We are living in an increasingly fragmented society, a nation in which people of differing political views eye each other with growing suspicion and hostility. We don’t just argue with each other, we attack each other. We put up roadblocks instead of building bridges. The tragedy of Charlottesville and the alt-right and the thuggery of the alt-left and the so-called “Antifa” are just symptoms of a wider problem here in our country and the West in general. You see it in safe-spaces on the left and you see it in the retreat of conservatives and the religious into their own little enclaves. Many are no longer interested in understanding the other side, they just want their own views to receive validation and they are ready to attack anyone who questions them. We allow differences to become barriers.
I don’t know all the reasons for the growing alienation in our culture. Part of it is no doubt due to the fact that our society has become more diverse but there is no cultural glue to hold everyone together. The idea of belonging to a common culture is shattering before our eyes as people join groups each competing for political power over the others. But I have no doubt that the ultimate reasons lie in our sinfulness and the pride and selfishness and lack of love that sin spawns in our individual hearts which then spreads out to society as a whole.
The question is, how do we respond to this? And what can the church do to shine the light of Christ in an increasingly alienated society? There may be some who don’t think there is a solution to the problem. It has been said that a problem without a solution is not a problem but a fact. Is that what we are faced with – a fact? Is this not something than can be fixed?
The text we are considering this morning actually has a lot to say to such a problem. It tells us how Jews and Gentiles, very different both racially and religiously and culturally, were reconciled and learned to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. However, the solution it presents is a gospel solution and it tells us that there really is no way that such a thing can happen apart from the embrace of the Christ and his word by faith.
Let’s see how and why the gospel is so important to this process of reconciliation.
In the first 10 verses of this chapter, the apostle has recounted a seismic shift in the lives of the Ephesian Christians, namely, that they had been relocated from the realm of spiritual death to life in Christ. Now, in the second half of the chapter, he reminds them of another equally seismic shift in their relationship to the people of God. Simply put, once they were not part of the people of God and now they are part of the people of God.
But the change they experienced is actually far more significant than it sounds at first. For almost two thousand years, the locus of the people of God centered in the Jewish people. They were privileged in ways that no other nation was privileged. They had the advantage in that “unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2). God revealed “his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them” (Ps. 147:19-20). In this way, as our Lord reminded the woman at the well in Samaria, “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).
It is not that the Gentiles had no access to the precious treasure of the word of God, but they had to go to Israel to hear it. In fact, the people of Israel were meant to be a light to the nations, so that they would come to seek the God of Israel. Solomon, in his dedication prayer for the temple, expected strangers to come from far countries for the sake of God’s great name (1 Kings 8:41-42).
However, that’s not to say that participation with the people of God was easy for the Gentiles. There were two great barriers against them. One was the law of Moses itself, which Paul calls “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” in verse 15, which describes the “middle wall of partition” in verse 14. The Law was a middle wall that separated the Gentiles and the Jews. It accomplished this primarily by the rite of circumcision. There were a lot of Gentiles in Paul’s day (called God-fearers) that would go to the synagogue but would never take the step of becoming a full-blown proselyte to Judaism because they didn’t want to be circumcised. And no doubt the burden of many of the other ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law prohibited many from uniting themselves with the people of God.
The other barrier was the unfortunate attitudes that developed between Jew and Gentile. No doubt the apostle was thinking about this when he wrote of the “enmity” that existed between them (15). William Barkley describes the situation that existed in Paul’s day:
The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made . . . It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of the Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death.
Nowhere was this double barrier illustrated with greater force than by the Jewish temple then standing in Jerusalem. A one-and-a-half-meter wall separated the temple precincts proper from the Court of the Gentiles. You might remember how much trouble Paul got into when some Jews imagined that he had brought some Gentiles past the wall into the temple. There were actually signs mounted on this wall at periodic points which warned not, as Stott puts it, “Trespassers will be prosecuted,” but “Trespassers will be executed.” Gentiles could behold the temple from afar, but they could not enter it, and they certainly could not participate in its rituals. They were decisively separated from the people of Israel and their religion.
What the apostle does in this part of the epistle is to remind the Ephesians how this double chasm was bridged. He does this by first reminding them where they were before they were part of the people of God (11-12), how they were incorporated into the people of God (13-18), and the where they are now as a result (19-22). This morning, I want to focus on their previous position when they were estranged from the people of God. I do so because the negatives Paul mentions here tell us something very important about the great defining characteristic of God’s people.
How does the apostle describe them? He begins by describing them as they were called by the Jews: “the Uncircumcision” (11). This was an umbrella term for the descriptions in the following verse (12). They were: (1) without Christ, (2) aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, (3) strangers from the covenants of promise, (4) having no hope, and (5) without God in the world.
It’s interesting to consider these characteristics in light of the solution that Paul gives in the following verses. Christ died in order to bring them out of the state outlined in verses 11-12 and into the state outlined in verses 19-22. The bridge verse is 13: “But now [as opposed to “at that time” in verse 12] in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” It is the redemptive death of Jesus that healed the rift described above. And the result is that they are now the members of God’s people and family. So the condition described in verses 11-12 was something that required the death of Jesus Christ and which issued in participation in the family of God.
Why then does Paul place “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” in this description? In particular, why would Paul list non-citizenship in the nation of Israel as something that necessitated the death of Christ so that the Gentiles might be saved and included in the people of God? It’s not as if citizenship in Israel was ever necessary to be saved or even part of the people of God. What did this have to do with being without Christ, God, and hope?
I think the key is the very next phrase: “strangers from the covenants of promise.” This is not a reference to the Mosaic covenant, but to the Abrahamic covenant, which Paul consistently calls the covenant of promise in contrast to the Law of Moses. For example, in Galatians 4, Paul talks about two covenants, one of promise represented by Isaac, and the other of law represented by Ishmael (4:21-31). Some question whether it could only be the Abrahamic covenant, since Paul uses the plural covenants. But we must recall that God repeated this covenant multiple times to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I think it is in this sense that Paul speaks of covenants plural.
What exactly was this covenant? The apostle Paul focused on the promise that in the seed of Abraham all the world would be blessed and saw this promise as the gospel in miniature: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gal. 3:6-8). The apostle’s argument was that Abraham was justified exactly as Gentiles are today: by trusting in the God of the gospel.
This covenant was given to Abraham, and through him to the nation of Israel. This is why belonging to the nation of Israel was so important. To be an alien to the nation of Israel was to be a stranger from the covenants of promise, and therefore to be ignorant of the gospel, even if it was only in its infant form during the OT era. This explains why Paul says they were “without Christ.” Unlike their Jewish counterparts, they were not looking forward to the coming of the Messiah who would save his people. They had no such expectation because they had no such gospel.
Without the gospel they were without Christ, and being without Christ they were without hope and without God in the world. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have hope at all; it means that they hope they had was unfounded and ill-placed. Over and over the Bible reminds us that hope in Christ is unique because it alone is that which will not make those ashamed who place their hopes in Christ: “Hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:5-6). “For the Scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Rom. 10:11). To be without Christ is to be without hope.
But you don’t have Christ apart from the gospel: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, that bring glad tidings of good things! . . . So then faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14-15, 17).
The unifying element to all these negatives, then, is the lack of the gospel. They were without Christ because they were ignorant of the gospel. And they were ignorant of the gospel because they were not part of Israel, the place in which God uniquely revealed the gospel through the promises made to Abraham and his seed. And, therefore, they were without hope and without God.
A very important implication of Paul’s teaching in this text is the fact that the word of God creates the people of God; in particular, the gospel does this. To be without the gospel is to be without Christ and without hope and without God. It is to be lost. There are a number of important truths that follow from this.
First of all, there is no salvation apart from Christ and the embrace of the good news about him in the gospel. “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The idea that there are multitudes of people living without any knowledge of the gospel who will then be saved is simply a foreign idea to Scripture. It is the reason why it is imperative for this church to support missionaries who are bringing the gospel to the unreached in the world. For the awful reality is that without the gospel they are in exactly the position that the apostle Paul is describing for us in verses 11-12. They are without hope and without God in this world. Moreover, it is not enough simply to bring water and food to the unreached. That is not missions in the Biblical sense. Though we ought to do such things, we ought to see such outreach as a means of opportunity for the gospel. Jesus not only healed people’s physical bodies, he also preached the gospel of the kingdom. Neither is being nice to lost people evangelism. We must give them the gospel.
We must avoid the lie that you can be saved and not know Christ. What Paul is saying here is that being religious is no guarantee that you know God. In fact, the word Paul uses for “without God” is the Greek word atheos, from which we get the word “atheist.” Of course, the apostle is not saying that they literally didn’t believe in God; in fact, they had almost certainly been polytheistic before their conversion – they believed in many gods! Rather, the apostle is saying what he said to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill: they were very religious but the true God was yet unknown to them (Acts 17:22-23). Christ did not come to make men religious. He came and died so that we might know the true God (Jn. 17:3). We know the true God through Christ and Christ alone.
But the word of God in the gospel not only saves us, it also becomes the very thing that brings us into participation with the people of God. This was true in the OT era and it is true today as well. Before, the Gentiles had been “strangers and foreigners” but now in Christ we are “fellowcitizens with the saints and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Before, they had been separated from the people of God because they were separated from the nation of Israel and its rich store of God’s word and promises and covenants. But now they “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (20). The church, which is the visible expression of the people of God upon the earth, is founded upon the word of God. And this is not just any religious word: it is the word of the apostles and prophets. In other words, the Scriptures.
I cannot stress enough the importance of God’s word for the formation and sanctification of the church. The apostolic church understood this. When Luke gives us a progress report on the state of the church in its early years, he does so in these words: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42; see also 6:4).
Recently, in reading early church history, I came across a description of church worship in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, bishop in Lyon. According to him, the worship of the typical second century church consisted of four things: Scripture reading, preaching, corporate prayer, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is interesting because this list is almost identical to the one given in Acts 2. The church was still putting emphasis upon God’s word. Unfortunately, over the years this emphasis waned until it became non-existent. The Bible was taken from the masses and even when it was read it was in Latin, in a language the common people did not understand. We should thank God, especially in this year the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that the reformers like Luther and Calvin were so insistent upon putting God’s word front and center again for the benefit of the church and the glory of God.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the health of the church is solely dependent upon right doctrine and a right understanding of the gospel. There are a lot of other things that figure into the health of both the individual Christian and the church as a whole. But we should beware of ever leaving aside the central place that God’s word ought to play in our lives and in the life of the church. It would be like saying, “I don’t like the way you emphasize eating because there are other things just as important to good health.” Yes, but if you don’t eat you will most certainly die. And the church without the word is like a body without food. In fact, as our Lord put it, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and the rejoicing of mine heart” (Jer. 15:16).
Just as the word of God formed the nation of Israel, even so the word of God forms the church. Any church which is not rooted in and upholding the word of God is not faithful to God’s purpose for the church. As the apostle Paul reminded Timothy, the church is “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The church relates to the truth as a pillar to a building: it holds it up for all to see. It relates to the truth as a foundation to a building: it establishes the truth and holds it with unshakable confidence.
God’s word also gives us hope. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The purpose of God’s word is not only to fill our heads with the knowledge of the truth, but to brace our hearts with the joy and peace that comes through hope (cf. Rom. 15:13). The Gentiles were without true hope because they were without the word that supplies that hope.
Again, I think the connection to the covenants of promise is important here. The chief way the Scriptures operate to give us hope is through the promises of God in his word to us. But the promises do not operate alone; they are inextricably tied to God’s acting in history. The future that is promised to us is not grounded in mere words but in past salvation history. This is why being part of the commonwealth of Israel was so important. Israelites could look back on their history; it interpreted the promises and gave confidence that God would fulfill his future gracious promises to them. God through the prophets promised them that he would deliver them from captivity; they looked back on the Exodus and this made sense to them. God promised that he would send them a Messiah who would take the throne of David forever; King David himself became a paradigm for such a promise.
The ultimate Divine intervention into history was not the Exodus or exaltation of David to the throne of Israel; it was the coming of Jesus the Son of God into the world to rescue his people by taking the guilt of their sins upon himself and suffering the punishment they deserved upon the cross so that they might be forgiven and freely accepted before God. He not only died but rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. This is not some fairy tale but history that radically changed the lives of the apostles and the first-generation Christians. So, when we are faced with trials that threaten the foundation of our faith and hope, we need to look back to what God has already done for us. When we wonder if God could love us because of some loss, let us remember what God had to lose that we might gain eternal life. As Michael Card puts it in one of his songs, “What more could God have given, tell me, what more did God have to give?” “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Though we have not yet reached the Promised Land, we can look back to that to which the Exodus pointed and have confidence that that deliverance will issue in the other.
You could summarize verses 1-3 of this chapter by saying that the Gentiles before Christ were without life. Verses 11-12 could in turn be summarized by saying that the Gentiles before Christ were without the truth. As a result, they were separated from God and the people of God. But we must not miss the significance that God gave them life and light. He quickened them and gave them the gospel: “And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh” (17). These pagans who were once without Christ and God and hope, who were strangers to the culture and conduct of God’s people, were by grace brought into the bonds of peace.
And God did this through the truth of the gospel. He took these pagans who had long been at odds with the church of God and hostile to the God of the church were reconciled to both God and his people. They heard the gospel and they were saved. Through the truth of the Scriptures they grew in grace and lived out the unity to which God had called them. This was monumental.
And in our day, as we see our culture fragmenting into safe spaces and identity politics where people – both secular and religious – are hunkering down into their own little enclaves, we need to remember what God did in the first century between Jew and Gentile and what he continues to do to the present day. God is bringing very different people into the church through the truth. The unity that we are called to seek in the church is not to be found in our race, or in our cultural heritage, or life experiences. It is found in Christ and in the good news that he brings. As Paul reminds us, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28). It is a unity that desires for as many as possible to participate. It is expressed in the prayer of the apostle: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Rom. 10:1).
The gospel can do this because the gospel empties us of both personal and cultural pride. It teaches us that we are bankrupt sinners whose salvation does not come from belonging to a certain race or culture but to Jesus who died for the sins of people from every people and tribe and nation and language (Rev. 5:9). There is no room for pride in people who are redeemed and saved by grace. There is a reason why Eph. 2:1-10 comes before 2:11-22. Jew and Gentile could never have been reconciled on any other basis than grace.
The gospel brings about reconciliation because the gospel tells us to find our identity in Christ, not in the color of our skin or in the flag that we salute. That’s not to say that we should not be thankful for our heritage. But the gospel transcends all such distinctions and we learn to receive each other as Christ received us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7).
The gospel brings about reconciliation because the gospel causes us to find hope in a Savior who is not dependent upon or loyal to our own particular culture. He is the one redeeming our culture, a culture which is sinful since it is the product of human designs and desires. He is the one who will bring a New Heaven and New Earth which is infinitely more desirable and valuable than the one we now inhabit. Our hopes are therefore not pinned upon one particular expression of human achievement which is inherently bound by time to expire, but on the living Christ who will usher in an everlasting kingdom.
The Lord is thus using his word to bring together his people from every people and tongue and nation and tribe. Let us therefore be faithful to his word and to his desire to bring about true unity – the unity that is found by belonging to the people of God through Christ. And if you are yet a stranger to Christ and the gospel promises, the invitation is open to you: Come, put your trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you will light and life in him.