The Politics of Transformed International Relations—Ephesians 2:11-22 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The formation of a new international polity is integral to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel. The Church provides a model for transformed international relations.

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

New Testament passages such as this can be slightly perplexing to many readers. The close attention that the Apostle Paul gives to addressing categories of ‘circumcised’ and ‘uncircumcised’, ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’, can seem foreign to us, belonging to a way of ordering the world and its peoples that has long since passed. Furthermore, why such categories should have any bearing upon or relevance to the operations of God’s grace is unclear. After this passage, Paul proceeds to argue that he has been entrusted with the revelation of a great mystery hidden in ages past, which has since been revealed, the mystery that ‘the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.’[1] If this is the great mystery that the world has been waiting for, something about it seems anticlimactic. From our vantage point the revelation can seem like a damp squib.

I suspect that much of our struggle to appreciate the significance of the mystery arises from our failure to recognize the centrality and character of the Church in Paul’s understanding of salvation. For Paul, the formation of the Church—as a concrete historical polity—is not a sideshow in his account of Christ’s work, but is a central feature.

In verses 11-12, Paul calls upon the Ephesians to ‘remember’ their former state: that of uncircumcised Gentiles, ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.’ As Stephen Fowl highlights, the designation ‘Gentile’ only made sense ‘within Judaism or in relation to Judaism.’[2] Within these verses, Paul is calling upon the Ephesians to reconceive their past, to regard their former identities in a manner that is only possible from an ‘in Christ’ vantage point. The retrospective nature of this characterization is noteworthy: few non-Jews would have naturally considered themselves to be ‘without hope and without God in the world’ or thought of themselves as alienated. Fowl writes:

This act of remembering their past as a Gentile past has a dual function. First, by recalling their state as Gentiles before God, the Ephesians can come to see themselves in the very particular ways in which God saw them…. It is equally important, however, that by remembering their past as a Gentile past, a past that is thereby in relation (albeit a negative one) to Judaism, Paul can begin to describe more precisely the nature of the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. In fact, if Christians fail to grasp this, they may end up misperceiving what is involved in reconciliation today.[3]

In the process of describing the Ephesians’ former identity, Paul also unsettles Jewish categories. The word ‘called’ preceding both ‘the uncircumcision’ and ‘the circumcision’ suggests that Paul questions the legitimacy or significance of this designation, an impression bolstered by the clause that follows: ‘a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.’ ‘Made … by human hands’ is elsewhere used of pagan idols or shrines (Daniel 5:4 lxx; Acts 17:24), demonstrating their insufficiency to accommodate or represent God. It is also used in reference to the Jerusalem temple (Mark 14:58; Acts 7:48; Hebrews 9:11, 24), where it draws attention to the transitory character of the edifice.[4] Likewise, the term ‘flesh’ in Paul is typically contrasted with the Spirit and its efficacy in the new covenant. In signalling his contestation of these Jewish categories, Paul is probably subtly directing the attention of the hearers of the letter to the more determinative circumcision of the heart by the Spirit promised in the new covenant.

Paul declares that the Gentiles who once were alienated are brought near through the blood of Christ in verse 13. Some hearing Paul’s argument to this point might be wrong-footed by their expectation that the Gentiles will have been ‘brought near’ by being made members of Israel. They are brought near, however, not by being made members of Israel, but by becoming members of an entirely new polity—the Church.

From writing of bringing alienated parties near, Paul turns to address the removal of a barrier between separated people groups. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the Torah as placing Israel under condemnation; here the Torah is something that holds Jews and Gentiles apart, the charter of Israel’s identity that excludes Gentiles. The death of Christ overcomes not only the condemnation that Israel lies under but also the division within the human race. In Christ, the quarantining of Israel from the nations has ended and one new undivided humanity can be formed of the two. This reconciliation of the divided humanity is accomplished as both Gentiles and Jews are reconciled to God (verse 16), enjoying ‘access in one Spirit to the Father’ (verse 18). The human race is united as it draws near to God.

Paul describes the state of the Ephesians following the work of Christ in verses 19-23. They are no longer ‘strangers and aliens’ but are full members of the household of God, with all of God’s other holy people. Paul infuses his architectural imagery with organic language: we are a structure that is joined together, which is ‘growing’ into a holy temple for God’s dwelling place. Verses 21-22 are parallel to 4:15-16 of the epistle, where Paul writes:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Here the accent is upon the organic rather than the architectural imagery, but the parallel is illuminating. The notion of a living and growing temple ‘body’ is not exclusive to Paul, but can be found in other New Testament passages such as John 2:19-21 and 1 Peter 2:5, and is implicit in the imagery of Acts 2. This temple, this building in which Jew and Gentile are brought together in fellowship with God, is built up in conformity to Christ, through acts of communication—‘speaking the truth in love’—and acts of loving mutual service.

It is this international body of persons that is the temple within which God now dwells, a claim that is absolute integral to Paul’s understanding of the Christian message. Essential to the progress of the building project is the establishment of loving communication and service between Jews and Gentiles. Even with the wall of division between them removed, the edifice of the new temple would risk being riven in twain by a huge crack were such bonds between Jews and Gentiles not formed and maintained. This is one reason why Paul expresses such passionate concern about the situation in Antioch he recounts in Galatians 2, where Jews withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles. The eschatological temple is a feat of international relations springing out of the overflowing grace of the gospel.

As contemporary Christians reading these passages, we can fumble for conceptual rationales for the intensity of Paul’s concern to hold Jews and Gentiles together. The principles that most readily present themselves to the consciousness of readers informed by the tradition of Western liberalism are typically those of inclusivity, equality, and non-discrimination, yet these principles have seldom fuelled quite such an intense impulse towards the concrete outworking of unity between people groups as Paul displays in his epistles. They also more typical draw our attention to individuals rather than to concrete historical communities of people.

In focusing upon these categories we risk missing the character of Paul’s concerns and understanding. Paul’s point has less to do with an abstract principle of the equality of individuals and much more to do with the overcoming of divisions between peoples within the arena of history. The ‘oneness’ he declares is not primarily a rejection of the significance of the difference between Jews and Gentiles—note the careful choreography of his chosen pronouns in chapter 2—but his insistence that difference no longer presents a division or obstacle, having been traversed by the grace of Christ’s gospel. Likewise, the unity he proclaims doesn’t straightforwardly underwrite liberal values of inclusivity and non-discrimination. The inclusion and non-discrimination that Paul proclaims is not founded upon absolute moral principle, but upon a historical achievement. It is a unity that is brought forth from a prior situation of divinely-established exclusion and discrimination: God had elected Israel and the Gentiles were excluded. The mystery is that God’s purpose was that this ‘discrimination’ and ‘exclusion’ should one day serve the blessing of all.

The difference between Jews and Gentiles established by the Torah is of great importance to Paul, although he presents this difference in terms of its penultimacy to the new covenant order of the Church. The significance given to the difference between those who were aliens and strangers and those who were citizens and members of the household, between those who were near and those who were afar off, is a reminder that the Church is not a polity founded upon timeless abstract principles, but one forged through God’s decisive action with distinct peoples in history.

The relevance of Paul’s understanding of the gospel for political theology is immense. More than just the equality of all individuals before God, the Church is the concrete establishment of a new international body, within which old oppositions are overcome through divine reconciliation and loving communication. Differences are not necessarily expunged—love and grace are particularizing and address us in our uniqueness—but the divisions they once established are traversed by the working of grace. Were we to recognize the centrality of the overcoming of human division and grace’s traversal of all differences in Paul’s understanding of the gospel—were we to practice it in our communities—the political force of the Christian faith would become clearly evident. As the new organic human temple is built up, it is a light to the world, a pattern of how things really ought to be, a foretaste of the eschaton, where the nations give up the ways of war and join together as one to feast at God’s table.


[1] Ephesians 3:6
[2] Stephen Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 85.
[3] Ibid. 88-89
[4] Ibid. 86

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