Summary of the Text
Paul’s Prize Fight: Paul pulls no punches in this letter to the church of Ephesus. It is an onslaught of theological intensity from the first ring of the bell. Like a prize fighter looking to keep his belt, he gives it his all, round after round. From his “marathon” sentence in chapter one to the themes of death and life in the preceding section, the reader hears of the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s work of redemption and reconciliation through Christ.
Our text for this week is another combination of spiritually rich punches meant to drive home the significance of what God has done in Christ. It openly speaks of the barrier between Jew and Gentile, namely expressed in the covenant and its law that God made exclusively with Abraham and his descendants, which had subsequently become a source of pride and superiority over the nations. Paul declares that this barrier, “the dividing wall of hostility,” (v. 14) has been torn down by Christ, our peace, in order that he may create a new humanity from those once divided.
Two Periods of Time: There are three sections of Ephesians 2:11-22. Section 1: Then and Now (vv. 11-13), Section 2: Christ’s Accomplishment (vv. 14-18), and Section 3: The New Temple Built on the Cornerstone of Christ (vv. 19-21). We do not have ample time and space to adequately plumb the depths of each section, but what is helpful to note about all three sections is the marking of time. There are two periods of time, “then and now.” The first section, “Then and Now,” speaks of a period when the Gentiles Paul addresses were without Christ. This “then” of the past descriptively portrays a period of darkness when the nations were, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world,” (v. 12). Paul strategically couches this description of the past as a clarion call to “remember,” who and what they were before Christ. But, the “then” life (actually death) gives way to, the “now,” life with Christ. In Christ these people once far off have been brought near by Christ’s sacrifice. However, not only have they been brought near, but those who were near, the ones who cherished their uniqueness and closeness to God under the covenant, have collectively been reconciled to one another.
The Barriers of Identity: In an age of identity politics, many of us affiliate ourselves with the group to whom we most resemble and resonate. There is a positive shared experience to group identity: a common history, struggle, culture, language, story, and structure. Group identity has affirmatively sustained people through persecution, tragedy, loss, and the search for justice. This is a good thing. However, one’s identity can move beyond a source of purpose, protection, and properly placed pride to a space of arrogance and superiority. As sinful human beings, we all have the tendency to elevate our own identity or group above those of others to our detriment and theirs, often with dire consequences.
The Jewish people of Paul’s day had taken pride in the unique relationship that God established with their forefather Abraham and the law given to Moses at Sinai. The mark of circumcision, required by the law, was a tangible source of identity. Group identity for the Jewish people and their special election as depicted in the Torah had served as a positive source of protection and survival in a world wishing their downfall. However, for Paul, a Jew who prided himself on his standing within the world of first-century Judaism, all of that had, as he declares in Phillippians 3:8, been counted as a loss, “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord.”
In Paul’s day there were distinct barriers between Jew and Gentile: Covenant, Commandment, Circumcision, Ceremonies, Diet, Days, and Temple. Gentiles had lived among the Jews since the time of the Exile as strangers and aliens, sojourning foreigners among God’s holy people, but never as members of his covenant and citizens of Israel. Paul declares that in Christ, all that has changed.
The distinction between Jew and Gentile, with its particular characteristics of group identity, has now been replaced by a new creation, a new man through Christ. This does not mean supersession as some have seen it to mean. In his letter to the Romans, Paul still holds to a particular “specialness” of the Jewish nation and God’s unique calling upon them, but the characteristics of that identity, especially the covenantal law and circumcision have become ineffectual in the the new creation in Christ, the melding together and making of peace between a once divided people.
New Identity & Centrality of the Cross & Cornerstone: Remembrance holds great importance in Paul’s words to the church in this passage. His call is not to a fond reminiscence of the past, but to a stark look at what life and identity were like before Christ as it is held up now to what life offers with Christ. As in the preceding passage (2:1-10), vv. 11-22 continue in a similar vein with the graphic contrast between death and life, the “then” and “now.”
Presently, there is a new identity for both Gentiles and Jews that is formed not by inclusion or exclusion within or from covenant, circumcision, or citizenship, but by being in Christ. Central to this formation is the cross through which Christ, in what seems a mysteriously divine way, took on the enmity between the two within his own body and blood, completely relinquishing the division’s stranglehold on humanity. Christ becomes our peace and the cornerstone of the new temple in his body that sets righteous, peaceful, and merciful lines for all who by his gracious work are added to the structure.
Angle for Preaching: Since the division between Jew and Gentile may not resound with relatability for many, the preacher may want to explore the places of identity in our contemporary context that build barriers between people. While not wishing to denigrate the positive aspects of some of these characteristics of identity, she may wish to explore the idea of the new creation in Christ and particularly how Christ reforms us by tearing down the walls between us.
A caution is to remember that God created diversity, a diversity of cultures and people that needs to be cherished, celebrated, and championed. It is all too easy to dismiss diversity for the sake of a generically false unity. Unity in Christ does not dismiss diversity and seek sameness, it praises the positives of the tapestry of God’s diverse image in humanity and restores and redeems the areas in which our distinctiveness from one another has been used to blockade or bludgeon the “other.” The preacher would do well to walk this line with empathy and above all grace.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
Ultimately we are not concerned only with the unity of the church. Christ is the unity of the world. Not only the middle wall of partition separating Jew and Gentile must be moved if Christ is to realize the unity of the Church, but all the walls of partition dividing peoples, classes, generations, from each other.
The New Israel is the people made one with God in the atonement of Christ, and one with each other through the ministry of reconciliation. . . . Here is a unity without which the world falls apart into meaningless and antagonistic segments. It is a breath-taking vision, too daring for the faltering reason of [humans] to follow or comprehend. But it is the apostolic message of unity for which the Church is founded.
The New Life with Christ
Union with Christ fundamentally and irrevocably changes our relationship to sin. Our old self has been crucified (Rom. 6:6), and sin has no dominion over us (v. 14). This doesn’t mean a part of us called the “old nature” has been replaced with a different substance called a “new nature.” Paul is not talking about parts. He is talking about position. The old man is what we were “in Adam” (cf. 5:12–21). Death, sin, punishment, transgression—that’s the “in Adam” team.
But we died to that team. The contract was revoked. We now wear the “in Christ” jersey. Union with Christ is like being placed on an NFL football team through no talent of your own. Though you didn’t earn your way on to the team, now that you wear the jersey you want to play like a real football player.
Taken from The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung, © 2012, pp.103-104. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.