How the Gospel United the Jews and Gentiles in the Early Church

Let’s go once again to Ephesians 2. Last time, we didn’t quite make it through as much of the passage as I originally intended. But I want to read it in full before we pick up from where we left off.

I’ll read Ephesians 2:11-22:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Our God in heaven, our world is full of strife and division. The same problems have often plagued your church as well. But we long for peace. Though we know that we will not see absolute unity in this current world, we look forward to the day when your Son returns and establishes complete harmony in the new heaven and new earth. In the meantime, please give us a spirit of peace. Help us to know your peace and live accordingly with one another. Teach us to be peacemakers. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Everything Is Broken

In the late Eighties, one of my favorite songwriters released a track that sums up the state of the world in which we live. The song goes like this:

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken

While Bob Dylan may not possess the sophisticated prose of William Shakespeare, he does know how to make his point. The world is broken. If you need proof of that, just watch the evening news for about five minutes, and you’ll have more than enough.

How did we get here? Fractured relationships and endless conflict between people are not what God created in the beginning. He designed a world where both people and animals lived in perfect harmony. Better yet, they were at peace with God. There was no separation, animosity, or division of any kind.

So what happened?

Did you ever make a volcano in school for science class? You’d begin by forming your volcano out of clay where you’d hide a container of vinegar inside of it. Then, when you were ready for it to erupt, you’d pour in some baking soda. The combination of vinegar and baking soda would cause, well, not so much an explosion as a slow ooze.

Sin is the world’s baking soda. When Adam disobeyed God in the garden of Eden, he disrupted every semblance of peace. Adam and Eve ran away to hide from God. For the first time ever, there was a separation between the Creator and his creation.

Sadly, the consequences didn’t end there. From that day forward, God said there would be perpetual conflict between men and women. Even the earth would turn against us. God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Ge 3:17). On the same day that Adam sinned, the first animal was slaughtered. By the very next generation, men began killing men. It was Adam and Eve’s son who committed the first murder.

The world has been broken ever since.

We are divided by geographic borders and nationalities. We are further divided into regions and by subcultures. There is often hostility between political affiliations, social classes, races, and genders. Even families are torn apart by one meaningless distinction or another.

But Now

“But now,” Paul says (Eph 2:13). Something has changed. Things aren’t what they used to be. Namely, the Gentiles are no longer “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).

Let me back up because the historical context of this passage is important.

I doubt that we can underestimate the divide between the Jews and the Gentiles prior to the first century. There was a wide and deep gulf between them. They viewed each other with utter contempt. They shared a long history of disdain for one another, reaching back to the very beginning.

The Gentiles, in particular, were completely separated from God. Paul said, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Ro 1:25). They were blatant idolaters. As a result, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Ro 1:26). They abandoned God, so God abandoned them.

As for the Jews, they knew God because God gave them special revelation through his law and the prophets. Even so, they, too, were “under sin” (Ro 3:9). They were alienated from God as well. Paul reminded the Romans, “Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Ro 3:19).

In short, everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, was guilty before God.

The Jews, however, did have an advantage over the Gentiles. Paul said, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Ro 3:1-2). God gave them his logion, his words, his utterances. Their advantage was knowing the truth about God and salvation.

Despite Israel’s many failures throughout the Old Testament, they did serve God. They were God’s chosen people while the Gentiles remained not only without God but also alienated from Israel.

Put yourself in their shoes. You can probably imagine just how challenging it was to unite the Jews and Gentiles in the early church. To the dismay of many Jews, God’s plan of redemption always included the Gentiles.

Do you remember how Jonah reacted when God told him to go to the Gentile city of Nineveh to preach? He ran in the opposite direction. Do you remember how he reacted once he did preach in Nineveh and the people repented? He threw a temper-tantrum because God didn’t destroy them for their former wickedness. Jonah seems to represent what was once the prevailing attitude among the Jews.

The Gentiles, of course, didn’t feel any better about Israel. As soon as God dropped his hedge of protection around them, one Gentile nation or another was ready and willing to conquer them.

Suffice it to say, a certain amount of tension was created when the Jews and Gentiles finally came together in the church. Both groups carried in some cultural baggage, so the animosity continued, though to a lesser degree than before.

Christ Is All and In All

According to Paul, however, there’s no place for a division in the Christian church. While I don’t get the impression that the Ephesians were actually divided, I have little doubt that division was possible, maybe even probable.

Regardless, Paul wants the Gentiles to understand their rightful place in the church. He also wants them to avoid any temptation to cause schisms in the body of Christ. As he told the Colossians:

There is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised … but Christ is all, and in all.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:11-15)

Let’s not forget what it is we believe as Christians. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of reconciliation. First and foremost, we are reconciled to God. Second, we are reconciled to God’s people. There is only one faith and one body.

Brought Near By the Blood of Christ

Having reminded Gentile believers of their separation from both God and his people, he says (verse 13), “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 1:13).

Notice the contrast Paul makes here: “far off” versus “brought near.” In Acts 2, Peter used similar language. He said, “For the promise is for you and for your children [that is, the Jews] and for all who are far off [the Gentiles], everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39).

Because the Jews had a covenant relationship with God, they spoke of themselves as being near God. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were far off because they didn’t have the same relationship. Plus, they were physically distant from God’s presence in the temple.

But that’s past tense. Anyone who is in Christ Jesus, Jew or Gentile, is brought near by the blood of Christ. Just as sin leads to division, holiness leads to harmony. Because Christ was perfectly holy, he could make atonement for our sin through his death. And because he has made atonement, the penalty of sin is washed away. The separation is removed.

Keep in mind that even the Jews were never as close to God as we are under the new covenant. Yes, they possessed the truth of God, his blessings, his special care, and even his presence in the temple. But under the new covenant, we are the temple of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1Co 6:19). So even the Jews were brought near (nearer, at least).

More to the point, there’s no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile. Whether they liked it or not, Paul told the Corinthians, “He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1Co 6:17). Of course, if one becomes joined to the Lord, then he becomes joined to everyone else who is joined to the Lord. There is not one but two reconciliations taking place.

To illustrate this point, consider what happened in Genesis 11. When the people sinfully attempted to construct the infamous Tower of Babel, what was the consequence? “The Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Ge 11:9). So the penalty for their sin was disunity.

Compare that event with what happened on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 2, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. … each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” (Ac 2:4; 6). It was an exact reversal of what sin caused in Genesis 11. Sin creates division while God restores unity not only with him but also with one another.

He Himself Is Our Peace

Paul continues:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:14-17)

Notice the emphatic position of Christ. “For he himself is our peace.” Jesus alone is our peace. He must be because we could not create peace for ourselves. We’re the ones who created sin and division. By nature, we are selfish creatures which is inherently divisive. James rhetorically asked:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1-3)

Selfishness.

If there is to be peace between us, then we must die to self. And where does self go to die? It dies on the cross of Christ. In Galatians 2, Paul confessed:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).

Without the cross, there is no dying to self. Without dying to self, there is no peace between us.

A week or two ago, I was listening to a sermon on this passage by John MacArthur. He told the story of a battle that was taking place between the Germans and the Americans during World War II. As you would expect, the fighting was brutal. I’m sure that the hatred between the two sides was incredible, to say the least. But the battle came to a surprising halt when a three-year-old child wandered into the middle of the field.

That’s a beautiful picture of what happened when the Prince of Peace came into this world. Isaiah prophesied, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6).

Jesus stepped right into the thick of the battle, and he created peace. Within the church, we can see it. Though we may struggle at times, male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, Republican and Democrat—we all live together in unity. Whatever divided us in the past no longer matters.

The Dividing Wall of Hostility

Paul says, “[Christ] has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). I believe he’s alluding to the physical separation between Jews and Gentiles in the Jerusalem temple.

Gentile proselytes had a special court in the temple and were not allowed to go any further. In fact, there was a sign that read: “No Gentile may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone who caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”

Even a Jew could die if he were caught bringing a Gentile further than permitted. Paul was once accused of that. Some Jews grabbed him and shouted, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (Ac 21:28).

It never happened, but they claimed it did.

Imagine how that felt. Imagine what it was like to be treated as inferior even though you desired to be near the same God as everyone else. It wasn’t that long ago in this country that an entire race of people was not permitted to drink from the same water fountains or use the same restrooms as everyone else. Today, we call it, injustice.

The division in the temple vividly represented the hate and hostility between the Jews and Gentiles. But God meant the Court of the Gentiles to be something else altogether. It certainly wasn’t a permanent separation between them.

Listen to this prophecy given through Isaiah in Isaiah 5:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry! (Isaiah 5:1-7)

While God did plant his vineyard in Jerusalem, so to speak, he discovered that it was not growing good fruit. Rather, it produced wild sour grapes. So what did he do with it? He broke down the walls around it.

What did Jesus accuse the Jews of doing to his Father’s house, the temple? He said, “You have made it a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). The Court of the Gentiles was to be a place where even Gentiles could draw closer to God, but the Jews had turned it into a marketplace.

In the end, Christ destroyed the dividing wall. Specifically, he removed the obstacles that stood in the Gentiles’ way. Paul says that he “[abolished] the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph 2:15). By fulfilling the ceremonial law, Christ effectively broke down the superficial barriers that separated the Gentiles from the Jews.

Reconciling the Jews and Gentiles In the Early Church

He continues:

That he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:15-17)

Jesus has created one new man or one kainos. By kainos or “new,” Paul doesn’t mean a newly manufactured thing. For instance, you may purchase something that is brand new. It’s still in the original box and shrink wrap. But Paul is talking about something that has never existed before. Everything about it is new. It is unique and remarkable.

In other words, Christ has not merely converted Jews and Gentiles into Christians. No, he has created Christians. The former identities cease to exist. That is why Paul could say to the Romans, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Ro 10:12).

I read another story from World War II where a soldier needed to bury the body of a fellow soldier who had died in battle. He found a nearby Catholic church and asked the priest for permission to use a plot in their cemetery. But the soldier wasn’t Catholic, so the priest refused.

The soldier decided to bury his friend just outside of the cemetery’s fence. Once he did, he left and returned to his unit. The next chance he got, he walked back to visit the grave of his friend, but he couldn’t find it. It had seemingly disappeared.

As it turned out, the priest had felt guilty for denying the soldier. So by the time the soldier returned, he had torn down the fence, moved the line just past his friend’s grave, and rebuilt it.

In a much deeper, more profound sense, that’s exactly what Christ has done. He moved the fence that once separated two distinct groups, making them one. On the cross, he brought all of God’s people together not only to himself but also to one body together. The alienation was nullified. The hostility was turned to peace.

Peace To You

Dylan says, “Everything is broken.” Paul concurs, but he also adds a solution. The solution is the gospel of Jesus Christ. He says, “[Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:17). In short, Christ has preached peace to everyone.

“Preached” is translated from the same Greek word from which we get evangelize. Put another way, Christ evangelized peace. Do you remember what the angels shouted at his birth? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14). Jesus not only proclaims peace, but he also brings peace. He accomplishes it. He procures it. He secures it.

Jesus is the very embodiment of peace. Once again, he is our only source of true peace (that is, peace with God and peace with fellow believers of every background and culture). On the night before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). He also said, “In me you may have peace” (Jn 16:33).

“For through him we both [both Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). The entire Trinity is involved in what is more than a judicial experience; it’s a personal, intimate one.

The Spirit, in particular, serves as the King’s—I can’t remember what the position is called. He’s the one who grants us access to the King. He summons us into the King’s chamber. According to Romans 8, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Ro 8:16). The book of Hebrews says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16).

This word “access” in verse 18 is a word that is used only three times in the New Testament. In each case, Paul is referring to the believer’s access to God the Father. For instance, in Ephesians 3, he writes, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Eph 3:11-12).

No Longer Strangers and Aliens

In the end, Paul uses three metaphors to characterize the unity of Christ’s body. He says:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

We are (1) fellow citizens of one kingdom, (2) God’s household or members of one family, and (3) a holy temple or one dwelling place for God.

Let’s save these last few verses of Ephesians 2 for next time. There’s considerably more in this passage than I’m prepared to expound on today. We’ll start again at verse 19 next week, and I’ll make every effort to bring it all together.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for this time in your Word. We thank you for the gospel of peace and reconciliation. We thank you for the privilege of being able to approach your throne of grace with bold confidence. Your Son has told us that we will have tribulation in this world, but that we should also be of good cheer. Lord, we believe that Christ has overcome the world. For those who don’t believe, give them the ears to hear and hearts to receive it. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on July 9, 2017.