A recent article that appeared on the CNN website illustrates well the theme of Ephesians 2:11–22. The story concerns a former mobster who has turned pastor and preaches to former gangsters in Japan.
The story focuses on Sensei Tatsuya Shindo, a former member of the Japanese mafia, known as yakuza, who preaches to a group of ex-gangsters from June Bride, once a popular watering hole that has now been converted into a church. The article describes the building in a striking manner: “Tucker on a street corner, the exterior of June Bride has changed little over the years. But inside the place has undergone a drastic transformation.”
The “drastic transformation,” it turns out, is both cosmetic and deep-seated:
The old bar and karaoke stage are gone, replaced by a pulpit adorned with a large cross. Neat rows of chairs slowly fill with damp but mostly smiling faces. They chat silently amongst themselves.
While some faces in the crowd are longtime bar patrons, they no longer come here to drink. This is, without a doubt, a place of worship.
The article describes Shindo standing behind the pulpit and declaring the true, deep-seated nature of the transformation: “Before, we were in rival gangs, firing guns. Now, we’re praising the same God.”
The article goes on to describe the transformation that has taken place in Shindo’s own life:
“I was a child. I didn’t think too deeply,” he says. “And I admired the yakuza for what was visible only on the surface. They have lots of money, spend their money lavishly, and play glamorously. The bad guys looked so cool in my eyes.” …
“My boss was killed. People were killed in power struggles. People’s legs were shot. A guy who was doing drugs with me died of intoxication. Suicides happened. Sudden deaths. I’ve seen many deaths,” Shindo says. “I saw my henchmen get stabbed to death.”
Shindo’s body bears the scars of his old life. His chest and arms are covered in intricate tattoos, the telltale symbol of mafia membership in Japan. In an effort to exclude yakuza members from society, visible tattoos are forbidden in most public places. He often removes his shirt when baptizing other tattooed ex-gangsters.
He became addicted to crystal meth. He drove under the influence and crashed his boss’s car. He shows off his missing pinkie, which was cut off with a chisel in a yakuza ritual of atonement for the transgression.
Shindo was arrested seven times. He went to prison three times, beginning at 22. By the time he was 32, he had been excommunicated by the yakuza after spending about 8 of 10 years as an inmate. He says he found God while reading the bible in solitary confinement. He studied and became a preacher after his release more than a decade ago.
Today, Shindo leads a growing congregation from all walks of life.
“A lot of people with different backgrounds come here. Those who are divorced, bankrupt and cast away. There are also parents who have missing children, those whose sons are put into jail, or those who’ve been abandoned after prison. This is a place to restart your life,” he says. “A yakuza returning to society is indeed extraordinary.”
That is indeed a stark illustration of the reconciliation that Paul describes due to the gospel in Ephesians 2. And it has all come about because of the Prince of Peace.
Jesus lived an amazing life. He was the most amazing of men to ever walk the face of the earth. His compassion, concern, wisdom and self-control—to name just a few of His amazing attributes—set Him apart from all others. This is why we call Jesus Christ “the holy one.” And what He was is what He remains, though more gloriously so (Hebrews 13:8).
But all too often, when people consider Jesus, they miss what it was that He came to do: to bring peace on earth. In fact, Jesus is our only hope for peace—peace between man and God and then, and only then, peace between people and between peoples. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
With the announcement of His birth, peace assumed centre stage; peace in the midst of a divided and conflict-torn world. The angels announced to the first recipients of the good news of the incarnation, “On earth peace, goodwill to men” (Luke 2:14). The Prince of Peace came to make a difference. He has made a difference. He still does. We need to be persuaded of this. Paul was. Just read Ephesians 2:11–22.
By the providence of God, we are studying this passage at a time when our society is anything but peaceful. Reconciliation seems to be a long way off. The kind of hostility that Paul addresses here is similar to some of the hostility with which we are daily being confronted. There is a lot of conflict between people groups, a whole lot of angst over ethnicity. And I believe that the timing of our studies in this text is of God. I believe that He is pointing us to a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. And that difference will be made by the gospel of God, centred on the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In this study, we return to Ephesians 2, with particular focus on vv. 14–18. Our goal is for us to gaze on the Prince of Peace in three of His peaceful capacities: Jesus as Peacemaker; Jesus as Peace-seeker; Jesus as Peacekeeper.
May we too believe this. May our lives, our homes, our friendships, our workplaces and our church prove this.
Jesus, the Peacemaker
Verses 14–16 focus on Jesus, the Peacemaker:
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.
“For” connects with what immediately precedes. These Gentile believers have been brought near to God and near to those with whom, at one time, they had been at enmity: the Jews. Jesus accomplished this by His cross work, in pouring out His life—literally. As Paul puts it, they were saved “by the blood of Christ” (v. 13).
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn in two, signifying that the way was now open for reconciliation with God, for those who trust in Christ alone. The ripped veil in many ways pointed to mended relationships. But lest we miss this, Paul emphasises it again in what follows. He does not want them to lose sight of the enormous change that God has wrought by the work of His Son. Paul wants to put the emphasis where it is due: on Jesus Christ and His gospel. Hence, he begins v. 14 with “For He Himself is our peace.” Jesus is the source of our peace with God and with one another. He quite literally is God’s Peacemaker (see 2 Corinthians 5:16–21).
In what way is He “our peace”? Since believers are in Christ, peace among believers is achieved. After all, since every Christian is “in Christ,” the peace that reigns is His peace. “He Himself is our peace.” This is achieved because it is Jesus Christ “who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.”
This middle wall of separation may be an allusion to the literal wall that cut off Jews from Gentiles at the temple. And in light of vv. 19–22 this may very well have been in the mind of the apostle. But fundamentally, and more importantly, there was a cultural and relational wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. The ESV misses this as it too quickly combines the thoughts of vv. 14 and 15, but the word “separation” in v. 14 speaks of a wall or a fence. A fence divides, and this can lead to hostility (as ESV translates). We need to understand why this was so.
The Problem with Differences
As we saw previously, differences between people groups are not sinful in and of themselves. The problems arise when those providential differences are perverted into sinful barriers. This was the case with Gentile and Jew. What divided them was what Paul refers to in v. 15 as “the law of commandments contained in ordinances.” These were the numerous laws revealed in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which quite literally set the Jews apart from the rest of the nations of the world (Gentiles). This occurred by the restrictions that God placed upon the Jews concerning their diet, dress, code of conduct, political structure, marital laws and, of course, religious order.
Sadly, the God-prescribed differences were perverted by the Jews into a justification for self-righteous abuse. The Gentiles, on the other hand, responded with hostility. Enmity marked their relations with one another. But in Christ Jesus, such distinctions have fallen away. God has formed an entirely unique group of people from “both” of them. But for this to happen, Jesus had to engage in a work of destruction before the work of new creation construction.
The words “broken down” translate a word meaning “to loosen,” in the sense of bringing down. The Greek tense of this word means that it was done once for all. This deconstruction paved the way for reconstruction: the new creation, if you will, of “the one new man.” This “one new man” comprises people who are at peace with one another because they are one Body; they belong to the Peacemaker.
Differences make people uncomfortable, and can lead to misunderstandings. And when people misunderstand, they may even feel threatened. The result is that enmity results. A sense of alienation provides fuel to the fire of ethnic angst.
This peace is supernatural. It does not arise by merely following Jesus’ teaching. It does not arise by merely listening to His exhortations to love your neighbour as yourself. Nor does it arise from exhortations to follow “the golden rule.”
This peace is found in a person, not in precepts. It is found in a work, not in willpower. It is found in a death while most people are looking for peace through a life. It is found in blood. It is found in the gospel, not in the goodwill of men (see Luke 2:14).
At the risk of sounding repetitively simplistic (a risk I am willing to take), such peace among men is found in Christ, and in Christ alone. Only He possesses the peace we need. Only He has accomplished and secured the peace we need. Only the crucified, risen, interceding and ruling Lord Jesus Christ can produce the peace that we so desperately long for and so desperately need. We see this in what followsPaul speaks of Jesus “having abolished in His flesh the enmity.” The word “abolished” means, fundamentally, “to make useless or obsolete.” It is used this way in 1 Corinthians 13:8–11, where Paul speaks of the day when the supernatural gifts of prophecy, word of knowledge, tongues and other revelatory gifts would become obsolete. So it was with the work of Jesus when He died on the cross. The unique, so-called “ceremonial” laws, which set apart Jews from Gentiles, were once and for all removed.
Note that this is not the so-called “moral” law (although, both by definition and by nature, any law that God prescribes has a moral element). Rather, these were the laws that divided the covenant people of God from those not in the covenant. We see this in the case of the vision given to Peter before his encounter with Cornelius. This is further substantiated by Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1–5 (cf. Colossians 2:8–19).
And so, for this reason, Paul can make the bold statement that, in the “flesh” of Jesus Christ, all grounds for barriers between peoples have forever been removed. But, of course, this rests on the supposition that these peoples believe on Christ. In other words, if He is not their peace (v. 14a) they cannot have peace with others. Christ is the key to the elimination of conflict.
You must bow the knee to Him if you will stop banging heads with others: in marriage, in the family, in the workplace, in the church and in the world.
We need to understand that there was nothing wrong with these laws. They were holy, righteous and good. Yet these particular laws were temporary for the purpose of preserving the seed that would crush the serpent’s head.
Once Jesus Christ, the promised seed, arrived, there was no more need for those laws. Jesus Christ “abolished” them because now there is a new entity of the people of God; and it is neither Jew nor Gentile. Rather, it is the Body of Christ. Paul refers to this by various names, including the “one new man” (15; 4:24).
Those at one time necessary and yet superficial distinctions have fallen away, and the new man has no need for these.
Better than Me?
I suspect that one reason that “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” was so offensive to the Gentiles was because it was perceived to be a statement of the haves and the have-nots. The Gentiles were being reminded that, indeed, they were without Christ, separate from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise. Therefore they were confronted with the reality that they were hopeless and without God in the world. And this was convicting.
It is not unusual for those who are Christians to be despised by those who are not. If our lives reflect devotion to the Lord then we will live differently, and this can be very convicting. Those who are not Christians may feel “judged” simply because of the light that shines from our life (Philippians 2:13–16). What we need to do is to help others to see that our lives are different because of what the Prince of Peace has done, and that He can do the same for them as well.
Amazed by Peace
We are rightly amazed by Jesus’ ability to multiply food to feed the multitudes. We are amazed by His power to spit into clay and apply it to the blind in order to make them see. We are astounded that, by a mere touch, a woman can be healed of a terrible malady, and we are moved by His ability to turn a demonised man into an evangelist.
But equally, we should marvel at the ability to take eleven men (with one scoundrel in their midst), all diverse, and form them into the nucleus of what would become a world-transforming movement.
We should marvel that a predominately Jewish church would voluntarily select seven Hellenised men to represent the church as the first deacons.
We should marvel that a church in what is modern-day Syria had an eldership composed of men from various ethnicities (Acts 13:1–4).
We should marvel that a man who boasted of being a Pharisee of Pharisees would later boast in being a missionary to the Gentiles (Rom 15:15–16).
Jesus did this miracle, and He continues to do so. We still find the gospel producing Palestinian and Jewish worshippers in Christian churches in the Middle East. The gospel still brings those of different castes to worship and serve together in India. We call this the work of the new creation in and by the Lord Jesus Christ.
There seems to be a hint here (v. 15) that the peace that Jesus makes is simply the byproduct of the reality that two have become one. In other words, since the two are one, there is no reasonable rationale to justify conflict. This, of course, is the challenge. Until we see that we are one in Christ, we will be tempted to squabble and to create barriers. But such barriers, according to the work of Jesus Christ, are absurd. We need to see this, to be persuaded of this, and to practice the unity that is very much an ontological reality. In other words, since Jesus always prayed according to the will of the Father, we can be sure that the unity He prayed for, as recorded in John 17, was and is being answered. The work of the Lord Jesus Christ brings us together for the gospel.
Let me summarise it this way: Jesus Christ is not schizophrenic. He is the God-Man, but there is no question of a split personality. And since all whom He saves are in Him (“so as to create in Himself one new man”), the idea of hostile division is absurd. So if we are living in such a way that we are allowing differences to create sinful barriers, then we are behaving absurdly. We are denying the gospel of peace that we claim to believe.
There are too many homogenous churches that should be heterogenous. We cannot as Christians excuse only having fellowship with those who are like us. Ethnic slights have no place in the Christian fellowship. We must be careful of the words we use to speak of others.
How Did this Happen?
Perhaps you are wondering, how did the cross abolish “the law of commandments contained in ordinances”? That is a really important question. The answer, very basically, is that the cross equalised all peoples.
The superficial (and at one time purposeful) distinctive behaviours were flattened out by Jesus Christ on the cross. Verse 16 helps us to understand this.
The most important phrase in this verse is “that He might reconcile both to God.” It was not just the Gentiles who were so religiously disenfranchised, but the Jews as well. Those with spiritual/religious advantages and those without them were both equally in dire need of the saving work of Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus was first announced as a Saviour before the peace his salvation brings was mentioned (see Luke 2:11, 14). There can be no peace without a peacemaker.
The cross is the great equalizer. The cross work of the Lord Jesus Christ is the clarion call to a divided and hostile world that we all share the same problem and that we all require the same solution. We are hostile to God. God in His holiness is hostile towards us. We need someone to remove this hostility—from both sides. And the one who has done so is Jesus Christ. Through the offering of His body on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ has killed the hostility from both sides. Since we are at peace with God, we are at peace with one another. If we are not, then we are no longer living near the cross.
When each of us stops looking at the external differences, and when we start identifying our sinfulness, then, and only then, will harmony result. True and lasting harmony is a matter of holiness. We need the gospel of peace for this.
The word translated “reconcile” is a strong one, which means “to completely reconcile.” The work of Jesus was no half-measure. He accomplished what He came to do. And the church should demonstrate this completely completed work.
On the cross, God treated everyone the same: Jew and Gentile; slave and free; male and female; cultured and barbarian. And He treated them the same because they all suffer the same problem: sin and the alienation that it creates between us and God. God views everyone the same because we have the same need: the Saviour. When you consider these matters of ultimate sameness, then we are behaving insanely if we magnify our differences. Especially if we are Christians.
Churches throughout South Africa have behaved insanely. Churches globally have done so. We know better. Let’s do better. Guard the peace (4:3) that God’s peacemaker has accomplished.
Church—Christ-centred, Word-directed, gospel-saturated church—be a peacemaker. But how?
Jesus, the Peace-seeker
Verse 17 points us to Jesus, the peace-seeker: “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near.”
This verse is pretty clear, at least on the surface. We are told quite clearly that Jesus “came and preached peace” to both Gentiles (“you who were far off’”) and to Jews (“and to those who were near”). The word “preached” is translated from the Greek word euaggelizo, and it means, “to proclaim good news,” “to preach the gospel,” or “to evangelise.” Mark tells us the priority of Jesus: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15).
Why is Paul making this point? Because he wants to show that none of this instruction and exhortation concerning the unity of the church should surprise them. This was always Jesus’ purpose. The ministry of the gospel was paramount to Jesus. Yes, Jesus healed. Yes, Jesus showed numerous acts of mercy and justice. Yes, Jesus demonstrated love and concern for the poor. But this was never separated from the gospel. Jesus came to make men right with God and then to make them right with each other. The former is the foundation for the latter. And the church must never forget this. I, for one, agree with the conclusion of the Lausanne Conference on Evangelism and Missions in 1974 that “the message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist.” Yet we must not ever lose “the message of salvation” and its primary concern, which is to right man with God. If the vertical dimension is ignored or watered down, then long term, harmonious, horizontal relationships will remain a pipe-dream, ripe for sloganeering but bereft of any substance. As a former Dutch leader of the World Council of Churches once said, “A Christianity which has lost its vertical dimension has lost its salt and is not only insipid but useless for the world.”1, 317–18.]
In other words, loving God precedes loving our neighbour.
I was blessed recently, in the midst of violent protests against racism at South African institutions of higher learning, to see photos floating around social media platforms of students of different ethnicities holding hands and praying together for peace. They clearly have some insight into these matters.
But there is something important here that may not be obvious at first sight. The order seems to be strange: first, the cross and then the preaching of Jesus. How do we explain this? There are few possibilities.
First, Paul may be referring to Jesus’ ministry before His crucifixion. But,to be frank, barring a few examples, the majority of Jesus’ ministry was Jewish-centred. Nevertheless, Acts 10:36ff presents strong evidence for this interpretation.
Second, Paul may be referring to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (see Luke 24:36; John 20:19–21, 26). The problem there, of course, is that the crowd was still largely limited to those who were “near” (the Jews).
Third, Paul may be referring to the apostles as Jesus’ representatives. That would fit well with the statement that Jesus preached to those who were “far off.” Certainly Paul and his travelling companions did this. It would also fit well with what Paul says next in v. 18. He seems to have a present tense scenario in mind.
I am not sure where to land on this question, but there is clearly a principle here for all of us: Like Jesus, we are to preach the gospel to all and sundry. For all and sundry need to be completely reconciled to God—and to one another.
Growing Locally, Going Globally
As I never tire of repeating, and I trust that you never tire of hearing, the solution for the challenges in South Africa can only be properly met by the gospel of peace from the God of peace—through the Prince of Peace. It is to be noted that Jesus preached the same message to those who were religiously near and to those who were religiously far off. Regardless, they both needed the gospel. They both needed to be saved from their sins. They both needed to be reconciled to God. Nearness to the temple did not mean nearness to God. Regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their religiosity, they needed to be saved by the one who is the true Temple (John 2:19–22). The same holds true today. The gospel remains, and will forever remain, the power of God that saves us from the consequence of hostility towards God. The gospel remains the only power adequate to conquer hostility between peoples. We need to proclaim this gospel. We are privileged to. As John Stott notes, “It is truly a wonderful fact that whenever we proclaim peace, it is Christ who proclaims it through us.”2
Marches are fine, and they can be constructive. But they will never change hearts and they will never reconcile man to God.
Petitions and political actions may do much to raise awareness, but they will not solve man’s problem of hostility towards God and therefore to one another
Raising our children to respect one another is wonderfully right, but it will prove impotent when it comes to addressing the sin issue of division and barriers.
No, we need to continue to preach and to spread the gospel, and to practice the implications of the gospel, one of which is God-loving, church-loving unity in the midst of diversity.
As I write these words, our church is gearing up for our annual missions conference. The theme this year is “Growing Locally, Going Globally,” a phrase that is often used in missions circles. It is a clever slogan, but also an importantly true one. As we grow up in Christ, as we grow in holiness and love as the “one new man” in Christ, we will not only have an impact locally, but will also have one beyond our geographic confines. In other words, we will be used of God to reach both those who are near and those who are far off (see Luke 19:38; John 14:27; Acts 10:36; Romans 10:15; Ephesians 6:15; Revelation 1:4).
Jesus, the Peacekeeper
In v. 18, the apostle brings this part of his argument to a close by pointing us to Jesus, the peacekeeper: “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
Having established that the cross work of the Lord Jesus Christ is the means of reconciling man to God and man to man, he concludes with a summary statement highlighting that we should pay heed to this preaching because it is “through Him [that] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” Again, Jesus Christ is the only hope for the healing of divisions—both between man and God and between people and between peoples.
The word “access” was used in the ancient world of introducing someone to royalty. This is very fitting in the context. Paul is dealing with drawing near to God, the ultimate royalty. The point is powerfully encouraging. The cross work of Jesus Christ results in every believer being united by “one Spirit” and enabled by this one Spirit to have access to the one true God, whom we call Father.
Through Jesus’ intercessory work, this access is continual. In other words, upon the new birth and the experience of justification, we have “peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This peace is forever because Jesus forever intercedes for us. Further, the Spirit also intercedes for us and affirms to us that we belong to the Father; we are at peace with God!
But more, we also are blessed to have “the peace of God” (Philippians 4:7). Because of the cross, where Jesus shed His bled for sinners, we have been reconciled and forever will be. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
This ongoing experience of peace is for Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female, cultured and uncultured (Galatians 3:28). Salmond highlights that this access is continuous for both Jew and Gentile, for those who are in Christ: “Both have continuous access to God from whom once they were far removed.”3
Our identity is wrapped up in Jesus Christ, and the same Holy Spirit tells each of us that we have a Father in heaven. When we reflect on this reality then, and only then, will all forms of one-upmanship and ethnic and gender bias will fall away. In other words, because Jesus keeps the peace for us, we can keep the peace with one another. May the God of peace lift up His countenance upon us and give us peace.
- Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, The Uppsala Report, edited by Normal Goodall [WCC: Geneva, 1968 ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 103. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:298. ↩