Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Paul wrote to the church in the city of Ephesus, “Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles in the flesh and called uncircumcised by the so-called circumcision… at that time you were separate from Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-12 BSB).

The church in that city consisted primarily of people with a non-Jewish ancestry—the Gentiles. The Jews of Paul’s day disparagingly called the Gentiles “the uncircumcised.” This was in reference to the Jewish custom of male circumcision, which originally was done in obedience to the directives of God.

To know the reasons that God initiated the rite of circumcision, one must go way back in the Old Testament to the life of Abraham. There is too much to the story to examine here,[1] but purposes of circumcision were greater than the Jewish people recognized.

They saw it primarily as a means of distinguishing the God-worshiping Jewish people from the surrounding pagan nations. It became a matter of national pride for them. Thus, when they referred to the Gentiles as “the uncircumcised,” it was with a sense of scorn for those unlike them and of ethnic pride for their own people.

However, the deeper meaning of circumcision was that it was to be an admission of utter dependence upon God. It was a symbolic way of demonstrating that they as a people possessed no power, and that all power resides in God alone. It was to be a sign of humility.

Like many customs that have started out with noble purposes, this custom of circumcision likewise had instead turned into something quite the opposite than for which it was originally intended. It had turned into a source of pride for the Jewish people rather than a sign of humility.

All the Families to be Blessed

If the Jews of Paul’s day would have looked with eyes unclouded by ethnic pride at the history of Abraham, they would have seen that God had chosen them as a people not because they were special in any sense, but because it was through them that he intended to reach the rest of the world. It had always been God’s intention to open up the offer of redemption to all people of all nations.

This can be seen even in the very inception of Israel as a separate people. God chose Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrew people, and gave him the promise that he would make of him a great nation. However, from the very beginning we can see that it was not God’s purpose to bless only Abraham and his descendants and no one else.

“In you, all of the families of the earth would be blessed,” God had said to Abraham (Genesis 12:4).

It had always been God’s intention to open up the offer of redemption to every person on earth, irrespective of their nationality or ethnicity.

But that blessing to other families of the earth did not come immediately. As Paul had told the Ephesians, the Gentiles were at that time separated from the blessings of God.

The subject of the purposes of God in excluding the Gentiles during the days of the Old Testament is a lengthy one and one that is difficult for us to understand and to appreciate. We are not given reasons for why God acted in this way, but only that he did. However, one of the reasons must have been that it was during that time when God was educating us concerning several aspects of his coming kingdom.

The early Israelites never recognized the part of God’s plan where the Gentiles would also be one day included in their special relationship with God, nor did the Israelites ever come to understand this all throughout history. They instead tended to believe that it was because they were more important in God’s eyes than other peoples and nations. When the nation of Israel was first formed by God and when he entered into the covenants with Israel, most of the people saw none of the promises of God as being eventually and finally intended to bless all people.

Centered in the Messiah

Another thing that the Israelites never understood properly was that the commissioning of Abraham and then them as a people were not to be the final steps for God’s plan in this present age. In his commissioning of Abraham, God also made reference to the fact of one would come, one who would be a descendant of Abraham and who would be the one who would be the focus of the all that God was doing.

Again, the Israelites missed the point. The fulfillment of the plan of God was never intended to come to Abraham, only to be passed down to them as a people and then stop. The Israelites did not understand these blessings to come as being ones that would eventually be fulfilled by means of an individual redeemer. They thought that they were the fulfillment of the blessing. The Jews thought they were the focus and object of God’s plan. But they were not and never had been. The focus and object of the plan of God always centered on an individual.

God had said to Abraham, “I will give this land to your offspring (Genesis 12:7). This word offspring is literally “seed” in the singular tense (zera).

This truth of the coming seed was part of the education of the Old Testament. Despite what the people of Israel came to believe, God’s plan was not in fact centered on them. This was only a step to lead to the fulfillment. Eventually, as God’s revelation of his plan began to unfold, it became clear that his promises of blessing were connected to a Messiah who would come and bring their fulfillment.

Should the Jews have known better? According to Paul, they should have, and they would have if they had studied the Scriptures accurately. Paul writes to the church at Galatia:  
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ… God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. (Galatians 3:16-18)

Although the Israelites had learned through the prophets of a coming Messiah, [2] they looked upon his arrival as yet another of the blessings that was intended to only benefit them as a people. Even later, when the Israelites came to be known as the Jews, they viewed themselves as a people who always would remain in the center of God’s plans. They saw the covenants of God as promises given to them simply because they as a nation had been chosen by God to receive his blessing. They thought that it was they who were special.

But the Messiah came not for the benefit of the Jews only. The grace given to Abraham and then to the Israelites was brought by Jesus Christ to be extended also to the Gentiles. The seed of Abraham to whom Paul is referring is Christ, and it is Christ in whom the blessing would be realized and extended to all people.

The word Messiah carried the meaning in the Old Testament as “the anointed one.” This same sentiment was later carried on in the Greek tongue by the word Christos. When Paul speaks to the Gentiles of the promises of the covenants through Christ, these are the same Old Testament ones that are connected to the Messiah. They are the same as the promises for the commonwealth of Israel. They are fulfilled not through the Jews, but through Jesus.

The individual who had always been the focus and fulfillment of God’s plan was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus has always been the one on whom depended the totality of the plan of God for the redemption of the people of the world.

Not a Political Savior, but a Spiritual Savior

The New Testament Jewish people were predominantly looking for the coming of the Messiah in political terms and in a way that was to be for their benefit. To Jewish people, the Messiah would be someone who would free them from foreign rule.

The Jews had born the yoke of various foreign powers through the centuries, and by the time history moved on to the era of the New Testament, that foreign rule was Rome. At the time Christ was born, the Jews were looking for their freedom from the Romans.

But Jesus came not leading a revolution against the bondage to Rome. He came to lead a revolution against that which held people in bondage to sin. This is not what most of the Jews had in mind. They thought that they had no problem with sin in their lives because they followed their own religious laws (or tried to).

Jesus spent three years trying to show them that there was no freedom in law. He had thousands of years of history to back up that statement. The Jews had made various attempts at following the Law of God only to fail each time. The fact is, they could not keep themselves from sinning, just as we cannot.

Paul most clearly explains this in the letter that he wrote to the Galatians where he went to some lengths to explain the exact meaning of law and how the promises of God are actually fulfilled:  

For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.

Why then, was the Law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come…

Is the Law then, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a Law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the Law. But Scripture has shown that everything was locked up under the control of sin, so that what was promised might be given to those who believe through faith in Jesus Christ …

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:18-22) 

Salvation from this bondage to sin and true freedom can only come from grace given by God.

“Truly, truly, I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” Jesus said to the Jews one day. “A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:34-36, 32)

Brought Near by the Blood of Christ

Now Paul is announcing to the Ephesians that this offer of freedom was not only for the Jews. In what was a truly astounding statement at the time, he told these Gentiles that “In Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

What this meant was that the hope and the promise that in the Old Testament had been reserved only for the Jewish nation, was now also available to the Gentiles.

How did this happen? It certainly could not be by keeping the Old Testament Law. We are simply not capable of living completely in the righteous manner that the Law demands. The Israelites had demonstrated for centuries that the Law only kept them in bondage and did not lead to righteousness.

Paul clearly states that the freedom and righteousness can only be achieved because of the blood of Christ. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” he told the Ephesians.

The essence of this is that the covenants of promise and the hope originally given to Abraham by God were not actually dependent upon the existence of the nation of Israel as they had thought. Rather, it all hinged on Christ—on the Messiah. The promises would come through Christ and in the manner Christ taught us.

As we have seen, the confusion had come about because the messages of the promises first came through the Israelites. Because of that, the Israelites connected the promises only to them as a nation.

In addition to this, it was also through the Israelites the message of the Messiah first came. But again the Israelites had misunderstood this revelation. They continued to think that is was they as a nation who were the focus of God’s blessing. They thought that what blessings would come would be for the benefit as them as a nation.

They had missed the point. The actual focus of the blessing of God was the Messiah, and the means of receiving the blessings of God was faith in the grace that God offers through the blood of Christ.

The Two Made One

The blood of Christ does much more than provide access to grace for the Gentiles, for by implication, it also meant that the Jew and Gentile alike are both brought near to God based on the same blood of Christ.

In fact, Paul states, “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one.”

And the blood of Christ does more. Where once there was hostility between Jew and Gentile, Christ has brought peace. Jesus “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14).

This is actually a strong statement, since historically, the distinction between Jew and Gentile had always been very pronounced. It is still pronounced even today. In the opinion of some, the distinction is even pronounced when it comes to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Never mind denominational distinctions between us, many people hold the point of view that in God’s eyes, there are two broad classes of people in the church or in the kingdom of God: one class is that of Jewish Christians and the other is that of Gentile Christians.

However, Paul’s statement seems to refute that distinction, since one cannot say that the two groups have become one if this difference persists. Speaking ethnically and culturally, differences of course still exist, but within the church, the barrier of the dividing wall has been demolished.

Previously, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile had been most clearly seen in the distinctions brought out in the Law. Not only did the Law elucidate the distinctions, but it was also meant to maintain the distinctions.

But when Christ sacrificed his life, he did not sacrifice his own life only, but through his death, he also put to death the source of the enmity between Jew and Gentile. As Paul has put it: 

For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and decrees. He did this to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace and reconciling both of them to God in one body through the cross, by which He extinguished their hostility.

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-18 BSB) 

This remains the pathway to peace today and for all time. We today may not have the extended number of laws that the early Jews had,[3] but we know the Ten Commandments and try to keep them. We also have other guides as to what is right and wrong. This is all good, but we also know that there is no peace in doing this. It seems that they only tend to show us how bad we are.

Because of this, many people instead use the “balance scale approach,” where they only try to make the good things about them outweigh the bad things. But neither is there peace in this. What is more, in truth, God does not allow even one “bad thing.”

The only path to spiritual and even emotional and physical peace is what we have just read: Jesus Christ Himself is our peace.  

[1]  I have written a chapter on this subject in my book, Reaching for Eternal Truths. 
[2] One of the references to a Messiah was given by the prophet Daniel, but there are also other allusions to this fact all throughout Scripture. Most of the references are a bit vague, and perhaps the first clear reference to a future Messiah who would fulfill these promises did not come until the time of Daniel in his prophecy of the seventy weeks (Daniel 9:25-26).
[3] There are actually 613 mitzvot (“commandments”) in the Torah. There are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given in the Torah.

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