On Walls and Oneness: Reflections on the Book of Ephesians
We recognize that he specifically directed this letter to the Ephesians in the first Jewish-Christian community at Ephesus. But the Holy Spirit also speaks to each of us throughout the sacred text, because He is its ultimate Author. He then helps us to understand the text and apply its lessons and teachings to our lives.
Paul begins with what is essential. He tells us that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph.1:4). That “He predestined us as sons through Jesus Christ . . .” That through “the Beloved” – a reference to Jesus / Yeshua – God freely bestowed His “kind intention” and “the glory of His grace” upon us (vv.5-6).
Paul reminds us that through Yeshua’s voluntary sacrifice of His life we are redeemed. That “the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace . . . He lavished on us” (v.7).
Paul writes that God made known to us His will, His kind intention, and His purpose “…with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (v.10).
He further reminds us that “we have obtained an inheritance” from the One who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (v.11). Paul refers here to a spiritual inheritance, our opportunity to become “sons” through our recognition of Yeshua and our choice to “follow” or become as much like Him as we can. This inheritance has been expressed with the word “sonship.” Paul reminds us that ultimately, God’s plan for us will succeed; that ultimately, regardless of all apparent evidence to the contrary, He is in complete control.
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.’
Paul assures the Ephesian church – and through his words the Holy Spirit assures us – that once we have listened to and believed “the message of truth, the Gospel of your salvation,” that we have been “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (v.13).
As we learn of the Gospel, specifically God’s amazing graciousness toward us in providing the voluntary sacrifice from Himself, so to speak, in the form of Yeshua, He opens the door to our salvation and extends the Holy Spirit to guide and safeguard us as we make our pilgrim’s way back to Him. The language “sealed in Him” brings to mind Jesus’ telling us that no one would be able to pluck those who belong to Him, or are “sealed in Him,” from His hand, because He and the Father are One (Jn.10:28-30).
The Holy Spirit A Down-Payment of Sorts
Paul continues here to say that the Holy Spirit is in a sense a “pledge of our inheritance” (Eph.1:14). Paul indicates that this pledge or deposit represents a promise that God will redeem His “own possession,” referring to each of us and to the entire harvest that is central to the New Covenant (Brit Hadasha). The feast of “First Fruits” in the Tanach celebrated the teaching that if the first fruits of a harvest were presented to and accepted by God, the entire harvest would also be.
Yeshua died on Passover. He died at the exact time of day that the paschal lamb was being sacrificed in the temple! He was buried on the day of the feast of Unleavened Bread, and was resurrected on First Fruits, according to the Jewish sacred calendar. He fulfilled the ancient Passover for all people who would accept Him and for all time.
The blood of the Lamb of God frees all who accept and identify with Him from bondage to sin and death as surely as the blood of the first Passover lambs on the doorposts and lintels of Israelite homes in ancient Egypt provided protection from the angel of death who brought destruction to the homes of the Egyptians, whose pharaoh would not yield to God’s command to “Let my people go!”
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor.15:20). “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:23).
Jesus opened the door for all who were “asleep” – or dead as a result of sin. He even told us “I am the door.” Yeshua, the perfect “First Fruits,” ensured the acceptability to God of the entire harvest. He reconciled us to God – and He reconciles us to this day. He does this for everyone who accepts Him and the Gospel.
Paul prays for our spiritual vision: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints…” (Eph.1:18). Paul wanted the early, mostly-Jewish Christians to be free from the pride, elitism, and exclusivism that had contributed to the Jewish religious elites’ stumbling and missing their own Jewish Messiah. He wanted the first followers of “The Way” to be humble – like the servant Messiah whom they had come to love, understand, and serve – even unto death.
Paul reminds the first Christians at Ephesus – and the Holy Spirit reminds each of us to this day – of “the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” Here again, we are assured that God is in complete control of our ultimate destiny. That He is able to safeguard and deliver the harvest.
The apostle speaks of Jesus’ name being far above every name “not only in this age, but also in the one to come.” Ephesians 1:23 reminds us that the church is Christ’s body, and that He is the head of this body. That our oneness with each other has its foundation in the oneness that we have in Messiah – in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. And that in the age to come Yeshua / Jesus will be in charge. All people in positions of authority will work with – and under — Him. What a reassurance this is! We can scarcely imagine how wonderful His kingdom will be!
Paul brings the wonderful news that “even when we were dead in our transgressions,” God “raised us up with” Yeshua and “seated us with Him in the heavenly places . . .” These words remind us of our having been reconciled to the Father through the Son. Apparently in some way that we must stretch to comprehend, our spirits are already present with the Father and Son in heaven.
The text explains that God has done this “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us [who are] in Christ Jesus.” Jeremiah 29:11 is a well-known passage that assures us of God’s good plans for us. We can trust our Father, who from the beginning has wanted us to be with Him. He has also wanted us to be His “sons” in the sense that we have hearts and minds like His. That we want the same things, love the same things, and are in all ways similar or “one with” Him. As Jesus expressed this, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Faith Itself Is a Gift
Paul reminds us that it is “by grace” that we “have been saved by faith…” (Eph.2:8). He continues here to say that even this saving faith is “not of yourselves,” but is “the gift of God.” Faith is a vital gift because it connects us with God. It enables us to know that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Messiah of the entire world. We spiritually experience faith as a bridge that connects us with the “kingdom of God,” as Jesus expressed it. Or expressed another way, our faith is the bridge that unites us with Yeshua and His Father.
Paul tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Paul seems to utter this statement easily, but it is immense to get our minds around. The message is that God had not only each of us in mind, but that He has also always known what each of us would do for His kingdom and His name’s sake. That He has a purpose and a plan in saving each of us, and that He has always known what our primary work or service would be. That He created us and gifted us to provide this particular service, whatever it might be, to His kingdom.
The apostle then begins a discussion of Jewish people and non-Jews, using the descriptions “the so-called Circumcision” and “the Uncircumcision” (Eph.2:11). These are phrases that most of us have not encountered outside of Scripture, but we understand his message. Contrary to the all-too-human tendency to exclude and denigrate those we consider to be in some way different from us, the Torah teaches that “the sojourner” in Israel was to be regarded as part of the covenant community.
Paul’s teaching here emphasizes oneness and inclusion, but all too often throughout history, people have valued exclusion and separation instead. Pride is at the root of elitism and exclusivism. Yeshua made it a point to emphasize humility, both in His teachings and in washing the disciples’ feet, as a concrete object lesson.
Paul reminds non-Jews that prior to Yeshua ha’Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah), they were outside of the blessings of Israel, “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in decrees, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by its having put to death the enmity.
In Scripture, the concept of “those who were far away” refers to non-Jews, and “those who were near” is a reference to Jewish people. “And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17).
The apostle explains that non-Jews or “Gentiles” were and are his mission or assignment. He speaks of “the mystery of Christ” that had not been revealed to earlier generations. “To be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . .” (Eph.3:6).
We can hear through Paul’s words the equality and unity that God wanted to see between His ancient people and new believers in Yeshua. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on both Christian (formerly pagan) believers and Jewish Christians at Pentecost was a clear confirmation of the new and equal “fellow heirs and fellow members” status of Jews and non-Jews in the community of followers of Yeshua. They found themselves in a new world in this regard.
Jesus the Great Iconoclast, or Smasher of Symbols
In the ancient temple there was an outer court known as “the Court of the Gentiles.” There was also a strong, impenetrable “veil” or curtain that kept out even “those who were near” (the Jewish people) from the inner sanctum where the presence of God dwelled — the “Holy of Holies.”
As one reads Ephesians 2:13-16, it becomes clear that God wants both kinds of walls brought down: the cultural walls that exclude one or some people groups from another, and the physical walls — like the veil in the temple — which excluded everyone except the high priest, on one day of the year, from the presence of God.1
An example of a man-made or cultural “wall” was the thought that new Christian converts had to be circumcised before they could join the mostly-Jewish early Christians. This wrong-minded requirement that was advocated by even key members within the early church is discussed at length in Acts 15.
The outer court of the second temple in Jerusalem was called the Court of the Gentiles. Non-Jewish people were prohibited from going into the holier parts of the temple. Trespass by non-Jews into areas beyond this outer court was punishable by death. Signs were posted in Latin and Greek warning of the capital punishment for this offense.2
Even though occupying Rome forbade Jewish leaders to execute offenders, an exception was made in this case. Jews were permitted to execute non-Jews who went farther into the temple than the Court of the Gentiles — even if the offender was a Roman citizen.3
This was the alleged crime for which Paul, who was a Jewish Christian, but also a citizen of Rome, was nearly beaten to death by an angry mob on his last visit to Jerusalem.4
One can read between the lines that since Paul freely offered the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, to all who would hear him, some of his fellow Jews came to the erroneous conclusion that he was no longer a Jew. This mistake continues to be made by some among the Jewish orthodoxy to this day.
Women too had a designated place — the Women’s Court. They could not go into the holiest place(s) in the temple, because the high priest was always a man. Only the high priest of Israel could enter the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant (or Testimony) was kept. And even he could only enter this holiest of places in the temple on the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement — only one time each year.5
A God of Inclusion, a God of Love
But Paul tells us in another scriptural book that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Gentile. Robert Frost’s powerful poem Mending Wall contains the focus observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
That something could be something in our own hearts. That “something” is also a Someone — God and / or Yeshua and the Holy Spirit. The God of Israel wants the walls brought down. The instruction that God clearly wanted elitism, exclusion, and divisiveness to end is present and vital in this Ephesians text.
God clearly wanted certain cultural walls removed — like the proposal of requiring the circumcision of non-Jews that some leaders of the early Jewish-Christian church had advocated. He also wanted physical walls like the veil in the temple to be brought down.
More importantly, God wanted walls between Himself and His people brought down — especially those created by sin. The Hebrew word “korban” means literally “bring near.” A korban offering was something that was sacrificed to God for the purpose of allowing the one who sacrificed to draw near to God — because he had received forgiveness for sins as a result of making the sacrifice. Sin was recognized as separating us from God. Non-Jews were prohibited from going into the holier parts of the temple, in order to draw close to the Holy of Holies where the presence of God dwelled through sacrifice.
Although Scripture makes it clear in more than one place that God never liked the idea of animal sacrifice, He worked through this exceedingly-concrete model because it was something that a primitive people could understand. Further, this concrete practice or “temple service” painted a picture of — or provided a means of understanding and recognizing — the one true, perfect, and once-for-all-eternity Self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yeshua is the one perfect, eternal sacrifice — representing God’s taking responsibility for His creation, for human beings who had been given free choice and who would make wrong choices or “sin.” Jesus reconciled us to God and enabled us to draw near to God through His perfect, voluntary Self-sacrifice. As our atonement through His voluntary sacrifice, He extended forgiveness and the ability to draw near to God to each of us.
The impenetrable curtain or “veil” that separated the Holy of Holies from the common people — from everyone except the high priest on one day each year5 — was “torn in two from top to bottom” at the time that Jesus died. Through His voluntary perfect sacrifice, He restored our ability to become one with God — and with each other. His perfect sacrifice atoned for the sinful tendency toward disobedience in every one of us. He reconciled — and reconciles — us to God. He destroyed the physical and cultural barriers that had been used to exclude many people from the place of most-intimate proximity to God’s living presence in the world.
Sukkot or Tabernacles is a special fall feast or “Feast of God” in the Scriptures. In ancient times 70 bulls would be sacrificed during this celebration as a symbol of God’s forgiveness and inclusion toward all the nations of the world. To this day people from other nations and diverse faiths travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Tabernacles with the Jewish people. The temple itself was intended to be a house of prayer for all nations.6
God wanted Israel to be the womb of His kingdom on earth, but He didn’t want it to be a walled womb. The Dead Sea in Israel has an inlet, but no outlet; this is why it’s “dead.” God didn’t want a spiritually dead, stagnant, elitist nation or priesthood. He wanted its teachings and traditions to be shared with, even disseminated freely to, all who would receive them.
Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at a well, a most unusual thing for Him to do according to the culture in which He lived. Many Jews considered Samaritans to be “half-breeds.” They were looked down on. For a Jewish rabbi to speak with a Samaritan woman — much less a Samaritan woman with a checkered past — must have been most puzzling to His disciples. Jesus sought out Matthew and Zacchaeus, who were tax collectors for Rome — a despised vocation in occupied Judea. He constantly sought out people who were marginalized or devalued by the culture of His day.
He wasn’t having any of the prevalent opinion that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death — while the man involved was not to be held responsible — either.
Ours is a God who extends open arms and even figuratively runs to rejoice over returning prodigals. Who is the essence of the word “inclusion.” Who is Love. Someone there is who “doesn’t love a wall” — our Lord Jesus Christ and His perfect Father.
1,5,6 The Light of the Temple, published by the Temple Institute, Jerusalem
2,3,4 Bible History Online