Jew and Gentile Reconciled Through Christ
11 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.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Walls have a purpose. In my backyard there is a wall that stands about four feet high. It is made of stone and mortar, stacked one on top of the other. I have only ever seen one side of this particular wall as it has nothing in front of it and the back side is completely covered with dirt. The role of the wall is to make sure that dirt stays where it is. We call this a “retaining wall.”
Some walls are used to keep animals in; we call these pens or cages. Other walls are intended to keep animals or people or other things out. These are called barriers. Some walls are used to separate one room from another, like inside of a house. These walls also are sometimes used to support the weight of the rest of the house above it. We call these load-bearing walls. But I would say that it is very rare that you might find a wall without a purpose. Nobody builds a wall just to have a wall. Walls are by nature intended to hold back, to keep things in, or to keep things out. They divide, and they support existing structures.
Walls are necessary in our world. But we tend to be pretty good at putting up walls where they don’t need to be, or even worse, where they shouldn’t be. Metaphorically, we seek to hold back, keep things in/out, divide, and support existing structures by building walls.
Let’s get a little context for today’s scripture. Ephesians is a letter that was written to the church in Ephesus. Most of the Ephesian Christians were not Jews by birth. They were Gentiles, which is just a way of saying a non-Jew. If you aren’t a Jew, you are a Gentile. The Greek word that the New Testament uses that is translated as Gentile is “ethnos,” from which we get our English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” So anyone from a different ethnicity was a Gentile.
In the Old Testament we find a lot of teachings about how the Israelites are called to be a Holy People. Deuteronomy 7:6 says, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
That word “holy” is quadosh in Hebrew and it literally means to be set aside. God is holy because God is set aside from all other gods and all created beings. We talk about the Bible being the Holy Scriptures in that it is set aside from all other writings. Holy does not mean perfect or without fault. God doesn’t expect the Israelites to be perfect. That would be “righteousness” and the Bible tells us that no one is righteous (except Noah, but that’s a different story). So when God says in Deuteronomy 7:6 that the Israelites are to be holy, he is calling them to be set aside from the rest of the world, different in a number of ways.
In the Old Testament there are 613 commandments. I like to joke around about how glad I am that I only had to learn 10 in Sunday school growing up. These 613 commandments can be divided up into two different categories: holiness commandments and moral commandments, with some fitting into both categories. The moral commandments include things like don’t covet and don’t steal. The holiness commandments include things like don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head and ritualistic cleansing practices. The holiness commandments are the ones that we in the 21st century often look at and say, “What??” Leviticus chapters 17-26 is often called the Holiness Codes of the Old Testament by Christians today because it talks about these practices that many of us today might consider strange that were meant to separate the Israelites from the other nations. They were to be different because they were to be holy, to be set aside for God.
So we have these holiness laws: ritualistic washings, dietary rules, and the king of all holiness laws, circumcision. If you really want to be set aside from the rest of the world, do something very painful to yourself so that there is no chance that anyone else will just do it for fun. If someone was circumcised, they were Jewish.
So there was this obvious barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Jews didn’t eat shellfish, Gentiles did. Jews didn’t cut the hair at the side of their temples, Gentiles did. Jews didn’t work on Saturdays, Gentiles did. Jews cut off the end of their genitalia, Gentiles did not. These walls hold back, keep things in, and keep things out. They divide, and they support existing structures.
We all know about the salvific aspect of the cross of Jesus Christ. We believe that on the cross Jesus defeated death and overcame evil. But one thing we often neglect is that the cross of Jesus also tore down walls.
Ephesians 2:14-16 tells us, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 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, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Or as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Walls are torn down! Remember that person that a good Jew was supposed to separate themselves from? Now they are given a new name: brothers and sisters! Now they are to love one another! Now they are to go the extra mile, serve, and give their life for that person. It is a fundamental change in the way that the Jewish Christians were to see the Gentile world! And it isn’t a surprise that many Jews resisted this change.
Let’s come back to verse 15 quickly, which says: “by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations…” Now I am by no means the greatest biblical scholar in the world, or in the room. But didn’t Jesus say that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets? And didn’t Jesus give new teachings and laws during his ministry on earth?
When Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, he is talking about the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and the prophetic writings of the Bible. I don’t think that the author of the book of Ephesians is saying that there is now to be total anarchy and no law at all. What the author of Ephesians is referring to is the holiness laws, like those found in Deuteronomy, that were intended to separate the Jews from the Gentiles. Those laws, like circumcision, are now, in Jesus, rendered obsolete. The walls have come tumbling down and now, rather than the Jews being a separate chosen people, all are welcome to join in God’s salvific work here on earth.
For he himself is our peace. What a strange saying that is; completely meaningless outside of the context of today’s passage. But when we read it in this context, we come to understand that these outsiders are now insiders. Those people over there are now a part of us. And it is a lot easier to hate someone who is not a part of our group than it is to hate someone who is a part of our group. Sure, there might be people we associate with that we don’t like, but I’m not about to go out and commit a hate crime against my family member because they are of a different opinion than I am. You see, it is a lot easier to hate someone on the other side of a wall than it is to hate someone that you have a real-life relationship with.
I have a friend who is currently in the Israel-Palestine area, the very area that Jesus walked 2,000 years ago. He is posting a lot of pictures on Facebook and commenting about his travels there. I hear about Phil’s travels through checkpoint after checkpoint, roadblock after roadblock, and it sounds like quite a hassle to just get across town. And when I look at the pictures, I notice wall after wall after wall. Some are made of stone, some are made of the even less-inviting barbed wire. It is clear that someone is trying to keep someone else out.
It grieves me to know that the very land that Jesus walked is divided by walls of barbed wire and armed soldiers. And all of this because two nations can’t decide who owns some land. I don’t care what your political stance is on the conflict in Israel-Palestine, really I don’t. But it should surely bother you too that the home area of the man who supposedly tore down these walls between Jew and Gentile is now filled with more walls and fences than I can imagine.
As followers of Jesus Christ, I believe that we are called to get to know the people on the other side of the fence. I’m not saying that we need to agree with the people on the other side of the fence and I am not saying that we need to be best friends with the people on the other side of the fence. But Jesus teaches us that we are to tear down fences and walls to love the people on the other side. Fences and walls cause us to fear and hate others because we can’t get to know and love the person on the other side.
A couple of years after Sonya and I were married we had the opportunity to travel back to Nebraska for the wedding of her friend, Kim to a fine young man named Lane. Sonya and Kim had grown up together and been good friends in their early adulthood, though they were separated by many miles.
Now I’m not the smallest person in the world. I stand 6’ tall and weigh about 215. But we have a picture of me and Lane standing side-by-side and he is a good head and shoulders taller than I am. I don’t often feel little, but I feel little when I am around Lane. Lane stands 6’8” and is a good 300 lbs.
At the wedding rehearsal I had the opportunity to meet Lane’s family. Some might wonder if I respect Lane’s father and mother, and I can say for sure that I looked up to them both. You get the idea; they are all very tall.
So the family starts to line up for the rehearsal and something doesn’t quite look right. Usually, from the congregation, the groom and his groomsmen stand to the right and the bride and her bridesmaids stand to the left. But standing right next to Lane in the spot normally reserved for the best man stood a small Asian woman. It wasn’t as if she was a bridesmaid that accidentally stood on the wrong side. She was wearing a black dress and the bridesmaids were wearing orange. She definitely seemed out of place. She was of the wrong gender, wrong ethnicity, and the wrong height.
I ask a few questions, look at a bulletin, and I find out that this woman, who probably didn’t break the 5’ mark, is Lane’s sister. I love it! Who was Lane’s best man? Who stood next to this 6’8”, 300 lb man? His 4’10, 90 lb Asian sister.
This is a reoccurring theme in the New Testament. Where the Old Testament taught that the people of Israel were to be building barriers and walls, the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus, and the teachings of Paul tell us that we are to tear those walls down. Walls are by nature intended to hold back, to keep things in, or to keep things out. They divide, and they support existing structures. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus tore down the barriers between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave or free person. In Christ we are all one family, like a Asian woman with a Scottish-Irish surname standing in as the best man in her gigantic brother’s wedding, we are now family in God’s eyes.