Go with me to Ephesians 2. 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 Holy God and Savior, we desire to sense your Spirit’s presence among us as we study your Word. Grant us that privilege. After all, your apostle says that we are your dwelling place by the Spirit. Thank you for your blessings. Thank you for your grace. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Building Barriers In the Church
A few years ago, I read the story of a young man who visited a traditional Baptist church. He wasn’t invited. He attended a nearby college, and he inexplicably felt compelled one Sunday to find a place to worship.
The young man didn’t quite fit the mold of the average attendee at this church. His hair was long and shaggy. His ears were pierced. His jeans were tattered and full of holes. He knew that he’d likely stand out from the crowd, but he went anyhow.
He walked in just as the service was about to start, looked around, and realized that the pews were all full. Realizing he didn’t have much time to make a decision as to where to go, he decided to sit on the floor in the center aisle off to one side. He walked about halfway up the aisle and sat down on the floor.
Within a minute or two, the church’s oldest deacon rose from his seat near the back. He was frail and struggled to walk, but he started down the aisle toward the young man. People in the congregation noticed and began whispering, “I suppose he’s going to set the kid straight. You don’t sit on the floor like a barbarian. He might even tell him to dress a little better before coming to church.”
The old deacon slowly made his way to the college student. When he finally reached the young man, he didn’t say a word. Rather, his brittle bones creaked and popped as he lowered himself to the floor, taking a seat right next to the young man. He looked over at the kid, smiled once, and waited for the service to start. The entire church was dumbfounded.
After everyone had sung a few songs, the pastor stood quietly at the lectern for a moment. He turned to a few pages in his Bible and shuffled his notes, but then set everything aside. Then, he looked up at the congregation and said, “I had every intention of speaking to you this morning, but I think you’ve already witnessed a better sermon than I could ever preach.”
If the church were a piano, then some of us would like to believe that every key should be tuned the same. The people who make up the church should look the same, dress the same, think the same, and live the same. Perhaps some keys are in need of tuning, but if every note is identical, then the piano can’t produce beautiful harmonies.
It’s human nature to build barriers between us. We develop our standards over time, no matter how arbitrary they might be, and we form cliques of likeminded people around them. We laud ourselves for being right and criticize others for being wrong even when there is not a spiritual matter of biblical significance at stake.
But trivial church traditions are not the worst of our divisiveness. For instance, the Christian church remains one of the most racially segregated organizations on the planet. Though much of the division may be cultural these days, racism still exists. I once visited a church where a deacon openly admitted that he would never allow a black person to join his church. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been more disgusted by a fellow believer.
We Were All Baptized Into One Body
As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). The problem of racial, social, and cultural divisions has existed from the very beginning of the church. For example, free people felt that slaves were inferior while slaves viewed their masters with contempt. Men once treated women as little more than slaves. The Greeks considered themselves racially superior, often referring to everyone else as barbarians.
Jesus knew his people would become divided. Just before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed to God, saying, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn 17:11). Earlier the same night, he encouraged his disciples to always love another. He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget that Christ has joined all of us together within his body. Paul told the Corinthians:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
In Christ, there are no walls, no classes, no races, no genders, and no distinctions of any kind. We are one in Christ. We are individual members of the same body. If we are tempted to divide the body, then Paul reminds us that “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1Co 12:18). In other words, think twice before you cut off your finger.
Jews and Gentiles
In the earliest days of the church, the most notable divide was between the Jews and the Gentiles. In fact, we can watch the hostility rise as we read through the four Gospels. Long ago, God had promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” yet the Jews could hardly fathom God blessing the despicable Gentiles (Ge 12:3).
Early in his ministry, Jesus outraged the Jews in Nazareth when he said:
“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:25-27)
To the dismay and disapproval of the Jews, the Old Testament proved that God was willing to show his grace to Gentiles while withholding his grace from the people of Israel. God sent Elijah to a Gentile woman. He sent Elisha to a Gentile army general.
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. (Luke 4:28-29)
They were so angered by the thought of God showing favor to Gentile sinners that they were willing to kill Christ just for mentioning it. They were unsuccessful, of course.
The Gentiles were also well aware of the animosity. In Mark 7, we’re told of a Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. But Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). I believe he was testing her resolve, and she passed, saying, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28). In the end, Christ healed her little girl.
Do you remember how the Samaritan woman reacted when Jesus asked her for a drink of water in John 4? She asked him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jn 4:9). Even though the Samaritans were racially Hebrew, at least in part, they also had Assyrian blood running through their veins. The Jews thought of them as tainted. They’d walk miles and miles out of the way just to avoid passing through the region of Samaria.
With that background in mind, you can imagine how challenging it was for Jews and Gentiles to come together in the church. They came with drastically different lifestyles and cultures. Even Peter couldn’t avoid the temptation to separate himself from Gentile believers. Once he learned of it, Paul was so upset that he “opposed [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal 2:11).
The disciples once asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He replied, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [or stumble], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:1; 6).
Maintain the Unity of the Spirit
Paul was acutely aware that disunity in the Ephesian church was possible. Though he didn’t address a particular division in this letter as he did when writing to the Corinthians, churches were fracturing everywhere. The animosity between Jewish and Gentile believers remained prevalent in most of the churches. In Ephesians 4, for instance, he encouraged them to strive for peace and unity, saying:
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Before he gets to the practical exhortations, however, he lays a foundation here in Ephesians 2. It was important for the Gentile Christians to remember from where they came. It was equally important that they understand how they arrived.
Many of us were raised in Christian homes, so it’s difficult for us to relate. That wasn’t the case for Gentile believers in the first century. They weren’t raised by godly parents to serve the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They weren’t raised to anxiously anticipate the coming Messiah. Sin and salvation were not subjects that crossed their minds too often if ever.
Even so, God “made [them] alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:5). Like every believer, Jew or Gentile, past or present, the Spirit of God disrupted their lives of ignorance and disobedience. He turned them not only to God the Father but also to Christ the Son. By grace, he saved them from the wrath to come.
Gentiles In the Flesh
Paul goes even further to explore the extent of the Gentiles’ alienation from God, not to mention their separation from God’s people of the old covenant. He says:
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. (Ephesians 2:11-12)
First, notice the social element of their separation. There was a physical, external distinction which Paul encourages them to remember. Intended as a term of derision, the Jews often referred to the Gentiles as the “uncircumcision” or the “uncircumcised.” For instance, David reviled Goliath when he called him an “uncircumcised Philistine” (1Sa 17:26). It was meant as an insult.
Even though the physical mark of circumcision was never anything more than a symbol, it was still important. It represented one’s identity as a person of God. It was a sign of one’s commitment to obey the commandments of God. Furthermore, it was the oldest of God’s commandments to Israel, given to their forefather, Abraham.
Even so, circumcision had no mystical powers. It was always an external ritual meant to symbolize something deeper, something spiritual. But like anything physical, it didn’t necessarily represent a genuine relationship with God. Any man can be circumcised.
Paul told the Romans, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical [that is, real circumcision with saving benefits]. But a Jew [a real Jew, a spiritual Jew] is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Ro 2:28-29).
Having No Hope and Without God
More importantly, though, the Gentiles were once separated in a profound spiritual sense. Again, Paul says, “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” (Eph 2:12).
The fact is, there was never any moral difference between the Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 3, Paul says that the Jews had an advantage because God “entrusted [them] with [his] oracles,” his law (Ro 3:2). But then he says, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Ro 3:9).
But God certainly dealt with the Jews differently than the Gentiles. The Gentiles were entirely separated and removed from the old covenant that God made with Israel. Paul says as much here with five particular points of separation.
1) The Gentiles were separated from Christ.
Their history contained no purpose or destiny as far as they knew. The Gentiles had no hope for the future. The Stoic philosophers among them believed that the world was on perpetual repeat. Every 3,000 years or so, the universe disappears and starts all over again. They were trapped in a futile cycle.
Their gods weren’t much help to them either. Most of their false gods were as flawed as human beings, prone to weaknesses, often fighting among themselves. They seemed to thrive on fear and despair. The Gentiles didn’t serve the gods out of love and trust but to appease them.
Very few Gentiles knew enough about the promises of God to utter the common Jewish refrain, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Ps 3:8). They were ignorant of both God and his salvation. They saw no Savior in their future.
2) The Gentiles were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.
Israel was a theocracy with God himself reigning as their King. The people were under his divine protection and blessings. He provided them his law, his guidance, and his promises. Psalm 147 says, “He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules” (Ps 147:20).
Listen to this description of God’s care for Israel from Ezekiel 16. It’s rather lengthy but worth reading in full. Ezekiel writes:
“As for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.
“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 16:4-14)
The people of Israel were once illegitimate children, unwanted and left in a field to die, but God showed them compassion. He took them, cleaned them, and adorned them like royalty. It wasn’t because they were more deserving than anyone else. God told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19). He chose them according to his sovereign purpose.
The Gentiles, on the other hand, remained outside of Israel’s commonwealth. They were not blessed to receive his protection and promises. They stayed in the open field where the people of Israel began.
3) The Gentiles were strangers to the covenant of promise.
The covenant God made with Abraham, Moses, David—even the promises of a new covenant given through prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel were unknown to the Gentiles. Time and time again, God reminded Israel that he would bless them and, ultimately, redeem them. But the Gentiles remained ignorant.
In Romans 9, Paul says of Israel:
To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. (Romans 9:4-5)
What about the Gentiles? Paul says:
God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:24-25)
4) The Gentiles had no hope.
In the midst of his terrible suffering, Job lamented, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:6). When one can’t see the future, assuming the future is brighter than the present, it’s impossible to have hope. Hope needs an object, something on which to set your sights.
The people of Israel had hope. God was their hope. One of the psalmists said, “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Ps 146:5). Another psalmist said, “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth” (Ps 71:5).
The Gentiles didn’t know the God of salvation. In short, they had no reason to hope. Death was their only prospect. Diogenes, a Greek philosopher from Corinth, once wrote:
I rejoice in sport in my youth. Long enough will I lie beneath the earth bereft of life, voiceless as a stone, and shall leave the sunlight which I love, good man though I am. Then shall I see nothing more. Rejoice, O my soul, in thy youth.
His outlook on the future was grim, which led to the inevitable hopeless mantra: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isa 22:13). In other words, you might as well live life to the fullest because you have only one and it’s temporary.
5) The Gentiles were without God in the world.
Once again, they had gods (little g), but they lacked any relationship with the true God of heaven. For example, when Paul went to the city of Athens, he told the people, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Ac 17:22). Even so, they were completely ignorant of the “God who made the world and everything in it … Lord of heaven and earth” (Ac 17:24).
Before we blame God for their ignorance, let’s not forget what Paul tells us in Romans 1:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:19-23)
The evidence of God is everywhere. He built that awareness right into his creation. I love what the Puritan, Ezekiel Hopkins, said: “There is a conscience in man; therefore, there is a God in heaven.” I, for one, appreciate the simplicity of his apologetics.
Even so, the Gentiles remained without God. As Paul quoted in Romans 3, “There [was] no fear of God before their eyes” (Ro 3:18).
Brought Near By the Blood of Christ
“But now,” Paul says, “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). Once again, Paul has reminded us of the bad news before delivering the good news. As for me, I’m leaving you with the bad news. We’ll save the good news for next time.
But let’s bring this passage to the present. While I’ve primarily focused on the historical context (namely, the tension between Jews and Gentiles), let’s not forget that we are the Gentiles. What Paul has said about them through this entire chapter is just as applicable to us, not to mention everyone else in the church.
What gives us the right to judge the shaggy kid with tattered jeans? God forbid that we should divide the body of Christ over skin color or meaningless cultural differences.
We, too, were once “separated from Christ … having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Just like us, those whom we’re tempted to cast off as inferior have been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” and only by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13). Our hope in him is not a birthright. We didn’t deserve it any more than anyone else. We, too, have been saved by grace.
God our Father, our hearts are touched by the mercy we’ve seen in this passage. We rejoice to be among those people you have rescued from a state of hopelessness. By your grace, we have the greatest testimony of all: We are with God in this world. Teach us to walk with you. Help us to walk with others who are walking with you. After all, we are one body in Christ. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on July 2, 2017.