September 24, 2017
Peace on earth is certainly what we all desire. Unfortunately earth seems to be the last place where one can find peace. And the reason has little to do with the earth and everything to do with the earthlings who inhabit the earth. There are many who are working to bring peace between hostile nations and peoples. Sometimes they are successful for a while. But we are not surprised when the treaties unravel. Hostilities between ethnicities and cultures run deep.
As we continue in Ephesians Paul makes it clear that the gospel is not just about your salvation and my salvation. Rather the gospel is also about breaking down the barriers of ethnic hostility and racism. God is seeking to bring peace and in Eph.2:11-3:10 we learn that the church of Jesus Christ is this world’s only hope for lasting racial peace.
I. RACIAL HOSTILITY IS DEEPLY EMBEDDED IN THIS WORLD. 2:11-12
In Jn.4:20-22 Jesus was speaking with a Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. She pointed out that the Samaritans worshiped God on a mountain in Samaria while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. “Is Jerusalem the place where people ought to worship?” Jesus responded by saying, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” That last phrase will help us as we look at Eph.2:11-12
We read about many different ethnic groups in the Bible but basically the Bible sees two kinds of people. There are Jews and Gentiles. And historically there has been no love lost between Jews and Gentiles. But before we talk about that let me point out that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin entered into the world, God took it upon himself to provide a means by which people can enter into a saving, life-giving relationship with him. How did he do it? Well he called Abraham. And he made a promise covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The descendants of Abraham are the Jews, Israel. The covenant to Abraham was renewed and even expanded when David became king of Israel. One of the promises in these covenants was that through Abraham, through Israel, all nations (Gentiles) would be blessed.
So get the picture. God’s plan was to work salvation and blessing for the world through his chosen people, Israel. We have mentioned many times that Israel was called to be a light to the Gentile nations. Israel was to live in such a way so as to show the Gentiles how good it is to know and love God. Israel was to extend an invitation to the Gentiles to enter into life with God. Well, since salvation is from or through the Jews, Gentiles are excluded from God and his salvation unless they become Jews.
But something happened. Paul alludes to it in v.11. In v.11 we get the idea that Jews did not like Gentiles. In Paul’s writings the phrase “in the flesh” sometimes refers to the physical body, but more often it refers to the sinful nature of humanity. Instead of being grateful to God for their privileged position as his chosen people, the Jews took great pride in their status and looked down on the Gentiles. They referred to the Gentiles as uncircumcised dogs. Circumcision was an act that had spiritual significance in that it identified a Jewish man as a member of God’s chosen people. But in v.11 Paul refers to a circumcision which is made in the flesh by hands. In other words, circumcision became nothing more than a human mark of ethnic distinction and pride. In fact, in the Old Testament we learn that Israel very quickly abandoned life with God and began to worship idols. So whereas the Jews should have welcomed the Gentiles into life with God, instead deep ethnic and racial hostility was cultivated between Jew and Gentile.
As Israel became worldly minded it became like the world. And in the world racial, ethnic hostility is the way of life. No matter where you go you will find racial hostility and hatred. When one’s race or ethnicity defines one’s identity, then one’s race, which often includes a religion, must be protected at all costs. And that’s what we see. Whether it is Serbs and Croats, Jews and Arabs, Jews and Europeans, Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans, Whites and Blacks, Whites and First Nation peoples, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, Japanese and Chinese, we could go on and on. The list is endless. In the United States we like to think that we have made progress when it comes to race relations. But political and sociological structures and policies do not change the heart. And we have become only too aware of the fact that there is still ongoing, deep racial hostility in this country. What can wash our racial pride and arrogance away? What can make us whole again? That’s what Paul goes on to talk about.
II. JESUS CHRIST HAS BROUGHT RECONCILIATION. 2:14-18
We mentioned that Salvation is from the Jews. The Jews abandoned their calling but Jesus, God’s Son came in the flesh, born a Jew. Jesus did what Israel failed to do. He fulfilled the calling of Israel. Jesus is the true Israel. Salvation, peace comes from Jesus through his death and resurrection.
Earlier in this chapter Paul said we were dead in trespasses and sins, “But God made us alive in Christ.” In v.11-12 Paul writes that Jews and Gentiles are alienated from each other, but in v.13 he says that Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ. The death of Jesus not only rescues us from our trespasses and sins, the death of Jesus also rescues us from racial alienation. Through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ brings Jew and Gentile together. How did he do this?
At the temple in Jerusalem there was a court of the gentiles and a court of the Israelites. On the barrier separating the courtyards, signs were posted warning gentiles to go no further. They were not allowed in the court of the Israelites. But this wasn’t the only barrier separating Jews and Gentiles. The dividing wall of hostility also resided in the Law itself. Paul is not talking about the moral law, the 10 commandments. Rather he is talking about the various regulations that drew a sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile. We are talking about the Jewish Sabbath laws, the laws regarding circumcision, and the food laws. These are what many refer to as boundary markers. They distinguished Jew from Gentile.
In the early days of the church there were many Jewish believers who felt that gentile converts to Jesus ought to follow these regulations. It was necessary for becoming a follower of Christ. But in v.15 Paul tells us that through his death and resurrection, Christ abolished any need for these regulations. Salvation is not dependent on becoming a Jew. Salvation is a gift that is received by faith. Jew and Gentile are saved in the same way, by faith in Jesus Christ.
In 1:10 Paul tells us that God’s plan is to unite, reconcile, all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth. In 2:1-10 Paul tells us that through Jesus, by faith we are saved from our trespasses and sins. We are reconciled to God. We have peace with God. In 2:11-18 Paul says that through the death of Christ we are reconciled to each other. The things that divided Jew and Gentile have been abolished. We have peace. Jew and Gentile both come to God through Christ.
Notice in v.18 that both Jew and Gentile are given the Holy Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that we have access to God. Here’s an interesting observation. Back in Genesis we read about the tower of Babel. The people of the world spoke the same language and they tried to assert their pride in the face of God by building a tall structure. When God saw their arrogance it says that, “there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” But now, through Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit, God is reconciling all peoples to himself and each other. Jesus has abolished every barrier between peoples by giving everyone who believes in him a new identity. We are the people of God, reconciled in Jesus Christ
III. THE CHURCH IS CALLED TO MODEL RACIAL HARMONY. 2:19-22; 3:3-10
In v.15 we see that Jesus broke down the wall of hostility so that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, referring to Jews and Gentiles. What is God’s plan for peace between the races? It is the church of Jesus Christ.
In the church Jews and Gentiles are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens in the kingdom of God with all the saints. In the Church, Jews and Gentiles are equally members of God’s household. Together we are part of the family of God, related to each other in Christ. Not only that, but in the church Jewish and Gentile believers are being built up into a holy temple in which God dwells by his Spirit. This temple is built upon the foundation of Christ, the apostles and prophets. People from every race are welcomed into the church of Jesus Christ. We are fellow citizens in God’s kingdom. We are brothers and sisters in God’s family. We share the same life of Christ. We are fellow worshippers and ministers in God’s temple. It’s all referring to the church.
In Eph.1:22-23 it says that Jesus Christ is the head of the church. The church is his body. And Jesus fills his church with his life. In 2:11-22 Paul begins to teach about the church. He wants us to see that salvation in Christ involves our participation in his church. If you are a follower of Christ, then you belong in the church of Jesus Christ. Our presence in a local congregation in worship on the Lord’s Day should not be optional, as if we have something better to do. The reason it should not be optional is because the church is where the family of God has fellowship. This is a family gathering. The church is where the temple of God is being built together into a dwelling place for God. Can you worship by yourself at home? I guess, but why would you? We belong together in worship. You are not a holy temple by yourself. I am not a holy temple by myself. We are being built into God’s holy temple. If you are not here how can you be built into his temple?
Paul also emphasizes the unity of all believers regardless of ethnic origin or social status. It is in the church that the ethnic alienation of this world has the greatest potential for being healed. It is in the church that racism and prejudice have the greatest potential for being healed. Now please listen carefully. Because of our individual ethnic identities, we each have a unique perspective and experience that we bring to the body of Christ, the church. That can be a wonderful asset in every congregation. But it will only be a wonderful asset if we recognize that our primary identity is not our ethnicity, but our oneness in Christ. Who I am is not defined by my being white. Who I am is defined by being in Christ. Who you are is not defined by your ethnic identity, it is defined by your being in Christ. “In Christ there is no east and west. In him no south or north; But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. In Christ now meet both east and west; in him meet south and north. All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth.” In Christ we have been accepted. In Christ the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. We have the reason and the resource to embrace and love everyone.
Racial, ethnic harmony is not always easy. There were racial struggles in the early church. This is why we must do our best to understand each other. The church is where that kind of understanding can best take place because we love each other and share the life of Jesus.
One more thing. In 3:6-10 Paul tells us that the church is God’s showpiece to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Israel was called to be God’s showpiece, but Israel failed. The church, made up of all ethnicities, shows the manifold wisdom of God. God is doing what no one else can do. God’s plan is to have a church in which people from every race are living and worshipping together in the peace that comes from being in Christ.
Now I don’t know you inner thoughts and feelings about race and ethnicity. But I am convinced that only Jesus can heal the prejudices that are common to all. You may have been deeply hurt because of prejudice. You may have deeply hurt someone because of prejudice. Ethnic jokes and slurs and stereotypes ought not to be on the lips of believers. It is true that stereotypes are often rooted in some kernel of reality, but stereotypes are used to belittle and mock. Followers of Christ do not embrace stereotypes. Do we stumble? We surely do. And we forgive, because we are family. Amen