In the pew racks in front of you, you should find copies of the Word of God. If you would please, take one in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2. If you’re using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 976. Then with the Word of God spread before you, let’s bow our heads and ask for God’s help to understand it as we pray together. Let us pray.
O Lord, we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who alone can shed light into our sin-benighted understandings. Illuminate the darkness, O God, that we may behold the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining upon us in the face of Jesus Christ as Your Word is read and preached, for the honor of our Savior’s name. Amen.
Ephesians chapter 2, from the eleventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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 you 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.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
Individualism and Community
Recently I heard the report of some sociological research that demonstrated that American teenagers today are more likely than any generation previously in American history to desert the church and reject Christian faith. Part of the research went on to identify radical individualism as the main culprit. We have a generation growing up now, more convinced than any that has come before, of the total autonomy of the self – “We don’t need anyone but ourselves, thank you very much.” The church is essentially considered to be a problem, a barrier to faith, an obstacle to healthy spirituality rather than essential to it. Interestingly, despite the loss of the church from the values of a generation, one of the buzz words of our age is “community.” Everyone is looking for community; hoping to find community. However individualized we get, it seems, we never really shake the need for roots, for connection, for belonging actually, for the church.
As we turn to Ephesians 2:11–22, we come to a passage that helps us see just how important the church really is in the design and purposes of God. It may well be that you’re here today and the truth is you struggle to value the church. Perhaps you’ve been burnt and wounded by the church in your past. The church has failed you. Or maybe you have simply concluded that you can find what you believe you need spiritually far more effectively somewhere else – that the church really no longer delivers what you really need. Well I want to direct you to our passage because it offers an entirely different perspective. Paul shows us here how God thinks about the church and what its place ought to be in our lives if we are Christians.
If you will remember, we considered verses 1 to 10 last Lord’s Day Morning and we saw there that the apostle Paul considers three things. He reminds us of what we once were before we were converted in verses 1 to 3. We were dead, we were enslaved, and we were condemned, he said. And then in 4 to 9, what God did when He marvelously broke in upon us and made us alive together with Christ because of the great love with which He loved us. And then as a result of God’s dramatic and gracious intervention, in verse 10 he shows us who we are now – God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Who we were, what God has done, and who we are now. That was verses 1 to 10.
What I want you to see is, that in verses 11 to 22 that same three-fold structure also obtains. Paul again shows us what we were – Gentiles according to the flesh, without God and without hope in the world. What God has done – by sending His Son to make of the two, one by means of the cross. And who we are now – no longer alienated and strangers; citizens, members of the household of God, a holy temple in which God Himself dwells by His Spirit. We are the church, filled with the very presence of the Lord our Redeemer.
Alienated by Nature
Before we work our way through that outline, however, I think a word of caution or perhaps of correction is in order. Quite often if you consult the commentators you will see that these verses, verses 11 to 22, are pressed into service in addressing the persistent and terrible sins of racism and prejudice that continue to plague our culture. It is clear that the central problem in these verses is human alienation – alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. Human society is divided and all we need do is turn on our television screens in order to see abundant evidence of that fact. And so the argument goes, “If you want to see the wounds and divisions of society healed, we must preach the cross. That is God’s answer to human alienation.” That’s what this passage is made to say. The problem is, that is not at all what Ephesians 2:11-22 teaches. Now praise God that the message of the cross really does shatter prejudice and alienation and bigotry and racism in the hearts of all who truly embrace it. That’s part of what makes that proposed interpretation of this passage so very attractive because there’s truth to it. The Gospel renovates hearts and helps people who once were enemies begin to love one another.
But for the apostle Paul, there is a far more urgent and profound alienation dividing human society that must first be addressed before any other societal alienations or dysfunctions can begin to be spoken of. It is the alienation that separates all people everywhere into one of two groups. Either you belong to the people of God, saved by the grace of God, or you are lost without God and without hope in the world. That is the alienation the apostle Paul here seeks to show us – that God has worked to resolve and overcome by means of the Gospel. He wants no one to remain an outsider to the kingdom of His saving love. He wants to resolve that great dislocation and division of humanity into those two groups and see many, many more from every tribe and language and people and nation brought in to become members of one family and one church together. For the apostle Paul, you see, to belong to the church of Jesus Christ is the most urgent thing of all. And so he teaches us about what God has done to open the doors of His kingdom and of membership in His people to human beings living in rebellion against Him.
I. Who We Were
So let’s take a look at the passage and see how the apostle Paul does that. Verses 11 to 13 first of all, he reminds us of who we were; who we were before we were Christians. I’m sure you can think back to that time in your life. Some of you can well recall years of wandering, as it were, in the wilderness not knowing Christ, seeking some purpose, some reason, some significance for your each new day. And then Christ came and you transitioned from the monotone gray of your own existence to the wonderful technicolor of life in Christ. Well the apostle Paul wants to help the Ephesians remember how they once lived, what it was like to be strangers to saving grace. And he does that describing it under five headings. First, social alienation, verse 11 – “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.” He’s reminding them how Jewish people who belonged to the covenant community, the people of God in the Old Testament Scriptures, thought about them. For them, circumcision was the badge of belonging to God and they saw it as evidence that they were special and they boasted in it. So to describe the Gentiles as the uncircumcision was not simply a statement of fact; it was a reminder, at least to Jewish minds, of Gentile inferiority. There was social exclusion.
But far more profound than that social alienation there is a spiritual alienation. Verse 12 – the Gentiles are alienated, separated from Christ Himself. The prejudice of one group or class of people toward another was hardly unique in Paul’s day nor especially problematic, painful as it was then and as it is now. Much more urgent is the estrangement of the bulk of the world’s population from the person and work of Jesus Christ. They did not know Him. They were excluded from access to the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved – the name of Jesus Christ. They did not know Jesus. And along with that in the third place there was alienation, therefore, from God’s people. They were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. They did not belong to the kingdom of God. Outsiders to the visible church as it was established in the Old Testament Scriptures. Excluded socially, excluded savingly from the knowledge of Christ, excluded ecclesiastically from the church and the covenant community.
Then fourthly, verse 12 again, they were excluded from the covenants – covenantally alienated; strangers to the covenants of promise. Because they were on the outside, the promises that God made to His people were not promises available to them. Socially excluded, savingly excluded, ecclesiastically excluded, covenantally excluded, and finally and climactically and above and behind all of that they were theologically excluded. They lived, verse 12, “having no hope and without God in the world.”
That is what it means to live today rejecting the claims of Jesus Christ – not a Christian, outside the church. It’s not that you’re not a member of the club. It is that you are without hope and without God in the world. You see there how Paul connected membership in the covenant community, the church, the people of God, and the knowledge of Jesus Christ and possession of the promises of God’s covenant and the knowledge of God Himself and having hope for time and eternity. They go together, do you see? For the apostle Paul, the church is the sphere, it is the venue, the forum within which God Himself may be known and He comes to meet sinners. It is the place where salvation hits hearts, sinners are changed, and believers made like Jesus. I hope you can see already how you think about the church matters a very great deal – that you can’t have Jesus and not love the church, that you can’t be spiritual and have some sort of connection to God while rejecting the church. To be outside the church, really and truly and spiritually, is to be without God and without hope in the world. To not know Christ is to have no place in His community. Your alienation from the church may reveal the deeper alienation. Not political or social or ethnic, but your fundamental alienation from God Himself.
Who we were. It’s important for us to remember what life was like before we knew Jesus. How drab, how void of significance, how we tried hard to fill our hearts with fleeting pleasures, they always, always rang hollow. It’s important to remember because as we stand this side of God’s saving grace looking back, it reignites in our hearts gratitude and joy that we are not who we once were. And allow me to say to you if you still live that old life, you need not be who you are now, that the gray monotone of your existence may be changed forever. Let’s find out how. Who we were. What God has done.
II. What God Has Done
What God has done. Look at verse 13 first. You were without God and without hope in the world, but now, “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” Verse 14 – “Christ himself is our peace who makes us both one.” Verse 15 – “He creates in himself one new man in place of the two so making peace.” It is possible – good news! It is possible to move from alienation from outside, inside. It is possible to transition from death and enmity with God and His people to life and friendship with God and adoption into His family and a place within His people. How? Paul says, “In Christ Jesus. Brought near by the blood of Christ.” The cross is God’s antidote to the exclusion of humanity from His kingdom and His people and His church and His covenants. The cross of Jesus Christ. We’re brought near by His blood. It’s not a form of words that you need to say. There’s no prayer you can pray that can bring you into the church by virtue of the words that you repeat. There’s no ritual to perform, no secret rite that opens the way into the kingdom of God. No, all there is, is the abandonment of yourself to Jesus Christ who alone can rescue you by means of the blood of His cross. He died to make sinners saints and strangers members of the family.
How does that work exactly? Well just as our alienation has two dimensions to it, doesn’t it? There’s a horizontal alienation. We’re alienated from one another. Cut off from the people of God. And we’re alienated vertically, from God Himself. So Paul shows us the cross has those two dimensions to it. It addresses our horizontal alienation so that those who once could not belong may now belong within the church and people of God. And it has a vertical solution to our alienation. It reconciles us to our God and Judge and Maker.
The Barrier Removed
Think about the horizontal reconciliation. Look at verses 14 and 15. “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.” The Jewish people, God’s Old Testament people, were set apart and were distinctive by virtue of the ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. All of them, Paul says, actually pointed and were designed to speak about Jesus Christ Himself so that when He came and fulfilled them and brought their significance to realization in the cross they became obsolete. They were once like a barrier. Unless you conformed to these ritual requirements you could not belong. Now that barrier has been wonderfully removed because the thing to which they pointed, the cross of Christ, has come.
In the temple itself there was a dramatic physical representation of that barrier, that ritual barrier that excluded Gentiles from participation in the life of the people of God. There was a sign that stood over the entryway between the outer courts, the outer precincts of the temple, where Gentiles could gladly assemble and freely assemble, and the inner courts, the true temple itself. The sign forbad all entry. One of these signs was discovered in 1871 with the inscription that I think perfectly illustrates Paul’s point here about the way the law excluded outsiders. The inscription read, “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure around the temple.” How’s this for a “Welcome to worship”? Listen, “Anyone who is caught doing so will only have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” “And don’t forget to sign the greeting pads at the end of the pews!” If you did not conform, you were not welcome. The ceremonial laws kept you out. But Christ has come and those ceremonial laws are gone forever so that there is no ritual barrier to participation in the people of God because the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world has come.
And that actually points us to the vertical reconciliation that the cross accomplishes, that is the foundation for all horizontal, one-another reconciliation that can ever take place within the church. We are able to be one, you and I. First Presbyterian Church, people of different backgrounds and ethnicities and culture and history and pedigree, we can be one truly and profoundly not because you’ve been forced to conform in dress or language or customs or behavior. Social conformity isn’t the way to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. No, we can be one far more profoundly because together we’ve been united to Jesus Christ. We are one with one another because we are one with Him. We are members together of the same body because together we’re united to the Head. Christ reconciles us to God by dealing with the fundamental cause of our alienation. We are enemies of God because we are rebel sinners and God stands opposed to us in His perfect holiness. We are, as Paul puts it earlier in the chapter, “by nature children of wrath.” But Christ came and was Himself alienated crying out in the darkness, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” Cut off and plunged into the abyss of exclusion that sinners may be brought in to the embrace of Abba Father and His God may become our God and His Father our Father.
And so in verses 16 to 18 – do you see it? The apostle Paul says Christ has reconciled us both not simply to one another but both to God, “in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” We are one because of the cross because the cross reconciles us together to God. “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.” We are reconciled to God in the cross. We can go to Him with boldness and joy with the people of God in every place on earth and even now in glory and approach the throne of majesty and call the one who reigns there, Abba, our Father. Who we were. What God has done.
III. Who We Are Now
And therefore who we are now. What is the effect of the coming of Jesus Christ? Verse 19 – “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Here is your new status. Not an outsider anymore. Some of you have been Christians for a while, but the primary category you use to think about yourself is “sinner; outsider; wretched and miserable and guilty.” And there is no one this side of heaven who is not a sinner, that much is true, but that is not the primary identity of a Christian no longer. That’s who you were but now, now you’re a member of the household of God, now you’re a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Now you are a saint by grace. Not an alien. Never again a stranger. If Christ is your Savior, the church is your home and these folks are your family.
Made into the Home of God
More than that, actually, look at verses 20 through 22. This is a stunning passage. Look at verses 20 through 22. You are “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.” You see the apostle Paul’s picture of a great building site, a construction site, and the foundation has been laid – the apostles’ and prophets’ apostolic truth now preserve for us only in Holy Scripture. And the cornerstone, that is the stone into which every other stone in the edifice must be fitted – and so it gives definitive shape to the whole structure. The cornerstone is Jesus Christ. The building that God is building across the ages is shaped by Jesus through His Word.
And what kind of building is it that we are being made into? It is a temple, Paul says, a holy temple, a place – this is breathtaking – a place where God dwells by His Spirit. That is the church. The home of God. His dwelling place. Where His presence may be known. He is here. How do you think about the church? Do you love it? Is she precious to you? Do you perhaps need to repent of thinking of the church like any other earthly organization? It is not, you know, the venue for a loose association of random individuals who assemble once a week if you’re lucky, driven by concern for a shared set of religious sensibilities. That’s not the church. The church is the household of God. The church is the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The church is His home, His dwelling place, a holy temple. What a privilege to belong to the church of Jesus Christ, to be a stone, a living stone, built into that great edifice that God is building, that is rising slowly as the Gospel reaches all the world where He is pleased to live. How important and precious the church is, how significant its preaching of greater moment than the declaration of presidents and kings, the church’s prayers more powerful than bullets and bombs. Long after your passport has crumbled into the dust and all record of your earthly citizenship has been forgotten by generations still to come, if by faith in Jesus Christ you are a member of the church, then your citizenship is in heaven, your name inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life and it will never be blotted out. When you come into the church you breathe the air of eternity, you glimpse the fellowship of heaven, you taste ahead of time as it were something of the sweetness of the marriage supper of the Lamb. That’s the church.
Do you love her, the Bride of Christ? Do you come prepared, eager, hungry to meet your God? Do you begin to feel Saturday night the pull of anticipation on your heart at the thought that “Tomorrow my King will speak His Word to my soul. My Savior will nourish me with Himself. My family, my brothers and sisters, will surround me and together we will fill the sanctuary with the praises of our great God and Redeemer”? What a privilege to belong to the church. Central to God’s plan for the welfare of your soul, He is here to meet you. It is never safe to neglect the church when the church is the venue for Gospel transformation, for saving grace, and for the blessing of the people of God.
We do need to remember who we were, don’t we, and remember what God has done by Jesus Christ and how He has grafted us into His people in His great mercy and grace. Maybe today you actually are still an outsider – not a social outsider, perhaps, but an outsider to the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ has opened the way for you to come in and begin to belong and what you must do is turn and trust Him. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You for the Gospel that takes alienated strangers, outsiders, and plants them, adopts them into Your family, brings them into Your kingdom and Your church. Help us, those of us who love the Savior, to thrill to belong to His church, to love her people, lover her ordinances, bear patiently with one another within her courts, and to delight to hear Your Word proclaimed by her. Help us to prize the church, serve the church, for the glory of the King who bought and paid for the church with His own blood. And we pray for anyone here who does not know Christ and is outside of the church. Bring them in by the mighty working of Your Spirit today, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.