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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Ephesians part 3 – No longer outsiders

Ephesians Part 2 described the Middle Wall of Partition in Herod’s Temple that prevented all Gentiles from entering the Temple’s inner courts. Paul called it a “dividing wall of hostility” in Ephesians 2:14, because it kept Jews and Gentiles apart, but with Christ’s death that separation was torn down and removed.

Paul could now tell all Gentiles in verse 19 (The Message): “You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders.”

Paul is talking to anyone and everyone who isn’t a Jew by birth. Well, I’m not a Jew by birth, nor are my children, nor, I imagine, are most of the people living in this area where we meet. Nor are my neighbours back home. Nor as far as I know are the people I talk to at the Bank, at my favourite watering holes, at the cash out in the stores I buy stuff from, or where I take my wounded car to be repaired. I assume there are Jews born to Jewish families living in my city but I haven’t met any of them in the last twenty years I’ve lived here.

And at one time that would have been a real problem, because as Paul writes in verse 12, “It was only yesterday that you outsiders (non-Jews) 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.” Anyone who wasn’t a Jew or an Israelite by birth had no part in God’s plan for humanity, no part in what God had been doing in and through Israel for nineteen hundred years, and no idea what God was doing in the world at large. The greatest game in the universe was on but most people through the centuries had no idea it was being played, nor were they playing any part of it.

They were outsiders, a very negative word, because who likes being an outsider? In school it’s awful if you’re left out of the action, you’re not invited to other kids’ homes or parties, you aren’t anyone’s choice for their baseball team, or you’re marginalized and bullied for being fat, odd or nerdy. For a child, feeling like an outsider is the worst experience possible.

It continues into adulthood too. It’s a horrible feeling entering a room and everyone’s in groups happily chatting away together and you’re left standing there alone and no one wants to talk to you. Or you’re in a group of people who love talking and arguing about the latest baseball game, but you can’t join in because it’s like a foreign language to you. And what you want to talk about they can’t relate to either. You feel like an outsider looking in, like a street urchin at Christmas-time looking through the window at a family happily feasting away, and wishing he could join in, but he can’t.

I imagine many refugees and immigrants coming to Canada experience that same feeling too, of entering a completely different culture and never quite relating to it. I’m a case in point, because I’ve lived and worked in Canada for 39 years in eight provinces but in all that time I’ve only been to one hockey game, I don’t know the names of any of today’s hockey players on any Canadian hockey team, and I know only one chap by name on any Canadian baseball team, and only because he happened to be on the TV news one day chucking his bat away in a show of triumph, which was newsworthy for some odd reason.

To a born and bred Canadian it seals my identity as an outsider, because how can anyone call himself a Canadian and not identify with what Canadians live for? And I admit at times it bothers me when I get those little reminders that it’s true, that for all my 39 years living all over this country I’m really still an outsider and a stranger living in a foreign land.

But that’s who we all were according to Paul. When it came to THE most important game being played on this planet we were ALL outsiders if we weren’t Israelites or Jews. We weren’t part of the action, we weren’t invited to the party, we weren’t God’s choice for the team, and we were marginalized and left on the sidelines as those “without hope and without God in the world.”

And a lot of people, unfortunately, are acting as though that’s still true. Think of all the people today, for instance, including our own relatives perhaps, who drive or walk by Christian churches every day and those churches mean nothing. To them churches are in an odd and separate world of rituals, pews, pipe organs and musty smells that offer little hope or practical help in the crushing stress of raising children, working at a dead-end job, and fighting traffic, health problems and bullies in the workplace. To step inside a church feels like stepping through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia. It feels strange and it smells strange. How unfortunate, that in the places where God is making his plan known people feel like outsiders and strangers in a foreign land.

And what makes that even worse is that Christ died to stop us feeling like strangers and outsiders. We WERE outsiders, yes, but “Now because of Christ, dying that death, shedding that blood,” Ephesians 2:13, “you who were once out of it altogether are (now) in on everything.”

But what did Paul mean by being “in on everything”? What’s the “everything” bit all about? Paul answers that back in verse 12: He means every bit of what the JEWS had. Whatever the Jews were “in on” we Gentiles are now in on those things too, because we’re no longer “excluded from citizenship in Israel” – thanks to Christ’s death – and we’re no longer “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” either.

But why was it so important to have “citizenship in Israel”? Or put in our terms today, why was it so important to have a passport identifying us as Israelite?

The simple answer is: Because Israel was the nation over which God ruled. As a citizen of Israel, therefore, you were a citizen of God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom where God made the rules, where God was your Protector and Defense Department, where God dealt with terrorists and tyrants, where God maintained the food supply, where God kept everything financially sound, and God provided all the health and wealth the nation needed. And as citizens of Israel you were also the people God had chosen to fulfill his plan through. You had a God-given calling and all the equipment and help needed to fulfill it, which filled each and every day with meaning, optimism, hope and purpose.

To have citizenship in Israel, therefore, gave you a real feeling of belonging, of being hand-in-hand with God in the most important plan in history. It also gave you a feeling of camaraderie, that all of you as God’s treasured people were “in on” this plan together, all of you were needed, and all of you had something to contribute, because that’s why God had chosen you in the first place.

By contrast, if you weren’t a citizen of Israel your passport was merely stamped with the word ‘pagan’, which didn’t carry any meaning or significance whatsoever. You could proudly call yourself Greek, Roman or Persian, but in reality you were no different from each other, because you were all equally addicted to a weird assortment of gods and idols that did nothing to alleviate your anxiety about the future, nothing to make you feel loved or wanted, nothing to give you a sense of belonging and camaraderie, and nothing to give you hope and purpose every day.

The pagan gods were utterly useless. They could never be depended on for anything, nor did they respond to human need, and nor did they offer any certainty about the future. Worse still, the gods were an irritable lot. They blew hot and cold, and you never knew if you’d pleased them enough, or what would happen if you’d trodden on the gods’ sensitivities and you hadn’t made up for it with sufficient groveling and sacrifices.

And as pagans your Head of State was no Benefactor God with your best interests in mind. Instead, you were in the iron grip of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” Ephesians 2:2, a distant, unidentifiable spirit whose power and influence secretly and cunningly focused all your attention on yourself, consuming and wasting your precious life on “gratifying the cravings of your sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts” (verse 3).

But that was the life of an outsider, a non-Jew. It was pointless, self-centred, and frustrating, which often led to conflict, war, and terrible cruelty. Just like our world today the pagan world of old was obsessed with violence. And because there was no sense of belonging to a God who loved you, the world seemed like a cold, heartless place, and life was an endless grind. You were on your own, struggling through life as best you could – and still without knowing for certain what happened after you died either.

It’s not surprising, then, that most pagan Greeks and Romans didn’t worship any gods at all. They built magnificent temples and dedicated them to the gods, which gave the impression that “in every way you are very religious,” as Paul described the Athenian Greeks in Acts 17:22, but in reality they had no interest in their idols, gods or their temples, because none of their objects of worship offered any certainty about anything. As a pagan you could only hope the gods would be kind and merciful to you, but even that depended on what you did to please them. The real God, meanwhile, was a total “unknown” to them (23), which explains why the Greek pagans “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (21). And all for no purpose whatsoever.

It’s not surprising, then, that archaeologists discovered that many 1st century Greek and Roman tombstones had the words NO HOPE written on them. So here were thousands of people in what we describe today as ‘The great cultures of the past’ who actually thought life was meaningless. And the writings of their own great thinkers and philosophers reflected that despair too, that we humans are on our own down here with no hope, no purpose, and no help.

It sounds terribly like our culture today, in people who believe life came from a cosmic accident, and therefore human existence has no purpose beyond making the most of life for oneself. And the result is exactly the same as in the pagan cultures of the past. Our culture, just like theirs, is full of hopelessness and despair. Watch an hour of news on TV and it’s full of people complaining about their lot in life, of angry mobs marching the streets demanding their rights be met, and grief-stricken families sobbing about their relatives being senselessly gunned down and murdered.

So, to lighten the mood a bit, the news program throws in an entertainment section, which often includes a review of a movie, or a TV series, or the latest video game. But most of what is considered entertainment nowadays is simply an extension of what we just watched on the news. It’s still about weird people doing horrible things to each other. And gory, cruel and brutal though much of it is, we can’t seem to get enough of it.

But that’s what happens to a culture when it has no hope and no God to turn to. It resorts to the same old pagan custom of solving problems by revenge killings, intimidation, murder and cruelty. We too, then, are experiencing the despair and hopelessness of paganism spilling out – as it always has in pagan cultures – in an obsession with violence.

And it’s happening just as much in people who say they believe in God and claim their religions are religions of peace. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus all readily take up weapons to kill and maim, as if their God or gods don’t exist to intervene and help them. It was only the threat of annihilation at Dunkirk in May 1940, for instance, that stirred the King of England to call a National Day of Prayer. Before Dunkirk the call was to kill and maim for King and country. How tragic, that a Christian nation forgot they were citizens of the Kingdom of God, and their King was Jesus, and he would do all the fighting needed. They were still acting like outsiders, in other words, as if they had no access to a real God who would fight their battles for them.

That’s not to condemn anyone for the choices made, but Paul did make it clear that “through the cross,” Ephesians 2:16, every human being, Jew and Gentile, verse 18, has “access to the Father by one Spirit.” Faced with overwhelming odds, therefore, or the awful feeling of hopelessness we get as the world careens from one crisis to another, we Gentiles now have God as close to us as he was to Israel. And every time the Israelites cried out to him, God answered.

And it was Paul’s job to get us Gentiles to grasp that. That’s why Jesus knocked Paul to the ground in Acts 26 and told him in verse 18 he was sending Paul to both Jews and Gentiles to open our eyes to the realization that God doesn’t want us thinking like pagans anymore. We can be free of all that pagan hopelessness and despair, and “turn from (that pagan) darkness to light” (18). We can break away from the devil’s madness infecting our brains and “turn from the power of Satan to God” (18). And we can be forgiven for every angry, hurtful, revengeful, violent reaction we’ve had to people “SO THAT” (still in verse 18) we can take our “place among God’s chosen people” (Today’s English Version).

Instead of thinking like pagan outsiders, therefore, who have no grasp of a real God working with us humans to rescue us from our hopelessness and despair, we can legitimately think of ourselves as citizens of Israel, as “God’s chosen people” and as insiders who are “in on everything” God is doing.

In other words, if we firmly believe what Paul said in Ephesians 2, that Christ’s death has flung open the doors to citizenship in Israel being possible for Gentiles too, so that we too can take all our frustration and feelings of powerlessness directly to the Lord of the universe – exactly like any citizen of Israel could – then hopefully it dawns on us, at last, that we are no longer outsiders.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God, with God as our Father, Jesus as our King, and the Spirit as our personal and ever present Guide, God is intimately involved in fulfilling his purpose in and through us, just as he did in and through Israel. We’re not stuck like those Gentile Greeks in Athens hoping a God exists who answers prayers, or hoping there’s a purpose behind everything that’s happening, or hoping the gods will be good to them.

We aren’t like the poor native Indian in South America either, who admitted to a missionary that in the jungle he (the Indian) “never knew a day without fear. When we woke up in the morning, we were afraid. When we went out of our houses, we were afraid. When we walked along the river, we were afraid. We saw an evil spirit in every stone and tree and waterfall. And when night fell, fear came into our huts and slept with us all night long.”

And how many people today live in similar fear of what tomorrow holds? Will there be another terrorist attack or some random gunman suddenly shooting people in their neighbourhood? Will their kids be safe in school today? Will the global economy take another dive? Will our politicians drag us into another war? Will I go to work tomorrow morning and find we’ve been locked out?

So think what entering a Christian church would do for people, where the power of evil isn’t feared, and there’s not an ounce of hopelessness and despair. But that’s exactly what God had in mind as a result of Paul’s preaching, as Paul himself told King Agrippa in Acts 26:19-20.

“So then,” Paul tells the king in verse 19, I’ve been doing what Jesus told me to do. I’ve been opening Jewish and Gentile eyes to the opportunity they both have to “repent,” verse 20, which in context means dump all that devil-inspired pagan nonsense that ruled their lives, “and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” meaning show what happens when you trust God instead.

And isn’t that exactly what Christians all through the centuries have been doing? Instead of resorting to violence or cowering in fear like pagans do when evil threatens, Christians trust God. And the reason we trust God is that we accept what Paul said about the doors being flung open to God’s kingdom by Christ’s death, and we’re now on the inside, as close to God as you can get.

But wasn’t that the hope the pagan Greeks had back in Acts 17, that there really was a God who was close to them? Paul even quotes one of their own pagan poets who said, “We are his offspring.” It reveals the longing that even the most pagan people had for a God who really exists and has our best interests in mind because he loves us.

What Paul was saying, therefore, was the best news possible for those Athenian Greeks, because they were fed up with all that religious stuff cluttering up their city that didn’t give them any feeling of belonging to a God who had a purpose for their lives. They wanted to feel like they were on the inside, close to a real God like children in a loving home. That’s what they missed with their own gods, who seemed to have no interest in anything but themselves.

And now, suddenly, here’s Paul waving his arms around saying the kind of God they longed for actually exists. That yes, there really is a God beyond all that empty man-made temple and ritual stuff, who “gives all men life and breath and everything else” (25), who has a purpose for human life and where he’s placed people (26), and his purpose is absolutely clear: “God did this,” verse 27, “SO THAT we could seek after him, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near.” So, yes, Paul says, your poet was right; we are truly God’s children. We really are as close to God as that. We’re not outsiders at all.

But Paul hasn’t finished yet, because in his mind what he’s just said demands a response. And here it is: “Therefore,” Acts 17:29, “since we are God’s offspring” – or since God really is as close to us as that – God “now commands all people everywhere to repent,” verse 30, or as The Message phrases it, God’s “calling for a radical life-change” – which is exactly what Paul told King Agrippa nine chapters later in Acts 26:20, that obvious changes happen in people’s lives when it dawns on them that Christ’s death has flung open the doors to God’s Kingdom, and the resurrected Jesus stands there with open arms offering free and guaranteed access to all the help, forgiveness, love and power we need to live in and resist this ridiculous world and its empty, meaningless pagan ways.

We have quite a message, then, for people longing for some sort of meaning and purpose in life and not finding it in anything the world has to offer. The message is this: That as far as God is concerned no one is an outsider, and certainly not since Christ died. So start acting and living as though you’re not outsiders, because, Acts 17:31, God “has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right.”

Judgment, unfortunately, sounds terribly negative, especially in a world already tuned to hopelessness and despair, but what Paul meant by judgment in context here was amazingly positive, because it’s saying there IS a plan, and it’s all about putting this world to rights and a radical life-change for the better coming up for every human being one day – for Jews AND Gentiles – because God has already appointed Jesus to make it happen, verse 31, and “He’s given proof of this to all men by raising Jesus from the dead.”

Well, Jesus was raised from the dead two thousand years ago, so that means he’s been working away at God’s plan for that long already, the clear proof of which, according to Paul, is the radical life-change (or repentance) already happening in people who hear the good news that they’re no longer outsiders and they too can be in on everything that God is doing through Jesus right now, with total access to God for all the help needed to do it – and they believe it, and want to be part of it. And the amazing thing is, that people you’d think would have no interest in that kind of message – like those bored, restless, totally non-religious pagan Greeks in Athens – do take note and respond. “Let’s do this again,” some of them told Paul in verse 32, “we want to hear more.”

So Jesus is putting out the call in the gospel message, “Come join me in what I’m doing. Stop thinking like outsiders, and muck in with me.”

And on a personal note, as a person who has always felt like an outsider, I take my cue from Jesus’ call to Matthew.

Matthew had always been an outsider. He was a tax collector, meaning he paid the taxes the Romans demanded out of his own pocket and then by Roman law he was allowed to reimburse himself by setting up a customs office on the main highway passing through Capernaum and collecting duties on imported goods brought in by farmers, merchants, and travelers. But he used his position and the protection of the Romans to demand far more than he was owed, and his fellow Jews hated him for it. He was a Jew by birth, but among his own people he was an outsider. As a tax collector he wasn’t even allowed in the synagogue.

And being loathed by his fellow Jews, he was always on the fringe of the crowd whenever Jesus came through town. Matthew wasn’t even allowed to talk to a Rabbi, so he was never able to get close to Jesus. But when Jesus saw Matthew on duty one day he veered off the road, strode up to Matthew’s desk, looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Matthew, come with me.”

And what followed expresses the longing of all outsiders. There was no “What me, right now?” from Matthew. Given the chance to follow Jesus he did not hesitate. He rose from his seat and took off after Jesus, totally leaving behind a life of wealth and security that most people can only dream of. It was probably the most sudden and radical life-change ever made in a person in Scripture in response to an invitation from Jesus to muck in and join him.

And it came from an outsider, a person who knew from a lifetime’s experience what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. Well, there are tons of people like Matthew today who’ve also had a lifetime’s worth of hopelessness and despair and never felt like they’re part of any plan or purpose, that given the chance to hear what Jesus is doing and his open invitation to be part of it with him would respond like Matthew. And like Matthew maybe they’ll even go tell their friends as well so they can share in it too.

It happens. It happened to the pagan Greeks in Athens, and it happened to Matthew. And it happens just as much today as Jesus reaches out through his Church to the Matthews and Greeks of our day with the same clear message: That as far as God is concerned there are no more outsiders. Anyone and everyone can join Jesus in his quest to put this world to rights. And for some people it’s exactly what they’ve been longing to hear, that there really is a plan and purpose and they too can be in on everything to do with it.

Ephesians part 2 – No more walls

One of the clear and encouraging signs that –

We’re truly members of Christ’s body, seated with him right now in the heavenly realms sharing in what he’s doing on this earth, and that –

We’re truly living the ways of heaven in our tiny neck of the woods, so that we too, along with Christ, are bringing heaven and earth together as one, and that –

We’re making headway against the powers of darkness in our little corner of the world so that the Kingdom of God becomes visible wherever we are (all of which was touched on in Ephesians Part 1) – is the knocking down of walls.

It’s not just ‘knocking’ walls down, either, it’s utterly destroying them, pounding them into rubble and carting them away, so that where the walls once stood there is nothing to show that they were ever there in the first place.

And that’s the picture Paul creates in Ephesians 2 to describe what happens in the minds of Christians when we grasp the meaning of Christ’s death. It’s the picture of a wall tumbling down. Paul even names the wall too: In verse 14 he calls it the “dividing wall of hostility.”

We know all about dividing walls of hostility in our day too, of course – like the Berlin Wall that divided the Germanys, and the wall stretching 400 miles in Israel today dividing Jew and Arab. There are at least thirteen other dividing walls of hostility built around the world too, like the ones in Cyprus, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and several European countries, including the wall in Northern Ireland that stretches 21 miles separating Christians of all people from each other. And there is already a wall stretching 81 miles separating the United States from Mexico, with talk of extending it along the entire border.

So we, like Paul, live in a world where ugly walls separating people are a familiar part of the landscape, because walls in this world are seen as an effective means of protecting people from hostile enemies, or keeping people apart who cannot resolve their hostility toward each other. But was there a wall like that in Paul’s day? Yes, there was, and tragically it was inside the one place on earth where heaven and earth were supposed to come together, not be apart.

That one place on earth was the Temple complex in Jerusalem, the place that Jesus called “My Father’s house.” So this was the place where God dwelt, and where humans could come into God’s presence and commune with him. But inside this very place that brought heaven and earth and God and human together there was a wall, or Balustrade, called the Middle Wall of Partition that stopped Gentiles from entering the Temple’s inner courts, like the Court of Israel (which was for purified Jews only), the Court of Prayer (which Jewish women could enter but not Gentiles), the Court of Israelites (for Jewish men only), the Court of Priests and the Holy Place (for priests only) and the Holy of Holies (which only the High Priest could enter once a year on the Day of Atonement).

We have a description of that Middle Wall of Partition from Josephus. It was four and a half feet high with thirteen openings. It created a sort of square within a square. The outside square was the entire Temple Mount surrounded by a high wall (450 feet high at one point, and probably the spot where Satan tempted Jesus to jump), and within that high wall square was this other smaller square, with its much lower wall, that only purified Jews could enter. Outside that small square, but still inside the high walls of the main Temple complex, was the Court of the Gentiles, a large area where in Jesus’ day animals and birds were sold for sacrifices and the money-changers set up their tables. So Gentiles were allowed to enter the Temple complex to offer gifts and sacrifices, but they could only go as far as the Middle Wall of Partition and not a step further.

At the openings through the wall, severe warnings were chipped into tall stone pillars telling Gentiles to stay out, or else. In 1871 archaeologists excavating the Temple site actually found a stone with such a warning written on it: “No man of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure around the temple, and whoever is caught will have himself to blame if his death ensues.” And Paul knew from personal experience how seriously the Jewish authorities upheld that warning too, because he almost lost his own life back in Acts 21:28-29 when the Jews accused him of taking Trophimus, a Gentile Greek, beyond this inner wall.

So when Paul talks of this “dividing wall of hostility” separating Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:14, he’s clearly referring to this Middle Wall of Partition in the Temple complex. The King James Version even uses the term “Middle Wall of Partition” in that verse. But when Paul wrote Ephesians in 60 or 61 AD he said this Middle Wall of Partition had already been knocked down by Christ’s death. And in only ten years time the wall would literally be destroyed too, when the Romans tore down the Temple complex in 70 AD.

But why did God allow that to happen? The Temple was a magnificent building, a masterpiece of beauty and engineering that amazed people, including Jesus’ disciples, as they watched it being built. And it followed the pattern of Solomon’s Temple as closely as possible too, but with one interesting exception: When Solomon prayed at the dedication ceremony of his Temple, he included this request to God in 1 Kings 8:41-43 – “As for the foreigner (or Gentile) who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name….then hear from heaven your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Compare that to the Middle Wall of Partition in King Herod’s Temple that kept foreigners away – under threat of death too – from the inner Court of Prayer, creating the unfortunate impression that God wasn’t interested in listening to the prayers and requests of Gentiles. They could offer sacrifices to the God of Israel, yes, but they couldn’t bring their needs to him like the Israelites could.

But was that the impression God wanted Gentiles to get when they saw the Temple? Absolutely not, as we see in Isaiah 56:3 – “Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’” Instead, verses 4-7, to any foreigner who chose to please God and hold fast to his covenant, “to them I (God) will give WITHIN my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better that sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him….these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer….for my house will be called a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Herod’s temple – that kept all other nations but Israel OUT of the house of prayer – was ripped down only ten years after it was completed. It didn’t properly represent God at all, because the place where God dwells makes it very clear that “All who seek are welcome here.” And Solomon understood that. He knew that God only placed his Name on a Temple that made it abundantly obvious to foreigners that they could come in and pray their hearts out, just like any Israelite, and God would hear every word.

So what on earth made the Jews exclude Gentiles from the Court of Prayer in Herod’s temple?

There’s a clue back in Ephesians 2, when Paul writes directly to Gentile Christians in the Church, reminding them in verse 12 that, yes, at one time they “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.” It was perfectly within God’s plan, therefore, to separate Israelites and Gentiles. And Paul acknowledged that too, in Romans 9:4-5, when talking about “the people of Israel,” that “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ.”

It’s understandable, then, that the Jews wanted to put some distance between themselves and the Gentiles – in recognition of Exodus 19:5-6 too, that “out of all nations” God had chosen Israel as his “treasured possession” and his “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and Deuteronomy 7:6, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” And when it came to their relationship with people of other nations, the Israelites should “make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (2), nor should they intermarry with foreigners, or allow their children to marry foreigners (3). Clearly, then, God wanted Israel to be separate from the Gentiles, and he promised horrible disasters if they allowed the Gentiles to influence them in any way (31:16-18). Separation was the key word.

But was that because Israel was superior to other peoples? Is that why God chose them? No, it wasn’t, because in God’s own words in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery.”

On the one hand, then, Israel was meant to be separate, but not because they were superior. God had chosen them for two simple reasons: First of all because he loved them, and secondly, to stay true to his covenant promise to Abraham because of Abraham’s faithful obedience. And for those two reasons alone, God had lovingly and faithfully rescued Israel from the clutches of Egypt.

But it’s also what God rescued the Israelites for that shows how wrong that Middle Wall in the Temple was, because separation did not mean exclusion.

It was never God’s intent in rescuing and separating Israel from the Gentiles to give the impression that he only loved Israel and no one else, or that he only cared for Israel and excluded people from other nations. He made that very clear in Deuteronomy 4:6 at the point when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land full of pagan nations worshipping all sorts of weird gods and idols. So why send Israel into a mess like that? Because, God said, if you, Israel, stick to my commands, you will “show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”

It was God’s intent that the eyes of these pagan people would spring open with amazement when they saw how blessed the Israelites were. And he wanted those pagans to be deeply impressed by what they saw too. In other words, God wasn’t treating these people of other nations as just pieces of meat that needed to be eradicated and destroyed for their demonic rituals, he was sending Israel into this mess to show these pagans something wonderful.

And why would God do this? Because, as Moses reminded Israel in verse 7, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them whenever we pray to him?” Or as The Message phrases it, “What other great nation has gods that are intimate with them the way God, our God, is with us, always ready to listen to us.”

In other words, what these nations would see was how different Israel’s God was. He was nothing like their gods. Their gods were distant and it was never certain that they were actually listening or even involved in people’s lives at all. But here was Israel’s God blessing his people mightily because they could pray to him and he would listen, and he would answer them, giving them wisdom and understanding that was truly amazing.

When Israel entered the Promised Land, therefore, it wasn’t all battles and destruction as though God hated the people of other nations. It was God’s intent that other nations would see in Israel how close and intimate he was to humans, and that here was a God who really cared. Israel, therefore, was meant to be a bright shining light, just like the bright shining sunlight reflecting off the white walls of the Temple, that other nations would notice and be attracted to and discover to their delight that here was a personal God who could be approached with freedom and confidence. In the people where God had placed his Name, therefore, it was clear that here was a God who clearly loved people.

And isn’t that exactly what Solomon understood in the Temple where God placed his Name too, that it was the one place on earth where strangers and foreigners were utterly welcome to come and pray and have their prayers answered? Was God excluding Gentiles, therefore, from the place where he placed his name? Absolutely not: God made it clear that where he placed his Name was a house of prayer where anyone seeking him for help and answers was welcome. The Temple not only attracted people because of its beauty, it was also inviting as a quiet spot for people of all nations to pray their hearts out to an intimate, personal God who would answer their prayers.

But this was God’s plan from the time he called Abraham. It was to make Israel separate, yes, but never to exclude Gentiles. Abraham himself was a Gentile, but from this pagan Gentile would come the nation of Israel and the amazing promise in Genesis 12:3 that “ALL PEOPLES on earth will be blessed through you.”

So God would make Israel separate and different from all the other nations, yes, but as a blessing to them, not to exclude them. And it’s interesting that God allowed Israel to end up in a pagan nation too, stuck as slaves in Egypt, because it would add weight to his command in Exodus 22:21 that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

God made Israel strangers in a foreign land so they’d not only know what it felt like to be strangers and treated like dirt by the locals, but also what it felt like to be abandoned by their God and have no one to turn to for help. God put Israel through that so their hearts would go out to strangers and people of other nations, rather than look down on them, or build walls to keep them out.

God went one step further too, by telling the Israelites in Leviticus 19:33-34 that any stranger wanting to live in their land “shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” One has to ask, then, how a Middle Wall of Partition ended up in the Temple when God told the Israelites in Leviticus to treat strangers as one of their own, and to love them as they would any fellow Israelite. And how could Gentiles be excluded from the inner courts of the Temple when God had explicitly told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 23:7, “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.”

Imagine that; not only weren’t the Israelites allowed to exclude Gentiles, they weren’t even allowed to tell ethnic jokes about them.

But God still hadn’t finished tuning the hearts of the Israelites to strangers and foreigners, because in Deuteronomy 23:8 he adds this little gem, that “The third generation of children born (to Gentiles living with the Israelites) may enter the assembly of the Lord.” All third generation Gentiles were free to join the Israelites as brothers and sisters, with free access to every blessing God gave to Israel. In just three generations, therefore, it was God’s intent that Israelites and Gentiles share the same privileges as equals, meaning there was NO separation, no exclusion, and certainly no dividing wall of hostility. Living with the Israelites, in other words, was a great place to be, because the Israelite God welcomed everyone with open arms.

But how is all this relevant to us? Well, in 2 Corinthians 6:14 Paul told the Christians in his day that THEY should be separate too: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” Paul writes, “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” And in verse 16, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the Temple of the living God”….“Therefore,” verse 17, “come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.”

Paul is quoting directly from several verses in the Old Testament here, all of them meant for Israel. So our instructions, therefore, are no different to those that God gave to Israel. We are to be separate from non-Christians just like the Israelites were to be separate from non-Israelites. And the reason for us being separate is because we are God’s Temple, meaning that we too now, just like Israel and its Temple, are the place and the people who bear God’s Name.

So just like Israel we avoid all contact with the gods and idols of the world we live in, which Paul again made clear to Christians in 1 Corinthians 10:21, that we “cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” None of what this world worships, in other words, should have any influence on us, which is exactly what God told Israel back in Deuteronomy 18:9-14. God wants the Christian Church to be just as separate from our world as Israel was separate from the pagan nations of its world. Separation is the key word, and it identifies God’s people today just as effectively as it did in the days of Israel.

But stay a little longer in 1 Corinthians 10 and we hear Paul saying in verses 32-33, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way…that they may be saved.” So when Paul talks about separation he clearly does not mean exclusion.

But how can you be separate from people and try to please them at the same time? Well, that’s exactly the challenge Israel was faced with. They were meant to be separate from other nations, but also to open their arms to them. And if anyone understands that delicate balance, it’s Queen Elizabeth, because for more than 60 years she’s been very open about her Christianity and her belief and trust in Christ alone, but all during that time she has never made non-Christians and people of other faiths feel inferior in her presence, or strange.

Like any Christian the Queen is the Temple of God wherever she goes. As such she carries God’s Name with her, and like Solomon said in 1 Kings 8:43 she wants all people to know “that this house I have built bears your Name.” She wants people to know that the way she treats and views people came from the God she worships, because that’s the way he is.

In The Servant Queen and the King she serves, written in celebration of her 90th birthday, it says “the Queen does not pretend that she believes all religions are the same – she is a devoted Christian,” and she makes no secret of that in her Christmas messages. “For me,” she said in 2014, “the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life.” That’s stating plainly and publicly in a world where she is probably the best-known person alive, that there is only one God in her life.

But immediately, in the next sentence, she then says: “A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, Jesus stretched out his hand in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.” So her exclusive faith in Christ has not excluded her from respecting people of other faiths. She respects them as much as she does those who share her beliefs. In other words, she treats them like brothers and sisters in exactly the same way God told the Israelites to treat strangers living in their land as brothers and sisters.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a devoted British Jew said this of the Queen: “Jews have deep respect for the Queen. They value her because she values them.” And then this quote: “She makes them feel, not strangers in a strange land, but respected citizens at home,” which is exactly in tune with the instructions God gave to Israel, to make strangers and foreigners feel respected, loved and welcome.

In the Queen’s reflection of God and in her part of God’s Temple, therefore, there is no Middle Wall of Partition. There’s not even the hint of a wall.

Quoting The Servant Queen again, “She has worked hard for peace and reconciliation all her life,” a lovely example of which is told by Rabbi Sacks: “The day was 27 January 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the place, St. James’ Palace (the most senior royal palace in the United Kingdom). The Queen was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. When the time came for her to leave she stayed; and stayed. She gave each survivor (of a large group) her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story. It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears.”

But we know why the Queen is this way, and why she is such a master at balancing separation and inclusion. It’s because of Ephesians 2:17-18, that Christ “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.” She understands that the Temple that bears his Name is a wide open door to people of all nations. It always was an open door in the Old Testament too, but even more so since Christ died, because “through the cross,” verse 16, “he put to death their hostility.”

Paul is specifically talking about ripping down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, but he goes on to explain in Ephesians 3:6 that the great revelation he’d understood from Christ’s death is that “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus.” And that includes the chance for both Jew and Gentile to “approach God with freedom and confidence” (12). In other words, there is no wall in the Temple dividing anyone anymore. All people have free access to God. As in Solomon’s Temple anyone can pray to God and he will answer.

So the great blessing promised to Abraham that all nations of the earth would be blessed through his descendants continues, first through Israel and now “through the Church” (10) in how WE in the Church now view and treat people.

And hopefully it’s obvious in our little part of the Temple that there is no Middle Wall of Partition. And we take the bread and wine to remind ourselves of that, that the dividing wall of hostility has been utterly eradicated and carted away by Christ’s death. And if it’s being ripped down in our OWN heads too, then it’s a sure sign, quoting The Message in 2 Corinthians 7:1, that “our entire lives (are becoming) fit and holy temples for the worship of God.” And that’s great news because the Temple was the one place on earth where God was seen for who he really is, a God with open arms to all people.

Ephesians part 1 – When a person is “in Christ”….

So what stirs Christians to taking bread and wine (or Communion/Eucharist/ Lord’s Supper) in memory of Christ’s death that lifts it beyond just being a ritual that “Christians do”? Is there a book in the Bible that our own little cell in Christ’s worldwide body of the church, can plough through and return to again and again to keep the meaning of the bread and wine clear in our heads?

The book of Ephesians came to mind because it takes us back to why we call ourselves ‘Christians’ in the first place. We are Christians first and foremost because we believe that God’s entire plan for all creation began in Christ – and that it’s unfolding at this very moment in Christ, and that one day it will be completed in Christ.

That little phrase in Christ, therefore, reminds us that everything God has done, is doing, and will do in our future, is in Christ, and Paul certainly brings out that point in Ephesians.

But we are also Christians because we believe that God has included us in what he’s doing in Christ, and Paul brings out that point too in Ephesians when he describes Christians as being ‘in Christ’. It’s a phrase he uses often in his letters to the churches, but especially in Ephesians, to describe not only what God has been doing in Christ for all humanity, but also to point out that Christians are in Christ as well, and what that means for us.

So Paul’s covering at least two points in Ephesians when he uses the phrase ‘in Christ’, both of which he hints at in Ephesians 1:3 when he kicks off his letter with: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly places with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Paul zeroes in on the Father, in two ways: First of all, that the Father is the Father of Christ – but, secondly, that the Father is involving us in what he’s doing in Christ, because he’s equipped us too with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places where he’s working out his plan. So the Father is involving both Christ and us in his plan.

And note that Paul uses the word “HAS” in verse 3 when he says the Father “has blessed us,” meaning it’s something the Father has already done. Paul doesn’t say the Father ‘will’ bless us one day with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places; he says the Father already has.

Being blessed by the Father with all his wonderful blessings, then, isn’t something we have to wait for when Christ appears to set up God’s kingdom on the earth. For the simple fact that we, as Christians, are ‘in Christ’, we are already living in that place where God ‘in Christ’ is setting up his kingdom and pouring out all his blessings in full.

And we need help remembering that, because we’re stuck in this world still, making it very hard for us – as we live out our lives here – to grasp that we’re actually living in another realm where every spiritual blessing has already been given to us. But this is the point Paul makes in verse 3 when he says the Father has blessed us “in the heavenly places.”

Where has the Father blessed us? He’s blessed us ‘IN’ the heavenly places. Paul doesn’t say the Father blessed us ‘from’ the heavenly places; he says ‘in’. In the heavenly places, therefore, must be where we are right now, because how can we receive every spiritual blessing God has already given us if we aren’t IN the place where the Father handed those blessings out? According to Paul the Father has already handed out every spiritual blessing to those in Christ in the heavenly places – because that’s where we already are – in the heavenly places.

We need reminding, then, that right now we’re living in another realm where all these blessings exist already, and we’ve already got them, in full.

We’re already in heaven, in other words. We don’t have to wait until some future time to be taken to heaven, because we’re already in it. It ties in with Colossians 3:3, where Paul says, “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” And that’s present tense too. Our lives at this very moment are tucked away with Christ, which means we are where he is, right? And where is he? He’s in the heavenly places. And because we’re in Christ we’re right there with him.

Paul dropped this little bombshell in Ephesians too, when he tells us in Ephesians 2:6, that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.”

There’s that little phrase ‘in Christ’ again, but look at the context: It’s attached directly to us being in the place where Christ is. And where is Christ? Paul says he’s in the heavenly realms. And where are the heavenly realms? Paul explains that too, in Ephesians 1:20, that when God raised Christ from the dead he “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”

So the heavenly realms are where God the Father himself resides. It’s that invisible realm in which God directs everything going on in heaven and on earth, and according to Paul we’re right in the middle of it, because Christ is there with his Father in the heavenly realms, and we’re seated there with him.

To be in Christ, therefore, means being where he is. But that’s not all it means, because Paul also said we are “seated with him,” meaning we’re right alongside Christ sharing in what he’s doing. So what IS Christ doing? Well, according to Paul, in verse 21, Christ is ruling over all creation “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet,” verse 22, “and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body,” verse 23, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Not only, then, has the Father given Christ authority and power over everything going on in our world right now – and in the new world to come – he’s also seated us with Christ to share in what he’s doing. It was in the Father’s plan to seat Christ beside him as ruler over everything – but it was ALSO in the Father’s plan to have the church sharing in Christ’s rule as well. That’s why Paul says in verse 23, “God placed all things under Christ’s feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.”

In other words, the church is totally included in everything Jesus does. But of course it is, because Paul says the church is Christ’s “BODY” (23). Christ is the ‘head’, yes, but he’s incomplete without his body. And according to Paul, the church is SO closely attached to Christ it actually contains “his fullness” (23).

But that’s the way the Father designed it, that Jesus and his church, as head and body together, would fulfill his plan. So, first of all, the Father “puts everything under Christ,” 1 Corinthians 15:27, but the Father also gave Christ a church seated beside him in the heavenly realms, so that Jesus could fill his church with himself, and together they would “fill everything in every way,” the final aim of which would be God, one day, being “all in all” (28).

Paul talked in the same terms in Colossians 2:9, that, first of all, “in Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form.” In Christ, therefore, we have a perfectly healthy head, fully capable of directing the Father’s plan to its final goal. But WITH him, verse 10, is this marvelously healthy body of people attached to Christ who “have been given fullness in Christ.” And again, that’s not something we have to wait for as Christians, to be given to us at some future date, it’s something we’ve already been given.

Christ, therefore, has a fully capable body he can work with, that’s been given everything that he is – his entire “fullness,” Paul says. Christ too, then, can rest assured that he has a wonderful body, the church, that’s filled to the brim in every cell with every bit of the same heart, mind, and ability he has, enabling head and body together to complete the Father’s plan.

So, all praise to the Father, going back to Ephesians 1:3, that he blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ, because it means that neither we nor Christ need ever worry or wonder if we’re up to fulfilling the job we’ve been given to do.

As Christians we probably do wonder, of course, being the weak humans that we are, and living in a world where so much of our time is spent on taking care of our physical needs, and having to worry about money, health, relationships with family and neighbours, and trying to keep up with all that needs doing.

And we probably think we’re not all that spiritual too. Days go by, perhaps, when all we can think of is getting through the day, collapsing in a heap at supper time, and being brain dead for the rest of the evening until falling into bed in a semi-coma before our head even hits the pillow. And as far as Bible study, it’s tough with failing health or a busy, busy life, to keep one’s eyes open beyond three verses.

Where is the obvious evidence, therefore, that we’ve been given every possible spiritual blessing there is already, and that in us, at this very moment, all the fullness of Christ lives in bodlly form? And yet here’s Paul telling us that we’ve been tanked up with every bit of spiritual equipment we need as Christ’s body to share in all that Jesus is doing in the heavenly realms, ruling over all creation as head and body together, and filling the whole creation and the entire universe with everything Jesus is “in every way” (verse 23). But if I can’t see any evidence of that, and I’m not excited by it, am I missing something? Am I even a Christian?

Well, this is where the bread and wine helps us remember something else important about what it means to be ‘in Christ’. Not only does the phrase ‘in Christ’ describe what God has done for all humanity in Christ and what he’s given us in the church to share in what Christ is doing right now, it also answers our question about how on earth we can be Christ’s body filling this world with his fullness in every way, when we’re stuck down here in this mess with little evidence that we’re having any influence at all.

It’s in Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:10, when he says “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

So there’s that little phrase ‘In Christ’ yet again, but this time it’s in the context of us being God’s workmanship. And we can add at this point that we’ve been his workmanship from the time “he chose us in Christ” before this world was even created (1:4). So we shouldn’t be too concerned, then, that we’re stuck in this mess, seemingly without much influence, when this was God’s idea in the first place, and he planned it this way from the beginning.

It’s all part of God’s workmanship and design, therefore, that we be here now in these frail human bodies of ours in a knock-the-stuffing-out-of-us world that makes us wonder at times if we’re even Christian because of how little we seem able to do. But along comes Paul who assures us in verse 10 that God had everything “prepared in advance” before any of us even existed, meaning that everything, including what we’d be doing as Christians, is working out exactly according to plan, because that’s what being ‘in Christ’ means.

‘In Christ’ means we are God’s work of art, and he is a brilliant artist because he can transform a plain canvas like ourselves – with our personalities, circumstances and relationships, and our typical every day habits and struggles – into a wonderful picture that catches people’s eye, so they are drawn to Christ in ways we may have no idea about, enabling us (without US probably knowing it as well) to play our part to perfection in filling this world with Christ’s fullness just as God intended, even in our frailty.

In other words, it’s happening, whether we can see evidence of it, or not, because God is an amazing artist. He’s a whiz with a paintbrush, turning out the most exquisite works of art on the plainest of canvases, because that’s the way he chose to do things before our world existed.

We can safely say, therefore, that the artist is at work in our lives, because that’s what we exist as Christ’s body for. Somehow, in God’s estimation and wisdom, he saw in us the perfect canvas for his artwork. And with every perfect sweep and dab of his paintbrush he’s made it possible for a church full of frail, stumbling humans to share in what he’s doing in Christ for all humanity.

But it raises an obvious question, because how can we be in two places at once? It sounds great that we’re in the heavenly realms seated with Christ and hidden with Christ, filled to the brim with every spiritual blessing. But the reality we experience every day is that we’re here on the earth still, and it doesn’t feel very spiritual at all, right? And how can we be weak, physical humans while at the same time be filled with the fullness of Christ? Or as some might say: How can we be upstairs and downstairs at the same time, living as the landed gentry with all the luxury and goodies on the upper level of the house, while also being scullery maids and shoe shiners in the basement? How can we ‘up there’ in the heavenly realm and ‘down here’ on the earth at the same time?

What makes this somewhat easier to understand is that the heavenly realm is actually here all around us. There is no separation between an ‘up there’ and ‘down here’, because when Christ died and God raised him from the dead, the process of “bringing all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” began, Ephesians 1:10.

In Christ, therefore, the heavenly realm and the earthly realm are being brought together, and we in the church are the first to experience it because we are Christ’s body. Rather than us disappearing off to heaven and leaving this earth behind forever, therefore, we’re actually bringing heaven and earth together with Christ right here, because we’re his body. He’s the head, under whom heaven and earth come together, but we’re his body, so we’re as much in this bringing earth and heaven together as he is.

And we do it in the same way he does it, by living in the heavenly realm in bodily form. Remember Paul saying in Colossians 2:9 that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”? So Christ has the fullness of God in him, but he’s also in bodily form too. In Christ, therefore, both spiritual and physical exist as one, and since we have his fullness in us (verse 10), then both spiritual and physical exist in us as well. In Christ the head and us his body, both heaven and earth come together as one. It means, then, that as physical beings we can live in the heavenly realm, just as Christ does.

That’s why the Father has given us spiritual blessings, so we can function and live in the spiritual realm where Christ is. The Father equipped us with all that we need to be like Christ in every way so we can live in the heavenly realm with him, being his body and sharing in what he’s doing. It’s like equipping astronauts with all they need to function in space. They’re living in a totally foreign realm that humans can’t normally exist in, but kitted out with the right equipment they can live and work in space perfectly well.

It’s not a foreign concept, therefore, for us to be able to live in a heavenly realm while still being in our human bodies. But what makes this even easier to grasp is that God raised Christ “to be head over everything for the church,” Ephesians 1:22. And where is the church? It’s right here on the earth. So Christ’s command centre, from which he rules all creation in power and glory, isn’t up in heaven somewhere, it’s right here. He brought the heavenly realm with him and set it up here on earth.

So we don’t have very far to go to be in the heavenly realms. They’re here on the earth all around us, as the first step in God’s plan to bring heaven and earth together under Christ. But the second step in the Father’s plan is kitting out a church on the earth with the perfect spiritual equipment to assist Christ in bringing heaven and earth together.

And we need that perfect spiritual equipment because the earth is also the command centre for the principalities and powers of evil. So there are other spiritual forces at work in this invisible heavenly realm on the earth. That’s why our biggest battle as the church, Ephesians 6:12, isn’t “against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We’re in that realm where the spirit forces of evil are also at work, and every day we have to contend with them, because that’s where we are living now as Christians.

But God has perfectly equipped us to deal with the forces of evil, so that even as frail humans we can live the ways of heaven on the earth. And that’s what makes our lives meaningful and exciting, because every day we make the rule of Christ real on this earth. Every day we fill our little part of the world with Christ’s fullness, rather than the insanity of evil. And we’ve been given the power to do that, to choose good over evil in all that we say and do, enabling us to actually live heaven on earth wherever we go, driving back the forces of darkness, and replacing them with the rule and fullness of Christ.

This is what we’ve been chosen to do as Christ’s body. We’ve been lifted into the heavenly realms on this earth, and this is where we live, with Christ, taking on the battle with him to establish his kingdom and his fullness on this earth, so that one day this earth is ready for the Father to take up residence here forever.

And that’s the point of our existence as the church, that it is all for the Father that that we live, because we know that it’s all for us that he lives. He wants to make his home with us. That’s why he created us and created this planet. That’s why he sent his Son to die here, to deal with the forces of evil on this planet head to head, so that the heavenly realms will be free of them and there’s nothing left eventually but the lovely kingdom of God ruling the earth.

But the Father has given us the chance to join the fight too, because this is our home as well. And we can have an impact on what happens on this earth, because the Father equipped us with all the weaponry we need to clear out any pockets of evil in our area of the woods. And it’s this we remember every time we take the bread and wine, that because Christ died God’s plan of making this whole earth a place he can call home is now being made a reality in us.

Every day, then, we are making our little part of the earth a place the Father would happily call home. It’s a little bit of heaven where we are, making the bread and wine we take very meaningful because this is what Christ’s death made possible.

It gave the chance for the likes of us frail humans to bring heaven to this earth as living witnesses to the Father’s plan. We are walking, talking audio and video displays of God’s workmanship and amazing artistry. The songs of heaven are being sung out loud and clear in a world that’s deaf and blind, and according to Paul in Ephesians 3:10, they’re being heard by “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” They are watching the heavenly realms light up with little spotlights of heaven in the church, like seeing the pinpricks of light at night on earth from the space station.

It may not be visible to us, but it’s certainly visible to the forces of darkness, and it’s the bread and wine that helps us remember that what we do in our daily lives every time we choose good over evil, is now the Father’s way of including us in clearing out evil from the heavenly realms in Christ, and he sent the Holy Spirit to make it possible for us to do that in the here and now.