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This morning we continue our summer journey through St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. As we said last Sunday, Paul’s evangelism strategy was to visit a place where he wanted to plant a new congregation and visit the local synagogue. Because he was a Jew and a Pharisee at that, he would always be asked to speak. When Paul spoke he testified as to why Jesus Christ, crucified for the sins of the world and raised from the dead on the 3rd day was the Messiah that the Jews were waiting for.
Eventually Paul would get kicked out of the Synagogue and those who believed his message would follow him and that would be the beginning of a new Christian congregation.
So, the congregation in Ephesus was made up of Jews who believed that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. But the message of the cross is that Jesus Christ died for the sins, not just of the Jews, but of the WHOLE WORLD, for ALL PEOPLE. And that message was well received among the Gentiles. And so especially in a city like Ephesus that is predominately Greek, the congregation is made up of both Jews and Gentiles, or as Paul refers to it, ‘the circumcised and uncircumcised.’
And there’s some HISTORY between the Jews and Gentiles, if you know what I mean. Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants may learn to live side by side but there’s a lot of ‘history’ there and that ‘history’ can cause problems. The Sunni and the Shia will have a hard time living together peacefully because there’s a ‘history’ between them and with that history comes a lot of RESENTMENT and HOSTILITY.
The HISTORY between the Jews and the Gentiles goes back to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was built on a raised platform and consisted of a series of courtyards. At the ‘front’ of the Temple was the ‘Holy of Holies’ behind the curtain where the Ark of the Covenant was. In front of this was the ‘Holy Place’ where the Altar was and the sacrifices took place. Around the Holy Place was the ‘court of the Priests,’ reserved for the Priests.
And then, moving away from the Altar was the ‘Court of Men of Israel’ reserved for Jewish men. Then the ‘Court of Women of Israel,’ reserved for Jewish women.
These three courts were all on the same level.
After the ‘Court of the Women’ there was a series of FIVE STEPS that you went down to another platform that had a wall around it. Behind this platform, there was another series of FOURTEEN STEPS that went down to another platform which was called “The Outer Court” or “The Court of the Gentiles” that was reserved for Gentiles.
This was the part of the Temple that Jesus cleared on two of His visits to Jerusalem because the Jews were using it as a marketplace.
Gentiles always had to look up to the Temple. And they were never permitted to go past that ‘wall’ that separated them from Israel and Israel’s access to the Altar and through the Altar to the Holy of Holies where God was present.
The ancient historian Josephus records that there were signs posted on this wall written in both Latin and Greek that read, in effect, ‘Trespassers will be executed.’ Archeology has since uncovered two of these signs carved in stone. One reads as follows: “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.’
In the 21st chapter of Acts, there’s this episode where Paul brings a member of the congregation in Ephesus named Trophimus into the Temple. And the Jews think that Trophimus is a gentile and both Paul and Tromphimus are nearly lynched. (Acts 21:27-31). (John Stott – Message of Ephesians)
This is what Paul has in mind when he writes to the Ephesians about the “dividing wall of hostility.” He’s thinking about the Temple and that ‘WALL’ that divided the ‘circumcised from the uncircumcised’, Jew from Gentile.
This ‘separation’ between Israelite and Non-Israelite is actually one that God Himself established so that His people would not be tempted to absorb and intermingle the false teaching of the pagans into the true teaching of His Word. Yet at the same time, Israel was to be a ‘LIGHT TO THE NATIONS.’ They were to be firm in their doctrine but inviting and welcoming to their neighbors so that the nations would “see their good works and give glory to God.” (Mat. 5:16).
But instead, Israel became proud of their identity and instead of striving to bring the Gentiles in, they strove to keep them out. What they should have done was welcome them and have greeters to greet them and ushers to help them find a good seat and the people in the pew say ‘good morning’ and the preacher preach a sermon so full of the gospel that they say, ‘I’d like to hear more.’ But instead they made it very clear that outsiders are not welcome.
So that’s the history between Jew and Gentile. And that ‘history’ carries over from the past into the present – even in the congregation at Ephesus where both Jews and Gentiles are sitting side by side. And even though there’s no stone wall and no signs, that “dividing wall of hostility” is still there.
Last Sunday when we looked at chapter 1, we heard St. Paul say that God has a “plan for the fullness of time” that He “set forth in Christ.” God has had things all planned out from before the beginning. And everything is moving along according to God’s plan. Don’t let appearances to the contrary deceive you. And the plan is “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph.1:10). “TO UNITE ALL THINGS IN CHRIST…”
One of the nasty effects of sin is ‘alienation.’ What was ‘UNITED’ together as one, our sin has rend asunder. In Genesis 3, we read that as soon as Adam and Eve fell into sin, they realized they were naked and in their shame they covered themselves with fig leaves. People become SEPERATED / ALIENATED from one another.
And then they both try to ‘hide from God’ and then blame God for their fall. People become SEPERATED / ALIENATED from God.
But the “plan for the fullness of time,” is “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”
But there’s history here. There’s a “dividing wall” that our sin has built that separates us from God and one another that we are neither able nor willing to tear down. Our ‘plan for the present time’ is to build that wall higher and stronger and find more and more ways to remain ‘alienated’ from God and our neighbor, because deep down inside we know that we’re the guilty one who have lots to hide that we’re afraid that both God and our neighbor will see. And our fear and our guilt create a lot of resentment and ‘hostility’ towards God and our neighbor in us.
But despite our plan to perpetuate the “dividing wall of hostility,” God has a “plan for the fullness of time,” is “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” And our plan is not going to overcome His plan. God’s plan is going to overcome ours.
God’s answer to the ‘ALIENATION’ that we have created is the ‘RECONCILIATION’ that He creates IN CHRIST.
When the children are little it doesn’t take much for two friends to have a falling out with each other over a toy or whether he was safe or out at 1st base. They swear they’ll never play together again. So Mom or Dad have bring the two together and talk it over and finally they shake hands and get back to playing together like nothing ever happened. That’s ‘reconciliation.’ The ‘wall of hostility’ has been removed. THE ‘HISTORY’ IS FORGOTTEN.
In the 1st half of chapter 2, Paul assures the Gentiles in the congregation that God has reconciled them to Himself in Christ. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked… were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” THAT’S THE ‘HISTORY’.
“But God, being RICH IN MERCY, because of THE GREAT LOVE with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Eph.2:1,4-6).
That’s the RECONCILIATION that God works out IN CHRIST. The ‘dividing wall of hostility’ between us and God has been broken down and removed by the blood of Jesus Christ. THE ‘HISTORY’ IS FORGOTTEN.
Now in the second half of this chapter, Paul addresses the ALIENATION between the Jews and Gentiles. Maybe the Gentiles in the congregation wonder whether or not they will ever get past their ‘history’ with the Jews. He sums up the ‘history’ that they know so well. “Remember that you were at one 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.” (Eph. 2:12).
This is really important to understand. What Paul is saying is that the Gentiles “had no hope and were without God in the world” BECAUSE they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” The way to God is through Israel. And if you are “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” then you can’t get to God.
In the Old Testament, God delivered all of His promises and blessings through ISRAEL. Israel had the “covenants of promise” and no one became a part of the ‘covenant’ except through Israel. Only Israel had access to God who was located behind the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
But the Israel of old failed to be Israel they were called to be. They themselves became ‘alienated from God’ because of their pride and selfishness and sin. And how can a people who themselves are ‘alienated from God’ be the portal through whom God brings people into His “covenants of promise”?
God has a “plan for the fullness of time,” “to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” And our plan is not going to overcome His plan. God’s plan is going to overcome ours.
Jesus Christ is the NEW ISRAEL. He is the perfect Israel, exactly who the old Israel was meant to be. “I and the Father are ONE.” (John 10:30). There is no ‘alienation’ between the ‘new Israel’ and the Father. Whereas no one had access to God except through Israel, now Jesus says, “no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6). Through Him, we become heirs of the “covenants of promise,” “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph.1:14)
To the Gentiles in Ephesus, Paul writes, “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… that he might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby KILLING THE HOSTILITY.” (Eph. 2:13-16)
All of the ‘hostility’ between us and God and Jew and Gentile was exhausted in Jesus on the cross. And now there is only peace.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
God has joined together again what we by our sin rent asunder. He has created a ‘new humanity,’ united together as ‘one body’ in the ‘one body of Jesus Christ.’ The Temple has been replaced by Jesus and ALL NATIONS are gathered together in Him where there is no dividing wall of hostility and all of our history is swallowed up in the history of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”