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:
Understand our past as if we were the Gentiles about which Paul speaks.
Understand that God intends that any hostility that exists between groups of people should be abolished.
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. 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. 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 into full view.
We were far off and hopeless without access to God or God’s family and all that comes with it. Now, though, because of Jesus, we have been brought near to God, and, as we will see in a bit, we have been brought near with all the advantages of belonging to a family. You will note the use of the passive voice by Paul, “have been brought near.” This is the divine passive, meaning that God is the one who has initiated the action. God is the one who has brought the Gentiles near. It has not been done by “human hands,” unlike the circumcision mentioned at the beginning of the passage.
In verse 14, Paul begins to expand on what it means that his Gentile readers have been brought near to God and God’s family. He begins by stating that Jesus is our peace. He, of course, is none other than Jesus Christ. What then is peace? It is not some generic peace, some absence of conflict as the Roman Empire would have believed. It is, instead, the shalom of God. The idea of shalom goes well beyond the absence of conflict. It includes the absence of conflict but looks toward the wholeness of people and societies. Shalom means restoration and redemption. Shalom means the world and its people being as they were originally intended to be with restored relationships between people and between God and people.
As Paul puts it, God provides this shalom through the flesh of Jesus Christ. Again, when we read a word like “flesh,” we read it in the same vein as “blood,” which Paul uses earlier. We might be tempted to take Paul’s use of flesh here as just meaning Jesus’ sacrificial death, but Jesus’ death means little if it is not always paired with Jesus’ incarnation, his growth as a person, his teaching, and his resurrection. So, it is through the entirety of Jesus’ earthly mission that God provides peace for humanity.
Paul takes the argument further; Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles one group by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between the groups. Paul uses “us” here as he was thoroughly a Jew. What then is the wall that exists between Jew and Gentile? Paul brings the “law” into the discussion stating that Jesus has abolished (a better translation than abolish would be “nullify”) the law, and this abolishment is part of what helps unify the two groups. In his letter to the Romans, Paul will argue that the law was good but corrupted because of our sin. He’s following Jesus’ lead when Jesus proclaims that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). One commentator says it like this, “Paul assumes that the Torah, as given by God and properly understood, would lead to the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, each being reconciled to God. Under Sin’s influence the Torah became both a source and an instrument of hostility. Ephesians asserts that in his passion (i.e., “in his flesh”), Christ nullifies this hostility, fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it. In nullifying this hostility and thereby freeing the law to fulfill its proper role of pointing to Christ, Paul asserts that Jews and Gentiles have had the wall between them broken down. This enables their reconciliation with God and with each other.”
Part of what has caused the division between Jew and Gentile has been a perversion of God’s good law. Paul claims that God, through Jesus, has made one new humanity in place of the two and that this unification has made peace. A few things need to be noted here. First, what God has done is much more than just removing the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, that has been done, but what is happening is that a new entity is being created. Christ is transforming both Jews and Gentiles to form for God a completely new body, the body of Christ, the church. As such, both groups are brought nearer to God and each other. Second, the new unity of the body does not mean uniformity. Rather, the antagonisms that exist between the two groups have been removed. This has important implications for us as we think about diversity in the church. The diversity that exists within creation is beautiful and God-given. God does not desire that we all would look, act, and talk like each other. What God does desire, however, is that we are unified in our worship of God and our participation in God’s mission.
Built upon the foundations…2:19-22 With verse 19, Paul begins to sum up this part of the section. Since we (Gentiles) were once far off but have not been brought near to God through Jesus and have been made one with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we are now no longer strangers and aliens but members and citizens of the household of God. The language of citizenship was significant for Paul’s context.
Citizenship of an important city or even the Roman Empire was an essential aspect of one’s identity. It came with privileges that could not be stripped away. So, Paul is now making a specific claim about the result of this unity because of Jesus. Gentiles, who were not previously a part of this family, who were strangers and aliens, are now full-fledged family members and citizens. Jewish Christians could not look down upon Gentile Christians as being second class in nature. In the same way, because the two groups have been made one, Gentile Christians could not consider Jewish Christians as second class either.
The household to which these two united groups now belong has Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The foundation’s cornerstone is set in place and is plumb and level and is used as a reference for all subsequent stones. In this way, Jesus is the reference for all future disciples. Of course, before we get to this current generation to whom Paul is writing, we have the apostles and the prophets. They, too, are part of the foundation upon which this new church is being built. The language in this passage is present and carries with it a sense of continual action. This house, whose cornerstone is Christ, is actively being built. Its completion has not yet been reached. Jewish stones and Gentile stones are being laid side by side to form a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling place for God.
So What? There is significant evidence to support the assumption that the Ephesian church was primarily made up of Gentile Christians. As we read the entire letter, there is no specific conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Why then would Paul choose to make the argument he has just made? What is clear is that Paul thinks the Ephesian church must understand their past and their previous identity in the same way as a Jewish person would understand a Gentile’s past and previous identity. That is, as someone who, because they were not Jewish, was alienated and separated from full fellowship with God and God’s people. The Gentile past is one marked by complete separation from God.
If Paul were alive today, he would want us to put ourselves in place of the Gentiles. Even though we would not necessarily understand ourselves as Gentiles, Paul is calling us to understand the significance of our previous separation from God. It is only in understanding the importance of this separation that we can understand the importance of Christ’s unifying acts. We were once aliens and strangers. We were once far off from God. We were once hostile to God and God’s people. Now, however, we have been brought near to God. We have been unified into one body as unique members for the glory of God and the building of God’s Church.
Why does this matter? It matters because God is still working through Jesus for the unification of the world. God desires that we see our brothers and sisters who are different than us as full members of God’s family and full citizens of God’s Kingdom.
In its diversity, our world is getting smaller and bringing us into contact with more and more people who look and act differently than we do. I think this passage calls us to recognize that they were once far off from God just like we were, but now they are full participants in God’s Kingdom. Even the language of “us” and “them” is unhelpful. Because of Christ, there is now only one, “us,” in all our glorious diversity.
Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What does it mean to be a Gentile? How would a Jewish person have related to a Gentile?
What does the phrase “being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel’ mean? (Verse 12)
What do we mean when we talk about “the blood of Christ” (Verse 13)?
Paul says that through Christ, God is making for himself one unified humanity instead of two (Jews and Gentiles). How does this statement speak to the multiethnic and multiracial nature of our current society?
We get the impression here that Paul does not equate unity with uniformity. What is unity? What is uniformity? Discuss how our church might have unity without necessarily all looking and acting the same.
What does unity have to do with us being God’s church?
In this passage, what is the expressed purpose of the church?
 Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 85.
 Fowl, 87.
 Fowl, 94.