Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Middle Wall of Partition Abolished: Ephesians 2:13-15




One of the more vexing questions that has plagued the church throughout history has been the question of the relationship of the Christian to the Law of Moses.  The problem showed up almost at the beginning of the church.  Acts 15 is about the debate that took place in Jerusalem among the leaders of the church as to the relationship Gentiles to the Law; in particular, whether or not they were required to be circumcised and to observe the whole apparatus of the ceremonial law.  It was decided that the Gentiles didn’t have to observe the law.  This conflict also lies behind the tensions implied in Romans 14, where Paul argued that those who observed the feast days and food laws of the Mosaic law should not judge those who didn’t.  He further argued that they should all receive each other, as Christ received us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7).  Above all, the question lies behind Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. 

When we survey the Biblical evidence, it seems that there were two problems that the early church had to deal with when it came to the relationship of the law to the Christian.  The first was a matter of obedience.  The question was whether God still requires obedience to all aspects of the Mosaic ordinances.  For many Jews, it was simply unthinkable to say that God no longer required the observance of the Passover, Day of Atonement, observance of the Sabbath, food laws, and so on.  It had been part of the obedience of the faithful for 1500 years.  Though many of us think of the law as partitioned into ceremonial, judicial, and moral, such distinctions would have been foreign to the Jew.  For them, all the law was moral because all the law was part of their obedience to God.  To imagine that these were suddenly no longer part of a life of faithfulness to God was simply anathema to many.  So you can see why this would have been such a big issue in the early church.  I think it was this problem that was at the heart of the conflict recorded in Acts 15 and Romans 14-15.

The other problem was more serious.  It was a matter of justification.  It seems that there were those who not only taught that obedience to the law was necessary for obedience, but that it was necessary for justification.  They taught that a person was made righteous through keeping the law; that a person’s acceptance before God depended on their keeping the law of Moses.  It was this view, which Paul calls “another gospel” (Gal. 1:1:7-8), that he addresses in Gal. 2:16: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” 

These two problems illustrate the different ways that legalism has tried to invade the life of the church.  It is legalistic to add to God’s commands and to require what he has not required.  But the more dangerous type of legalism is that which seeks to place obedience to God’s commands as the basis of our acceptance with God.  It of course doesn’t have to be the law of Moses that we place as the basis of our relationship to God; it can be any kind of work.

In a real way, these two types of legalism were what motivated the Protestant Reformation.  On one level, the medieval church had piled on all sorts of extrabiblical requirements for the Christian.  For example, if you really wanted to be holy, you had to embrace the ascetic life of the monastery.  More seriously, the whole sacramental system left many with the impression that you had to make yourself good enough in order to get to heaven.  This was certainly the way Martin Luther felt as he tried to assuage the intense guilt of sin that oppressed his soul.  It was why he became a monk, why he tormented his flesh, why he spent sometimes six hours in the confessional trying to rid himself of the stain of sin upon his heart.  It wasn’t until he understood that the righteousness that justifies is not something we give to God but something we receive from God that he felt as if he had entered open doors into paradise itself. 

But these two problems are perennial.  Five hundred years after the Reformation, we are still tempted to add to what God has required.  We are also tempted to believe that by doing something we can achieve God’s acceptance. 

Our text deals with both these problems.  It lays an axe to the root of legalism in both forms.  For it tells us that the Mosaic Covenant as a whole is no longer necessary for our sanctification and it tells us that the law of Moses has never been necessary for our justification.  In verse 13, the apostle tells us that the Gentiles who were once far off are now made near by the blood of Christ.  We saw last time that the Gentiles were far off in two ways.  They were far off from God, without God and without Christ and without hope.  They were also separated from the people of God.  This double alienation was bridged by the death of Christ for us.  By his death, our Lord broke down the middle wall of partition by abolishing the law of commandments – the law of Moses.  The law of Moses is no longer a barrier between Jew and Gentile because it no longer expresses God’s will for the people of God.  Thus our Lord reconciled Jew and Gentile (14-15).  But he also reconciled both Jew and Gentile to God (16).  He ended the hostility that existed between Jew and Gentile (14) and the hostility that existed between both Jew and Gentile and God (16).  On account of his life and death, we no longer look to Moses but to Christ as our law-giver.  And we no longer look to our righteousness to bring us peace with God but to the peace with God that our Lord purchased on the cross for us (17-18). 

This morning, I want to deal with that aspect of our Lord’s redeeming work that frees us from obligation to the Mosaic law.  Verses 14-15 very clearly teach that the law of Moses is no longer operative for the Christian.  It’s pretty clear that the apostle is referring to the law of Moses by the words “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (15).  The law consisted of many commandments that expressed God’s will for the nation of Israel.  Paul says that our Lord by his death abolished this law.  In a parallel passage in Colossians, Paul writes that by his death our Lord blotted out “the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).  In another passage, the apostle tells us that we have died to the law (Rom. 7:6).  If our Lord abolished the law, nailed it to the cross, and if we have died to the law, then it must be that we are no longer obligated to the demands of the Mosaic covenant. 

We need to approach this matter both negatively and positively.  First of all, I want to make very clear what the apostle was not teaching by saying that our Lord abolished the law.  There are many who draw inferences from the NT emphasis on freedom from the law that are not warranted by the overall teaching of the NT.  But then we need to approach these things positively, and establish exactly what it was the apostle was teaching.

First, negatively.  Now I want to be clear here.  The apostle was not arguing that freedom from the Mosaic law means freedom from all law.  As he tells the Corinthians, he was “not outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21, ESV).  Freedom from the law of Moses does not mean that we can live anyway that we please.  This is why I think the distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial aspects of the law are helpful.  The Mosaic law ultimately did not come from Moses but from God.  And as such, it reflected God’s holiness and his desire for his people to live holy lives.  Since God never changes, we should expect that there are aspects of the Mosaic law that were true before it was formally given on Mount Sinai and remained true after the abolition of the Mosaic covenant.  These aspects of the Mosaic covenant are what theologians have referred to as the “moral law.”  The moral law consists of those matters of obedience to God which are timeless.  It was wrong to steal, kill, and commit adultery before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and it will always be wrong. 

You see this in the Sermon on the Mount.  Recall that in the fifth chapter of Matthew, our Lord is correcting some Pharisaic misinterpretations of the Law of Moses.  He does not abolish the Law of Moses; if anything, he strengthens it.  He reminds his audience that the commandments that forbid murder and adultery don’t just refer to what we do to other people but what we think and feel in our hearts.  He tells us that except our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees we will never enter into the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:20).

But how do we distinguish between those aspects of the Mosaic law which are timeless and those which are not?  It is common to say that we are only required to keep those commandments which are reiterated in the NT.[1]  Though I would agree with this as far as it goes, this statement needs some qualifications.  So blandly stated, it makes it sound like we don’t even need to read the OT. 

First of all, the underlying principle we need to keep in mind is that Christ has fulfilled the law.  This is what he said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law of the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.  Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:17-19).  Christ did not destroy the law, he fulfilled it.  And clearly our Lord assumes that the commandments of the law have enduring validity for the kingdom that he came to usher in.[2]  But does this mean that we are still required to keep the ordinances associated with the OT ritual?  The answer given in the NT is clearly, no.  And the reason is that the early church read the law in light of our Lord’s fulfillment of it.  They understood that the ritual aspects of the law were no longer necessary after our Lord fulfilled them.  However, in fulfilling the moral law, our Lord not only did not abrogate the moral law, he strengthened it (cf. Mt. 5:21-48).  Again, we have to read the law in light of our Lord’s fulfillment of it.

And though I realize the distinguishing between moral and ceremonial in the law of Moses is out of fashion, I don’t see how you can make sense of our Lord’s words in Mt. 5:19 unless you assume that he is referring to those enduring aspects of the moral code in the Mosaic law, when he says that whoever breaks one of these least commandments will be the least in the kingdom of heaven.  The moral law is not abrogated in the death of Christ, but the ceremonial and judicial aspects are.

So when the apostle says that our Lord broke down the middle wall of partition by abolishing the law of commandments contained in ordinances, he is not referring to those commandments which still remain the rule of conduct for the Christian, God’s moral law.  Freedom from the Law of Moses means that we are free from that law as a covenant.  But we are not free from our obligation to obey God.  It’s simply impossible to read the NT and not see the emphasis on holy living.  The standard of conduct is not less than the standard of conduct in the OT; if anything, it is elevated by the teaching of our Lord and his apostles and by the example of our Lord and his apostles.

Second, not only must we read the OT in light of our Lord’s fulfillment of the law and the prophets, but we must also read the NT in light of the OT.  We must never forget that the Bible of the first-century church was the OT.  If we somehow think that because we are NT Christians, we no longer need the OT, then we are completely out of sync with the church founded by our Lord.  The fact of the matter is that the NT simply does not make sense apart from the OT.  If you want to understand what it meant for our Lord to give himself as an atoning sacrifice for sinners, then you have to go back and understand what was happening when the OT priests offered sacrifices.  For our Lord’s death was a fulfillment of all those ritual sacrifices.  He was the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” 

But this also applies to the moral code of the NT.  It has been pointed out that the NT never explicitly forbids bestiality.  Does that mean it is okay for Christians?  Of course not!  Again, we need to read the NT prohibitions against sexual immorality in light of the OT proscriptions against immorality.  Read in this light, the NT condemns every type of immoral behavior also forbidden by the OT, including bestiality.  Whoever breaks on these least commandments will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  The standard of holiness in the NT is not less than that of the OT.

We must beware of falling into the trap of those ancient heresies that taught that the God of the OT was different from the God of the NT. One of the more serious heresies to afflict the church as early as the second century was the Gnostic gospel preached by the followers of Marcion.  Marcion taught that the Old and New Testaments were absolutely opposed to each other, and that the God of the OT was the Demiurge, “a cruel and unloving Being, and Judaism was an evil religion, a religion of law and works and self-righteousness.”  The NT, on the other hand, was a religion of the supreme God and his Son Jesus and was a religion of grace, faith, and freedom.[3]  Accordingly, Marcion banned the OT and much of the NT with the exception of most of the epistles of Paul.  Though Christians today would not go to the same extremes of the ancient Marcionites, the fact of the matter is that many Christians are all but Marcionite in their outlook upon the OT.  We must recognize it for the heresy that it is.  The God of the OT is the God of the NT.

But positively, what was the apostle teaching?  He was teaching that the Law of Moses is no longer a barrier between Jew and Gentile.  The people of God are no longer identified by the keeping of the Law of Moses.  Circumcision is no longer the sign of the covenant between God and his people, baptism is.  God’s people are no longer primarily identified by a racial connection to Abraham, but by exercising the faith of Abraham.  The door to belonging to the church is not participation in an elaborate ritual consisting of a multitude of holy days and sacrifices, but faith: “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27). 

There are some Christians today who still believe that the Law of Moses in all its aspects is still applicable to the Christian.  But this is precisely the type of legalism that the apostle in our text is forbidding.  In other places, we are explicitly told that we are not required to keep the food laws.  In fact, Paul described those Christians as “weak” who believed they still needed to keep the food laws, and said that those who kept the food laws should not judge those who did not (Rom. 14:2-4).  He also went on to say that the religious calendar of the Law was not necessary for sanctification: “He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.  He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks” (Rom. 14:6).  To the Colossians, he wrote, “Let no man therefore judge you in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). 

The apostle is saying that we are no longer under the Old Covenant.  We no longer approach God through the priests ordained under the Law of Moses, but through the High Priest to whom the entire Aaronic priesthood pointed.  And “the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Heb. 7:12).  Rather, if we belong to Christ, we relate to him through the terms of the New Covenant.  Our obligations to God under this covenant are spelled out in the New Testament, in the writings of the NT apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20).    

And when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are not celebrating the Passover, an OT ordinance, but something which points to the New Covenant that our Lord established by his death: “this is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25).  Every time we share Communion, we are reminding ourselves that we are participants, not in the Old Covenant which Moses instituted, but it the New Covenant purchased by our Lord’s redeeming death.

Note that this change of covenants required the death of Jesus Christ.  The apostle writes that this wall, the law, came down by Christ, “in his flesh” (15).  This phrase, “in his flesh” is almost certainly a reference to his death.  You see this by the parallel between verses 15 and 16.[4]  In verse 15, Christ abolished the enmity between Jew and Gentile “in his flesh.”  In verse 16, our Lord slays the enmity between man and God “by the cross.”  It thus appears that “in his flesh” is parallel to “by the cross.”  It follows that the obligation to obey the Law of Moses passed away because of the death of Jesus.

But why did it require the death of Jesus?  It required the death of Jesus because the purpose of the Law of Moses was above all to point to the death of Jesus.  “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:24-25, ESV).  The whole sacrificial system had to remain until it was fulfilled.  And it was in Jesus’ death.  He is the Paschal lamb.  He is the Prophet, Priest, and King to whom all the OT prophets, priests, and kings pointed. 

That is why it is ridiculous to insist upon keeping the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law.  To do so would be to say that Jesus had not yet come and fulfilled the law.  Why sacrifice a goat which will never take away sins, when we can look to Jesus who fully and completely took away the guilt of sin for those who believe in him, by bearing the punishment of their sins in his own body on the cross? 

So the apostle is saying in verses 13-15 that by his death, Christ has taken down the cause of hostility between Jew and Gentile by abolishing the law which was like a wall of partition between them.  We are no longer under the Law of Moses as a covenant.  We no longer have to keep the ceremonial law.  But that does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want.  We should beware of leaving legalism only to stray into antinomianism.  As members of the New Covenant, we are under the law of Christ.  Neither do we abandon the OT.  We read the OT in light of our Lord’s fulfillment of it.  And we read the NT in light of the OT teaching.  The Bible of the Christian is both the OT and the NT, because God is the God of both the old as well as the new covenant. 

Christ is the one who ties both together.  He is the Christ of the covenants.  The Old Covenant pointed to him and the New Covenant was inaugurated by him.  This is why we preach Christ and him crucified.  He is the only redeemer of mankind.  He is the only one in whom we can find eternal salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and wonderful fellowship in the presence of God forever.  And it is both the privilege and the responsibility of the church to share that all who believe in him will be saved.



[1] Hoehner, p. 376.
[2] Some try to get around the implications of this text by saying that God temporarily abandoned the kingdom project for the interim project of the church, so that this text does not apply to the church.  This, however, has absolutely no support in the Biblical text.  When Paul preached the gospel, he preached “the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23), the same kingdom about which our Lord preached and which was ushered in by our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection.
[3] Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 1, p. 104.
[4] The Greek is somewhat ambiguous here.  I am following the translation of the KJV here; the ESV also puts “in his flesh” with “enmity” or “hostility,” but does so in verse 14.

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