GOD'S PEACE PLAN - Part 1
These are my notes for teaching the Cornerstone Bible Study on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.
The second half of Ephesians 2 is one of the most revealing passages in the Bible. It describes God's plan for humanity, a plan he carried out through Jesus Christ. Let's read it now:.
(Ephesians 2:11-22) Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
It's a "no duh" kind of observation that humanity is hopelessly divided. Even in the USA, which has always been a melting pot, we are divided in all sorts of ways: politically, racially, religiously, socially and so on.
God's plan has been to bridge the divide through Jesus Christ. This passage explains how. Today, we'll spend most of our time on describing the human divide. Next time, we'll go into how God bridges it.
DESCRIBING THE HUMAN DIVIDE - verses 11-12.
The greatest human divide in history was that between the Jews and the rest of the world, called the Gentiles here. The Greek word is ethne, and it means literally the nations or the peoples.
If God could bridge the divide between Jews and Gentiles, he can bring anyone together.
In verses 11-12, Paul outlines four aspects of the great divide:
1. Divided by circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with Israel. It was first given to Abraham in the Abrahamic covenant instruction in Genesis 17:3. It was then given to Israel in the Mosaic covenant instructions. Every Jewish male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth to symbolize their inclusion in God's people and his covenant promises.
In this way, the Jews distinguished themselves from everyone else. How important was it? Two stories from Paul's missionary journeys should illustrate the importance: Timothy had a Greek father and a Jewish mother. She raised him as a Jew, but his dad would not let Timothy be circumcised. When he joined Paul's missionary team, Paul insisted on circumcision so that they could share the gospel with Jews and not have any trouble (Acts 16:1-3).
Listen to the second story about what happened when Paul arrived in Jerusalem:
(Acts 21:20-31) Then the church leaders said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)
30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him,
This is how important and divisive circumcision was: it threatened to split the church in Jerusalem. It was also life and death to the Jews. It almost cost Paul his life.
The second aspect of the divide was:
2. Separated from Christ. The Jews were waiting for Messiah to appear, to restore Israel, defeat the Romans, and reign over Israel then the whole world.
Here are some examples of Israel's messianic hope:
The Davidic Covenant. God promised an everlasting dynasty descended from King David. The prophet Nathan told David:
(2 Samuel 7:8-16) “Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. 9 I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. 10 And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning 11 and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.
“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
See also: Psalm 2:1-9; 89:26-89; Isaiah 9:1-7; Hosea 3:4-5; Micah 5:2; etc.
Jesus' favorite title for himself was Son of Man. This designation comes from Daniel, chapter 7 which pictures an extraordinary ruler coming to earth to reign forever:
(Daniel 7:13-14) “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed."
In the time between the Old and New Testaments, Jewish teachers refined their Messianic expectations as they pondered biblical passages such as the ones above.
The Qumran community, for example, was a group of people who lived together in the desert in order to make themselves pure for God, to study the Bible and prepare themselves for Messiah. They actually expected two Messiahs - anointed ones - based on, for example, Zechariah 4:11-14:
Zechariah 4:12-14 (NIV-WS) Again I asked him, “What are these two olive branches beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?” 13 He replied, “Do you not know what these are?” “No, my lord,” I said. 14 So he said, “These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth.”
The Qumran community expected an anointed priest and and an anointed prince. The prince would establish his reign from Jerusalem. They expected him to gather his people and to restore the city and the temple from which the priest would offer the sacrifices. They expected judgment on God's enemies and mercy on his people.
Obviously, those outside of Israel did not share in Israel's Messianic hope and so Paul writes, "separate from Christ" (verse 12).
3. Excluded from Citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants. Israel was a privileged nation, the adopted people of God. Their history was woven together by a long sequence of interventions by God to rescue and protect and bless his nation. But only a Jew could be a Jew; that is only someone descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob and his sons; that is, one had to be a member of one of the twelve tribes. People kept track of their lineage. God made his covenants with Abraham and then through Moses. The Abrahamic covenant bound God to bless his descendants and to give them the land. The Mosaic covenant bound Israel to him and promised them blessings for obedience.
4. Without confidence or creator. This is the inevitable result of being outside of Israel and the covenants. This was the story for many of us. We experienced first-hand the futility and despair of life without God and this without hope. For me, life without God or the Bible was like fumbling in the dark, never really coming to grips with my place or purpose in the world.
The nations were hopelessly alienated from God. In chapter 4, Paul goes into more detail:
(Ephesians 4:17-18) So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
This divide between Jews and Gentiles was massive and there was no way to bridge it. Even a pious outsider earnestly seeking God was excluded from Temple worship and sacrifice, forced to stay far from the "action" by a 5 foot high wall with a sign on it reading, "Trespassers will be executed."
In Philippians 3, Paul lists his Jewish credentials that before he met Jesus separated him from the rest of the world:
(Philippians 3:4-6) If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
The Jews believed that their racial, ritual, and moral purity set them apart for God and kept them apart from the impurity of the nations. William Barclay, the Scottish biblical scholar, wrote a helpful summary of the division:
"The Jew has immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, sad the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel ... It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest needs, for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world ... The barrier between them was absolute."
If a Jew married a Gentile, a funeral was conducted by their Jewish family. It said, you are dead to us.
HEALING THE HUMAN DIVIDE
How could such a massive divide ever be bridged? The answer, of course, is Jesus. He is the expected Messiah who does the unexpected: he unites the Jews and Gentiles under his rule into a new humanity or community of God's people.
We'll go into this in detail next time, but for now let's read:
(Ephesians 2:13-14) But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility ...
Jesus is our peace. It is only when he reconciled us to God by removing the alienation at that level, that he was able to remove the alienation between people. World peace is God's work, possible only in Jesus.
I try not to be a pessimist. I believe in God and his Son, Jesus Christ. I also believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, so I am filled with hope and confidence in God's ability to keep his promises.
However, I am extremely pessimistic about our efforts to achieve peace in our time by our own methods or without God. God has a plan and a process for peace and if we ignore it or skirt around it, we will fail.
Failure to follow God's plan for peace is why our nation is deeply divided along so many lines. Although government and courts and law enforcement are all necessary and ordained by God, they are not designed to end conflict, merely to control it and prevent it from descending into chaos. I am very grateful for public servants and first responders, but they are not the key to peace. Laws do not unite people. Politics does not unite people. Social action does not unite people. Preaching does not unite people. In fact, all of these do the same thing: they highlight and even deepen our divisions.
God's solution to human conflict and the means by which he will achieve ultimate peace on earth is the Lord Jesus Christ. He himself is our peace. He alone is our peace. Let's pray for opportunities to share the good news about Jesus every day.
Join me next time to explore the rest of Ephesians 2 to discover how Jesus creates and reconciles a new humanity.