Wednesday 11 August
With Chris Wright
We are journeying together along the great story of the Bible – the drama of the whole of Scripture in 7 acts. Today we come to the centre of the whole narrative – Act 4: to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, His incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
You will remember that God promised Abraham in Genesis 12 that through him all nations on earth would be blessed. That is God’s agenda and that is God’s great mission – not just for Israel but for every tribe and nation and language on earth. But the Apostle Paul sees an even wider scope in the mission of God – it is ultimately for His whole creation. Here’s how he sums it up in Ephesians 1:9-10
God has made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment
– to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
So God’s ultimate purpose is to bring reconciliation, healing, integration and unity – Shalom in all its fullness – to His whole creation and God is going to do it in, through and under Christ. That is the vast, cosmic scope of the will and plan and mission of God.
In the rest of his letter to the churches in Ephesus, Paul spells that cosmic unity out in various other dimensions. First of all, in chapters 2-3 he talks about the ethnic unity of Jews and Gentiles – who are made one in Christ (as we’ll consider in a moment). Then he goes in on chapter 4 to talk about ecclesial unity – how we in the church are to maintain that oneness of the Holy Spirit in the bond of peace, and then to live it out in our relationships with other believers.
And then he urges us in chapters 4-5 to ethical integrity – that our behaviour should be consistent with who we are in Christ. And even when he turns to husbands and wives, he sees marriage as microcosm of that “oneness” that exists between Christ and His bride – the church, which in turn will inhabit the oneness of the reconciled cosmos in the new creation. What a picture, what a story! What multi-dimensional cosmic shalom that has been accomplished by Christ.
But today let’s concentrate on the passage where Paul talks specifically about peace- the peace that God has accomplished through Christ between Jews and Gentiles. It’s Ephesians 2:11-22, where he uses the word peace three times, as we’ll see.
The greatest division and hostility in Paul’s world was between Jews like himself and Gentiles – people of all the other nations. Jews believed (rightly) that God had chosen them in Abraham to be His covenant people, and so they were to keep themselves distinct from other nations in their holiness, to worship one God only, refusing the idols and gods of the nations – including those of the Roman Empire, which was costly. Gentiles, on the other hand, regarded Jews as religious oddities, and mostly despised them, though some admired their ways and became “God-fearers” – attached to synagogues. But the division ran deep.
But then we remember that God’s intention had always been that, through Israel, God’s blessing would come to the Gentiles; that Gentiles would come to belong within God’s people. And that, says Paul, is what has now become possible through God’s Messiah – Jesus. Indeed, he says – that IS the gospel, the good news – that the God of Israel has kept His promise to Abraham and is now reaching out to people of all nations, to bring them to Himself. God is making peace between Jews and Gentiles, and between both of them and God.
Shalom accomplished in Christ. That is what Eph. 2:11-22 is about.
The NIV breaks up this text into three paragraphs.
- v11-13 = Paul describes the incredible difference that God has made for the Gentiles, between “formerly… at one time” v.11 and “but now” v.13
- v14-18 = Paul then explains how that has been achieved through the Cross of Christ
- v19-22 = Paul portrays the result of all this – who and what we are now through faith in Christ.
You could call this Transformation, Explanation and Consolidation. You could, if you like long words like that or you could just say:
- 11-13 – Then and Now
- 14-18 – How and Why?
- 19-22 – So what?
1. Then and now: transformation vs. 11-13
Paul addresses his Gentile readers, those who were disparagingly called “the uncircumcised” by the Jews – highlighting the great divide, this chasm – and tells them to remember what they had been “formerly” – that is before they came to faith in Christ.
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
In that single verse, Paul lists five serious negative factors in the condition of these people – before they became Christians when they were what we might call “BC” – and not part of Israel. It is a picture of separation and alienation.
- Separate from Christ – from the Messiah as belonging to Israel (even before Jesus came) – the one who would be king and Saviour
- Excluded from citizenship in Israel – this is they were outside the sphere of God’s election and blessing.
- Foreigners to the covenants – they were ignorant of all the promises of salvation God made to Israel (even though they were ultimately for the benefit of the nations)
- Without hope – they had no share in the hope of Israel, of God’s future deliverance and the future age of peace and blessing that we see in the Psalms and the prophets.
- Without God – they had no relationship or even knowledge of the one true living God who had revealed Himself to Israel.
What a catalogue of deprivation! This verses focuses not so much on the Gentiles’ sin as on their separation. The Gentiles were separated/alienated from Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s community, Israel’s promise, Israel’s hope and Israel’s God.
But we have to say that this describes the condition not only of Gentiles who lived “Before Christ” – but of all who live without Christ. This is the spiritual reality – the inside story – the truth of human life below the veneer of civilization, religion or achievement there might be on the surface.
The citizens of Ephesus were wealthy, sophisticated, cultured and proud. But the reality was what Paul says in v12 – as it still does today – whatever the appearances or the claims. Without Christ – people are far away from God, far from home.
But now says Paul in v.13 there has been a staggering, incredible transformation.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
In and through the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth and His blood shed at the Cross, you who were far away have been brought near to God.
- the separated have been connected
- the alienated have been reconciled
- the distant have been brought home
- those outside have been brought in.
This is a dynamic picture of the way the Gospel meets a basic human need – to belong, to be close, not to be cut off or left out. It’s a horrible thing to be left out like as a child not getting picked for the team, or someone who is not invited to the party, or as an adult being ostracised and always feel you are on the outside of the “in-crowd”. And in spiritual terms it is far more terrible – to be far away from the God who made us and loved.
But the Gospel brings us near, brings us home. That is Shalom. It means homecoming. Coming home to God.
2. How and why – explanation (vs. 14-18)
But how? How has such an amazing transformation happened? Verse 13 summarises it.
- in Christ Jesus
- by the blood of Christ that is the death of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross
It all revolves around the key word in this section – PEACE. Paul emphasises the word three times in this paragraph:
- Christ is our peace v.14
- Christ made peace v. 15
- Christ preached peace v. 17
Christ is our Peace – v. 14
This is a remarkable identification. It’s not just that Jesus gives peace. Jesus is peace.
- Peace is a person – the person of Jesus Himself.
- Peace is Jesus-shaped – Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and wisdom, and salvation… and peace.
Peace here is not a process we have to go through, or a state we can achieve by negotiation. It is not just a distant ideal we have to aim at. Peace is a personal relationship with the Prince of Peace. Knowing Christ, being united with Christ, being “in Christ.” That is peace.
Christ has made peace – vs. 14-16
How? Remember Paul is talking here of the basic hostility between Jews and Gentiles and their alienation from God. In any conflict resolution and reconciliation process there are usually several steps that have to be taken. Here Paul identifies several steps through which the cross of Christ achieved peace – horizontally and vertically.
Step 1: By abolishing the barrier which divides vs. 14b-15a
He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in His flesh the law
with its commands and regulations.
Paul is referring here to the OT law, as the defining identity of the Jews. Paul is not here thinking of Torah as the good and gracious gift of God to enable Israel to live as He wanted. The law in that sense was the reflection of God’s own will and character, something to be welcomed and delighted in (as the Psalmists knew and celebrated). The law was given to shape Israel to be a light to the nations, full of teaching and principles that we can still learn from – as we saw yesterday in Leviticus 19. In that sense, we remember that Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law.”And in that sense, Paul himself could say, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Roma ns 7:12).
No, here Paul means those regulations in the Old Testament law that were the prime symbol/badge of Jewish identity, the thing that separated Jews from Gentiles. Observing the law – especially the clean-unclean food regulations, keeping the Sabbath, and circumcision – these were the defining marks of Jewish identity as over against the Gentiles. The problem is that this had become like a wall of separation between them, like the wall in the temple in Jerusalem that kept the Gentiles in the outer court, and for some it had become a wall of prejudice and pride (as it certainly was for Paul before he met the risen Christ). Christ abolished that dividing, separating, hostile power of the law through His death on the Cross.
Step 2 By then uniting the two into one new humanity v. 15b
His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace. It was not that Gentiles have to first become Jews, or even that Jews have to become like Gentiles. But rather that Jews and Gentiles together become a whole new single reality.
In Christ: One + One = One (not two). This is the great new reality achieved by the cross: Jesus unites two fundamentally divided categories of people into a whole new creation – a new humanity. Paul’s words are powerful. “One new man.” Or “one new human being.” In Christ, there is a new way of being human that is no-longer defined by ethnic identity – whether you are Jewish or any other nationality – but your humanity is now being defined by being reconciled in Christ, a new reconciled humanity.
So the peace, which Jesus made is here first described as horizontal peace between people, between us, between our human communities, between enemies. That leads to step three.
Step 3 By then reconciling both to God – v. 16
…and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility.
Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ now form one body – the church, the body of Christ – and in that new reconciled unity we are reconciled to God himself, through the cross. God has “put to death their hostility”. God slays the enmity.
Notice, God does not slay His enemies. That was how the Roman Empire made peace. They imposed peace by the sword. Even one of their own writers made that critical point. “Rome makes a desert and calls it peace”. Pax Romana was imposed and it was sustained simply by slaying anyone who got in the way. Rome made peace by the blood of the cross. They just crucified rebels and opponents. So when Paul uses that phrase in Colossians 1:20 about the cross of Christ, he is pointing out the stark contrast between Rome’s way of making peace and God’s way. God made peace through the blood of the cross, borne by God Himself in the person of His Son.
But at the cross, God did not slay the enemies but slays the enmity. When all of us are at the foot of the cross, we are no longer enemies of one another. There are no enemies at the cross, only forgiven, reconciled sinners: reconciled to one another and reconciled to God. The cross ends our hostility in both directions.
So those are the steps by which God, through the cross of Christ, has “made peace”. Shalom is the achievement of the cross. So Christ is our peace, Christ made peace, and then Paul goes on thirdly to say that…
Christ came and preached peace v17-18
He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
When? Jesus never went to Ephesus! But when Paul arrived there preaching the Gospel, it was Jesus Himself through the Holy Spirit proclaiming the peace that He achieved on Cross.
As always, Paul sees that, what has happened in the gospel through the cross of Christ, is fully in line with God’s plan and purpose in the Scriptures (our OT). For in verse 17, Paul combines two “good news / gospel” texts from the book of Isaiah:
Isaiah 52:7 – How beautiful on mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, proclaiming peace, announcing news of happiness.
Isaiah 57:19 – peace, peace to those far and near, says the Lord… And I will heal them
After the exile, some Jews had gone back to Jerusalem, and others were still scattered abroad by the violence of the Assyrians and Babylonians many years before. So, “originally in that text “far and near” meant Jews scattered in diaspora – they were far away and Jews still in Jerusalem – they were near. But Paul transforms the language, to mean the Gentiles (who were indeed far away – as we saw in verse 12) and Jews (who were near) But both now – both alike and both together – have access to God the Father by one Spirit” (v18).
Can you see a beautiful progression between verse 13 and verse 18? It just gets better and better. At the end of the first paragraph in verse 13, we are brought near to God. And we might think Wow! That’s good enough for me, after being so far away from Him. Just to be brought home and brought near to this God who loved me enough to send His Son to die for me. Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee! What a gift and blessing.
But then by the end of the second paragraph at verse 18, we get to come right into God’s presence, into the Holy of Holies, as it were, right into the presence of God our Father – to be able to know Him as Father, and pray to Him as Father, and to love Him and be loved as a child of my Heavenly Father. Surely that’s an even greater gift and blessing – that Jesus tells us again and again to enjoy and trust.
So let’s summarise where we’ve got to so far.
Through the Cross of Christ – that which separates us from one another in hatred and hostility has been dealt with and abolished.
Through the Cross of Christ – that which separates us from God, has been dealt with and removed.
Through the Cross of Christ, therefore we have peace with one another and peace with God for He is our peace.
3. So What? Consolidation – (vs. 19-22)
Paul says “consequently”… Paul now goes back to “You” – addressing again these Gentile Christians of Ephesus in order to highlight the change that has happened because of what God accomplished for us on the cross.
What does this great transformation mean? What is the outcome? What real difference does it make to our status and identity in the world? Or as we might put it, in terms of our thinking this week, “What does this shalom really mean?”
It means everything, says Paul. “Consequently…” he begins. Because of Christ and the cross, nothing is the same as it used to be. “No longer” – he says in v19. Something has happened that has changed what you used to be into something completely different.
We have become fellow citizens of God’s own country (v. 19a).
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers,
but fellow citizens with God’s people.
“Foreigners and aliens” those were terms used in OT Israel to describe people who were not Israelites but had come to live in their land – as immigrants, or workers, or people like Ruth, seeking asylum and help out of poverty and need. There were many laws relating to them. They were to be treated kindly but they had no stake in the land itself. They were not part of the covenant people as such.
But now, says Paul, you Gentiles have been adopted into citizenship in Israel. Your identity now is the same as Israel’s, as part of the covenant people of God through the Messiah Jesus. Later in chapter three he spells it out even more fully,
Through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
He said the same to the Gentile believers in Galatia – insisting that through their faith in the Messiah Jesus, they were now children of Abraham. There is no longer Jew and Gentile but you are “all one in the Messiah Jesus.”
Citizenship in God’s people, that really matters. Just like citizenship matters in the world today. When you travel abroad out of your own country, you know you’re a foreigner. You stand in a long immigration queue under the sign “foreign passports” but when you come back to your own country you breeze rapidly through your own gates!
That’s what God has done for us in Christ. Welcome to my country, says God. You are a citizen of my people now. Then Paul adds also, that…
We have become members of God’s own family (v.19b)
We have become members of His household. “House or household” was another OT term frequently used for the people of Israel. It pictured them as one great family, one kinship group – as in a sense they were, as the tribes of Israel, descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the “house of Israel”, or “house of Jacob”, or sometimes the “house of Yahweh”. These were family terms for God’s people in the OT.
So Paul says, in Christ, we have not only a new citizenship but also a new kinship. We have been adopted into the family of God, sisters and brothers through faith in Messiah Jesus, whether we are Jews or Gentiles. And that brings the great responsibility of treating all other Christians as family members. And we’re not so good at that, are we?
When we lived in India, our children went to Indian schools for several years. On one occasion, we watched our two sons once in the assembly on the school parade ground, the only white children in that great sea of Indian boys of all ages and sizes, enthusiastically reciting the pledge, “India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters.”
Through the cross of Christ, because of the shalom that God accomplished there, we are able to affirm, “Christ is my country. All Christians are my brothers and sisters.” When you belong to Christ, you belong to the largest family on earth and the oldest family in history. So “consequently,” says Paul, we have become citizens of God’s own country and members of God’s own family, and thirdly,
We have become the place of God’s own home – (vs. 20-22)
Paul adds a third picture from the OT – the temple. Now, Paul says, the temple of God is no longer the building in Jerusalem but you – the people whom God is building together as His dwelling place. You, he says, are being built together:
In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.
In Christ, we have become the place where God Himself lives. What an incredible picture that is. It’s not just that God dwells in each one of us through His Spirit (elsewhere Paul says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit) but that together – Jews, Gentiles, people from anywhere on earth – we collectively have become God’s residence, God’s home, God’s dwelling place.
“God’s address on earth – is you,” as Ajith Fernando the great Sri Lankan theologian says.
Now can you see the wonderful climax of our three paragraphs?
In v. 13 – we get to come near to God
In v. 18 – we get to come into God’s presence
In v. 22 – we get to have God come and live within us.
What a transformation! What a surprise. It is surprising enough that we should be allowed to have access into God’s home; it is even more wonderful that God should make His home in us.
This is nothing short of a miracle, the miracle of grace. From being in the place where God was absent and far away, we become the place where God has taken up residence.
This is the beautiful heart and soul of the Gospel and what it does for us – because of the Cross of Christ.
- Outsiders are brought near; enemies are reconciled – to one another and to God; foreigners become citizens; strangers become family;
- Those who knew not God become the place where God is at home.
Praise the Lord for His grace, and for the shalom that it has accomplished.
Three concluding implications:
- Paul’s teaching here completely rules out the idea in some circles of two covenants still running. Separate one for Jews, and Jesus for Christians. No, says Paul – there is only one way for both to come near, be saved, and have access to Father, and that is through the Messiah Jesus and in Him, the two become one. Abraham has only one family. God has only one family, the family united in the shalom accomplished by the cross of His Son Jesus of Nazareth.
- There is no reconciliation to God without reconciliation with one another – the Gospel of the Cross of Christ necessarily includes both, or else you get neither. So any group who claim to be right with God but refuse to be reconciled to other believers, are denying the Gospel of the Cross. What does that say to our chronic dividedness and our quarrelling, in the church and beyond?
- Ultimately, the best, indeed the only hope for peace on earth, for goodwill among men, lies, as the angels said, in Jesus, the prince of peace, the one who made peace, preaches peace, and who is our peace. Let us then be “People of peace” – through proclaiming the gospel of peace, and heeding the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”