by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
“One nation, under God, indivisible”—these words from the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America express the hope and longing of mankind for security, for safety, for happiness, and for prosperity. Those words are a religious affirmation. They express not only allegiance to a country, but also a religious hope that we, by our human efforts and without divine aid, can solve all the problems we face, problems that are caused by sin. That is the American dream, the American religion. But, as wonderful an ideal that may be in the political realm, it is doomed to failure because it ignores the human condition that sin causes. It ignores the reality of sin and sin’s killing and enslaving effects upon us. And it ignores the only solution to the problem, which is in Jesus Christ and not in ourselves.
In Ephesians 2:11-22, the Apostle Paul describes a nation that is the true and only fulfillment of the hope “One nation, under God, indivisible.” Without the provision that God has made, there is only alienation from God and from man—and that in a world where we ought to enjoy fellowship with God and with one another in Jesus Christ. But because we have tried to build that hope on something other than Jesus Christ, we find only separation from God and from one another.
In the first two verses of chapter 2 Paul describes our human condition of alienation from God, and then he announces, “But God,” and describes God’s remedy. Then in the second half of the chapter, he discusses our alienation from one another, and then God’s remedy. So chapter 2 really has two parts, each with a parallel section. In each section he first describes the problem (Our alienation from God, our alienation from one another) then the remedy (God’s remedy to bring us back to himself, and his remedy to bring us back to one another).
In the Old Testament God created all things good, but then Adam and Eve sinned. God began to redeem sinners, first through Abraham, then through the Jews, who came from Abraham. In Ephesians 2, Paul refers first to our being created once again by Jesus Christ unto good works, and then to our being brought near to the covenant blessings of Israel.
Ephesians 2, especially beginning in verse 1 is a summary of the whole of Old Testament history.
God creates; man falls; then God brings people back to himself through Abraham and the covenant promises in Jesus. Now in the New Testament, in Jesus Christ, God re-creates us, gives us new life, an act that is parallel to the original creation. He brings us back to himself, as he says in the last half of this chapter.
Ephesians 2 summarizes all of the Old Testament. Paul does this so that we will understand that when God begins a work of salvation in Jesus Christ, he does not start all over again. He does not start from scratch. What he does is to take the Gentiles and graft them into the people and promise of Abraham by Jesus Christ.
If we really want to understand what Jesus Christ is doing for sinners in the present day, we must go back to the Old Testament and study what God originally intended to do at creation and with Abraham, Moses, and David, because what God announced there is what he is now doing in Jesus Christ. He is making successful and effective what he said in the Old Testament that he would do. He is bringing Gentiles into that family of Jews. I know it is difficult for us in a day of many denominations that are largely Gentile to appreciate what it means to be a Jew. But that is what Paul says in Ephesians 2.
The question in Paul’s day was: Is it necessary to become a Jew in order to be a Christian? Christianity was so intimately tied up with the Jews, with Abraham, with the promises that God made to the Jews, that the burning question in the Church at that time was, “Is it necessary to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.” We read in Acts 15 that the Council of Jerusalem settled the question. They declared that it was not necessary to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.
But in our day we have completely lost sight of that question. Now the question is this: Is it necessary to become a Gentile to be a Christian? Do Jews have to stop being Jewish in order to become a Christian? This puts the question exactly upside down. What we need to do, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2, is to appreciate the Old Testament roots and foundation and background for our Christianity. Only then will we appreciate what Jesus Christ has done for us.
First consider what we used to be before we were joined to the covenant of Israel. Second, what has Jesus Christ done for us. Third, what we have become in Christ.
I. What We Were
The key phrase here is in verse 12: “At that time you were without Christ.” That is what you used to be. He also tells us that we were Gentiles and aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. He is referring to relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the Old Testament God declared to Israel that they were to be the light to the nations; that is, they were to be missionaries spreading the good news to all the nations. But Israel soon forgot this command. They became an exclusive little Jewish country club, and they did not want anyone else to join. They said such things as “The Gentiles are dogs.” Of course, the Gentiles did the same thing. Each group called the other hateful names.
The Jews forgot the reality behind circumcision; that is, circumcision is not just the cutting the flesh, but of the heart. The meaning behind circumcision was the removal of the old sin nature and creation of a new heart. It was a picture of the removal of sin. But they forgot all about that. They took it as a badge for membership in their private club rather than as a picture of their mission to the Gentiles.
Then Paul points out that the Gentiles' real problem was not just that they were not members of the country club. He says, “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” They did not know that God would someday include them in Jesus Christ. They were foreigners and aliens to God’s promises of grace.
II. What Christ Has Done
In both sections of Ephesians 2 we have the phrase “But God,” or “But now,” and in both cases that phrase introduces the solution that God has provided. In the first half of the chapter it refers to all people: All are dead in trespasses and sins, “but God, who is rich in mercy,” has called you to himself in Jesus Christ. In the second half of this chapter, verses 11-22, the “But now in Christ Jesus” in verse 13 has particular reference to the Gentiles. He refers to them as “those who were far off” (v. 13). That is the Old Testament description of the Gentiles; they are far away, even though they may be living next door to the Jews.
The Gentiles are the ones who are far off from God, and Isaiah 49 tells of the Messiah who will be the One to bring them near. All of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He brings near to God those who were once far away.
How does Jesus do this? Paul says in verse 14, “Jesus Christ is our peace, who has made both Jew and Gentile one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us.” That is the first thing that Jesus has done. He has overcome the obstacle by breaking down the middle wall of partition between them.
Paul is referring to the wall that separated the Gentiles from the Jews in the temple. The court of the Gentiles was outside the temple area. The Gentiles could come that far, but they could not come into the specific temple precincts where the sacrifices were made. Now Jesus Christ has opened the way of access to God through the sacrifice of his own body.
In verse 15 he tells us the second thing that Jesus Christ has done: he has “abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.” The Gentiles were also alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, as we saw in verse 12. Paul says, Jesus Christ has brought you near by abolishing that law that kept you away from God.
The third thing Jesus Christ has done is to create in himself one new man from the two, thus making peace. He has taken these two peoples, the Jews and the Gentiles, and he has brought them together in a new humanity. That is, now Paul moves from the negative (breaking down the middle wall of partition and taking away the law of commandments that condemned sinners) to the positive: Jesus Christ has actually built the Jews and the Gentiles into one new nation. Then he says that Jesus Christ has reconciled the Jew and the Gentile to God. He put to death the hostility between God and man and has brought peace between the two.
Finally, Jesus Christ preached peace to the Gentiles and to the Jews (v. 17). That is what Jesus Christ has done for us to take away the alienation that we all suffer because of our sin. If Jesus can heal that greatest of all racial division and hatred, what do you think he will be able to do with all the petty racial and other divisions we have sinfully established?
III. What We Have Become
In verses 19-22 we learn what we have become, and the key phrase here is “You are no longer strangers and foreigners.” First, Paul tells us that we are God’s commonwealth: “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We who were aliens from that commonwealth have now been made part of it.
Let me give you a brief description of what most people usually say about the Church: “In the Old Testament God had a commonwealth, a nation, a theocracy. He had a specific ethnic nation called the Jews. But now in Jesus Christ God no longer has a nation. The Gospel is not ethnic, it is not tied to any one nation. It is not America or Britain or Germany or France or any other nation. There is no nation of God.”
Tell that to Paul. Paul says that you are now citizens in the commonwealth that you used to be far away from. In Jesus Christ God did not do away with what he planned in the Old Testament. He did not get rid of his commonwealth; he fixed it. His commonwealth was built upon Abraham and his descendants through David, and now Jesus Christ, the Descendent of David, the greater Son of David, sits on the throne of God’s commonwealth, and he stills brings people, Jew and Gentile, together in that one commonwealth. God’s commonwealth is not a nation of territory or of geography. God’s dominion is not limited by territorial or geographical boundaries. His dominion stretches over the whole earth.
The Apostle Paul tells us that our primary citizenship is not Rome, not America, not white, black, or brown. Our primary citizenship, the one that is most important, is our citizenship in this new commonwealth, this new nation that God has created in Christ Jesus. Do not be fooled by those who say there is no such thing as a Christian nation. There is. It stretches over the national boundaries that we have erected. There is a nation that owes its allegiance to one King, Jesus Christ, who rules over all.
The second thing that we have become is members of the household of God. We have become part of God’s family. This is a more ultimate picture than that of the Kingdom because this speaks not of coming humbly to the King, but coming joyfully to the Father.
Let me explain it this way. Imagine a very busy businessman who has a roomful of secretaries in the outer office to keep everybody away from him. The intercom buzzes and the secretary says, “Are you in?” And he answers, “No, I’m not in.”
But there is a back door to his office. One day he is working busily, the buzzer keeps going off, and he tells his secretary that he is not in. Then comes a little muffled knock at the back door. The door creaks open slightly, and he looks over to see his little girl peeking though the door. He doesn’t say, “Secretary, defend me from this urchin.” He doesn’t even try to keep his child away. He speaks very quietly so that no one in the outer office will hear him, and he sits his little girl on his lap, and they have a good time. No matter how busy he is, he spends time with his little girl.
That is what Paul is talking about here. It is not just a big kingdom with a King up there someplace who has a roomful of secretaries to screen his people from him. We are the members of his household, so we have access to the Father through the back door when other people are not allowed to come in.
Thirdly, we have become God’s temple. Paul says that we are now a building, being joined together, growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom we are also being built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. Since Solomon first built the temple, the temple was the center of life among the Jews. But the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans, and God allowed it to happen.
It was absolutely imperative that the temple in Jerusalem fall down, because Jesus Christ is the new Temple, and we are now being built up into him as a living temple. God is no longer bound by sticks and stones in a city called Jerusalem.
This new temple is built upon Jesus Christ himself. And the whole building is growing, because it is alive. It is not just a pile of rocks. It is made up of individual, living stones, which include the Jews and the Gentiles. This temple is also the dwelling place of God. God dwells among us. We are the temple of God, and God is living in our midst. Thus Paul again points to the purpose of the temple in the Old Testament. We know from this passage that God is not tied to holy buildings or holy rooms; God is tied to holy people. We are the ones who have been brought near to God in Jesus Christ.