Jews, Gentiles, and the People of God (Ephesians 2:11-22)
I. In an Alternate Universe
What if God's plan for the redemption of our sin-sick, human family followed a different timeline and actually began with the Uyghur people of central Asia? What if we here in the U.S. had been, for centuries, following our own religions and philosophies when suddenly Uyghur evangelists came to tell us about the promised Uyghur king that God had sent, according to the words of the Uyghur prophets. If interested, we would discover a rich history of how God had been at work for centuries among this people group. We'd be directed to the Uyghur scriptures, where we would read about Uyghur milestones, heroes, music, prayers, wisdom, etc.. We'd be exposed to Uyghur language and culture. We'd be encouraged to adopt Uyghur values.
Now... if this was our path to God, then it wouldn't surprising if many of us non-Uyghurs were tempted to feel like we were always outsiders in some sense; or maybe second-class servants of God. If we did feel that way, how might God want to encourage us? Let's see how God's word this morning helps us answer that question. Let's look together at Ephesians 2 (from our Plan).
II. The Passage: “One New Man ” (2:11-22)
If you were able to read through these opening chapters of Ephesians last week, then you will know just how rich this material really is in terms of spiritual depth and eternal encouragement. With the context in mind, let's focus this morning on 2:11-22. Instead of reading straight through the passage, let's look at these verses in small units. For example, look at just verse 11.
1. “Which is made... by Hands” (v. 11)
This is how Paul begins this second half of Ephesians 2:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands
Like so many churches across the Roman Empire, this church in Ephesus was composed of both Jewish and non-Jewish converts. Acts 19 seems to confirm this. But as we just heard in 2:11, Paul wants to speak directly to those non-Jewish or Gentile Christians. But notice the way he qualifies almost every statement here. He's not simply addressing “you Gentiles”, but rather, “you Gentiles in the flesh”. Hmm. And not only do some (inside and outside the church) refer to these disciples as “the uncircumcision”, but they are labeled as such by those who are called “the circumcision”; and their circumcision is one made “in the flesh by hands”.
So what exactly is happening here? Well, I think Paul wants to remind them from the outset that there are larger, spiritual realities to consider when we use the labels we find here, labels like “Gentiles”, “uncircumcision”, and “circumcision”.
For example, these readers may have been born to non-Jewish parents and raised in a non-Jewish culture, but in a very real sense, they are no longer Gentiles, that is, they are no longer of the Gentile world. It's in the sense that Paul instructs them in 4:17, writing, “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” Similarly, not everyone who calls himself a Jew really is a Jew. As Paul wrote in Rom. 2:28–29...
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical [or 'made by hands' as in Ephesians 2].  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
And what did Paul tell the Gentile believers in nearby Colossae? He reminded them that...
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ... (Colossians 2:11)
2. “Separated... Alienated... and Strangers” (v. 12)
So after qualifying these terms, look at how he continues his “remember” thought in verse 12...
…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ [i.e., the Messiah], alienated from the commonwealth of [or from citizenship in] Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Notice how Paul stresses here in verse 12 that, before God's grace, these Gentile believers truly had been “separated”, “alienated”, and “strangers” in terms of God's revelation to and his work among the Israelites. Just as we find in this verse, in his letter to the Romans, Paul highlights a number of blessings enjoyed by the Jewish people. According to Romans 3:2, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” And in Romans 9:4–5, Paul adds to this “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship... the promises... the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
But these Gentile believers had none of that. That was not their heritage. They were not raised with these blessings. And without God's revelation, without his promises, especially his promise of the Messiah, they were without “hope and without God in the world”. You see, just as you and I might at times feel like outsiders in a movement that began among the Uyghur people, guided by the Uyghur scriptures, overseen by Uyghur leaders, using Uyghur terminology, and focused on a Uyghur king, a Uyghur messiah, so too must these Gentiles have dealt with similar feelings in regard to the Jewish, the Hebrew context out which the Christian faith arose.
3. “One... in Place of the Two” (vs. 13-18)
But everything was different now. Because of Jesus, things really had changed, radically, and Paul wants his readers to understand just how profound and amazing these changes really were. Look at how he explains this in verses 13-18...
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility  by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,  and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
What has Messiah Jesus accomplished through his death on the cross? He has brought about peace. Peace between who? Yes, between God and humanity. That reconciliation is mentioned in verse 16. But the real emphasis here is peace between Jews and Gentiles. How did his death bring about this peace? By removing the very thing that had separated them and had even led to hostility, on both sides of the line: (v. 15) Christ abolished... the law of Moses.
Now wait a minute. Isn't God's law good? Absolutely. But it was deliberately given for a set period of time, until Jesus could fill it to overflowing (Matthew 5:17). So the moral force of the law remains unchanged for us, but it's preparatory elements were no longer needed; things like animal sacrifices, dietary laws, and lots of other 'clean' and 'unclean' metrics that set apart or shaped the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. Undoubtedly, cultural distinctives might persist, but none of these things should ever again be used to judge or divide the people of God.
Speaking of “the people of God”, what we need to grasp here most of all is the stunning statement Paul makes in the very center of this passage. How did Jesus end this Jew and Gentile division? Verse 15: ...by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two...
Now think about that for a moment... “...one new man in place of the two...” Who are the people of God? The church. That's it. So has the church become the new Israel? No. Is there another plan for Israel as a separate people of God. No. Apart from a Jewish revival that will take place one day according to Romans 11, a revival in which it seems a huge number of Jews will turn to Jesus as Messiah, apart from this, “Israelite” and “non-Israelite”, “Jewish” and “non-Jewish”, are no longer categories when it comes to the people of God. “...One new man in place of the two”. Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Greek... for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
4. “So Then You are No Longer” (vs. 19-22)
But look at how Paul expands on that idea in the closing verses of this chapter. Verse 19...
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Did you see how the “separated”, “alienated”, and “strangers” language of verse 12 has now been reversed? Verse 19: “you are no longer strangers and aliens”. As we heard in verse 13, “you who were once far off have been brought near”. But what about “the commonwealth of (or citizenship in) Israel”? In Jesus, we are now (v. 19) “fellow citizens”. But wait. We don't descend from the human family of Abraham. No. Now we are “members of the household of God”!
But again it almost sounds like we are being added to Israel. To borrow Paul's language in Romans 11:16-24, it sounds like we are being grafted into the olive tree that is Israel. But remember, Israel was only the olive tree in the sense that God began his work of forming of people for himself with that one human family. The tree is not ultimately Israel.
That tree is ultimately the people of God. And Paul is writing to the Ephesians about the fullness of what God began long ago. That's why in the next chapter he describes God's plan like this:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ...  This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel... [You see, Paul's mission was] to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,  so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known... This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord... (3:4, 6, 9, 10)
A “mystery hidden”. A “plan”. An “eternal purpose”. This is the same fullness Paul describes in verse 21-22. Yes, the Jews had a sacred temple in Jerusalem, a place where God would dwell among them. But like everything else, that was deliberately given for a set period of time. Now, in Christ, we are that temple; remarkably, “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”! And it's this fullness that helps us understand how Paul opened this section, qualifying those earthly labels. “Gentiles”? Yes, but only “in the flesh”. “Uncircumcision”? No, not in the way that truly matters.
III. Which Group Defines You?
As we think about how all this changes things for us, I want you to look at that small phrase in verse 12... just three words: “at that time”. At what time? Look back at 2:1, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked...”. Those three little words in verse 12 help us understand that just as Paul, in 2:1-10, wanted his readers to embrace their new individual identity as those made alive with (2:5) and seated with (2:6) Christ, by grace through faith, he also wants them to embrace their new corporate or group identity.
Brothers and sisters, friends, God wants to remind us this morning that the gospel of grace is, and always has been, Good News about a radically new group identity. Maybe you come from a dysfunctional family or broken home. Maybe you've always felt like you're on the outside looking in. Or maybe you've built your identity, to an unhealthy degree, around things like your family's name, or your race, or your party affiliation, or vocation, or some team or club.
Wherever you're coming from this morning, if you belong to Jesus, by God's grace alone, through faith alone, then you cannot be, and never again will be, on the outside looking in. In fact, regardless of whether your family heritage is an honor, a stain, or a question mark, in Christ, yours is the heritage of the people of God. The Bible is your family album. What used to be about them and them, has, in reality, always been about us... the Church... the people of God. As Paul described us in 1:23, “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
How are you tempted in terms of a group identity? Are you dragged down by where you come from? Are you distracted by today's tendencies towards tribalism? Do you despair in terms of not belonging, or define yourself in terms of this people or that people, rather than God's people? Christian, be encouraged... or be corrected: you belong not only to Christ, but also to his people. His people are your people. That's a spiritual fact, not a lifestyle choice. But this reality begs the question: are we living in light of the truth?
Jesus Christ shed his blood, first, to reconcile us to God. But as we've heard this morning, his shed blood also reconciles us to one another... for a new way to be human. What an amazing heritage! What an amazing hope! Let's give thanks, and let's pray that we'd walk in this truth.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)