We have many things that divide than unite us. We can be divided along spiritual, economic, cultural, tribal, social or political lines. What is the hope of unity in such diversity? Paul’s audience faced a similar situation when differences between Gentile and Jewish believers became apparent even in the church. This negatively affected relationships within the church. But should this be the case?
In his epistle to the church in Ephesus, Paul presents the power of the cross as the hope of reconciliation. The message of reconciliation is a powerful message to any person who knows what separation or enmity really is. It is only in Jesus that two (or more) opposing groups can harmoniously become one. This is the message of Eph 2:11-22.
It is doubtless that Ephesians is one of Paul’s most elegant letters. He writes the letter in Rome while in prison for preaching the gospel. The purpose of the letter is to strengthen believers in the faith by reminding them of their position in Christ and the purpose of the church. In the first chapter he shows them the how rich believers are in Christ; in the second chapter he explains how believers have been made alive in Christ.
In verse 2:11-22 he writes to believers in Ephesus showing them that the dividing wall between the Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed in Christ. Jews and Gentiles have both been reconciled because of the cross of Christ.
The reconciling power of the cross brings about:
- A New Identity (verse 11-13)–
Apostle Paul reminds the Gentile believers who they were formerly (before they came to Christ). They were called “uncircumcised” by “the circumcision” group (Jews). This is how the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) would refer to each other. Jews boasted of circumcision not as African men do (as a sign to mark transition from childhood to adulthood) but as a key sign of God’s covenanted people. This pride highlighted their special status before God in a way that the Gentiles were not.
It is worth noting that the imperative “remember” is the only imperative in chapter 1-3; Paul wanted his listeners to be continually aware of the change that has been brought by their union with Christ. This act of remembrance will further cause them to be filled with thanksgiving.
The Gentiles were not to forget who they were in the past. Formerly, (verse 12) they were:
- Separated from Christ– As a matter of fact, the Ephesians worshipped the goddess Diana and they knew nothing about Christ.
- Excluded from the citizenship in Israel– Israel was God’s nation in a way that was not true of any Gentile nation.
- Foreigners to the covenants of the promise– God did not make any covenants with the Gentile nations but only with the Jews. Interestingly, many of the Pharisees would pray daily, “O God, I give thanks that I am a Jew, not a Gentile.”
- Without hope– It is said that great hopelessness covered the ancient world. Philosophies were empty, traditions were disappearing, religions were powerless to help men face either life or death. They literally had no hope to hold on to, 1 Thess 4:13-18.
- Without God in the world– The pagans had many gods as Paul noted in Athens (Acts 17:16-23). But still pagans in their religiosity did not know the true God, YHWH.
But all these have changed! They are no longer what they used to be. This is introduced by the contrast “but” in verse 13. They were “far away” but were brought “near” through “the blood of Christ”. The cost of destroying the enmity was the blood of Christ. The Gentiles who were formerly separated from God (because of sin) now belong because of the blood of Christ.
Reconciliation that Paul talks about is not brought about by works (2:8a) but by the gracious act through the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ is what made the Gentiles citizens in Israel, partakers of the covenants of the promise. It is through the blood of Christ those who had no God encountered God and those without hope found hope. To Paul this was worth remembering.
It is very easy to forget where we have come from, or who we were as opposed to who we have become. I don’t know why we forget things we ought to remember and remember things we ought to forget! But what happens when we forget? We lose focus of who we are and what we are becoming. It is important, as a Christian, to have “stones” that serve as “memorial” Josh 4:6-7 to the things God has accomplished for you.
Apart from receiving a new identity, the reconciling power of the cross also brings us,
- Unity/oneness in Christ (verse 14-15)–
The two opposing groups (Jews and Gentiles) have been brought together in Christ. As a result there is now a new identity and a newfound unity. Paul points out that Jesus Christ who is “our peace” brought unity. In Christ, the vocabulary of circumcised and uncircumcised ceases. It is now possible for “them” to be “us” because of Christ who is “our” peace.
In order to bring this unity Christ was able to:
Make the two one– Practically, how can two become one? Mathematically it can only happen by subtraction; but in Christ two can become one without subtraction. In God’s economy, two can become one through the Person of Christ. The separation between Gentiles and God, and the Gentiles and Jews required peace. And that peace is Jesus Christ. Jesus “our peace” makes us be one with God, and others. Again, you will remember that in Jn 17:21 Jesus prayed for believers that they may be one. Unity is important in any relationship.
Destroy the barrier/the dividing wall of hostility– Christ was able to do this through his body when he died in the cross for all people. The “wall” here could refer to the partition that hindered Gentiles from going to the holy place in the temple. It could also refer to the curtain in the temple that separated the holy place from the holy of holies. Either way, the dividing wall has been broken. By implication, there is literally nothing that can once again separate believers based on race, culture or whichever background. All in Christ have been made one. In addition, Christ also abolished the law with its commandments and regulations. As a result, believers are now not under the law but under grace. As a matter of fact, barriers hinder unity; and so they have to be destroyed.
The key question to ask ourselves: What barriers of hostilities have we possibly erected as individual believers or as a church? Could these barriers be tribal barriers, educational, spiritual, political, or socio-economic. Definitely barriers create unhealthy distinctions of “us” versus “them”. But these barriers need and should be destroyed by Jesus Christ for peace to prevail in our relationships. One of the problem today is that there are many people who do not see schism as a sin or unity as important. Therefore as a believer you need to decisively, through God’s grace, deal with issues that create disunity and strife among God’s people because you now know that it is God’s will for unity and peace to prevail in our relationships.
Thirdly, the reconciling power of the cross brings,
- New Community- the church- (verse 16-17)
The purpose of the oneness that Christ brings is to create “one man/one people/ one body”. The “one body” or the church results from the reconciliation of all (both Jews and Gentiles) into one man through the cross. Reconciliation was achieved through the cross; it is where the hostilities were nailed. Therefore the cross is the sign of reconciliation. This speaks so powerfully of the power of the cross.
What comes into your mind when you see the cross? Is it shame, failure, defeat or victory and power? Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Corinth, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God 1 Cor 1:18. The cross is the power of God. God’s reconciling power is at work in the church and through believers. God’s purpose of forming a new community/church is not in futility because Apostle John in his vision observed, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…” Rev 7:9.
Finally, the reconciling power of the cross brings,
- Access to God (verse 18-22) –
In Christ we not only have a new identity, unity, and a new community but also an access to the Father by one Spirit. Both Jews and Gentiles now have access to God through Jesus Christ, by one Spirit. This access comes as a result of the destruction of the former walls of hostility.
The Gentiles are no longer foreigners and aliens but are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household. In the OT the only division in the temple was between priests and laity (1 Kings 8:41-43), but by Paul’s day architectural barriers had been introduced for non-Jews and for women. Paul claims that these barriers are destroyed in God’s spiritual temple.
The role of Jesus in the access is vital. God’s people now are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises up to become a holy temple/dwelling place in which God lives by his Spirit.
The power of the cross to bring reconciliation in our relationships is available to every believer. This is a message that transforms individual lives, families, churches and society. The transformational power of the cross is what we desperately need today in our world full of divisions, separation and conflict.