The Church Without Wall

October 29, 2005

Read: Eph 2:11-22

Comments on Eph 2:11-22: This passage divides easily into the following three parts which form two outer panels (2:11-12 and 2:19-22) framing a central passage (2:13-18).

Eph 2:11-12: The initial focus on Gentiles is on their exclusion. The first indicator of exclusion is their lack of circumcision. They are addressed not only as specifically “aliens from the citizenship of Israel, and strangers to the covenants”, but also in general as being without hope and without God (2:12).

Eph 2:19-22: By contrast the conclusion of the passage focuses on the inclusion of the Gentiles. Now they are “no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are citizens with the saints” (2:19). Not only are they now members of God’s “household,” the dominant metaphor applied to them is that of being built into a “holy temple” that is “a dwelling place for God.”

In a world where Jews were considered “weird” by the Gentiles at large and where Gentiles were considered polluted and polluting by their lack of circumcision and other ritual practices, the transition from being aliens to becoming God’s temple would have been simply stunning for many of Paul’s original readers, a tour de force. For non-Christian Jewish readers it would have been next to blasphemy. How this all happened is spelled out in the central panel of the passage.

Eph 2:13-17: Key terms throughout this section are the antitheses “far off” / “near,” “hostility” / “peace,” and the contrast between “one” and “both.” The central proposition that informs its thought is “he (Christ) is our peace” (2:14). He not only is peace, he both made peace (2:15) and proclaimed peace (2:17). Thus at the center is his atonement and also his preceding ministry of preaching and healing. A careful reading of the Gospels shows how Jesus went out of his way to be inclusive of the marginalized within Judaism and the Gentiles outside it.

A statement in this passage that has been distressing for Adventist interpreters is the statement that in Christ’s work of making peace “the law with its commandments and ordinances” were “abolished” (2:15). From the context it is clear that what fundamentally differentiated Jews and Gentiles was circumcision (2:11). Without circumcision Gentiles were outside the covenant and outside the temple also. In the same sentence Paul has also just referred to Christ as “having broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (2:14). Archaeology has unearthed two huge stones from Herod’s temple which were placed at the gate to the court of Jewish men. In Hebrew, Greek and Latin they spelled out a death sentence on any Gentile who should try to enter. Paul no doubt had a painful memory of that gate since it was through it that he was accused of bringing Gentiles (Acts 21). This led to his imprisonment which in turn would ultimately lead to his death.

So one does not have to go far to see what it was that “law” is referring to, i.e. that which divided and caused hostility between Jews and Gentiles, i.e. what essentially made a Jew a Jew. We can observe three clauses that stand in a parallel relation and serve to make the reference of “law” quite precise:

“having broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us,
having abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances…”

The focus is on the external, ritual commandments and ordinances that served to be divisive. All the Gentile world consented, even if they fell short in observance, that dishonor of ones parents, adultery, murder, theft, false witness, and even for the moral philosophers, covetousness, were evil and properly avoided behaviors.

Implicit in all this is that the ritual and sacrificial ordinances were not adequate to give complete and definitive access to God. Hebrews spells this out in detail. Here it is implicit in that Christ’s atoning work of peace now unites Jews and Gentiles in reconciliation to God (2:16) and both have access to God in the one Spirit (2:18). This idea of “access” is again referred to at the end of the next passage in 3:12. The truth of really being able to approach God and be close to God is richly expressed already in 2:6 where in Christ we actually sit at God’s throne “in heavenly places.” Here both Jews and Gentiles are painted as becoming God’s temple itself. All the barriers of the Jewish temple are breached, even the veil of the Most Holy Place. In Christ we have “access” in the fullest sense.

Questions to think about: Social and religious dissonance has the effect of nudging the “different” community into greater and greater isolation. How far is too far, and how close is too close? What criteria can one set up for one’s relations that allows a healthy, distinct identity without sacrificing social grace and responsibility?

Given the different life-styles and beliefs even among Christian denominations, what does this passage have to say to us? How much do we share with each other, and how great a difference does what one does not share make with regard to one’s salvation?

Circumcision served as a God-ordained sign for a covenant relationship. What at one time was divinely prescribed is now left behind. Could that legitimately happen again in our time, or not? Why?

Why would the commandment for Sabbath observance and the prohibitions against image making, polytheism, and taking God’s name in vain not be included under what was abolished in 2:15? These commands made a fairly strong distinction between Jews and many Gentiles. Would Paul have considered them to be done away? What evidence do we have for and/or against?

Can you think of any other overtones and intimations that the imagery of becoming God’s temple would have for a divided community? 1 Cor 3:16-17 read in context has an interesting angle on this imagery from a negative perspective. Why is the warning so dire?

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