These days, Paul is often seen to be something of a conservative, playing around with ideas of freedom and equality, but not willing to apply them in any way that would disrupt the status quo. There’s some truth to this assessment — and we will have to reckon with this aspect of Paul before this study of Ephesians is over — but we cannot allow this to overshadow just how radical a thinker he truly was. His theology, and particularly his interpretation of how the life and teaching of Jesus connects with Jewish salvation history, offered the world of his day nothing short of a revolution in humanity. The section of Ephesians we’ll be looking at today, 2.11-22, offers a glimpse into this more radical aspect of Paul’s thought, as it recounts how God’s salvation plan (1.3-14), powerfully enacted in the resurrection and glorification of Jesus (1.15-23) and in which we too may participate (2.1-10) in him, has removed not just the barriers between humanity and God but also between human cultures — including the formerly religious ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Paul proclaims peace among humans (and what more radical suggestion could there be than this!), a peace he identifies with Jesus, the Christ. The resulting passage is one of the most important for how Christians have come to understand the nature of the Church. In today’s post I’d like to summarize Paul’s argument and then tackle some nagging questions the text raises.
But first, here is the text itself, again in my own (intentionally clunky) translation:
(11) With this in mind, remember that you were once Gentiles in flesh (called ‘the Foreskin’ by those called ‘the Circumcision’ — in flesh and by human hands), (12) that you were at that time without Christ, estranged from the body politic of Israel and aliens to the the covenants of Promise — hopeless and godless in the world. (13) But now, you are in Christ, you who were once far have come near in the blood of Christ. (14) For he is our peace, the one who made the two into one and broke down the dividing wall, the hostility between us, in his flesh, (15) by nullifying the Law, with its commandments and decrees, so that he might build in himself the two into one new humanity, thereby making peace, (16) and reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing in it the enmity between us. (17) Indeed, he came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, so that, through him, we both have access to the Father in one Spirit. (19) So then, you are no longer aliens and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (20) built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, with Jesus Christ being the cornerstone, (21) in whom the whole house holds together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, (22) in whom you also are built together into God’s dwelling place in the Spirit.
This passage, like the previous section, begins with a ‘formerly-but-now’ contrast. In 2.1-3, the contrast was based on sphere of spiritual influence — formerly they were under the dominion of sin and the devil, but now they are under the dominion of Christ. Here, addressing his predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) readers, the problem is understood through the lens of alienation, or marginalization: formerly they were far off (2.11-12), but now they have been brought near, “by the blood of Christ” (2.13). Christ, Paul says, “is our peace.” He has torn down the barrier that existed between the Jewish and Gentile communities by nullifying the Mosaic Law. Both communities now have equal access to the Father, sharing as they do the same Holy Spirit. They are now fellow members of the citizenship of God’s people and are built together as one Temple, one dwelling place for God.
This is a triumphant passage; there is no question that from the perspective of the text, this is a wonderfully positive development. But both the argument and conclusions raise some important questions:
- What is intended by the language Paul uses to describe pre-Christian Gentile life?
- Why does Paul shift from a focus on glorification to a focus on the cross here?
- What exactly is going on with the language of the barrier and the Law?
- How does Paul understand the relationship between the two communities as they come together?
- What relevance does this have for us today?
The first of these questions will require its own follow-up post, but we will now turn to the others.
Triumph in Blood
Thus far, with remarkably few exceptions, the theology of Ephesians has been triumphant. So, it’s interesting that Paul specifically says in 2.13 that it is the “blood of Christ” by (literally, ‘in’) which reconciliation with God and among humanity is possible. This is not a change of theology, but a change of focus, and there’s a good contextual reason for it. 2.13-18 has a distinctly ritual character, talking not only of blood, but also of approach and access, and a likely reference to the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple. All of these ideas are similarly found together in Hebrews 9-10, which describes Jesus’ death in terms of the Day of Atonement ritual at the Jerusalem Temple. In a study of that passage last year, I found that this ritual imagined the blood sacrifice primarily in terms of purification of the Temple from ritual defilement: the blood granted the high priest access to the Holy of Holies by acting as a kind of ritual soap, washing away the impurity accrued over the past year through the life-force within the blood. This passage in Ephesians deploys the same image: Jesus’ blood cleanses us from the ‘stains’ of life in this world, granting us all — Jewish and Gentile alike — direct access to God; because this is done without reference to the priesthood established by the Law, this in turn removes the Law from consideration in determining one’s faithfulness to God.
So, the reference to blood here in Ephesians 2.13, in contrast to the general triumphant spirit of the book so far, is likely due to the ritual and liturgical image governing the passage. But, why in turn did Paul have such an image in mind? It would seem that Paul was thinking of the Temple because he was thinking about the Law.
The Law that Divides
While there’s a lot over which scholars debate here, Paul’s logic is simple: Christ broke down the barriers between the Jewish and Gentile communities by nullifying the Law, or Torah. In what we might equally call a feature and a bug of the system, the Law acted to separate the Jewish people, the ‘chosen people’, the religiously privileged insiders, from the Gentiles, those outside the community of faith and thereby religiously marginalized. This division was symbolized by a physical barrier in the Temple, which prevented Gentiles from approaching the presence of God. According to Paul’s argument, Jesus’ sacrifice has broken down that wall, not only granting everyone equal access to God, but removing the very source of the division between us, namely the Law.
Of course, the direction of this argument could easily lead to a kind of anything-goes free-for-all that we know Paul would never advocate or approve of. In fact, much of the moral teaching in the later chapters of Ephesians corresponds rather faithfully to the Torah. As Clinton Arnold puts it, rather than talking about the Law being abolished, “It is more precise to say that the law … has been abolished insofar as it functions as the basis of the covenant relationship between God and his people.”* Or, in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s words:
The Jewish author is willing to acknowledge before Gentile readers that the law has played a substantial role in leading to the strains between two ethnic groups. This is not an overt attack on the law itself. What is at stake is not the law per se, but ‘the law as Jews had used it to consolidate their Jewish identity’ and to ethnocentrically cast the Gentiles as ‘the other.’
So, the Law is not nullified as a way of life or set of customs, but as a primary identity marker used to divide humanity.
Jews and Gentiles Together?
As lovely as this image of the things dividing humanity between haves and have nots being canceled may be, it leaves big questions about how the resulting community is to function. This was of particular relevance in the first-century situation, where the two groups were not on equal footing. Whereas from Paul’s perspective, the Jewish Christians had all the privilege — the stories, the patriarchs, the status as God’s people, the Law, and the Promise were all theirs — and so Gentile believers needed to be defended as legitimately belonging without becoming Jewish, there was also a socio-political reality that the Law protected the Jewish community — small, marginalized, and periodically persecuted by the state — from being absorbed into the mainstream culture. Paul’s perspective, which insisted that everyone now had full access to God just as they were, ‘in Christ’, rightly won the day; but it had the unintended consequence of setting in motion a long sequence of events that eventually led to the schism between Christianity and Judaism, as Christianity’s Jewish origins and character were increasingly pushed aside. (This is strongly related to the question of supercessionism — the problems associated with Christian ways of self-understanding that delegitimize Jewish identity — but this question is too involved and nuanced to be adequately addressed in this space.)
So if history shows us how Paul’s vision for the breaking down of cultural barriers in the Church can go wrong, how might it go right? Let’s return to the text for a close reading to see what it might tell us. First, Christ is said to be our “peace,” which we’ve already seen was all about healed and whole relationships; Paul is not imagining a cease-fire here, but a new and better set of relationships. And what does this peace look like? Paul uses three images: ritual-liturgical, political, and architectural. As we saw above, the first of these is about removing barriers for belonging and togetherness. The second involves the Gentiles being “no longer aliens or foreigners” but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” And the third involves both groups being knitted together like the stones in a temple. Note here that all three of these involve the incorporation of the Gentile Christians into markers of Jewish life: They are granted access, with the Jewish faithful, to Israel’s God, become, with the Jewish faithful, part of Israel’s body politic, and, again together with the Jewish faithful, stones built up together to become the dwelling place of Israel’s God. So it seems clear that Paul did not see the nullification of the Law as nullifying Jewish identity and privilege, but as a way of extending that identity and privilege to those who had traditionally been excluded from it.
This brings us to the question of relevance for us today. If the discussion above is accurate, there is no call in Ephesians 2.11-22 for an elimination of difference — for either group — only an elimination of division based on difference. This is important for any healthy understanding of the Church and its diversity. Both conceptually and practically, the idea of eliminating the division between marginalized and privileged by extending privilege to the marginalized is very different from doing so by insisting that the marginalized assimilate into the privileged. And as challenging as it may be, it is the first of these that is in view in Ephesians 2; the Gentiles receive the privileges associated with Jewish identity without needing to take on its customs.
It’s hard to imagine a more relevant piece of Scripture for the Church and society today. Klyne Snodgrass put it well:
If this barrier has thus been set aside, what other barrier can be justified? If God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34–35; Rom. 2:11), if all are created in his image, if God’s purpose is unity, if we are to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44), if Christ took the hostility into himself to destroy it, on what grounds can we justify keeping any barriers in place? Paul and the early church had already extended the unity in Christ to Jew and Gentile, to slave and free, and to male and female (Gal. 3:28). None of our barriers—our ways of devaluing, limiting, and taking advantage of others—has any basis.
Now one could point out here that Paul has not in fact done away with religious division, but only changed the criterion on which it is based, from the Law and ethnic identity to faithfulness to Jesus. To some extent this is accurate; Paul does not envision there being no distinction between Christians and followers of other religions. However, this has to be tempered by two points: First, as we become more and more conformed to the image of God in Christ, we will naturally come to express our initial, shared, human vocation and that is the promotion of true peace and the recognition of the image of God in others, whether they share our convictions or not. And secondly, to again quote Snodgrass,
All whom we meet are potentially people who will be in Christ and therefore one with us. The grace that has accepted us into Christ is extended to them by us. All people regardless of race or status—however defined—are to be valued, enabled, and treated justly.
Authentic Christianity can never be used to demean or alienate others. That is simply not the way of Jesus or the God Jesus reveals.
So, how does this reading measure up to our interpretive goals? What we have here is a radical reappraisal of human identity and religious privilege. The old barriers, here imagined in terms of the Jew-Gentile division, but also including barriers of sex and gender, political status, and by extension any barriers we set up between us, are torn down, not to assimilate one group into another, but to extend the privileges of ‘insiders’ to everyone. This expands our awareness and circle of empathy, as we understand more and more people as being within the community of the faithful. It sees no one and nothing as being inherently outside the purview of God’s love and grace, and in so doing promotes the good fruit of love, joy, peace, and so on.
And so, once again: Christ is our peace. We have no excuse for divisions among us.
* See the bibliography for the series for details.
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