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Ephesians 2:11-22 Biblical Commentary:
Paul twice notes that he is writing to Gentiles (2:11; 3:1). The first Christians were Jews, and the church required male Gentile converts to submit to circumcision.
But then Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch—a man who, because of his physical defect (castration) was not eligible for full membership in the Jewish community (Acts 8). Next, Saul saw a vision of Christ on the Damascus Road—a vision that led to him becoming known as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9). And finally, Peter saw a vision requiring him to eat animals that were unclean by Jewish law (Acts 10).
After that, Paul traveled widely on his three missionary journeys converting more and more Gentiles. The membership of the church shifted from being predominately Jewish to being predominately Gentile. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), decided not to require circumcision for church membership.
The tensions that existed between Jew and Gentile in the early church continued as Gentiles assumed a larger role. Some Christians, both Jew and Gentile, looked askance at those on the other side of the line.
In this letter, Paul emphasizes the ways that God has transformed the lives of Gentiles—giving them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him” (1:17)—”having the eyes of (their) heart enlightened (to know) “the riches of the glory of (Christ’s) inheritance in the saints” (1:18). These Gentiles “were made alive when (they) were dead in transgressions and sins” (2:1), enabling them “to sit with (Christ) in the heavenly places” (2:2:6). “By grace (they) have been saved through faith, and not of (themselves); it is a gift of God” (2:8).
So Christians should be careful about looking down their noses at fellow Christians who come from a different background. This point offers significant preaching opportunities.
EPHESIANS 2:11-12. REMEMBER!
11Therefore remember that once you, the Gentiles (Greek: ethnos) in the flesh (sarx), who are called “uncircumcision” by that which is called “circumcision,” (in the flesh, made by hands); 12that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth (politeia) of Israel, and strangers (xenoi) from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
“Therefore remember that once you, the Gentiles (ethnos) in the flesh” (sarx) (v. 11a). Before they can fully appreciate what God has done for them, these Gentiles need to remember where they came from—who they were.
One of the secrets of successful living is remembering the things that can help us—and forgetting the things that could drag us down.
“Gentiles” (ethnos). The Greek word ethnos means nation—a people distinct from other peoples. In the New Testament, ethnos is usually used to refer to Gentiles (non-Jews).
“in the flesh” (sarx). Sarx is an ugly-sounding word that depicts an often ugly reality—a focus on bodily indulgence rather than Godly service. In the New Testament, sarx is most frequently used as a contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” (adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, etc.) with “the works of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, etc.) (Galatians 5:16-23).
“who are called ‘uncircumcision’ by that which is called ‘circumcision,’ (in the flesh, made by hands)” (v. 11b). In this verse, “uncircumcision” equates to Gentiles and “circumcision” equates to Jews.
Circumcision is the removal of excess skin from the penis. When God established a covenant with Abraham, he commanded Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, including slaves, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:11ff.). Jewish law required parents to have their baby boys circumcised when the baby was eight days old (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3). Circumcision was a physical mark that designated Jewish males as set apart for God.
However, as noted above, the church rather quickly determined that God did not require circumcision as a condition for church membership.
“in the flesh, made by hands.” It is possible to go through spiritual motions without making a spiritual commitment. For instance, people often baptize their babies without making any commitment to the follow-up work required to make the baptism meaningful. Another example is getting married in a church ceremony with no commitment to Christ or church.
When Paul says, “in the flesh, made with hands,” he is saying that circumcision, apart from true spiritual commitment, is a work of our hands rather than God’s hands—and thus has no spiritual significance.
“that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth (politeia) of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). In this verse, Paul outlines four ways in which these Gentiles had been deficient. They had been:
• “Separate from Christ”—unconnected to the one who make salvation possible.
• “Alienated from the commonwealth (politeia—citizenship) of Israel”—ineligible for the rights and privileges accorded by God to his people.
• “Strangers (xenoi—strangers or foreigners) from the covenants of the promise”—ineligible for the rights and privileges conferred by God in the covenants that God had made with God’s people—beginning with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and extending through Moses (Exodus 19-24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17). Jesus established the final covenant (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).
The foundational promises for which these Gentiles were ineligible were those made to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
• “Having no hope and without God in the world”—this is the bottom line. These Gentiles had been without hope—without God—alone—adrift in the world—worshiping an unknown God rather than a loving Father (Acts 17:22-23)—headed nowhere.
EPHESIANS 2:13. ONCE FAR OFF—NOW MADE NEAR
13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ” (v. 13). This short verse is the key—the turning point. These Gentiles were once far off, but Christ has brought them near. They had lived in darkness, but Christ has brought them into the light. His blood has washed away their sins—has brought them forgiveness—has made them holy—has conferred on them the rights and privileges associated with citizenship in the kingdom of God.
EPHESIANS 2:14-17. CHRIST IS OUR PEACE, WHO MADE US ONE
14For he is our peace (Greek: eirene), who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, 15having abolished (katargeo) in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances (dogma), that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace; 16and might reconcile (apokatallasso) them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby. 17He came and preached (euangelizo) peace to you who were far off and to those who were near.
“For he is our peace (eirene), who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition” (v. 14). Peace (eirene) is a significant word, occurring nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. It has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom, which was used frequently in the Old Testament.
Both eirene (Greek) and shalom (Hebrew) can refer to an inner kind of peace—the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God—the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer. But both eirene and shalom can also refer to an external kind of peace—the absence of rancor or violence among individuals or nations.
Eirene is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It has its roots in the peace that we have with God, who has granted us the gift of grace (Romans 5:1-2a).
“who made both one.” The words “Jews and Gentiles”—”circumcision and uncircumcision”—have lost their significance. Christ has brought together people from both sides, and they have become one in Christ.
Elsewhere Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).
“and broke down the middle wall of partition”—literally “the dividing wall of hostility.” This brings to mind the wall in the Jerusalem Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles (the outermost court) from the rest of the temple. Signs posted on that wall warned Gentiles that they were barred from entry into the rest of the temple—and that the penalty for breaching the wall would be death.
We must keep in mind that the wall had two Godly purposes. It was intended:
• To keep the Gentiles safe, lest they wander inadvertently into the sacred precincts of the temple and suffer deadly consequences.
• To keep that which was holy (the inner parts of the temple) separate from that which was not holy (Gentiles).
But once Jesus completed his work, there was no longer a need for a wall in the temple. Jesus became the temple, and there was no room in his heart for a wall to separate Jews and Gentiles.
People construct walls in their minds and hearts—walls that do not necessarily express themselves in physical form. We say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But we must learn to ask, “Why do they make good neighbors?” We must learn that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down” (from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost). That something is God. God wants to bring down the walls that divide us.
We all have a tendency to think in terms of “them” versus “us.” We are drawn to those who are like us and repelled by those who are not. But Christ calls us to love our neighbor, even if our neighbor happens to be a Samaritan—a person from a different place and following a different religion.
“having abolished (katargeo) in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (dogma) (v. 15a). The Greek word katargeo means “to abolish” or “to put an end to” or “to render inactive.”
What Christ has abolished is “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (dogma)—the law that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17)—the law that guided Israel for many centuries. This was God-given law.
But God gave the law as a paidagogos (a guardian, a tutor, a schoolmaster) “to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). The law had fulfilled its function, and Christ had made it unnecessary with his death on the cross. Where obedience to the law had been the mark of those faithful to God, now faith became the mark.
In his letter to the Roman church, Paul talked about “a law of faith,” and said, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” He maintained that God was the God of Jews and Gentiles alike—and that both are justified by faith rather than works. He said, “Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law” (Romans 3:27-31). He concluded, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-2).
“in the flesh.” Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paid the price for humanity’s sins. His blood has washed us clean and his broken body has made us whole.
“the hostility.” I don’t find these words in my Greek text for this verse, but it is present in verse 16.
“that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace” (eirene) (v. 15b). By breaking down the wall and eliminating the privilege of one group over the other, Christ made it possible to bring both Jews and Gentiles into one group—the church.
See the comments in verse 14 above for the meaning of eirene (peace).
“and might reconcile (apokatallasso) them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby” (v. 16). There are two Greek words for reconcile—katallasso and apokatallasso. The latter word (used in this verse) is the stronger of the two, and involves bringing together that which has been broken apart. It is always difficult to join together broken pieces.
Reconciliation involves a change in a relationship from bad to good—from enmity to friendship. God accomplished the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles “through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18)—through the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Once they were reconciled to God, petty jealousies could no longer hold sway.
“killed the hostility.” Jesus’ enemies put him to death on the cross, but his cross became the instrument for putting hostility to death.
“He came and preached (euangelizo) peace to you who were far off and to those who were near” (v. 17). The word euangelizo (preached) combines eu (good) and angelo (to proclaim or tell)—so euangelizo involves preaching Good News.
Note the similarity between angelo (to proclaim or tell) and angelos (messenger—pronounced angelos). Angelos is often translated angel in the Bible. Angels were God’s messengers.
Christ came preaching Good News. He was not a scold. His preaching wasn’t strident or harsh. He came bearing peace—Good News of salvation that was (and is) freely available, both to those who are far off and those who are near.
EPHESIANS 2:18. THROUGH CHRIST WE HAVE ACCESS
18For through him we both have our access (Greek: prosagoge) in one Spirit to the Father.
“For through him we both have our access (prosagoge) in one Spirit to the Father” (v. 18). In everyday discourse, the Greek word prosagoge (access) was used to speak of access to high officials. That sort of access can be financially rewarding—and in some cases might even save a person from prison or death. Corporations and other special interests pay large sums of money today for access to politicians who might help them.
Consider how you would be honored to have lunch with your governor or senator—and how much more honored you would be to have dinner with the president. The pomp and ceremony of high-level politics is heady stuff. If that is the case, how much more should we be honored by the privilege of entering into the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
The word prosagoge (access) is used three times in the New Testament (see also Romans 5:2; Ephesians 3:12). In each instance, it is used for access to the Heavenly Father. The author of the book of Hebrews uses another word, eisodos, with a similar meaning—the privilege of entering the sanctuary “by the way which (Jesus) dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Hebrews 10:20).
EPHESIANS 2:19-22. ONCE STRANGERS—NOW CITIZENS
19So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, 20being built on the foundation (Greek: themelioo) of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; 21in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.
“So then you are no longer strangers (paroikos) and foreigners (xenos), but you are fellow citizens (sympolites) with the saints (hagios), and of the household of God” (v. 19). Paul outlines two things that these Gentiles are not and two things that they are:
• At one time Gentiles were strangers (paroikos)—sojourners—people who were just passing through without ever gaining the rights and privileges of citizenship.
They were also foreigners (xenos)—people from another culture, another place—people with a different value system—people who worshiped a different god. People are always uncomfortable in the presence of those who don’t belong, because they don’t feel that they can trust them. Those who don’t belong feel uncomfortable, because they sense that lack of trust. It doesn’t take much to bring that discomfort to a boil—to turn it into anger or violence.
• But now these Gentiles have become “fellow citizens (sympolites) with the saints” (hagios). While the word saint (hagios) has come to mean a super-Christian, the New Testament uses hagios to refer to ordinary Christians (Acts 9:13, 41; Romans 1:7; 12:13; 15:26; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1, etc.). Hagios means holy—set apart for God’s service. That is true of all Christians.
They are also now “citizens…of the household of God”—enjoying all the rights and privileges of kingdom citizenship.
“being built on the foundation (themelioo) of the apostles and prophets” (v. 20a). We seldom notice the foundation of a building, but it is essential to the well-being of the building and its occupants. After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake (the one that shut down the World Series), we learned that many older homes had not been attached with secure ties to their foundations—so they simply slid off their foundations. In just one minute, what had been home and hearth was reduced to a pile of debris.
I was working with a contractor who said, “I’ll see you tomorrow. I have to oversee a foundation that we are pouring for a new home. I have learned over the years that, if you get the foundation right, the rest of the house will go well. If you get the foundation wrong, you’ll never recover.”
The household of God (v. 19) has as its foundation “apostles and prophets.” Prophets came first, of course. They were God’s spokespersons. Theirs was a thankless calling, and often led to their being persecuted or killed for delivering an unpopular message. The church at its best today is still prophetic—challenging power structures—fighting for the well-being of widows, orphans and other vulnerable people.
The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos, which means “the one who is sent.” Jesus was sent by the Father (Mark 9:37), and he chose the apostles to be sent out to continue his work.
How many apostles were there? Twelve, of course. Matthew lists their names (Matthew 10:2-4). But there was also Matthias, chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:26)—and Paul (Acts 9:1-9)—and others (Acts 14:14; Galatians 1:19; Philippians 2:25).
Catholics, Anglicans, and a few others believe in Apostolic Succession—the transmitting of apostolic authority to modern bishops. Most Protestants do not believe that.
“Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20b). Architecturally, a cornerstone was a large stone—typically the largest and most perfect stone in the building—selected to span both sides of a corner, anchoring the two walls. Spiritually, a cornerstone is that which holds us together through the shakes and rattles of life. Christ is our cornerstone.
That image has its roots in the Psalms, where it says, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is (God’s) doing. It is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23). Jesus quoted these verses, obviously intending his listeners to understand that he was the cornerstone—the messiah (Mark 12:10-11).
“in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The tabernacle (at first) and the temple (later) were sacred places where Jews came to worship God. They were where the high priest annually invoked atonement for Israel’s sins. The mercy seat, in the Holy of Holies, was known to be the dwelling place of God.
With his resurrection and ascension, Christ became the new temple—the temple not made with hands—the one who provides atonement for our sins. No physical temple is now required.
So far, so good! Most Christians can relate to Christ as the new temple. But the truly astonishing part is that both the church as a whole (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5) and its individual members (1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16) have become the temple of God. Paul says that Christ has fitted us together—stitched us together—to be a holy temple. Consider that next Sunday as you look around at the other members of your congregation. Recapture a sense of wonder that Christ could have built a temple from such ordinary-looking materials.
“in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). Just as God once dwelled on the mercy seat atop the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, so also God now dwells in each of us individually—and in each congregation—and in the various outreach ministries of the church—and in the church as a whole.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002)
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Slater, Thomas B., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Ephesians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2012)
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