United in Christ
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 2:11–2:22
“Alienation” has been broadly defined as “the condition or experience of being estranged from a group or being ‘left out’ of an activity in which one should be involved.” Because feelings of isolation and disconnectedness affect so many in our day, it has been suggested by some that you and I are living in “the age of alienation.”
One doesn’t have to be a critical observer of life to know that is an apt description. Particularly is it true in terms of human relationships. Jesus had warned us that we would “hear of wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Matthew 24:6) as foreshadows of His return. What we have come to discover is that what is true of nations is also true of individuals. And when we are bothered to look deeply enough, we are able to see that there is a common cause. Despite being members of the same species, we are alienated from one another by what might be called simply, “the human condition.”
How else are we able to explain that, even though we are the products of the same Creator, we allow ourselves to be divided by those things over which we—more often than not—have little or no control? Take race, for example. No single factor—with the possible exception of religion—has been more responsible for the shedding of blood on this planet.
Historically, the local church has not gotten a “pass.” Until a decade or two ago, church services on Sunday mornings were labeled “the most segregated hour” in America. And in many places that is still the case.
It is a healthy sign in our day that evangelical churches are addressing the topic of “racial reconciliation.” And yet there remains much work to be done in bridging the gap between the races. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that race was also an issue in the 1st-century church. When Jesus told His disciples that the Gospel was to go to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19)—meaning, all “people groups”—little could that band of twelve have foreseen the relational problems that would arise when Jews and Gentiles were called to engage one another in the new entity known as “the Church.” The Book of Acts and several of the New Testament epistles chronicle some of those early episodes where racial barriers had to be dissolved in order that the Gospel would be able to spread “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
It is with this in mind that Paul continues his letter to the Christians residing in and around the Asia Minor city of Ephesus. In chapter 1, he has told them of the rich “spiritual blessings” that belonged to them by virtue of their “chosen” position in Jesus Christ. And then in the first ten verses of chapter 2, he reminded them that such a privilege had come to them solely as a result of God’s favor. They had been “saved by grace through faith” and were, therefore, God’s “workmanship” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Throughout these early chapters of Ephesians, Paul has shifted back and forth in his use of personal pronouns. There was a reason for that. Generally speaking, when Paul uses “we,” “us,” and “our,” he is referring to those who—like himself—were Jews. But when he switches to “you” and “yours,” he is referring to his immediate audience who were Gentiles. Pay attention to that as we again read Ephesians 2, verses 11 through 22:
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
What we find in this passage is a “bridge” between something that Paul mentioned in chapter 1:9, and something he will again refer to in chapter 3:4-6. In those places it is referred to as “the mystery of his will” and “the mystery of Christ,” respectively. But it is here, in the text that was just read, that the content of that “mystery” is revealed. It is the amazing proclamation that the hostility between alienated parties ends at the cross of Jesus Christ.
Specifically, Paul addresses the enmity that for centuries had separated Jews and Gentiles...particularly within the context of the covenant promises of God. But the application of this passage destroys every barrier that divides mankind. Listen to how this same apostle describes it elsewhere: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).
The real question this morning is, are you “in Christ”? Have you turned from your sin and what you are naturally and received the grace of God to respond to Him as Savior and Lord? If so, then regardless of who or what you happen to be, you are now one with Him and one with all others who know Him as well.
In unpacking that thesis, Paul begins in verses 11 and 12 with...
The problem: What we once were (verses 11-12)
In some ways this passage builds upon the previous paragraph and is parallel to it. Last week we pointed out how verses 1 and 4 provide the structural outline of that text. Verse 1 says, “And you were dead,” and then verse 4 reads, “But God...made us alive.” We see a similar arrangement here in verses 11 and 13 with the phrases, “at one time you...” and “But now Christ...” So, once again Paul is presenting a contrast. The very terms he uses—“the uncircumcision” and “the circumcision”—emphasize the inherent animosity that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles. In a similar way, we tend to apply “labels” to those who are different from us today: “white/black,” “liberal/conservative,” “Calvinist/Arminian,” “Redskins/Cowboys”...whatever the issue, there is more often than not an “us” versus “them” mentality that keeps us divided. Here in this passage Paul takes direct aim at destroying the barriers that separate us, but as we shall see there is only one way of doing so that would bring lasting unity.
So, while the writer’s words had direct application to his immediate target audience, they could just as easily have been written of us. Paul is assuming here that his readers are Christians, but he is charging them to “remember” their former state when they were “outside of Christ.” While we should not dwell on our “past lives,” neither should we forget the plight from which the Lord has delivered us. Both verses 11 and 12 urge us to “remember” that “at one time” that we were alienated from the truth of God.
Here Paul urges his readers to recall five things about their former state, and all are mentioned in verse 12.
- In the first place, they were “separated from Christ.” Literally, the text reads “without Christ.” Although people may speak respectfully of Jesus and even hold Him in high regard, the sad reality is that they are disconnected from Him relationally until they turn from their sins and embrace Him as Lord and Savior.
- Secondly, they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” As we have noted, “alienation” refers to being “excluded from” or “left out of” something. Israel had been chosen by God to bear His light of His salvation to the world. The Gentiles had no such privilege.
- That led inevitably to their being “strangers to the covenants of promise,” which God had first made with Abraham and then confirmed to the Jewish people. In this sense, the Gentiles were “outsiders” and isolated from any covenant relationship with the Lord.
- Consequently, they had “no hope.” Just like many today, they were rushing headlong toward a destination marked “nowhere.” Tomorrow morning, as you sit in traffic or ride on Metro, take a moment to look into the faces of those next to you and remind yourself that what those people need more than anything else is “hope.” To live life with no comprehension and confidence of what the future holds can be described by a single word: “hopeless.”
- Paul’s fifth reminder sums up this “alienation” with the phrase, “without God in the world.” The term that he uses (“αθεοs”) is the one from which the word “atheist” is derived. Technically speaking, an “atheist” is not someone who doesn’t believe in God, but rather one who lives “without (or apart from) God.” Despite paying homage to many false gods, those in the ancient world related intimately with none of them. None of them brought lasting satisfaction or spoke to their deepest need.
Being separated from the chosen people of Israel was a serious disadvantage since it meant being outside the sphere of God’s election. Such was their former state, just as it remains the condition of those who are “without God” and “separated from Christ” today. As a result, and without being aware of it, they were beyond any apparent prospect of hope.
But our Lord Jesus changed all of that. Beginning in verse 13, we see...
The provision: What Christ has done (verses 13-18)
So let’s be clear. Theirs had been a “double alienation”...separated not only from God, but separated from one another as well. But “in Christ” all of that changed. The barriers that divide us and keep God a “veiled mystery” have been demolished. Paul tells us that “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Throughout the centuries, our alienation from one another has resulted in oceans of blood being spilled into the earth. But the only drops of blood that have ever availed in solving man’s estrangement problem have come from the nail-pierced wounds of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This section—verses 13 through 18—form the essential core of this passage. What we find here just may be the most comprehensive description of Jesus’ work of reconciliation found anywhere in Scripture. So let’s walk through these verses together. Follow along with me in your Bibles, as we all pay careful attention.
Verse 14 begins with the explanatory “For,” which means that Paul is about to clarify just how and why believers “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” “For he himself (as if to say, no one else could have done it) is our peace.” Jesus is not just our “peacemaker,” He is “our peace.” We observe that Paul mentions “peace” four times in verses 14 through 17. In its broadest sense, this refers to a sense of well-being with others and within oneself. It includes salvation, to be sure, but also a relationship with the One who is the Source and Giver of that salvation. No manmade “peace treaty” has ever come close to living up to its terms as the one brokered by our Savior
Paul adds that Christ did this by breaking down “in his flesh (meaning, through His incarnate body which was able to die) the dividing wall of hostility.” Historically, this is a likely reference to the wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews in the Temple. There was an inscription on the wall of the outer courtyard warning Gentiles that they risked the penalty of death if they dared pass beyond it and into the inner court.
But there is a deeper meaning implied here, and that was to declare that the entire Mosaic economy with the ceremonial system of worship was no longer a barrier separating Jews and Gentiles...and, even more importantly, men from God. Verse 15 adds that, through the sacrifice of Himself, Christ “abolished” or “nullified”—rendering inoperative—
the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” By means of His death on the cross, Jesus abolished both the regulations of the ceremonial law as well as the condemnation of the moral law, removing them in order that man’s reconciliation to God—as well as to his fellow-man—might be accomplished.
The purpose for which Christ gave Himself up is stated at the end of verse 15: “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” That phrase, “one new man in place of the two” is loaded with significance. The word “new” refers to being “new” in quality, not new in time. What this means is that our “natural distinctions” are no longer obstacles to unity when we lay claim to our new identity in Christ. Therefore, the dividing line between races and ethnicities is erased. One day history will reach a grand culmination when the ransomed of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) will be brought together and forever united around His throne, singing praises to Him who from the many made “one.”
I cannot think of a more timely word for our day. Racial divides are written upon every page of human history. In fact, despite the endless rhetoric and failed social attempts to mend attitudes and ideas that have been ingrained within us since childhood, we continue to distrust one another and to lash out in distrust and anger for reasons that cannot be adequately explained. I wish I could assure us that will one day society will progress to the point where these differences no longer divide us, but I have no such hope in human nature.
Christ alone is our hope. As verse 16 tells us, He gave Himself so that He “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Paul will employ the imagery of “one body” three more times in Ephesians (3:6, 4:4 and 25), and as we learn from His other writings this is a reference to the Church (cf. Roman s 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, and Colossians 3:15). The Greek scholar, M.R. Vincent, has observed that the word “reconcile” contains a hint of being restored to what he calls “a primal unity.” As Genesis tells us, there was a time when man walked in harmony and fellowship with God. But sin ruined that, and the rest of the Bible is the story of how God is on a mission to restore fallen man to Himself and to create among those once hostile to one another a new entity.
Sin is the direct cause of every broken relationship, and the only way we can be reconciled with one another is by first being reconciled with God. Amazingly, this has been made possible “through the cross,” through the humiliation Christ endured on our behalf. And if we are to be reconciled to one another, then we must initially humble ourselves before God...and then to one another. By dying in men’s place, Jesus “preached peace” to all—regardless of our race or ethnicity—“to you who were far off...and to those who were near.”
And we are charged to “preach” that same message of reconciliation today. Listen to how Paul expressed it elsewhere: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh....Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (1 Corinthians 5:16-20).
Paul, therefore, concludes this section in verse 18 by adding, “For through him we both (regardless of our race or ethnicity) have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Don’t overlook the Trinitarian reference, here, and attempt to consider what Paul is saying...namely, through Jesus Christ and by means of the Holy Spirit, we are able to approach and have an audience with God the Father. That all three members of the Godhead cooperate in bringing about the ministry of reconciliation testifies to its centrality in the redemptive plan of God. Just before giving His life on their behalf, Jesus prayed that His disciples “may be one, even as (He and the Father) are one” (John 17:11). That is His goal...His purpose.
Earlier He had told them that an unbelieving world would know that they had been reconciled to the God through the manner in which they were reconciled with one another (cf. John 13:35). It may initially seem strange to us, but God is somehow able to receive greater glory by taking diverse people and making them “one” in His Son’s name.
All of becomes very practical for us when we consider the third and final main point of this passage, namely...
The privilege: What we have become (verses 19-22)
Verse 19 begins with “So then,” indicating that a conclusion is being drawn. Based upon the problem of what we once were and the provision of Christ in alleviating our problem, Paul now is able to declare, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” In this one statement Paul defines for us the Church and the relationship of its members to one another. In the “household (or family) of God” there are no “strangers and aliens”—no “second-class citizens. We are “one in Christ” and—as we read in chapter 3(:6)—“fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
In 1 Corinthians 10:32, Paul makes reference to three groups of people: “Jews,” “Greeks” (or Gentiles), and “the church of God.” What this suggests is that racial distinctions are done away with when one enters into “the family of God.” No one has an advantage on the basis of their ethnicity. All are one “in Christ.” In verses 19 through 22, we find three descriptions of the Church.
- As we have already noted, it is called “the household of God.” He adds in verse 20 that it has been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” As we shall see when we get into chapter 4(:11), this refers to those who were charged with declaring divine revelation during the Church’s infancy. It was their preaching and teaching that later became the essence of the New Testament. Upon this “foundation” was laid “the cornerstone”—“Christ Jesus himself.” To this day, the purpose of a properly-placed “cornerstone” assures that the rest of the building is constructed in a true and straight manner. A crooked or weak “cornerstone” will result in an “out-of-plumb” building and inevitable disaster. Every local church must be constantly alert to making certain that it is building in line with the “cornerstone” of Jesus Christ.
- In verse 21, Paul goes on to tell us that as the Lord’s “construction project” proceeds, it is being assembled into “a holy temple in the Lord.” The emphasis here is not on a physical structure, but rather on that spiritual sanctuary that was illustrated by the “Most Holy Place” (Exodus 26:34, et al) in the Jewish Tabernacle, and later in the Temple. Because the Holy Spirit indwells every genuine follower of Christ, we are declared to be His “temple” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Based upon the terms that Paul uses, the emphasis here is on the privilege we have of approaching God and sharing intimate fellowship with Him.
- The third description that we are left to consider comes out of verse 22. There Paul writes, “In him (that is, “in Christ”) you also (meaning without any racial or ethnic barriers) are being built together into (and here it is) a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Notice again the reference to the three members of the Godhead in this verse. Christians are the only people on the planet who are legitimately able to say, “God lives in me!” And because this is so, it falls to us to manifest His character and to glorify His name...not only when we gather as “the Church,” but wherever we happen to find ourselves.
Although each of these descriptions come from the architectural field, they are in no way meant to suggest that Paul is referring to the Church as a building. For the first three centuries of its existence, there were no church buildings. Instead, he is speaking of people...the “called of God,” if you will. And as “the people of God” rub elbows daily with “the people of the world,” they are on constant display. I wonder how well you and I are doing in demonstrating our privileged position.
In working through this passage this week, I thought back to some words we had considered a few weeks ago. From chapter 1, verses 9 and 10 we learned that God is in the process of uniting “all things” in Christ. In order to “unite” things, they first of all have to have been separated...or, if you will, alienated from one another.
Despite the advancements we have made toward racial reconciliation, serious differences remain. In fact, in some cases they have worsened. Marches and protests have tended to drive the wedge that divides us even deeper. And, at best, debates and dialogues have offered only short-term solutions. Experience has shown that the world has no lasting answer. But the Church does.
Having said that, I am aware that conversations about race are never easy...even among Christians. For most of us, it is difficult to separate our spiritual convictions from our political persuasions, as well as the mischaracterizations with which we were raised to believe about others. In our most honest moments, we are forced to admit—regardless of our background—that dormant seeds of racial distrust and fear continue to reside within us.
Having come to Christ, we have been called away from our former attitudes. No longer can we cling to them as legitimate reasons to avoid both speaking and listening to one another...and, in subtle ways, rejecting one another. As His followers, Christ has already built the bridge for us to cross over and engage others with the salvatory and sanctifying power of the Gospel
I would like to believe that there will be no more incidents like those in Ferguson and Baltimore. But given the dark record of mankind through the centuries, I know better. But for the intervening work of Jesus Christ, all of our hearts—regardless of our ethnicity—are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). The only way that the human race will ever truly be one is by turning to the One who of His own volition entered it to unite us under His Headship. The Lord Himself was the first “cross-cultural missionary.” He came to resolve our conflict with God and, consequently, our conflicts with one another. Furthermore, we have been called to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
It is one thing to be united “with Christ,” but something else to be united “in Christ” with one another. So, as I close let me throw out a few challenges that we might want to consider:
- In the first place, the bloodline of Christ runs deeper than the bloodlines of race. I borrow that statement from John Piper, but it has been within this church that I have learned that lesson. I am so thankful for the racial diversity of this body, but I do not labor with the illusion that we are all that we can be in demonstrating our unity “in Christ” with one another. So...
- Secondly, let me add that it is sin that separates, and it is grace that unites. Therefore, would you be willing to ask God to search your heart and bring to light any destructive racial attitudes you may be clinging to? And when He does, would you be willing to confess those to Him—and perhaps even to others—with a contrite heart?
- And then third, unity means more than union or uniformity. It has been said that “unity” is affiliation without affinity,” and “uniformity” is “everyone looking and thinking alike.” In contrast, “unity” refers to having “one heart” and “one purpose.” For Christians, that “one heart” rests in Christ and that “one purpose” is to strive for His eternal glory. We may not look the same or even see eye-to-eye in all things, but we can be “one in Christ,” united in Him for the sake of His name.
- Fourth, misunderstanding is the product of misinformation. The impressions we have and opinions we hold of those of those of other racial backgrounds come largely from the preconceived ideas that we have been taught and come to believe. Many of these are erroneous. Are you willing to be used of God to be vulnerable and reach out to someone of a different ethnic group in order to be reeducated? Would you do this for Jesus’ sake?
- Fifth and finally, and just to reiterate, there can be no permanent reconciliation between men without first being reconciled to God. The world is dying—literally—to see the distinctiveness of the Gospel and the reality of Jesus Christ. “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ...alienated... strangers...having no hope and without God...But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
The ultimate goal of the Gospel is stated in Ephesians 1(:6) as “the praise of his glorious grace.” Whenever and wherever the Gospel brings about the reconciliation that no manmade effort is able to accomplish, then the Lord receives for Himself the glory that He alone deserves. What bridges may He be calling you to cross this week, and what barriers may He be asking you to overcome?
Thank you, Father, for the peace and reconciliation that has come to us through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. We, who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace. He has also broken down the wall of hostility that has alienated us from one another. In Him we are one...and for that we are eternally grateful. At the same time, we recognize that our human natures cry out to be delivered from sinful patterns that have marked our lives for so long. As we respond to your love, teach us to love one another. Forgive the words and attitudes with which we harm one another, and continue to sanctify us by Your grace. In this church we ask that You would grant the answer to Jesus’ intercessory prayer...that we as His followers would be one as You and He are one. May the world see our love for one another and know that we belong to you. It is in the name of our Lord Jesus and for the sake of Your glory that we ask this. Amen.