We’re continuing with our theme of “in Christ” this morning as the first two messages have both dealt with being in Christ as well. Being in Christ implies a sense of unity on its own. Everybody who is in Christ is going to have certain similarities about them, the most notable being that they are saved to put things in Christian terms.
This morning Paul expands upon the unity that we have in Christ by saying that we are one in Christ. Unfortunately this is one of the more difficult passages I’ve worked with in a while so I’m not sure how well things are going to flow. We didn’t finish chapter 2 last week and I want to highlight a few verses in the second half of that chapter. That isn’t enough for its own sermon however and we’ll be moving onto chapter 3 then as well. The theme continues on into Ephesians 3 but there isn’t a whole lot to comment on.
Let’s pick up where we left off in Ephesians 2 to start with.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) — 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 through the blood of Christ.
There was an interesting dynamic within the early church that we don’t quite have today. We have Jews coming to Christ who recognize Him as their long awaited Messiah. They are well versed in the Old Testament and they have followed all of the proper religious ceremonies that they were supposed to as a Jew.
And then we have the Gentiles coming to faith. They have no background or familiarity with the teachings of the Old Testament. They have never followed any of the ceremonies that had been prescribed, circumcision included. And worst of all, the most they know about worship is about worshipping idols and participating in pagan rituals. The two groups probably couldn’t be less alike. And so this undoubtedly caused some tension between the two groups.
We don’t have Jews and Gentiles today, we’re all Gentiles unless you happen to have been raised Jewish and then became a Christian. But there is still a similar dynamic today. Let’s just call it the difference between old Christians and young Christians. And age has nothing to do with things here, I’m talking about the length of time you’ve been a Christian. You can be an old Christian at 30 and a young one at 60.
A few years ago I recall reading a story about a church that wanted to start a youth group. I can’t recall what church it was and it doesn’t really matter. The new group attracted a number of teenagers from the area and as word spread more and more teenagers started coming. As more kids came, more “bad” kids started coming as well. At the end of the year it was time to evaluate whether the youth group was worth continuing. The tally was that two kids had become Christians through the youth group in the past year. However, as more kids started coming, things had become rowdier and three windows had been broken in the past year as well. The decision was made that there was too great a risk to continue with the youth group.
The author of the book balked at the decision that had been made. In his mind, for two kids coming to Christ, they could break every window in the church. Windows can be replaced, kids lives had been forever changed by the ministry of the youth group.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what is good for the church, that is the church building and the local body of people who meet at that location, that we miss out on what is good for the Church, that is the universal church that is made up of all believers. What is most often good for the local body of believers is to keep things comfortable and familiar. That way we don’t upset people and risk having them – and their offerings – leave. But often what is best for the universal church involves change so that the church can continue to reach out with the gospel and connect with them in a way that seems relevant to them.
This isn’t a sermon about change or relevancy or casting vision however, so I’ll move on. Just know that when Paul talks about Gentiles and Jews, it would be like having a bunch of tattooed and pierced young people walk into a traditional church where the average age is above 60. Paul says that we’re all on the same team however.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this 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.
This is the section that caught my attention when I read it the first time this week. We are one in Christ because we are all in Christ. That might sound a bit like double talk but the point is that it doesn’t matter what your background is, if you are in Christ you are just like everyone else in the eyes of God. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or Gentile, your sins were forgiven. That’s the point that Paul is making in these verses.
What jumped out at me though is verse 15 where it says “abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” This is a matter of controversy for some. What does it mean that the law has been abolished? Some, albeit a minority of Christians, have taken this to mean that we can live as we want and it’s all forgiven so it doesn’t matter. But of course I’ve said before that God’s laws are there for our protection and not to steal away our fun, so this doesn’t hold water.
Most interpret this to mean that we no longer have to follow the ceremonials laws of the Old Testament. The Jews had depended upon their obedience to the law to save them but they couldn’t obey it so Jesus had to die for their sins.
I don’t know of any Christian who sacrifices a lamb once a year so obviously we don’t follow all of the ceremonials laws any longer. The issue becomes deciding what laws are ceremonial and therefore fulfilled in Christ and which laws are still meant to be obeyed. It seems as though often we decide these laws based upon what doesn’t feel relevant any longer or what seems like a relic from a bygone era. There are cleanliness laws to abide by. There are all of the rules regarding the tabernacle which were transferred over to the temple. There were rules about sacrifices and feasts. These are largely accepted as ceremonial laws that are unneeded now.
But there are two laws that are very much up for debate. They concern the Sabbath and tithing. I’ve discussed them both before and I’m not going to get into them again today. Some interpret these as ceremonial laws that hold no significance to today. Others contend that they are still relevant to the Christian today.
I won’t tell you what to think on these issues but I’ll give you my opinion of how to tell if a law is ceremonial. Ceremonial laws seem rather arbitrary but when examined closely, they point to the coming of Jesus. They are no longer needed because Jesus has come. Other laws are meant for our protection and our enjoyment. Rather than take away our joy, they are really there for the betterment of our lives.
I’ll give you just one quick example before we move on. Study after study has examined people’s sex lives and has repeatedly shown that the ones who are most happy and fulfilled are monogamous married couples, not the ones that are supposedly having all of the fun with one night stands and multiple partners. Typical thinking is that God is trying to keep us from fun but the truth is that God’s way leads to greater enjoyment.
So, that’s the difference between ceremonial law and regular law. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial ones and we are still left to follow the others. Let’s move on to Ephesians 3. We’ll start with verse 7.
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.
If there is anyone who has the authority to preach about being one in Christ, it is Paul. If we were in charge of stationing Paul to a church where we thought he would be most effective, we would most likely place him in Jerusalem. Paul was a Pharisee and referred to himself as a Pharisee of Pharisees. He was extremely zealous for the Lord in his pharisaical understanding of scripture. Upon Paul’s conversion to Christianity there would have been no one better equipped to debate the Jews about Christ. Paul would have been able to point them to all of their own prophesies that showed who Jesus was and explain that those prophecies had been fulfilled.
And of course Paul did do this. Every town he went into, he preached to the Jews first. But Paul’s mission was not just to the Jews. Paul wasn’t originally accepted in the early church because he had been so fervently persecuting Christians. One can understand the hesitancy of the early church to accept him. It would be like having a Russian spy defect to the United States and asking for a job within the CIA. The guy could be genuine and desires to help against his former country but there aren’t too many people that would put him in a position with sensitive information.
So Paul is forced to go outside of where the church has been established. By doing so, he legitimatizes Christianity as for the Gentiles as well. If Paul, the most Jewish a person could get, so to speak, could embrace the Gentiles inside of Christianity, any Jew should be able to and should.
Of course going to the Gentiles would have pushed Paul outside of his comfort zone to say the least. Basically everything about the Gentile world would have disgusted Paul as a Jew. Not just the immorality and the idolatry that took place in the Roman world but the general culture itself would have disagreed with Paul the Jew. Paul the Christian however had to learn to embrace and love the Gentiles in order to take the gospel to them.
The other thing that Paul was forced to do in going to the Gentiles was basically relearn everything he knew. As I mentioned, Paul would have been ideal to take the gospel to the Jews because he understood Jewish thinking and he could make persuasive arguments using Jewish logic and understanding of the Old Testament.
When Paul preaches to the Gentiles however, there is no such common ground to preach upon. Paul had to basically change tactics every place that he went. He didn’t have one well prepared sermon that he gave every city that he went to but instead he adapted to whatever the situation was. My favorite example of this is in Acts 17 when Paul comes to Athens. There he encounters idols to every Roman god. And he even encounters a monument to an unknown god. They did not want to risk offending a god that they may have missed so they built an altar to it. Paul seizes on this to tell them about the God whom they do not know in Acts 17:22-32
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
So, there really is no better person to explain that we are all one in Christ than Paul. In his world it didn’t matter if a person was originally a Jew or a Gentile, they were now all Christians. Today it doesn’t matter if we are young or old. It doesn’t matter if we were raised in the church or lived like a hellion, we are all Christians.
There’s no deep theological lesson from this passage. Instead it’s a reminder that we’re all together in this. Sometimes it’s hard enough to remember that everyone in the same church is working for the same goal. We have different agendas and different opinions on how to reach the same goal. But the church down the road is on the same team as we are too. Everybody who is working to advance the gospel is on the same side. It doesn’t matter if they call themselves brethren or Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist, we are all one in Christ.