In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
There’s a few things that we should pay attention to right off the bat as we look at this passage. Firstly, you’ll notice again, Paul’s propensity in this letter for long-ish sentences. If we want to not get lost in the syntax, it is helpful once again to pay attention to the sentence structure – for this, again, a sentence flow is extremely helpful.
The second thing to pay attention to is that this is a very theologically laden passage. The passage has a lot of deep theological import which is easy to pass over or lose, in part because of the sentence structure. We want to make sure that we don’t lose precisely that. To begin with, the passage begins with that key-signifier word, “Therefore…” Remember, whenever we see a “therefore”, we have to ask what the “therefore” is there for. In this case, it points us to the immediately preceding passage.
Remember, our overly-quick review of the first part of Ephesians could be summed up with, “We used to be dead”, now we in Christ we are alive. Chapter two delves into this truth. What we see in the first part of this chapter is:
- We are dead to transgressions and sins (2:1)
- We no longer follow the ways of this world (2:2)
- We are made alive in Christ (2:5)
- God’s work is shown in us and through us (2:7)
- We are God’s handiwork (2:10)
Therefore, Paul says to the church, you who were once not part of God’s elect, part of God’s body, part of the true Israel, are now God’s elect, part of God’s body, part of the true Israel.
Now we see other places in Paul’s epistles, and we see evidence in the book of Acts, where there is considerable concern about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. Paul’s concern here seems to be a little different. There obviously must be some discontent but whether there is a particular issue seems unclear. It doesn’t seem that Paul is addressing a particular behaviour or lack thereof surrounding unity. Rather, it seems that Paul’s concern here is to lay a theological basis. To understand this a little better (I hope), we need to consider some of the Biblical theology surrounding the understanding of the nation of Israel.
To begin with, without going into too much detail we need to actually go back to the beginning. In the early parts of Genesis, we know that God created humans and desired that we live in right relationship with each other, this created order and, most importantly, God Himself. We know that human beings failed (and continue to fail) to do and be what God had created us for. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham (then called Abram) to leave his homeland and go into the land God had promised to give him. Genesis 12:2-3 say:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
This is very important. We’ve been talking a lot over the past few months about understanding story – and more importantly, understanding our story. It is vitally important that we understand that our story is the story of God working out redemption in history. In this passage in Genesis we see, really, the beginning of God’s redemptive purposes in this world.
Now for our purposes, this part is very important and one that we often need to pay better attention to. What we are dealing with here is the story of Israel. But it’s not just the story of a particular people group. It’s the story of how this particular people group play a part in God’s redemptive purposes in the whole world. And as we see in the New Testament, it’s the story of how this particular historical people group is reformed as the spiritual people of God, the true Israel.
In the Old Testament, this people, Abraham’s people, the historical Israel, is marked by the Law. This is the covenant that God gave to Moses. In Exodus 19, when God gives the law to Moses, he speaks these words:
4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Now consider a couple of things here. The keeping of covenant (i.e. the Mosaic Law) is what sets the people apart (as God’s chosen people). In doing so, the entire nation, the people of Israel (irrespective of the tribe of Levi – the priestly class) will be a kingdom of priests. Well if the whole nation are priests, then whom are they priests to? This seems to speak to me, again, to the redemptive purposes of God to the whole world, the created order, it’s not just something that happens to or within a particular people group.
Now one thing that I want to say here so as not to mislead people. I don’t believe that this is an indication that every person will receive salvation. I believe that there are those who choose to be part of God’s kingdom and those who choose and will choose not to be. That’s a slightly different and deeper conversation than we are having today.
However, here is what I want us to notice. That Israel’s purpose is not only to be God’s redeemed people (i.e. it’s not just having been chosen). Israel purpose is to point to, to speak of, to demonstrate God’s redemption in this broken world.
Largely, of course, the nation of Israel got it wrong. For far too many reasons than we can go into here. But at the very least, Israel got it wrong in thinking that God’s redemption began and ended with them. Because with Jesus Christ, through Jesus Christ, the redemption that Israel was to speak of, had finally arrived. Israel, inasmuch as they thought of themselves as God’s only people, had forgotten about God’s purposes to redeem the whole world. So now, the dividing wall, between Jews and non-Jews, was eliminated because the dividing wall between humankind and God was overcome.
So Israel itself is reformed. The nation of Israel, the people of Israel give way to a new creation and reveal the true Israel. So the mark of this new, true Israel is not the Mosaic law, but the blood of Christ himself. Consequently, there is now neither Jew (ethnic) or non-Jew (Gentiles), but only the people of God by the blood of Jesus.
So What Now…?
Paul will expound and expand on this new reality as we continue in Ephesians, but for now, I want to leave us with a couple of points that I think arise from this passage.
God’s purpose is not to save individuals but to create a people. This is a truth that I believe was probably better understood in generations past. Our generations have become, especially in the West, more and more individualistic. Within the church, even though we talk about unity and the body, somewhere along the line we began talking more and more about personal salvation as opposed to the saved people.
Now the reasons for this are complicated, not the least of which is the refutation of ideas that crept into the church such as being saved by joining the church. And this is a truth which cannot be forgotten: One does not become a Christian simply because they attend (no matter how actively) a local church. One of the things the Great Awakening (for example) did, through people such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, etc., was to emphasize the importance of, the necessity for, a personal relationship with Jesus.
However, possibly purely by accident of language, and surely largely because of the individualistic trends of our modern and post-modern societies, we have to some extent lost an understanding of the notion of corporate salvation.
We tend to think of community as optional, as a kind of nice-to-have, but not really crucial to who we are as Christians. Worse yet, we tend to think of community as something that God gives to me so that I can grow and I can be supported. We rarely think of it as something that reflects the purposes of God, something that demonstrates his redemptive purposes in history, something that gives glory to God, not because of anything we may or may not accomplish, but purely for its own sake.
And that brings us to the second thing that I believe rises from this passage – a second thing that I would like us to think about. There is a profound unity that [should] come from this truth. We have talked about this on numerous occasions so I won’t go on too much about this except to say this. If we are left to ourselves, we are prone to congregate only (or mostly, at least) with those who are most like ourselves. Gentiles tend to congregate with Gentiles. Asians tend to congregate with Asians, young people tend to congregate with young people, wealthy people tend to congregate with wealthy people, etc.
It takes work, I grant you, to have healthy community. It’s hard to build relationships with people with whom you apparently have little in common. But these aren’t just foreigners and strangers. These aren’t just random individuals who happened to walk through these doors. These are brothers and sisters we have been given, with whom we walk through this life together.
So my encouragement is to pay attention to community. Pay attention to the body that Christ is forming us into. And pay attention to the ways that the body proclaims the work of God and the glory of God in this world.