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.