Ephesians part 4 – No more ‘US’ and ‘THEM’

The idea of ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ may well have originated In the Old Testament when God made a covenant with Abraham’s family and sealed it with them alone by having all the males in the household circumcised. Paul picks up on this point too in Ephesians 2:11 when talking to Christians who were “Gentiles by birth,” to remind them that because they too were “uncircumcised” they weren’t included in the promises made to Israel. They were outsiders – ‘one of them’.

It was a sore point for the Gentiles because the Jews had constantly picked on them for being uncircumcised (11). To the Jews, however, it was important to keep the distinction alive between ‘us’ (Israelites) and ‘them’ (Gentiles), believing it to be necessary as God’s chosen people, but also because it made them feel superior. The term uncircumcised, therefore, became a derogatory term that kept Jews and Gentiles in constant enmity and conflict.

It was already in use as a derogatory term way back in 1 Samuel 17:26 too, when Goliath was hurling insults at Israel and David got wind of it. David was so incensed he went round the Israelite camp asking, “What’s in it for the man who gets rid of this ugly blot on Israel’s honour? Who does he think he is, anyway, this uncircumcised Philistine taunting the armies of the living God?”

It’s interesting that David used the word “uncircumcised” as the worst word he could come up with for Goliath. He could have used all sorts of other insulting, derogatory terms to express his disgust for Goliath, but he chose the one term that most clearly identified the difference between the Israelites and the pagan Gentiles. He used the one word that told Goliath he was ‘one of them’, an uncircumcised Gentile who deserved to die for picking on Israel.

But David felt justified in treating Goliath with such disdain, because, verse 46, it would show “the whole world there’s an extraordinary God in Israel.” That’s where the great God resided – IN ISRAEL – not with uncircumcised infidels like Goliath. David’s blood was up, therefore, because in his mind the whole world needed a lesson in whose side God was really on, and therefore who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’ – which all sounded very noble, but look what it did to David….

David was just a young lad fresh off the farm, and not even trained to be a soldier, but he arrives in the Israelite army camp with supplies for his brothers, and on hearing Goliath mock Israel David’s not only ready to take Goliath on one-on-one, he also shouts out to Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:46, “I’m going to kill you, cut off your head, and serve up your body to the crows and coyotes.”

We can think, “How wonderful that David was so fearless,” but what if this was your fifteen or seventeen year old son yelling out this kind of language, and you then watch him do what David did when Goliath hits the ground in verse 51. Here it is: David “ran and stood over Goliath. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him” – meaning David had just lifted Goliath’s massive sword into the air and plunged it into his body in a spot that was guaranteed to end Goliath’s life – David then “finished the job by cutting off his head.”

It was a brutal act by a young lad, but David was fired up with righteous indignation against this unbelieving infidel daring to challenge his God. But isn’t that what fires up young jihadists today as well, who also justify chopping the heads off unbelieving infidels? And it’s all in the name of their god too. The same brutal actions are still being justified for exactly the same reasons.

We haven’t finished the story yet, either. David then picks up Goliath’s head and takes it with him. And he still has Goliath’s blood-soaked head and glazed stare when Abner ushers him into King Saul’s tent in verse 57, and later on David even took Goliath’s slowly rotting head with him all the way to Jerusalem (54).

I suppose we could excuse David’s behaviour because that was their culture, but we discover later on that God wasn’t happy with David at all for his violent tendencies (1 Chronicles 22:8, 28:3). As a result, David lost out on building the Temple, and on another occasion 70,000 Israelites had to die because David allowed Satan to tempt him into numbering his fighting men to see how strong his army was (1 Chronicles 21:1-5). David wanted to know if he could beat the stuffing out of all those uncircumcised infidels to prove Israel’s superiority as God’s chosen people. It was all about who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’, and whose side God was really on.

But that wasn’t God’s intent at all. He didn’t have Israelite men circumcised to prove their superiority. Circumcision separated Israel from Gentiles into ‘us’ and ‘them’, oh yes, but never as an excuse for Israelites to look down on Gentiles.

And yet here we are in Ephesians, a thousand years after David called Goliath an uncircumcised Philistine, and Jews are STILL calling Gentiles “uncircumcised” as a derogatory, insulting term. It hasn’t diminished one bit in letting Gentiles know they’re inferior and ‘one of them’.

We can think, “Oh, isn’t that terrible?” but it clearly demonstrates what ‘us’ and ‘them’ can do to people. It turned David into a bloodthirsty killer, and Jews into hate-filled despisers of Gentiles, both of which were in total conflict with God’s purpose. But look what it’s done to the Christian Church too: It’s turned Christians into bloodthirsty Crusaders who gloried in the death of pagans – with the Pope’s blessing too. It’s also turned Catholics and Protestants into hate-filled despisers of each other, and in two World Wars millions of Christians killed and maimed each other, but all justified because, they said, God was on their side.

So what became of Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:14-15, that “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders…(so that)…Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody”?

And when did that fresh start begin? When “Christ brought us together through his death on the cross,” verse 16. “The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility.” Jesus’ death, in other words, brought an end to all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ once and for all. No more could ‘us’ and ‘them’ be used by Jews as an excuse to insult and discriminate against Gentiles; nor could it be used as an excuse for Christians to go on crusades to kill and maim Jews, Muslims and even their fellow Christians; nor could it be used as an excuse to call people infidels and unbelievers, or to claim you’re the master race, or to look down on non-Christians as inferior people, or to view other Christians with different ideas as less spiritual than you.

All that rubbish was supposed to come to an end – and especially in the Christian Church – when Jesus died on the cross for both Jews and Gentiles. And by dying for both Jews and Gentiles, it clearly meant Jesus died for everybody, regardless of their race, their religion, their political affiliation, or whether they became Christians, or not. By dying for everybody Jesus leveled the playing field. “He treated us as equals, and so made us equals,” Paul writes in verse 17. So if Jesus treats us all as equals, what excuse holds any water whatsoever for US not treating each other as equals as well?

“Well,” a person might say, “why did God insist on that really weird custom of circumcising men and boys, and even little babies, to make them noticeably different to everyone else? Wasn’t it God, then, who got this whole idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ started?”

Yes, it was, but not to make one group of people stand out as superior to everyone else. For a start, circumcision wasn’t all that noticeable, because it wasn’t something you waved around in public, and who would know you were an Israelite unless your pants fell down? Right off the bat, then, circumcision was never meant as an open display to prove you were Israelite and not Gentile, nor was it meant to be a clear sign to everybody else that God was with you and not with them. It had nothing to do with either of those things.

But if it wasn’t for those things, what was circumcision for instead, then? There’s a clue in the first mention of circumcision in Genesis 17, right after God tells Abraham in verse 5, “I’m making you the father of many nations.” So the context of circumcision is a promise from God that Abraham would produce many children creating entire nations and the kings that ruled them (6). The focus, take note, is totally on the children that would issue from Abraham, because it was through those children that God would covenant forever to give them the land of Canaan and be their God (8).

Abraham’s children now became the main focus of Scripture. It’s not surprising, then, that God chose a sign in the one place on Abraham’s body where children are created. Circumcision was a highly effective way of getting each generation of children tracing its ancestry back to Abraham to remember that it was through them and their children that God was fulfilling his promise. “That way,” verse 13, “my covenant will be cut into your body, a permanent mark of my permanent covenant.” And it was cut into the body in the one place where the children God was fulfilling his covenant through would be produced.

But wasn’t this still separating out Abraham’s children as different, special and superior? And wasn’t it separating out the men as special too, since there was no corresponding circumcision for Abraham’s female children?

Fortunately, both questions are answered in this same chapter, because God immediately pronounces a blessing on Abraham’s wife, even changing her name to ‘Princess’ in verse 15, in recognition that she was just as important in the production of children for his purpose. She’s every bit Abraham’s equal.

And notice in Genesis 17:12-13 that God includes adults and children – who AREN’T directly related to Abraham and Sarah – among those who are circumcised. He includes “house born slaves and slaves bought from outsiders who are not blood kin,” and “anyone brought in from the outside.”

So God wasn’t restricting ‘membership in the club’ to only those who could trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Sarah. Anyone could be a member of the club. The only requirement was circumcision for a person to be included in all the promises God made to Abraham. So not only was God establishing equality between male and female back here in Genesis 17, he was also establishing equality between all people. He included everyone, male and female, as well as blood relatives and foreigners, in his promise to be their God, giving them ALL equal access to his personal care and love – and a part in his purpose – for nothing more than circumcision of all their men and male children.

There is no talk here in Genesis 17 of God selecting out Abraham and his descendants as special or superior. Quite the opposite: God is totally open to anyone sharing in his purpose from now on, so long as they are circumcised – which may come as a bit of a shock for Jews today because it included Ishmael and all his descendants too, which the Arabs today believe is them.

It’s possible to get the impression that God only passed down his covenant promises through Abraham’s son Isaac and his descendants. It’s true, yes, that God had something specific in mind for just the line of children that would come from Isaac (21), but never to the exclusion of everyone else, including Ishmael.

We learn something very special about God in his dealings with Ishmael. First of all, he takes note of Abraham’s plea in verse 18 to bless Ishmael too. “I heard your prayer for Ishmael,” God tells Abraham in verse 20, and “I’ll bless him; I’ll make sure he has plenty of children – a huge family. I’ll make him a great nation.” So God makes a very personal covenant with Ishmael too. It doesn’t include the promise of Jesus Christ through Abraham’s son, Isaac, but notice that God doesn’t exclude Ishmael from all the other promises given to Abraham.

We see that in verse 23 when “Abraham took his son Ishmael and all his servants, whether house-born or purchased – every male in his household – and circumcised them.” And in verse 26, “Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised the same day together.” So Ishmael is on the same level as Abraham; he too gets to share in all the promises God made in the circumcision covenant.

What I get from all this is that God isn’t trying to separate people. He’s not making one group of people superior to another. He doesn’t make circumcision a separating, exclusive act. ANY man or boy could be circumcised in Abraham’s household and share in the covenant promises. And God doesn’t favour Isaac over Ishmael, either; he blesses both of them with unbreakable covenants that both include the promise of nations and rulers. Nor does God favour men over women. Abraham’s name is changed to a ‘Father of many nations’, but God changes Sarah’s name to ‘Princess’, a lovely term of endearment that Dads still use for their daughters.

God doesn’t even favour Sarah over Hagar, her foreign Egyptian handmaid. We see that in Genesis 21:10 when Sarah, in a huff after seeing Ishmael poke fun at Isaac, tells Abraham in no uncertain terms it’s time for Hagar and Ishmael to go. I can sympathize with her anger, having to watch Ishmael, by now a smart aleck teenage, tease her helpless toddler to tears, but Sarah’s anger suddenly blazes into the same type of separating, derogatory language David used for Goliath. It suddenly becomes an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ when she yells at Abraham, “No child of this slave is going to share the inheritance with MY son Isaac.”

God has only just said that any child circumcised in Abraham and Sarah’s household can share in the inheritance, but Sarah doesn’t want Ishmael, Abraham’s very own son, sharing in the inheritance, because he’s the child of a lowly slave; he’s ‘one of them’. She uses the one term that separates her sons into two classes of people, the deserving and the undeserving, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, the ones God is really blessing and the ones who are always on the outside looking in.

Abraham was devastated (11), because he loved Ishmael as much as Isaac. Abraham didn’t differentiate between his sons at all. And God clearly felt the same way, because he reassures Abraham in verse 13 that Ishmael will be fine because “he’s your son too.” In God’s eyes, Ishmael was every bit Isaac’s equal, and he repeats his promise to make a great nation from Ishmael’s descendants.

So next morning Hagar and Ishmael trudge off into the desert with a packed lunch and a canteen of water hurriedly prepared by Abraham himself – with no help from his wife (take note). Sarah had totally rejected Ishmael, even to the point of not caring one bit if she never saw him again, or even if he died from lack of food and water in the desert. But God wasn’t Sarah. When Ishmael was close to death, God heard the boy’s cries and saved his life (19).

The story ends with this poignant statement in Genesis 21:20 (from The Message): “God was on the boy’s side as he grew up.” God never took his eyes off Ishmael, and never forgot his promise to Ishmael’s descendants either.

It’s a great pity, then, that Jews and Arabs today, who both trace their ancestry back to Abraham and his two sons, don’t take that verse into account, that God was as much on the side of Ishmael as he was on the side of Isaac. He was on the side of both boys. He treated them as equals.

It’s also a great pity that Jews and Arabs today have forgotten (or refuse to remember) what happened when Abraham died, because in Genesis 25:9 it says, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him.” The two brothers were there together to bury their Dad, with no hostility whatsoever between them. And Isaac had no trouble sharing the duties of burial equally with his brother.

Would that have happened if Sarah had been there? Not on your life (or hers), but she’d been dead for a while, so she wasn’t there to kick up a stink about the “slave’s boy” being present, or to accuse Ishmael of sucking up to the family to get some of the inheritance. It was Sarah who’d got all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ started, and Sarah who’d thrown Ishmael to the vultures, creating this mess in the first place, but once she was dead and gone and out of the way, the two boys came together as one.

And that’s exactly what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:15, that Jesus’ purpose “was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace.” With all that mess in the past done away by Jesus’ death, Jew and Gentile could also come together in peace as one.

And it took JESUS’ funeral to make that happen too. That was the point too when ALL divisions, separations, exclusivity and alienation melted away. The days of who was and wasn’t circumcised were over. Jew or Gentile, Jew or Arab; it made no difference: If a person had been “excluded from citizenship in Israel” and “the covenants of the promise” because he wasn’t a direct descendant of Abraham’s son, Isaac, that exclusion had ended. All that ‘us’ and ‘them’ nonsense, that had made people like Sarah treat people as inferior beings, was now extinct. Whatever had caused hostility between people in the past was over, because in Christ’s death every single person on the planet, bar none, was reconciled to God (16) AND given equal access to him (18). Anyone now could “approach God with freedom and confidence,” Ephesians 3:12.

And that takes us right back to the circumcision covenant in Genesis 17 when God made it clear through the act of circumcision that anyone had access to his care and love, AND to all his promises and blessings to Abraham. It gave everyone the chance, foreigners included, to be part of God’s plan to set up his Kingdom on earth and bless all nations, but it all got messed up by human jealousy, misguided zeal for God, favouring one child over another, treating some people as inferior beings, and wanting to prove that God was only on your side and only blessing you.

So Paul reminds us all (and especially Christians) in Ephesians 2 that when Jesus died we humans got the chance to start all over again with a clean sheet. He talks about a “new man” emerging (15), a new type of human being who wouldn’t make an issue out of who was circumcised and who wasn’t as a way of making himself feel superior and others feel inferior.

This was the great “mystery” that Paul had come to understand from Christ’s death, that “Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 3:6. But that’s exactly what God made possible when he made the circumcision covenant with Abraham. Direct descendants of Abraham AND foreigners could be members together, sharing as one body in the promises God made to Abraham.

What a tragedy, then, that humanity had to wait more than two thousand years to understand that we’re all, in fact, “fellow citizens” in “God’s household,” Ephesians 2:19, and we’re all “joined together” (21), and we’re all “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (22). This was God’s plan for all of us all along. If only, then, we’d got the point of the circumcision covenant four thousand years ago, because we could all have been experiencing the fruits of that – instead of the mess we’re in right now.

But at least we know what the problem is that caused the mess in the first place. It was all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ’them’ that justified looking down on other people as inferior, that also excused hatred, mass killings and cold-blooded murder. The question has to be asked, therefore, “Have WE in the Church today grasped what Paul was getting at?”

Well, there’s an easy way of finding out: It’s in our view of other people. Do we believe that Christ’s death has made us all equals? Do we view ourselves and everyone else out there as “members together of one body?”

Do we agree with Paul in Ephesians 3:6 that “we all stand on the same ground before God,” and that every one of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, “get the same offer, same help, same promises in Jesus Christ,” and that what we preach as Christians “is accessible and welcoming to everyone across the board”? Could we, if a homosexual walked into this room to attend church with us, welcome him as family?

Or would we view him as ‘one of them’? Would there still be a little wall of hostility toward him? Where on the spectrum of peace made possible by Jesus’ death would we stand? Would we welcome the chance to show him we’re all “heirs together” in the promises God made to Abraham, or is there a little bit of Sarah in us still that doesn’t want people we don’t approve of sharing in God’s blessings? Could there even be a little bit of David still tucked away inside us, that would like to lop off the homosexual’s head and carry it round with us as a trophy of our spiritual superiority?

But these were the practical points Paul was asking Christians in Ephesians to remember, because it’s in the Church where this new man would emerge for all to see. It’s in the Church that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, and no one is viewed as an outsider. When people bump into Christians there is no hint of rejection, hostility, one-upmanship, condemnation, or even disdain. There is no talk of people deserving to go to hell. Christians don’t even like to separate people into believers and unbelievers, because that too may be misunderstood as exclusivity, superiority and putting up walls between people.

It takes us back to what God created the Church for. It wasn’t to create an inner club or an Old Boys’ network, it was to preach and demonstrate the new man being created in the Church since Christ’s death. The Church is the one place on the planet, therefore, that makes real why Christ died AND what he now lives for, which is inviting anyone and everyone “to belong to his church,” Ephesians 3:6 (The Living Bible), because from the moment Jesus died “all of God’s promises of mighty blessings through Christ apply to them” too.

The promises God made to Abraham and sealed in the covenant of circumcision now apply to ‘us’ and ‘them’ equally, because the line of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac that led to Jesus Christ and his death has made those promises available to everyone. The whole point of the covenant with Abraham’s son, Isaac, therefore, was to free up those blessings for everyone, thereby removing even the remotest hint of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ forever.

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