gospel reconciles us first to God and then, and only then, to one another. As Boice observes,
The enemy of peace is not a lack of negotiations but the fundamental alienation that exists between every individual and God. It is because we are at enmity with God—that is the true meaning of sin—that we are also inevitably at enmity with ourselves, one another, and in a certain sense, with all the world.12
The key here is for each of us to love Christ and to appreciate His gospel. As Paul will highlight in chapter 3, as we each grow in our experience of the love of Christ, then greater unity will be experienced by us all and we will experience the kind of colour blindness that the church should have.
We have spent a lot of time noting the sinfulness of manmade and hostile barriers. Let me end by noting that not all distinctions are actually removed by Christ—and some of them never will be.
God has created the world with diversity. Apparently He takes pleasure in this. That is why, as the Sunday school song goes, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” This is why some people are short and some are tall; some are thin and others are, well, not as thin. Some are male and some are female. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that these physical distinctions are done away in Christ. What is done away is finding our identity in these things.
Revelation 7:9, among other Scriptures, makes it clear that God loves diversity. Heaven will be filled with diversity. And that is why the church on earth is to be diverse. Though, because we are Christians, we are all on the same team, nevertheless such unity does not imply uniformity—not, at least, in every area.
Thabiti Anyabwile likens this to the All Star Football game in the United States. At the end of the season, the best players from teams across the country are placed into two teams, which compete against one another. The players wear All Star team jerseys, but each player wears his own state team helmet. In that way, each player maintains his own unique identity, but there is uniformity within the diversity.
The truth with which we must leave is that, by the sacrificial, substitutionary blood of Christ, the church is one body: uniform in belief, devotion and duty. However, we will be diverse in our demonstration of this unity. That is not only okay, it is the way that God has determined it to be.
Thank God for unity within diversity. And thank God that the blood of Christ is stronger than the barriers that otherwise divide—any and all of them. MacArthur summarises it well: “‘Peace’ comes only when self dies, and the only place self truly dies is at the foot of Calvary.”13 The blood of Christ is the answer; let us proclaim this gospel and watch the walls fall.
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 66. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:291. ↩
- Of course, as my mother noted, the realities with which we were confronted there were in no way unique to South Africa. She can remember similar discrimination growing up in the United States. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 91. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 89. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 89. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 95. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 87. ↩
- Frances Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 90. ↩
- Austen, Teaching Ephesians, 91. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:41. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 85. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 76. ↩