Rivalry, envy, and vain-glory has gunked up the gears of human relationships from the very first pages of Scripture down to the present. Regardless of the relationship, whether between individuals or nations, rivalry slowly begins to fill the room with fumes. An explosion is waiting to ignite from the smallest spark. Man has accustomed himself to building his empires this way. This isn’t how God builds.
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 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 that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
Summary of the Text
Passing from the good news of Ephesians 1:15-2:10, Paul then turns to assure the Ephesian Gentiles that they are not second class citizens in God’s household. They were once called “the Uncircumcised”, and thus were strangers to the covenant promises, without hope & without God (vv.11-12).
But the blood of Jesus has brought near those who were once far off (v13), bringing peace by demolishing the wall which prevented Gentiles from coming any closer (v14). The rivalry which once marked the relationship between Jew & Gentile has been abolished by Christ’s flesh, because by His incarnation as the True Israel of God, national Israel’s laws have not only been fulfilled and satisfied, but the blessings promised to Israel have been expanded to include all nations (v15).
This reconciliation was possible by the cross, where enmity was slain (v16). Paul cites Isaiah’s prophecy of the messianic restoration of Israel (Is. 57:19), and applies it to Jesus. Christ accomplished what Isaiah foretold: peace to both far and near through His Word, granting access to the Father by the same Spirit (vv17-18).
Now, the Ephesian Gentiles were no longer reckoned as strangers, but fellow-citizens, of God’s household, they didn’t need a visitor’s visa (v19). The foundation of this house was the teaching of the apostles & prophets, but the chief cornerstone is Jesus Christ (v20). It’s by this ministry of reconciliation that God is building a dwelling place for Himself (21-22). God takes Jewish bricks & Gentile bricks, and by the mortar of Christ’s blood, builds a temple in which His presence dwells.
Engines Without Oil
Trying to get a group of people to get along without the regenerating power of the Spirit is like trying to get an engine to work without any oil. Inevitably the friction of slights, envies, gripes, and grievances will cause the engine to seize up.
Mankind has tried several workarounds. But these routes only make things worse: the route of avoidance, the route of compromise, & the route of war. But regardless of the level of the relationship––whether it be intimate relationships like marriage, or national relationships––the temptation to enmity & rivalry is too irresistible.
When you take the route of avoidance, you’re opting to endure the noxious fumes rather than clear the air. You’d rather suffocate from the carbon monoxide of pent up grievances, than make peace with “them”. Or else you covet the position of being included in some group of “them.” You compromise your conscience & tear others down in order to get in. Or else you choose war, and go scorched earth on “them”. Your rival must be wiped off the face of the earth, or at least the family group chat. In other words, we’re a tangled mess of disappointed desires, gnawing envies, and arrogant boastings.
As the joke goes, what did the first Scotsman do when he got to America? Well, he started 1st Presbyterian Church. What did the second Scotsman who arrived do? Well, start 2nd Pres, of course. We tell ourselves all sorts of stories about our own motivations for why we do what we do. As we venture out on this new work here in Moscow, it will be doomed if it’s founded on the cornerstone of rivalry. Do you see this new work as if we are the overlooked younger brother? The courageous pioneers? The real Navy Seal Christians? The kinder, gentler version of cultural engagement? Are you running from something? Or trying to get the glory of being in on something? Christians have too often started new works because they’ve refused to learn what Paul teaches here in Ephesians.
One New Man
This is the temptation which faced believing Jews & Gentiles in Ephesus. A long-standing bitter rivalry existed between them. One commentator notes that the Jews’ feelings for the Gentiles was that “The Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” The Gentiles were dogs. They were the Uncircumcision & Unclean.
The Gentiles weren’t innocent in this ongoing feud. Gentile nations, after all, refused to help Israel during the Exodus (Ex. 17:8). They’d cheered when Babylon razed Jerusalem (Ps. 137:7). There was deeply ingrained animosity towards the Jews (Cf. Acts 16:20). These frequent skirmishes led to Jerusalem’s utter destruction in 70AD.
This human tendency to break into Hatfields & McCoys is one of the central dramas of human existence. The central problem wasn’t the fact that humans developed distinctions. That’s the natural outcome being fruitful & multiplying. The central problem was that we were sundered from God Himself. Having turned from God in Eden, mankind had been driven out from the presence of God. The fruit of this was seen in the next episode: brother slaying brother.
While the Jews had been given the privilege of coming near to God, it wasn’t from any special deserving on their part (Deu. 7:7-8). They had no cause for glorying. God had chosen them, yes. But He’d chosen them to solve the math equation in front of the whole class. As Reb Tevye once said, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” The Israelite nation had, on the whole, failed miserably.
Meanwhile, the Gentiles had continued to run from God’s presence, worshipping the demons behind their idols. Maps are, in some ways, a charting of man’s history of rivalry & enmity. Neither the Jew who was near to God through the covenant, nor the Gentile who was far from God could stand before the holiness of God (Cf. Rom. 3:9ff). Both stood guilty before God’s holy law.
Christ came as a wrecking ball to all vain-glory, whether it be individual vain-glory, national vain-glory, or any other variety of human boasting. By His righteous life & death He broke down the partition wall between earthly rivals, because He first tore the veil which separated man from God. In so doing, He made one new man, a temple for His glory.
A Bloody Loyalty
The realization that the tendency to claw each other’s eyes out at the slightest provocation lies just under the surface for any of us, does nothing to free us from it. You can know that rivalry can use anything for fuel, and still find yourself running from those you should reconcile with, or fighting with those you should reconcile with, or capitulating to those you shouldn’t be sidling up to.
All human enterprises will escalate into fractious bickering until blood is shed. All our efforts to hold society together requires blood to be shed. The “others” must be slain. The “invaders” must be slaughtered. The “pariah” must be sacrificed to appease the gods.
Mankind demands loyalty. But it’s a loyalty based on the shame of sin. Sinful loyalties lay their foundation on ethnic vain-glory, or bitterness towards other’s success, or irrational fear of man, or having joined together to shed innocent blood. Notice that modern day appeals for unity & inclusion seek it on the basis of shared sin & approval for sin.
Christian unity is founded on shared forgiveness for sin. What Christ has done is make it possible that your sins, and “their” sins can all be forgiven. And thus we can forgive each other, as God through Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32). Christ proclaims peace to both near & far. Only there, at the cross, do we find peace. Peace with God & peace with each other. The cross demands us to all see our own sin, and to see God’s wrath upon it. But also, we see there our righteousness. If you’re both in Christ, God calls you––and your rival––righteous.
Enmity is Slain
As one pastor once wrote, “This enmity cannot be cured, it must be slain.” You cannot kill it, but die it must. Who is your rival? Who pushes your buttons? Who do you schmooze & flatter? Who do you despise?
Are they your brother or sister in Christ? Then your boasting or envy or rivalry is a return to the old man, not resting in the one new man which Christ has made. Are they an unbeliever? Then your envious wrangling with them is trying to erect a wall which Christ broke down. You are to invite those far off to come in close.
Outside of Christ the law declares everyone guilty. Apart from the Messiah, everyone is a covenant breaker driven far off from God’s presence. Without Jesus, your passport says you aren’t a citizen. But all your guilt. All your shame. All your vain-glory. All your rivalry. All your enmity with God & man. It is slain. The only way for all your enmity to die, is if it dies in Christ. This holds true for all who come; even your fiercest rival.