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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Epheasians, Commentary 2.1, via Uwe Rosenkranz

Ephesians 2:1–10
Once Dead, Now Alive in Christ
Over the next several verses starting Eph 2, the thanksgiving and prayer that starts in 1:15 shifts into an exposition of God’s great power, particularly as it is manifested in Christ’s superiority over all things. Without the prayer formally ending (as happens in varying degrees in 1 Cor 1:9; Phil 1:11; 1 Thess 1:10, this exposition continues into chapter 2. Stylistically, this continuation is signaled by the use of the conjunction kai (and) in both 2:1 and 2:5.
These verses focus on how Christ’s superiority over all things enables him to free the Ephesians from their bondage to sin. The first part of this exposition establishes the Ephesians’ comprehensive alienation from God. They lived and acted within the realm dominated by oppressive powers opposed to God. They were dead. Although the Ephesians were captivated by their attachments to sin, through God’s gracious activity they have been raised together with Christ and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. Although this passage assumes a cosmic conflict in which God defeats all antidivine powers and brings all things to their proper end in Christ (cf. 1:10, 20–23), this passage is not really part of a narrative of divine cosmic conflict (contra Gombis, “Ephesians 2”). Rather, it is more like a commentary on the aftermath of such a conflict and its implications and possibilities for the Ephesian Christians.
Structurally, the passage begins (2:1–3) with a description of the Ephesians’ state prior to Christ. Then Paul in some detail proceeds to describe God’s work in making the Ephesians alive in Christ in three basic moves: The transition from death to life (v. 4) and then two descriptions of salvation in Christ (vv. 5–7, 8–10).

2:1 And you were dead becauseb of your transgressions and sins 2 in which you once walked, according to the age of this cosmos, according to the ruler of the realm of the air, of the spiritd that is now at work among the children of disobedience; 3 among whom we all also once lived in the desires of our flesh, performing the wishesg of our flesh and of our thoughts. We were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love, with which he loved us, 5 made us alive together with Christ even though we were dead in our transgressions—by grace you have been saved—6 and he raised you together with Christ and seated you in the heavenly realms together in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come God might demonstrate the unlimited riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For you have been saved by grace through faith, and this does not come from you. Rather, it is God’s gift. 9 It does not come from works, so that nobody may boast. 10 For we are God’s work, created in Christ Jesus to walk in good works, which God has prepared beforehand for us.

[1–3] Paul here is addressing the Ephesian believers as a group. Among others, Barth (211–12) argues that the second-person plural pronoun is used to refer to “you” Gentile Christians as opposed to “we” Jewish Christians. Although it is true that Paul takes the audience to be predominantly if not exclusively Gentile, it is not possible to determine this by means of the pronouns. Neither is it possible to maintain such a distinction in pronoun use throughout the epistle (Lincoln, Ephesians 88).
The Ephesians were dead in their trespasses and sins. Paul assumes that, from the perspective of being in Christ, the description Paul offers of the Ephesians’ past will be relatively clear and straightforward. What modern readers of Ephesians may forget is that prior to being in Christ, the Ephesians would in all likelihood not have recognized Paul’s characterization of them as dead in their trespasses and sins. Thinking of oneself as dead outside of Christ already presumes that one knows something about being alive in Christ. Thus Paul is offering an account of their past, but one that really only becomes intelligible from the perspective of being in Christ.
The Ephesians’ transgressions and sins have led to their death. It seems most likely that the terms “transgressions and sins” are used synonymously here rather than as a reference to two distinct types of act. Paul is referring to things done or things left undone that rupture or damage one’s relationship with God. This conforms to the use of the same Greek word translated here as “transgressions,” which also appears in 1:7. In 1:7 the redemption accomplished by Christ’s blood is further specified as the forgiveness of sins.
In Rom 5:12–21 Paul declares that Adam’s disobedience leads to death. He also goes on to speak of Sin as a distinct power that seeks to rule the earth and uses death as one of its instruments of oppression. Although Paul does not contrast Adam with Christ in Ephesians, nor does he use “Sin” in the singular as a way of speaking about a power, the line of thinking here is very similar to Romans. Death is both a way of speaking of the Ephesians’ alienation from God and the characteristic result of Sin’s reign. Further, although Paul is here clearly speaking of spiritual death and alienation from God, Christians should not forget that physical death in the way that we know it is also the result of our sins and trespasses. Death is not part of God’s purposes in creation; as Paul declares in 1 Cor 15, death is our enemy.
These trespasses and sins are not only the cause of the Ephesians’ death; they also constitute the realm in which the Ephesians used to “walk.” On numerous occasions Paul uses the metaphor of walking to refer to one’s conduct or moral life (cf. Eph 2:10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15; also Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 3:3; Gal 5:16; et al.). It can refer to either positive or negative conduct. The force of the metaphor depends on the ways in which it is qualified. Here in 2:1 the Ephesians formerly walked “in” their transgressions and sins. The use of the preposition “in” (en) seems to indicate that “transgressions and sins” constitute a realm in which one might live. In Rom 6:1–11, Paul clearly sees Sin as the ruler of a realm within which believers used to live. Within this way of thinking, Sin, or in this case “transgressions and sins,” stand for that political space ruled and dominated by powers hostile to or alienated from God. The Ephesians were formerly citizens (or slaves) of this realm and have now been transferred or liberated from that realm into a new realm under Christ’s rule (cf. Col 1:13–14).
The next several clauses further explicate the character of that realm within which the Ephesians formerly walked. The rest of v. 2 is composed of three descriptions of this realm. The first of these is “the age of this cosmos.” The Greek term aiōn can be used to refer to a specific deity. In the Bible the term usually refers to a period of time (long or short). This is the way the term is also used in Eph 1:21 and 2:7. It appears that it should also be read this way here (with Lincoln, Ephesians 95; Arnold 133; Hoehner 310). What would it mean to walk according to the “age of this cosmos”? In all likelihood it is a reference to living in accord with the standards of this current world, a world that has yet to become subject to Christ, a world that could not abide the presence of the obedient Son of God and nailed him to a cross.
The second clause refers to “the ruler of the realm of the air.” If the notion of the “age of this cosmos” speaks of a type of mind-set or standard of life, this clause personalizes the forces operating on the Ephesians in their pre-Christian state. Thus, instead of speaking of an “age,” Paul now speaks of a “ruler.” There is little doubt that the text is a reference to Satan. Although Paul uses the phrase “the devil” (ho diabolos) in 4:27 and 6:11, he does not use the term Satan in Ephesians. One reason may be that the designations used here would resonate more clearly with a Gentile audience. Ruling the “air” is not to exercise dominion over a morally neutral space. Rather, there are numerous Hellenistic and Jewish texts which treat the “air” as a realm within which forces hostile to humans dwell, and from which they make their assaults on humanity (e.g., T. Levi 3.1–3; T. Benj. 3.4; Ascen. Isa. 7.9–12; Plutarch, Mor. 274B).
The ruler of the realm of the air is further identified as “the ruler over the spirit that is now at work among the children of disobedience.” The phrase “children of disobedience” also occurs in 5:6. Although the use of “child” can refer to a biological relationship, within the NT to call someone a child of something can often play upon the biological relationship in order to speak about a dominant characteristic or affiliation of that person (e.g., Matt 23:15, “child of hell”; Luke 16:8, “children of this age”; Acts 4:36, Barnabas is the “son of encouragement”). Thus, when Paul identifies the Ephesians as formerly walking according to the ruler of the spirit at work among the children of disobedience, he speaks of their fundamental disposition. This is not simply a failure to keep God’s commandments. Rather, their lives reflect active and comprehensive turning away from God. As it turns out, “children of disobedience” are quite obedient. They simply are not obedient to God (Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians 91). It is unclear whether the spirit spoken of here causes the disobedience, or whether a person with a disobedient disposition places oneself under the dominion of such a spirit. After analysis, it does not directly matter. The picture painted in 2:2 is of people who are in the thrall of forces opposed to God. Satan has captivated them; they are under Satan’s dominion.
As 2:3 makes clear, this situation is not unique to Ephesus. Paul indicates that “we all” once lived among the children of disobedience. In saying this, Paul declares that, outside of being in Christ, all people stand with the children of disobedience. The Greek word translated above as “live” is, like the verb “to walk,” often used to refer to a pattern of conduct or way of life (cf. 4:22; LXX: Prov 20:7 and Ezek 22:30; 2 Cor 1:12; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 13:18; 1 Pet 1:17; 2 Pet 2:18).
Paul goes on to characterize further this former way of life. His first description notes that we all lived “in the desires of our flesh.” This description echoes language found in Gal 5:16–24, where the “desires of the flesh” are contrasted with the “fruit of the Spirit.” In Ephesians these desires are not enumerated as the works are in Gal 5. It is not the case that desire in and of itself draws humans away from God. Rather, in this context the desires of “our flesh” locates these desires within the same realm dominated by the powers identified in v. 2. Thus, without indicating the precise nature or focus of these desires, Paul locates them in the realm opposed to the dominion of Christ. They cannot help but serve to alienate people from God. Moreover, if we read this phrase in the light of Rom 1:18–32, it appears that one form of God’s judgment on the children of disobedience is handing them over to the desires of their heart. Thus “living in the desires of our flesh” would be a sign both of alienation from God and of God’s judgment for such disobedience.
This clause is further amplified by the odd formulation “performing the wishes of our flesh and of our thoughts.” The use of the plural “thoughts” is a bit unusual. It appears in the LXX of Num 15:39; 32:7; Josh 5:1; 1 Esd 4:26; Dan 11:14. In these cases it appears that rather than referring to episodic thoughts, the word refers to a general pattern of thinking or mind-set. Some commentators take the phrase “performing the wishes of the flesh and the thoughts” to introduce an unpauline distinction between “flesh” and “mind-set,” between the sensual and the mental (Best, Ephesians 209; Lincoln, Ephesians 98). The context here is primarily designed to point out the comprehensive difference between being in Christ and being “dead because of your transgressions and sins.” Rather than making fine anthropological distinctions, this language reinforces the comprehensive picture of alienation from God outside of Christ.12
Finally, Paul claims that “we were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest.” Being a child of wrath is not a way of speaking about someone’s ill temper. Rather, a child of wrath is someone subject to wrath, presumably God’s wrath in this case. For example, in Apoc. Mos. (L.A.E. Apoc.) 3.2, Cain is called a son of wrath. Although there is clearly the idea that God’s wrath is tied to an eschatological judgment, Paul is also capable of talking about the wrath of God revealed in the present as humans are given over to the desires of their own hearts (cf. Rom 1:18–32). It may well be the case that here in 2:2–3 Paul also understands God’s wrath to be revealed in giving humans over to their own desires (contra Schnackenburg 93).
Paul indicates that we are children of wrath “by nature.” The Greek term physis, like the English word “nature,” has a wide range of meanings. Paul uses it in Gal 2:15 to speak about being a Jew “by nature.” In this sense it is a reference to origin or birth. In Rom 11:21, 24 the term is used to refer to what is normally the case in the natural world. In 1 Cor 11:14 (the case of men’s having long hair) and perhaps also in Rom 1:26 (natural sexual relations), the term seems to reflect the violation of a well-established convention. Hoehner (322–23) and Lincoln (Ephesians 98–99) are probably correct to allow the other times Paul uses the dative form, physei (as found in Rom 2:14; Gal 2:15; 4:8), to guide the interpretation of this same form in Eph 2:3. Even in these verses, however, the term is used with various shades of meaning. Thus Rom 2:14 refers to Gentiles’ following the law instinctively; Gal 2:15 refers to birth or origin; in Gal 4:8 the term is used to talk about things that “in reality” are not gods. So even in the closest parallel contexts, Paul could be saying that the Ephesians are children of wrath according to their deepest instincts, by virtue of their birth as humans, or in reality (as opposed to appearance).
Further, each of these possibilities says something important about human sinfulness. That is, outside of Christ, humans’ dispositions and inclinations are so captivated by Sin that we become subject to God’s wrath (cf. Rom 7:14–25). By birth as humans we become Adam’s heirs, inhabitants of and participants in a world dominated by the power of Sin (cf. Rom 5:12–21). Finally, despite our presumptions otherwise, in reality humans are captivated by Sin and thereby subject to God’s wrath (cf. John 8:31–47). I can see no clear way to determine which of these interpretations is correct if it means ruling out the others. Each is consistent with the context, and each is consistent with larger Christian convictions about human sinfulness. There is no reason to limit one’s options here.
The concluding phrase “just like the rest” is a reference to the rest of humanity. Having spoken of the Ephesians’ pre-Christian state as simply one example of the state of all people outside of Christ, in vv. 4–7 Paul is going to speak about the transition from being dead in sin to being alive in Christ.
[4] To make this transition, Paul begins in v. 4 with God. Verses 1–2 offer a discussion of the Ephesians’ prior condition, death. Verse 3 explains that the Ephesians’ state is simply one example of the condition “we all” find ourselves in. Verse 4 begins with the decisive conjunction “but God.” “We all” were once alienated from God, living in the thrall of forces hostile to God, handed over to pursue our own desires, “children of wrath.” But God is rich in mercy. Mercy is posited as the alternative or antidote to wrath. In this respect the use of “mercy” here is closer to Rom 11:30–32, where mercy is seen as the antidote to disobedience, than to Luke 10:37, where “mercy” describes the response of the Samaritan to the undeserved misfortune of the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. That person did not deserve to be mugged, and Jesus makes it clear that mercy is the response called forth by the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But in the Ephesians’ case, God’s wrath is not some undeserved misfortune that befalls us. Rather, it is precisely what one might expect when one has been captivated by sin. The great surprise here is that God is not rich in wrath. Instead, God is rich in mercy. Indeed, Christians are taught that God’s “nature is always to have mercy.”15
Verse 4 begins with the assertion that God simply is rich in mercy. We then learn of the motive that leads to the particular demonstration of mercy described in vv. 5–6. It is “because of his great love, with which he loved us.” This phrase joyfully notes that God’s great love is directed toward us (Hoehner 327). As an expansion on this assertion, Thomas Aquinas (90) lists four specific ways in which God’s great love is directed toward humans: (1) It brought us into existence (cf. Wis 11:24, “You love all things which you have made”). (2) We are made in God’s image and thus “capable of enjoying his own beatitude” (cf. Deut 33:2–3 [Vulg.; NRSV mg.]). (3) God renewed humans corrupted by sin, citing Jer 31:3, “I have loved them with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you, taking pity on you.” (4) God gave his own Son for our salvation (John 3:16). Thomas’s expansion here reminds readers of several significant facts. Just as God’s nature is always to have mercy, God’s love is eternal. It is not something that God revived in rescuing the Ephesians and/or us from our captivity to sin. Rather, as Thomas’s preference for OT citations shows, God’s love is at work from before the foundation of the world, in the calling of Israel and in the redemption of the world in Christ.
[5–7] Verse 5 begins in a manner stylistically similar to 2:1. Instead of stating “You were dead,” however, the verse begins “We were dead.” Further, v. 5 presents God’s answer to death right away. God “made us alive together with Christ even though we were dead in our transgressions.” Being “made alive” is the obvious solution to being spiritually dead. Paul’s assertion goes beyond this to claim that God has made believers alive together with Christ. The verb used here, synezōopoiēsen (made alive together), occurs in the NT only here and in the similar passage in Col 2:13. Paul does not use the simpler verb zōopoiēsen (making alive) very often either. When he does, the context is almost always referring to resurrection (Rom 4:17; 8:11; 1 Cor 15:22, 36, 45). These are either direct references to Christ’s bodily resurrection or analogous extensions of Christ’s resurrection to talk about a future bodily resurrection for believers. In Ephesians it appears that Paul is speaking of something slightly different. Being made alive together with Christ must include some notion of future bodily resurrection. It must also speak of the quality of the new life and some of its present effects (see also Allen 106). Thus the new life of believers is the same as Christ’s new life. Being made alive together with Christ means sharing in Christ’s new life and not some derivative form of Christ’s new life, similar yet inferior. It is important to recognize, on the one hand, that humans participate fully in this new life. There is nothing more they either need or can achieve in this regard. On the other hand, humans, even resurrected humans, will still be creatures and not God.
The new life that God gives is nothing less than union with Christ. Obviously, this union has yet to be consummated. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of believers’ new life as something already present. Indeed, there is no talk here of dying with Christ; Paul has already established that the Ephesians were formerly dead in their transgressions. In this light, being made alive together with Christ must be a way of speaking about the Ephesians’ rescue from their captivity to sin and the powers mentioned in 2:3–4 (Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians 96).
This verse also emphasizes that it is God who makes believers alive together with Christ. This is not something one can do for oneself. Moreover, the contrast between being made alive with Christ and being “dead” in one’s trespasses indicates that there is nothing about the state of being dead that would render humans deserving of being made alive. Thus Paul interjects the phrase “by grace you have been saved.” This phrase is repeated in 2:8. Its presence here is taken to be a joyful interjection.
The perfect passive participle sesōsmenoi (you have been saved) usually indicates a completed action with ongoing effects. Although it is more usual for Paul to speak of salvation as a future activity (cf. Rom 5:9, 10; 10:9, 13; 13:11; 1 Cor 5:5; Phil 3:20; et al.), he can also speak of salvation as a present state of affairs (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15; Phil 2:12). Paul speaks of salvation as having past, present, and future elements (Lincoln, Ephesians 104). Hence one should not make too much of this difference in shaping judgments about authorship. Nevertheless, it is striking to Lincoln that in the undisputed Pauline Letters, Paul does not use “by grace” or “by faith” with “salvation.” Rather, he speaks of “justification” “by grace” or “by faith” (Lincoln, Ephesians 104).
Whether this phrase is characteristic of Pauline usage or not, it fits quite well within the context of Ephesians. From 1:3 onward, Paul has been describing what God has already done for the Ephesians. There seems to be far less emphasis on what awaits believers in the future than one finds in the Corinthian Letters, for example. Paul never denies that there is a future and yet-to-be-completed element in the Ephesians’ life with God (see esp. 2:7). His emphasis here, however, is twofold. First, he makes the bold assertion that God has rescued the Ephesians from death, from their captivity to sin. This is accomplished by means of Christ’s defeat and subjugation of the powers opposed to God’s claim on the world. This defeat allows the church to be established as a political space or realm that recognizes Christ’s dominion. Thus the Ephesians have been liberated from their captivity to sin by means of their inclusion in the church. According to this emphasis, salvation here seems to have more to do with ecclesiology than eschatology. The second emphasis is on the fact that the Ephesians’ transfer from the realm of sin to the realm of Christ is accomplished by God through God’s overflowing mercy, great love, and grace. Hence this way of talking about salvation is fundamentally a way of speaking about God’s character. That is, the uncompromising assertion that salvation is God’s act is also implicitly a judgment about the character of the actor.

Excursus 2: The Death of Christ in Ephesians

The previous paragraphs observed that in 2:1–10 (or elsewhere in Ephesians) Paul does not speak about believers’ dying with Christ. The Ephesians are made alive with Christ, but this is not preceded by being crucified with Christ. For many scholars, this is a significant deviation from Paul’s views in the undisputed Letters and thus a reason to doubt Pauline authorship of Ephesians. As mentioned above, my stake in the question of authorship is relatively small. Regardless of the question of authorship, however, it is worth examining what Ephesians has to say about Christ’s death and how that is related to what one finds in the undisputed Pauline Letters. One should note two points at the outset of this excursus, however. First, nothing said here is likely to be decisive for the historical question of the authorship of Ephesians. Second, the issue of Christ’s death for Paul is an enormous and contested matter among Pauline scholars. Many of the issues addressed here are the subjects of monographs in their own right. This excursus can offer little more than an overview of the terrain.
In Romans and Galatians, Paul repeatedly speaks of dying (and rising) with Christ; he also speaks of being crucified with Christ. Romans 5–6 and Galatians 2 are the primary, but not the only, places where Paul speaks about this. In Romans and Galatians, Paul is at pains to emphasize that both Gentiles and Jews are under Sin’s captivity. Christ’s death and resurrection breaks Sin’s hold over the world and opens up a new space in which to live. This is the realm governed, shaped, and determined by Christ. Believers transfer their citizenship from the realm of Sin into the realm of Christ by participating in both Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection.
In the Corinthian letters, especially 1 Cor 1–4, Paul emphasizes that Christ’s death on the cross is the manifestation of God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the cross, runs counter to the wisdom of the world; God’s wisdom undermines conventional notions of power and reconfigures notions of strength and status in a world where these matters are taken very seriously. Such reflection on the cross provides Paul with a basis from which he can address a community divided along status lines, where “the strong” are not attentive to “the weak,” and where Paul’s own apostolic suffering is often misconstrued.
In Philippians, Paul speaks of Christ’s death as the supreme demonstration of Christ’s self-emptying obedience to God on behalf of others (2:6–8). The resurrection is God’s vindication of this self-emptying pattern of obedience on behalf of others (2:9–11). This way of looking at Christ’s death and resurrection provides the Philippians with the pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting that they should display toward one another, even amid suffering. Paul does not speak of dying and rising with Christ in Philippians. Instead, Christ’s self-emptying love, a love that leads to death on the cross, becomes the pattern to which Paul hopes his life (and the Philippians’ lives) might conform (3:10–12).
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul says little about the death of Christ. There is a brief mention of imitating the Lord in the midst of hostility (1:6–7), which is a much less developed notion than one finds in Philippians. In 1:10 Paul speaks of the resurrected Christ rescuing the Thessalonians from the wrath that is coming, which is a much less developed notion than one finds in Eph 2:1–10.
In Eph 2:1–10 Paul speaks of being made alive in Christ, but there is no mention of dying with Christ. Before becoming believers, the Ephesians were already dead. Instead, in Ephesians the death of Christ destroys the hostility that alienated Jews and Gentiles from each other and from God. Christ’s death brings “those who were far off” and “those who were near” into one body (2:11–18). Christ’s death brings to a climax God’s drama of salvation. One of the crucial episodes of that drama is the blessing of Abraham, a blessing through which all the nations are blessed. In the cross, God’s surprising plan to draw Jews and Gentiles together into one body in Christ is decisively revealed to the world (Eph 3:7–13).
In Ephesians and in these other Letters, Paul unpacks the significance of the death of Christ in a variety of ways. Paul’s decision to develop any one of these aspects rather than others would largely be shaped by the specific situation of each community, even if, as in Ephesians, the epistle reveals little of that situation. None of these ways of explicating the significance of Christ’s death excludes the others.
I do, however, think that there is one thing that does unite these diverse and particular expositions of the death of Christ. Although the things Paul says about Christ’s crucifixion are of immense significance for the lives of believers and for the world as a whole, the focus that unites Paul’s various thoughts about the death of Christ is that all of these reflections say something about God. For Paul, first and foremost, the cross is the self-revelation of God’s character. In whichever direction Paul expounds the significance of the cross, it always reveals something about the character of God.

Verse 6 goes on to explicate the idea of being made alive together with Christ. It means being raised together and seated together with Christ in the heavenly realms. The language here reflects Paul’s claims about Christ in 1:20, where we learn that God raised Christ and seated Christ at his right hand in the heavenly realms. Now in 2:6 we learn that believers have been joined with Christ in just these two respects: Raised with Christ and seated with him. In the light of 1:20, the heavenly realms are now characterized as “in Christ.” Christ’s enthronement in 1:20 now establishes the heavenly realms as Christ’s territory. Even so, however, there is no mention here of believers as either undergoing some form of death through baptism or as putting to death elements of their lives. In Colossians (e.g., 2:11–3:3) the emphasis seems to be on having believers make a clean break with their pagan past. In Ephesians, Paul stresses that the Ephesians’ salvation is as full and complete as it could possibly be. They have been raised with Christ and seated with Christ. Nothing, in principle, stands between them and union with Christ. God has given them nothing less than what God gave Christ.
There are a variety of other places in Ephesians where it is clear that in several important respects, salvation has yet to be completed, that the end is not fully realized in the present. For example, in the very next verse, Paul will speak of the “ages to come.” Further, powers hostile to God still hold sway in this age. The heavenly realms still contain powers that have yet to be subjected to Christ. There is still suffering. Paul in particular suffers and is imprisoned. Thus, rather than saying something about the relationships between the Ephesians and the eschaton, it may well be that one aim of vv. 5–6 is to say something about God and the quality of God’s mercy and great love.
One of the aims of God’s exaltation of believers is to “demonstrate the unlimited riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” The abundant riches of God’s grace are demonstrated in the raising and exalting of believers together with Christ. The same word translated here as “unlimited” is used in 1:19 to speak of God’s “limitless” power. It also appears in 3:19, where it is used to talk about Christ’s love. As Lincoln explains, “It can be said that if the raising of Christ from death to sit in the heavenly realms was the supreme demonstration of God’s surpassing power, then the raising of believers from spiritual death to sit with Christ in the heavenly realms is the supreme demonstration of God’s surpassing grace” (Ephesians 110).
Paul goes on to elaborate that the abundance of God’s grace is demonstrated to us in God’s kindness to us in Christ. We understand this “kindness” in the light of the “mercy” that is basic to God’s character (2:4). Thus God’s kindness toward us in Christ is a manifestation of God’s constant and abiding character. This kindness is displayed toward us “in Christ Jesus.” The form and placement of this phrase allows it to make a dual point. First, God’s kindness is decisively displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, “in Christ Jesus” describes a particular place: God’s kindness to us “in Christ Jesus” indicates that God’s kindness is found and mediated to us in the body of Christ, the church.
The initial clause of this verse makes it clear that the demonstration of God’s grace is something to be displayed both now and into the future. The phrase “in the ages to come” is somewhat unusual. It is more common to speak in the singular of the age to come (cf. 1:21; also Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Matt 12:32; Heb 6:5). This more common formulation is a relatively clear reference to the Parousia. It is probably best to read this phrase in v. 7 in the light of 1:10, where Paul speaks of the “fullness of times.” The image there and here is of the future as a succession of ages or temporal periods, which reach their conclusion in the Parousia or in the ultimate bringing together of all things under Christ’s dominion. It points to a succession of ages leading to the end of time (Lincoln, Ephesians 110–11; Hoehner 337–38). Of course, one cannot know precisely where one is in this succession of ages until the Parousia. The phrase emphasizes that God has both acted decisively and that God will bring that work to its proper end at some point in the future (cf. Phil 1:6). It is more common for Paul to speak of the time between cross and resurrection on the one hand, and the Parousia on the other hand, as one undifferentiated age. Even here Paul will use a variety of images (e.g., “The present form of this world is passing away,” 1 Cor 7:31; one long night that leads to day, Rom 13:11–13; “the fullness of time,” Gal 4:4; an ongoing work of God, started and brought to completion, Phil 1:6). As long as one reads this passage in Eph 2:7 as dividing this in-between time into a series of ages and not a series of discrete moments of consummation, or repeated Parousias, then the thinking here, if not the wording, fits within a Pauline scheme.
[8–10] Verse 8 begins with a repetition of the declaration initially inserted into v. 5. In this case the claim that the Ephesians have been saved by grace serves further to illustrate the nature of God’s abundant grace. The key addition here is the phrase “through faith.” Believers are saved through faith.
Although Pauline scholars debate whether Paul is primarily interested in Christ’s faithfulness or believers’ trust in Christ, here he is clearly speaking of the faith of believers. Paul is referring to the trust or reliance that believers put in God to bring about their salvation, a salvation that flows from God’s superabundant love rather than from human desert.
In the following clause, “and this is not from yourselves; it is a gift from God,” the crucial interpretive issue has to do with the antecedent of the pronoun “this.” If “this” is a reference to “faith,” then it further emphasizes the idea that humans do not generate their own response to God. Rather, faith is a gift. Even though this is true, it is more likely that “this” refers to the entire process of salvation.24 The gracious, gifted nature of salvation certainly says something about humans, a point that is picked up in v. 9. It also says something about God. Humans neither deserve salvation, nor does saving us fulfill some lack or need in God. It is pure gift. Moreover, it is a gift that believers can never hope to reciprocate. Instead, believers are to respond by repeating God’s gift-giving grace in their worship, words, and deeds. Christians do not do this as a way of repaying God, but because our lives are analogously to display the character of the God who gives us gifts (see v. 10 below).
Verse 9 reminds the Ephesians that they are not capable of saving themselves. When Paul says that the Ephesians’ salvation is not brought about “by works,” he does not here mean works of the law, as in Gal 2:16 or Rom 3:27. The text does not have the phrase “of the law.” Neither does the context indicate that Paul intends such a specific reference. Rather, Paul is referring to human striving and performance in hopes of winning God’s approval (cf. 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5). Although it is tempting to think of salvation on the model of some transaction between God and believers, there is nothing humans can do to evoke God’s salvation or to earn it. In the societies of late capitalism, where almost every encounter can be reduced to a set of transactions between autonomous agents, this is a hard notion to accept. This may be the case for contemporary believers; yet as the argument of Ephesians indicates, it does not appear that the Ephesians themselves were in any danger of thinking that their own striving would accomplish their salvation apart from grace. For example, the ascetic philosophy to which the Colossians seem to be tempted (cf. Col 2:16–23) does not appear to play a role in Ephesians (Lincoln, Ephesians 113).
The recognition that human salvation is “not from works” rules out “boasting.” In our world, boasting is often seen as inappropriate; Paul is not unconditionally opposed to boasting. Rather, the key for Paul is boasting in the correct thing or person. In this, Paul follows Jer 9:24 and writes, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Cor 10:17; cf. Rom 5:11; 1 Cor 1:29–31; 15:31; Phil 1:26; 3:3; boasting in the cross of Christ, Gal 6:14). Boasting in the Lord reflects the appropriate recognition of one’s status relative to God and the role of God’s grace in one’s life. Failure to recognize this would lead one perhaps to boast in one’s own works or efforts. As Lincoln observes, “Boasting perverts human autonomy by making it the object of trust” (Ephesians 113). This is precisely the boasting ruled out in Eph 2:9.
Verse 10 continues to explicate the notion that salvation is not of human origin. This is because “we are God’s work.” The term used here for work is poiēma. Within the LXX the term is widely used to refer to the work of an artisan, to general types of human commerce and activity, and to God’s own activity (cf. 1 Sam 8:8; Judg 13:12; 1 Chr 29:3; Eccl 2:4; 8:9, 14, 17; Isa 29:16; Ps 63:10 [64:9 Eng.]). The range of meaning here is particularly wide. In Ephesians this term points to a contrast between the futility of human works in 2:9 and the sufficiency of God’s work in 2:10 (Hoehner 347; Lincoln, Ephesians 113). Given the next clause’s clear emphasis on creation, it is probably best to see the emphasis here on salvation as God’s action rather than human action.
As the verse goes on to elaborate, believers as God’s work are “created in Christ Jesus.” The verb translated here as “create” (ktizō) is only used in the NT to refer to God’s creative activity (cf. Matt 19:4; Mark 13:19; Rom 1:25; Eph 3:9; Col 1:16; 3:10). This verse seems to reflect the same idea found in 2 Cor 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The same idea is also found in Gal 6:15, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision ultimately matter. What matters is a new creation” (AT). Later in Ephesians, Paul will say, “Clothe yourselves with the new human, created according to the likeness of God” (4:24). In each of these cases, there is the sense that salvation in Christ inaugurates a new creation, or more properly, a renewal of the original creation. This creation is not simply the natural development of the created order. Neither is it the result of sustained human labor. Rather, this new creation is the dramatic and unanticipated renewal of all things in Christ, accomplished by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Christ. This clause picks up the notion that though believers were dead in their transgressions and sins, God has made them alive again. Resurrection and new creation complement each other as images of God’s saving activity.
The purpose of God’s new creation in Christ is so that the inhabitants of this new creation might “walk in good works, which God has prepared beforehand.” The verb “to walk” is again used to speak of a manner of life, as in 2:2 (cf. also 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). The good works mentioned here contrast with the failed works mentioned in 2:9. Those failed works were designed to generate or bring about human salvation. Good works are not the means to salvation, but the result of having been graciously incorporated into God’s new creation in Christ. These good works reflect the initial and formative work of God’s grace on the lives of believers. God’s gift generates further giving: good works. The good works do not provoke God’s gift. These good works have been prepared by God beforehand for believers to walk in them. The grammar here makes it clear that it is the works, rather than the humans, which God prepared beforehand. Nevertheless, this notion also seems to reflect the ideas of 1:4–5, 11–12, which speak of God’s eternal choosing of believers.
As with salvation generally, this verse points to the idea that even the good works that believers do are in some sense a gift from God. Expanding on this idea, Thomas Aquinas (97) reads this verse through Isa 28:12, “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us.” This, too, focuses the direction of our boasting away from ourselves and toward God.
Modern readers immediately want to know how this claim fits with notions of human freedom. If God eternally prepared these good works for believers to walk in them, how can believers be considered agents who “walk” rather than robots performing preprogrammed tasks? The problem here may lie more with particular notions of human freedom. For example, if human freedom is conceived of as acting without any prior shaping or constraint, then we cannot make sense of this notion of freedom. We are always acting under the influence, constraint, and encouragement of things, processes, circumstances, and people outside of ourselves. Sometimes we recognize these influences; often we are unaware of their effects on us. Even if we could attain such a state of freedom, it is not clear how we could know that we had. The notion of freedom as freedom from all constraint is simply unintelligible. Nevertheless, we generally think of ourselves as free enough to consider our actions to be our own, for which we are responsible.
Although Paul did not have the benefits of modern psychology or sociology, he understood that humans are often constrained by things and people beyond themselves. For Paul, humans are always under authorities outside of themselves. Indeed, in some respects he thinks of human life as always being a sort of slavery. Given this, the question is whether one is a slave to the oppressive power of Sin, or a slave of the one God who can truly make one free. In the light of 2:1–10 as a whole, it should be clear that Paul does not imagine that believers have gone from a state of freedom into a state where they have become automata when they become Christians. Rather, humans were (are) slaves to Sin outside of Christ. Being outside of Christ is servitude to oppressive and tyrannical masters. “The sons of disobedience serve their own wishes without hesitation, all the while following orders.” Participating in God’s new creation in Christ opens the prospect of participating in the dramatic outworking of God’s salvation. This too is a form of service to a master, a master in whose “service is perfect freedom.”28 As Paul sees it, those are the options available to humans. Of course, he would understand that humans both act and are responsible for their actions. The more important issue for Paul is where one’s allegiance lies, who one’s master is.
In 2:1–10 Paul presents a relatively brief account of the Ephesians’ comprehensive attachment to sin. Their activity renders them “dead,” pliant servants of forces opposed to God. Unlike Romans, however, there is little sense of despair here. The Ephesians seem to have been unaware and unbothered by their alienation from God. Perhaps this is the most profound sense in which we all are dead outside of Christ. Absent our own anxiety, and clearly apart from any merit in us, God acts to save us, bringing us into union with Christ. Here there is little emphasis on the future aspect of salvation. Rather, the focus is on God’s mercy and love. Salvation becomes an occasion for displaying some of the deepest elements of God’s eternal character. Rather than focusing on the salvation of individuals or of the church, this passage displays a strongly theocentric focus. In the following section, 2:11–22, Paul’s attention moves to discuss the ecclesiological significance and implications of God’s saving activity.

Ephesians 2:11–22
Remember That You Were Gentiles
Several aspects of this passage reflect ideas first presented in 2:1–10. The most obvious is the contrast between what the Ephesians were and what they now are. Each passage also reflects on the salvation that God has brought about in the lives of the Ephesian believers. This reflection comes from two different perspectives, however. In 2:1–10 God graciously transforms the Ephesians’ death—death through their sin and their captivity to powers hostile to God—into new life in Christ. This perspective on the Ephesians’ salvation reflects the cosmic drama of salvation laid out in chapter 1. Here in 2:11–22 Paul reflects on the Ephesians’ salvation in terms of their relationship to Israel. Although one does not find the same sort of explicit connection to the cosmic drama of salvation laid out in chapter 1 that one finds in 2:1–10, there are some connections. For example, the focus on God’s choosing in 1:11 along with the language of promise and inheritance in 1:13–14 call to mind God’s dealings with Israel in the OT. Further, the emphasis on holiness in 1:4 runs throughout 2:11–22.
In 2:11–22 Paul reflects on the relationships between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. In both Romans and Galatians, one finds a similar concern with the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Christ. In those two epistles one gathers the very clear impression that there is significant tension within each of these communities over how these issues are to be resolved. It does not, however, appear that the Christians in Ephesus are under any pressure to take on circumcision or the yoke of torah observance, or that Gentile Christians are treating their Jewish brothers and sisters as second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. Indeed, it does not seem that the Ephesian Christians have much, if any, direct contact with Jewish Christians. Thus we should expect that the discussion in 2:11–22 will be of a different sort from Romans or Galatians.
In terms of its structure, this passage has three main parts. Ephesians 2:11–13 presents the contrast between the Ephesians’ past and their present in Christ. As in 2:1–10, there is a contrast between what was “once” the case and what is “now” the case. The linchpin in the transition between once and now is the advent of Christ. Verses 14–18 spell out in detail the effects of Christ’s work relative to the Ephesians’ alienation from God and from the people of Israel. Finally, vv. 18–22 articulate the new relationship in Christ between the Ephesians and the people of Israel.

2:11 Therefore remember that once you were Gentiles in the flesh, called “uncircumcised” by those who are called “the circumcision,” a circumcision of the flesh by human hands; 12 recall also that at that time you were apart from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you, who were once far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; he has made both groups into one, breaking down the dividing wall, nullifying in his flesh the hostility, 15 which was the law of commandments and decrees, in order that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thereby making peace. 16 He has reconciled the two groups to God in one body through the cross, putting to death the hostility in himself. So when he came he preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him we both have access to the Father in the one Spirit.
19 Hence you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you have become fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and is growing into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God.

[11–13] The transitional admonition “Therefore remember” draws on the previous verses. Most precisely it relies on the notion that believers are participants in God’s new creation and that such participation enjoins walking in good works (cf. 2:10). Verse 11 would thus indicate that the immediate good work in view is the work of memory. The Ephesians are challenged here to remember their past. Indeed, the call here may be to remember their past in a new way. In this respect one can think of “remembering” as an example of being “transformed by the renewing of your minds,” as advocated in Rom 12:2. Whatever else might be involved, the renewal of one’s mind must include a repair or restoration of one’s memory. Recall also that the call to renew one’s mind in Rom 12 is contrasted with the admonition to avoid being conformed “this age.” A renewed mind will not be conformed to this age. In Eph 2:2 Paul speaks of the Ephesians’ deathly state outside of Christ as walking according to the “age of this cosmos.” This present age is both a location of death and a cast of mind that one leaves behind in the light of being in Christ. Regardless of whether the connection to Rom 12:2 would have been evident to the first readers of this text or is my own edifying gloss, it helps to reinforce the point here in 2:11 that one of the primary good works that God has prepared beforehand for believers to walk in is the renewal, reconstruction, or repair of memory. This is so that both Ephesian and contemporary believers come to see their past (and their present and future) from the perspective of God’s saving activity.
In 2:2–3 the Ephesians’ state prior to Christ is simply described. Here in 2:11 the Ephesians are called to remember their identity as Gentiles. This is not as straightforward as it might seem. Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jews in Ephesus (or elsewhere) would never refer to themselves as Gentiles. That designation only had currency within Judaism or in relation to Judaism. From the perspective of being in Christ, and as part of their remembering, Roman or Greek or Scythian Ephesians need to learn that they are Gentiles. They need to remember (or reconceive) of their past as a Gentile past. They need to learn both what being a Gentile meant when they were outside of Christ and what it means now that they are in Christ.
On the one hand, it seems most obvious that being a Gentile meant that one was uncircumcised. Nevertheless, Paul here seems to relativize the importance of circumcision for Gentile identity. He does not say that because “you were Gentiles, you were uncircumcised”—though this was true. Rather, he says that “you were called ‘uncircumcised’ by those called ‘the circumcision.’ ” Paul then goes on to raise further doubts about the significance of this identification, suggesting that those who are called the circumcised simply have a circumcision of the flesh, done by human hands. The adjective “made by human hands” (cheiropoiētou) is used in the LXX to speak about idols (Lev 26:1, 30; Isa 2:18; Dan 5:4). In Acts 17:24 the term is used to describe pagan shrines. Elsewhere in the NT it refers to the Jerusalem temple (Mark 14:58; Acts 7:48; Heb 9:11, 24). In each instance it is meant to imply the transitory importance of the temple. When used of circumcision “in the flesh,” as here in 2:11, it appears to invoke the distinction between the circumcision of the flesh as opposed to the circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9; Rom 2:25–29). It is not so much that these instances undermine fleshly circumcision as stressing that someone does not benefit from fleshly circumcision apart from a circumcised heart.
Paul’s point here is that those who refer to the Gentiles as “the uncircumcised” may not be the most reliable guides in this matter. This raises significant issues. Recall that one of the points of this section is to enable the Ephesians to remember their past as a Gentile past. Nevertheless, Paul’s comments here in v. 11 undermine the reliability of what most would take to be one of the certain ways of identifying Gentiles. Paul seems to imply that the most visible way of identifying Gentiles might not be the most reliable or significant way. It thus appears that one implication of Paul’s remarks here is that uncircumcision may not be a reliable way of identifying Gentiles because circumcision of the flesh may not be a sufficiently reliable way of identifying Jews.
This indicates that coming to understand one’s past outside of Christ as a Gentile past is a contested matter. At the very least it will involve learning to see Gentileness in a very particular way, which many Jews might not accept. In addition, Paul’s account of citizenship in Israel and how it is obtained is going to be a contested matter. Thus it is not only important that the Ephesians learn to identify their past as Gentile and that they come to see their present as part of Israel, but that they must identify their Gentileness and their relation to Israel in a particular way, a way that other Jews may well contest.
Having indicated that uncircumcision is not the most significant thing in remembering one’s Gentile past, Paul in v. 12 goes on to specify things he takes to be crucial to Gentile identity. Interestingly, being a Gentile does not begin with understanding oneself in relation to Jews, but in relation to Christ, the Messiah of Israel (Lincoln, Ephesians 137). Being a Gentile is not primarily about uncircumcision, but about alienation from the Messiah. The use of the preposition translated here as “apart from” to speak of Gentiles’ relation to Christ is somewhat unusual. Yet it does provide an appropriate contrast to the assertions of 2:6, which declare that believers have been raised together and seated together with Christ.
The next element of Gentile identity is their exclusion from the commonwealth of Israel. The word translated here as “commonwealth” has a wide range of meanings.7 For example, it is used in 2 Macc 8:17 and 4 Macc 8:7 to refer to a Jewish way of life. This is probably not in view here in 2:12 given the claims of 2:19. In 2 Macc 13:14 and 4 Macc 17:9 it refers to a political entity and could be translated as “nation” or “state” as long as one also recognized the sharp differences between ancient political orders and modern nation-states. In addition, we should remember that by Paul’s time Israel has ceased to exist as an independent political unit. Given the way that the rest of this section runs, it appears that the “commonwealth of Israel” is a reference to the gathered people of God as a social and political entity, called and formed by God and endowed with God’s promises and everlasting covenant (see Yee 95). Remembering one’s Gentile past, then, entails understanding oneself as physically and spiritually excluded from this commonwealth.
Moreover, Gentiles were strangers to the “covenants of promise.” In Rom 9:4 Paul speaks of the covenants and the promises as Jewish advantages. Here the phrase is “covenants of promise.” This probably refers to the covenants with Abraham in Gen 12:1–14; reiterated and expanded in 13:14–17; 15:18–21; 17:21; with Isaac in Gen 26:2–5; with Jacob in Gen 28:13–15; with David in 2 Sam 7 (cf. Lincoln, Ephesians 137; Schnackenburg 110). Given the negative comments in Eph 2:15 about the “law of commandments and decrees,” Paul is probably not referring to the Mosaic covenant. Aside from the negative example of 2:15, however, there is little in the text or its context that would specify which covenants are in question here. Further, such distinctions do not seem significant for Paul here. The advantage of those who are part of the “commonwealth of Israel” is that they, and not the Gentiles, are friends of the God who makes extravagant gracious promises on their behalf and for their benefit. The point here is not to determine the Gentiles’ exclusion from some covenants rather than others. Instead, the point is to emphasize their alienation from the God who calls a people into being in order to bless them and make them a blessing to the nations.
Because being a Gentile means alienation from the “commonwealth of Israel” and “the covenants of promise,” it also means that Gentiles are without “hope and without God in the world.” This should not be taken to mean that outside of Christ, Ephesians or any other Gentiles were constantly in a state of despair. It is only from the perspective of being in Christ that the Ephesians are even called to remember their past as a Gentile past. From that perspective, however, they should recognize the truth about how hopeless their situation was.
This is the only time in the NT that the term atheoi (without God) is used. In Greek literature the term can refer to someone who does not believe in a god or gods either willfully or out of ignorance. The term can also apply to the impious who believe in the gods but disdain them or to someone forsaken by God or the gods.11 In this particular case, Paul probably means to indicate that Gentiles are alienated from God (Lincoln, Ephesians 139; Best, Ephesians 243).
As part of the good work prepared by God for the Ephesians, they are to remember their past from the perspective of being Gentiles. They are called upon to think about this past identity in a way that only seems possible for those who are in Christ. This act of remembering their past as a Gentile past has a dual function. First, by recalling their state as Gentiles before God, the Ephesians can come to see themselves in the very particular ways in which God saw them. They still remain Gentiles, but in recognizing their past as a Gentile past, they can come to appreciate the depths of their former alienation from God and to rejoice in what God has graciously done for them.
It is equally important, however, that by remembering their past as a Gentile past, a past that is thereby in relation (albeit a negative one) to Judaism, Paul can begin to describe more precisely the nature of the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. In fact, if Christians fail to grasp this, they may end up misperceiving what is involved in reconciliation today.
Verse 13 is a transitional verse. It points back to vv. 11–12, offering the alternative to Gentile alienation from Israel and from God in Christ. It also serves to introduce the more developed discussion of Christ’s activity of reconciliation in vv. 14–18.
This verse establishes a contrast between what was “once” the case (vv. 11–12) and what is “now” the case. It may well be that this should also come under that same act of memory. Even as the verse refers to the present, “now,” it is a present that has been decisively shaped by Christ’s action in the past. Thus Paul calls upon the Ephesians to understand their present situation in the very particular light of Christ’s reconciling work.
This verse reminds the Ephesians that they were “far off.” In some ways this spatial designation summarizes the full scope of the alienation of their Gentile past as described in vv. 11–12. Although the Ephesian Gentiles were “far off,” now that they are in Christ, they have been brought near.13 As vv. 11–12 illustrated, the Gentiles’ alienation from God was also an alienation from Israel. On the one hand, vv. 15–22 indicate that by coming near, the Gentiles have not come to occupy exactly the same space as Israel. The people of Israel too are “near” (cf. Ps 148:14) and have not been supplanted by Gentile believers. Rather, in Christ both Jews and Gentiles have been brought near to God. On the other hand, coming near to God must involve also coming near to Israel (Best, Ephesians 245).
The passive voice of the phrase “you have been brought near” makes it clear that the Gentiles did not move themselves closer to God or to Israel. Rather, they were moved. In an abstract sense, they must have been moved by God. More precisely, the text speaks of being brought near “by the blood of Christ.” Christ’s death and resurrection are the agent that brings the Gentiles near, establishing and healing their memory so that they can truly understand who they were, where they were, where they now are, and how that relates to Israel. This claim thus builds upon and elaborates on the assertion of 1:7 that believers have redemption “through his blood.”
[14–18] Bringing the Gentiles near is simply one aspect of Christ’s work of reconciliation. Verses 14–18 spell out this work in greater detail, beginning with the assertion that Christ is our peace. As the following verses go on to show, this is a peace between Gentile and Jew and also their common peace with God. Given the description of Gentile alienation from God and Israel, it is fitting to talk of the work of Christ as a work of peacemaking. This fits with, but is not directly dependent upon, a christological reading of Isa 9:6, which identifies the expected Christ as the “Prince of Peace.” In this light, one might also recall Isa 2:1–4, which presents a vision of Israel’s redemption that is so compelling that Gentiles are drawn to the mountain of the Lord. There they abandon war and live in peace. Finally, this peace could be contrasted with the so-called Pax Romana, the peace established by the empire. This would have been peace in the much more limited sense of the cessation or suppression of outbreaks of violence. Paul is, rather, talking about shalom, the peace that results from the restoration of right relationships with God and others.
The verse then goes on to describe Jesus’ peacemaking in terms of making “both into one.” The reference here must be to the two groups mentioned in the previous verses, Gentiles and Jews. Thus the focus shifts from “you” Ephesians to us, meaning all Christians (Best, Ephesians 252). The making of two into one is described in ways that make it clear that the two are not dissolved into one. Peacemaking here is not homogenizing. Rather, as the passage indicates, it involves eliminating the hostility that divided Jew and Gentile.
Paul describes this peace as “breaking down the dividing wall.” Best (Ephesians, 256–57) is probably right in asserting that this is simply a standard metaphorical use of wall to describe a fundamental division between Jew and Gentile. There are two further ways in which this phrase is sometimes taken. Some see this as a reference to the “wall” in the Jerusalem temple that separated the court of the Gentiles from the inner courts and sanctuary, where Jews could enter. This balustrade was about four feet high and was inscribed with warnings that Gentiles passing this point risked death (cf. Josephus, Ant. 15.11.5; J.W. 5.5.2; a pillar with such a warning was found in 1871). This quite literally was a wall dividing Gentile from Jew. It seems unlikely, however, that Ephesian Gentile Christians would have known of this wall, especially if the epistle is written after 70 C.E. Moreover, the inscription we have does not use the terms for dividing wall used in Ephesians. Nevertheless, for those who do know of this wall, the allusion can be quite powerful.
The other option is to see the Jewish law as the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. The law of commandments and decrees appears in the next clause as a bearer of hostility. Moreover, the Letter of Aristeas (139, 142) speaks of the law as a hedge or fence separating Jews from the idolatrous practices of the Gentiles surrounding them (also Philo, Virt. 186; m. ʾAbot 3:18; 1 En. 93.6). Again, the vocabulary used in Ephesians differs from these texts (see also Yee 146–47). Moreover, taking the dividing wall in this way could lead one to think that the law had been destroyed by Christ. This would directly contradict the Gospels, Romans, and Galatians. It could also feed a theology that has God making everlasting covenants with Israel only to break those promises in favor of promises to Christians. Nevertheless, there may well be certain circumstances under which some of these elements can usefully resonate behind the image of a “dividing wall.” Modern readers, like those first readers in Ephesus, are probably best served by treating this as a straightforward image of separation.
What follows in the rest of v. 14 and into v. 15 is deeply contested in terms of syntax, vocabulary, and content. The syntactical concerns focus on how the words here are related to the two participles, “break down” and “nullify.” Resolving those questions, however, still leaves issues about how to understand what is written.
The first question concerns the term “hostility.” Should it be taken with “break down” or as the object of “nullify”? The Greek is capable of supporting either reading. Rather than take the term “hostility” with “break down,” the translation above treats the term as the direct object of the verb “nullify.” The translations of the AV, RV, ASV, NASB, JB, and NJB read the matter this way. In addition, then, the phrase “in his flesh” becomes a reference to the manner in which this nullification of hostility occurred. Finally, in this light the phrase “the law of commandments and decrees” further clarifies the nature of the “hostility” between Jews and Gentiles.
In terms of the vocabulary, it is crucial to note that the verb katargeō appears frequently enough in Paul, particularly in discussions about the law. In these cases Paul is at pains to argue that he does not wish to abolish or destroy the law (cf. Rom 3:3, 31; 4:14; 7:2, 6; Gal 3:17; also the repeated use of the term in 2 Cor 3:7–14). Thus it is probably not accurate to translate the same term in Ephesians as “abolish” or “destroy” unless one has already decided to read Ephesians against Paul’s views expressed in Romans and Galatians. Instead, English verbs like nullify or void do better justice to the Greek. The phrase “the law of commandments and decrees” is unusual for Paul. The phrase does not refer to civil laws but to the torah in its totality.20 Most commentators take the addition of “commandments and decrees” to be typical of the style of Ephesians (recall the repetitive combination of “dividing wall” and “fence” in 2:14). These decisions have led to the above translation identifying Christ as “nullifying in his flesh the hostility, which was the law of commandments and decrees.”
Having looked at the various issues related to syntax and semantics in this verse, one should also recognize two basic strategies that one can take in interpreting this verse. One can read it against Paul’s comments in Romans and Galatians. That is, one can take this verse in Ephesians as asserting that in Christ the law is abolished or nullified. More precisely, if one takes the phrase “in his flesh” (v. 14) to be a reference to the passion of Christ (cf. 2:16), then it is Christ’s death that abolishes the law. In whichever way one takes the various complex issues around Paul and the law in Romans and Galatians, Paul does not think the law is abolished. Death might void the law’s claims over someone (cf. the use of katargeō in Rom 7:6), but that presumes that the law itself has not been abolished. Indeed it is precisely the charge that Paul has abolished the law (again katargeō) that Paul is at pains to refute in Rom 3:31–4:25.
If one takes Eph 2:14–15 to speak of the abolition of the law, one then has to account for this discontinuity with Romans and Galatians. There are a variety of ways of doing this. If Ephesians is not Pauline, the sting of discontinuity is lessened but not removed. How, for example, could a second-generation Paulinist have misunderstood Paul so badly on such a central matter? One explanation is that by this point in time, the tensions with Jewish Christians had diminished due to the fact that the church was overwhelmingly Gentile. The more subtle arguments that Paul uses in Romans and Galatians were not required even if they were understood. As a historical argument, this is no more than a possibility. It is based on claims about what was not required in a situation or what was not known or understood by an author. Further, it assumes that the arguments in Romans and Galatians about the enduring nature of the law are primarily about relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians rather than about the righteousness of God. Moreover, it becomes difficult to account for the fact that Eph 6:2 explicitly relies on a commandment of the law with the idea of its continuing validity. Theologically, this simply will not suffice. For Christians, it is crucial to try the second option, which is to read this claim in Ephesians in a way that is continuous with Paul’s views in Romans and Galatians—regardless of whether Paul wrote Ephesians.
Traditionally, Christian theologians have treated this discussion in Eph 2 in the light of a distinction between moral and ceremonial laws. Both Thomas Aquinas and Calvin, for example, argue that in Eph 2:15 Paul is claiming that Christ abolishes the ceremonial laws as opposed to the moral laws. The ceremonial laws referred to such practices as circumcision, washings, and rules regarding sacrifices. These laws are particular to Israel (and thus mutable) in order to help the Israelites express their love for God. In contrast, the moral laws represent manifestations of the divine law that orders the universe and is designed to help all humans achieve ever deeper friendship with God. It is precisely these ceremonial laws that divide Gentiles from Jews. Thus Christ’s activity in breaking down the dividing wall directly refers to these laws that divided Jews from Gentiles. The historical points that the torah itself does not make such a distinction between moral and ceremonial laws and that such distinctions were not known in Paul’s time are important to remember, but not directly relevant to the theological issues at hand.23 The distinction between moral and ceremonial laws is best taken as a theological argument about how the NT’s various claims about the law can be fitted into a larger scheme of divine lawgiving. Its successes or failures can really only be determined theologically.
From the perspective of a commentary on Ephesians, it seems incumbent upon the commentator also to offer some explanation of how the specific comments made in Ephesians can be held together with other very specific comments offered elsewhere in Paul’s Letters in ways consonant with the logic of those letters. The key here seems to be to distinguish between the law as given by God on the one hand as holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12), and on the other hand as a source and agent of hostility. In both Romans and Galatians one finds the idea that the torah is a good gift from God. It holds the promise of life to Jews and promises the redemption of the Gentiles. For Paul and those who think like him, Christ is the end point, or telos, of the torah’s redemptive and life-giving role for both Jews (first) and Gentiles (cf. Rom 10:4). This was manifestly not the way the vast majority of first-century Jews, and those few Gentiles who cared, understood the torah.
From the Jewish perspective, obedience to the law in the ways that Saul the Pharisee would have displayed was the key to living faithfully before the one God of Israel. All others were merely idolaters, and little could be expected from them (cf. Jub. 15.26; Ps. Sol. 17:24–25). Some Gentiles were attracted to the law and Judaism even if they were not willing to submit to circumcision. These so-called God-fearers found obedience to the law appealing (cf. Josephus, Ant. 3.217, 318–19; 2 Macc 3:35). For most other Gentiles who had views about the law, it was one of the main things that made Jews alien and hateful people (cf. 3 Macc 3:3–4).
From Paul’s perspective, the torah was not operating in the way that God intended. This situation reflected the work of Sin. Sin gained a foothold in God’s good creation through Adam’s transgression (Rom 5:12–19). It then began to distort all aspects of human life, including the torah (Rom 7:7–14; Gal 3:22). Instead of bringing life and redemption, instead of pointing clearly to Christ, the torah simply became one more of Sin’s instruments of death and oppression. Under Sin’s dominion, the law left the Jews misguided about their proper ends in God (cf. Rom 10:2, “They have zeal without knowledge” [AT]) and left the Gentiles alienated from both God and the promise of blessing made to Abraham.
Paul assumes that the torah, as given by God and properly understood, would lead to the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, each being reconciled to God. Under Sin’s influence the torah became both a source and an instrument of hostility. Ephesians asserts that in his passion (i.e., “in his flesh”) Christ nullifies this hostility, fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it. In nullifying this hostility and thereby freeing the law to fulfill its proper role of pointing to Christ, Paul asserts that Jews and Gentiles have had the wall between them broken down. This enables their reconciliation with God and with each other.
The aim of breaking down the dividing wall is the creation of a single new person in Christ out of two separate and alienated people. This claim here at the end of 2:15 recalls the image of a new creation in 2:10, which concluded the previous passage. It also provides a concrete description of the movement to bring all things together under Christ as articulated in 1:10 (Lincoln, Ephesians 145).
There is some scholarly discussion about whether this claim primarily involves individuals or groups (see Best, Ephesians 261–62). The question seems to be about whether this verse is talking about interpersonal or communal reconciliation. Such a question is probably misplaced. The image of two people separated by a dividing wall is already in place in v. 14. The upshot of vv. 14–15a is that the basis for their hostility and division has been removed. The next step, not necessarily entailed in the removal of the dividing wall, is the bringing together of these two into one. This is an image of reconciliation. It is unclear what is gained by limiting its scope to either corporate, communal entities or to individuals. Presumably the reconciliation imagined here permeates the entirety of life.
It is much more important to understand the nature of that reconciliation. The two, Jew and Gentile, are not simply left standing next to each other with the dividing wall removed. They are transformed into something new, “a new person.” This new person is created “in him.” That is, it is due to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is animated and sustained by the Spirit of Christ; it draws its identity and coherence from Christ’s body. Reconciliation does not happen simply by removing the dividing wall. It happens in the creation of a new person in, through, and by Christ.
Further, it is important to reflect on the nature of this “new person.” It is clear that participation in this new person does not require the Ephesians or any other Gentile to become Jews in the sense of needing to be circumcised and so forth. Nevertheless, vv. 11–13 demand that the Ephesians rethink their pre-Christian identity as a Gentile identity. Conceiving of their pre-Christian past as simply pagan is not enough. They must understand their alienation from God as Gentile alienation. That is, their alienation from God must also include an understanding of their alienation from Israel and God’s particular dealings with Israel.
Though Ephesians does not devote much space to this matter, one should acknowledge that Jews, like Paul, needed to radically reconceive their perception of their Judaism. This reconception involved recognizing that proper torah obedience is best understood and practiced in Christ and that in the body of Christ the redemption of Israel was being accomplished, that the nations were flocking to the mountain of the Lord (Isa 2:1–4). There will be more to say about this reconciliation in the pages below. For now let it suffice to say that the new person created in Christ brings Jews and Gentiles together into one body without requiring them to submit to a homogenizing erasure of their identity as Jews and Gentiles. Nevertheless, participation in this new creation requires changes from both of them. Erstwhile pagans must come to understand themselves as Gentiles; Jews must come to understand their Judaism in Christ, the telos of the torah. It is only in this way that peace is truly made.
In v. 16 the notion of two being made one in Christ’s body reiterates ideas in vv. 14–15. This verse elaborates on vv. 14–15 by reminding readers that Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to each other to the extent that they are reconciled to God. That is, the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile presumes that both have been reconciled to God through the cross. The mention of the cross helps to resolve any ambiguity in the claim in v. 14 that Christ has nullified the enmity “in his flesh.” Indeed, in v. 16 Paul reaffirms that it is the enmity, rather than the law, that is “put to death.”
The Ephesians’ remembered Gentile past was characterized by hostility and alienation from God. Verse 17 reminds them that both they who were far off and the Jews who were near needed to hear Christ’s good news of peace. The language of this verse draws heavily upon two verses in Isaiah. There is a fairly direct allusion to the LXX of Isa 57:19, which yields a translation like this: “Peace upon peace to those who are far and those who are near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.” In Isaiah both the far and near are Jews who are within the grasp of God’s saving reach. Here that image of being far away is turned to apply to “you,” meaning Gentiles (including the Ephesians) and their reconciliation with those Jews who are near. At the same time, the notion of Christ’s coming to proclaim good news of peace can be taken as a christological interpretation of Isa 52:7 (cf. also the allusion in Eph 6:15; Lincoln, Ephesians 147). At this point it seems clear that the reconciliation of Gentile and Jew in Christ is predicated on and enabled by their prior reconciliation with God in Christ.
This is because, as v. 18 asserts, through Christ both Jews and Gentiles “have access to the Father in the one Spirit.” Thus the basis for the “new person” created out of two hostile parties is the reconciling work of Christ. Participation in Christ’s reconciliation enables both Jews and Gentiles to have a common access to the one Father, access through the work of the Spirit.
The emphasis on the one Spirit parallels the emphasis on the one body in 2:16. This combination is also taken up again in 4:4 (“There is one body; there is one Spirit”). The Trinitarian structure so clear here is also present in 1:17 and 4:4–6 (Lincoln, Ephesians 150). Although there is no attempt to unpack the specific relations between the Trinitarian persons and their common essence, it is clear that Ephesians, like other NT passages, provides the material for later Trinitarian reflection.
[19–22] “Hence” introduces a section that recalls what has just been said and then builds upon it. Paul has called on the Ephesians to remember their past—a Gentile past characterized by alienation from Israel and its God. Paul has already indicated how Christ has enabled a new situation (cf. “now” in 2:13). He has also articulated an account of Christ’s reconciling work (2:14–18). At this point Paul reconnects the Ephesians to this work in which Christ has gathered together the two into one through the Spirit for the Father. In these verses Paul deploys a series of images: architectural, domestic, and anatomical. The metaphors are mixed, to be sure. Instead of confusion, however, the combination of these images forms a relatively clear picture of Paul’s views about the Ephesians’ participation in Christ.
To begin, the Ephesians, in their “Gentileness,” are “no longer strangers and aliens, but … fellow citizens with the saints.” The language of “alien” and “stranger” hearkens back to the alienation described in 2:12. That alienation has been reconciled. This much is clear from the preceding verses. It is less clear what this entails for the Ephesians. They are citizens together with the saints, or holy ones. The political images of aliens and strangers are countered by the political image of citizenship. The country or city of citizenship is not noted. One would expect, perhaps, that based on 2:12, Paul would assert that the Ephesians have been incorporated into Israel. Paul certainly seems to think that in Christ, Jews and Gentiles are incorporated into a reconstituted and redeemed Israel (Rom 9–11). That is not his point here, however. Rather than describe the national identity of the Ephesians’ fellow citizens, Paul describes their status: they are holy.
Holiness certainly is God’s primary desire for Israel (Exod 19:6; Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; Jer 2:3; Ezek 37:26–28 [on this, see below]). Yet it is interesting that when talking about the transformation of the Ephesian Gentile believers, Paul uses political images to speak of them as once strangers and aliens relative to Israel and Israel’s God. When he continues with a political image to speak of the Ephesians’ reconciliation with God and Jewish believers, he does not refer to the political entity Israel. Rather, Paul characterizes this group according to the purpose for which God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt: holiness. The allusions here are therefore more complex. The connections hinge on the fact that liberated Israel is free to be holy to God. Gentiles and Jews are liberated by Christ from their slavery to Sin, to powers hostile to God, and to the hostility generated by the torah under Sin’s captivity and now are also free to be holy to God as one body in Christ.
This deeper set of connections is initially foreshadowed in the blessing that Paul pronounces at the beginning of the epistle. Recall that one of God’s blessings on believers is choosing them to be “holy and blameless before him in love” (1:4). Holiness is God’s choice for believers. Here Paul is indicating that in Christ the Ephesians have had their Gentile past (what could be less holy?) transformed. They are now fellow citizens with all the other holy ones. As will become clearer, God’s intentions as laid out in 1:3–14 are being brought to fruition in that political space called the church.
By the end of v. 19 the image shifts. In addition to being fellow citizens with the saints, the Ephesians are members of the household of God. The image of citizenship connects the Ephesians to other believers. The image of the household connects believers to God. “Gentile Christians, once refugees, are now neither homeless nor stateless” (Best, Ephesians 279). Yet this language can operate at a fairly high level of abstraction unless it receives material embodiment in real communities in the world. The Gentile past, which Paul calls on the Ephesians to remember, requires them to see themselves outside of Christ as “strangers and aliens” to God and to Israel. Those who take on the task of remembering their past as a Gentile past cannot then be left bereft of a home. Moreover, they must not simply be relocated in some sort of notional sense. They must have a material setting in which to live out their new life in Christ.
Before speaking about how and in what ways the Ephesians might inhabit the household of God, Paul shifts the image to describe the building itself. The building metaphor here is used rather widely in the ancient world. There is little reason to seek its source in any particular text. In the NT both Col 2:7 and 1 Cor 3:10–11 use the image, albeit somewhat differently. In Eph 2:22 the present tense of the verb and its passive voice indicate that this building is already under construction and that God is the builder (unlike 1 Cor 3:10–11, where Paul is the builder). The “apostles and prophets” provide the foundation for this building. Although Paul uses only one definite article here (“the apostles and prophets” rather than “the apostles and the prophets”), Eph 4:11 makes it clear that he sees these as two separate groups. In 4:11 apostles and prophets refer to two of the variety of ministerial gifts given by the resurrected Christ to the church. Thus Paul is not here speaking directly of OT prophets. We do not know much more about the precise nature of this prophetic office. Ephesians 3:5–6 declares that God has revealed the place of Gentiles in the economy of salvation. They are the ones appointed to bring the gospel to Gentiles. In this respect one can see them as the foundation of the church.
The final clause of v. 20 situates Christ in relation to both believers on the one hand and the prophets and apostles on the other hand. Christ clearly has a distinct and irreplaceable role in this building. The vocabulary here, however, is open to two differing interpretations: Christ is either the “capstone” (Lincoln, Ephesians 155–56) or the “cornerstone” (McKelvey 195–204; MacDonald, Ephesians 249; Schnackenburg 124). With regard to vocabulary, the term akrogōniaios used here in 2:20 appears in the LXX only in Isa 28:16, where it clearly refers to a cornerstone, the key element in the foundation. Similar stone images (though with different vocabulary) appear in Ps 118 (117 LXX):22 to speak of a stone rejected by the builders, but which God renders precious, using it to cap off a pillar. Romans 9:32–33 combines parts of Isa 28:16 and Ps 118:22 to speak of Christ. Although the term “cornerstone” does not appear, the stone in Rom 9 must be a stone lying on the ground. The NT text closest to Eph 2:20–21, however, is 1 Pet 2:4–8. There Christ is referred to as a “living stone,” a “cornerstone” (quoting Isa 28:16), the “capstone” (NIV; quoting Ps 118:22), and “a stone” that makes the disobedient stumble (quoting Isa 8:14). Moreover, 1 Pet 2:5 speaks of the incorporation of believers as stones into a “spiritual house.”
The easy manner in which “cornerstone” and “capstone” are read christologically and incorporated into an image of the church as God’s building in 1 Pet 2 should indicate to modern readers that there is very little at stake in opting for “cornerstone” or “capstone.” That is so unless choosing one of these limits the sense in which Christ is both the distinct foundation of the church and its unsurpassed head.31
As 2:21–22 continue to unfold this image, it becomes clear that Christ is foundational for this building, its head, and also that which holds the whole building together, causing it to “grow into a holy temple in the Lord.” Much of the language here conveys the sense of an ongoing building project rather than a completed structure.33 Indeed, the same vocabulary is used in 4:15–16 to speak of the ways in which a human body is knit together and grows.
The function of this building is to be a “holy temple in the Lord.” In 1 Cor 3, where the image of the church as God’s building project also occurs, Paul identifies the church as “God’s temple” (3:17). Again, there is some resonance here with 1 Pet 2, where believers are incorporated into a Christ-formed structure in order to be a royal priesthood. More immediately, the image of a holy temple reiterates the image of becoming fellow citizens with the “saints” in 2:19. Each image reminds the Ephesians that holiness is their ultimate end in God.
Verses 20–21 combine a variety of construction images in order to assert the comprehensively Christ-centered nature of God’s building project, the church. Christ is cornerstone, capstone, the one who holds the structure together, and the one who causes its growth into a holy temple. Finally in v. 22 we are told that “in him” the Ephesians are being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. There appears to be a parallel structure here between v. 21 and v. 22. Each begins with “in him”; the temple (v. 21) is often seen as God’s dwelling place (v. 22); the phrase “in the Lord” in 2:21 is paired with “in the Spirit” in 2:22. The point of these parallel structures is to tie the Ephesians directly into God’s construction project in Christ. The building work described in vv. 20–21 in somewhat abstract ways is now made concrete for the Ephesians: they themselves are intimately part of this building project as they are incorporated into the church.
One interesting way of approaching 2:20–22 is through Ezek 37:24–28. Immediately before this passage, in 37:15–23, God promises to reunite Judah and Israel. The image here is of two sticks, one representing Judah and one for Israel. The stick of Judah is joined to the stick of Israel, making one stick in God’s hand. Then in 37:24–28 God promises to make an eternal covenant of peace with the children of Israel (cf. Eph 2:14, “Christ is our peace”). At that time God will establish “my sanctuary” or holy place (ta hagia) among the Israelites. As a result, “the nations will know that I, the Lord, am the one who sanctifies [ho hagiazōn] them when my sanctuary [ta hagia] is set in the midst of them forever” (Ezek 37:28 LXX). There is a fruitful ambiguity in the LXX here. In the MT the text reads, “The nations will know that I, the LORD, am the one who sanctifies Israel” (AT). In the LXX we simply have the relative pronoun “them.” The most obvious antecedent for this pronoun is “the nations.” If one follows this ambiguity, then the LXX of Ezekiel seems to be claiming that when the covenant of peace is made and God’s sanctuary is established among the Israelites (and the Israelites are, by implication, sanctified), then the Gentiles also will know that God sanctifies them too. Holiness is thus the proper end of Israel and the proper end of Gentiles. This sanctification is achieved when the covenant of peace is established with Israel. If this is the prophetic thrust of the LXX of Ezek 37:24–28, it finds its fulfillment in Christ as detailed in Eph 2:11–22. Christ, our peace, makes Jews and Gentiles fellow citizens with all the saints and builds them up into a holy temple in the Lord, achieving the purpose laid out in 1:4 that “we should be holy and blameless before him in love.” This is not a claim that Paul wrote Eph 2:19–22 with Ezek 37 in mind. We simply cannot know this. It is a claim that Christians with a two-Testament Scripture might well find both edification and a deeper understanding of God’s purposes by reading these two texts together.
In this section Paul has challenged the Ephesians to remember their past as a Gentile past. Paul wants the Ephesians to see that they are not simply pagans redeemed by Christ. Rather, their past must be remembered as a past in relation to Israel and Israel’s God. They were strangers and aliens. Now through Christ the Ephesians have been liberated from their slavery to sin. This much was already implied in 2:1–10. Here Paul shows that Christ’s redeeming work frees the Ephesian Gentiles from the things that alienated them from Israel and Israel’s God. Thus freed, Jews and Gentiles in Christ are reconciled in Christ’s single body. Moreover, just as Israel released from slavery in Egypt is liberated to be a holy people, so also Jews and Gentiles in Christ are freed from the things that alienated them from God and from each other and are joined in a common citizenship of holiness.
There are two further elements to reflect on here. First, unlike the churches in Rome or Galatia (as indicated above), there does not seem to be any conflict in Ephesus between Jewish and Gentile believers. The church in Ephesus was overwhelmingly if not exclusively Gentile. It even appears to have had little direct contact with non-Christian Jews. Why then does Paul challenge the Ephesian Christians to remember their pagan past as a Gentile past? Why emphasize Christ’s reconciling work in joining the two groups into one new humanity? Why speak of the hostility generated by the torah under Sin’s captivity? To the extent that one can discern answers to such questions, they go to the heart of Christian identity. It appears that whether or not Christians in Ephesus or elsewhere are subject to Judaizing pressures, they must understand themselves as Christians in relation to Israel and Israel’s God. They must understand their past as a Gentile past because that is God’s understanding of their past. Moreover, this understanding makes sense only in the light of God’s call of Israel; if there are no Jews, then there are no Gentiles. Christian identity requires the taking on or remembering of Gentile identity because Christian identity is always tied to Israel. This is not to say that Jewish identity is untouched by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Far from it. Jewish identity is also radically reconceived in the light of Christ. Paul’s accounts of the call of Israel, the place of the torah, and the inclusion of the Gentiles within redeemed Israel—all these are accounts that most of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries rejected. Nevertheless, only in the light of this reconception can there be true reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.
It thus seems that the point of pressing these issues in Ephesians is not to respond to particular Judaizing forces within the church. Rather, the point of pressing the Ephesians to understand their relationship to Israel properly is because such an understanding is essential to Christian identity for both Jewish and Gentile believers. The Gentile Christians in Ephesus cannot rightly understand their place in God’s drama of salvation until they understand their past as a Gentile past and until they understand their redemption in the light of God’s reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in Christ. The striking message of Ephesians is that this is true even in a church without Jewish believers.
Second, it is important for an understanding of Christian mission that the message of reconciliation in Ephesians retains its particularity. The church in our current world is ever more composed of believers from diverse ethnic, national, and cultural backgrounds. Much of the best theological reflection on the global composition and global mission of the church looks to Eph 2:11–22 as a central text. One of the key elements taken from this text is its emphasis on the reconciliation of previously hostile groups into the body of Christ in ways that transform but do not require the erasure of national, ethnic, or cultural identity. In the face of centuries of Christian mission that tied being a Christian to abandoning one’s ethnic and cultural heritage in favor of a European heritage, this is a needed antidote.
Ephesians also makes it clear that although becoming a Christian does not require the erasure of one’s ethnic or cultural past, it also requires the remembering of that past as a Gentile past. It demands an understanding of one’s past and present in relation to Israel and the God of Israel. In these respects the formation of Christian identity will require a reevaluation, but not an erasure, of one’s ethnic and cultural past. One of the challenges facing theological reflection on Christian mission, then, seems to lie in the area of addressing the necessary relationship between Christian identity relative to God’s call of Israel and the variety of issues one confronts when the world’s cultures are confronted with the stories and doctrines surrounding God’s gracious call of Israel. Specifically, one must reckon with the Creator of all peoples choosing a particular people from among the nations, making everlasting covenants with them, taking on Jewish flesh in order to redeem the world, and reconciling Jews and Gentiles in one body in Christ.
Despite their obvious theological importance, many of these issues raise concerns that go beyond the scope of a commentary. Nevertheless, one may find some resources for addressing these issues by reading further in Ephesians. This is particularly true as one moves on to examine chapter 3, where Paul articulates his own call to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
Fowl, S. E. (2012). Ephesians: A Commentary. (C. C. Black, M. E. Boring, & J. T. Carroll, Hrsg.) (First Edition., S. 66–102). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.


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