We live in a world marked by rivalry.
Some of it is fun-spirited: IU versus Purdue.
Some of it comes from attempts to manipulate for money: Apple vs. Android.
Some of it is rooted in historical animosities: North vs. South. Democrat vs. Republican.
Then there are also violent rivalries driven by fear and hatred. When I visited my Dad recently, he told how when his Catholic parents moved from NYC to a rural town on Long Island in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan sent a letter warning them to leave or face the consequences. They hate Catholics, among others.
We’ve seen unprovoked murders committed in the name of Islam in various places.
And then this past week we heard of hatred acted out against Muslims in New Zealand.
We find ourselves in a world marked by rivalries.
The NT passage we come to today describes a deep and intense ancient rivalry—that which long existed between Jews and non-Jews.
- It was a religious rivalry.
- It was a cultural rivalry.
- And it was a racial rivalry.
All things we still see today.
It is into that kind of situation—people deeply divided in fear, anger, suspicion and supposed superiority—that the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to pick up pen and reveal the astounding difference intended when you come to know Jesus. To get there, Paul lays out three stark contrasts: who we once were apart from Jesus, who we have now become if you have come to faith in Jesus, and what Jesus did to bring about that stunning change.
I recommend you take notes today, to remember. The whole emphasis here is remembering: remember who you once were. Remember what Jesus has accomplished. Remember who you now are because of Jesus. Having had Steve already lead us in prayer, let’s jump right in to Ephesians chapter two, beginning in verse eleven. Continuing our study through the NT letter to the Ephesians, picking up where we left off in chapter 2 & verse 11, Paul urges us to…
Remember who we once were:
Paul begins by painting the dark picture of life without Jesus. Ephesians 2:11-12 he writes…
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 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.” Ephesians 2:11-12
Before we heard of and believed in Jesus, we were:
Christless: “separate from Christ”
The Greek word translated “excluded” means just that; separated from; apart; we were without Jesus. It’s stated again in Eph 4:18, that without Jesus, we were “separated from the life of God…”, alienated from God due to our sin, excluded, on the outs.
Homeless: “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise”
Israel was a nation under God in a way unique among all others. To belong to Israel meant you belonged to a whole nation of peers. When Israel worked together, they were unstoppable.
Whereas non-Jews were outside the promises God gave to the Jewish patriarchs and prophets. God initiated unique covenants with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, and David. Non-Jews did not receive the covenants. In that sense, we were spiritually homeless, without a home.
Hopeless: “without hope and without God in the world.”
God had already determined to bless the nations—non-Jews—through Jesus, the descendant of Israel. But Gentiles didn’t know this. Because our non-Jewish forefathers didn’t know the promises of God, they didn’t have the hope those promises bring, nor did they know the God who gave the promises.
That’s a stark start, but if you want to feel grateful and hopeful, this is the place to start: remember who you once were: separate from Christ, excluded from God’s people, and without hope. That’s who we once were: we were Christless, homeless, and hopeless.
Next comes the massive hinge on which the whole passage turns. Here it is: “But now in Christ Jesus…” If you want a faith that is vibrant and passionate, remember not only who we once were. Go on to the “but now,” and…
Remember what Jesus has accomplished:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in 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.” Ephesians 2:13-18
Jesus died on a cross, in a public place, his death witnessed by many. Death by crucifixion was ordinary. Jesus’ death was anything but ordinary, because of what it accomplished. And what it accomplished is directly tied to who Jesus is. Paul explains it this way to his protégé Timothy, in 1 Timothy 2:3-6:
“God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” 1 Timothy 2:3-6
There is only one God. Jews, Christians, & Muslims agree on that. Here’s where the message of Jesus diverges from the others: There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and mankind. That one mediator is Jesus.
We say that not with arrogance or superiority, but as an invitation. It is Jesus’ death is what bring us into life with God. Where we were Christless, spiritually homeless, and hopeless, Jesus’ death changed that for everyone who comes to a knowledge of the truth and trusts in him. Look with me. What did Jesus accomplish by his death?
Brought us to God.
We know from lots of life’s arenas that the solution to a problem always has to be specific to the problem.
- If your car’s fuel valve is stuck, adding air to the tires won’t solve the problem.
- A couple of Tylenol are good for a fever, but they’re useless for a collapsed lung.
- When our hot water heater sprang a leak and flooded our first floor, it would have been useless to call a cabinet maker.
- Cutting up your credit cards will stop you from going deeper into credit card debt, but it will have absolutely no effect on debt you already owe.
So we understand that the solution to a problem has to be specific to that problem. The gravest problem facing humanity is that sin has separated us from God. To solve that problem, Jesus died on the cross. By his blood, he has brought those who were far from God, near to God—all who believe.
Adapted from Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Zondervan, 2017), pages 131-132
“He himself is our peace” Paul writes to people who were living under the imposed Pax Romana, the peace the Roman Empire forced around the Mediterranean basin by military might and oppressive taxation. With the death of Jesus on a Roman cross, an altogether different kind of peace began to rush in, solving our greatest problem-our need to be brought to God.
James Herriot tells of a wedding anniversary he and his wife celebrated early in their marriage. James’ boss had encouraged him to take his wife to a fancy restaurant, but Herriot balked. He was a young veterinarian and couldn’t really afford it. “Oh, do it!” the boss insisted. “It’s a special day!” Herriot reluctantly agreed and surprised his wife with the news.
En route to the restaurant, Herriot and his wife stopped at a farm to examine a farmer’s horse. Having finished the exam, James returned to his car and they drove to the restaurant, unaware that his checkbook had fallen in the mud. After a wonderful meal and then discovering his wallet was missing, he tried to offer a way of making it up.
“Not to worry,” the waiter replied. “Your dinner has been taken care of!” James’ employer had paid for it all in full, in advance.
That’s what Jesus has done for us. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” it was our peace with God that he had accomplished. He has brought us to God. Second, Paul urges, remember that Jesus’ death has…
Brought us together.
By his death on the cross, Paul reminds us, Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two…”
Hearing an accent from an employee at a local grocery store, I asked where she was from originally. I learned that while Hannah was a little girl, she and her mother escaped from East Germany, despite the wall dividing East from West. For those old enough to remember, the wall was fearsome. Guarded 24/7, barbed wire, with machine guns and dogs, many people died trying to escape to freedom.
After the Berlin Wall went up, East German psychiatrists observed that the Berlin Wall actually caused mental illness, rage, dejection, and addiction. The closer to the physical wall people lived, the more acute their disorders.
Adapted from Marcello Di Cintio, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Soft Skull Press, 2013), pp. 10-12
Jesus’ death demolished an even more fearsome wall—not only bringing us to God, but also demolishing the walls between us. When Paul wrote this letter, there was a literal wall in the Jerusalem Temple that excluded Gentiles from coming any close to God.
This is the actual temple stone, with its inscription. It warns non-Jews that if they go beyond this point, “Whoever is caught will be himself responsible for his ensuing death.”
That wall, and the Temple itself, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. But the spiritual barrier between Jews as God’s covenant people and Gentiles as spiritual outsiders was destroyed by Jesus’ death in AD 33!
“In his flesh” Jesus tore down the wall that separated us from one another. His death brought us to God, and his death also brought us together.
Two of the greatest faith-builders I know of are (1) Getting to know what Jesus is up to through his church around the world (as we did last week with a guest speaker from Sarajevo), and the second great faith-builder is (2) getting to know Christians from other cultures and countries. It enriches our faith to hear Yewande from Nigeria or Renu from India lead us in prayer.
I will never forget hearing Ghassan Thomas, who was baptizing on average 30 Muslims each month in the church he started in Baghdad, Iraq, until he had to flee for his life. I see him on my Facebook feed every Sunday leading an Arabic-language worship service in his new homeland of Australia.
When my wife vacationed in the south of France, we learned that the local bishop there was deeply influential in the 3rd-century church—even as the ancient local downtown featured a storefront church working to bring back the influence of Jesus to that area. Amazing.
All of this flows from Jesus’ death. Where we were spiritually homeless, we now have a forever family in Christ’s church. When you receive Jesus as your Savior, you receive a whole new extended family of all who share your faith.
We were Christless: but now Jesus’ death has brought us to God.
We were spiritually homeless: but now Jesus’ death has smashed the wall between us, bringing us together. The third great thing Jesus’ death has accomplished is that he has…
Brought us to call on God together.
The first impact is vertical, reconciling us to God.
The second impact is horizontal, reconciling us to one another.
The third impact combines those into God’s new reconciled people, calling on him together.
Think again about the wall excluding non-Jews from the inner parts of Jerusalem’s temple. In the temple there were four courts separated by walls. The outermost court was the Court of Gentiles. Moving inward, there was the Court of Women, then the Court of Israelites, and finally the Court of the Priests.
The Court of Gentiles was the only place Gentiles could worship the Lord. Yet this is the place where Jewish vendors set up shop to make worship of the Lord a business, a money-making venture. So picture the scene. You are a Gentile who somehow becomes convinced that the Lord is the one true God. You have heard the biblical stories of the Lord’s power, his promises to the Jewish people, and the beauty that God has spoken through the OT Scriptures. God exists, and he is not silent. So you determine to get near to the Lord.
You travel all the way to Jerusalem. You’re excited to encounter the living God. As you’re making your way up the road ascending Mount Zion, atop of which Jerusalem was built, alongside you are Jews joyfully singing the Psalms of Ascent, biblical songs written for just that purpose. When at last you reach the Temple, you learn how to get to the Court of the Gentiles. You walk in eager to pray and sing and meet others who like you are seeking God.
But instead, you walk into a loud, messy, spiritual WalMart. Hawkers are shouting prices for the best animals to sacrifice. Money-changers are pulling in profit exchanging foreign money for temple coinage, the only kind accepted here. Crestfallen, you realize this is no place for prayer. It has been taken over, and in fact you are excluded even here, in the one place specifically set apart for you to draw near to the Lord.
This is why Jesus twice drove the merchants out of the Court of the Gentiles. He was enraged that spiritual insiders would make it harder for someone far from God to draw near to God. And so ultimately it was Jesus’ death that broke down the walls, not only so that we could be brought to God, and be brought together, but also so that we can now call on God together with all who call on Jesus as Lord.
Look at verse 18: “For through him [Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” The Trinity—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are all involved in bringing us together before Him. Prayer is conversation with God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit—and we get to do that together.
Again, one of the greatest faith-builders I know of is worshiping the Lord and serving him alongside people from backgrounds different from your own.
When my wife and I lived in the most internationally diverse neighborhood of the U.S., we had 50 nations of people present in the church—now more than 70 nations.
One of my coworkers was Andre, who grew up in the projects in Newark project and never owned a bed to sleep on. When he became a teenager, Andre and his friends would go out looking for white guys to beat up. That gave me glimpse into a whole world I had known nothing about.
We got to know gray-haired Anna Dimitriadis from Cyprus in the Mediterranean. When a young woman confessed she was having an affair with a married man, Anna stepped in like a mother to help that young lady break free.
When Karen and I got married, we were blessed by guests from several nations brought food from their culture for the reception buffet dinner. It was AMAZING!!!
Christ’s Church going from Israel only to now around the world, in so many diverse cultures, is a miracle. And it’s a witness to the power of Jesus’ death bringing us together to follow Jesus as Lord.
Remember who you once were: Christless, homeless, hopeless.
Remember what Jesus has accomplished by his blood: brought us to God, brought us together, and brought us to call on God together.
And finally, Paul urges…
Remember who we have now become:
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his 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 2:19-22
The contrast could not be stronger between who once were, and who we have now become. Paul showcases who we are in Christ via three word pictures. First is that we have now become…
Citizens in God’s Kingdom
“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people…” Where you were excluded, now you are included. Jews used to proudly refer to themselves as “the circumcision,” and denigrate Gentiles as “the uncircumcised.” No more of that, God says. We are on equal footing before the cross.
Roman citizenship was a big deal when Paul wrote this. Roman citizens had privileges that non-citizens did not. Foreigners often feel vulnerable, and are at risk of rejection, isolation, and prejudice.
To become a citizen of a better country is amazing. To become a citizen of God’s Kingdom is awesome. Philippians 3:20-21 reminds us of that, saying to Christians…
“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:20-21
If Jesus is your King, you have the awesome privilege of now being a citizen in his Kingdom. You now belong to a Kingdom that circles the earth and will never end, the only Kingdom that will forever endure!
The second word picture contrasting who we once were up against who we have now become is that we are now…
Members of God’s family
We are “also members of his household…” Here the image changes from something massive, a kingdom, to something personal, a family. We once were Christless and homeless. But now in Christ, all who believe are adopted by God into his forever family. You are no longer alone. Wherever you go, you have a family waiting to welcome you in.
This was stunning to first-century Jews and Gentiles. They could picture both belonging to the same country. But it was culturally unthinkable that they would think of themselves as belonging to the same family.
How are we a family? We have access to the same Father.
We eat at the same table—the Lord’s table, or Communion.
We share faith in the same Savior, Jesus.
We are indwelt by the same Spirit.
We share the same purpose—to be and make disciples of all people, obeying everything Jesus taught us, until he returns for us.
We all have family responsibilities—spiritual gifts intended by our Father to be used to build one another up in mature faith, hope, and love.
Those of you who know my family know that our daughter is adopted. We have others here who have adopted children. If you ask any adoptive parent, they’ll tell you we can’t imagine having any greater love for a child who is biologically ours. It’s the same with God. When you receive Jesus as your Savior, he adopts you fully into God’s family.
By the way, when Paul wrote this, there was no such thing as church buildings. The church was—and is—wherever God’s people gather together to worship him and serve together. The church is not a building, though we meet in a building. The church is God’s family doing life together on mission, with Christ.
The final contrast Paul gives between who we once were (Christless, homeless & hopeless) and who we have now become is that we are now…
Part of God’s temple
He says we are now
“…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.”
You—each person who believes in and follows Jesus—is now part of God’s temple. What does that mean? When Paul wrote this, this would have been a mind-blower. The Jerusalem temple stood tall and proud atop Mount Zion. People came from all over the known world to visit it. But now, Paul says, led by the Holy Spirit, God is constructing a new temple.
It’s not imaginary. The Ephesians knew of Jerusalem’s temple. They could look up any day in their city and see the pagan temple of Artemis. Both were impressive edifices. But now, Paul says, God is building something far more beautiful, far more awe-inspiring: a temple made up of people from every nation.
God’s temple today is as real as anything can ever be. Its foundation is composed of the teaching of the OT prophets and the NT apostles. Its cornerstone—the thing that holds it all together—is Jesus himself. And from that cornerstone and that foundation, right now the Living God is building his new temple, with us, with all who believe.
- We are now the dwelling place of God, those who follow Jesus.
- We are now the visible manifestation of God, just as the Jerusalem temple was in its design and functions.
- We now convey the message of God: what the temple conveyed figuratively through its architecture and rituals, we now convey through our words and actions to people around us.
- Genuine Christians are God’s temple today. That’s the jaw-dropping revelation that Paul concludes with.
So here’s where we stop for today. Remember that Jesus Christ is alive and well. Remember that Jesus is building his church around the world. Remember that you have the mind-blowing privilege of being part of what he’s doing, drawing people from every nation, tribe, people and language together with God, together with one another, and together in the greatest purpose for living—as citizens in his eternal kingdom, members in his forever family, and building blocks in his temple. Remember this, and thrive!
Note to online readers: since this message was preached on March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day, we concluded the worship service with a portion of Patrick’s best-known prayer, as follows.
I bind to myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to protect,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly army to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or near,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.