Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ephesians 2:11-13

We’re looking at verses 11-22 of chapter 2, in which Paul relates Jew / Gentile relationships as one in Christ. We see the second part of our position in Christ, including being reconciled with God’s people and growing into the Temple of God. V8-12 in this chapter are somewhat of a transition; Paul stopped to explain salvation by grace through faith in v8-9, the calling to pre-ordained good works in v10, and the reminder of our condition apart from Christ in v11-12, which he had previously discussed at length in v1-7. Paul is getting back on track with the “Therefore” of v11-12, and the “But now” of v13 kicks off the emphasis of the second half of chapter 2. V14-22 will exalt Christ by means of revealing the glorious benefits we receive in Him. The flow of Paul’s thought is very clear in this passage: V11-12 remind us of what we were apart from Christ; v13-18 describe what God did to make us a part of His people in Christ; v9-22 reveal what we are now that we are in Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look:

11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)-- 12remember 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. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

As twenty-first century American Christians, we probably don’t have a good grasp on the antipathy that existed between first-century Jews and Gentiles. Merely adopting Christianity didn’t automatically erase that cultural resistance, especially since much of the Jewish Law, given in Leviticus, was given to distinguish, to separate, the “chosen” Jews from the unclean Gentiles. It wasn’t an easy thing to just get over. And yet, that’s what Paul called them to do; he called them to that response through the gospel, by showing how Jesus did much the same thing, only to infinitely greater extremes, by taking on human flesh, by living and dying in order to unite us to Himself. So here, in v11, Paul echoes Galatians 3:28, “Therefore, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” by saying that your ancestry and your cultural background don’t matter regarding your status in the kingdom of God. Neither do any ceremonies or sacraments that you have passed through, such as circumcision, baptism, confirmation, or even the partaking of communion (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 9:26). In Romans 2:26-29, Paul says that the circumcision of the flesh, done by men, does not matter; circumcision of the heart, which God does, is what counts (see also Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; Galatians 6:15; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11). Apart from faith in Christ, you are outside the kingdom of God.

Paul lays out in v11 the important truth that what we are in the flesh, our physical characteristics and ancestry, are insignificant. The opinions others have of us on account of our socio-economic situation, our skin color, or our cultural background amount to nothing. Whether we are “the circumcision” or uncircumcised does not matter. He is going to talk about how the Lord Jesus has brought together these two groups into one. But before he gets to that, Paul wants those Gentile Christians in Ephesus to remember from whence they came. He wants them to remember what does matter about who they were apart from Christ. Why? So that they can appreciate to the full what God has given them in Jesus Christ. And he wants the Jews to see that truth as well. So in v12, Paul elaborates on that, just to make sure that we don’t forget what we were. He gives a five-part list of the disadvantages of Gentiles (compare the list of Jewish advantages in Romans 9:3-5), before they were brought to faith in Christ. Their status is/was true of Jews as well, but he’ll bring them in later.

First, it is important to remember that we (as Gentiles by birth) were “separate from Christ.” There was a time when we had no union with Christ. We were condemned, under the wrath of God. Second, we were “excluded from citizenship in Israel.” We weren’t just separated from God; we were separated from the people of God. Paul is drawing attention to the importance of citizenship here. Roman citizenship was considered to be the most valuable asset of a commoner, and it is likely that many of the Christians in this region of the world (Asia Minor) highly valued that Roman citizenship as well. But Paul is subtly pointing out that citizenship in Israel is far more important and valuable. Paul was saying to his audience, “You may be a citizen of this passing world, but you’re not a citizen of the city of God, with eternal and everlasting foundations. Apart from Christ, no one has a place in God’s country; there is no citizenship in the city of God, no claims among His people, apart from Jesus Christ.”

Third, you were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise.” Unlike the Jews, Gentiles could not reminisce about God’s promises to their people. They had no access to God through priests and sacrifices, which foreshadowed the work of the Messiah. The Gentiles had no Savior, no citizenship, and no promises to rely on. What is the result of that reality? There is no hope. That’s the fourth description of a Gentile apart from Christ. Paul speaks to Titus of Jesus’ return as “the blessed hope.” We in Christ have hope. Even the Jews had hope prior to Jesus’ incarnation. But Gentiles, apart from Christ, have always been hopeless.

Fifth, and finally, Paul draws attention to the reason for their hopelessness. Apart from Christ, we were without God. We had no God, no relationship with the Creator, apart from Christ. Humans are image bearers, and we’re made for fellowship with God. But apart from Jesus Christ, even if you’re a Roman citizen, even if you’re a Jew, even if worship idols (1 Corinthians 8:4), you’re apart from the only true and living God. Calvin adds, “Those who do not worship the true God, whatever may be the variety of their worship, or the multitude of laborious ceremonies which they perform, are without God: they adore what they know not” (Acts 17:23).

Hear what John has to say on this issue: “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9). (See also 1 John 5:12; John 3:36; 5:23.)

In v13, Paul shifts gears with, “But now in Christ Jesus.” He has said that our physical past doesn’t matter; he has revealed that our spiritual past does matter, our separation from God. And now he begins to reveal what God has made us to be, what we have received from God, having trusted in Jesus Christ. He says, “You who were once far away have been brought near.” I don’t think we stop to contemplate what “far off” means. It doesn’t mean, like we might tend to consider when we hear Romans 3:23, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that we were oh so close. We were F-A-R off. Though once, we Gentiles were separate from Christ (Christ-less), cut off from citizenship in Israel (stateless), having no covenant with God to rest assured in the promises of God (friendless), without hope in the world (hopeless), in fact, not even knowing God (God-less), now we have been brought near.

And likewise we don’t appreciate enough what it means to be “brought near.” It’s a beautiful Old Testament phrase describing the experience of the believer having true knowledge and fellowship with the living God. God watches over us; He holds us near (Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalm 148:14). It’s the opposite of Bette Midler’s “From a Distance.” God is here! Even the Lord’s Prayer is often misunderstood here, as Dallas Willard explains in The Divine Conspiracy. “Our Father who art in heaven” might make us think of God as far away and uninvolved. In reality, the kingdom of heaven is here and now. In Christ, we are part of it. And God is near. As Willard says, we ought to read that opening line, “Our Father who art close by and highly involved.” And Paul’s language is drawing attention to that reality. It’s his way of saying that Gentile believers are now in Christ, through Christ. They (we) have citizenship in Israel, having been brought into the fold of God as once-lost sheep by the Good Shepherd who came to seek and save the lost. They (we) now have a covenant relationship with God – the new covenant in His blood (v13) – and have been granted the assurance of all the promises of God. They (we) have “the blessed hope” of Titus that Paul declares. And best of all, they (we) know God.

Finally, notice how all of this came to pass. We who were far off were brought near. How? Paul says, “Through the blood of Christ.” Calvin says, “The blood of Christ has taken away the enmity which existed between them and God, and from being enemies hath made them sons.” It was through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross that God atoned for sin; He caused our just judgment to be visited upon Jesus Christ so that we could draw near. Jesus, His only Son, was sent far off in order that we might be drawn near to Him. It’s a vivid picture of substitutionary atonement, a central doctrine of Christianity that is often reduced in our age of pluralism and inclusivism and relativism. But this is a multi-faceted exclusive verse by Paul: only those “in Christ Jesus…through the blood of Christ” can and do rightly rejoice at the nearness of God (Romans 5:1). He won’t let us forget the cross (v16).

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