Therefore, remember that although you who were once the gentiles in the flesh—the ones called “foreskin” by that which is called “circumcision” in the flesh and made by hand, because you were at that time apart from the Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world—yet now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought close by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11–13)
Every so often, I go to a local community college to watch Israeli films with some of my Jewish friends. Recently, we watched a film called A Borrowed Identity. It’s a beautiful film, based on a touching memoir by popular Israeli Palestinian novelist and TV writer Sayed Kashua. The film tells the story of an Arab boy who, through various circumstances, comes to take on a Jewish identity. It explores friendship, love, life, identity, and humanity. Its message is that if we can just come close to people, experiencing their humanity and seeing their struggles first hand, we will be able to overcome our differences. The film offers a hope of peace through shared humanity.
But sadly, ideals like this don’t always reflect reality, do they? Just a short while before the film was due to premiere at a significant Israeli film festival, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians. Then a sixteen-year-old Palestinian was bludgeoned and burned alive as an act of vengeance. Sayed Kashua, left Israel for good. He later proclaimed: “The lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.”
Despite our best desires and efforts, we humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. No matter how much we might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending it didn’t happen.
Despite our best desires and efforts, we humans are not very good at living up close with others, no matter how much we might want healing. It’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending it didn’t happen.
Yet in this part of Ephesians, Paul talks about a deep-seated conflict that really was healed. He talks about people who once were far away becoming personally close.
These verses begin with Paul telling his readers that they need to recall some things about their past—a memory about their relationship with God. More specifically, it’s a memory about their relationship with God’s ancient people, Israel.
The first part of the memory isn’t a happy one. It involves serious hostility: hostility between God’s people Israel and the various nations that lived round about. This hostility is described in many places in the Old Testament. It continued into the time of Jesus and of Paul in the first century, when the people of Israel were ruled by the Roman Empire. At this time, there were a lot of people from other nations living in Israel, and a lot of people from Israel (Jewish people) living among the other nations. Traditionally, Jewish people referred to non-Jewish people using the biblical word for “nation”, which comes across into English as “gentile”. In many places in the Roman Empire at this time, the hostility between Jewish and gentile people, between Israel and the nations, was palpable and deeply entrenched. It manifested itself in various ways, including in various wars, and even in massacres.
Often, this hostility led to Jewish and non-Jewish people calling each other derogatory names. Jewish people called gentiles the “foreskin” (as a reference to their lack of circumcision). And Jewish circumcision was often mentioned and laughed at by various non-Jewish groups. This wasn’t just harmless name-calling. It was an expression of a fundamental, deep-seated hostility.
The theological and political dimensions
This hostility had a theological dimension too. Jewish people understood themselves to have a special relationship with the true God—unlike those idolatrous gentiles. This is what lies behind Paul telling the gentile Ephesians that they were once “apart from the Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world”.
For Jewish people living in the Roman Empire, gentiles were often seen as foreign oppressors of Israel. They looked to the “Christ” (Messiah) as the one who would deliver Israel and defeat the gentiles.
So the words Paul is echoing here are fighting words: they’re saying if you’re not part of Israel, you’re a godless enemy: you have no share in the Christ, and no share in God.
These words are, in fact, based on things we read about in the Old Testament. Israel was supposed to be God’s special people, and they were supposed to be holy, and God did promise that his coming Messiah would rescue his people from those who oppress them. There’s a truth here. But in fact, it’s only a half-truth (which can be the most dangerous kind of untruth). The rest of the memory changes everything.
Paul says that hostility is in the past: “in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought close by the blood of Christ”. These gentiles who were far away—far away from Israel and far away from God—have been brought close to both God and Israel. How has this happened?
By the blood of Christ
This is where we need to come back to the things Paul has already said in Ephesians. He has already mentioned Christ’s “blood” in connection with Jesus dying in our place, for our sins, so that our “offences” can be forgiven (see Ephesians 1:7). The “blood of Christ” is about Jesus’ death which, along with his resurrection, means our sins are forgiven and that we have a great hope for the future.
But how does this bring us close to each other? What does it have to do with conflict and hostility between Israel and the gentiles? Everything! Because now neither side has anything to boast about when it comes to God. Both Israel and the nations were sinners in need of salvation (v. 3). And everyone who believes in Jesus—whether Jewish or gentile—has been saved purely by God’s grace. So no nation (not even Israel) can claim to have been God’s blameless, holy people. Instead, the gospel teaches us that we’re all the baddies when it comes to God; all saved by God on the same basis; all forgiven and made holy by God’s sheer grace. Therefore we are God’s forgiven yet holy people together. That fact is bigger than any hostility we can think of.
Even when we are hurt even by our own brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to remember that the person or people who hurt us was dead in sin, saved by grace and been made alive in Christ—just like us. We need to remember that none of us can boast in anything before God.
The gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection teaches us that we’re bigger sinners than we can ever imagine. It also teaches us that our salvation is bigger than we can ever imagine. Therefore it teaches us about how to relate to others. It enables us to forgive even those we see as our worst enemies—because in Christ, we ourselves have been forgiven even more. This is how the blood of Christ overcomes hostility. But we need to “remember” it. We need to remember the gospel. We need to remember that though we once were far away, we’ve now been brought close.
In our own conflicts and hostility, this is what we need to remember. If we have been badly hurt by someone, what do we need most? Yes, we may need to speak to the person honestly, or seek repentance, or get closure, or make sure human justice is done—these are all often necessary. But even as we do this, we also need to remember that there is always something greater than the hostility. There is our own forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and our own new life to live. Even when we are hurt even by our own brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to remember that the person or people who hurt us was dead in sin, saved by grace and been made alive in Christ—just like us. We need to remember that none of us can boast in anything before God. We were once far away. But now we have been brought close by the blood of Christ.
So the gospel of our salvation from sin and death through Jesus Christ changes everything. The blood of Christ makes us close to each other as well as God. The same gospel that proclaims individual salvation from sin and death before God, is also therefore a gospel of reconciliation that must make a difference to our relationships and bring reconciliation. We can’t have one without the other. Let’s always remember this. We, who were once far away, were brought close. Not by our own efforts. But by the blood of Christ.
- Consider a situation where you are (or have been) in conflict with others.
- Reflect on what Jesus has done for you in his death on the cross. How does the blood of Christ help you in your situation of conflict
Taken from Lift Your Eyes – a blog and pocast on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians