“He has Broken Down the Dividing Wall”
February 28, 2016
God has brought all peoples together in Jesus.
I. Alienation (Ephesians 2:11-12)
II. Reconciliation (Ephesians 2:13-18)
III. Edification (Ephesians 2:19-22)
The first time the town of Tubingen, Germany, expelled all its Jewish residents was in 1477. It was a place where anti-Jewish doctrines thrived, especially during World War II. But recently a tiny Jewish community has returned to the town, welcomed by the Tubinger Stadtmission Church, an evangelical free church with a special heart for reconciliation, and a love for both the nation of Israel and Jewish people. In 2007, TOS organized a March of Life, 350 kilometers to Dachau, following the route of a death march many Jews walked in 1945.
At a special church meeting the night before the march, four members told stories of their own family's participation in the Nazi regime. One woman, who now sings in the church worship group, had recently discovered her grandfather was an SS guard who beat Jews and other prisoners. She and the others then followed Jesus’ example by humbly washing the feet of several Jewish guests, including Holocaust survivors. The Jewish guests then modeled forgiveness by washing the feet of their German hosts. A survivor of six concentration camps, Rose Price, embraced and comforted several Germans who had broken into tears. This is reconciliation, and it is powerful.
But Paul gives an even more powerful view of reconciliation in Ephesians 2:11-22. He shows that in Jesus God is drawing all kinds of people together. We’ll see that once we were alienated from God and each other. But in Jesus we’ve been reconciled, and are now being built together. Let’s begin with Ephesians 2:11-12. Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12remember that at that time you were separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
Paul’s emphasis is changing here. Ephesians 1 was particularly God-focused - it was praise for all God’s blessings, and prayer that they would be known. The first verses of chapter 2 focused on individuals, how we are dead in the awfulness of sin, but made alive in the greatness of salvation. Now, however, Paul begins to talk to the church as a collective unity, telling us what God has done for whole groups, and how he is using the groups to accomplish his purpose.
He begins with two groups, with Jews and Gentiles, whose hatred and alienation from each other was deep and bitter. But such hatred isn’t limited to Jews and Gentiles. The history of the world is bloody with such strife. Sometimes it’s just words, as in the current deep divide in America’s political landscape.
But way too often strife has given way to bloodshed, whether between Shia and Sunni Muslims, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, or across races and tribes from Ferguson, Missouri to Darfur, Sudan. The president of the Norwegian Academy of Science, with historians from around the world, once calculated that since 3000 BC there have been 292 years of peace! During this period there have been 14,351 wars, large and small, with 3.64 billion people killed.
Since Cain and Abel, people have been deeply alienated, as individuals, tribes, races, religious groups and nations. Certainly there has rarely been peace between Jews and non-Jews. Early in the Old Testament, the people God chose and set apart became objects of hostility to the peoples around them. In the millennia that followed, the Jews have been feared and hated. From Haman in the Old Testament to Nero in Rome, to the corrupt Popes of the middle ages to Hitler in Germany Jews have often been victims of oppression and persecution.
And the Jews in Jesus’ time returned that hatred. Barclay writes: “The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. Gentiles, they said, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all nations. It wasn’t even lawful to help a Gentile mother in her hour of birth, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world.” Paul acknowledges that hostility when he quotes the Jews calling Gentiles ‘uncircumcised.’ They considered themselves superior because of circumcision, though as Paul points out it is only something in flesh by the hands of men.
Yet in verse 12 Paul agrees that there was a very real alienation between the Jews and the Gentiles, one that extended further than racial hatred. There was, until the time of Christ, a real difference in the blessings offered the Jews compared to those afforded to the Gentiles. As Gentiles, Paul says, we are first of all, ‘separated from Christ.’ In the Old Testament Christ wasn’t known explicitly, but the hope of Christ and the salvation that came by trusting God’s promise was given to Jews, not Gentiles. And when the Messiah finally came, he came to the Jews. He ministered in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem, rose in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit was given in Jerusalem, the early church grew in Jerusalem. The Gentiles were far from the good news about Jesus.
Second, and in a similar vein, they were excluded from citizenship in Israel. They weren’t part of the nation God had established and which he called “the apple of his eye.” Third, they were foreigners or strangers to the covenants of the promise. God had made covenant promises to Israel. He promised Abraham that through his seed, the Messiah, his descendants would become as numerous as the stars in the sky. To be outside of this covenant, outside of the solemn pledge of a sovereign God was the deep unmet need of the Gentiles.
Fourth, they were ‘without hope’ Their idolatrous religions had proven hopeless. Francis Foulkes says “This was a very evident characteristic of the Gentile world at the time when Jesus came. People had no prospect for the future, no assurance of life beyond death.” Kent Hughes gives an example. “The Greek philosopher Theogenes wrote: ‘I will try to have a good time while I’m young, because I will lie under the earth for a long time, and I shall leave the sunlight that I loved. Others will take my place, and I shall be black earth in death.”
That was the hopelessness of the Gentiles: and despite their multitude of gods, they were also, fifth, without God in the world. The essence of alienation is not only that it means we are cut off from others, but we are cut off from God. The Gentiles felt this at the time of Christ. It was clear to many that the idols they worshiped were no gods at all, that idolatry was a dead end. The Jews too had this longing at the time of Christ. Some sought God and hoped for the Messiah, but many Jews were without hope and without God in the world.
And this hasn’t ceased, for many, even since the resurrection. Those around us who have not yet come to faith in Jesus are without hope and without God. So were we, before we came to faith. Stott says “We ourselves, in our pre-Christian days were in exactly the same plight. We were alienated from God and from his people. There was in our hearts a hostility, so that we rebelled from the authority of God, and knew little or nothing of true human community.” Worst of all, even as believers we can still live without hope and without God.
And alienation from God leads to alienation from others. In personal things like divorce, abuse, violence, mass murder, or just depression and despair, we see broken relationships at the heart of the problem. And if we look at the world and consider war, terrorism and genocide, even mass starvation and disease, we see that it is not so much the forces of nature but broken relationships among men and nations and races that spawn these disasters. Alienation from God is the root cause of all human alienation.
But praise God that he offers us the solution in Jesus Christ - reconciliation leading to peace. Verses 13-18: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
Paul begins this middle thought with a great picture: “you who were once far away have been brought near.” Alienation is just like being far away. Have you ever felt that everyone else was part of a group, and you were on the outside, alone and awkward? That’s alienation. When someone from the group walks over, and pulls you over, and says “Hey guys I want you to meet my new friend” that’s being brought near. Paul says we’ve been brought near through the blood of Christ. Paul never wants us to lose sight of the fact that it is in the sacrifice of Christ, in God’s selfless love, that we are reconciled. As we saw clearly in the first part of the chapter, there was nothing we could do ourselves. The dead can’t do anything. But it was what Christ did on the cross, loving us, dying for our sins, forgiving us, that made us alive, and brought us near.
So, Paul says, verse 14, Jesus himself is our peace. He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. ‘Peace’ of course, is a great Old Testament word. ‘Shalom’ means ‘peace’ and a whole lot more. It means to be complete, to be whole, secure. It is well-being of the whole person. Isaiah 32:17 “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Yet Israel and her people did not fully experience peace. They looked forward, to a promised Messiah, the ‘Prince of Peace.’ Of the increase of his government and of peace there was to be no end. He was the one who would make peace possible: with God, with others, with ourselves. Jesus the Messiah did exactly what the Old Testament predicted. God foretold in Isaiah 53:5 that the punishment which brought us peace would be on Him.
And by this sacrifice he also made peace possible between people on a horizontal level. Verse 14 says he has made the two one, these two groups, Jews and Gentiles, who had been alienated. As believers in Jesus, these hostile groups, all hostile groups, have been reconciled. Divisions and distinctions no longer exist in those reconciled to God. He is drawing people together in Jesus.
Paul says that Christ has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between those groups. As I showed in children’s corner, he is using as his symbol the physical wall that separated Jews from Gentiles at the temple, keeping them apart from each other, keeping Gentiles from the presence of God. They could only gaze at a distance on the Holy Place where God had promised be present. The wall had warning notices in Greek and Latin,. Archeologists have found a three foot wide limestone slab says “No Gentile may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” That’s serious. But Christ, in Paul’s tremendous picture, has now broken down this barrier, this wall of partition. The result is that Gentiles and Jews are in one place, in Christ, and that the Gentiles now have access to the very presence of God, to the Holy Place.
But how has He done it? What is it about Christ’s death on the cross that destroys the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and between God and man? Paul says Christ abolished in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances. Paul isn’t talking about abolishing the law as the standard of righteousness. He’s reminding us that Christ fulfilled the law for us, so that its requirements and penalties were no longer on our record. At the same time, by his one sacrifice he fulfilled all the pictures that the ceremonial law had modeled; the blood sacrifice and the spotless lamb and the cleansing from sin. All of this has been accomplished in Jesus so that those under the law, the Jews, and those outside the law, the Gentiles, can be brought near to God in one perfect reconciliation.
But more than just this, Christ goes on to create a new thing, the church, one new man out of the two, not on the basis of law, but of grace. He does away with the old wall of division and brings together Jews and Gentiles and all divided and alienated peoples in himself, under his banner. This ‘new man’ is the church. Students of Scripture see in this new man a new race, neither Jew nor Gentile, but a third race, a third group that unites the two in a living union.
I’ve talked often in recent years about the concept of ‘usness,’ in marriage. Terry Hargrave, a Christian counselor says, “Marriage is a relationship: a living, breathing relationship, as real as the two individuals that form the bond. It is, if you will, a separate entity, a third person, created when two individuals give themselves in a bonding manner. The two create a whole new being when they marry.” In the same way, when Christ breaks down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, or between any human groups or individuals, he creates something new, a third entity, a new person, which we call the church. In this usness, God creates peace between Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, men and women, believers of any nation, race or tribe. The usness transcends human allegiances and origins and opinions. This is a hard truth when we look around and see the disunion in the visible church. We are called to unity, not uniformity, and it takes wisdom to embrace culture differences within that unity, to embrace different ideas and traditions, to hold unity even in conflict.
But we can, because this peace is more than peace with one another. Verses 16-17, it is also, foundationally, peace with God. This new man Jesus is creating is reconciled to God through the cross. As many of you know, one of my favorite Christmas carols is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” My favorite line is the one that goes “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!" Reconciliation is the foundation of peace. Paul says in Colossians “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish.”
Verse 18 tells us that because of our reconciliation, we also have access to one Father through the Spirit. God promises entry into His own presence to those who believe. The Greek word ‘access’ evokes a scene from a royal court, where subjects are given audience with a king. But there is a difference, because our access as Paul describes it is not only to a king but to our one Father, before whom we come with ‘boldness and confidence.’ This reconciliation is all about relationship. God is bringing a family together before his throne.
So we were alienated, without hope, without God. But then reconciled by the blood of Jesus. Finally, we are built up, in Him. Verses 19-22: So then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
There are two brief pictures here and one extended picture of what we become when as God’s people we find peace with God and begin to experience his presence. First, in verse 19, we are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens. This is a national image. We are built into one nation. Remember in verse 12 we were described as excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenants of promise. All that has changed. Now we are citizens. Stott goes on to explain that “The kingdom of God is neither an earthly territory nor even a heavenly structure. God’s kingdom is God himself ruling his people, and bestowing on them the privileges and responsibilities his rule implies. To this new international community, Gentiles and Jews belonged on equal terms.”
The second picture touched briefly is that of a family, members of God’s household. In Christ all believers are more than just fellow citizens under one king; rather, they are together children in his family, having as Paul said, “access to one father.” We’re adopted into that family as part of the blessing of redemption.
Therefore, across every barrier that once existed, we are now brothers and sisters. We function as a family, older brothers and sisters caring for younger, working together to accomplish family goals, meet family needs, submitting ourselves together to one God and father, and growing to be like our eldest brother, Jesus. If the church is a family, it ought to have family values, to care and take care. And a family has this usness, a corporate character and identity. In the same way every church has an usness created by selfless pouring out of believers. It’s really hard for us as individualist Westerners to grasp this, but we need to wrestle with what it means to pour into that usness.
So we are being built into a nation, we are being built into a family, and finally, the most extended of these three pictures, we are being built into a building. A temple really. The Temple in Jerusalem had for nearly a thousand years been the focal point of Israel’s identity as the people of God. Now there was a new kind of people, not a nation, but a new humanity, international, worldwide. What then could be its temple, its focus of unity? In these verses Paul explains that we are the temple, that the church, becomes the temple in this age.
What can we learn of this temple? Well, first of all, we can see its foundation and its cornerstone. The foundation is the Apostles and Prophets, and the Cornerstone is Jesus. The foundation is really God’s Word, for the apostles were directly responsible for all the Scriptures of the New Testament and the prophets were the authors of the Old Testament. Stott says: “This means the church is built on the Scriptures. They are the church’s foundation documents. And just as a foundation cannot be tampered with once it has been laid, and the superstructure is being built upon it, so the New Testament foundation of the church is inviolable. The church stands or falls by its loyal dependence on the foundation truths God revealed, which are preserved for us in the Scriptures.”
But the cornerstone is as important as the foundation. It helps to hold the building steady, and it also sets it and keeps it in line. The temple in Jerusalem had massive cornerstones. One stone that appears to have been part of Herod’s temple measured nearly 40 feet in length. But the chief cornerstone of this new temple is Christ Jesus himself: Jesus holds the growing temple together as a unity. He defines the lines and sets the direction of the building. We are individual stones that he is setting into just the right place. And because Jesus is the chief cornerstone, and because he controls the placement of all the other stones, it is ‘in him’ that the building is joined together and grows.
There is that word edification, growth. Paul almost loses the metaphor as he gives this building life - it grows as a tree from a root or branches from a vine. But he captures the metaphor again when he says that it rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. This is no ordinary building - this is the temple. And what is the purpose of the temple? It is to be the dwelling place of God. In the Old Testament God promised to dwell in the temple, in the Most Holy Place. There above the ark of the covenant, the glory of God, the skekinah glory representing his presence would come and rest and shine in that ancient temple. But no longer. The holy place in the temple was dark. The glory had departed. This dwelling place of God was his dwelling place no longer, but only a memory of his presence, and a promise of the new temple.
And the new temple, in this age is us, the church. She is the holy place, verse 22, a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. This is his presence, Immanuel, God with us. Elsewhere in his letters Paul affirms that you individually are a dwelling place of the Spirit - and that’s true too, one of the tremendous truths to which I cling. But in this verse it is the whole temple, the whole church he is building that becomes the dwelling place of the Spirit. And we miss out on that if we don’t make ourselves a part of the temple. It is possible to be alienated from God, and then to be reconciled to him, and yet not allow yourself to be built up, built together with others into his church. But that is not his intent. He wants to build his church, the dwelling place of His Spirit.
So those are Paul’s initial images of the church. The church is a new nation, God’s people of all races becoming a new race, citizens of a new kingdom. The church is a family, with God as our father, Christ as our eldest brother, and all who know Christ as brothers and sisters. And it is a building, a temple where God dwells by his Spirit, and it is not yet finished. We are being built together, you and I and Trinity, to become a holy place where God is present.
How should you respond to all this? I’m not going to give an elaborate application. These verse are foundational, they are truth for the heart and for the mind. But I do want to encourage you first, to praise God that he found you in your alienation, and brought you near and made peace. In Jesus we are reconciled to God and to every believer, every tribe, tongue, people and nation.
I want to encourage you, second, to practice reconciliation on an individual level. A while back I read or heard an account of a man who lost his wife in an accident because of a drunk driver. He was, naturally, bitter toward the perpetrator, who went to jail for his actions. But then, through Christ and Scripture, the man who had lost his wife began to feel a deep need to forgive the prisoner, to let go of bitterness. He sought him out in prison and offered forgiveness. And when the offer was accepted, he didn’t just leave it there, but began to build a relationship, and at the end of the account, I believe, the two men were going together into high schools and colleges to teach about the tragedy of drunk driving. It was alienation, reconciliation, and edification. This is what Christ has done for us, and this is what he has called us to live out.