The Basis for Unity in the Church
In chapter one of Ephesians Paul reviews God's original plan and purpose for the church, to bless it with every spiritual blessing in heaven. He also reviews for his readers what those blessings are. He then changes the course of his prayer from thanksgiving (for these things) to a request for God to enable the Ephesians to truly grasp and appreciate the eternal glory that awaits them in heaven with Christ. In the last verse he makes a transition or bridge to get to his next topic that will center on the church at Ephesus.
In chapter two he begins to discuss the sinful past of those who are now members of the church and how, because of their slavery to their own desires or the course of this world, they were subject to God's condemnation. This gives him the opportunity to remind them of God's grace and mercy in sending Jesus to die for their sins and offer salvation based on faith. Now, we said that God's grace is seen in two ways: that He chose to offer us salvation in the first place instead of leaving us to perish in our sins, and that He offered it on a basis of faith (and not perfectionism) so that all mankind could be saved. We also spent a little time explaining that in the New Testament, faith was properly expressed by belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, repentance of sins and baptism (immersion in water). Now that Paul has summarized how and why the church was formed, he will begin to explain its universal nature and deal with a problem that existed among these brethren.
Universal Nature of the Church
So far, Paul has described how God relates to the church as a single unit: all receive blessings, and all are saved in the same way. From an earthly perspective however, the church struggled with issues of strife and religious division because of the cultural and religious differences in each member's background. The major fault line was between Jewish Christians who had been converted from Judaism, and non-Jewish converts (referred to as Gentiles or Greeks) who had largely come out of various pagan religions. Of course, there were other difficult differences to deal with such as male/female or slave/free divides, but in this particular epistle Paul addresses the problem of unity between Jew and Gentile.
It seems that there were poor relations between Jews (who were a minority but had priority in receiving the gospel) and the Gentiles (who were in the majority but were newer converts). If the church was to be universal, as Jesus and the Apostles taught (as well as the Old Testament prophets), then the breech between Jew and Gentile had to be closed. And so, in chapter 2:11-22, Paul turns his attention to the Gentile Christians at Ephesus and explains what Christ has done specifically for them in order to sharpen their gratitude and strengthen their faith.
Position of the Gentiles Before God
11Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision" by the so-called "Circumcision," which is performed in the flesh by human hands — 12remember 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.
- Ephesians 2:11-12
Vs. 11 – Paul says that the Gentiles were uncircumcised. Circumcision was a sign in the flesh that you were included in the covenant between God and Abraham. God promised Abraham protection, blessings and a Messiah. Circumcision was the sign in your body that you were part of this promise in your generation. The Idea was that every time you bathed, had bodily functions, or had sex with your wife you were reminded of the promise and of who you were. To be "uncircumcised" then meant that you were separated from God and not part of the promise; it was a curse. For the Jews it was a sign of pride, for the Gentiles a reminder of their ultimate rejection. Gentiles should be grateful that, as members of the church, God had removed this barrier between them and Himself.
Vs. 12a – They were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel. The commonwealth of Israel describes not only the Jewish culture but also the body of true believers who were regarded as God's people. Gentiles were not considered true believers; they were idolaters and pagans. But now, as members of the church and regardless of culture, they could be considered true believers.
Vs. 12b – They were strangers to the Covenants of Promise. They had not been promised anything by God (land, blessings, Messiah); only the Jews had been promised these things. As members of the church however, they had escaped condemnation and suffering.
Vs. 12c – They had no hope and no God. Their religion was false, and their gods were helpless to provide any comfort or security. As members of the church, however, God Himself was their protector and savior. In contrast to their blessings in Christ were the various relationships that the Gentiles had with the Jews throughout history. Their relationships are not explained here but were quite evident to Paul's Gentile and Jewish readers. To understand the magnitude of this reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles one had to understand their past relationship in various settings.
Relationship between Jews and Gentiles
Before their respective conversions, the Jews and the Gentiles hated one another. The Jews had nothing to do with Gentiles. They misunderstood the admonitions in the Old Testament concerning their separation from the Gentiles and took this too far. God did not want them to be influenced by pagan behavior, and used the Jews to punish and eliminate the pagans in the Promised Land. However, once established, they were to serve as a light to convert the Gentiles to belief in the true God. The Jews usually reacted in extremes; they either copied the Gentiles and fell into idolatry or despised and rejected them without influencing them for God.
Relationship between Jew and Gentile converts to Judaism
If a Gentile did want to convert to Judaism there were several things he had to do: he had to be circumcised, purified in a water ritual and had to offer an animal sacrifice. There were limits however: a Gentile convert could not mingle with the Jews in the inner court of the Temple, they were relegated to an outer court reserved for them. It was in this outer court that merchants and money changers had set up shop rendering this space unsuitable for proper worship and thus depriving the Gentiles access to legitimate temple worship, and incurring the wrath of Jesus (Matthew 21:12-13).
The major idea in Judaism was that there was a separation between God and Jews as well as Jews and Gentiles. The barrier between God and the Jews was demonstrated in that they could only approach God through the priests and only the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies (presence of God) once per year on behalf of the people. The barrier between God and non-converted Gentiles was made evident by the fact that they were not allowed to enter any part of the temple under pain of death.
God was pure, holy and unapproachable so that Jews had access only through priests, converts had access only through Jews, and Gentiles had no access at all. So their ideas and ways to relate to each other were well ingrained and still very much in the minds of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity at Ephesus.
If we read between the lines it seems that the Gentile Christians, who had been treated as inferior by the Jews in the past, began to despise their Jewish brothers in Christ now that they were equally accepted in the church. It could also be that the Jewish Christians at Ephesus were having a little problem accepting Gentile Christians as equal partners in God's plan of salvation. And so, in the next verses Paul shows how Christ unifies both Jews and Gentiles in the church before God.
Relationship between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity
13But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15by 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, 16and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
- Ephesians 2:13-16
Vs. 13 – Paul begins by explaining how God reconciles both Jew and Gentile to Himself: by His cross, Jesus eliminates the barrier of sin that separated the Gentile from God. No need for a Jewish priest or any other mediator; Jesus offers His blood to atone for all sin so the Gentile can come before God through Christ at all times.
Vs. 14-16 – The same is also true for the Jew. The difference is that the revelation of this sacrifice and salvation was given to him earlier through the Law, the sacrificial system and the prophets. Both Jew and Gentile were condemned because of sin. The Jew didn't line up to the Law (sin); the Gentile was ignorant of the Law (sin). So both Jew and Gentile are saved and reconciled to God in the same way. The Jew no longer needs the temple, etc; The Gentile no longer needs the Jewish religion. Now Jew and Gentile are united to God only through Christ (a common savior).
Jew and Gentile united to each other
17And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
- Ephesians 2:17-18
The Law kept Jew and Gentile separate from God (neither could obey it) and separate from each other (Law demanded it). Jesus fulfills all the demands of the Law and thus removes its requirements for both Jew and Gentile. Now both groups are united to God and can be united to each other. Why? Because He who fulfills the Law can make a new law, and Jesus makes a new law that demands unity between Jew and Gentile. Jews and Gentiles couldn't break down the wall that separated them through marriage, dialogue, policies or economics. Jesus is the peace upon which they now can be united. He is the bridge that unites them. Through faith in Christ they enter into a unity with God and share one body with Christ. The meeting point is baptism where the old man is buried and the new is raised, and this is the same for Jews and Gentiles.
Three Images of Unity Between Jew and Gentile
19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
- Ephesians 2:19-22
The three images of unity include: the kingdom of saints, where Gentiles have the same rights and privileges as Jews; the household, where all members have the same Father; and the spiritual temple, where Christ is the foundation and each member is a stone and God is the builder. The church is at once all of these because everyone is united in and through Christ.
Paul explains the universal nature of the church by outlining the way that God has brought together the most disparate of groups at that time: Jews and Gentiles. In the next chapter, Paul will continue with this theme by discussing his own role in God's plan of creating a body in which all mankind could be united.