[Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22] When God reconciled us to Him, He reconciled us to all other Christians as well. In the most mind-blowing development of the consequences of our salvation, Paul tells all Christians that God has removed any barrier we think we have with any other Christian/group of Christians. We are all saved the same way—in Jesus. And so we should work hard to work through our differences with Christians. (Our only true hope of peace.)
But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:13
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
There’s a funny scene in “Miss Congeniality” in which all of the pageant contestants say that the most important thing our society needs is world peace, except Sandra Bullock, who wants harsher punishments for parole violators (and then world peace). (30 second clip of this “YouTube Miss Congeniality World Peace” is below.) In other words, the idea of "world peace" is so impossible that’s it’s become a joke (also, higher pay for teachers). As an icebreaker, you might ask two questions: (1) how does the world think we can achieve world peace? And (2) what does the world think world peace looks like? The answers to the first question often has bits of truth to it. The various pictures/memes to the right represent some common attitudes towards peace on the internet. If we could get past racism and sexism, that would go a long way toward creating peace on earth. If we would try to work through our differences with dialog rather than gunfight, that would also help.
But the answer to the second question usually betrays what the world is actually thinking (see the Arya Stark meme). The easiest example of this is John Lenin’s famous song “Imagine”—imagine a world in which there is peace. But read the lyrics carefully; the song is basically the Communist Manifesto set to music (Lenin stated this himself; I'm not making a hot take). In that, Karl Marx said that the way to peace is to destroy all wealth so that no one has anything to fight over and thus destroy all class differences so that no one is jealous. (What he hid in the closet was that someone would have to decide what constituted wealth and class -- enter Stalin and Mao.) You’ll find this pattern in every vision of “world peace”: world peace is achieved when everyone thinks and acts the way I want them to. That’s not actually world peace; that’s tyranny under a thin veil (see the next page). That’s not the kind of peace Paul promises in this passage. The peace Paul talks about is real and lasting but possible only by the Spirit of God. That’s why Paul is not popular in the world today.
This Week's Big Idea: The Roman Idea of Peace (The Pax Romana)
According to the Australian non-profit group Vision of Humanity, there are only 11 countries in the world today not at some kind of war. The book “What Every Person Should Know about War” claims that in the past 3,400 years, there have been 268 in which no wars have been recorded. (My guess is that there were plenty of wars going on during those years, but all of the records were destroyed by the people who came along later and killed the survivors and took their property. boy, am I a cynic!). According to historians, there are been two “eras of world peace”: the Pax Romana, and the “Silk Road Era”. In the latter, Genghis Khan and his Mongols ruthlessly conquered millions of square miles and killed everyone who stood against them. But as a result of eliminating potential agitators, the Mongols were able to provide a stable society for everyone who was left. That was the era of Marco Polo and the first trade between Europe and the Far East—possible only because the Mongols had made travel safe.
For our purposes (and the purposes of church history), the most famous claim of world peace was the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) inaugurated by Augusta Caesar in 27 BC, the beginning of 200 years of “world peace”. This was, apparently, a critical part of God’s plan for the church because He sent Jesus during the early part of this “peace”, which meant that the earliest Christian missionaries (like Paul) were able to travel long distances through the Empire without much fear of piracy or marauders. In other words, the peaceful messengers of Christianity were able to travel as widely as they did because Rome had made many of the roads/seas and cities safer. But what’s most important to know about this “peace” was how violently it was achieved. Don’t get me wrong—Rome (like Alexander the Great) had a policy in which “if you don’t cause trouble, we will leave you in peace”. But the moment anyone agitated outside the wishes of the Roman government, Rome brought swift retribution. Rebellions were put down mercilessly (and Rome still annexed large regions like Britain during this time). So, yes, the Romans claimed they created peace. But the did so by the constant threat of violence. As I said on the previous page, that’s not true peace; that’s tyranny.
To be fair, some (including a 2016 article on the Huffington Post) argue that we currently live in the most peaceful era of human history. They base this on the idea that we tolerate unjust imprisonment, brutality, bullying, racism, etc. less than ever, and so the pieces are in place to remove war. I understand that point and find truth in it, but I also see that there are more weapons produced today than ever before, and that the world economy (and even climate) is more instable than ever before—those are things that lead to conflicts and to wars. You see, the kind of peace that Paul is talking about in our passage this week is one in which we seek the good of our neighbor without fear that our neighbor is plotting against us. (He’s fundamentally talking about peace with God, but we’ll get to that in a few pages.) That kind of peace does result in no wars, no murders, no crimes, etc. But it is actually impossible. Why? Because of what Paul said a week ago—the power in this world is the spirit of disobedience, and the people who live in it (not freed by the Holy Spirit) will be used by Satan to create instability, fear, and death. It’s what Satan does, and our fallen nature is only too quick to oblige. In short, until Jesus returns and abolishes Satan forever, there will not be peace on earth. Every human effort toward peace will be manipulated by Satan to bring death and destruction.
Our Context in Ephesians
What I love about this letter is its simplicity. Paul first established that there is one (great and awesome) God, and there is one (perfect and astounding) Savior. And there is an earth-shattering consequence to that truth that Paul wanted to make sure his readers understood: all people are saved the same way. Think about it. There’s not a black person way to be and a white person way; or a Muslim way and a Christian way; or a rich person way and a poor person way. We are all saved the same way. Which means—for the most important part of what it means to be a person—we are all exactly the same. And that has to change the way we look at people. All people.
Part 1: Brought Near (Ephesians 2:11-13)
So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
The logical consequence of the previous passage is very simple: if we have been saved entirely by the grace of God, then only God’s “opinion” on the subject matters. And in God’s “opinion”, we have all sinned and fallen short of the mark He set for entry into heaven. Paul’s audience is largely made of Gentiles, so that’s why he seems to be elevating the Jews (but see below). From their perspective, they are all outsiders to God’s people (even though we know that being a physical descendant of Abraham didn’t make Jews any more saved than anyone else), and the Judaizers would be telling all of them that they need to be circumcised if they want to become a Jew and thus saved. Paul confronts that perspective here: yes, you were all foreigners to Israel. But the symbol you were worried about (circumcision) is just something that people do physically; rather, what brought you into the family of God was something much greater: the blood of Christ.
The imagery in this passage is so rich, it’s absurd. The reference to “flesh” calls them back to what Paul had just said about how they used to live according to the flesh—according to the spirit of disobedience at work in the world. The reference to “circumcision” brings to mind the primary divider between Jew and Gentile: the law of Moses. Because they did not keep the law, they could never be a part of the people of God (or so they were told). But note that Paul says that circumcision is something done in and to the flesh. In other words, he’s creating the doubt that perhaps circumcision isn’t such a great thing as it’s cracked up to be. “Without Christ”/ ”not a citizen”/ ”foreigner to the covenant” all explained the ways in which Gentiles were not Jews. Jesus was sent first to the Jews—He said so himself, and Paul understood that. The Gentiles had no particular claim on Jesus. Because Gentiles were not physical descendants of Abraham, they could never be a citizen of Israel. At best they could be a kind of resident alien. (Remember how I said that Ephesus was filled with transient workers? This idea of not being a citizen would have connected with them.) The Gentiles would have seen from that exclusion that they had no “hope” or even a “God”. And that was true! But it wasn’t because they weren't Jews; it was because they hadn’t responded to Jesus.
However, Paul makes it clear that his point is not the Gentile’s disadvantage because he interjects a powerful “but now”. The final image—”the blood of Christ”—was a shot to Judaism. They believed that they were forgiven by the blood of an animal sprinkled on an altar. But the blood of Jesus was offered to God on behalf of the Gentiles, and by it they had access to God. [I’m short on space, but if you want to explain “atonement” to your class, that’s never a bad idea. It explains how the gospel works!] Now, since we are all Gentiles, Paul is speaking to us. We, no matter how “far away” we thought we were (even though God is never far from anyone), have been brought near. To whom? God. The consequence of that is the most important for Paul; draw this diagram and ask your class “what happens when ‘you’ and ‘me’ come closer to God?”; they come closer to each other. And that’s what Paul develops next.
Aside: So, is there any advantage to being a Jew anymore?
If you just read these verses in passing, you might come away with the idea that Jews were somehow better off than Gentiles. If that were the case, wouldn’t it immediately contradict Paul’s basic premise that all people are saved the same way?
Well, let’s remember that Paul is writing this letter mostly to Gentiles, so he doesn’t necessarily even care about the situation of Jews in this argument. However, it is important for us to remember that Paul did think that the Jews had an advantage over the Gentiles. Romans 3:1-2: “So what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Considerable in every way. First, they were entrusted with the very words of God.” Out of all the people on earth, God chose Abraham to be the father of His chosen people. The prophets were Jews. David was a Jew. Most importantly, Jesus was a Jew. The Jews had all of the information from God they needed to be saved; that is an advantage. But if you remember the rest of Romans 3, Paul’s actual point was that despite of that, all people—Jews and Gentiles—have sinned, and Jesus Christ came to save them all. In other words, the primary advantage to being a Jew is having access to the knowledge of how to be saved. But they still have to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior to actually be saved. In that sense, the Jews are not different from those of us who grew up in a Christian home or going to an evangelical church. We’ve had access to the truth of salvation our entire lives! Isn’t there an advantage to that rather than being born in North Korea, or in Indonesia? Yes there is! Many, in fact! But it doesn’t “improve our chances” of being saved; it simply increases the number of chances we will have to hear and respond to the gospel. Paul’s point isn’t to make the Gentiles envious—it’s to make them humble that God would choose to reveal Jesus to them at all (and we should have that same humble response).
Part 2: Peace Declared (Ephesians 2:14-18)
For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
I saw a fun illustration for this in a pair of foam plates. Ask your class which kind of plate they prefer to use—with or without dividers. (That can lead to a fun discussion about our eating habits, but keep it brief.) Ask your class how they might apply what Paul said to this pair of plates. My guess is that someone might look at the divided plate and put three different groups of people in the three divisions. That would be fine, but it wouldn’t go far enough. Really, we should put “God” in the top area, “me” in one area, and “everyone else” in the other. When Jesus Christ tore down the division between me and God, He also tore down the division between everyone else and God, which means that He tore down the division between me and everyone else. In Paul’s day, that division would have been symbolized in the law of Moses, which made Jews act differently and separate themselves from Gentiles. Humans have been creating barriers ever since. You can show a “colored only” or a Berlin Wall or a “Muslim Quarter” picture to remind your class members how often (and recently) we have done this. All of those “walls” are things that humans have built. But in the only thing that matters—how to be saved—we are all the same.
Most importantly, note that Paul did not say that Jesus came to bring us peace; rather, Jesus is our peace. (Remember that Jesus said He did not come to bring peace; Matt 10:34.) We cannot have true peace without Jesus. Paul’s specific example is Jew/Gentile. Gentiles have been separated from Jews by the Jewish commands and regulations, but now Jesus has done away with those, and so Jew and Gentile can live together and serve together; there should not be a “Gentile Church” and a “Jewish Church” but only one church in Ephesus—a new people. We can substitute any two ethnic groups and the truth would be the same. God is not pleased when we let our cultural/ethnic differences pigeonhole us into different churches. (I believe that theological differences are a different matter in denominationalism, but we’ve probably pushed that too far, too.)
Again, Paul’s theme is that Jesus provided the same salvation the same way to all people, and so there should be no meaningful barriers between Christians. His death reconciled us to God (I love the image of Jesus’ death putting to death our separation from God). When He was lifted up on the cross, that message of salvation (peace with God) was proclaimed to those who were “near” (the Jews by virtue of their access to God’s Word) and those who were “far” (the Gentiles by virtue of their ethnic and geographic separation from the keepers of God’s Word). And when both groups find peace with God, they find peace with each other because they are no longer two different groups but one new group: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, see also Col 3:11). We all have the same access to God in the same way (I think it likely that Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit here, but that’s not necessary).
About the word peace. In the Greek-speaking world, the word Eirene was used to describe the opposite of war (cessation of hostilities) much like we think of it today, and I think that’s the source of a lot of confusion—particularly in the way the KJV translated the angels’ nativity song “peace on earth and good will toward men” (as if peace were something we could enjoy among all people in this life). But the Hebrew concept of peace—shalom—means harmony, wholeness, and security. (Not the absence of something but the presence of something.) Jesus did not come to end wars on earth but to restore our broken relationships with God. The better translation of the nativity song is “peace on earth for those on whom God’s good will rests”. Yes, Christians are to “live at peace” with all other people (as far as it is up to us; Rom 12:18), but we cannot force them to live at peace with us. Rather, we pray that they can have the same peace with God that we do in Christ, and that is how we can have true peace with them.
Aside: What Was the Dividing Wall of Hostility?
When Paul mentions tearing down the “wall of hostility”, it sure seems like he has a specific thing in mind. Most scholars believe he was talking about the “court of the Gentiles” in the temple; there was a wall/partition through which only Jews could pass (Josephus used the same word to describe it that Paul used here). Each gate had an inscription that said “No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure.”
Jews could literally “get closer” to God than Gentiles could. In this interpretation, Paul was speaking figuratively with respect to the fact that all people could approach the presence of God equally. (That would be fine, except it doesn’t address the difference between men and women still inherent in the temple structure.) Another proposal is that Paul was talking about “the law” (he does immediately mention commands and ordinances), particularly those laws that prevented Jews from any meaningful relationships with Gentiles. I also wonder if Paul was talking about the temple curtain that was torn in two after the crucifixion, symbolic of the division between God and man. In that case, the “laws” Paul talked about were those describing how people could make sacrifices to atone for their sins. Now in Christ, all people come to God in Him, so there is no need for any division. But again, most scholars believe he’s talking about the fence separating the Court of the Gentiles, and there’s no reason to believe he’s not thinking of the law as well.
Part 3: Citizenship Granted (Ephesians 2:19-22)
So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.
Now Paul comes back to the temple imagery. Remember that I said the temple of Artemis was the dominant structure in Ephesus and much of the city existed to support it; it was a wonder of the world, and people came from all over to see it. Well, Paul lets the Ephesians know that God is doing something even more remarkable in them.
First, he does a cool thing with his description of the people. “Foreigner” is the word xenos (where we get xenophobia); “stranger” is the word paroikos. A foreigner was someone who was temporarily passing through (either on business or as a tourist) with no intention of becoming a long-term resident. A stranger was someone who moved into the area with the intent of staying long-term.
As you might guess, the foreigner (xenos) was often treated as a guest, even with honor. But a stranger (paroikos) was often treated with contempt. We still do the same thing today—tourists are people who stay for a short while, spend money, and then leaving (taking their problems with them). But migrants are often seen as people who will clog our public services and compete for our jobs. In both cases, the person would not be considered a citizen. Paul’s point was that no matter how his Gentile audience thought of themselves (if they were accepted or despised by the Jews they knew), they were now fellow citizens with every Christian and accorded the same rights and privileges of being a child of God (remember Paul’s desire for them to understand the glory of their inheritance?). And then Paul pushes the Temple of Artemis image to its max: God was building an even greater temple out of them—and He was building them all together into one great temple. The biggest division Paul had in mind would have been Jew vs. Gentile, but every ethnic/economic tension that was likely experienced in Ephesus would have been included here. All Christians are being built into one holy temple (for us today, it’s a reminder that there won’t be denominations in heaven). The description is very important—if it’s true of the eternal, all-Christians-of-all-times church (assembly that we’ll have in heaven), then it must be true of our physical, local churches (assemblies that meet in our buildings). The foundation is the apostles and prophets—by this, Paul is referring to the instructions they left for us (which we now have in the Bible). But the cornerstone—the means by which we measure to make sure we are building straight/proper on that foundation—is Jesus. In Him, the words of the prophets make sense.
Aside: Reconciliation vs. Restoration
I’ll keep bringing this point up every time we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. Christians are supposed to forgive all offenses against us. But there is a difference between reconciliation (we agree to put the past behind us and move on with our lives) and restoration (we agree to put the past behind us and move on with our lives together). Sometimes it’s just not safe or healthy or appropriate for two Christians to try to take a relationship “back to how it used to be” after an offense divided them, and that’s okay. You can forgive and you can reconcile, and ideally that’s what happens after a Christian relationship has been severed by sin, but you don’t have to go back to how it was before. It is not a failure or false forgiveness if you don’t “restore” what used to be; sometimes people and circumstances change. And that’s okay.