I guess it's fair to say that how we think of ourselves really determines how we live.
I don't know whether you saw the film Greystoke. It was basically a re-make of the Tarzan story. Lord and Lady Greystoke lose their infant son in the jungle. Baby Greystoke is then brought up by some friendly apes. He grows into a strapping young ape-man. And then one day a search-party finds him. And he decides to come back to England. So, cut to the ancestral home. A huge banquet is laid on in his honour. The soup comes round. And while everyone else is spooning politely, Greystoke Jnr picks up his bowl, downs it in one and belches loudly. And a kindly aunt leans over and says, 'Oh, we don't do that here. You're not in the jungle any more.'
How we think of ourselves really determines how we live. And it's easy to forget who we really are. That was Paul's concern for the Ephesian believers. Look at 2.11:
Therefore, remember that formerly, you who are Gentiles by birth…
So Paul was writing to Gentiles who'd come to faith in Jesus. Jews had the privilege of the Old Testament [OT] in their hands. Whereas Gentiles (ie, non-Jews) knew nothing of the one true God. They 'had no Bible background' as we might say. So once they'd come to faith, these Gentiles still knew almost nothing about God. And the danger was that they simply wouldn't appreciate the massive change it was to become Christians. The danger was that they'd forget who they really were, and drift on living as before. Which is why later (4.17) Paul says:
So I tell you this and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking…
How we think of ourselves really determines how we live.
Now, in football terms, Ephesians is a book of two halves. In the first half, chapters 1-3, Paul is getting our thinking straight. It's a bit like those maps at stations. You arrive at a new place, clueless about where things are, and you see a plan with a big arrow saying, 'You are here.' And that's what Paul is doing in Ephesians 1-3. For people who've arrived at faith in Jesus with no Bible background, Paul is putting them on the map of God's plan for the universe. He's saying, 'This is where you were. This is what Jesus has done for you. And this is where you now are.' And once you know that, you know which way to move - which chapters 4-6 spell out.
Chapters 4-6 are application; whereas first, chapters 1-3 are getting our thinking straight about who we are as God's people. And my headings this morning are the three things I just mentioned: 1) Remember where you were without Christ, 2) Realise what Christ has done for you and 3) Be assured of who you now are, in Christ.
First, REMEMBER WHERE YOU WERE WITHOUT CHRIST (vv11-12)
It's often said you never appreciate something or someone till they're gone. But one way to appreciate them is to think back to what life was like without them. And that's what Paul gets us doing here. Verse 11:
Therefore, remember that formerly, you who are Gentiles by birth [which is the vast majority of us] and called 'uncircumcised' by those who call themselves 'the circumcision' (that done in the body by the hands of men) - remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (vv11-12)
Paul was writing just after the turning point of history - the first coming of Jesus. So this was the first generation of Gentile Christians. And they'd have been acutely aware that had they been born 100 years earlier, they'd have lived and died without ever knowing God. Because before Jesus' coming, God had been making himself known to just one people - the nation of Israel (v12). And v11 says to all of us who are Gentiles: remember that at one time, people like you had no way of coming to know God. For centuries, if you'd been born a Jew, you'd have known the things v12 is on about. You'd have known the promise that God would send Christ to overthrow evil and restore God's perfect rule over everything. You'd have had that 'hope' - which in the Bible means a future certainty; it doesn't have the element of doubt that the English word hope has. Whereas, v12:
remember that at that time you [Gentiles] were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
Which is not just a description of Gentiles before the coming of Jesus. It's a description of what many of us were, pre-conversion. And it's a description of many people in the world today - from the decent British pagan over the road or down the corridor, to thousands of people-groups over the world, which are beyond the reach of the gospel right now. So in vv1-12, Paul is getting us to think, 'What is true of someone - what was true of me - without Christ?'
Well, for one thing, such a person is, 'Without hope' (end of v12). Hope is the future certainty that God will intervene, overthrow all evil and set up his kingdom, ie his rule. Ie, there will at last be a place without evil, suffering, sickness or death. God's people know that. Others are without hope. They have no certainty about where the world is heading, no grounds for believing it'll get better, no grounds for believing anything in the face of death. Now at best that leaves you with groundless optimism. Anthony Clare, of Radio 4's In the Psychiatrist's Chair, wrote this in an article about the Millennium:
"The tragedy of life, Einstein observed, is what dies inside a man while he lives. What dies inside many people is hope - a belief that things can, and will, get better
"Realistic optimism acknowledges that life can indeed be one damn thing after another and that human beings have an incorrigible ability to make a hash of living. But we have got this far and, given what might have happened, that at least is some cause for celebration. It is also a modest justification for the optimistic belief that, having got this far, we can continue the struggle to make it all that little bit better."
At best, being without the Bible's hope leaves you with groundless optimism. At worst, it leaves you with cynicism or even despair. Because most of us can't muster the optimism of Anthony Clare. We know the evil inside us too well. And we watch the news. And being without the Bible's hope leaves you with nothing to believe in the face of death. Nothing grounded, anyway, like the Bible's hope is grounded in the evidence of Jesus' resurrection. You can believe in reincarnation, but where's the evidence? You can believe in annihilation, but again, where's the evidence? (And where's the comfort in either of those beliefs? Either being endlessly reborn to make the same hopeless mistakes? Or being snuffed out so that nothing you ever did really mattered?) Only Christians have hope in the face of death. That's why it was Christians who called graveyards 'cemeteries'. 'Cemetery' literally means 'dormitory' - ie, a place where people sleep. Ie, they wake up the other side. Compare that attitude with Dylan Thomas's lines written at his father's death-bed:
Go not calmly into that dark night;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
'Remember that… you were… without hope,' Paul says to us. And that's where you'd still be, without Christ. And then (end of v12), 'Remember that …you were… without God in the world.' 'Without God' means without any absolutes, without any ground for morality, without any meaning. That doesn't mean people without Christ don't try to have morals or meaning. It just means they invent their own. But you can never be sure you've invented them right. So, for example, when you have a bad conscience about something, is it because the morality you invented is wrong in some absolute way? Or do you just need a counsellor to help you get rid of your false guilt? Or, for example, when you have a crisis over the direction of your life, is it because you've missed the point in some absolute way? Or do you just need a bit more self-belief?
To be 'without God in the world' is like being at sea in a yaught whose Global Positioning System is broken. The satellite is up there. It can tell you exactly where you are and exactly where to go. But you're not in contact. 'Remember that… you were… without God,' Paul says to us. And that's where you'd still be, without Christ. Just think about that for a moment. Without God in your marriage. Without God in your parenting. Without God in your ethical decisions at work. Without God on a sea of personal desires and peer pressure. Without God in the changes and chances life brings. Without God in sickness, suffering and death. Remember where you were without Christ, says Paul. That way we'll appreciate what we've got. And we'll live in the light of it.
Secondly, REALISE WHAT CHRIST HAS DONE FOR YOU (vv 13-18)
Having reminded these Gentiles that they were once a million miles from knowing God, Paul says, v13:
But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ [ie, brought into relationship with God through Jesus' death].
'Far away' was how Jews described Gentiles. Again, remember: Paul was writing just after the turning point of history - the first coming of Jesus. Until then, humanity had been divided in two. Into the Jews - those to whom God had so far revealed himself. And the Gentiles - who didn't know God. And there was deep hostility between them. And Paul says: realise hat Christ has done to that situation of division and hostility. Verse 14:
For he himself is our peace [the 'our' is Jews and Gentiles who've both come to Christ], who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. (vv14-15a)
That needs a bit of unpacking. Before Jesus came, God revealed himself just to that one group, Israel. He gave them a promise - that the Christ would come, overthrow evil and set up God's rule. And he gave them the law - a whole 'package', through which they were to relate to him. Some of the law was to do with God's character. Eg, 'You shall not bear false witness' - God is truthful, so his people must be.
A lot of the law was to do with the temple - that great 'visual aid' of God's presence; with that curtain that represented the separation between sinful humans and a holy God; and with those sacrifices which reminded people that sin could only be forgiven if a substitute took the punishment that the sinner deserved. And still other parts of the law were to do with Israel being God's distinctive nation - different from all the others around. Eg, the circumcision laws, or the food laws. And much of all that was like v14 says: a 'barrier' or 'dividing wall' between Jew and Gentile. Eg, a Gentile at the temple could only go in as far as the court of the Gentiles. Archaeologists dug up one of the temple notices addressed to Gentiles. It reads: 'No foreigner may enter within the barrier… round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.' So not, 'Trespassers will be prosecuted', but, 'Trespassers will be executed'.
Now God never intended these laws to become a source of hostility. But through the sinfulness of both Jew and Gentile, they did. Typically, the Jew had a superior attitude. After all, they had the law, didn't they? And they lived better lives, didn't they? So sadly they were often judgmental and 'holier-then-thou', and retreated into their ghetto. (And if we're Christians, that's also our temptation. To forget that we're sinners. To think that we're superior people, rather than saved people.) And the Gentiles responded with resentment towards these people who seemed so aloof, separate and critical. That's what v14 means by 'the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility'.
Now that period of one people relating to God through the law was only temporary. It was simply meant to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, so we'd understand what was happening when he did come. So we'd understand our sin and we'd understand his death was taking the punishment for our sin, so we could be forgiven justly. And so on. And now that Jesus has come, we no longer have to relate to God by that whole package called 'the law'. In the OT period, you had to relate to God through the law. In the New Testament [NT] period, you relate to God not through the law, but through Jesus.
Jesus has died for the sins of the world, so there are no more sacrifices, getting us ready for his coming to die. And Jesus comes into peoples' lives by his Spirit - people from all nations - so God's not just working through one nation any more. So there are no more national distinctives like circumcision or food restrictions. And there's no more temple in one place, where you need to go to approach God. You can pray to God anywhere. God is with believers everywhere. You're no 'closer to God' here than you were two hours ago over breakfast. So that 'barrier' and 'dividing wall' (v14), that whole 'package' of the law, is a thing of the past. Half-way through v15:
His [Jesus'] purpose was to create in himself one new man [ie humanity] out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He preached peace to you who were far away [ie Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [ie Jews - who were near in the sense of privileged to have revelation from God. But they still needed saving, just like Gentiles. So you can ignore the things the Bishop of Oxford has been saying in The Times this week]. (vv15b-17)
It doesn't matter who we are - Jew or Gentile: we need reconciling with God, and that can only happen through Jesus' death on the cross. Both have the same need as sinners who start life out of relationship with God. And both enjoy the same relationship with God if they do come to Christ - verse 18:
For through him we both [ie Jew and Gentile] have access to the Father by one Spirit.
And for that first generation it was a mind-blowing thing to have Jews and Gentiles together in the same church fellowship. The Lord Jesus Christ had turned division into unity; hostility into peace; two into one. And that's what he's done in his church ever since.
The Jew/Gentile division may not be JPC's potential problem. But there are plenty of other differences which, apart from Christ, we could turn into division and hostility. Different nationalities, different skin-colours, different races, different jobs, different incomes, different accents, different backgrounds, different education, different tastes and preferences, different opinions about things in the Christian life, different interpretations of things in Scripture which are secondary to the gospel. And the nature of sin in us is to seize on differences and turn them into division and hostility. Either the active hostility of disagreement and confrontation. Or the passive hostility of avoidance or superficial relationships. And in vv13-18 Paul says, 'Realise what Christ has done for you.' All those differences are secondary to the primary thing you have in common: the same need as sinners; the same Saviour. As I said, Paul doesn't start applying these things until chapter 4. At this stage he's working on our thinking. But vv13-18 set Paul up for what he'll say in 4.3:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
If you and I have both come to Christ, then what we have in common is infinitely greater than how we differ. So, 'What God has joined, let man not divide.' We're to make every effort to keep the unity and the peace that the Spirit has created between us. Outside of Christ, unity and peace between utterly different people are just pipe-dreams. We can only manage peace-processes. Whereas God's intention for the church is that it shows the world real unity and peace between such utterly different people that outsiders end up thinking, 'There's something supernatural about that,' and end up asking, 'What is it that holds you together?' I heard someone just the other day giving his testimony as to what first drew him to Christ. He said it was at university, and that he noticed that the only society which genuinely united every kind of person was the Christian Union. And he wanted to know why. Remember where you were without Christ. Realise what Christ has done for you.
Thirdly, BE ASSURED OF WHO YOU NOW ARE, IN CHRIST (vv19-22)
In some ways these verses seem just to repeat some of what's just been said. But Paul seems to want to assure these Gentile Christians that they really are in God's people. As if they might have cause to be unsure. Verse 19:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (vv19-22)
Time is short, so we can't unpack all this. But Paul seems keen to assure these Gentile Christians that they really are in the people of God. Eg, v19: 'you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household.' Or v22: 'And in him, you too..', as if to say, 'Yes, you! You Gentiles are really in!' So why would he be labouring that point? The answer is probably that plenty of people were saying these Gentile Christians were not 'in'. Paul was constantly opposed by Jews who said you could only relate to God through the law. They denied his message that you could come into relationship with God simply through faith in Jesus and his death. In fact they had Paul in prison for his message. 3.1:
For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ for the sake of you Gentiles -
And Paul says in vv19-22: have it on my authority as an apostle of Jesus that you are 'in'. And in v20 he gives them grounds for assurance. He pictures them like a building, v20:
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
And that's the point. The basis - the foundation - of being in God's people is simply faith in Jesus. Just that. Nothing more. Back then, Jews would say, 'No, that's not enough. You've got to take on the whole package of the law.' Today, you get similar claims which unsettle people. Eg, 'If you haven't undergone our particular way of baptism, you're not 'in'.' or, 'If you haven't had this particular experience, you're not 'in'.' Or, 'If you haven't joined our particular denomination, or gone through this particular ceremony, you're not 'in'.' They're all messages which add something to faith in Jesus - 'Jesus plus something else'. And they all create division, two classes of Christians, 1st and 2nd class, those who are definitely 'in' and those who are suspect.
Compare that with v20. The foundation for belonging is: faith in Jesus. Just Jesus. Nothing more. So if you're a believer in Jesus and his death for sins, you belong to his church. And nothing more is required of you to belong to this local 'branch' of it. Well, that's the end of chapter 2. Paul doesn't start applying these things until 4.1. But he's getting our thinking straight so that the application will be obvious when it comes: 1) Remember where you were without Christ. Because if we do, we'll appreciate what we've got, and (4.17) we won't just 'live as the Gentiles do in the futility of their thinking' 2) Realise what Christ has done for you - uniting us in this one body. Because if we do, (4.3) we'll make every effort to keep that unity rather than wreck it. And, 3) Be assured of who you now are, in Christ. Because only if we're sure we're 'in' God's people will we live for him - which is really what the whole of chapters 4-6 is about.