Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians

11. Ephesians 2:11-22 - Unity in Christ

Paul then begins to address a practical matter within the church, the tensions between Jewish and gentile believers. Because we are saved by grace and because we are saved for good works, our attitudes and behavior toward one another ought to change.

He begins by writing to the gentiles: “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) — 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” (vs. 11-12).

The Jews looked down on the gentiles, calling them “uncircumcised.” This insult was a reminder than the gentiles were not in the covenant of Abraham and not included in the blessings promised to him. Although circumcision was a human work, it reflected a spiritual reality. The gentiles were separated from Christ, God, hope and promise. But that has now changed: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Once they were separated from Christ; now they are united with him. Once they were excluded; now they are included. They have hope, and they have God, through the death of Jesus Christ.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one” (v. 14). What “two” is Paul talking about? He is talking about Jews and gentiles. The peoples who used to be in different spiritual categories are now united in Christ. The Jews were just like the gentiles in being spiritually dead; the gentiles are now like Jews in that through Christ they are members of the people of God.

Jesus has made the two peoples one by bringing the outsiders in, by bringing the gentiles just as close as he does the Jews. Through Christ they both have the promises, the citizenship and the hope, and they have God. Where there was rivalry between Jews and gentiles, Jesus has made peace, because both peoples are equally saved by grace and no one has any reason to feel superior.

Abolishing the law

How did Jesus make peace between Jews and gentiles? It is because he “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14). And what was the wall that created hostility between Jews and gentiles? Paul answers this question when he says that Jesus destroyed the barrier “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (v. 15).

The wall of hostility was the law, which had commandments and regulations separating Jew from gentile. This law defined who was on which side of the barrier, it said who had the promises and who belonged to the people of God.

Some of the Jews had created laws that made the Jew-gentile hostility worse, but Paul is not talking about human-made laws. Christ did not need to abolish human-made laws, because they had no spiritual authority in the first place, and Paul is talking about barriers in connection with God. He is talking about spiritual realities, not human traditions.

Paul is talking about laws that divided Jew from gentile in the sight of God, laws that had to be abolished by the cross of Christ (v. 16). Jesus did not have to die to eliminate human regulations. Rather, he died to bring an end to the old covenant. Ephesians 2 is therefore in agreement with what we read in Acts 15, 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 3-4, Colossians 2 and Hebrews 7-10.

The old covenant came to an end with the death of Jesus Christ. The old covenant had defined Jew and gentile, creating the distinction, and Jesus made the two peoples one by destroying that divider. Jesus abolished the old covenant with its regulations and commandments. The people of God are no longer defined by old covenant laws.

Christ’s purpose, Paul says, “was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (vs. 15-16). Before Christ, there were two kinds of people: dead Jews and dead gentiles. Both peoples needed to be reconciled to God, and this is what Christ did on the cross. The result is a new people, a people who are alive in Christ, alive to God.

“He came and preached peace to you who were far away [gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (vs. 17-18). Paul is proclaiming equality for gentile believers and unity of all Christians. People of different ethnic groups, people of different denominations, are one in Christ.

One building

“Consequently, you [gentiles] are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (v. 19). Through Christ, we are members of God’s family.

Paul then shifts to a different metaphor: “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (v. 20). Moses is not our foundation. The apostles and prophets are — and Paul is probably speaking of New Testament prophets, as he does in Ephesians 3:5. But even more important than this foundation is the fact that “Christ Jesus himself [is] the chief cornerstone.” He is our primary point of reference.

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). Our unity is in Christ, and as we are growing in him, we are a place of acceptable worship.

“And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (v. 22). As we are in Christ, through faith in Christ, through seeing ourselves as his people, we are growing closer to one another, and God is living in us by his Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is living in us, then God is living in us, for the Holy Spirit is God.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD