Ephesians (Everyone Commentary Series) by NT Wright

We lived for four years by the banks of the Ottawa river, north-west of Montreal. It is a great river, already over 400 miles long by the time it passed our village. By the time it reached us it was over a mile wide. Not far downstream, however, this great river flows into the St Lawrence, which makes even the Ottawa river look small. It carries the water from the Great Lakes, and not only water; ocean-going boats sail to and fro up its seaway. The two rivers have quite different characters. The Ottawa rises in the cold, northern reaches of Quebec and Ontario. The St Lawrence runs along the twisting border between Canada and the United States.

Once the two rivers have joined together, just upstream from Montreal, they are simply known as the St Lawrence. They do not become the St Lawrence/Ottawa river. The noble river from the north is subsumed into the larger one from the west. If someone were to paddle a canoe downstream along the Ottawa river, once it had joined the St Lawrence they wouldn’t be able to say that they were still really on the Ottawa. They would have joined the mainstream.

The peculiar thing about what Paul says in this passage is that what must have looked to his readers to be the vastly greater and wider river has joined a far smaller one – but it’s the smaller one that gives its name to the river that now continues with the two streams merged into one. The great, wide river is the worldwide company of Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations stretching across the world and back in time, including the glories of classical Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the rest of the many-splendoured globe. The smaller river is the single family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, described here as ‘the community of Israel’. Somehow, in the strange mapping system that the one God has chosen to operate, Gentiles and Jews have become one in the confluence that is Jesus the Messiah. And, as the river continues on its way, it bears not only the name of Israel, but also the hope that flows from the covenants of promise made with the Israelite patriarchs.

Not only so. As well as the hope, they now have – God! Paul, quite remarkably, describes them in their former state as having no God: the word he uses in verse 12 is the word from which we get our word ‘atheists’. This is ironic, because that’s what Gentiles used to call Jews, and then came to call Christians as well, since neither Jews nor Christians had statues of their gods. Neither, so far as the Gentile eye could see, offered animal sacrifice, consulted oracles, or did any of the other things that pagans associated with worship of their gods. Paul, boldly standing on the same ground as Jewish writers of the same period, declares that the pagan gods are actually non-gods. Those who think they worship them are worshipping something that doesn’t really exist.

At the same time, he’s just as emphatic that those who define themselves by the state of their male members – in other words, Jews who regard their circumcision as the ultimate badge of covenant membership – are equally out of line. Don’t worry, verse 11 implies, about the so-called ‘circumcision’ that likes to call you the ‘uncircumcision’. Circumcision, after all, is something that human beings make with their hands – which is what Jewish writers used to say about pagan idols! Paul is claiming the high ground. Those who belong to the Messiah are the new people of God.

At this point the illustration of the rivers, like most illustrations, breaks down. It isn’t just that one stream is merged without trace into the other. Nor is it just that the new river is simply a combination of the two. It is as though, from that point, the whole river takes on a new and different character. Perhaps we could still make it work if we suggested that from that point on the river was tidal, with salt water meeting it from the ocean.

Paul now shows that this coming together of Jew and Gentile in the one family is achieved – as is almost everything else in his theology – through the cross of Jesus the Messiah. This has brought the pagans close in, from being far away (verse 13). It has torn down the barrier that used to stand between the two families (verse 14). It has abolished the Jewish law, the Torah – not in the sense that God didn’t give it in the first place, but in the sense that the Jewish law had, as one of its main first-century uses, the keeping apart of Jew and Gentile (verse 15). The hostility that had existed between the two groups has itself been killed on the cross (verse 16). Paul probably didn’t have in mind the way in which Herod and Pilate became friends at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23.12), but that little story makes the point well.

The point of it all, as he says in verse 15, was to create a single new humanity in place of the two. Today’s church may no longer face the question of the integration of Jew and Gentile into a single family, though there are places where that is still a major issue. But we face, quite urgently, the question which Paul would insist on as a major priority. If our churches are still divided in any way along racial or cultural lines, he would say that our gospel, our very grasp of the meaning of Jesus’ death, is called into question. How long will it be before those who claim to follow Jesus, not least those who claim also to love Paul’s thinking, come to terms with the demands he actually makes?

One of the greatest worldwide problems of our time is the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers. People in the West sometimes try to pretend that the world is now a civilized place where most people can go about their business in peace, and at least relative prosperity. But the evidence suggests that this is over-optimistic. More people than ever, it seems, are displaced from homes and homelands, and find themselves wandering the world in search of somewhere to live. The countries where they arrive are often overwhelmed, and find that their resources, and their patience, are under strain, despite feeling sympathetic to people who have often suffered a great deal.

What refugees want above all, assuming that they can never return to their original homes, is to be accepted into a new community where they can rebuild their lives and their families. And the ultimate sign of that acceptance is to receive citizenship in the country they have adopted as their own. Their new passport is often their proudest possession. At last they can hold their heads up and build a new sense of identity. Once they have done that, they may well abandon all thoughts of going back where they came from. They have arrived. They belong.

That is the position, Paul declares, in which Gentile Christians now find themselves. Once they were ‘foreigners’ and ‘strangers’ in relation to Israel, the family of the one true God. But now they are full members – not because they have accepted the Jewish law or circumcision, but simply because of what Jesus himself has accomplished.

What Jesus has done is to make, and declare, peace. Peace is one of the best-loved words in the world, especially if you’re a refugee or an asylum-seeker. Often it must seem as though the world has gone mad. Many people escape from a war with nothing except the clothes they stand up in, only to find that the country where they arrive regards them with suspicion, hostility or even hatred. It is a wonderful thing to discover that peace has been declared. It is even better to know that it affects everybody, including both those who have come from a long way off and those who live near at hand.

This is what the gospel message announces. Gentiles and Jews alike are now to be at home in the same family. This must have sounded as extraordinary and revolutionary to traditional Jews – and Paul himself had of course been a traditional Jew – as it was wonderful and exhilarating for Gentiles who had looked at Judaism from the outside and felt drawn to the God of whom the Jewish scriptures had spoken.

But if this is revolutionary, more is to follow. The closing verses of the chapter take one of the central symbols of Judaism and turn it inside out. The Temple in Jerusalem was not only the religious heart of the nation, and the place of pilgrimage of Jews throughout the world. It was also the political, social, musical and cultural heart of Jerusalem – as well as the place of celebration and feasting. The reason for all this was, of course, that Israel’s God, YHWH, had promised to live there. It was, many believed, the place where earth and heaven met.

But now Paul is declaring that the living God is constructing a new Temple. It consists, not of stones, arches, pillars and altars, but of human beings. Some Jews had already explored the idea that a community, rather than a building, might be the place where God would really and truly take up his residence. But until Paul nobody had said anything quite like this.

What it means, of course, is that for Christians a church building is not a ‘Temple’ in the strict sense. It is the people themselves who are the ‘place’ where God is now deciding to live. One might almost say that God himself has, in a sense, become a stranger and asylum-seeker within his own world, the more so since, as the early Christians knew, the Jerusalem Temple itself had been solemnly condemned by Jesus. The living God was now seeking to make his home in the hearts and lives, and particularly the communities, that had declared their loyalty to Jesus, and were determined to live by the gospel.

In particular, this meant that the new ‘Temple’ had to be constructed out of two sorts of material, that would fuse together into a single building. The foundation of the building consisted of the apostles and prophets: in other words, the people (such as Paul himself) through whom God had announced, and was announcing, the worldwide message of peace through King Jesus. Jesus himself was the ‘stone’ reserved for the place of highest honour, the one which held the rest of the building together. This idea links the present passage with several other New Testament references to Jesus as ‘stone’ (e.g. Matthew 21.42; Acts 4.11; Romans 9.33; and 1 Peter 2.4-8).

Most of these passages look back to Psalm 118.22; the early Christians were constantly searching and pondering the ancient scriptures to understand what the events concerning Jesus really meant.

But the building itself has, as its peculiar glory, the way in which bricks from two quite different quarries are to be built into it side by side, joined together in a new kind of architectural beauty. Jewish believers and Gentile believers, in other words, are not simply fellow members of the Christian community. Together, and only together, they form the community in which the living God will be delighted to take up residence.