As we read through Ephesians it is important to understand that Paul is speaking to believers; however, in this section it is of equal importance to understand that this group of believers is now made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This is unprecedented. All throughout the Old Testament the idea of Gentiles being completely separated from Jews and completely separated from God was foundational. As we read in 1 Samuel this created animosity between the two groups. Even David spoke of the Gentile races as the “Uncircumcision”.
Picture the events occurring as the earliest Christians were reading this letter from Paul. Jews were coming to know Christ, which makes sense, because Jesus came first for the Jews. But now Gentiles were also coming to a full knowledge of Christ. The Jews must have been thinking “How could this be?” Remember, that the church at Ephesus (and elsewhere) had a congregation of both Jews and Gentiles. We know that there was a large contingent of Jews living among the Gentiles in the city of Ephesus at this time.
Now here in verses 11-22 Paul is explaining what is happening to the church (the body of Christ). This explanation can be summed up as: “Christ the reconciler, who brings those separated near to Him through His blood”. I could only imagine the amazement and skepticism of the Jews as the Gentiles were becoming their brethren or the Gentiles’ surprise, humility, and maybe a little self-consciousness as they entered into worship with their new Jewish brothers and sisters. How strange it must have been for these two groups with such enmity between them to now be worshiping the one God in one Spirit together.
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—
12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Paul begins by talking specifically to the Gentile believers within the church. He tells them (note that this is an imperative verb designating a command to the Gentile believers) to keep in mind their former condition, that they were “in the flesh”. They were not spiritual in the sense of even having a path to God. That door was closed to them. Rather, in their flesh, they built for themselves idols of wood and stone and worshiped them.
The Gentiles were derided and considered outcasts by the Jews, even calling them the “Uncircumcision”. But did you notice that Paul (a Jew himself) added, “…which is performed in the flesh by human hands”. Paul was not extolling the virtuosity of the Jews for being circumcised. Rather, he was making a point of placing the Jews (and himself) on equal ground with the Gentiles. Yes, the Gentiles were of the uncircumcision, but the Jews, while being circumcised (and chosen of God), were only circumcised by human hands. Their hearts, in times past, had not yet been circumcised by God as it says in Ezekiel 36:26 (note the use of future tense here):
26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
Even though Paul is speaking directly to the Gentiles, he is also speaking indirectly to the Jewish believers. As they need also keep in mind that they were only circumcised through the letter of the law, not the Spirit of God as they are now.
Paul goes on to spell out the Gentiles situation, which was:
- They were separated from Christ.
- They were separated from Israel.
- They were separated from the covenants of promise, which would entail the inability to share in the promises of God (reconciliation, protection, land, etc. etc.) through a binding covenantal agreement.
- And the worst was that they had no hope since they were without God.
Separation from Christ means a lot of bad things and missed opportunities, but the worst of these is the absence of hope. This absence of hope is ever present in our world today. Those without hope have no guardrails. They have nothing to look forward to and no one to guide them and provide that hope. It’s sad to see a person without hope, even if on the outside they seem to be well off and have some sort of happiness. Eventually, they will worship their own self more and more as they cannot help to do so. For they have no true hope.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
But for believers, we have hope. Not in ourselves but in Christ. And it is all due to the work of Christ, which we cannot do. Through Christ Jesus’ sacrifice and the spilling of His blood, He has closed the gap between God and us. Not only for the Jew but also for the Gentile. Before we were unable to have a personal relationship with Christ; now we are brought near. This nearness brings a relationship to Christ as well as hope in something much greater than ourselves.
14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,
15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,
16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
17 AND 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 our access in one Spirit to the Father.
But how did Christ bring us near to God? How did He reconcile all not only to God but to each other? Yes, it was through His blood that we are washed from all sin, but let’s dig a little deeper in these 4 verses.
Verse 14 begins a deeper explanation of verse 13. It says “He Himself is our peace”. In Greek it is just “He is our peace”; however, the translation is appropriate since “He” is an emphatic “He” in Greek due to the word order (i.e., personal pronoun precedes verb). Thus the emphasis is that no other person or thing can be our peace except for Jesus. And how is Jesus our peace? Well, verses 14b-16 proceed to tell us.
First, in verse 14b, it says that Jesus made the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one. Jesus Himself has removed all barriers to unity for His church body. We simply have to step into His peace with faith and humility and a love towards others, enabled by the Holy Spirit of course. This is easy for God to do, but think for a moment if you had to make peace between two parties. This peace has to be a lasting peace not a temporary truce and it has to be initiated and sustained by you and you only. As parents we have to do this with our children. Sometimes the peace holds and sometimes it breaks down. What if we were called to bring peace to groups of people? What if these groups were large? Can mere human beings bring peace to the world? How about peace in the Middle East or in Ukraine? Now I should make a distinction that the peace that Jesus brings is not the same peace that I’m using in these examples. What I am saying is that we can try to bring a temporary, weak, insignificant, and short peace between people, but Jesus brings a true peace that extends far beyond what we can imagine. In fact, to bring peace to the Jews and Gentiles who had centuries of animosity towards one another required much more than just a human peace. What is impossible for us is possible for God.
A powerful and lasting symbol of this peace was also needed. This symbol Paul uses is the barrier of the dividing wall being broken down (verse 14b). This is in reference to the Jerusalem temple where a dividing wall separated the Gentile court (where Gentiles could gather) from the temple area (where only Jews could enter). Just to make sure the Gentiles did not enter the temple, there was even an inscription that warned Gentiles if they entered the temple area they would be put to death and that they would only have themselves to blame. God tore down this barrier signifying that there was now equal access to God through Jesus for both Jew and Gentile. This would have been a powerful image for the Jew who knew intimately about this wall. Even though Paul is speaking to the Gentiles here, he still makes powerful points directly aimed at the Jews who might think to reject the idea that Gentiles also have equal access to God through Christ.
In order to bring the two separate groups into one group the hostility on both sides had to be removed, which Jesus did by becoming our peace. When we become a believer we are a new creation, the old self has been replaced. As a new creation we now have the power to remove hostilities between us and others, not under our own power but through the grace bestowed on us by Jesus and the Spirit’s power in us. The removal of this “dividing wall” was symbolic; however, the real evidence of the removal of hostilities was through the working of the Holy Spirit in these new churches consisting of both Jew and Gentile.
But there was another thing that had to be removed, or maybe a better word would be replaced. That is the Law. The Law had to be fulfilled, and it was in Christ. But also the power of the Law to condemn and to separate (separate Jew from Gentile, that is) has to be abolished. In verse 15 we see that the Jesus abolished the hostility of the Law towards us and between the Jew and Gentile. But abolishing the Law wasn’t enough because having no Law at all is worse than having a Law. It had to be replaced with something better. This better thing was the covenant of grace through Jesus’ sacrifice and death upon the cross. In effect, Jesus had not only made peace between Jew and Gentile but He also made peace between us and God (verse 16). For Jesus to bring true and lasting peace He had to do both.
Verse 17 continues the thought of Jesus bringing both groups together by His preaching the good news of the gospel to Gentiles (those who were far off) and Jews (those who were near). This is a reference to Isaiah 57:19:
19 Creating the praise of the lips. Peace, peace to him who is far and to him who is near,” Says the LORD, “and I will heal him.”
In verse 18 we have a summing up of what Jesus has done for us through preaching peace, making peace, and becoming our peace. Because of this we (both Jew and Gentile) have the ability to boldly approach our God, whereas before only the Jews had a kind of indirect access to God. And only the sanctified priests had access to the holy God in the Holy of Holies. Now all people have access to God the Father! But this access is enabled by the Holy Spirit. Notice how everything is pointing to a unity. There is a unity between believers and God. This unity allows all believers to exist in unity with each other and worship in unity with one another. But it’s the one Spirit that binds us all in unity with other believers and with our Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,
20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,
21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord,
22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
In this final section Paul is drawing a conclusion (“so then…”) from verses 2:11-18 of this chapter. He is answering the question, “What does this mean for Gentiles and Jews in relation to each other and to God?”
Verse 19 hearkens back to verses 12-13 that we just talked about. The first part of verse 19 speaks of Gentiles as being strangers and aliens. These words describe someone who lives outside their country of origin and who does not owe anything to the country they live in or may not even speak the same language. They are outsiders owing nothing to the country they live in and being owed nothing by the country that they live in. However, now the Gentile believers have been made full citizens of this new country and can enjoy the benefits of their new found citizenry. They have renounced their old citizenship and embraced their new status as citizens of God’s country, so to speak. But notice it says “you are fellow citizens with the saints…”. This is pointing to the peace that Jesus brought by removing the hostilities between both the Jews and Gentiles. Now both groups are “fellow” citizens. The second part to this is “…and are of God’s household”. This points to the peace that Jesus brought between the two groups (that are now one group) and God Himself.
Then in verses 20-22 Paul switches to describing this new citizenship, or unity, that we have with other believers and with God. This unity is pictured as a building that is being built up (i.e., it is not yet complete). We will see later in Ephesians 3 that this building is the church. Although, this building is not complete it does have a firm foundation with which to build upon. Verse 20 says that Jesus is the corner stone of this new building. Now if you know how a structure is built, the first thing you would lay is some kind of corner stone. This stone is the first one laid for the foundation and must not only be structurally sound and strong but also perfectly laid. What I mean by perfectly laid is that it must be placed in the appropriate location and that it must be perfectly level, plumb, and square in order to build a sound structure that is also level, plumb, and square. Even a slight deviation in any one of these measurements or qualities would render the structure unsound and unlivable.
Jesus is the perfect corner stone that was perfectly laid to build His church upon. Next we have the foundation which consisted of the apostles and prophets who went before us declaring the doctrine, theology, and laws of God. From the apostles and prophets we have our written Bible. Without the Bible we would have no sure footings on which to build the rest of the structure of Jesus’ church. Again, if this sure foundation did not exists or was slightly off the structure would be unsound and un-livable.
The beauty of this structure (church) is that we are all being fitted together into a temple or a holy house for God the Spirit to dwell in. In verse 22 it says “we are being built together…”. This is a passive form of the verb showing that it is not we who build ourselves into the house of the Lord, it is God through His Spirit that works in us to build the house. This is such a comforting thought that the Spirit is the builder of God’s house. The Spirit is an infinitely better carpenter than you or I. He knows just how to build the house because he knows the mind of God and is constantly glorifying Jesus. From this we know that He will build us (or grow us, as it says in verse 21b) into the perfect house of God.
Have you ever seen shoddy workmanship when you enter a building or a house. You see the joints that are not properly fitted together. Things are not quite straight or level. These imperfections damage the beauty of the house. Your eye is drawn towards those things as opposed to what is correct and beautiful in the house. For example, beauty can be seen in the cabinets that are perfectly placed (level/plumb) and that are perfectly stained to bring out the richness of the wood. Attempting to create a house for God that looks like this is not possible in our own strength. We must rely on the Spirit of God to bring out the beauty of His house. But we must not forget about the firm foundation and the corner stone that this beautiful house was built upon, Jesus Christ our Lord.