11 Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.
19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.
We have often read this text when we are talking about our church’s vision of being a multicultural community. We want to embrace our differences as God brings us together through Christ. The theological roots for this part of our vision are here in Ephesians 2, so we we have turned to this text again and again for encouragement and inspiration.
But as far as I can remember, before today, we’ve never preached directly on this text. I expected to do some basic teaching and encouragement about being a multicultural community, breaking down cultural barriers and being one in Christ. But I kept getting stuck on the middle part of this passage.
- “... he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” What was that wall of hostility? How did it separate us?
- “He did this by ending the system of the law with its commandments and regulations.” Wait, huh? How does ending the system of the law break down walls of hostility? What is the connection between law and hostility? And how does ending the system of the law make any difference in reconciliation or peace?
- “... by means of his death on the cross ... our hostility to each other was put to death.” The Greek here is that Jesus actually “killed the hostility” in his body on the cross. How does that work? How does Jesus’ death “kill” our hostility for each other?
So, to help us unpack this and find answers to these sticky questions, we’re going to do two things. First, we’ll look at the real-life situation of the people who first read this letter. How did Jesus’ death deal with the walls of hostility in their lives? Then, we’ll look at a few different real-life situations where we experience hostility, and we’ll ask how Jesus’ death makes a difference for us as well.
First, what’s up with all of the talk of Jews and Gentiles in this passage, and why were they so hostile? Let’s start with defining some terms - just in case someone doesn’t know what we’re talking about.
- A “Jew” is a descendant of Abraham, part of the ancient nation of Israel.
- A “Gentile” is basically everyone else that is not Jewish. It is similar to the Korean word “Waygookin” (foreigner). Anyone who is not Korean is a waygookin, and anyone who is not a Jew is a Gentile.
- And “circumcision” is -- well, I think we’ve already covered this in the past -- Let’s just say that circumcision was a mark of Jewish identity, and Jews looked down on Gentiles for being uncircumcised.
Being on the inside was a big deal in Jewish culture. They were often oppressed and attacked from the outside. And letting outsiders into the inside of Jewish families and systems often led to corruption and societal disintegration. They were seriously xenophobic (afraid of outsiders). Jews couldn’t marry Gentiles. Jews couldn’t visit a Gentile home or even eat together with a Gentile.
But actually, the Jewish religion made some room for Gentile converts. They could attend the synagogue meetings (kind of like church meetings or Bible studies), and they could even go to the Jewish temple. But they could only stand in the outer court. According to the laws in the Bible, Gentiles couldn’t go inside the temple
Archeologists have uncovered two very interesting stones from the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Each of these stones was placed on the dividing wall between the Gentile courts and the inner Jewish area. Each stone said exactly the same thing: “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary. And whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” Now, that’s what I call a wall of hostility! “If you pass this wall, we’ll kill you!”
Jews were Jews, and only Jews were Jews. Outside people could learn about God and give their money at God’s temple and even pray to God if they wanted, but they could never be Jews.
So it’s not surprising that Christianity had some problems on this issue. The book of Acts tells the story of how Christianity exploded beyond the boundaries of Judaism. Gentiles started becoming Christians all over the place. That quickly raised two questions. 1) Did all of these Gentile Christians have to obey all of the Jewish rules - specifically circumcision? 2) Were Gentiles second class Christians because they weren’t Jews?
Paul - together with other Christian leaders - answered those questions very clearly. Ephesians 2 gives one of Paul’s best answers. No, Gentile Christians don’t have to become Jews or keep the Jewish rules to be Christians. And, no, Gentile Christians aren’t second class Christians. Why? Because Christ died for us.
Now, this is where it gets a little complicated. Why Does Christ’s death make such a big difference? Christ ended the system of laws and regulations. Now, we don’t earn our way to God through faithfulness to the law. In the old system, it was obedience first then acceptance. In the new system, grace reigns. Christ has paid the penalty for our disobedience, so the system of obedience to the law is irrelevant. Now, it’s acceptance first, then obedience out of gratitude.
But how does this connect with our dividing walls of hostility? This is where I was really getting stuck. If we have to obey the law before we can be accepted, then we basically have to earn God’s approval. We have to prove that we are worthy of being saved. This pushes us into competition with each other.
I’ve got to obey the law better than the other people so that God will like me more. I’ve got to tear those people down to prove that I’m higher and better. I’ve got to fight for my rights because you might abuse me. I’ve got to protect myself against any and every perceived threat because my inner position is inherently insecure.
So, there were these huge barriers between Jews and Gentiles, but there were also all kinds of barriers between Jews and Jews. There were divisions all over the place - with each group condemning the other groups as being unfaithful or foolish.
When I don’t have peace with God inside my own soul, then I am naturally in conflict with others because I’m trying to fight my way to peace on the inside. I’m attacking others and being defensive because I’m trying to prove myself on the inside. I’m living with a basic stance of hostility toward others.
But Christ killed that hostility. Christ put that hostility to death on the cross. We don’t need to fight anymore because Christ has died for us. We don’t need to fight to make ourselves secure because Christ gives us inner peace. We don’t need to fight to prove our worth because God thinks we are worth his own death on the cross. We don’t need to scratch and fight and claw for acceptance and approval because God already gives us full acceptance through Jesus’ death on the cross. We have love, peace, security, acceptance, and permanent worth. What is left to fight for?
So Paul can honestly say: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And: “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us” (Colossians 3:11). Christ has broken down all the barriers and destroyed all the hostility. Ethnicity, economics, education, gender, culture, religious background - none of that matters any more. None of that is a matter of pride or shame. Only one thing matters - Christ. And Christ is freely available to all and in all. and all of us are equal in Christ and one body in Christ.
OK, let’s take a look at how this plays out in some everyday situations.
First, in a marriage. What?! Hostility in a marriage? How can we talk about barriers and walls between two people who are “one flesh”? After you say I do, it’s all kisses and hugs, right!? Yes, for a few minutes at least. After that, eventually you’re going to have some fights - maybe a lot of fights.
OK, let me just give you a purely fictitious example. Say, you’re the guy, for example, and - speaking purely theoretically, remember - let’s say the guy is a normal guy and says something insensitive. And the girl, being a normal girl, responds with a comment that shows hurt feelings. And then, the guy is like, “Hey, she’s getting serious here; I better defend myself.” So they enter this downward spiral of defense and attack, until they are both deeply hurt and wounded. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Of course, it’s just an example - this has never happened to me!
What’s going on here? They are interacting out of inner insecurity. They are fighting to feel safe. The guy is fighting to prove that he’s not a jerk, and the girl is fighting to prove that she’s worthy of kindness. They are both trying to fight for acceptance and love.
But imagine a different scenario. Imagine that the guy and the girl are living in the peace of Christ. They know that God already accepts and loves them deep inside, and that acceptance and love is soaking through their minds and hearts.
Now, when the guy says something rude - because guys are just stupid and do that kind of stuff - and the girl responds with hurt feelings - because girls are just sensitive and do that kind of stuff -- now, suddenly it’s not a life-or-death fight to prove who’s worthy of love. They both already know that God loves them utterly and completely. They both have a deep peace inside that enables them to engage this conflict without a wall of hostility. They guy can say, “Wait a minute. Did I do something wrong?” And the girl can say, “Maybe you didn’t mean it, but that really hurt.”
You’re still going to have some fights, but the more you live into Christ’s peace, the softer your fights will be. They won’t be hostile, hurting, name-calling fights. They will be arguments working for understanding and peace.
Also, let me just be honest. You might need some help from a counselor or a wise friend to disrupt that downward spiral of defense and attack. You might need to do some serious work to make Christ’s peace realized in this area of your life. But on a simple scale, it will help a lot to just spend some time everyday remembering Christ’s deep love for you.
Here’s another example. When I was in seminary, I played on our church basketball team. And sometimes we played in this church league with terrible refs. I mean, they were really bad. They only called about 50% of the fouls committed.
And that was a bad thing for me because I played mostly under the hoop where there were a lot of bodies crashing together, and also because I wasn’t very good. People would hack me - in the arms, on the hand, in the face - no whistle. I would get SO mad! Every game, I would end up yelling at the refs, “Come on! Can’t you see that! COME ON!!!” I mean I would get MAD! I would scream. My face would turn red. It was like the beast in me came out.
Finally, one of my teammates said, “Josh, if playing basketball hurts your relationship with Jesus, just quit.” Now, I wouldn’t have said it like that, but I got his point. I tried to clean up my game, but it was still hard to keep my mouth shut.
What was going on there? It was just basketball, and it was just a church league. I don’t even think there were any trophies, and even if there were, who cares!? Why was I so mad?
It comes down to not having peace on the inside. I felt insecure and threatened. I knew I wasn’t very good at basketball, and they were making me feel worse. I was fighting and clawing and screaming for approval and acceptance and self-worth.
But, everything changes if I live more deeply in the peace of Christ. Christ has put to death the old system of proving our value before God and others. Christ has put to death our hostility and competition. We are loved and accepted simply because Christ died for us. That is all. Now, I’m free to play basketball or whatever sports for the joy of playing, not because I’m trying to prove that I’m a valuable person.
Let’s bring it outward one more step - to our jobs. Let’s just say, for example, that you are in negotiations with your employer about some of the terms of the contract or about some of the work requirements.
Here’s what often happens. The employer announces some changes, and then the employees get all upset: This is a violation of our rights. You’re taking us for granted. This shows a lack of respect for us. And the employees feel that they have to fight like crazy because they have a hostile relationship with the employer, who wants to just get as much out of them as possible. So there is a broad explosion of gossip, frustration, backbiting, speculation, and name calling - mixed together with a little bit of tense negotiation. Both parties slowly hammer out a deal that nobody is happy with but almost everyone decides to live with.
Consider another option. What if the peace of Christ reigned in our hearts? The employer announces some changes, and the employees don’t like it. But the employees don’t feel personally threatened because they are already secure in the love of Christ. They can engage the employers from a position of strength. Look we have similar goals here. We all want a strong and effective organization. You need us, and we need you. We will keep working on this until you really hear us.
Of course, there are still negotiations and discussions and probably some compromises, but the whole tenor of the relationship is different. We are not hostile; we are at peace. We are not on separate sides of a wall of anger, throwing grenades at each other. We are on one team, working on common goals. And all because of the peace of Christ in our hearts.
Last example - national security. Some of the biggest, baddest walls of hostility are between nations. When our nation feels threatened, we bring out the big guns - literally. But even with all of our big guns and high tech networks, we still feel deeply insecure inside. So we get more and more hostile with each other.
Consider another option. What if the peace of Christ reigned in our decision making here? What if we approached our enemies from a position of internal security and peace? What if we decided that defending ourselves is a lower priority than showing love?
What if we changed strategies? Instead of building war panes, we could build hospitals. Instead of dropping bombs, we could plant seeds. Instead of targeting terror networks, we could build education networks. Instead of isolating dictators and abusive regimes, we could go into their countries with unprecedented human relief and community development. Instead of trade embargoes, we could implement free trade networks. What would happen?
The motivation for war would simply dissolve. People don’t attack their friends. People don’t fight those who are obviously on their side, working for their good. The way out of war is not through war. Hostility cannot end hostility. Only peace can truly win. Only love can heal our pains. Only the love of Christ deep in our souls can give us the strength to live true peace.
For Christ himself has brought peace to us... he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups... and our hostility toward each other was put to death... Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.