In order to become a member of one of the old Southern Presbyterian churches, you had to stand before the congregation to make a public profession of faith. And, as you became a member, one of the questions that you were asked went like this:
I’ve always found that second part of the vow quite interesting. It is one thing to say, “Yes, I will submit to my elders.” But it is another thing to commit to studying the purity and peace of the church. If you make a commitment to submit to your elders, you only have to do that when they come knocking at your door.
But if you promise to study the peace and purity of the church, you make a commitment to daily doing whatever you can to promote the unity of Christ’s body. So, as you stood before that congregation and took that vow, you pledged to make your life’s objective to keep factions from rising and doing whatever possible to reduce conflict.
I personally love that old time ritual. I love the gravity of that moment and what they were pledging to do. I love it because it accurately encapsulates what we as Christians are supposed to do. We are to commit ourselves to pursing the peace and purity of the church.
And that is exactly what the Paul calls us to in the passage before us. The Ephesian church was like every other church in the history of the world. It was a veritable tinderbox because it was an international church. Right there in the same congregation were found Jews and Gentiles—two peoples who had a long history of hating each other. These were the Hatfields and McCoys of their day.
If ever there was a church that would have been on the verge of splitting, it was the Ephesian church. So Paul takes this opportunity to remind them that they are to be a united people. They are to be a people inseparablely joined together in Christ.
I love this passage because it should be a reminder to us that we at Providence Church are to be a united corpus as well. We are a diverse bunch and there may always be the temptation for faction and discord among us. And like the Ephesian church we need to remember that the Lord Jesus Christ has united us together as one body in his church.
And if we listen to what Paul tells these Ephesian Christians we will be more inclined to keep that unity intact.
As Paul addresses the Ephesians, the first thing he talks about is their equal standing. They should be united because their status in God’s covenant is exactly the same.
I. Equal standing [11-13]
In verses 11-13 Paul talks about how the Gentiles have been incorporated into God’s covenant. They now enjoy the exact same status before God as any Jew sitting in those pews.
In verse 13 Paul says in the clearest of terms, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
The OT tells the story of how God chose Abraham and his Jewish descendants. God entered into covenant with them and it was understood that these were the people to whom God drew near. The world were considered to be outsiders. The Gentiles were, as the text says here “Far off,” i.e. far from God and from his salvation.
And verses 11-12 are given to help accentuate for us just how far away they were. There are five statements that Paul uses to show how they were estranged. The first thing he talks about is circumcision. He says, “Remember that you were at one time Gentiles in the flesh, called the ‘uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision which is made in the flesh by hands.”
Now, this was a derogatory term. To call someone “uncircumcised” in those days is akin to our calling someone a pagan. Circumcision was the sign that you belonged to God. To be uncircumcised was to be branded as one who God rejected and one with whom God not entered into fellowship.
But the point of this is, of course, that’s not the case anymore. He says, “You were at one time called” this. The point Paul is making is that even though you haven’t had this surgical procedure, you now have what it all pointed to. You were once separated from Jews because of this rite, but now (because of Christ) you have exactly the same standing before God that they do.
He goes on to say that they were at one time “separated from Christ.” Now notice that this is more language having to do with God’s covenant. To be separated from Christ is to be separated from the Messiah. That’s what Christ means. It is the Greek word for Messiah. The Jews were the ones whose lives were bound up with the Messiah. Greeks had nothing to do with him. But not so anymore.
Then he adds the fact that they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” The commonwealth of Israel is simply the nation of Israel. The word is politea. They were not a part of the political body or the country of Israel. But that’s all changed. They were once alienated, but now there are assimilated in.
And I might just pause there and say that this is one reason I believe in the covenantal approach to Scripture, rather than the dispensational approach. Dispensationalism teaches that God has one plan for the Gentiles and a separate plan for a Jewish nation. But this is rather explicit to say that Gentiles now participate in the commonwealth of Israel. The political body of Israel is not so much a nation as it is the church.
How much more equal standing can we get than that? That we Gentiles and the Jews have been incorporated into the same body and are the particular beneficiaries of God’s singular plan of salvation.
Lastly Paul adds the fact that they were at one time without hope and without God in this world. Who was it that had hope? It was the Jewish people. God had promised them eternal life. God had said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” No gentile had that hope. They just had wishful thinking when it came to an afterlife.
But because of the blood of Christ, these people who were in this woeful condition could now have the same confidence that every Jew had when it came time to die.
We’ve looked at all these details, but let’s not get lost in them. The point is that these Gentiles have equal standing with the Jews in that congregation. They have been incorporated into the God’s covenant people. So when it comes to how God views them, there is absolutely no difference between the two. There are no second class citizens or superior races. God views them as equals.
That’s the same, fundamental key for our unity too. The key for our continuing as a body is understanding that there is no race or denomination that trumps any other in this congregation. It doesn’t matter if your occupation is in the elite upper echelons of a Forbes 500 business or if you stock shelves at the corner market, before God you stand shoulder to shoulder.
The only thing that may differentiate us, is if you have not yet put your faith in the saving blood of Christ. If you have not entered into a personal relationship with Christ, you are still without God and without hope in this world. Your sins keep you far from God.
But the good news of the gospel is that a door has been opened so that you may draw near to God and share the same standing as the rest of God’s people.
Our unity is not only built on the standing we have, but it is also grounded in the communion we have.
II. Unhindered communion [14-16]
You know, it is one thing for people to have the same standing, but it is another thing for people to actually interact with one another in a healthy way. I can stand next to someone I hate. Just as long as I don’t have to talk to them, we are okay, right? I’m okay as long as we don’t really have to have a relationship.
That’s certainly the way it was in the Ephesian church. There was a great deal of hostility between these Jews and Gentiles. But in verses 14-16 Paul tells them that there are no grounds whatsoever for conflict. They are to not only to be in union with one another, but they are to enjoy communion with one another too.
It all starts in verse 14. It says, “For he himself is our peace.” And then it goes on to show all that Christ has done to facilitate this peace. He has become our peace by tearing down every wall and barrier that would prevent their communion.
The first barrier he removes is the barrier of worship. Look at verse 14 again. It says, “He has made both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Most commentators see this as referring to the wall in the Temple that separated the Jewish court from the Gentile court. If you were a Gentile, you were welcome in the Temple. You could come in and worship. But you could only go so far. You couldn’t enter in the Jewish court. As a matter of fact, there was a sign posted on that wall that basically said, “We are not responsible for what happens to you if you pass beyond this wall.”
So what Paul is saying here is that when it came to the worship of God, Jews and Gentiles no reason for separation. They now had communion in their worship of God.
But not only did Jesus tear down the wall of worship, he also removes the blockade of rituals.
Look at what it says next, in verse 15. It says that Jesus has abolished the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”
Make sure that you understand that this is referring to the ceremonial laws of the OT and not the moral law. Christ did not abolish the moral law (i.e. the 10 commandments). Those are still in effect today.
This is talking about the ceremonial laws (like the sacrifices, feats and fasts, and dietary laws). Those ordinances were for the purpose of distinguishing the Jews from the Gentiles. These things were initially instituted to show in a visible way that Jews were distinct from Gentiles. But they had served their purpose and God had done away with those laws through Christ.
These laws used to prevent communion. If you were having a dinner party, roasting a pig would be very difficult if you were wanting to invite your Jewish friends over. But all that is now a thing of the past. They could just enjoy one another’s company because they didn’t have to have these rites and rituals anymore.
Next he mentions the barrier of race. He says that he has created “in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace.”
As we said before, there aren’t two groups anymore. There is only one. Instead of jews and Gentiles, there is this new entity called the church wherein they are united. And I want you to understand that this is saying that the church is not just a new entity, but it is a superior entity.
There are two different words for “new” in the New Testament. There are the words neos and kainos. The word neos means new, as in brand new. If you go to the car lot, you are going to get a neos car. It is a brand new car.
The word kainos refers to something that is new in quality. We might say, “new and improved.” Some of you might remember the old Tide detergent that you would put in the machine to wash your clothes. Years ago they came out with a “new and improved” Tide detergent. It was Tide 2.0 because it was the same old Tide, but had been rebooted to be a better laundry detergent.
That’s what the church is. In the church we have a superior place of communion because there is no segregation or separation due to one’s race or background.
Lastly he mentioned the wall of personal sin. At the end of verse 16 it says that Christ has “killed the hostility.”
Mind you, these rites that had been set up in the OT were not supposed to create hatred between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were not supposed to see themselves as a superior race. Gentiles were not supposed to have animosity for the Jews because they were allowed to go further into the temple or because they wouldn’t eat their meats that they sold in the marketplace.
But our hearts are sinful and that’s what happened. These rites and ceremonies became pathways to hatred and animosity. They ended up creating hostility between the two.
But here it says that Christ puts an end to that. Of course, a lot of the hostility should be removed simply because the barriers of worship, ritual, and race are gone. But he wants to make sure we understand that Jesus kills the seedbed of sin too. The church is not a place of war. That’s because Christ is destroying sin and vacating whatever does not facilitate true communion between believers.
The unbelievers heart is a place where hostility is deeply embedded. It doesn’t take long to find a lot of drama or hatred. But a Christian’s life is one that is radically altered. Not perfect by any means, but radically transformed. The temperament is now to be one of love and peace. One which facilitates communion.
There’s a story about an Anglican church in the old south. It was just after the Civil War had ended and it was time in the service for the administration of the Lord’s Table. To everyone’s great surprise a black man came forward to partake and kneeled beside a white man. The priest did not know what to do. Everyone in the church was stunned. But a tall man rose from his pew and made his way to the front of the church. He kneeled down beside the black man and gave a node to the priest, as if to say, “Carry on.” That man’s name was General Robert E. Lee.
He had just fought to ensure the enslavement of that man. But because there were no barriers between them anymore, they were able to enjoy communion together.
Through Christ we have unity. That unity is built of our equal standing and fosters unhindered communion. But we also have unlimited access.
III. Unlimited access
Look at verse 18. It says, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones who says that this verse serves as the climactic point of this passage. This tells us the grand design of God’s plan. Each and every one of us is now able to have fellowship with God. We have access to him.
This may not strike you the way it should. We might be a little overly familiar it. Many of us have probably grown up in the church and heard about this all our lives. But this is something that is unique to us.
We talked a few moments ago about the temple and the limited access the Gentiles had. They were not allowed to advance as far into the temple as the Jews. Their access to God was quite limited. But it isn’t like the Jews had that much more access. Sure they got to go a little further in. They had the ability to draw closer to God. But their access was still limited. They got to take a few more steps, but it wasn’t like they got to truly enjoy the presence of God. They had a wall too that they could not pass.
So listen to this again: “Through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Do not miss this miracle. This is the miracle of the New Testament. We now may draw near to God and have fellowship with him. We do not need a priest or a pastor to mediate for us. We can call upon him and enter into his presence. We have unlimited access!
You will notice the Trinitarian focus of the verse. This only highlights our unity that much more. We both draw near through Christ. It was his peacemaking work that made it possible. Then the Spirit facilitates our access.
I’ve said before that we enjoy benefits that far exceed what the saints in the OT experienced. One of the things we enjoy is this, the Spirit’s ministry among us. Yes, the Holy Spirit was active in the lives of the OT saints. But not in the same way. There is a difference between how the Holy Spirit operated in the lives of the saints in the OT and how he works in our lives today. There was a degree of limitation in the OT. But ever since Christ—ever since the day of Pentecost—there has been a distinctive change. You might call it a qualitative change. He ministers to us in a unique way in that he brings us nigh to God so that we may cry out “Abba, Father.”
But this is the point that we should remember. We were not saved just from hell. We were not saved just to be happy. We were saved that we might enjoy fellowship with God the Father.
And herein lies the great basis for our unity. That we both have the exact same access. We approach God on the same terms and are guaranteed a full welcome because we both are the children of God.
Herein lies the key to the welfare of Providence Church. This is not just what keeps Jews and Gentiles happy. It is the ground for the whole wellbeing of Baptists and Presbyterians. It is the one thing that is most needed for people who are dispensational and covenantal.
What keeps us together is not my pastoral skill. It is not Mark or Jim and their abilities to relate to you all. The thing that makes this church what it is is that we have this relationship with the Father which has come through the gospel of Christ and is activated by the Spirit within us.
Kindled Fire is dedicated
to the preaching and teaching ministry of
Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.