In this section, Ephesians explores how Christ gathers us in from our different identities, breaks down the barriers between us, and recreates us as unified in him. It is Christ, and not the institutions or leaders in our churches, who truly unifies us, invites us into his home, and makes us all together into his home.
Christ Gathers Us In
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
One of the great rhetorical devices of the Pauline literature is the setting up and resolution of crisis: first you tell people why they need something; then you tell them how Christ gives it to them. And this section is no different.
Just like in the last section, the fact that we, before knowing Christ, were outside something, were without something, is made clear. We, the “uncircumcision” (v.11) were outside the knowledge of God granted to the Jews and sealed with the sign of circumcision. Ephesians makes clear that this is merely “a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands” (v.11), but nonetheless it serves as a reminder that, before we knew Christ, we were without something wonderful which we now have. We were “without Christ” (v.12) and also without fellowship in “the commonwealth of Israel” (v.12), that is to say, knowing God in the special way granted to the Jewish people. We are reminded that this life was “having no hope and without God in the world” (v.12), that special hope that we have explored so much already, for it is built on “the covenants of promise” (v.12).
The crisis is set: “you… were once far off” (v.13). But then it is resolved: “But now in Jesus Christ you… have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v.13). For those of us who so often feel pushed away from the Church, the language here is particularly powerful. In Jesus, we are “brought near” (v.13), by a means as powerful as “the blood of Christ” (v.13).
And it is not just to God that we are brought near, as has been the emphasis in previous passages. Here the emphasis is on our being brought near to the Church, to our fellow believers. Before, between Jew and gentile, between man and woman, between queer and straight and cis, there was, in Ephesians’ words, “a dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v.14). Particularly between Jew and gentile in the ancient world, but between all categories and classes of person, we manage to create insurmountable barriers, walls that lead to hostility and isolation.
But in contrast to “the hostility between us”, Christ “is our peace” (v.14). For “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and broken down the dividing wall” (v.14). In Christ, there is no such thing as the Church of the Jews and the Church of the gentiles. There is no Church of the Queer and Church of the Straight. Ephesians has what theologians would call a high ecclesiology. Church is something that is far more than the building you worship in, or the hierarchy that appoints your pastor. The Church is nothing less than the Body of Christ. And we are all in that Church together. Christ takes away the power of separate buildings, subverts the barrier of dividing walls, and unites us all in the One and Universal Church, which is his body, whoever we are, and however we identify. Christ has “brought near” all his children, into one body, and one Church.
Unity and Recreation in Christ
15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The big divide between the gentile and the Jew was the Law. Jews had to live in particular ways, and could not mix with those who did not, so the “dividing wall” (v.14) was in this respect particularly visible. So God’s solution is to abolish “the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create… one new humanity in place of the two” (v.15). God does away with the problem, doing away with the visible signs of disunity between his children. And he creates this “one new humanity” (v.15) “in himself” (v.15).
Now, remember that in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus, the Word, was “in the beginning with God” for he “was God”, and that “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3). Through the Word, who becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ, God created all things in the first place. So it is through Jesus the Word that God recreates all things in the fullness of his divine unity and life. So, in Jesus, God is “making peace” (v.15), for God became incarnate so that he “might reconcile both groups to [himself] in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (v.16). It is through Christ’s life death and resurrection that we are restored to the unity that was intended for us from our creation.
And this is a message for everyone. Not just for those on the outside: “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (v.17). There is no sense that some don’t need recreating and restoring to unity, “for through [Jesus] both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (v.18). In Christ there is no sense that those within the institutions, those with the authority and the books, are in any less need of God’s saving and unifying power than those of us who feel on the outside. Just because one person is accepted by the Church all their life, and another is rejected and shamed, does not mean that either is any different in the eyes of God. Both, in Christ, are recreated, and brought together in his body, the Church.
Citizens with the Saints
19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
This section of Ephesians reaches its climax in a quite remarkable word picture. First, it paints the picture of “strangers and aliens” (v.19), those on the outside of society, tolerated but kept at arms-length.
And then it contrasts this with our state as “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (v.19). In the ancient world, the most radical form of inclusion was citizenship. In the Roman world, wars were fought over who should have this powerful identity which afforded not only suffrage in local and national elections, but also greater freedoms, the protection and assistance of the authorities, and the right to appeal to Rome in serious legal matters. Citizenship was coveted and jealously guarded. And this, Ephesians says, is freely given to us, in Christ.
And we are also “members of the household of God” (v.19). Not only are we brought into a protected and privileged relationship with God through our citizenship, but we are brought through the gates and into God’s very home. We are his family and friends. This is how much we “are no longer strangers and aliens” (v.19).
And this “household of God” (v.19) is nothing less than the Church, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (v.20). The Church rests upon those who shared and interpreted God’s speaking to us – it always has and it always will. But the one who holds it together, who makes sense of it and sustains it, is and always has been Christ. Not the person at the altar or in the pulpit on a Sunday, not our youth group leaders, our Bishops or Archbishops… but Christ Jesus. He is the one who truly includes us in the Church which is his own household.
An “in him the whole structure is joined together” (v.21) in that wonderful unity which Ephesians outlined in the rest of this section. It is this unity which allows us to grow “into a holy temple in the Lord” (v.21), a community of believers and children living for God’s praise. And yet, we are not individually temples. We are not a temple by ourselves, and nor can we be removed from this temple identity by being excluded by other believers. For this temple identity exists for us, not in ourselves, but “in the Lord” (v.21). And God draws us ever closer into unity with each other and with himself: for this is the Lord “in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (v.22).