A study of Ephesians 2
Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus is filled with numerous theological and practical insights. Chapter 2 takes us from death to life, from hostility to peace. This chapter shows us that there is an important connection between God's grace and human interrelationships.
Paul begins by telling his readers: "You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live" (Eph. 2:1-2). All humans start in a state of spiritual death, whether we have many transgressions or only a few. A life not oriented to God is dead.
Paul is talking about average people, socially respectable people. When they "followed the ways of this world," they were following the devil — "the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient" (v. 2). In living the way they thought best, they were unwittingly imitating the devil and disobeying God.
Christians did it, too: "All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath" (v. 3). We lived with no thought other than to take care of our desires, and as a result, we were objects of wrath — under the judgment of God (Rom. 2:5).
But God's wrath is not the end of the story: "Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved" (Eph. 2:4-5). The judge of all humanity is full of mercy, and even when we were guilty and without excuse, he forgave us. Insofar as we sin, we are dead, but as much as we are in Christ, we are alive.
Life in Christ is much more than the physical existence we are familiar with — our new life has a different quality to it, a heavenly quality, an eternal quality. When we become Christians, our identity changes. We become new people. The old self dies, and a new person lives. We died with Christ, we were buried with Christ, and we also live with Christ.
"God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (v. 6). Those who have faith in Christ are seated with him in glory. It is so sure that Paul can say that it has been done.
God did this "in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (v. 7). God's grace is already at work in our lives, but the extent of his grace will be revealed with much greater clarity in the future.
Paul then summarizes the way God is working: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (v. 8). In Greek, the words grace and faith are feminine, but Paul uses a neuter form of the word this. Paul is not saying that faith is a gift of God, or that grace is a gift of God — they are, but here Paul is saying that all of salvation is a gift of God. None of it comes from from ourselves — "not by works, so that no one can boast" (v. 9). No one can brag about having faith or works. Since God has done it, he gets all the credit.
"For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (v. 10). Even our good works are a result of the way God is working in us. He created us for his purpose, to do his will.
Paul expects believers to be obedient. He says that we used to be disobedient, but that in Christ we are created anew, so that we might have a different foundation for how we live. This new life is a result of our salvation, not the cause of it. Our works should be good, but they can never be good enough that we deserve to be saved. We are saved by grace, by God's mercy and love, through Jesus Christ.
Unity in Christ
Paul then begins to address a practical matter within the church, the tensions between Jewish and gentile believers. Because we are saved by grace and because we are saved for good works, our attitudes and behavior toward one another ought to change.
He begins by writing to the gentiles: "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" (vs. 11-12).
The Jews looked down on the gentiles, calling them "uncircumcised." This insult was a reminder than the gentiles were not in the covenant of Abraham and not included in the blessings promised to him. Although circumcision was a human work, it reflected a spiritual reality. The gentiles were separated from Christ, God, hope and promise. But that has now changed: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ" (v. 13). Once they were separated from Christ; now they are united with him. Once they were excluded; now they are included. They have hope, and they have God, through the death of Jesus Christ.
"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one" (v. 14). What "two" is Paul talking about? He is talking about Jews and gentiles. The peoples who used to be in different spiritual categories are now united in Christ. The Jews were just like the gentiles in being spiritually dead; the gentiles are now like Jews in that through Christ they are members of the people of God.
Jesus has made the two peoples one by bringing the outsiders in, by bringing the gentiles just as close as he does the Jews. Through Christ they both have the promises, the citizenship and the hope, and they have God. Where there was rivalry between Jews and gentiles, Jesus has made peace, because both peoples are equally saved by grace and no one has any reason to feel superior.
Abolishing the law
How did Jesus make peace between Jews and gentiles? It is because he "has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (v. 14). And what was the wall that created hostility between Jews and gentiles? Paul answers this question when he says that Jesus destroyed the barrier "by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations" (v. 15).
The wall of hostility was the law, which had commandments and regulations separating Jew from gentile. This law defined who was on which side of the barrier, it said who had the promises and who belonged to the people of God.
Some of the Jews had created laws that made the Jew-gentile hostility worse, but Paul is not talking about human-made laws. Christ did not need to abolish human-made laws, because they had no spiritual authority in the first place, and Paul is talking about barriers in connection with God. He is talking about spiritual realities, not human traditions.
Paul is talking about laws that divided Jew from gentile in the sight of God, laws that had to be abolished by the cross of Christ (v. 16). Jesus did not have to die to eliminate human regulations. Rather, he died to bring an end to the old covenant. Ephesians 2 is therefore in agreement with what we read in Acts 15, 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 3-4, Colossians 2 and Hebrews 7-10.
The old covenant came to an end with the death of Jesus Christ. The old covenant had defined Jew and gentile, creating the distinction, and Jesus made the two peoples one by destroying that divider. Jesus abolished the old covenant with its regulations and commandments. The people of God are no longer defined by old covenant laws.
Christ's purpose, Paul says, "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" (vs. 15-16). Before Christ, there were two kinds of people: dead Jews and dead gentiles. Both peoples needed to be reconciled to God, and this is what Christ did on the cross. The result is a new people, a people who are alive in Christ, alive to God.
"He came and preached peace to you who were far away [gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit" (vs. 17-18). Paul is proclaiming equality for gentile believers and unity of all Christians. People of different ethnic groups, people of different denominations, are one in Christ.
"Consequently, you [gentiles] are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (v. 19). Through Christ, we are members of God's family.
Paul then shifts to a different metaphor: "Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (v. 20). Moses is not our foundation. The apostles and prophets are — and Paul is probably speaking of New Testament prophets, as he does in Ephesians 3:5. But even more important than this foundation is the fact that "Christ Jesus himself [is] the chief cornerstone." He is our primary point of reference.
"In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord" (v. 21). Our unity is in Christ, and as we are growing in him, we are a place of acceptable worship.
"And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (v. 22). As we are in Christ, through faith in Christ, through seeing ourselves as his people, we are growing closer to one another, and God is living in us by his Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is living in us, then God is living in us, for the Holy Spirit is God.