~ Taken from Vincent Cheung, Commentary on Ephesians ~
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
Since I have already dealt with the main themes of 2:11-22 and 3:1-13 in what I have written so far in this book and in my other books, if you have been paying attention, then you should be able to understand these two passages fairly well. So in what follows I will provide only a summary, and briefly mention several details that are specific to these two passages.
With an emphatic "therefore," Paul connects what he is about to say to what he has already written. In other words, what he will say about the Gentile Christians being made one with the Jewish Christians as God's people in Christ is true on the basis of what he has explained so far about the doctrines of predestination and regeneration.
Before Christ came, those who were Gentiles by birth were called "the uncircumcised" by the Jews, who called themselves "the circumcised." Circumcision was the external sign of a covenant relationship with God, so that the rite made a sharp distinction between the physical descendants of Abraham and those who were "foreigners to the covenants of promise."
However, this does not imply that all the Jews were saved, or that all the Gentiles were unsaved. Paul is referring to the circumcision "done in the body by the hands of men," making clear that he is not necessarily referring to an inward distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, but only to note that the Jews had the advantage of the external covenant sign. As for their inward condition, the previous passage has made it clear that both the Jews and the Gentiles were "by nature the objects of wrath," and there was no difference.
As early as in Deuteronomy, Scripture mentions a circumcision of the heart as opposed to one that affects only the flesh (Deuteronomy 30:6). In opposition to a purely external religion that is without sincere love and true holiness, Jeremiah states that just as the people of foreign nations were uncircumcised, the people of Israel were no better, because they were "uncircumcised in heart" (Jeremiah 9:26).
As Paul explains in his letter to the Romans, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God" (2:28-29). The only type of circumcision that makes any real spiritual difference is the inward kind, by which God himself operates in the heart of man to cut away his inward filth and remove his spiritual corruption.
This has been true all along. Whether we are speaking of the Old Covenant or the New Covenant, a person is regenerated and saved from sin only if he has been inwardly circumcised by a sovereign act of God. As Paul writes to the Gentile Christians in his letter to the Colossians, "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ" (Colossians 2:11).
Under the Old Covenant, most of the Gentiles were left in spiritual darkness, although God regenerated and saved a small number of them. On the other hand, to the Jews were given the outward signs of the covenant and the means of grace, such as circumcision, the Scripture, and the temple. Under the New Covenant, God now releases the gospel of free grace to all people groups, without the cumbersome outward signs and rituals required under the previous administration of his grace.
Under the previous administration of grace, it was relatively difficult for the Gentiles to approach and to know God. They did not have the Scripture and the temple. They were uncircumcised. Without observing the numerous rituals and dietary laws, they were considered ceremonially unclean. Thus there existed a "dividing wall of hostility" between the Jews and the Gentiles.
Then, Christ brought "peace,"1 and "destroyed the barrier." He did this by fulfilling the types and shadows of the rituals and sacrifices, and thus abolishing their practice. It is important to remember that he did not destroy the moral laws, but only "the Law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15, NASB) such as the ceremonies and dietary regulations. Other than that, God's laws, such as the Ten Commandments, remain in full effect and continue to guide and govern the moral thinking and conduct of God's people, and to hold accountable all of humanity.2 Scripture destroys legalism without leaving any room for antinomianism.
As in 2:1-10, Paul first describes the former condition of the converts. His pattern of thinking is also the same with the previous passage, in that here he again shows that the unconverted were helpless, hopeless, and godless. And as in the previous passage, God did something to change the situation. The Gentiles did nothing, and could do nothing, to destroy "the barrier" that hindered them from approaching God and attaining salvation. They did not come near to God by their own free will – there is no such thing as free will in the first place – rather, they were "brought near through the blood of Christ." They did nothing, and they could do nothing – something was done to them by God and by Christ. They were brought to God by the blood of Christ, not by their free will or good sense.
The effect of what Christ has done is that he has created "one man out of the two, thus making peace."3 Of course, by saying that Jews and Gentiles are now united and at peace, we are not at all saying that believers and unbelievers are now united and at peace. Rather, we are saying that any Gentile can now become one of God's people by faith in Christ without submitting to the Law's rituals and ceremonies. And whether a person is Jew or Gentile, if he will not come to God by faith in Christ, he is not one of God's people, even if he observes all the Jewish rituals and ceremonies.
Thus the peace is accomplished and maintained in Christ alone, so that it no longer matters whether a person is a Jew or a non-Jew, but that all are alike and equal by faith in Christ, and there is no difference and no hostility between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. On the other hand, the spiritual difference and hostility between Christians and non-Christians remain just as sharp as before, if not even greater, now that Christ has come, and has been raised and exalted.
In fact, we have ground to believe that the spiritual hostility between believers and unbelievers has become much more pronounced than before. Although some Gentiles were indeed sovereignly regenerated by God under the Old Covenant, now that Christ has destroyed "the barrier," the application of divine grace has become broad and global. Likewise, although God held the Gentiles accountable for their sins (Romans 1-2), and condemned all unbelievers to everlasting torment in hell, God now sends his people to all areas of the world to explicitly demand faith and obedience to the gospel. As Paul says, "now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). The only way to attain true peace between Christians and non-Christians is for non-Christians to become Christians, but there will always be enmity between the children of God and the children of Satan (Genesis 3:15).
Just as the unbelievers could not escape natural revelation in the past, and still cannot escape it, now the church has as one of its most important mandates to confront the people of all nations with the special revelation of Scripture. As Christ commands, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus Peter writes, "For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, 'If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'" (1 Peter 4:17-18).
Whether Jew or Gentile, there is no escape from natural revelation about God and his moral laws, and there is no excuse for rejecting Christ and his gospel. On the other hand, "through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." Non-Christians need to know that there is no other way to approach God except through Christ; they must denounce religious pluralism, and all non-Christian religions and philosophies. Christians need to know this also; they must denounce all doctrines (the occult, other religions, etc.) that compromise the sufficiency of Christ.
Because we are Christians, we are "no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household." Some preachers are accustomed to speaking of the Jews (even those who call themselves "Jews" nowadays) as "God's people." But then, who are we? These preachers ignore the very "mystery" that Paul so earnestly preached and wanted his readers to learn. Many of them may acknowledge that we are indeed God's people in Christ, but that the Jews, whether they are Christians or not, are God's people in a special sense.
But to cite Paul again: "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God" (Romans 2:28-29). As a Gentile Christian, I am more of a Jew than a Jewish non-Christian. Paul explicitly says that one who has not been changed by God's Spirit is "not a Jew." So non-Christian Jews are not Jews at all. They cannot be God's people in a special sense, because they are not God's people at all. Only Christians are God's people now, whether Jew or Gentile. Galatians 3:29 states, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Because I belong to Christ, I am a seed of Abraham, and inherit all that God promised him. So when preachers call the Jews "God's people," they are either contradicting Paul, or they must be talking about me.
This truth needs to be emphasized again and again among Christians today, because whereas it was one of the main revelations that Paul wanted to get across to his audience, many Christians have not learned it. The problem is especially pronounced among dispensationalists. Their fanciful eschatological schemes and false divisions of the biblical covenants and administrations subvert the simplicity of the gospel, divert the proper use of resources, and obscure the truth that Paul expounds in his letter. They make believers treat Jews as Jews, and as superior people, rather than as sinners "like the rest" (2:3). Some of them might even consider this teaching anti-Semitic, but Paul was its strongest proponent, and I doubt that he loved the Jews any less than the dispensationalists (Romans 9:3-4)!
God's household is constructed upon "the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone." Commentators disagree as to the precise meaning of "the apostles and prophets." We will briefly discuss the difficulties and their significance.
It would be convenient to understand the expression as referring to the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. However, some contend that this is improbable because Paul would then have used the reverse order, saying, "the prophets and apostles" instead of "the apostles and prophets." A surer indication that Paul probably does not have in mind the Old Testament prophets is that he later writes, "the mystery…was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (3:5). Although the Old Testament prophets had hinted at this "mystery," it was not fully revealed until the coming of Christ and the preaching of his apostles. Although the Old Testament prophets had partial insights into this "mystery," Paul clearly intends to exclude them here, saying, "it has now been revealed…to God's holy apostles and prophets." Therefore, it appears that Paul is indeed referring to New Testament apostles and New Testament prophets.
Then, because the words "apostles" and "prophets" share one definite article ("the"), the question arises as to whether Paul is referring to only one group of people, so that the expression means something like, "the apostles who also function as prophets," or "the apostles who prophesy." However, other commentators deny that this is the necessary implication of the single article, but prefer to think that Paul is referring to apostles and prophets. Nevertheless, the use of only one article before the two nouns seem to at least signify a strong unity between the apostles and prophets.
In any case, the most important issue is the theological significance, or the real point that Paul intends to convey. He clearly intends to say that the "foundation" of God's household consists of the messengers of divine revelations, or more precisely, the divine revelations themselves. Whether he is referring to both Old Testament and New Testament messengers, or only the New Testament messengers, the point is that the foundation is biblical revelation, or the doctrines that God has revealed to us through these messengers, as recorded in Scripture. Therefore, this foundation is "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). Nothing about it is to be modified or removed, nor is anything to be added to it; rather, our task is to guard, perpetuate, and propagate the doctrines of the apostles.
All of this was initiated by Christ and is founded on Christ, who is the "cornerstone." He holds an even more prominent place than the apostles. God's temple is being built outward and upward from this cornerstone, and each brick or stone finds its proper place in reference to him (Matthew 16:18). Turner correctly states, "The point would then seem to be that the temple is built out and up from the revelation given in Christ, through the revelatory elaboration and implementation of the mystery through the prophetic-apostolic figures." Christ is the starting point of our thought and conduct, and Scripture is our spiritual and intellectual foundation.
Thus verses 21 and 22 say, "In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit." Likewise, Peter writes:
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (1 Peter 2:4-6)
Before the coming of Christ, the Jews were privileged "in every way," because "they have been entrusted with the very words of God" (Romans 3:2), that is, the Scripture. They also had the temple of God.
However, since the coming of Christ, the Jews have rejected God's fuller revelation, the completion of Scripture through the apostles. The only way they could do this was to abandon the very revelation that they had in the Old Testament. In addition, God destroyed the temple and raised up his true temple in his church. Therefore, Christians are now the ones "entrusted with the very words of God," and Christians constitute the very temple of God. As God says in Hosea, "I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God'" (Hosea 2:23).
1 Sometimes the phrase "he himself is our peace" (v. 14) is used to encourage believers to rely on Christ for their subjective peace and to attain peace of mind. However, as with many cases, here the meaning is clearly an objective and relational peace.
2 Vincent Cheung, The Sermon on the Mount.
3 Charles D. Provan, The Church Is Israel Now; Ross House Books, 2003.