Scripture Quotations are from World English Bible (In the public domain), along a fragment of Koine Greek. My personal Greek notes on Ephesians can be found here.
11 Therefore remember that once you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “uncircumcision” by that which is called“circumcision,” (in the flesh, made by hands);
12 that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ.
14 For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition,
15 having abolished in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace;
16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby.
17 He came and preached peace to you who were far off and to those who were near.
18 For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God,
20 being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone;
21 in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
22 in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.
(World English Bible)
For those of you that can accept it, this is a rather simple passage to interpret. This passage is about racism, and informs us that it has no place in the Church, because the hostility between two races (in this case between Jews and Greeks… or in our terms Semites and Caucasians) was destroyed on the cross with Jesus. The passage is written by a ethnic Jew [the superior race in the eyes of the racists] to a majority Greek community, informing them that they are allowed full union with Christianity, distinctions not required.
While the race-issue that Paul was addressing has not been an issue, and thankfully racism seems to be diminishing in our culture, I regret that my eyes and ears tell me that it is still an issue. These days, we segregate ourselves by race, by political opinion, by family history, by economic status, and in so many other ways. Our words are hateful now, just as they were hateful in former centuries, and just as the words repeated by Paul were hateful. Even today, I hear hostility in the church in spite of this call for peace.
In my study of this passage, I noticed that part of verse 11 translated “Who are called ‘uncircumcision…’ reads in the Greek οἱ λεγόμενοι ἀκροβυστία ὑπὸ τῆς λεγομένης περιτομῆς. One’s Greek does not need to very good at all to notice that ἀκροβυστία (foreskin) and περιτομῆς (circumcised) are not descriptive in the same way. Those who who felt circumcision was important were calling the Greeks by the part of the body they felt should be cut off and thrown away. The word was not a description, but a hateful slur. My detailed Greek notes are available for any who wishes to study them.
The conclusion to this is also simple, while I could as easily say it in my own words, I will instead quote another preacher, Charity Sandstrom who independently came to the same conclusion I did. I again recommend reading her sermon, as I respect her opinions and her intelligence.
Jesus did not just come to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. He came to break down that dividing wall of hostility for all who would believe in him. As Christians we have no cause for allowing a wall of hostility to continue to exist in our lives while we claim that Christ is our peace. Jesus came on a mission of reconciliation. He came make us no longer objects of wrath to God, but recipients of his blessing. He came to reconcile man to his fellow man, to restore broken relationships, to end the separateness we inherited with the sinful nature.
For those who only want the conclusion, you have read it — there is nothing more that needs be said, except that trying to find life application from a line, or even a paragraph of scripture can be dangerous. Because the topic is so important today, I presented it backwards, with the conclusion first… but, I feel that if I stop here, I do a disservice to those who wish to study Paul’s letter.
Then and now
It is tempting to read scripture as if it was written to a 21st century American (in my case) instead of to a community of 1st Century Asanic Greeks. There are nearly 2000 years of history that passed between their time and mine. To be blunt, the racism we face now is not the Chauvinism [And even this word is assigning modern attitudes to ancient people] of the ancient times, but the last vestiges of a colonial period with policies of genocide. For the citizen of a Roman Empire, to see an black Ethiopian would be a novelty, but not more so than seeing a red-headed barbarian. Period writings tell me that even a blond would be seen as a novelty.
Rome sought to bring its world under the Empire, not to make the world Italian. Its polices was to conquer governments, not to replace and enslave populations. The result was a multi-cultural Empire where the province of Asia was more prosperous than the province of Italy. Our genocidal colonial history was not theirs… the empire collapsed before European colonialism began.
Our dividing wall needs a miracle even more than theirs did. The grievances involved are centuries old, hate and prejudice is trained from youth [on every side.] In this case, I must call on us to pray for Christ to break down this hostility in ourselves, personally. The miracle must be worked in individuals, no matter with side of the conflict the individual may have been born into.
I have seen that this miracle is in progress in many communities. I have visited local black and Hispanic churches, by invitation, on several occasions and was very much welcomed. My favorite church, outside my own tradition, remains the Arab Orthodox church I attended while a student at Friends University. I met several black people attending historically white churches, and I hope they have the same experience as I have. It is popular to add that the president of the United States is black, which was considered impossible in the 20th century. I still hear foolish and sinful words, but, even the walls built by our history are in the process of breaking down.
For those who wish to continue to read about the topic, I will tell you that Paul is addressing one of the earliest conflicts in Christian history I will explain the circumcision party, I will try to explain how this notable and sensitive passage fits into Ephesians, and… for the conclusion and application to today’s life, that is above.
The history of the Circumcision party
Fortunately, an overview of the Circumcision party is possible using only Scripture, as it was a special concern of Paul’s, and the big internal enemy in Acts. As this is not a study on a heresy, but on Ephesians nothing more than an overview is necessary.
Christianity sprang from Judaism, this is nothing more or less than a fact. Jesus was born to a Jewish mother, had a common Hebrew name, likely learned in Hebrew School, and at the end of his life was called Rabi. Those who saw Christianity as first of all a sect of Judaism had a lot of reasons to think so. While Jesus was more accepting than most Jews [he did not go out of his way to avoid Gentiles], it seems he spent very little time outside of Jewish territory. While there is a passage of him visiting Decapolis, and no reason why he should have done so [unlike Samaria, which most Jews avoided, it was not a shortcut] this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Even in the Great Commission, Jesus mentioned Jerusalem first. It is no surprise that there was the assumption that Jews had priority.
As Christianity spread outside Judea, it was carried by Christians of Jewish background. These Hebrew Christians brought Christianity first to the Synagogue. Wherever Christianity spread, it came first to the minority Jewish communities that seem to be everywhere. Early in Acts, there was the question whether a person had to conform to Jewish custom to be Christian… and conversely, if a Jew should consider a Gentile Christian “clean”. A double class of Christians developed, with some feeling they could not eat or fellowship with the other without being contaminated. This attitude was addressed early on by several means.
Acts 10, for example tells how Cornelius the Centurion became Christian, and God showed Peter:
34… that God doesn’t show favoritism; 35 but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him. 36 The word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ he is Lord of all” At this point, Peter sees a vision and God tells him “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.
Christianity struggled with this revelation officially until Acts 15, where the officially agreed that a person does not have to become Jewish, or follow Jewish custom to be Christian — Christ’s work is independent of Jewish custom. Of course, there was some resistance to this — and we have what could be called the first Christian Heresy, those of the Circumcision. They traveled and caused problems wherever they went.
Paul’s conflict with the Circumcision party
Paul, as we know was a hard-line Pharisee before he became a Christian. He felt Christianity must be destroyed until he was miraculously convinced of his error on Damascus road. Paul was in his training and custom more aware of Judaism than those of the Circumcision heresy.
Paul, over time felt a call to become a missionary to the Gentiles, and as his special concern was the health and well being of the Gentile church, he also had a special opposition to the anti-Gentile forces that called Gentiles to make themselves as Jewish as possible to be acceptable… and then would still only accept them as 2nd class citizens.
Peter, as we remember, had a vision showing that salvation was for all nations. The first Christian community with a significant Gentile population was the church in Antioch. Peter was among the early workers there, indeed, the Arab Christians consider Peter their first bishop.
Paul writes of an experience when he visited the Antioch church and his disagreement with Peter’s behavior writing of Peter in Galatians 2:12:
before some people came from James, he ate with the Gentiles. But when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.
The disease and habits of prejudice infected not only those who were part of the Heresy, but even those who only feared what others might think. It became a social disease, spread not only by hatred, but also be cowardice. Paul became so disgusted with where this was going that he later wrote to the Galatians in chapter 5:
1 Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace.
How this falls into the context of Ephesians
If you recall, I started by explaining that Ephesians is about identity in Christ. At the first, everyone is named saints, it continues to explain that this was not always so, but it is Christ’s grace that made it so. From Galatians 5, we learn that the Circumcision heresy is everything about identity. Paul calls people to be changed by Christ, the Circumcision heresy called people to change themselves so that they could make themselves acceptable. One is about the grace of God, the other is about the works of men.
Also, if you remember, Ephesians is not only about one person’s identity, it is about every Christian’s identity. Those of the Circumcision party said very cruel things, they were mistaken — and this mistake needed corrected lest anyone believed it. Chrysostom disagrees with me about some details. In addition, hostility goes both ways. When a person is cruel and unjust, there is anger. Cruel words lead to more cruel words, forgiveness is difficult. Ephesus like other Christian communities of its time had a strong Hebrew Christian population. As you might remember, their leadership included one Timothy who’s mother was Jewish and who’s father was Greek. While those of the Circumcision were the minority of the Hebrew Christians, and soon they were eliminated [the Jews finally ruled that one cannot be both Jewish and Christian], cruel words take their toll. Ephesians starts telling the Church their identity in Christ, it moves into telling them how to have a respectful relationship with one another no matter what labels society gives to them, and ends with a call to look to God for strength. This passage is transitional. Paul tells the Gentiles (and the Jews) that they are fellow citizens, and the separation was killed with and in Christ. This is both identity and behavior, and is important to everyone who’s attitudes were touched by the destructive conflict.
As we consider this conflict, and this passage there are several things that I wish us to consider in our own lives. The first was brought up in the Thesis — if we get nothing else, we much get this, Christianity has no place for racism… Christ’s church is a single body, and there is no room for such petty division. Also important to consider is the same as last week, we come to Christ by his gift and favor — not by making ourselves acceptable, nor being born acceptable. Everyone needs a miracle in his life. Each of us in the church is in the same boat, and thus not one of us can feel superior.