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—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 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. 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 (Ephesians 2:11-22).
“Reconciliation” is a hot topic today, at least in many places—and by hot I mean both popular and contentious. According to the dictionary, this word refers to the settling of differences and restoration of friendship or harmony. And according to my experience, the differences that get the most attention these days—at least here in America—are either racial and ethnic or political. Such differences are nothing new. Neither is divisiveness. Selfishness and sin, ethnocentrism and fear of those different from ourselves, have plagued the human race ever since the time of the Fall. People say that our nation is now more polarized than ever. But as a history teacher I’m here to say that this is not true. Yes, things are pretty bad. The recent killings of numerous unarmed black brothers and sisters—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others—have been nothing short of atrocious. Our national public discourse is deceitful and shameful. But things have been much worse.
The biblical prophets and apostles knew a bit about hostility. From time immemorial, the Jews had experienced hostile relations with their neighbors. Even in the New Testament, ethnic differences divided Jew and Gentile from each other. In fact, the first church council was called to rectify this problem. In AD 48, some of the Jews were insisting that unless Gentile Christians were circumcised and obeyed all the details of their law, they could not be saved. The apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to deal with this. And after much discussion, they concluded that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews to join the Christian church. In a letter they distributed to Gentile believers, they put it this way: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15).
But hostilities continued. The Apostle Paul faced them for the rest of his ministry. He addressed them, in fact, in the text of this devotional. He had established the Ephesian church in AD 52 (Acts 18). Two years later he returned, teaching basic Christian doctrine and edifying the saints there for nearly three years (Acts 19). He said goodbye to their elders in AD 57 (Acts 20). But even after he had grounded the Ephesians in the faith, deputizing others to continue this work (Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos and Timothy), ethnic conflict rankled. So in AD 62, while under house arrest in Rome, and chained to a guard, he wrote this letter to the Ephesians—a lovely, gospel letter—in which he felt the need to talk about reconciliation.
Ephesus was a wealthy port city on the western coast of what used to be called Asia, in present-day Turkey. It was rife with paganism, boasting the world-famous temple of the Greek goddess Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and Leto and patroness of hunters, wild animals, and girls. Her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It stood near a massive theater, the largest in the region, which could seat 24,000 (and accommodate more, with nearly 1,000 people sometimes standing in the wings). In Acts 29, we read of a riot that was triggered by a local silversmith, a man named Demetrius who made Ephesian idols and was angry with Paul for warning people against idolatry. This melee culminated in two hours of non-stop shouting in the theater, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians taught two main lessons: 1) Christ has reconciled us to God, and 2) Christ has united people from all over the world to Himself and one another in His church, the body of Christ on earth. He has done so according to the Lord’s eternal plan and we receive, or appropriate, this reconciliation by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul applies these themes by asking Christians to manifest gratitude to God as ambassadors for Christ, or children of His light, living prayerful lives of reconciling love in the world.
The first half of Ephesians 2 is by far the most famous part of the letter. Though you were once dead in sin, it says, God, in His mercy, has saved you by His grace and made you alive together with Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul stresses, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
But it’s the lesser-known, second half of the chapter that I want us to think and pray about at the beginning of this academic year. In verses 11 to 13, Paul proclaims that God has unified Gentiles and Jews through the blood of Jesus Christ. More particularly, he says to the Gentile Ephesians that, although they once languished far away from the covenants and promises of God, having no hope in the world, they had now been brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ. In verses 14 to 18, he highlights the peace that God has made through the gospel. Christ Jesus is our peace, he says. The Lord has made us one, demolishing the barrier that used to keep us apart. He has reconciled believers—Jew and Gentile—through the cross, destroying the hostility that long lay between us. And in the last few verses (19 to 22), Paul drives this point home with more personal implications. You Gentiles, then, have become fellow citizens, members of God’s family. You’re now being built up with Jews as one body, one household of God, with Jesus Christ Himself as the chief cornerstone (Ps. 118). And this edifice, this building, this temple of the Lord, is a dwelling place for God by his Spirit.
What an amazing thing to say! What a world-changing gospel we profess as believers. God has saved and united those who trust him through the cross. He has put to death our sin, and the power of the devil, and is building up His church with believers who come from every tribe, tongue, and nation, overcoming the boundaries that have kept us apart.
It may be hard for us to imagine the kinds of boundaries and hostilities that separated Christians in the first-century world. But it’s not so hard to imagine other sins of ethnocentrism, racism, and hate, sins that haunt us even now in the twenty-first century. Much as circumcision, kosher laws, and the temple wall in Jerusalem kept non-Jews at bay before the coming of the Lord, so prejudicial practices and discriminatory laws keep believers separated in today’s family of God. Jews and Gentiles in the first century called each other names—modern Christians do the same. Ancient Gentiles had no hope because they didn’t know of God’s plan to graft them into his family—many now lack hope because believers don’t live as though we’re really one in Christ. Just as Jesus broke down the wall of division through His death and resurrection from the grave, so he wants to break down our animosities today, reminding us that cultural traits are wonderful gifts of God–things like food, ways of speaking, ways of dressing, and worship styles—but should not block the unity we share by the Spirit.
Paul was writing at a time when the Romans ruled the world and imposed their will on others, the Jews ruled the temple and kept non-Jews away (with a real, physical wall), and the Ephesians controlled the famous temple cult of Artemis, fighting against anything that undermined their profits. And so he speaks in this letter of another kind of ethnic group, another sort of rule, another type of kingdom—not Roman, not Jewish, not Ephesian, not partisan, but cosmic, multicultural, the loving house of God. He deemed it far more powerful than any earthly dynasty, far longer lasting than any worldly power. And he challenged the Ephesians to put this family first, to pledge loyalty to Christ above all their earthly loves. The Gentiles, he says, are now part of this body. For Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone (Ps. 118 and all over the NT)—and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Those saved by faith in Christ now manifest the presence of the Lord on the earth. We are now God’s dwelling. We are meant to shine brighterthan the ancient Roman Empire, the temple of the Ephesians, and the temple in Jerusalem, which was razed less than a decade after Paul wrote this letter. We are meant to reflect the glory of God in the world. We are meant to serve as agents of His reconciling love.
As the famous Bible teacher John Stott once wrote in a book about Ephesians (God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians),
How dare we build walls of partition in the one and only human community in which he has destroyed them? Of course there are barriers of language and culture in the world outside, and of course new converts feel more comfortable among their own kind, who speak and dress and eat and drink and behave in the same way that they do and have always done. But deliberately to perpetuate these barriers in the church, and even to tolerate them without taking any active steps to overcome them in order to demonstrate the trans-cultural unity of God’s new society, is to set ourselves against the reconciling work of Christ and even to try to undo it. . . . God intends his people to be a visual model of the gospel, to demonstrate before people’s eyes the good news of reconciliation. . . . It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a single new humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship. I am not saying that a church must be perfect before it can preach the gospel, but I am saying that it cannot preach the gospel while acquiescing in its imperfections.
One of my favorite ambassadors of reconciliation is the African-American Bible teacher, John M. Perkins. Born in 1930 in New Hebron, Mississippi, he was orphaned as a baby. His mother died of pellagra, a form of malnutrition. His father ran away. He was raised by his grandmother. He dropped out of school and picked cotton as a boy. His older brother Clyde, who fought in World War II and even earned a Purple Heart, was killed by police in a local altercation. He moved to California at the bidding of his friends. He served in Korea. He climbed the corporate ladder. And then, in 1957, he came to know the Lord. He moved his family back to central Mississippi in 1960, convinced that God was asking him to serve the black community, mainly as an evangelist and Bible school teacher. He founded an organization known as the Voice of Calvary Institute, which cared for local residents spiritually and physically. During the mid-1960s, he worked for civil rights as a way of helping those he came to serve.
In 1970, while caring for a group of young people who had marched for civil rights in Mississippi, he was jailed and then beaten within an inch of his life by a group of white police. But, surprisingly, rather than respond with hate and vengeance, Dr. Perkins decided to forgive those who beat him and commit his life to inter-racial reconciliation. He believed that racial hatred damaged those of both races. He spread his new message of Christian love far and wide, writing books and preaching sermons wherever he was asked. He expanded his labors into other parts of the country: Pasadena, Chicago, and elsewhere. And by the 1980s, these ministries, and Perkins’ own reconciling spirit, grew so famous and attractive to so many others that this grade school dropout became one the most influential Christian speakers in the country and the world. His message usually echoes that of Paul in Ephesians: Christ has reconciled the faithful to the Lord and one another, and we should act like it as we live our lives in the world.
I want to challenge us this year to be more like John Perkins. Or, to put this a better way, I am hoping to persuade us to follow Paul’s teaching and devote ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation—to God and our neighbors. This should not be a substitute for fighting against injustice. Ill treatment and oppression of those different from ourselves—especially ethnic minorities—requires firm opposition and collective resolve. As we fight against sin, though, let’s share the peace of God that was made on the cross. Let’s represent the reconciling love of God in the world—a love so strong that it risks itself for others.
I’m not naive as I challenge us to do these things today. I’m a historian. I understand the messiness of history, the painfulness of history. There may well be some heavy history in your life right now, maybe even bad blood, that holds you back from loving others. From a worldly point of view, the kind of thing the Lord is asking of us today is not easy. But as Paul told the Corinthians shortly after he left Ephesus, the reconciled are not to think and act for themselves, from a worldly point of view. Rather,
the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. . . . [I]f anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:14-21).
The Lord is making all things new, creating a new family history for those who follow Jesus Christ, tearing down the boundaries of hostility between us. Through the blood of his own Son, he has overcome the power of sin, death, and the devil—and he wants to put sin to death in you day by day. So surrender all to him: your grudges, your pain, your resentment, your anger. You are reconciled to God, so be reconciled to others—even the hardest ones to love. The members of the true church comprise the body of Christ, a holy temple in the Lord. We are a dwelling place for God. So let’s show his love to the world by the way we live together.
Dear Lord, as we fight against hate, lies, racial injustice, and other sins plaguing our society today, may the love of Christ control us. Please help us here at Beeson to show the world what reconciliation is truly all about, what the body of Christ is like when filled with your Spirit, what solidarity with others who are different than ourselves can accomplish through the cross. We pray as those brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ. Amen.