Are All Christians United?
A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 7/13/97
We have some big college basketball fans in our house. But these are unusual fans: they revel not in the play of Duke and North Carolina and Arkansas, but Williams, Amherst, and Rowan, NCAA Division III rather than NCAA Division I. In March this year, when Williams beat defending national champion Rowan to make the Division III Final Four, we were all excited to have the opportunity to make the trek to Salem, VA. The team seemed to be playing its best basketball of the season at exactly the right time.
But in the last ten minutes of the first half of the semifinals, Williams played atrocious basketball. They could do nothing right. We wondered how this team, down by more than 20 points at halftime, possibly could have beaten Rowan.
But the team came out from halftime blazing. I don't know what Coach Sheehy said to them in the locker room, but somehow he brought back from the dead the team that had played the week before. They made a furious comeback, pulling to within four points of the lead with twelve minutes to play. We Williams loyalists in the stands made noise far beyond our numbers, helping to pull the team along. The game seesawed back and forth after that; then, with five minutes to play, on a Williams possession where they had to score to stay in the game, an official made what looked to me to be a terrible call.
Emotion welled up within me. "How can he do that to this team? What is wrong with that official? He is such a . . . "
Suddenly a voice within me said, "Coty! What are you doing? Think about what you are doing!"
I had let the emotion of the moment overwhelm me to the point that everyone not on "my" side, on the side of Williams, was an enemy, an "other," a bad person.
Has that happened to you? Have you ever become so identified with a group that you begin to believe and act as if anyone not in that group is bad, or inferior?
There is nothing wrong with feeling a part of a group. But when we do so, we face the temptation of becoming self-righteous, or rather "group-righteous," leading to:
The passage we consider today -- Ephesians 2:11-22 -- tells us that Jesus came into world not only to break down the barrier between man and God, but also to break down the barrier between man and man, between group and group. He came to call together for himself a people from every tribe and language and nation, to create a unity out of the great diversity of humanity, to make those of us called by Him into one people. Differences of class, gender, and ethnicity serve to divide us in the world; Jesus destroys those barriers and enables us to love each other with His love.
Recall where we are in our study of this book. Paul begins in Chapter 1:3-14 with one glorious sentence praising God for the blessings we have in Christ. He then prays that, having those blessings, we also would know:
Then, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Paul says this is really amazing. It is absolutely incredible that God would shower us with these blessings because of what we were. Remember, he says, each of us by nature is a child of God's wrath. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We have no hope. But God is so gracious and merciful that He:
Furthermore, the tense of the verbs indicates that all those actions are already accomplished, even while we remain here in these bodies.
Why did God do this? So that God's character would be revealed to all creation, including the spiritual forces opposing God. God blessed us so that He Himself would be glorified.
Verses 8 to 10 summarize these thoughts. Salvation is of God from beginning to end. Even our faith is the result of God working within us. We are God's masterpiece, created by Him to do the good works which He has prepared in advance for us to do.
In verses 11 to 22, Paul points out that there is another problem. In addition to each of us being dead in our trespasses and sins, we Gentiles are not part of God's chosen people. How could these great blessings outlined in Chapter 1 apply to us?
Paul answers that question in these verses, telling us to remember one thing, and to know two things. The rest of our time together this morning will be structured around these three themes:
Remember What You Were!
Let's read verses 11 and 12:
11 ¶ Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision" by the so-called "Circumcision," which is performed in the flesh by human hands — 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (NASB)
Why does Paul tell the Ephesians to remember what they were? Paul says, "Remember, this is not only an individual issue. God chose one tribe out of all the peoples on the earth to receive His revelation -- and you were not part of that tribe. Not only do you have no individual grounds to boast, you have no group grounds to boast vis-à-vis the Jews -- for they, and not you, were the ones chosen."
Indeed, he goes on to say that the Gentiles were looked down upon by the Jews -- they were "called 'Uncircumcision' by the so-called 'Circumcision'". There was a division: those who were God's people by birth, versus those who were not God's people. He then describes the Gentiles in five ways:
So there is a great contrast between the people of God -- the Israelites -- and the other people. But Paul moves on to say how this changed.
Know What Christ Did to Change the Situation
Let's read beginning in verse 13:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND 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 our access in one Spirit to the Father. (NASB)
The Gentiles who were excluded, without hope, now have hope! By what means? The blood of Christ! While the Old Covenant was between God and the Israelites, the New Covenant of the blood of Jesus is for all mankind! The Gentiles did not have to give up their heritage and become Jews in order to gain access to the promises; God now via the New Covenant accepts Gentiles and Jews on the same basis: "by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." The basis of God's acceptance is faith in Christ's blood, for both Jews and Gentiles.
So Christ Himself is our peace -- peace in the sense of the Hebrew word "shalom." Not just an absence of animosity, an absence of outright fighting, but a true oneness, a true wholeness and healthiness. Out of the two distinct groups of people -- Jew and Gentile -- Jesus makes one people, His people, the church.
Furthermore, He destroys the "barrier of the dividing wall." Gentiles could enter the outer court of the Jewish temple, the Court of the Gentiles. But they could go no further. They could not approach the altar, much less the Holy of Holies, the picture of God's dwelling place. Gentiles who entered the inner parts of the temple would be subject to capital punishment.
This is the barrier of the dividing wall: your birth, your nationality made a difference. But Christ destroys that, through His blood giving access to the very presence of God not only to the Jews, who themselves could not enter the Holy of Holies, but also to the Gentiles. And the two groups, who used to be divided, are now made into one people.
You see, the Jews were wrong when they thought that they could make themselves right before God by obedience to the Law. Jesus showed that that was impossible; how can any man love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength? How can any man keep all his thoughts pure and clean and without lust or anger? God did not give the Law to the Jews as a way for them to become righteous, but to reveal His character. They were entrusted with His revelation, and chosen by God so that He might bless the world through them. But instead of blessing the world, they as a people looked down upon the world -- their group was better, so they thought, than all other peoples.
Furthermore, not only are Jews and Gentiles made into one people; they are also made into one body, one new man. They need each other to function best, just as an eye needs a brain and a foot needs a leg. Together, Jew and Gentile can glorify God more than either group could have separately. Jesus' message is to both groups -- the Jews who were near and the Gentiles who were far away.
Finally, all persons of the Trinity have a role in this, as shown in verse 18. Paul has used the word "God" to refer to the first person of the Trinity; he now switches and uses "Father." God is Father of all of His people, both Jew and Gentile. Both groups have access to the Father through Jesus, by the same Holy Spirit.
Know What You Are Now!
Given these truths, Paul tells us Gentiles to focus on what Christ has accomplished for us:
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (NASB)
So while we are to remember what we were to keep us ever from boasting, we are to know what Christ did for us and also know what we are now: Fellow citizens, saints ourselves, members of God's household, part of the temple God is creating to bring glory to Himself.
We are citizens and family members -- and as we parents regularly remind our children, citizens and family members have both benefits and obligations. If a family is to be everything it should be to all its members, each child and parent must do his or her part to love, care for, and work in harmony with all the others. Similarly, in a building, a temple, all depends on the cornerstone, but each part is necessary both to uphold other parts and to create the beauty and function for which it is designed.
Just so among God's people: each group and each individual is intimately linked with every other. Just as one person does not make a family, just as one brick does not create a temple, one person does not glorify God to the maximum without every other part of the body of Christ working also. All together, we reveal God's character in ways that we could not separately.
Think about yourself. For us, the major dividing lines are not between Jew and Gentile, but along some other category. What divides you from other people? What group to which you belong feels superior to those outside your group? Is this group based on:
At heart, any sense of superiority over other believers is based on self-righteousness -- or, rather, "group-righteousness." And that sense of self-righteousness is wrong, for every believer is saved on the same basis. Note the words Paul uses here: all groups are "brought near by the blood of Christ;" He worked to "reconcile them . . . through the cross;" "through Him we both have our access . . . to the Father." Those saved by the blood of Christ, those who have faith in the cross of Christ, are essentially one, regardless of race, wealth, class, nationality, or education. Anyone who looks down on a person who is different in any of those ways is violating these clear truths that Paul presents.
But what about theology? Are we one with those who hold different theologies?
Paul here describes the unity among true Christians -- among those who are indeed "brought near by the blood of Christ." Clearly we are not one with all who take for themselves the name "Christian;" some so-called Christians prove by their lives that they are not part of Jesus' flock. Jesus Himself says, "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Paul tells the Corinthians "not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:11). So we are not one with those who are living lives of disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture.
In addition to dividing ourselves from those who are clearly disobedient, the New Testament also instructs us to distinguish between true and false teaching. Many claim to be Christians who deny the central truths of the gospel, such as the divinity of Jesus and the necessity of the shedding of Jesus' blood for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus warns us of the coming of false Christs and false teachers who will even substantiate their claims through performing signs and wonders; we must take care not to be deceived (Matthew 24). Paul writes to the Galatians, "if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9).
So by no means are we one with all those who take the name "Christian." The unity Paul discusses in Ephesians 2 is a unity based upon the shed blood of Jesus. Those who reject the central New Testament claims about Jesus, or whose lives are obviously inconsistent with New Testament teaching, are not one with us.
But there are many other theological differences which, while important, do not distinguish those who are saved from those who are not. These include:
Let me emphasize again: these are important matters. We have taught on many of them, and we believe that the Bible is clear on a subset of these issues. But we can be one with those who disagree with us on these matters, if their belief in the central tenets of the gospel is solid, and if their lives are consistent with the truths of the Word.
This doesn't mean that all true believers should be part of the same organization; differences in understanding concerning what the Bible says about some of these issues -- such as church polity -- require some differences in organization. But in humility we need to admit that these are difficult issues, that there is some Scriptural support for various interpretations, and that upon seeing Christ face to face each of us will probably be surprised about the true answer to one or another of these questions. All who belong to Christ are one body -- even though we differ in understanding of some of these matters. We are brothers and sisters, we are saved by the blood of Christ -- and He will build us into His perfect temple, to the praise of His glory.
The central message of this text is that peace is a person: Jesus Christ. In Him, we have peace with God and peace with other believers; without Him, there is no peace. All roads to peace begin with Him.
Once we begin there, once we begin with the idea that we deserve nothing, that whatever good gift we have is ours only by God's grace, then we can see that there is no room for self-righteousness or group-righteousness. There is no room for personal grudges, or group grudges. We can leave the desire for justice for past wrongs to God, knowing that as a just God He will, in the end, right all wrongs. Then we can rest in the fact that all Christians are saved only by Jesus' blood: Jew or Gentile, Chinese or American, rich or poor, male or female, PhD or high school dropout -- every one must come to Jesus, saying, "I am a sinner; I deserve eternal punishment in hell; I believe that Jesus' death on the cross pays the penalty for my sin; in your grace, Lord, will you save even me?" And since we all come to God the same way, we can approach each other in humility and love -- regardless of the external differences among us.
So how are we doing in this area? How do we act when someone who looks and acts different comes here on a Sunday morning? Are we as friendly and welcoming to that person as we are to someone who looks and acts "just like us"?
How are you doing individually? Are you exhibiting unity with the Christians you know? Do you have a genuine love for the brethren -- including the brothers and sisters we have around the world, in different cultures and countries?
Are you tempted toward self-righteousness, or group-righteousness? I believe all of us are. When you begin to sense those temptations, think back to the three exhortations of today's passage:
Remember what you were!
Know what Jesus did to change this!
Know what we are now! A nation, a family, a building intimately knit together, dependent on each other, filled with the Spirit, bringing glory to God.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 7/13/97.
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