In this post I share the transcript and audio recording of a sermon I recently preached on Ephesians 2:11-22. I touch on racism/segregation in the sermon. If you missed my Monday book reviews, take a look: Slavery by Another Name/America’s Original Sin.
This is a rich passage in Ephesians, with practical insight for our lives today. However, upon first hearing it, it might not have sounded like it. In fact, it may have sounded strange and irrelevant – this stuff about the circumcision and the uncircumcision. But let’s un-pack these verses, and hopefully they will come to life for you.
It begins with: you who are called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision.”
The Jews spoke of themselves as the circumcision. It identified them as God’s chosen people, set apart from other nations on earth. In Genesis chapter 17, you can read about it. God made a special covenant with Abraham, and circumcision was the sign of this covenant. Every male among them was to be circumcised.
Therefore, gentiles (that is non-Jewish people) could be referred to as the uncircumcised. From a Jewish point of view, there were only 2 categories: Jew and gentile.
Unfortunately, Jews could get arrogant about being the chosen people – and they could look upon gentiles with contempt. There is a proper pride, and an improper pride. The phrase “the uncircumcised” could be like an ethnic slur, similar to names people can use today for nationalities they despise.
Recently in the lectionary there have been readings in 1 and 2 Samuel about the life of David. We can see an example in 1 Samuel 17 when the Israelites were fighting the Philistines, and David went out to fight Goliath. We all know this story. In 1 Sam 17:26 it says: “David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
Before we are perhaps quick to judge the Jews… If we are honest, there is some group or type of people whom we look down upon or we prefer not to associate with. We can sometimes be blind to our own prejudices or be really gifted at rationalizing them.
It may not be as overt as nationality or skin color, but maybe it’s their…social class, education level, political party, the neighborhood they are from – years ago it was called being from the wrong side of the tracks.
The Jews did indeed have a position of privilege before God. A verse in Zechariah refers to the Jews as the apple of God’s eye. This might disturb us. Why were they specially chosen? Is God playing favorites? But each of us chooses to cherish certain people in our life in a special way – over others. You may love all children, but your own children are the apple of your eye. A man and woman who marry are choosing to cherish each other above any other men or women out there.
God chose the Jews as his special people for a reason. When God called Abraham in Genesis 12, he told Abraham “I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
In Isaiah 49, God says to Israel: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Jews were to be a channel of blessing to the world, ultimately through the Messiah – the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is where we are heading in this Ephesians 2 passage today.
But before I go back there, a little more about not being so quick to judge the Jewish people. Many of us are privileged people – we have been born into a certain family or environment, we have certain advantages – and this has made it easier for us to succeed in life. And instead of acknowledging that, we can act like we are a self-made person. We can assume other people are lazy or just didn’t try hard enough, and we can look down upon them. But not everyone has had the same advantages in life.
We should humbly acknowledge our advantages, help others catch up, and become a channel of blessing. But returning to Ephesians…
Ephesians 2:12, referring to us the uncircumcised, says: “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.”
Gentiles were like outsiders looking in. This is bad news: they were excluded, without hope, without God. Before Jesus came, if a gentile wanted to become a formal worshiper of YHWH, they had to become a Jewish convert. A male would have to be circumcised, and Jewish laws and customs would need to be observed.
Verse 13 begins with “but now” – good news is coming! It says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
– Gentiles no longer have to be on the outside looking in!
A gentile would not have to become a Jewish convert either. Verse 15 says that the Old Testament way is set aside.
Jews and gentiles who placed their faith in Jesus Christ become ONE new entity – the church. The church was new, nothing like it had existed before. You can read about the birth of the church in Acts chapter 2. There would no longer be Jews and gentiles, but Christians.
Verses 15 and 16 go on to emphasize: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
It is no longer about being Jewish or not Jewish, but about Jesus.
Verse 14 said that Jesus himself is our peace. Peace is a person.
And what Jesus did for us on the cross brings us peace.
Our faith in Jesus, brings us peace with God and should bring us peace with each other. A commentary I looked at this week stated: “The cross is God’s answer to racial discrimination, segregation, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and every form of strife between men.”
After 2,000 years things have oddly changed, even reversed themselves. Instead of Jews despising gentiles, some Christians can be anti-Semitic. Back then the big question was “Can a gentile be a Christian? Jesus is only for Jews.” While today we can think, “Can a Jew believe in Jesus? I don’t think so. Jesus is not for Jews.”
Jesus is for everyone in this world. No one is excluded.
Verse 17 and 18 state: “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.”
Through Jesus, we have access. This is more great news!
We need to pause and review the Old Testament a bit.
Jesus completed the Old Testament way, and the Old Testament way foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus Christ. It gave hints as to what was coming.
The Old Testament system was one of mediation. The people brought animal sacrifices to the priest, and the priest offered the sacrifices and represented the people before God. But this system was finished in Christ. Jesus became our mediator. Jesus became our priest. Jesus became the once and for all sacrifice for sin.
We as New Testament believers can approach God the Father directly through Jesus.
Through first century Jewish eyes this would have been amazing! A new and living way had been opened through Jesus, and Jesus was for everyone – not just the Jews.
Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading was from 2 Samuel 7, and David wanted to build God a temple, something better than the tabernacle tent, where God would dwell.
The tabernacle and later the temple was that one special place where God dwelt, the holy meeting place between man and God.
In this, we also see a foreshadowing of Christ. A better temple was coming. Jesus became the temple.
In John chapter 2, some Jews asked Jesus to prove his authority. Jesus answered, “Destroy the temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
The Jews replied that that was impossible. You can’t rebuild this massive temple in 3 days! But John 2:21 says “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
It is in Jesus’ death, and in his resurrection three days later, that Jesus reconciles us to God, becoming the temple, the supreme meeting-place between God and sinners.
Ephesians 2:21, in our passage today, says that Jesus is the chief cornerstone of a new type of building – the church.
And the church is people, not a building. Many people today think of the church as a building or perhaps as an organization. That is not a biblical understanding of the church.
In Romans 16, Paul says to give his greetings to the church that meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Isn’t that interesting? Paul refers to the church in their house. You don’t greet a building, you greet people.
The church is the body of Christian believers. The church is a living, breathing entity with Christ as the head and us believers forming the body. I’ll read the final verses. Because of Jesus:
“you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
This is quite thrilling if we really take time to consider it. We, today, are a part of this growing spiritual building. God dwells in the church, and in each of us – and Jesus holds it together.
In the physical temple that existed then, there was an actual wall which restricted non-Jews to an area called the court of gentiles. They could come in, but only to there. On the wall there were no-trespassing signs for gentiles that read: “Let no one of any other nation come within the fence and barrier around the Holy Place. Whoever is caught doing so will himself be responsible for the fact that his death will ensue.”
So again, imagine what a radical new thing this was in Jesus Christ. Gentiles – who were the uncircumcised, the excluded, the far away – were now brought near in Christ and even became a part of the church.
In closing, the idea of reconciliation is so important. Our basic human need is to be reconciled to God through the cross of Jesus.
God does not need to be reconciled to us. God never hated us or despised us. God loves us. But we need to be reconciled to him.
Our sin forms a barrier between us and God. Some people seem to think that they tear down the barrier through their own self-efforts and attempts at goodness. But even at our best, we fall short. Romans 3:23 says “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” If we could be good enough, then we don’t need Jesus.
And everyone needs Jesus. As the passage today emphasized…
Jesus himself is our peace. Through Jesus we have access. When we place our faith in Jesus and what he did for us on the cross, the barrier comes down. We are no longer far away, but brought near by the blood of Christ.
And since we have been reconciled to God, we need to be agents of reconciliation in this world – bringing people together, tearing down walls, and pointing people to the cross of Christ as the only source of hope and peace.