Israel and the Church in Ephesians 2:11-22

Ephesians 2:11-22 shows the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers in the church. But what does that mean for Israel? Does the creation of the “one new man” mean that Israel, as a nation, has no more part to play in the plan of God in history? In the following I argue in the negative.

Gentile believers and Jewish believers are united as one body in the church at this present time--the church age--and that the basis for unity is the abrogation of the Law of Moses through the death of Christ. The unilateral promises made to ethnic Israel need not be taken up into the creation of the church, that what is shared is the blessings of salvation referred to prior to this text (Eph 2:1-10) and that the text should not be used to show that the church has replaced ethnic Israel or that the promises made to Israel cannot have a future fulfillment.

Theme of Ephesians

It has been noted that discerning the central purpose for which Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians is difficult.[1] A number of themes are notable, but it is difficult to discern a concrete situation into which Paul is speaking. A concern for unity in the church, especially between Jewish and Gentile believers, the importance of the supremacy of Christ and the advance of an early catholicism have all been advanced as purposes for the letter. Carson and Moo suggest that, though no “concrete crisis” is in view, the letter is primarily addressed to Gentiles and is written to give the hearers of the letter a “distinctively Christian identity.”[2]

Thielman’s suggestion that Paul seeks to unify the church in Christ[3] is not incompatible with such a purpose and certainly comports with the central idea of Ephesians 2:11-22. Both unity and identity are in view. Identity involves unity - unity in salvation, under the Lordship of Christ and together as one church. However, the text in question also contains temporal concerns. It is concerned with the present church age in contrast with the time before Christ. The promises made to Israel as an ethnic or national group are not necessarily ruled out since their fulfillment may be at a future time.

The thematic purpose of the letter, therefore, concerns the identity of Gentile believers as united with Jewish believers in the church during the present church age.

The Text
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— (remember) that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
The structure of Ephesians 2:11-22 reveals a three part division. The first two parts contrast the former condition of the Gentiles (11-12) with their present condition (13-18). Paul contrasts the former position of Gentiles to the benefits of citizenship of Israel. The contrast is temporal (“formerly” and “but now”) and spatial (“far off” and “near”). Then he concludes (19-22) with the solution. Both Jews and Gentiles are included as the people of God in the “one new man,” the church. The church is illustrated as a new commonwealth with Jews and Gentiles as equal citizens and as a building, built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone.

Word/Phrase Studies

“Far off” or “far away” (μακρὰν) can be used to describe proximity to God (Acts 17:24), to the kingdom (Mark 12:34) or can take a temporal meaning (Acts 2:39).[4] In this context proximity to God is implied. The main distance in view is from the closeness to God enjoyed by Israel. The Jewish idioms, “far” and “near,” were used in pairs to distinguish Jew and non-Jew.[5] Bruce notes that Paul’s use of the term may have been a reference to Isaiah 57:19, a reference to the wicked.[6] A similar use is found in Luke’s work, “far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21), recording the words of Christ’s commission to Paul. It may be reflected in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost that references “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39). Some have suggested that the latter reference is to the diaspora. But that is not Paul’s reference in Ephesians since it is placed in contrast to those who are near, being ethnic Israel.

“Near” (ἐγγύς) can mean either close spacial or temporal proximity.[7] Spatially, it can denote close proximity to cultic centers and is used in the Old Testament to refer the closeness of the priests to the presence of Yahweh in the sanctuary. It can also mean the state of being approved of by God. God may draw his people near to him or God may draw near to his people.[8] In the New Testament it is used to describe proximity to a locale (Acts 1:12, John 19:20), but is more commonly used temporarily to refer to a coming time (1 Pet 4:7, Matt 4:17, Luke 21:20). When combined with μακρὰν, ἐγγύς has the connotation of relationship, especially between God and man (Mark 12:34).[9]

“Commonwealth of Israel” (τῆς πολιτείας τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ) (v.12). πολιτείας, a feminine, genitive, singluar noun translated as “citizenship,” refers to a set of privilages possesed by those belonging to the commonwealth or state of Israel,[10] “to be a citizen, take part in government, live, conduct one’s life.”[11] Most versions translate it as “commonwealth” (NASB, KJV, ESV) with the exception of the NET, which translates it as “citizenship.” It appears that Paul’s use of the term is not merely to denote those separate from the commonwealth, but those separate as non-citizens or non-members, unable to partake of the benefits of citizenship in Israel. The kind of citizenship is unique to national or ethnic Israel as we see by the use of of the article (par excellence). Consequently, the term refers to a particular set of privileges bestowed on those who have citizenship. This is also made clear by the context that spells out what those privileges were (v.12).

“Fellow citizens with the Saints” (συμπολῖται τῶν ἁγίων) is the contrasting statement and emphasizes the new relationship Gentiles have with Jews. συμπολῖται, a masculine, nominative, plural noun meaning, “fellow citizens,” emphasises the fact that Gentiles in the church are now citizens of the church alongside Jewish believers.[12] τῶν ἁγίων (genitive, plural, neutral) probably refers to the holy ones of Israel, but could refer to the church including Gentiles. It is always translated “with the saints” and could be seen as a genitive of relationship or association.

Commentary

Paul’s argument in the letter thus far has been to address the majority Gentile readership as to their standing with God. Their former state of alienation from God (2:1-3) has been changed by the act of God in Christ (2:4-5) rendering all who have been saved by grace to be made alive in Christ. This is grounded, not in human work, but in God’s grace received through faith (2:8-10).

This new work of God is not, Paul argues, a deviation from plan, but in accord with the eternal decree of God (1:3-14). Such riches of grace are, for Paul, what unites him with his readers and produces his motivation for prayer and praise (1:15-17). It also motivates his concern that his readers recognise the inheritance they have been given in Christ (1:18-19) demonstrated by God’s raising up of Christ from the dead to supreme authority as head of the church and the cosmos.[13]

The implications for life in the “one new man,” the church, relate to living in unity under the Lordship of Christ who is the head of the body (4:1-3) and results in relationships within the body that reflect unity in diversity through submission to one another in general (5:21), in marriage (5:22-23), in parenting (6:1-4) and in service (6:5-9).

Paul’s contrast is of Gentiles before and after the time of Christ, specifically the crucifixion (vs 13, 16), and between being far and near. The phrase, οἵ ποτε ὄντες μακρὰν, stands in apposition to the subject of the verb ἐγενήθητε and thus is concessive to their present state of nearness.[14] Thus the rendering has the sense that in spite of once being far off, the present age is a time of being near.

Of importance is what we think that the Gentiles were far from and what they have now been brought near to. How has the distance been overcome? What kind of nearness and farness does Paul intend? The text reveals that the contrast is not between exclusion from Israel and inclusion in Israel, but exclusion from Israel and inclusion in the church:

formerly...at that time (far off)
                                    separate               from          Christ (or “Messiah,” (HCSB)),
                                    excluded             from          the commonwealth of Israel, and
                                    strangers              to              the covenants of promise,
But now                     (near)
                                   have access          to               the Father.
                                   fellow citizens     with           the saints (or the holy ones of Israel)
                                   being built           into            a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

At first glance the adverb, ἐγγὺς, “near,” describes the present position of Gentiles to the benefits of citizenship of Israel. Some would consider this to mean that the Gentiles have been brought into the true Israel, the church, implying that the church has replaced Israel. This is not implied by the text, however, since the state of nearness is not by means of inclusion into Israel, but by inclusion of both Jews and and Gentiles into the “one new man,” the church.

If, however, Paul’s emphasis is not on the incorporation of Gentiles into a new Israel why does he describe it in terms of “citizenship” (2:19)? Saucy responds that in view is not national citizenship, but relationship: “the emphasis is not on Israel and the incorporation of the Gentiles into that nation. Rather, it is on the disadvantageous position or lostness of the Gentiles in comparison with Israel’s privileges.”[15] Nearness and farness, then, according to Saucy, are not ethical nor sociological, but relational. Indeed, that being the case, all the terms relating to position--separate, excluded, strangers, no hope, without God, far, near, peace, enmity, reconcile--should be taken primarily in terms of position before God and, as in the particular focus of this passage, the relational status of Gentiles with Jews in the church.

Saucy argues that these terms point not to a national inclusion, but a spiritual inclusion. Citizenship is a “heavenly” citizenship. He argues that the reference is parallel to Paul’s assertion that the Philippian Christians have citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20).

It is also possible to consider “separate from Christ” or “without Messiah” as the controlling idea for what follows. Gentiles were without a Messiah meaning excluded from citizenship and the covenants, those qualities being in apposition to being without Messiah. It is also fairly clear that Paul does not use the term “Christ” as a proper name, but uses it as the Jewish title “Messiah,” anointed one. This being the case the contrast is mainly aimed at describing the Gentile plight in relationship with the Jewish Messiah. This would support those who argue that the letter to the Ephesians acts as a sequel to Colossians, spelling out the implications of the cosmic reign of Christ.

It may be argued, however, that although Gentiles are not included in Israel, Israel has lost its distinction from Gentiles in the church. This is seen in the contrast between the two groups and the emphasis on the unity of the church:

           For He Himself is our peace, who

           made                        both groups                   into one
           make                        the two                          into one new man
           reconcile                  both                               in one body[16]

Is Paul asserting that, in Christ, there is such oneness that previous categories no longer apply? When one becomes a Christian--Jew or non-Jew--does his former status become obsolete? If so, “one new man” must transcend both categories in favor of a replacement. In practice, of course, this has generally meant that the jewishness of a Jewish believer is deemed null and void. On the other hand, since there is nothing particularly gentilish (at least in New Testament terms), apart from being non-Jewish, there is nothing for the Gentile believer to void. This is the weakness of the parity argument - that, although Jews must drop their national, ethnic identity (apart from in a sociological sense, devoid of all reference to national promise and divine chosenness), Gentiles must do the same thing.[17] What, if this were true, would be the identity that Gentiles would have to give up? Their non-jewishness?

Barry Horner argues that this is to ignore the plain sense of Paul’s argument. It is precisely the alienation of Gentiles from the citizenship of Israel to which the gospel provides the solution.[18] Horner argues that the covenants of promise (v.12) are Abrahamic in nature. He concludes that Gentiles are brought near to those promises and have come to share in them through Christ. This in no way makes being Jewish obsolete or confined to mere sociological category.

Horner’s main argument is that it is by means of the “blood of Christ” (v.13) that Gentiles have been brought near to something else. The something else is a new entity, not transcending or abrogating national distinctions, but the church as the fulfillment of promise. Two are now one, but this does not necessitate complete oneness without distinction. Within the church the remnant of Israel continues while the national promises to Israel remain unchanged.

Hendriksen argues that this is to create a two tier church consisting of first and second class citizens. He argues that “the saints” (v.19) should be taken to refer to all the people of God, Jew and Gentile alike. If this is the case it follows that there remains little distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers in the church. However, as Horner notes, this would be to say that the Gentile is together with himself and thus the statement would not retain any significant meaning. Paul, is suggesting, rather, that Gentiles are together with the holy ones (those set apart by God) of Israel in the “one new man,” the church in the present age.

Horner roots his suggestion in trinitarian theological assumptions whereby there can be equal ultimacy of unity and diversity.[19] The trouble is, he argues, that to overemphasise unity over diversity (or vice versa) compromises the text. Woman and men do not lose their distinctive in their unity, one flesh does not supercede gender distinctives anymore than one new man supercedes ethnic distinction (Gen 2:24). This is true of the doctrine of the trinity. One must continue to hold to both unity and diversity as equally ultimate in the godhead. Consequently, within the church there is both unity and diversity in equal measure.

It is important to recognise the temporal nature of Paul’s argument. Paul writes not to transcend time by suggesting that the church has replaced Israel or that the church is the same as Israel. Nor has he written to abrogate Israel, as an ethnic identity, for good. Rather, Paul’s framework is “the present time.” In the now-time, the age of the church, God has an arrangement with his people, both Jew and Gentile, that involves inclusion of both groups in one body. This, as Paul makes clear in chapter 3, was hidden from view from Old Testament saints.[20] The view that the promises made to ethnic Israel remain solid and should be expected to be fulfilled in a later age are compatible with this interpretation of Eph 2:11-22. Furthermore, the controlling verb for the entire text is the command to remember (v. 11) which demonstrates the controlling temporal framework for Paul’s argument.

Finally, it is helpful to ask what has happened to make unity possible when it was not possible before? The means by which the two are brought together is the removal of the barrier of the Mosaic Law through the sacrifice of Christ:
Christ Jesus 
broke down             the barrier              of the dividing wall,
abolishing               in His flesh             the enmity
having put to death                                the enmity.(the Law of commandments contained      in ordinances)
What divides the two groups is the enmity produced by the Mosaic Law. Some contend that this refers only to the ceremonial law, arguing that the context to which Paul writes has struggled with an overly formalized Jewish religion.[21] Saucy argues that it is not the law per se that divides the two, but the “aspects of the law which stood as a dividing wall between Gentiles and Israel.”[22]

In his discussion with Markus Barth, Andrew Lincoln concludes that the author has the law in toto in view.[23] According to Lincoln, Barth, in contrast, suggests that only the aspect relating to the division of Jews and Gentiles was abolished.[24] The motivation for this suggestion is that it avoids antinomianism. Lincoln argues that the technical term, “the law consisting of commands which are expressed in regulations,” demands a complete abrogation of the Mosaic Law and not merely a partial end to a particular aspect of the law.

It is possible to concur, in part, with both Lincoln and Barth. One might argue that Paul does think that the Mosaic Law in toto is abrogated in Christ and that he has in view, in this case, the significance of the enmity that was produced by the Mosaic Law. This is not antinomian if one remembers first, that there are plenty of commands to abide by found in the New Testament, many of which repeat the principles of the moral law behind the Law of Moses. Second, the Law of Moses finds a new use in the church age that applies to Gentiles, namely the knowledge of God, his character and will, and the knowledge of sin.

The abrogation of the Law of Moses, then, brings down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile and makes unity possible. However, Paul distinguishes between the Law of Moses and the Covenants of Promise made to the nation of Israel. When it comes to the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants, Paul makes no indication that anything has changed. The promises stand. Rather, a new relationship for Gentiles who believe in the Messiah, Jesus, is described. Gentiles, through the fulfillment of the promise to Israel of a Messiah, are brought near in order that they might share in the blessings of salvation in the church age.

Prior to the coming of Christ a Gentile would have to become a Jew in order to have a hope for a Messiah. In the present age there is no obligation to become a Jew under the Mosaic Law since the Law has been abolished. Now, both Jew and Gentile enter into the church through faith in the work of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. The blessings of the promises made to Israel are shared. What are not shared are the national promises to Israel, but the promises of salvation that Paul has just described in 2:1-10. The promises made to ethnic Israel are not abrogated by the present sharing age, but are delayed to a future time. In this present age Gentile believers have access to the blessings and riches through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus in an act of grace by God. At this present age the message of the gospel is proclaimed to those near and far, Jew and Gentile alike, leading to the building of the church by Jesus Christ.


[1] D.A Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 490-491.
[2] Ibid., 491.
[3] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 393-407.
[4] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 488.
[5] Bauder and Link, “ἐγγύς”, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 2 ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 53.
[6] Bruce, Ephesians, 295.
[7] Bauder and Link, “ἐγγύς”, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 2 ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 53-54.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bauer, 693.
[11] Bietenhard, πολιτείας,The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 2 ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 801.
[12] Ibid., 804.
[13] Bruce argues that the flow of thought contained in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is best seen as a continuation of his letter to the Colossians. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 234.
[14] George Gunn, “An Exegetical Study of Ephesians 2:11-22,”
[15] Robert Saucy, “Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity ed, John Feinberg, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988), 253.
[16] Sang-Won Son, “The Church as “One New Man”: Ecclesiology and Anthropology in Ephesians,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 52, no 1 (2009): 25.
[17] Martin Loyd-Jones, God’s Way of Reconciliation: Ephesians 2, (London: Evangelical Press, 1972), 216-217.
[18] Barry Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must be Challenged (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 271-275.
[19] Ibid., 273.
[20] I am aware of the debate over chapter 3 over what Paul is referring to as the mystery and, though it would aid the argument in this paper, am going to avoid it in order to avoid too much length. Suffice to say that generally speaking Paul’s argument is that the mystery is the equality of Jew and Gentile in the church
[21] William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 135.
[22] Ibid., 254.
[23] Andrew Lincoln, “The Church and Israel in Ephesians 2,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49, no. 4: 611-612.
[24] Markus Barth, Ephesians 1-3 (New York: Doubleday, 1974).

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