Ephesians 2: 11-18
There was a problem in the church at Ephesus and other churches. Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. In fact, in its early days it was referred to merely as “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 24:14). In fact, the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was solely in the Jewish province of Judea in the Roman Empire. Consequently, the followers of “The Way” were almost entirely Jews initially.
Jews thought of themselves as “Chosen People” as God referred to them in the scriptures (what Christians refer to today as the “Old Testament). In Jewish culture, those who were not Jews were considered inferior and called “Gentiles” by the Jews. Jewish converts, then, considered that they were special such that anyone who followed the teachings of Jesus – but were not Jewish – were second-class believers at best. This resulted in a separation between Jewish believers and Gentile believers in early churches.
When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus and others who were going to read this letter in other churches, he addressed the concept of separation of believers in churches. He had proclaimed in Ephesians 2: 1-10 that all people were separated from God due to sin (remember that “sin” is anything that hinders our relationship to God, to others or to ourselves) and are subject to the wrath of God as a result. Then he wrote,
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him [Christ], and made us sit with him [Christ] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . .” [Ephesians 2: 4-6. RSV]
He concluded, then, that there is no separation between believers and God due to the believer’s faith in response to God’s offer of grace (undeserved love for us). Ah, but Paul saw another division and that takes place in the church of Ephesus and other churches.
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth . . . – 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.”
[Ephesians 2: 11-13. NIV]
The meaning of this passage now becomes clear from my explanation at the beginning of this entry. Here Paul addressed the Gentile believers. They were accepted through Christ. But then Paul goes into an explanation directed at the Jewish believers who thought of themselves as separate – and better – than those Gentile believers.
“For he [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . . . His purpose 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. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” [Ephesians 2: 14-18. NIV]
Why do I say that this last passage I quoted was directed at the Jewish believers? It was his reference to “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Paul was Jewish from birth. He was an up-and-coming young Jewish man who was climbing the religious corporate ladder and even studied under the great Gamaliel (“Gah-MAE-lee-ell”). He was the one who likely initiated the stoning of Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr. Saul/Paul guarded everyone’s cloaks while the people threw rocks at Stephen until he died. Then,
“And Saul [Paul] was there, giving approval to his death.” [Acts 8: 1a. NIV]
Now about that barrier – the dividing wall Paul mentioned: the center of Jewish worship at that time was the Temple at the religious and civic capital of Jerusalem. There were three different Temples over a period of almost 1,000 years, but the one with which Paul, Jesus and all Jews were intimately familiar was Herod’s Temple. A visitor could access this temple according to their birth and standing through successive barriers. The outer wall designated an enclosure called “The Court of Gentiles.” The Temple was designed such that anyone, even non-Jews, could come to Jerusalem and worship the God of Israel at the Temple. A Gentile would enter this outer barrier to be able to worship God but could go no farther toward the center. The next barrier delineated the “Court of Women.” Jewish women could worship at this court but could go no further. Next is the “Court of Israel” or the “Court of Men.” Obviously, any Jewish man could enter this courtyard. Within the temple courtyard itself was the “Court of Priests” for the priests (only) to conduct the sacrifices and procedures of corporate worship. Priests conducted special offerings within the Temple itself in the fore room called the “Holy Place.” Finally, there is the “Holy of Holies” or the “Most Holy Place” in which only the high priest enters once per year – and only after careful preparation. Inside the Holy of Holies where God was thought to reside was the “Ark of the Covenant” and other artifacts meaningful in the history of the Jews (see Hebrews 9: 1-7).
All this is to illustrate the layers of barriers separating classifications of people from one another. Looking again at Ephesians 2: 14-18 quoted above, one sees that Jesus Christ abolished the divisions between Jews and Gentiles and made them one. Those who were far (Gentiles) and those who were near (Jews) could find peace with each other. Then there is the interesting phrase in verse 18:
“For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Keep in mind what we’ve discuss so far today and the verse immediately above. Now look at this account of the death of Jesus on the cross:
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.” [Matthew 27: 50-51. NIV]
The curtain of the temple is what separated the Most Holy Place – where God was thought to reside – from the rest of humanity. Through Jesus, we no longer have that barrier between us and God. From our response of faith in Jesus Christ, we can freely access God through the power of the Holy Spirit. What a great privilege to have. And it is such an honor to count other believers as my spiritual brothers and sisters in which we are unified by the Holy Spirit whom we have in common.
Categories: How Can the Bible Relate to Us Today?