Racism has no place in God’s kingdom.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

Ephesians 2.11-22.

To remind you: Paul didn’t write Ephesians to his fellow Jews. He wrote it to éthnoi/“ethnics,” goyím/“nations”—words we usually translate with the Latin-derived word gentile, meaning “people of another nation.” Jews use the word to describe non-Jews. (And Mormons use it to describe non-Mormons.)

Ancient Jews tended to highlight the primary physical difference between Jews and gentiles. Wasn’t skin color, ’cause Jews, then and now, came in every color. It was whether or not you had a foreskin. Following God’s instructions, Jews cut the foreskin off every 8-day-old male. Lv 12.3 Jews were therefore “the circumcised,” and gentiles obviously weren’t. In fact the popular Jewish term for a gentile, which we even find in the New Testament, was akrovystía/“foreskin.” Most bibles tend to be more polite, and translate this word as “the uncircumcised.” They really shouldn’t. The crudeness of referring to people as “foreskins” gives us a better idea of just how ancient Jews thought of gentiles.

’Cause to their minds, gentiles were unclean. Ritually unclean, ’cause when would they ever get the chance to hear God’s expectations for ritual cleanliness? But literally unclean too, ’cause for the most part, gentiles didn’t wash. Didn’t always bathe regularly. They’d eat anything. (The Romans even prided themselves on the weirdness of what they’d eat.) Touch anything, wear anything (or nothing), have sex with anything or anyone, worship a lot of icky gods whose priests demanded icky forms of worship. And they still had their dirty foreskins.

Hence Pharisee custom was to never, ever touch a gentile. After all, you don’t know where they’ve been.

We gentile Christians would like to imagine we’re not that offensive. But that’s because we weren’t raised with Pharisee prejudices. Instead we were raised with our own—and if we were raised by racists, some of our prejudices are pretty similar. People have it drummed into their heads from an early age: Foreigners are gross and dirty. Touch not the unclean thing.

And then Christ Jesus goes and turns these filthy pagans into family.

Ephesians 2.11-15 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,
14 for Christ is our peace, making both sides one,
destroying the barrier fence—our fleshly racism. 15 Clearing the field of doctrinal commands.
Thus he can build the two into one new person in him, making peace.

This wasn’t a radical new idea to the ancient world. The Persians, Greeks, Romans, Huns, Rashiduns, and Ummayyads didn’t consider ethnicity to be a barrier to citizenship. But the Jews did—which is why Israel never became an empire, and Pharisaism struggled to spread. Thing is, since God created everyone, loves everyone, and wants to save everyone, racism is unnatural and has to go.

The hangup about circumcision. (And our hangups about our own sacraments.)

Nowadays Christendom is predominantly gentile. Jewish Christians (or as many of ’em like to call themselves, Messianic Jews) are a minority. But in the first century, when the first apostles were first spreading the gospel, the reverse was true. The first apostles were Jews—either born Jewish, or became Pharisee before they later became Christian.

And when they were Pharisee, the Pharisees had installed their anti-gentile prejudices in ’em. So the first Christians had to overcome this. But because humans prefer the path of least resistance, most of ’em figured they weren’t the ones who had to overcome anything: The gentiles needed to conform. If they wanted to become Christian, they first had to become Pharisees. And that meant they had to become circumcised, same as every Pharisee. If you’re gonna follow the God of Abraham, Ac 15.1, 5 you gotta cut off your foreskin, same as Abraham. Ge 17.23-27

Pharisees considered circumcision the entry point to their culture. Unless you’re circumcised, you can’t be a Pharisee. Can’t be a Jew. Can’t join God’s kingdom. Messiah isn’t your king. You’re in violation of the Law; therefore there’s no real relationship with the LORD our God. The LORD ordained it: Snip snip!

Which is why it floored the first Christians when the Holy Spirit went and baptized gentiles before they ever got themselves circumcised.

Acts 10.44-48 KWL
44 While Simon Peter was saying these words,
the Holy Spirit fell upon everybody listening to the lesson.
45 The circumcised believers who came with Peter were astounded:
The Holy Spirit’s gift was also poured out on gentiles!
46 They heard them speaking in tongues and magnifying God.
Then Peter replied, 47 “Can anyone stop the water to baptize these people?
They received the Holy Spirit same as we did!”
48 Peter ordered them baptized in the name of Christ Jesus.
Then they asked him to stay for some days.

Like Simon Peter later said at the Jerusalem Council:

Acts 15.7-11 KWL
7 After a long debate, Simon Peter, who was standing, told them,
“Men, brothers, you know a while ago God selected me from among you:
From my mouth, gentiles are to hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
8 God, who knows our minds, testifies to this,
and gives them the Holy Spirit, same as he does to us.
9 He doesn’t differentiate between us and them.
He cleans their hearts through faith.
10 Now why do you challenge God by putting a yoke on the gentile students
which neither our ancestors nor we are able to carry?
11 We believe we’re saved by Master Jesus’s grace—
for this reason, the others are saved the same way.”

Circumcision is a work, of course. And we’re not saved by works. Paul just said so, in the verses right before today’s passage:

Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
8 You’re all saved by God’s 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!

Though Pharisees considered circumcision vitally important, circumcision saves no one. Never has.

No more, I should point out, than baptism does. Nor holy communion. Two sacraments loads of us Christians likewise consider mandatory.

At the end of the Jerusalem Council, James ruled gentiles should only really be concerned with things that’d seriously derail our relationship with God: Idolatry (and strangled animals, which were killed that way as part of idolatrous sacrifice), promiscuity, and blood. Ac 15.19-20 Yes, blood. I know; lots of us gentiles make sausage, pudding, and gravy of it. We only shun human blood, ’cause disease. But blood represents life, and belongs to God alone. Ge 9.4, Lv 7.26 Our palate doesn’t come first. God does.

Anyway, Paul made little of circumcision in more than one of his letters. Here he described it as “done in the flesh by hand.” Ep 2.11 It’s not done by God; it’s done by us humans. It represents a relationship with God, but we all know people who’ve practiced religious rituals yet don’t bother to follow God otherwise. Plenty of fruitless Pharisees were circumcised; plenty of fruitless Christians have been baptized and eat communion wafers. But though obedient works, our sacraments are only works. And works don’t save us. Never did.

Christians nowadays consider circumcision no big deal, and don’t understand why it was ever a big deal. But what we do make a fuss about are other things we 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.” Exactly the same way Pharisees had their tantrums about foreskins, we regularly forget we’re saved by God’s grace, not our works. It’s not grace; it’s grace-plus-[banned taboo].

Jesus makes peace of our prejudices.

Ephesians 2.14-18 KWL
14 for Christ is our peace, making both sides one,
destroying the barrier fence—our fleshly racism. 15 Clearing the field of doctrinal commands.
Thus he can build the two into one new person in him, 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.

Various study bibles claim verse 17 is a reference to Isaiah’s “Peace, peace to the far and near, says the LORD; I’ve healed them.” Is 57.19 It’s similar language, but Paul wasn’t directly quoting the prophet. Isaiah was writing about how God was angry with evildoers; Paul was writing about how God was establishing relationships with Jews and gentiles alike.

So. Now both gentiles and Jews are part of Christ’s one body: There are no separate Jewish and gentile bodies. Okay yes, there are individual churches which minister to different ethnic groups. But we recognize none of these churches should exclude anyone else, and all these churches are part of Christ’s one body. (Those who don’t recognize this, are heretic.)

There used to be barrier fences in the Jerusalem temple, banning gentiles from the central parts. Go past them and the temple guards were authorized to kill you. God did away with that. (The Israelis have not, and have rebuilt them to keep out Palestinians.) In Christianity, in Jesus, in his body, any barriers which keep out other ethnic groups—any prejudices, any hangups over tradition and customs, any differing interpretations of the Law—are meant to be gone. All that’s left is peace.

It’s a radical idea. Unfortunately too radical for Christians; we suck at bringing it into reality. 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.

That’s as much of the verse as we quote. Then we proclaim, “Check it out! Jesus abolished the Law! The Law doesn’t define sin anymore! Now we can go eat horses and vultures, then have sex with our cousins!”

Well no, we don’t usually try to see how many commands we can violate before we pull a muscle. But (apart from the Ten Commandments, plus any of the other commands they kinda like) too many Christians figure Jesus nullified every single Old Testament command. Jesus erased the Law and replaced it with a Christian free-for-all.

Leave it to us to take a passage which bans Jewish/gentile racism, and use it to promote sin. And in the end, antisemitism. Because seriously, that’s what happens: Jews will still follow the Law, and Christians will start taunting them for their “legalism” and “works righteousness,” and flout their lawlessness just to outrage the Jews. Like when the Spanish created the tradition of eating ham on Easter, just to piss off the Jews and Muslims.

The reason I translated this “law of commandments” as “field of doctrinal commands” is because of the verb katargísas/“made it occupy the ground in a useless fashion,” the verb which describes what Jesus did with ton nómon ton entolón. Nómon can mean either “law” or “field,” and since Paul used a ranching metaphor to describe what Jesus is up to, it appears it’s about reinterpreting the Law through the New Covenant, rather than banning it outright. Or as Jesus described it, fulfilling it.

So the Pharisee hangups about ritual cleanliness, which kept gentiles segregated? Under the New Covenant we don’t need to be ritually clean before we go to temple. We’re the body of Christ. We are the temple. 1Co 3.16, 6.19 The Holy Spirit has no qualms about indwelling a gentile. Ac 10.45-46 So why do we still have a problem?

Christians seldom know the Law, nor the difference between it and Pharisee custom. So we often claim the Law banned gentiles. Not true; not even close. Gentiles weren’t permitted at the first Passover, Ex 12.48 but they could attend later Passovers. Nu 9.14 There are in fact several commands which declare gentiles aren’t to be treated any differently than Hebrews. Lv 19.34, 24.22, Nu 15.15 The “rules” banning gentiles didn’t come from the bible. They came from the Pharisees. And as the Holy Spirit corrected Peter, “Don’t you call unclean what God cleaned.” Ac 10.15

Same as any “rules” people in the United States invented against mixing races, about segregation, and definitely about antisemitism. These are 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, Rv 7.9 who defies God in favor of their own prejudices, is sinning. Period. Mic drop.

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 KJV’s “corner stone” doesn’t quite cut it. Cornerstones, unless they’re huge, are largely decorative anyway.)

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.

Our foundation is meant to hold us up. Not be solid and immovable, like people imagine, and Christians teach. I live in California, and we get regular earthquakes. So does Israel, and so did ancient Ephesus; a big one flattened the city in the year 17. The reason California’s buildings stay up is because we learned not to base everything on an immovable foundation. In an earthquake zone, there is no such thing. Foundations shift. Even when we dig all the way down to the bedrock, the bedrock shakes. So we make sure the foundation walls aren’t anchored to the foundation, but sway. Thus they stay up, and so does the building.

In Christendom, sometimes our apostles and prophets get a little shaky. And 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 Jn 16.33 —our faith will fall apart. Don’t let it. Our only fixed point should be Jesus. Nothing else.

I’ve heard Fundamentalists rejigger “apostles and prophets” to mean the bible—’cause those guys did write the bible after all. Even so, 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. 1Co 3.16, 6.19 Just as Christians are members of Christ’s body, 1Co 12.27 not a bunch of bodies of Christ, we’re bricks of the Spirit’s temple. We’re collectively this temple. God is not contained in an individual Christian.

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 solitary brick.