Remembering How We Got Here
Unity, Hope, Salvation
In America, we love a good underdog story. Whether it is an athlete who grew up in the inner city and escaped gangs and drugs to become a superstar, or a businessman who started with a job in the mailroom and kept working his way up to the point where he became the CEO, these stories resonate with us. We admire those who have had great success but still remember what life was like before they got there. But we lose respect for these people when they forget what it was like before they “made it”. The conventional wisdom in how to avoid becoming conceited and out of touch is simple: remember what it was like before—never forget how you got there.
In our passage this morning, the apostle Paul urges the Ephesian believers not to forget what it was like before they became followers of Christ. He encourages them to remember that even though they received tremendous blessings in Christ they must never forget what it was like before, when they had nothing.
What to Remember
Verse 11 begins with the word therefore, which means that it is connected to the passage immediately before it. In verses 1-10, Paul was talking about how we are dead in sin and helpless before Christ intervenes in our lives. He said that even though we were helpless to save ourselves, God stepped in to do what we could not. He emphasized that we are saved by grace, and saved with the purpose of doing good works which God has prepared for us. As Paul begins in verses 11-22, he has these truths in mind. In essence, Paul is saying to the Ephesians, “Now that I’ve explained to you what God has done for you, let’s talk about how you should respond.” Verses 11-22 are Paul’s application of the truths in verses 1-10.
He tells them to remember two things. First, he tells them to remember that they were called uncircumcised by “the circumcision.” In our modern society, circumcision has little, if anything, to do with religious beliefs. But to the ancient Jews, circumcision carried tremendous importance.
Circumcision was given to the Jewish people as a sign of God’s promise to Abraham. It was a way of setting them apart from the rest of the world and showing that they were God’s chosen people. The Jews viewed the world in basically two categories: the circumcised and the uncircumcised—the godly and the heathen. Paul was urging the Ephesian believers (who were Gentiles, and thus uncircumcised) to remember that they had been excluded by the Jews.
He encouraged the Ephesians to remember what that kind of exclusion felt like. They were treated with contempt by God’s chosen people, and felt like outsiders to the things of God. Paul wanted them to remember where they came from.
After asking them to remember the exclusion they felt from the Jews, Paul then asked the Ephesians to remember a second thing—that they were separate from Christ. They were viewed as outsiders by the Jews, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Paul also reminded them that they were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” They were not only outsiders in the eyes of the Jews, but they were outsiders in the eyes of God. Paul wanted them to remember that they had no hope prior to Christ intervening in their lives.
It seems like Paul is being negative as he talks about the alienation of the Gentiles. It seems like he’s trying to make them feel bad, but he’s not. After talking about the alienation they experienced in the past, Paul shifts into the present tense.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13, NIV, emphasis mine)
Paul contrasts the way life was before Christ with the way things are after. The reason he seemed to be negative at the beginning of the passage is because he wanted the Ephesians to remember the way things were before so they wouldn’t forget how greatly they were blessed now! Notice where Paul’s focus is; it is on the blood of Jesus Christ! Paul doesn’t commend the Ephesians for getting their act together and overcoming their past—he reminds them that they have been brought near to God because Jesus intervened on their behalf.
The point Paul is making to the Ephesians also applies to you and me. We must remember that before we were Christians, we were separated from God, we had no hope, and we had no access to the promises of God. But now, if we are true followers of Christ, we have a new relationship with God through His grace. We must remember that the blessings we have in Christ are not because we are good, but because He is gracious. As a result, we have no reason to boast, but every reason to praise Him.
Illustrations of Unity
After telling the Ephesians to remember how they got to this point, Paul then uses several word pictures to illustrate the unity that should be present among Christians.
The Dividing Wall is Destroyed
The first word picture is found in verses 14 and 15,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.
Paul says that Christ is the source of our peace, and that He has brought Jews and Gentiles together by destroying the dividing wall of hostility that existed between them. In order to understand this image, we have to understand the layout of the temple.
The temple was the centerpiece of Jerusalem. It was a magnificent structure designed to evoke a sense of worship of the one true God. The temple was set up in a series of layers, with the Holy of Holies (which symbolized the very presence of God) at the center. Gentiles were only allowed to enter the very outermost layer of the temple, more than a football field away. There were four sets of walls that separated the Gentiles from the presence of God. Not only that, archaeology has shown us that the outermost wall (designed to keep the Gentiles out) was inscribed with a warning that any foreigner who tried to get closer would be killed.
With this image in mind, we can understand what Paul was alluding to when he talked about Jesus tearing down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. He was saying that because of Jesus the distinctions of Jew and Gentile were no longer relevant.
A more contemporary example might be when the Berlin wall was torn down. The Berlin wall separated Germany into two separate countries: East Germany and West Germany. When the wall was torn down, the barrier between East and West Germany was destroyed. Today there are no longer East Germans and West Germans, there are only Germans. Paul says the same thing has happened with us! Christ has torn down the walls that separated us, and has made it so that Christians are now unified. In the same way that there is no longer East Germany and West Germany, there is now no longer Jew and Gentile, only Christian.
Though Paul is talking about the wall between Jews and Gentiles here, I don’t think that’s the only barrier he is talking about. Paul’s point was that whatever barriers may have existed between people before they came to Christ have been torn down. All Christians should be unified, regardless of who they were before Christ saved them.
We Are a New Race
In case that picture wasn’t enough to drive home his point, Paul used another picture:
His purpose 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. (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV)
Paul’s second picture is that of an entirely new race of people. It illustrates the same point: there is no such thing as Jewish believers and Gentile believers, there is only one group—Christians.
Kent Hughes tells the story of a man named Bishop John Reed, who was tasked with driving a school bus in Australia that had both white students and Aborigine students on it. The two different races of children fought with each other incessantly, so the bishop had an idea. One day, as one of the white boys got on the bus, he asked him, “What color are you?” The boy replied that he was white. Bishop Reed corrected him, telling him that he wasn’t white, he was green—because everyone who rides his bus is green. He then asked all the white boys what color they were, and they replied that they were green. The bishop then turned to the Aborigine boys and asked them what color they were. They replied that they were black. He corrected them and told them they too were green, because everyone who rides his bus is green.
The bishop had the right idea, that as long as these boys continued to identify themselves as white or black, they could never be unified. He needed to create a new race that they could both be a part of. He needed to get rid of the old categories of black and white and replace them with a new category: green. Unfortunately for the bishop, he couldn’t truly create a new race, and just a few miles down the road, one of the boys yelled out, “Ok, light green on one side and dark green on the other!”
The point is simple—when you become a Christian, you become a member of a new race. Any other distinctions are irrelevant. There are really only two types of people in the world: those who are in Christ and those who are not. Paul’s point is that those who are in Christ shouldn’t be fighting with each other. There should be a unity among Christians that transcends any of the categories we see in the world. The problem is that we often try to cling to our own categories, insisting that there are still some who are light green and some who are dark green. When people ask us what religion we are, we shouldn’t respond by saying that we are Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, or even non-denominational; we shouldn’t say that we are members of the Union Church; we are Christians! Any other distinctions are akin to saying we are light green or dark green. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, he has made us one new race: Christians; so our human divisions should pass away.
Together We Are God’s Temple
The final word picture Paul uses is found in verses 19-22
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s 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.
Paul’s final word picture is astounding. He says that not only has God destroyed the walls that excluded some from the temple, but He has made this new race of Christians into the temple itself! No longer did they need to go to the temple, because they were the temple! This is true of us too. We often speak of going to church, but we fail to see that the church isn’t a building—the church is the people!
Notice the emphasis that Paul places on the foundation of this new temple or church. Our unity as Christians comes from our shared foundation in Christ and the clear teaching of Scripture (the apostles and prophets). The world tells us that we should be unified with everyone by simply overlooking the things that divide us. There is a degree to which that is true, because not all differences must result in division. At the same time, however, it is impossible to be unified with someone who is building on an entirely different foundation. We cannot be unified with those who deny or seek to add or take away from the clear teaching of the Old and New Testaments, because those people are not Christians. We shouldn’t be mean to those people, but we must be honest about the fact that we are building on different foundations.
We should be unified with other Christians, and be willing to look past the small differences we face, but true unity only comes from our shared commitment to Christ and the Bible. Any attempt at unity on other grounds will fail.
Paul was writing to the Christians in Ephesus, but everything he says applies to us as well. As such, I think there are several applications we can draw from this passage.
First, is that these promises apply only to Christians. Paul tells us that true Christians can be accepted regardless of what is in their past. The question each of us must ask is, “Am I a true follower of Christ?” Where does your confidence lie? Is it in your good deeds? Are you confident because you go to church, or have been baptized, or gone on a mission trip? Those things are all good, but they cannot save you! A true Christian recognizes that they deserve judgment, but clings to the hope that Christ has offered to pay the penalty for our sin. A true Christian will turn from their sin and will do good works, but they understand that those good works don’t save them. The good news is that the offer of forgiveness is open to everyone! The walls have been torn down; you must simply submit your life to Jesus Christ alone.
Second, is that there is no such thing as a second-class Christian. If you are a follower of Christ, then you are on equal footing with everyone here. We should remember our past, but we should not be defined by it. There is no Christian who is somehow superior to another. It doesn’t matter if you were raised in the church from birth or came to Christ later in life—we all stand together as equals. Each of us is saved by grace, not by our own supposed goodness.
This means that we shouldn’t look down on other Christians. Yes, there are different levels of maturity, different spiritual giftings, and different roles that each person plays in the church, but as we saw last week every Christian is a masterpiece created by God for His purpose. We must view each other in that light.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t disagree on some things. Christians will disagree, because we are still sinful creatures who are imperfect. We will not always get it right. It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t confront sin when we see it. We can lovingly seek to correct each other when we fall—mindful of the fact that each of us is still a work in progress. The key is for us to be willing to overlook the minor differences we face in light of the major ties that bind us to one another. We must insist on agreement on the deity of Christ, the trinity, the authority of Scripture, the truth of the resurrection, and salvation by grace alone, but many of the other things on which we disagree can be safely overlooked.
Lastly, Christian unity is not limited only to those in this building. We sometimes get tunnel vision when we think of unity among Christians—thinking that we are only supposed to be unified with those in “our” church. We begin to get an
“Us vs. Them” mentality and view other churches as adversaries in the battle to become the biggest and best. This is a misguided and sinful approach. Even though Christian churches may differ on minor points of doctrine and practice, we should be unified in our desire to live for and glorify Christ. We should be willing to work with Christians from different churches, different backgrounds, and even different countries, because we have all arrived at this place in the same way, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Just like a CEO who has suddenly risen to the top of a Fortune 500 company, it would be very easy for us as Christians to start thinking that we are somehow better than other people. The antidote to this tendency is simple: we have to remember how we got here. The apostle Paul reminds us that there was a time when we were separated from Christ and when we were without hope in the world. There was nothing we could do to save ourselves, and we were doomed in our sin. Fortunately for us, Christ intervened on our behalf and called us to faith in Him. We didn’t earn salvation—it was given to us. When we remember how we got here, it should drive us to a humble praise of Jesus Christ.
Because of this shared experience, Christians should be unified. We should deal humbly with each other and treat each other with respect as children of the King. Paul reminds us that all of the things that divide people in the world should be absent from the church, because Jesus has made all of those divisions irrelevant.
Listen to how the apostle Paul stated this truth in another of his letters:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
This was revolutionary in his day, and I think the principle is equally as revolutionary today. We might state it like this today: There is neither Democrat nor Republican, Union nor Non-Union, rich nor poor, college-graduate nor high school dropout, married nor unmarried, Baptist nor Lutheran, old nor young, male nor female. There are is only Christian and non-Christian.
If you are a Christian, then none of your other labels matter, and the labels of other Christians don’t matter. Don’t allow worldly divisions to rob you of the unity that Christ has purchased for us. My challenge for each of you is to look at your life and examine which camp you fall into. There are only two. Are you a true follower of Jesus Christ or not? Answer carefully, because ultimately, nothing else matters.