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Ephesians 2:11-22

Lesson Focus: Through Christ, God has broken down the walls of hostility that divide us so that we might be one humanity and one church.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand our past as if we were the Gentiles about which Paul speaks.

  2. Understand that God intends that any hostility that exists between groups of people should be abolished.

  3. Understand that we are continually being built into the church, the dwelling place of God.

Catching Up… Paul began his letter with a lengthy one-sentence paragraph that gives God all blessing and glory for what God has done through Jesus Christ. This blessing sets the tone for the letter in two ways. First, it introduces themes that will be developed as the letter moves on, namely the theme of unity. Second, it firmly establishes Jesus as the center of all thought for living and worshipping together as the church.

In the second half of chapter one, Paul offers a prayer specifically for the Ephesian church. His prayer is that God would give them a spirit of wisdom, that they may know the hope to which they are called and the riches of God’s glorious inheritance, along with God’s immeasurable greatness and power. Again, the prayer closes with a focus on the person of Christ as the one who has authority and dominion over all things.

The beginning of chapter two, however, moves into the body of the letter. Paul takes a moment to remind his readers that they were once sinners, dead through their trespasses because they followed the way of this world. Paul never leaves his readers to wallow in the memory of their misery too long, and this chapter is no exception.

He quickly moves on to remind them how it is that they have been made alive through Christ. There is no other explanation for their salvation other than that it has been by grace, through faith, that they were saved. As always, salvation is a gift from God. Therefore, we have no right to boast in our salvation.

While there has often been some speculation regarding who the specific intended recipients were, Paul begins to make it clear for us that those he is addressing are Gentile Christians. Of course, Gentiles were any person who did not belong to the people of Israel. For a Jew, you were either a Jew, or you were not one. To some extent, it was the people of God, Israel, against the world.

As the news about Jesus’ death and resurrection spread in those early post-resurrection days, more and more Gentiles became believers. Paul himself has such a rough go proclaiming the good news about Jesus to the Jews that he focused his mission almost entirely on the Gentiles.

As a result, more and more Gentiles became followers of this new way, the way of Jesus. Paul’s intent in this section is to remind both Gentile believers and Jewish believers about where they both have come from and how things are different for both groups here and now.

We can split this week’s text into three sections, verses 2:11-12, verses 2:13-18, and finally, verses 2:19-22. Section one deals with remembering the past. Section two details the present, and section three charts a course for the future.

Then… 2:11-12 Paul begins verse 11 with a call for his readers to remember their status as Gentiles by birth. At this point, it is essential to note that no self-respecting Roman, Greek, or any other non-Jew in Ephesus or the surrounding area would have naturally referred to themselves as Gentiles. The Gentile moniker only made sense coming from a Jewish point of view.[1] Why does Paul call them to remember their past as “uncircumcised” Jews if they would not have identified themselves as such in the first place?

Paul’s purpose in doing so is to give his readers a better way to understand the alienation from God which used to mark their past. In other words, for Paul’s readers to remember and understand themselves as Gentiles who were far off from God is for them to reimagine their history from a Jewish perspective. This is not to bring them shame but to help them integrate their past story into the ever-unfolding story of God and God’s redemption for creation. Consequently, it is a move we too must make. As we read this text, we too must remember that we were Gentiles by birth, alienated from God and God’s people.

Paul goes on to say that his readers were called “the uncircumcision” by the Jewish people. Circumcision was a covenantal mark of belonging to God’s people. It was done by human hands to a male on the eighth day after birth. It became a badge of honor, a mark of distinction for God’s people. Gentiles would not typically have been circumcised. Without that physical mark, they could not be considered part of God’s people, with all the benefits and advantages that went along with it. However, what Paul is saying here is that what used to matter now no longer does, precisely because human hands did it. What matters now, as we will see later, is the “circumcision” and the cleansing of the heart, which can only be accomplished by God.

Even so, Paul again calls his readers to remember their Gentile past, a past that was without Christ. Indeed, Paul says, they were aliens, strangers from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise. They had no hope in the world because they were without God.

The phrase “commonwealth of Israel” is a bit strange. By the time the writing of this letter, Israel had ceased to exist as an independent political entity. One could not rightly speak of Israel as a commonwealth in any ordinary sense. Instead, what Paul is likely referring to by “commonwealth of Israel” is the gathered-up people of God who have been formed by God socially and with respect to God’s covenant with him.[2] The commonwealth then is not a physical location but a membership in the family of God. Paul’s Gentile readers must understand their past as one where no claim could ever be made to being a part of this family.

Now…2:13-18 Verse 13 is a transitional verse from section one of our passage to section two. With its “But now…” verse 13 calls into memory the Gentile’s (and our own) past hopeless alienation from God and simultaneously prepares us for a description of the present reality. Here Paul delivers the good news, even though they were once far off, now they have been brought near to God through the blood of Jesus Christ.

Parenthetically, anytime we talk about the “blood” of Jesus, we must read into that word the entirety of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The blood that Jesus spills as a sacrifice for our sins makes no sense apart from the other aspects of Jesus’ life. Here the contrast between what we once were and what we are now comes i