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We are thinking about the church, what it is, what it does, and whether or not it is important. I’ve noticed that when people try to answer that last question, even church leaders, they usually do so in terms of what the church can do for a person or a family. It educates our children. It provides us with friends. It encourages us to be faithful to Christ through sermons and teaching. Its music gives us an emotional lift.
Whether or not those things are so, the true importance of the church will never fit through the narrow window of personal benefit. To evaluate the church’s importance by the benefits I accrue is like saying, “Air is important because I couldn’t dribble my basketball without it.” The importance of air extends beyond my basketball and the importance of the church extends beyond the personal benefits it provides.
Today, we will be looking at the church as imaged in Ephesians 2, but before getting into the text, let’s do a quick survey of what Ephesians has to say about the church. I think we will see is that the church has a central and extraordinary place in the purpose of God for the world.
The church, as presented in Ephesians, is headed by Jesus himself. (That is Ephesians 1:22 and 4:15). There is no other organization on earth about which that can be said. The people of the church are God’s personally chosen, glorious inheritance. (That is Ephesians 1:18.) The church is a still-under-construction yet already functioning temple in which God lives by his Spirit. (That is 2:21-22.)
The church is God’s masterwork, through which he displays his wisdom to the great powers of the universe. (That is 3:10.) The church is a principal source of glory to God on earth (3:21). The church is destined to attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (4:13). It is even now growing up into the mature body through which Jesus himself acts and works on earth. (That is chapter 4:4, 12, 15-16.) The church is also (5:27-33) the fair Bride of Christ destined to be joined to him forever, a picture that is filled out in other Scriptures.
If this is the church’s calling, it is no wonder that Paul urges his readers to “walk worthy of the calling you have received” (5:1). Here, I’ve been asking what the church can do for me when I should have been asking, “What on earth have I got myself into?” I’ve stumbled into the heart of God’s plans for the world – and beyond. And yet no one stumbles into the church – Ephesians is clear about that; they are called.
We have already seen the church as temple and as priesthood (1 Peter 2). We have seen the church as family (Philemon). But in Ephesians 2, there is a breathtaking picture of the church that is almost too vast to take in: the church as the beginning of a new humanity. The first humanity sinned and fell – and is still falling – apart. In Christ, a new humanity has been redeemed and is being brought together. Let’s read the text. We’ll begin with verse 11 and read through verse 18.
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Listen again to the extraordinary purpose statement from verse 15: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity…”
This section of the letter begins (v. 11) with Paul urging these “Gentiles by birth” to remember their past. They were separate from Christ – that is, they knew nothing about and had nothing to do with the Messiah. They were excluded from Israel, the principal nation through which God was advancing his purpose on earth. They were strangers to the all-important, history-shaping promise made through the covenants – they knew nothing about it. The upshot is (verse 12) they had no hope and were without God in the world. It is a bleak picture.
Not only were they excluded from Israel, there was enmity between them and the Jews. The Jews despised Gentiles as unclean. They considered them toxic. In answering the question of why God made Gentiles, one rabbi responded that God made them to be fuel to keep the fires of hell burning. Each and every day of his life, the devout Jew would thank God in prayer that he had not been made a Gentile.
For their part, the Gentiles disliked and distrusted the Jews and heaped scorn on them. At times in history, this dislike festered and became persecution. At other times and in many places, the persecution became expulsion. And, when expulsion was not enough (think of Adolph Eichmann’s Madagascar Plan), it became genocide.
Who would ever have guessed that God’s secret plan to remake humanity would hinge on bringing these two hostile peoples together? But, according to Paul, this plan had been in the works for generations, even for ages.
Imagine you are a performance artist, who creates art out of living things. Would you choose a Siamese cat and a Pit Bull for your greatest work? Why not make it easier on yourself by working with a more compliant media, like gerbils? Why use natural enemies? But God chose Jews and Gentiles for his greatest work of performance art. Back in verse 10, Paul wrote: “For we” – the church of Jesus Christ – are his workmanship” – his poiema in Greek; his great work of functional art.
Now look at verse 13, which is the transitional sentence that links two paragraphs. It starts with two important words in the Pauline vocabulary: “But now…” You were once godless, hopeless, and hostile (verses 10-12), but now things have changed. You have changed. Why? Because you are now in Christ Jesus.
In verse 12 they were in the world but now (verse 13) they are in Christ Jesus. In verse 1 they were in their sins. But now they are in Christ. They were far away but now they are near. The price of bringing the Gentiles near was nothing less than the blood of (literally) “the Christ”; that is, the Messiah of the Jews.
Reconciliation requires sacrifice. Sometimes it is pride that must be sacrificed. Sometimes identity. Sometimes privilege. Sometimes power. Reconciliation does not happen without sacrifice.
In 1956, five young missionaries were killed by the fierce Waodani tribe of eastern Ecuador. In 1958, Rachel Saint, sister to one of those missionaries, and Elizabeth Eliot, wife of another, went to live in the Waodani tribe. Rachel lived there for the rest of her life, loving those people, and being loved by them. Reconciliation came through sacrifice.
But no sacrifice compares to God’s own sacrifice, which Paul conveys in just five words (verse 13): “the blood of the Messiah.” What could be worth that?
And now see the sheer enormity of God’s plan. It begins with two people groups who do not get along with each other and yet are the media in which the Divine Artist is working. To accomplish his purpose, to make his masterpiece, these two people groups, who have been at odds for millennia, must be reconciled. But reconciliation requires sacrifice.
Who will be sacrificed? The Jews? The Gentiles? No! The artist sacrifices himself. Verse 14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
That last phrase requires some explanation. Paul was writing this letter from prison and his readers knew why he was there. He had been arrested on the charge of bringing a Gentile past the barrier and into a part of the temple that was forbidden to non-Jews. Had the emperor himself come to the temple and stood before that barrier, he would have been told he could go no further.
Paul had in fact done no such thing. But he had been accused of it and the accusation was so serious – the enmity between Jew and Gentile so great – that a person could be put to death if found guilty of helping a Gentile cross the barrier.
(By the way: in Old Testament times there was no such barrier. That barrier was not God’s idea. It was not a sign that God didn’t want Gentiles but that Jews didn’t want Gentiles.)
Paul’s readers knew he had been accused of helping a Gentile cross the uncrossable barrier. That barrier was a tangible symbol of the hostility and alienation that existed between Jew and Gentile. But Paul says (verse 14) that Christ has torn down the barrier and made Jew and Gentile one.
Jew and Gentile are one? Really? Where are they one? You certainly don’t see it in Israel or on the West Bank. No. The only place you see it is in Christ.
That’s the same place where Indian and Pakistani are one. The same place where Japanese and Korean are one. The same place where black and white are one. They are one in the magnificent church of Jesus Christ, where there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Among those for whom Christ is all and in all, racial barriers fall. Among those for whom Christ is just much of more, or a little of something, they remain standing.
This oneness in Christ is something that racists can never prevent and that progressives can never provide. It cannot be compelled by law but it has been propelled by love – the love of Christ. I’m not saying we needn’t bother making laws. Laws may restrain hate (which is a good thing) but they cannot produce love (which is a better thing).
The way Christ destroyed (the Greek word means to unloose, untie, or disassemble) the barrier between Jew and Gentile was by “setting aside” (verse 15) “the law with its commands and regulations,” which was done (verse 16) through Christ’s death on the cross. The law, expressed through commandments and spelled out in regulations, has been set aside. Some versions will say “abolished,” but a more precise translation is, “rendered inoperative.” It was the word that was used of a store that went out of business.
There once were stores in my hometown whose main business was to sell typewriters. Those stores went out of business with the advent of the computer. I once had a friend who had a Polaroid “instant” camera (as they called it), which seemed miraculous because it took only minutes to produce a picture. But Polaroid was pushed out of business in 2008 by the arrival of the digital camera.
Paul is saying that the Law has gone out of business for those in Christ because something better has arrived. Christ has done what the law could never do. He has made new people, people at peace with God and with others.
Why was the barrier pulled down and the law set aside? Verse 15 gives us the extraordinary purpose behind it: “to create in himself one new humanity out of the two…” A new humanity (anthropos in Greek), something that had never existed before. The Gentiles did not become Jews, like the “God-fearers” who went through instruction and became proselytes. The Jews did not become Gentiles through some kind of apostasy. No, the two became something new that had never before existed: the church of Jesus Christ.
The church is not an amalgamation of Jew and Gentile, some kind of spiritualized Frankenstein’s Monster. It is a new thing, the beginning of a new humanity – a new way to be human. When Paul differentiates between Jews, Greeks, and the Church of God in 1 Corinthians, his reasoning is clear. The church is neither Jew nor Greek. It is something never before seen: a raceless new humanity.
When you came to Christ (if you have) you became a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). You are different in a fundamental way from what you were before. You are now a spiritual being, and spiritual beings are the destiny of humanity. This is a revolution. This is evolution. Changes have happened and are happening because of the introduction of God’s Spirit into human beings on a permanent basis.
That was made possible because in Christ God took our humanity on himself, took our sins into himself, and died (verse 16) to reconcile us to himself and to one another. Jesus is the beginning of the new humanity.
God is now bringing people from every race and nation and tribe and language into this new humanity. There is a great coming together in Christ. And this is part of a bigger plan, the ultimate plan, which is spelled out in the key verse of this letter (Ephesians 1:10): “…to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
Do you see? The church in which Jews and Gentiles become one; in which blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, Pakistanis and Indians, Japanese and Koreans become one is a working model. We are the living proof that God can do it, that it will happen: that God will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
We in our oneness are living proof of the living God. No wonder Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, the eve of his crucifixion, prayed “… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20).
May we, for our part, be the answer to his prayer.