Good to know—for those of us Christians who are gentile.
In the previous verses, Paul pointed out the Ephesians were saved by God’s grace. A statement which applies to all Christians, everywhere; but in the narrative of Ephesians, to Paul’s readers in particular. (I bring this up lest we lose track of the context.)
Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
- 8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
- This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
- 10 We’re God’s poetry, creations in Christ Jesus,
- for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!
To remind you, Paul didn’t write Ephesians to his fellow Jews. He wrote to éthnoi/“ethnics,” or goyím/“nations”—words we usually translate with the Latin word gentilis/“nation,” or our English “gentile.” Meaning a non-Jew, although Mormons like to use the term to mean non-Mormons.
Ancient Jews (and many modern ones) tended to refer to the distinction between themselves and gentiles by a physical trait which had nothing to do with ethnicity: Circumcision. Following God’s instructions, Jews cut the foreskin off every eight-day-old male.
’Cause gentiles were unclean. Nobody taught ’em God’s expectations for ritual cleanliness. But literally unclean too: They didn’t wash. Didn’t always bathe regularly. They’d eat anything. Touch anything. Wear anything—or nothing. Have sex with anything or anyone. Worshiped a lot of icky gods, whose priests demanded icky, even sexual, things of them. And they still had their dirty foreskins attached. Pharisees were raised to believe you never touched a gentile; you don’t know where they’ve been and what they did! Ugh.
Yeah, we gentile Christians would like to imagine we’re not that repulsive. But that’s the sort of prejudices instilled in Pharisee kids: Gentiles are gross. Touch not the unclean thing.
And then Christ Jesus goes and makes these filthy pagans into family.
Ephesians 2.11-14 KWL
- 11 Therefore remember: Previously you, gentiles in the flesh,
- called “foreskins” by those called circumcised (which was done in the flesh by hand);
- 12 you, at that time, were Christless. Alienated from Israeli citizenship.
- Foreigners to covenants of promise. Having no hope. Godless in the world.
- 13 Now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away, became near through Christ’s blood,
Afor Christ is our peace, making both sides one.
Overcoming anti-gentile prejudice.
Nowadays, Christendom is predominantly gentile, with Jewish Christians (or as many like to call themselves, Messianic Jews) out of the ordinary. In the first century, when the gospel was first getting proclaimed, the reverse was true. All the apostles in the New Testament were Jews—either born Jewish or became Jewish.
And like I described, the Pharisees had made ’em really anti-gentile. The Jewish Christians had a lot of prejudice to overcome—both theirs and others’. Because humans prefer the path of least resistance, a lot of ’em figured it wasn’t for them to overcome: The gentiles needed to conform. Starting with circumcision. That’s how male converts to Pharisaism took the big step; that’s how male Christians were likewise expected to show their allegiance to the God of Abraham.
The first-century church dealt with that by determining circumcision shouldn’t be mandatory. Like Simon Peter said, the Jews were saved by grace, and the same is true of gentiles.
Though vitally important to Pharisees, circumcision saves no one. (No more than baptism does… something a lot of us Christians likewise consider mandatory.) Hence James ruled gentiles should only really be concerned about things that’ll undermine our relationship with God: Idolatry (and strangled animals, which were killed that way as part of idolatrous sacrifice), promiscuity, and blood.
Anyway, Paul made little of circumcision in more than one of his letters, Paul made little of circumcision. Here he pointed out it’s “done in the flesh by hand,”
Two takeaways. First, God overcomes every obstacle. Christians nowadays consider circumcision no big deal, and don’t get what the big deal was. Partly because we know God overcomes every obstacle… and partly because our churches never hyped circumcision. But what they do make a fuss about are other things they consider obstacles. Like our politics. Our bad theology. Our sins. Anything where people insist, “You can’t be a Christian if you have/do/believe that.” Just like Pharisees making a snit about foreskins, we often forget we’re saved by God’s grace, not our works. It’s not grace; it’s grace-plus-
Second, we need to remember how far we’ve individually come. Some of us have been Christians all our lives, so we haven’t had to come far. Others haven’t—or we Christians have been lousy hypocrites—so we spent years engaged in all sorts of awful behavior. But outside Jesus, all of us, lifelong Christians or not, are in the same boat: We’re screwed. We might have happy-looking lives; we might be ignorantly content with things. But we’d still be hopeless, godless gentiles. Yet God brought us near. And can bring anyone near.
Jesus makes peace of our prejudices.
Ephesians 2.14-18 KWL
BDestroying the barrier fence, our fleshly racism. 15 Clearing the field of doctrinal commands.
- Thus he can build the two, in him, into one new person, making peace.
- 16 He can reunite both sides to God, in one body—through the cross, killing our racism on it.
- 17 Coming back, he proclaimed the good news of peace to you all, both far and near:
- 18 In Christ both sides of us have access to one Spirit, to the Father.
I’ll get this out of the way first. Verse 17 is sorta reminiscent of
So now both gentiles and Jews are part of Christ’s body. His one body; there’s no separate gentile and Jewish bodies. Okay yes, there are individual churches which minister to different ethnicities. But we recognize all those churches are part of Christ’s one body. (Those who don’t, are heretic.)
There used to be barrier fences in the temple, keeping gentiles out of the central parts. God’s done with that. The Israelis are not, and have rebuilt ’em to keep out Palestinians. But in Jesus, in Christianity, in his body, any barriers keeping out other ethnic groups—any prejudices, any hangups over tradition and customs, any differing interpretations of the Law—are gone. All that’s left is peace.
Yeah, it’s a radical statement. Unfortunately, Christians suck at bringing it into reality, and we constantly reinterpret this passage so we can cling to our prejudices. Way too many Christians take verse 15, which I’ll quote here in the King James Version:
Ephesians 2.15 KJV
- Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
—and shorten it like so:
Having abolished in his flesh the law of commandments.
Hey, check it out! Jesus abolished the Law! No more commandments! We don’t have to worry about the Law defining sin anymore! Bacon cheeseburgers for everybody—followed by sex with cousins!
Well no, they don’t usually start trying to see how many commands they can violate before they pull a muscle. But apart from the Ten Commandments—and any other commands they kinda like, and wanna still enforce—they figure every single Old Testament command is nullified. Jesus erased the Law, and replaced it with a Christian free-for-all.
Leave it to us humans to take a passage which essentially says Jesus did away with Jewish/gentile racism, and use it to promote a teaching which, in the end, results in antisemitism. Because that’s what happens. Jews will still follow the Law, trying to obediently maintain their relationship with him. And antisemites will taunt them for their “legalism” and “works righteousness,” and flagrantly violate the Law just to irritate ’em. Just like when the Spanish created the tradition of eating ham on Easter, solely to outrage Jews and Muslims.
The Greek word nómos tends to be translated “law,” but it also means “field.” Paul wrote of ton nómon ton entolón/“the law of the commands”—which is an odd phrasing. The commands have a law?—isn’t it more accurate to say the Law consists of commands?
Christians don’t know the Law, nor the difference between it and Pharisee customs, so we often mistakenly think gentiles were banned by the Law. Not true; not even close. Gentiles weren’t permitted at the first Passover,
Same as any “rules” people in the United States invented against mixing races, about segregation, and definitely about antisemitism. They’re all human customs. Whereas God’s intent is for all peoples to become one in Christ. Anybody who defies God’s intent, in separating the races instead of making one people of every nation, tribe, people, and language,
Built together into God’s dwelling place.
The average Christian only quotes this next bit to talk about how firm our foundation is, thanks to apostles and prophets and Christ Jesus our akrogoniaíu/“corner”—the most stable part of a building, which in modern construction would be a foundation wall. Hence my translation. (The
Ephesians 2.19-22 KWL
- 19 So then you’re no longer foreigners and strangers.
- Instead you’re fellow citizens of saints. Family members of God.
- 20 Constructions on the foundation of the apostles and prophets—
- Christ Jesus being the foundation wall himself.
- 21 In Christ the whole building fits together, growing into a holy temple, by the Master.
- 22 In Christ you’re also built together into a dwelling-place for God, by the Spirit.
But our foundation isn’t meant to be that firm. I live in California. We get regular earthquakes. So does Israel. So did ancient Ephesus; a big one flattened it in the year 17. The reason California’s buildings stay up is because we learned not to base everything on the foundation. Foundations shift. Even if we dig all the way down to the bedrock, the bedrock’s gonna shake too. So we make sure the foundation walls aren’t anchored to the foundation, but sway—and stay up. When they stay up, so does the building.
In Christendom, sometimes our apostles and prophets get a little shaky. But that’s okay. If we have Jesus, he helps us roll with it. If we don’t—or if we naïvely assumed this life will be free of suffering
I’ve heard Fundamentalists rejigger “apostles and prophets” to mean the bible—’cause they wrote the bible. And fine; let’s say they’re right. Well, even the bible’s gonna shake sometimes. ’Cause humans make mistakes, and interpret it wrong, or twist its words, or ignore it altogether. Don’t be surprised by such things. Plenty of things in Christianity shake. But Jesus holds up.
Lastly: The individual Christian regularly gets described as the temple of the Holy Spirit. And yeah, each of us have the Spirit within us. But we’re not individual temples of the Spirit. That’s not what the scriptures teach. Whenever Paul referred to Christians as the Spirit’s temple, he always used “you” in the plural.
In application we gotta remember Christianity isn’t an individual thing. It’s a collective effort. I know; most Americans don’t want a relationship-based religion. We wanna go it alone, just us and Jesus, and maybe a bible. Doesn’t work like that. Can’t. The construction of Christ’s body involves other people, and Jesus holds us together. There’s very little point for Jesus to hold together a single brick.