“Remember you were formerly heathens, deemed ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘circumcised.’ However, this is merely a flesh mark made by human hands. At that time you were separated from Christ, excluded from the privileges of Israelites, and strangers who did not share in the Messianic promises. Because you had no knowledge of His covenants, you were without hope, having no God to turn to.
But now through your union with Christ Jesus, you who were formerly estranged have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our bond of harmony, having unified both Jews and Gentiles by destroying the hostile dividing wall that once separated us. Through His crucifixion He forever abolished the enmity caused by the Law and its ordinances. He has fashioned in Himself one body of Believers from the two, resulting in peace.” (paraphrased)
God founded the nation of Israel and designed it to be radically different from other nations. This was done so they would not fraternize with them and learn ungodly ways. Circumcision was mandated by God as a distinctive sign to remind Abraham and his descendants of their covenant relationship with Him. But future Israeli generations gradually began to view circumcision as a badge of exclusiveness. This physical distinction eventually deteriorated into racial bigotry. Jews did not enter non-Jewish homes for fear of contamination (Acts 10:28). Rabbis labeled Gentiles as “fuel for the fires of hell.”
The Jews wanted Jehovah’s blessings, but refused His mandate to be a light to the rest of the world (Isa. 42:6). Although the door of Judaism was left slightly ajar to admit non-Jewish proselytes, few were allowed to enter. To complicate matters, some first-century Jewish Christians felt Gentiles could not be saved unless they were circumcised first. Even Peter was confused about this issue until Paul corrected him (Gal. 2:11-12). Although a special council was called in Jerusalem to address this question, prejudices ran so deep the problem took decades to be resolved (Acts 15:24).
The Jewish hatred of Gentiles was reinforced throughout history by the unrelenting persecution of surrounding nations. Greeks were so proud of their own alleged racial superiority they considered all other nations “barbaric” (Rom. 1:14 & Col. 3:11). Romans worshipped the human body and viewed cutting the foreskin as mutilation. Jews saw all other nationalities as vastly inferior and Gentiles lampooned the Jews. Circumcision was a barrier which prohibited most Gentiles from considering conversion to Judaism. Jonah’s belligerence is a prime example of the harsh attitude of Jews toward Gentiles (Jonah 3:10 & 4:1). The initial reaction of the Samaritan woman to Jesus shows such prejudices were still prevalent during His earthly ministry (Jn. 4:9).
Paul views circumcision as an emblem of the chasm separating Jews from Gentiles. The Apostle knew such a gulf cannot be allowed to exist in the Church.
By the use of the word “wherefore,” Paul refers his readers to the previous passage where he describes the dynamic change Christ makes in the life of both Jews and non-Jews (vv. 1-10). The church at Ephesus is comprised primarily of Gentiles, so Paul asks them to consider their former status from a Jewish perspective. He proceeds to explore the distinctions that divide these two groups.
The apostle asks the Ephesians to recall where they have been in order to more fully comprehend where they are. “Remember” (mnemoneuete) is a verb in the present imperative tense, suggesting his readers continue thinking about the shackles they left behind in order to appreciate the freedom they now enjoy. Gratitude for deliverance from a sinful past will produce greater zeal for future service.
The term gentile in both Greek and Hebrew means “nations” and was applied by Jews to all who were outside of Israel. Jews took pride in being “The Circumcised” (peritomes) while referring to Gentiles by the derogatory nickname “The Uncircumcised” (akrobustia). When they were “Gentiles in the flesh,” they were under the control of their carnal appetites.
Although God intended circumcision to be emblematic of the covenant relationship with Jehovah, this man-made external mark was powerless to change a man spiritually. This simple surgical procedure was meant to reflect a man’s inner faith and verify his entire life was dedicated to God. This is evident from scriptural passages which refer to:
<> circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41 & Rom. 2:28-29)
<> circumcision of the lips (Ex. 6:30)
<> circumcision of the ears (Jer. 6:10)
From the external sign of Jewish circumcision, Paul turns to the former internal condition of the Gentiles. He summarizes their prior spiritual situation by using five negative phrases:
1. They were without a Messiah.
Although God planned Israel to be His evangelistic nation, the Jews had totally estranged themselves from the Gentiles. They choose to condemn them rather than share their Messianic expectation (Ex. 19:5-6). Jewish aspirations regarding their coming Deliverer had degenerated into a strange combination of vindication and redemption. Few Gentiles had any interest in this rendition of a Messiah.
2. They were foreigners to the Promised Land.
The Hebrews had been molded by God into a theocracy that enjoyed His care and provision. He blessed His people with a unique priesthood, divine protection, and a special territory. Prior to Calvary, Gentiles did not enjoy “citizenship” (politeias) in God’s chosen nation. Because they were alienated from God, they had no divine destiny to anticipate. Only after Christ’s sacrifice on the cross could Gentiles become citizens of Israel in a spiritual sense (Rom. 9:6-7).
3. They were outside the covenant God gave to Israel.
Gentiles had no God-given covenant and therefore were not part of His community of faith. Although the Jews had come to believe covenant benefits were deserved rather than graciously bestowed by God, it was their trust in His promises that kept a spiritual spark burning throughout the centuries. They believed when Messiah came He would crush the enemy Gentile nations. This belief caused the Sanhedrin to reject Jesus Christ when He came, for annihilation was not part of His agenda (Acts 1:6-7).
4. They were in a hopeless condition.
While the Jews had a Messiah, the Gentiles had none. Not only did they lack the hope Israel possessed, they had no assurance whatever regarding eternal life. Because no promises were given them in the past, they had a hazy vision of the future. To be without Jesus is to be without hope
(I Thess. 4:13).
5. They were without God.
By use of the term atheoi, Paul does not infer they were atheistic, for the Greeks and Romans had numerous deities. Idolatry was rampant (Acts 17:16). But their false gods were as fickle as those who worshipped them. Appeasement of a pagan god was accompanied by the fear it might suddenly become displeased with a supplicant. Gentile polytheistic beliefs made it extremely difficult for them to accept Jewish monotheism.
Through this five-fold description of the Gentile mindset, Paul accurately summarizes the Greek and Roman world. Although the Jewish Messiah held the answer, non-Jews were generally apathetic regarding the spiritual realm.
Those geographically distant from Israel are depicted by Jews as being “afar off.” The term is also used when referring to those who have distanced themselves from God (Acts 2:39). Paul portrays a dynamic contrast: non-Jewish Christians are now “made near” by the sacrifice of the Son of God. Gentiles Believers formerly “in the world” are now “in Christ Jesus” (v. 12). God the Father had suddenly become approachable.
How far the Gentiles were from God can only be calculated by the tremendous sacrifice required to bring them near. Whereas animal blood shed on Jewish altars was for one nation, the blood of the Lamb of God was shed for all nations (Rom. 10:12-13). God provided the definitive answer to the problems of every race on earth. The Son of God came to lead all people from the slavery of sin into kingdom citizenship.
Jesus alone can infuse peace into hostile racial situations. He allows all ethnicities to enjoy a harmonious relationship through His reconciliatory sacrifice. Unity among all nationalities is made possible through “The Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). God’s plan of salvation is based on the same atonement, the same hope of heaven, and access to the same Savior. His peace provides a sense of security and well-being available to everyone.
The former “barrier” (phragmou) or “dividing wall” (mesotoichon) is best illustrated by the racial differences existing in the Jewish center of worship in Jerusalem. The temple was divided into various courts for Israelites, Gentiles, and women while the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies were reserved for priestly activities. These partitions illustrate the walls of hostility that existed. A limestone slab was posted upon which was engraved, “No foreigner may enter the enclosure surrounding the sanctuary. If caught, such a person will have only himself to blame for his ensuing death.” Paul was falsely accused of taking a Gentile named Trophimus into the temple and would have been killed had he not been rescued by Roman soldiers (Acts 21:29). Jesus pointed out that the temple had become a den of thieves rather than a place of prayer (Mk. 11:17).
This “wall” of Jewish exclusiveness was built on political prejudice and held together with the mortar of perpetual bitterness. Christianity will not sanction racism, even when cloaked by religious zeal. Neither will it condone national bigotry under the guise of patriotism. When Jesus died, the veil in the temple was torn in half, indicating everyone now has equal access to God (Heb. 10:20).
The “laws contained in ordinances,” refer to the statutes and sanctions of the legal code. The ceremonial law was a means to an end, not an end in itself. However, God’s moral law was never abolished because His commandments are written on the hearts of everyone (Rom. 2:15). Jesus affirmed He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). Christ has eliminated the hostility that once existed. His work on the cross made possible not only reconciliation between God and man but between different races as well. Jesus gave His followers a new law: love each other as He loves them (Jn. 13:34).
When a Jew is converted he does not become better than a Gentile, nor does a Gentile become superior to a Jew. Every redeemed individual is adopted into God’s family on an equal basis and becomes part of a cooperative fellowship. By His self-sacrifice Jesus abolished the strong alienation that formerly existed. The two formerly separate groups now form one Church.
The Holy Spirit baptizes all Believers into one Kingdom (I Cor. 12:12-13). At the church in Ephesus, Gentiles who were forbidden to worship in the Jewish temple and Jews who shunned all pagan temples now worshipped together as fellow members of the body of Christ. This is made possible because Christ created a totally new “person” – a unique society (II Cor. 5:17). Any former dividing lines of nationality, gender, and social status are permanently erased.
People from all parts of the globe can meet as a family at Calvary, for Jesus has neutralized the cause of division. His cross remains the ultimate global emblem of reconciliation in a world still divided by racial animosity. Jesus said, “My peace I leave with you and my peace I give unto you” (Jn. 14:27). But He is more than just a peacemaker; He is the epitome of peace.
Points to Ponder
1. What command does God give to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-12?
2. What false doctrine is noted in Acts 15:1? Why is this issue so important in the early Church?
3. According to I Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6 & 6:15, what value does Paul place upon circumcision?
4. According to Romans 2:29, what type of “circumcision” is mandatory?
5. What happened in Matthew 27:51 and what does this symbolize?
6. Because the use of God’s temple had become so perverted, what does Jesus do twice in His ministry (Jn. 2:14-15 & Mt. 21:12)?
7. According to II Corinthians 3:3, where does Christ want His Gospel o be written?
8. According to Matthew 8:11, who will sit with the patriarchs one day in the Kingdom of God?