Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Racism And The Church

Paul teaches about reconciliation in Ephesians chapter two. First, he details our reconciliation with God (vs 1-10). But then he describes our reconciliation with each other (vs 11-22). Vertical and horizontal reconciliation, all through the work of Jesus Christ! Peace with God and peace with each other. It's really an epic, big-picture thing. In verses 1-10 we were dead in sin, 'but God' made us alive and saved us by grace. And in verses 11-22 Gentiles were cut off from God's people Israel, 'but now in Christ Jesus' a new, muti-ethnic humanity has been created - the church - a unified, international community bought with Jesus' blood and living for God's glory.

This is really good stuff.

Ethnic Hostility
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands…” Ephesians 2:11, ESV

 It is very hard for us to imagine the hostility between Jews and Gentiles in this period. Paul alludes to the name calling and labels in verse 11 (‘the uncircumcision’ - Stott). The Jews were given great advantages and privileges as the people of God (Rom 9:5). But they were supposed to be a light to the nations instead of becoming self-righteous! Stott says Israel “twisted her privilege into favoritism and ended up heartily despising – even detesting – the heathen as ‘dogs.’

William Barclay gives mind-numbing descriptions of this hatred of Gentiles. First, he says that Jews thought of Gentiles as being created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell! Secondly, they would not even aid a Gentile mother in giving birth, since it would result in another Gentile coming into the world. And finally, if a Jew and Gentile intermarried, the family of the Jew would conduct a funeral service, since the one who married the Gentile was now dead to their family (Barclay, quoted in Stott).
No doubt the Gentiles felt the same way about the Jews.
Could anyone ever bring these two together?
The Reconciliation of the Church
Paul gives us the good news of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ on behalf of the church. He speaks on our reconcilation to each other, and then to God.

A. Reconciled to Each Other. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…” Ephesians 2:14-15, ESV
Paul is addressing the problem of ethnic division, so he deals with the horizontal reconciliation first. In this verse we see several aspects of Christ's work:
1. Hostility to Peace. Paul uses war language - hostility and peace. Reconciliation has occurred in Christ. The two warring parties have come to terms of peace through Jesus and his cross. Jesus himself is our peace! He has ended the war between ethnic groups; therefore the church should not be at war with each other but at peace!
2. Division to Unity. Paul also uses division/reconciliation language. Jews and Gentiles were not only hostile towards each other, but sharply divided. Nothing symbolized the division between Jew and Gentile like the Temple at Jerusalem itself. The court of the Gentiles was the furthest court from the Temple, and was on a lower level. They could look up at the Temple but not draw near. A wall separated the Gentile court from the Jews, and signs were placed around the wall warning that death would be the penalty for any Gentile who crossed over the wall. This was serious division!
Additionally, the Mosaic law-covenant itself, with all its ceremonial rules, served to divide Jews from Gentiles. For instance, the dietary regulations made it impossible for Jews and Gentiles to have table fellowship. But Christ abolished this at the cross in order to bring the two together (Col 2:13-14 – O’Brien, Thielman). In Christ, we are not under the Old Covenant, but the New, and we are not under the covenant of Moses, but the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21).

This means that Christ has unified what man could never unify. He tore down the dividing walls at the cross and has accomplished unity for his church. We do not have to work to accomplish unity; it already exists. We simply have to believe this truth and live in its implications. We should not be rebuilding the ethnic walls Jesus tore down at the cross, or living as if he never tore them down!
3. Two Ethnicities to One New Man. Paul has spoken of Christ's work in war-peace terms and in division-unity terms. But there is one more set of terms he uses, and they paint an amazing picture! We learn that Jesus did not make the Gentiles become Jews, or vice versa, but actually created a new humanity – a new creation! This is not a splicing together of the best elements of Jews and Gentiles; it is something altogether new (O’Brien). O’Brien goes on to say, “They are not joining Israel, becoming national Jews, but of a newly created community which transcends Israel and its privileges and where Gentiles along with the Jews, are on equal footing.” Those who are in Christ are part of this new society, the ‘international and interracial’ (Stott) church of Jesus Christ! Christ has made one new man in place of the two.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
Consider, then, how evil it is to refuse to embrace other Christians because of their ethnicity. This attempts to ignore (or even destroy) one aspect of Christ's work on the cross.
B. Reconciled to God
“and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Ephesians 2:16-18, ESV

Paul not only speaks of the horizontal reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ; he teaches that Christ took these two groups and reconciled them both to God!

There are several important things in these three verses:
  • Jews and Gentiles Reconciled to God through Christ crucified. There is one way of salvation for all ethnic groups – Jesus Christ!
  • Killing the hostility. Earlier Paul spoke of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Now he speaks of the hostility that existed between man and God (our rebellion towards him and his just wrath against us). Through Christ, we now have peace with each other, and we have peace with God! Our rebellion towards God and his just wrath against sinners has both been brought to peace through the cross of Christ! 
  • He preached peace. Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:7 (the Lord’s messenger who proclaims peace) and combines it with Isaiah 57:19 (peace, peace to the far and near) to describe Christ’s peace as being proclaimed through the gospel to those who are far (Gentiles) and also near (Jews) [Thielman]. This peace was proclaimed by Christ after he rose from the grave (John 20:19); and he sent his apostles out to proclaim the gospel of peace to all nations. Through those who proclaim the gospel Jesus still preaches peace!
  • The Triune God! In verse 18 Paul mentions Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father in one verse. The Three Persons of the One God join in unified work for our salvation and for church unity and fellowship. Through Jesus, Jews and Gentiles both have access in one Spirit to the Father. The God who exists as a community has brought warring rebels together into a community through the gospel of Christ!
 What a glorious thing God has done in Christ Jesus! Let us repent of our racism and receive forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. And let us embrace our brothers and sisters - all who believe in Christ from every tribe and tongue and nation and language!
  • The Letter To The Ephesians; Peter T. O’Brien; ©1999; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI.
  • The Message Of Ephesians – God’s New Society; John R. W. Stott; ©1979; InterVarsity Press, USA. Downers Grove, IL.
  • Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament; Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Ephesians commentary by Frank S. Thielman. ©2007. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, MI.

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