Paul’s life hung in the balance. While he was traveling with some of his companions he stopped in Jerusalem. One of the men that was traveling with Paul was a Gentile, a man from Ephesus named Trophimus. The Jews were looking for a reason to kill Paul and when they saw Paul at the temple they decided that he had taken the Gentile with him into the temple so they seized the moment. Read along with me from Acts 21:27-31.
27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.) 30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. (Acts 21:27-31 NIV)
The gates of the temple were shut because if Paul had really taken the Gentile with him into the temple then it had been defiled. The truth is that Paul hadn’t taken Trophimus with him into the temple, but the story illustrates for you and me the deep, deep animosity and hatred between the Jews and the Gentiles.
In the temple that Herod had begun renovating in 20 B.C., there was a wall that separated the court of the Gentiles from the rest of the areas of the temple. At various places along the wall there were signs that read, “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” Two of these signs have been discovered, one in 1871 and the other in 1935.
The Jews despised other people. They saw them as less than human. They called them “dogs.” The morning blessing of the Jews contained the prayer, “Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, for not having made me a gentile.” William Barclay tells us,
The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made…It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of that Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death. (William Barclay quoted in John Stott’s commentary on Ephesians. pg. 91.)
I don’t want you to be led to believe that the Jews were the only ones who looked down their noses at people who were different than themselves. The Greeks and Romans were equally arrogant and prejudiced. John MacArthur writes,
The Greeks were so proud of their culture and supposed racial superiority that they considered everyone else to be barbarians, a belief to which Paul alludes in Romans 1:14 and Colossians 3:11. The Greek language was considered to be the language of the gods. The Roman statesman Cicero wrote, ‘As the Greeks say, ‘All men are divided into two classes, Greeks and barbarians.’’ Livy, another ancient Roman, wrote that Greeks constantly waged a truceless war against people of other races, all of whom they held to be barbarians. Because of such feelings, the early church faced continuing barriers not only between believing Gentiles and Jews but between believing Greeks and other Gentile believers. (MacArthur, John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians. pg. 66)
I’m so glad that as time has passed and we have become so much more sophisticated, educated, and enlightened that we have gotten rid of all of the walls that divide us as people. I’m so thrilled that we, of our own doing, have eradicated all prejudice, feelings of racial and national superiority, and hatred of other people and nations. Our intelligence and elevated sophistification have achieved for us what no other society has ever experienced. Right? I think you know better than that. There are as many walls in our hearts as there were in the hearts of the Jews and Gentiles. There are as many walls in our city, and the other cities of the world, as there ever were in Jerusalem or any other city for that matter. It has been over twenty years now since Rodney King asked an important question on national television—“Can we all just get along?” I think the past twenty years have provided an answer to Rodney’s question…not a chance!
There has been, there is, and there will continue to be hostility, animosity, aggravation, prejudice, and even hatred among people groups in our world regardless of the level of education we attain, regardless of how many “peace conferences” we attend, and regardless of government intervention. There is but one solution and we are going to spend our time learning about it for the next few weeks. Won’t you turn to Ephesians 2:11-22 with me and let’s read together.
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. 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. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22 NIV)
This section of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus can be broken down into three sections. First of all, in verses 11-13 we read about the reality of the Gentiles before the time of Jesus. That would be you and me if you are not Jewish. Second, in verses 14-18 we learn that God has brought us near through Christ. We who were once far away have been brought near. What a thought! Last of all, in verses 19-22, we read about the implications of our new privileged position. Let’s begin by going back to verse 11. Paul writes,
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)—(Ephesians 2:11 NIV)
In this verse Paul uses the derogatory term that the Jews used to marginalize the Gentiles—they were the “uncircumcised.” The Jews called themselves the “circumcision.” What is tragic about this is that God had established the Jewish rite of circumcision as a symbol of His covenant with Israel—it was to be a sign, a reminder to all of the Jewish males, of His covenant love. It was never intended to be a badge of prideful arrogance or a means to alienate others. I want to show you the Scripture where God initiated the covenant sign with Abraham. Turn with me to Genesis 17:10-13.
10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner–those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. (Genesis 17:10-13 NIV)
So every male among the Jews was to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. What was given as a constant reminder of God’s covenant love, a sign that would remind them of God’s wonderful grace, the Jews turned into a status symbol of pride and arrogance. It didn’t take long for this to happen. God responded to the waywardness of His people by raising up His prophets to address the problem. Listen to what He says through Moses in Deuteronomy 10:15-16.
15 Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:15-16 NIV)
God wanted His people to know that they had perverted the sign of His covenant. Even though they were circumcised in the flesh—God wanted them to cut away the hard shell that encompassed their hearts. In Jeremiah 9:25-26 we read,
25 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh– 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (Jeremiah 9:25-26 NIV)
The same theme comes through loud and clear in the New Testament. Paul sets the record straight on circumcision in Romans 2:25-29 when he makes it clear that “circumcision is circumcision of the heart.” Listen to this.
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:25-29 NIV)
The sign of circumcision was merely a symbol, a “sticky note” if you will, to remind God’s people of His covenant established by His unmerited love and grace. Israel was God’s Chosen People, not because of anything they had done to cause God to choose them, but because of His glorious love. As a matter of fact, God chose Israel for a purpose. God told Abraham,
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3 NIV)
Did you hear that? “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Just three months after the Hebrew slaves had been delivered from their slavery in Egypt, God spoke to Moses and gave him a message to deliver to His Chosen People. Turn to Exodus 19:5-6 with me.
5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:5-6 NIV)
God’s plan was still in effect. He had called a people unto Himself to use them as a kingdom of priests to the nations. This raises a question for us doesn’t it? How can you minister to the nations when you believe that all of the other nations are irrelevant? How can you minister to those that you believe are inferior to you? How can you minister, how can you serve, when you are so full of pride, so arrogant? Because Israel forgot “whose” they were and “why” they were, they convinced themselves that they were special and better than all of the other nations, and as a result the nation of Israel, God’s Chosen People, became a stench in the nostrils of the nations.
I hope that we, the Church, hear a strong word of caution in this. We are a “chosen people.” We are “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,” and our call is to minister to the nations, to serve those who do not know of God’s mercy and kindness expressed to us in what He has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You may be wondering how I’ve arrived at that description of you and me, those who are “in Christ?” Turn with me to 1 Peter 2:9-10 and let’s read together.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 NIV)
Has the realization that God has “chosen” you become a source of ungodly pride for you? Have you forgotten why God has chosen you and as a result you’ve begun to look down your nose at those who have yet to know His amazing grace and marvelous mercy? What about our church? Have we become a closed community? We may not have signs like the signs that were in the temple, but do visitors feel welcome when they walk through our doors? How about the outcasts, the downcast, and those that the rest of society would rather not bother with? Do they know they belong among the people of God or are they made to feel like they don’t belong or they aren’t welcome?
I was talking to a friend of mine this past week about some mutual friends of ours who have had a tough life. They had two strikes against them from the day they were born, they’ve made some bad decisions, and at the present time life is harder than it’s ever been. You will never see our friends in the “Society” section of The Daily Oklahoman, they will never have a banquet thrown in their honor, and most people would simply dismiss them to the fringe of society and be quite comfortable with it. I told my buddy, “You know, the truth of the matter is that you and your wife, and Connie and I, can go to any church in Oklahoma City and be welcomed with open arms, but where they can go and worship? Where can they go and be made to feel welcome? They can come to Britton Christian Church…that’s where they belong.”
Let’s move on or we will never get through this section of Paul’s letter. It is interesting to me that at the very beginning of this section of Paul’s teaching he says, “Therefore remember…” In the beginning of our study of Ephesians 2 we learned the status of all of humanity before God intervened on our behalf. We were “dead in our transgressions and sins,” we were “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature,” and we “were by nature objects of wrath.” That is true for all of humanity. If it were not for what God has done on our behalf through His Son Jesus, each and every one of us would still be in that same place. Now, because of what God has done on our behalf we don’t have to live like that any longer. We can surrender our lives to Jesus, allow Him to break the shackles of sin, begin His transforming work in our lives, and set us free to serve Him.
In verses 11-22, Paul builds upon what he has already said by speaking specifically to the Gentiles who have come to know Jesus. He points out the status of the Gentiles, as a people, before God intervened through His Son. The Gentiles were at a disadvantage and Paul lists five:
1. They were “without Christ.”
2. They had been “excluded from citizenship in Israel.”
3. They were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise.”
4. They were “without hope.”
5. They were “without God in the world.”
This is an interesting list for us to understand. The Gentiles didn’t share in the covenant God had made with His people, they were not citizens of the Chosen People, they didn’t have the hope of a Messiah like the Jews had throughout their history, and as a result of these things they were without the hope that comes from these blessings. When we read that they were without God in the world we shouldn’t conclude that they were athiests. The Gentiles worshiped many gods, but as a group they didn’t worship the God who made Himself known to the Jews. For the non-Jews there were distinct disadvantages. It is even more telling when you recognize the advantages of the Jewish people. Paul, who was a Jew himself, writes in Romans 3:1-2,
1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. (Romans 3:1-2 NIV)
God’s Chosen People were given the very words of God. That would be enough of an advantage don’t you think, but God blessed His people with even more advantages. In Romans 9:4-5, Paul lists some of the other advantages of the Jews.
4 …Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:4-5 NIV)
The Gentiles didn’t share in any of these advantages and therefore they were put at a disadvantage. Or so it seemed. God had a plan all along. Remember what He told Abraham? God had a plan and it included the Gentiles. God was going to do what no person could ever do. Not only was He going to reconcile those who were “far away” and bring them near to Himself through His Son Jesus, but He would also reconcile them to one another. He would create an entirely new people through His Son. All of this has been made possible because of what God has done through His Son. In Ephesians 2:13 we read,
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13 NIV)
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Do you remember, back in Ephesians 2:1-3, when Paul was talking about the hopeless situation of each of us before God acted on our behalf through Jesus? And then we came to verse 4 and read, “But because of His great love for us…” The answer to the hopelessness of being enslaved to sin is found in Christ. The answer to our alienation from God and from one another is found in Christ. We live in a world of walls, a world divided by race, class, economics, education, religion, and much, much more and we will never ever figure out a way to remove these walls outside of Christ.
He is our peace and He alone offers the peace that this world is craving. Before He can ever be the peace of this world, He must first become the peace of the people of this world. If you are not a follower of Jesus then you are alienated from God. Why would you not allow Him to become your peace and reconcile you to the Father this very morning? Won’t you invite Him in?
January 29, 2012