American Journal of Biblical
Copyright © 2011, J.W. Carter. Scripture quotes from KJV
The Odeon, Ephesus.
If we were to be transported back 2000 years and witnessed the Hellenistic culture of the region of Ephesus, and if we had an opportunity to observe the development of the church at Ephesus, we would probably find it to be a supremely enlightening experience. We do have the opportunity, however, to bear witness to the development of the church in this century, and if we were to compare the two cultures, we would find the differences to be dramatic. If we choose at random any church in America today, we would most likely find two axioms to be true: first, each member looks a lot like all of the others. Just as birds of similar species flock together, the natural prejudices of man tend to draw similar people together. Such groups tend to choose to ignore others who might be a little different. What are some of the differences that tend to separate people? Unfortunately there is little difference in the motivations for division in the church than there is in modern secular culture. We divide into groups of like race or similar economic state. We, as a globally present church divide ourselves into denominations that differ in doctrinal opinion (usually very slight), different worship styles, and different polity.
We find divisions even within the church body. Though many congregations are composed of a small microcosm of their local culture, such divisions become even more miniscule in the membership. People divide by family groups (tribes?), by grudges over past experiences, by religious and political opinions, and those who may be members but do not quite fit into the finite microcosm of the fellowship are not treated openly in love, but tend to be accepted and ignored. Even students in our Christian seminaries divide themselves into groups, often building walls out of subtle doctrinal beliefs; walls that lead beyond simple opinions and lead to disfellowship.
It is natural that people cluster around those with whom they are comfortable, where there is no threat of change or commitment to it. However, that behavior, which is a fundamental characteristic of natural man, is not appropriate when expressed within the body of the church. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, in the second half of the second chapter, he addresses this issue.
Consider for a moment the cultural makeup of the membership of the Ephesian church. First, the body was made up mostly of Gentiles, though there were apparently a few Jewish Christians among their group. Jews shared a similar heritage and culture, a characteristic that separated them from every other people group in the region. The Jews considered all people who were not Jewish as "Unclean," or "Gentiles." To the orthodox Jewish community, these words meant, essentially, the same thing. By referring to them as "uncircumcized," they were literally nSince Paul was a Jew, he also used this term, Gentile, to refer to the non-Jews in the Ephesian church, the group to whom he was primarily writing. Among the Gentiles were represented many people groups. Ephesus was, at the time, one of the largest (if not THE largest) city in the region, housing as many as 250,000 people. These people came from every region of the known world, from as far West as modern Spain, from as far North as modern Northern Europe, from as far East as the modern Middle East, and from as far South as Northern Africa. On any given day, one would hear dozens of languages spoken in the streets. It is from this mosaic of cultures that the Ephesian church drew its members. When we throw in a handful of Jews into the mix, we come up with one of the most disparate group of people that one could imagine. Furthermore, as we study the early church we find that its members were drawn from mostly the lower to lower-middle classes of the society, with a few of the "high-society" members, and a few of the poorest in the mix. It would be very hard for us to visualize, without some study, the very disparate group that formed the early church. It is no wonder that so much New Testament scripture would be dedicated to the call to unity in the body of Christ.
THE CHURCH IS A FELLOWSHIP FOR ALL BELIEVERS
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 12That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
Actually, verse 11 is a continuation of the thought from the previous verses. In Chapter 2, verses 1 through 10 Paul describes (in a single Greek sentence) how, through Christ, the members of the church were lost, fallen, and out of fellowship with God, and how through their faith in Christ they had been brought to God, and were now Christ's "workmanship." God would, through the Power of the Holy Spirit, be bringing the people of faith through a process of development and growth so that they could be blessed, and honor God. A significant part of the "workman's" process in bringing people together in Christ is to help them to shed the ignorance and prejudices that they bring, like heavy baggage, into the fellowship. Unlike most people in the church today, only the youngest of the Ephesians grew up in the fellowship of believers. They had little Christian culture to draw from, and came together bringing in their own cultural biases, but subjecting themselves to the apostle's teaching that would address those biases.
No example was clearer for them to understand than was that of the cultural bias between the Jews and all other people. This exclusivist nature of the Jews caused them to be hated by most other cultures. Here, Paul refers to the Ephesians as having been "Gentiles in the flesh," first Gentiles who were not included in the blessed nation of Israel, and second, people who were in the flesh, out of fellowship with God and lost. Circumcision was understood to represent the covenant that God made with Abraham, but by stating that this circumcision is in the flesh, made by hands, he denotes that this religious rite served to separate the Gentiles from the Children of Israel, but has nothing to do with receiving salvation. Here we see the start of the reconciliation of the Jewish and Gentile cultures under the one Head, Christ. In the past they were separated from God by their lost state, and separated from the Jews by their exclusion from their religious rites. However, now that they have found salvation, no such division exists.
Just as the Gentiles were separated from the Jews, they were also separated from God, excluded from God's fellowship. They were without hope of salvation, as they would remain forever ignorant of God's purpose. However ...
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that, in Christ, everything is changed. Whereby they were previously separated from God, the atoning act of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary made it possible for the walls of division to be broken down, and those who respond to Jesus through faith are brought near to God for the first time. By coming near to God, people of all cultural groups come near to each other and by so doing have a common bond greater than any other differences that previously separated us. In the Hebrew, the word for "near" has a special connotation related to the temple, originally referring to a distance from Jerusalem.
For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; 15Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
The peace that Paul refers to here is two-fold. We can see that by bringing the Jews and the Christians together in Christ, God has laid down a foundation of peace between them. Only needs only to view the history of fighting in the middle-east between Israel and all of its neighbors to witness that without Christ, peace is virtually impossible for them. The enmity that Jews have held with their Gentile neighbors dates back to the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael, and between Jacob and Esau. Because of this, it is safe to say that without Jesus, there will never be peace in the middle-east. However, more important that the reconciliation of two disparate cultures, is the reconciliation between God and man. Before salvation, all people are an enemy of God.
James 4:4. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
Romans 8:7-8. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
What part did Jesus' death on the cross play in this battle? Chrysostom explained that it is "as if one should melt down one statue of silver and another of lead, and the two together should come out gold." Jesus did not bring the Gentiles up to the level of Jews, but rather brought both to Himself. Jesus' death on the cross brought a complete reconciliation between God and man, as the veil of the temple was rent from top to bottom, access to God was made available to all. The middle wall of the temple was used to separate the Gentiles from the holy places.
Deuteronomy 32:8-9. When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel for the Lordís portion is his people, Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
The barrier between Jew and Gentile has been torn down. The division between circumcision and uncircumcision has been bridged by Jesus, who is peace and peace maker. No longer will the law of Moses serve to be serve to condemn man to the wrong side of the dividing line between man and God, but rather, forgiveness for transgressions from the law of God would forever be available through Jesus.
Galatians 6:15. Neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision, availeth anything,
And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:
What does it mean to be reconciled? The Greek term, apokatalasso, involves the idea of restoring to a singular unity after a period of separation. Who is reconciled here? God, through Jesus' atoning death reconciled both Jews and Gentiles, and by so doing, provided reconciliation for all people. All people are united into a single body at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ. There is no longer a spiritual division between men and God, and there is no longer a spiritual division among men who have faith in God through Jesus Christ. This is a fulfillment the prophesy stated by the angels, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14, NIV.)
And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. 18For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that Jesus' personal ministry was extended to both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus drew no distinction between Jews and Gentiles and never inferred that one group was any closer to God than the other. In fact, Jesus often criticized the Jews for their hypocritical religion. Jesus' exposure of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and his ministry among the Gentiles infuriated the Jews. Jesus made Himself accessible to both Jews and Gentiles in his ministry, and by abolishing the power of the law in His death, he has made Himself accessible to all. In his commission to the disciples Jesus called them to "Go into all the world... (Matt. 28:20), clearly referring to every people group in every nation. As a result, it is the One Holy Spirit that binds all Christians together into a single body of believers who have an access to God that was only entrusted to the High Priest on the Day of Atonement under previous Jewish Law. This common bond of all Christians supersedes any differences in culture or worldly ideologies.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
Therefore, there is no context for enmity or discord within the church. Though we were strangers, when we have been bound together by the Spirit of God we become brothers and sisters in the household of faith. As God no longer makes distinction among men, it is inappropriate that we bring the baggage of prejudice into the assembly and hold distinctions against one another. I have often heard the idiom, "the ground is level at the foot of the cross." It is appropriate that when we look across the congregation of our local church that we see a diversity that is consistent with our community. What do you see when you look across your congregation? Are there cliques of people who tend to exclude others from fellowship in their group?
THE CHURCH IS FOUNDED ON THE CORNERSTONE
And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
God's plan of salvation has never changed. Man has always been reconciled to God by the forgiveness of sins through faith in Him. Some argue that the church started at Jesus' resurrection, and as an organized body it did. However, all through the Old Testament we find people of faith, as testified to in Hebrews, Chapter 11. The original patriarchs of the body of Christ are the apostles and the prophets (and other people of the faith in the Old Testament that are not considered prophets.)
There is some confusion, however, over the use of the word, "foundation" as used here. Certainly, Jesus is the foundation of the church. However, in the context used here, Jesus is the "cornerstone," making more sense of the previous statement when used in context. In our modern building technology, there is little significance to the cornerstone of a building. If a building has one, it is usually some sign that indicates the date the building was built, or some other item of information. Many buildings in the ancient middle east were made of cut stone, and lacking the leveling and squaring technologies we currently have, the cornerstone was of utmost importance. The artisans spent a good deal of time preparing the cornerstone that was trimmed square on the two sides that would align it's adjoining walls. It would be set with a pan of water on top of it to assure that it was level in all directions as it was set. The walls would then depend entirely for direction and level upon the placement of the cornerstone with each stone set using measurements from the cornerstone. When we consider the passage using this context, we see the apostles and the prophets, not as the foundation of the church, but as the beginning of the church. Furthermore, since the foundation is laid in reference to the cornerstone, that beginning was entirely dependent upon Jesus. Consequently, every stone laid upon that foundation (representing church growth) becomes dependent upon Jesus Christ, and its health is predicated by God's Word, also laid down by the prophets and apostles.
Using this imagery, we see how a Christian fellowship differs from a secular social club. Where a social club is built around the desires of its members, the church is built upon and around Jesus Christ. The church is built of members who express faith in Christ, aligning themselves with the cornerstone as they add their lives to the fellowship. Just as the Cornerstone serves to align the stones of the building, the Holy Spirit serves to align the hearts of members of the Christian fellowship. Consequently, in matters of the church, it is not the opinion of the members that is paramount, but rather the purpose of God in the membership.
What would happen if the builders ignored the cornerstone? Walls would not be run straight and true. The individual courses of stone would not run level. The beams and roof structure would not fit the walls once constructed. The building would not be built to the standard of its design. Likewise, a church is built on the standard set by Jesus Christ, not the standard set by the builders. When a church is built on the standard of the builders, the result is a cheap imitation of a church, functional in the eyes of its members, but not in the eyes of the LORD. Such a church may serve the function of meeting some of the social needs of its members, but will have difficulty achieving any purpose that the LORD intended for it. Churches that have forgotten the cornerstone tend to allow the personal opinions and desire for control of their members to fragment the congregation, reduce or eliminate their evangelical ministry, and stagnate or reduce growth. However, a church that is built to the standard of the Cornerstone is, indeed, the church of Christ. It is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and looks to the Holy Spirit for the placement of each brick, resulting in a body that functions in the Spirit of God, in peace, and in love.
THE CHURCH IS A HOLY TABERNACLE OF THE LORD
In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
Paul moves from metaphor to allegory as he identifies that the purpose of the cornerstone is to "frame together" and "build together" a holy temple for the habitation of God through the Holy Spirit. The church is that temple. When Jesus died on the cross, the temple of the Holy Spirit moved from a stone structure where it's presence had been absent for 400 years into the hearts of every believer. When we gather together as Christians we are a gathering of the Holy Temple of God, the church. His Spirit lives within every Christian, and by so doing, His significance defines our infinite value in the eyes of God. How can we look at one another and make value judgments that are any less that what God sees? When Christians look at one another we are inspired by the Holy Spirit to look upon one another in love. Unless we quench the Spirit and fall back on our base and sinful desires, we will look at all people as God does. We will find that the commonality we have with one another through Jesus Christ overshadows any trivial differences of appearance or social status.
The Church of Jesus Christ is one united body of believers. Let us not interject our pride and selfishness and divide ourselves against one another, but support one another in love. If Christians truly did this our church facilities could not hold all of the people who would turn to God. .