Tyndale NT Commentary by Francis Foulkes
The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (2:11–22)
11. The purpose of Christ’s work for human salvation is not limited to the giving of new life to individual men and women, previously dead in sin, as the last section has described. Chapter 1 has given hints that it goes beyond this, and the present section now shows that it involves the bringing of those individuals, whatever their race or background, into unity in the people of God. In this respect it involves the greatest transformation of situation for the Gentiles, and this section, like verses 1–10, begins by showing what was the condition of Gentiles in the past. As John Stott puts it we have ‘the portrait of an alienated humanity’, then, ‘the portrait of the peace-making Christ’ and lastly ‘the portrait of God’s new society’. Paul’s readers are called to remember and thus be stirred to love and gratitude. Firstly, they should think of the great change that has come in their relationship with the Jews, their connection with those who were named the people of God. Just as the Greeks despised those who lived outside of their cities, calling them ethnē (pagans), so the Jews in their superficial and unspiritual way of thinking (in the flesh), instead of regarding the other nations as those with whom they should have shared their knowledge of God (cf. Gen. 12:3; Isa. 42:1, 6; 49:6), simply spoke disparagingly of them as Gentiles (ethnē). They called them the uncircumcision, those who did not have on them the mark of the covenant of God with his people. This was the proud judgment of those who called themselves the circumcision, although from the standpoint of one in Christ this mark might be only made in the flesh by hands.
Elsewhere in the Pauline letters we find this contrast between the circumcision which is of the Spirit and that which is merely of the flesh, a work of human hands; and we may compare the way the same term is used in the New Testament to describe the tabernacle and temple (Mark 14:58; Acts 7:48; Heb. 9:11, 24) when contrasted with the spiritual temple as Paul speaks of it here in verse 21. Paul did not disparage circumcision as an institution. It was to him the God-given sign of the covenant; but if the outward sign was not matched by an inward faith and an obedience of life to the covenant, it became worthless and just a work of the flesh (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). The circumcision that mattered, whether or not there was any outward sign, was spiritual circumcision, a putting off of sin and an obedience to Christ (Rom. 2:25–29; Phil. 3:2–3; Col. 2:11).
12. The fundamental change for the Gentiles, however, was not simply in the way that the Jews regarded them, but in their actual condition. Their lack of privilege and opportunity might be described in the far-reaching terms of this verse. At that time, before they came to know and experience the grace of God, they were separated from Christ. These words may stand as the first description of the position of the Gentiles (as rsv puts it), or, perhaps, as the basic one on which the others depend (av). In the latter case we may see this whole section as drawing out the contrast between what the Gentiles were without the hope of the Messiah, and all that went with that, and what they came to be ‘in Christ Jesus’ (v. 13).
They were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. They did not belong to, and found themselves cut off from, the fellowship and the privileges (such as Rom. 3:1–2 and 9:4–5 describe) of those who truly called themselves the people of God. The word used for alienated is that used in 4:18 and Colossians 1:21 for humanity’s separation from God by sin. The only other New Testament use of the word translated commonwealth is in Acts 22:28, where it refers to the much-coveted Roman citizenship. Whatever purpose of God for the Gentiles may have been expressed in the Old Testament, in actual fact they stood almost entirely outside the spiritual privileges of Israel. The Jews did admit Gentiles as proselytes, it is true, but the way of entry was difficult, and even then the sense of alienation was not fully removed. At least by birth Gentiles were strangers to the covenants of promise. The promise to the Jews, the promise of the Messiah (Gk. has the article), was involved in the covenants with Abraham and the patriarchs (Gen. 17:1–14; 26:24; 28:13–15), and with the nation under Moses (Exod. 24:1–11). The covenants brought Israel into a special relationship of grace with God, and so to the hope of a deliverance and future glory that would be theirs. But up till this time the Gentiles had not been included within these covenants. So they stood as a people with no hope.
In fact they were not only without the hope that Israel had, but they were without any real hope at all. This was a very evident characteristic of the Gentile world of the time when Jesus came. People had no prospect for the future, no assurance of life beyond this. The Greeks, for example, looked back on a golden age in the past rather than to a future glory; or more philosophically they took a cyclic view of history. There was in consequence no concept of a goal to which all things were moving, and this lack of hope was seen most notably in their view of death.
Finally, Paul says that they were without God. The Greek word here (atheoi) does not mean that they refused to believe in God, or that they were forsaken by God, or godless in their conduct, but that they had no real knowledge of God. In most cases they had many objects of worship—‘many “gods” and many “lords”’—but they were gods in name only (1 Cor. 8:4–5; Gal. 4:8). Some sought for the One in philosophy; some tried to come within the fold of Judaism; but by and large the Gentiles had to live in the world lives limited by the things of the world, and had to face the trials and sorrows and perplexities of the world without the knowledge of God to interpret the whole.
13. Now, however, for these Gentiles, everything had become different, because from being ‘separated from Christ’ (v. 12), they had come to be in Christ Jesus. They had come to find their life in him. They who had been far off—far from God, and with a great gulf dividing them from his covenant people—were brought near. The Rabbis had a way of speaking of Gentiles, who were far from the privileges of the covenant, as being ‘brought near’ as proselytes. But Paul is speaking of a far more fundamental and wonderful way of approach by the blood of Christ (see on 1:7). For the basic cause of human estrangement is sin, and Christ gave himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (John 3:16; 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2). The sins of both Jews and Gentiles can be forgiven because of his death, and both can be brought near to God as never before, and so brought near to each other. Divisions are overcome, not by an approaching or a receiving on either side, but by Christ coming and making peace for both.
14. Not only can it be said that Christ brings peace. He is our peace. As men and women are brought to be in him, and continue to live in him, they find peace with God, and so also a meeting-place and concord with one another, whatever may have been their divisions of race, colour, class or creed before. He came for this purpose (Luke 2:14), to be the Prince of peace, and indeed in such terms the prophets had foretold his coming (Isa. 9:6–7; 53:5; Mic. 5:5, Hag. 2:9; Zech. 9:10). By his coming and supremely by his cross, he has made us both one. The Greek says literally that ‘he has made both things into one thing’ (later, in v. 15, the personal is used). The organization of Judaism and that of the Gentile world no longer stand apart as before. Divisions and distinctions no longer exist as far as the standing of any before God is concerned. God has made a way for the divided to become one (cf. John 10:16; 17:11; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13).
Paul is pre-occupied, however, with what to him was the greatest division of all, that which separated Jews and Gentiles. There had always been a dividing wall of hostility between the two. There was a barrier both literally and spiritually. In Jerusalem, between the temple proper and the Court of the Gentiles, there was a stone wall on which there was an inscription in Greek and Latin: ‘No one of another nation to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple. And whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.’ It is strangely significant that Paul was finally arrested and condemned by the Jews in Jerusalem on the basis of a false accusation that he took an Ephesian, Trophimus, beyond this barrier (Acts 21:29–30). But Christ had now broken down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, of which that dividing wall in the temple was a symbol.
15. In order, however, that that particular dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles might be broken down, two things closely connected in the minds of strict Jews had to be dealt with. The old ‘hostility’ (v. 14) had to go. The feeling of animosity and hostility had to be replaced by a sense of fellowship. Secondly, the law of commandments and ordinances had to be abolished (cf. Col. 2:14, 20). The law with its detailed ordinances of ceremonies and regulations about the clean and the unclean had the effect of imposing a barrier and of causing enmity between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed also the moral law broken by all people left all condemned and alienated. ‘Jesus abolished both the regulations of the ceremonial law and the condemnation of the moral law’ (Stott).
Because Christ has come and by what he has done in his flesh, especially by his death (see Col. 1:22), salvation and acceptance with God in his people is offered to all people on condition of repentance and faith. Peter was sent to Cornelius and bidden to regard no longer the distinction between ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness (Acts 10). The church in its council at Jerusalem had agreed that there was no longer to be a barrier because the Jews had circumcision and all the other ordinances of the law, and the Gentiles did not (Acts 15). The Lord came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it (Matt. 5:17). Much of the law (e.g. the sacrificial ritual) was preparation for, and foreshadowing of, the Christ, and so was fulfilled by what he did when he came. The moral demands and principles of the law were not lightened by Jesus, but made fuller and more far-reaching (Matt. 5:21–48). In the discipline of obedience that its detailed regulations demanded, and as the revealer of right and wrong, it was intended to lead to Christ (Gal. 3:24). In an absolute sense it cannot be said to be made of no effect in Christ (Rom. 3:31). But as a code ‘specific, rigid, and outward, fulfilled in external ordinances’ (Westcott), and so serving to separate Jews and Gentiles, it was abolished (cf. Col. 2:20–22).
The Lord’s coming meant making peace between Jew and Gentile, by taking away the cause of division. The law could no longer be the way by which Jews, and Jews alone, could try to come to God. The way of approach is now by grace, by a new creative work of God, the same for both Jews and Gentiles. The purpose of Christ is ‘to create out of the two a single new humanity in himself’ (neb). In Christ there is a new humanity; and it is a single entity. God now deals with Jews and Gentiles as such a single entity. Furthermore, Gentiles do not simply rise to the status of Jews, but both become something new and greater; and it is significant that the word for new here (kainos) means not simply new in point of time, but as Barclay puts it ‘new in the sense that it brings into the world a new kind of thing, a new quality of thing, which did not exist before’ (see also on 4:23–24).
16. Right through this passage the twin themes of the reconciliation to God, and of people to one another, are inextricably intertwined. Through the cross the purpose of Christ was to reconcile people to God (cf. Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Col. 1:20). When he was slain there the hostility between humanity and God through sin was brought to an end, because he bore our sins and made possible our forgiveness. He thus reconciled both Jew and Gentile to God, but he also reconciled them (and the people of all the different divisions of mankind) to one another and brought them to be in one body, thus putting to death the hostility between them. What he has done once and for all ‘in his body of flesh by his death’ (Col. 1:22), he now effects in the one body which is his church. But here we should note that the emphasis is not quite that of 1:23 on the church as Christ’s body, but rather on the fact that there is one living organism in which members so diverse belong together (cf. 4:4; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13; Col. 3:15).
17–18. The same linking of the thought of the new relationship to God and to one’s fellows continues in these next two verses. The coming of Christ meant that peace could be preached to them who were far off, the Gentiles, who previously had ‘no hope’ and were ‘without God in the world’ (v. 12), and to those who were near, the Jews, who had ‘the covenants of promise’ (v. 12) and belonged to the people of God (cf. Deut. 4:7; Ps. 148:14). For both this was peace with God, which both equally needed; and its consequence was peace and concord one with the other as well. In the words of this verse there is an allusion (as perhaps also in v. 13) to Isaiah 57:19, and probably also to Isaiah 52:7 which speaks of the preaching of peace. These Old Testament passages (referred to also in Acts 2:39 and Rom. 10:15) did not originally speak of the way of peace for the Gentiles, but such words of Scripture, deeply imprinted on the apostle’s mind, found an apt application to this wonderful new situation. The form of expression, thus dependent on the Old Testament words, is not to be pressed too far. We are not to ask what preaching of the gospel of peace this refers to—before or after the resurrection, before or after Pentecost. The point is that Christ came ‘with a gospel of peace’ (Moffatt). Through his cross peace was made, and he through his church takes out the message of reconciliation and peace to the world (cf. Acts 10:36; 2 Cor. 5:18–20).
Then further, the apostle says, through him, Jesus Christ, we both have access … to the Father. Access is probably the best translation of prosagōgē, though it could be ‘introduction’. In oriental courts there was a prosagōgeus who brought a person into the presence of the king. The thought could be of Christ as the prosagōgeus, but the form of expression in the whole clause suggests rather that by him there is a way of approach (cf. 3:12). He is the door, the way to the Father (John 10:7, 9; 14:6); by him men and women, though sinners, because they are reconciled can ‘with confidence draw near to the throne of grace’ (Heb. 4:16). But it is added that the access is for both Jew and Gentile in one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). There is one way for all, one Spirit by whose work in their hearts they have assurance that they can come to God as children to a Father (Rom. 8:15–16; Gal. 4:6). The personal Spirit of God is obviously intended here, and the form of the phrase should be noted. As Paul repeatedly uses the words ‘in Christ’ in this letter, so a number of times he says ‘in the Spirit’, to emphasize that for the new life of the Christian ‘the Spirit is, as it were, the surrounding, sustaining power’ (Westcott).
19. The unity of all Christians ‘in one Spirit’ will find emphasis and development in chapter 4, but now the apostle turns back specifically to the Gentiles to speak further of the change in their status and position. Before they were ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel’ (v. 12). In relation to the covenant people of God, they were strangers and sojourners (xenoi and paroikoi), that is, people who might live alongside them in the same country, but owning no land and with only the most superficial rights of citizenship. Such was their old position, but it is so no longer. Now, the apostle says, you are fellow citizens with the saints. His mind might have gone to the saints of Old Testament times, or to members of the Christian church to all of whom the word applied (see on 1:1); probably he thought of all who in any sense could be called the people of God, and so he said to the Gentiles that they were now included among them, and on equal terms.
Citizenship of the people of God was one expressive way of telling the truth concerning the position in God’s kingdom that Jews and Gentiles now equally share. But this description had to give way to one that connoted a further truth, and could speak of the greater intimacy that Christians have with God, and indeed with one another. Jews and Gentiles, people of whatever race or colour or class, are together of the household of God, of the same family. Galatians 6:10 uses the same word oikeioi, speaking of ‘the household of faith’. Although the word does not fully express the truth that all are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26; and see on 1:5), yet the thought is of the people of the household rather than the building (cf. Heb. 3:2, 5–6; 1 Pet. 4:17).
20. In what follows now, however, there are truths that can be contained best by the description of the house (oikos) as a building. Those whose faith is in Christ Jesus are like an edifice built (epoikodomēthentes) upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The question is asked whether this does not go against the Pauline picture of the house in 1 Corinthians 3:11, where it is said that ‘There can be no other foundation beyond that which is already laid; … Jesus Christ himself’ (neb). To overcome the assumed difficulty some have suggested that we should take the words here to mean the foundation that they laid in the lives of others, or that they had built on in their work. We need not feel that this is necessary. What we have here we may regard simply as a slightly different handling of the same metaphor as that in 1 Corinthians 3. (Cf. Rev. 21:14 for a use that is different again but not contradictory.) There the apostle thought of himself and others as builders, here as stones in the building. As Allan puts it, ‘The Church rests on the total unique Event of which Christ is the centre, but in which the apostles and prophets, filled and guided by the Spirit and doing their work in unique closeness to Christ, had an indispensable and untransmissible part.’ To apostles and prophets the word of God in Christ was revealed in a unique way (cf. 3:5). Because they received, believed and witnessed to that word, they were the beginning of the building on which others were to be built (cf. Matt. 16:16–18). That the prophets of the Christian church and not of the Old Testament are intended here is clear from the order of the phrase apostles and prophets, and by the way that both words come under the same definite article in the Greek. (Note the use of the same phrase in 3:5, and for the work of these Christian prophets see on 4:11.)
As the building metaphor is applied here Christ Jesus himself is described as the cornerstone. This thought comes from Psalm 118:22, a passage which was used by our Lord himself (Mark 12:10), and then in the early church, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’ (1 Pet. 2:7; see also Acts 4:11). It denotes primarily the honour of his position in the building, but then also the way in which each stone is fitted into him, and finds its true place and usefulness only in relation to him (cf. Col. 2:7; 1 Pet. 2:4–5). There is some difference of opinion as to the precise place of the cornerstone in the building, but it seems most likely that it was the stone set in the foundations at the corner to bind all together and to give the walls their line. Isaiah 28:16, which is quoted together with Psalm 118:22 in 1 Peter 2, speaks of the stone laid in Zion as ‘a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation’. The significance of Christ described in this way removes any possible thought of the Lord himself as the foundation being replaced by the apostles.
21–22. Whatever the precise position of the cornerstone the main point of the metaphor is made explicit when it is said now that in Christ all that is built into the edifice is joined together. All find their true place and function in relation to Christ and as they are built into him. The whole structure does not appear strictly correct as a translation, since there is no article in the original. A more accurate translation would be ‘every building’ or ‘each several building’ (rv); but while this is a more exact rendering it is hardly true to the apostle’s thought to suggest that the church is like a number of different buildings. The word used (oikodomē) has a wide range of meaning. It is used sometimes for individual buildings (e.g. in Mark 13:1–2), but very often in the New Testament for the whole work of building, and hence in the spiritual sense of ‘building’, of ‘edification’ (as in 4:12, 16, 29). It is the whole operation of building that is in view here (and probably similarly in 1 Cor. 3:9), as the present participle being joined together, and then the verb that follows, indicate. So we may say ‘everything that is being built’, or as Phillips puts it ‘each separate piece of building’.
The work is developing; the church cannot be described as a complete edifice until the final day of the Lord comes (cf. Rev. 21). It is growing towards what it is intended to be in the purpose of God. The metaphor is inadequate at this point. There must be the thought of organic growth; the stones are ‘living stones’ (1 Pet. 2:5). To express this the description of the church as a living body is preferable (as in 4:15–16). But the metaphor of the building has not been exhausted, and what is probably the chief reason for its use has not yet been expressed. There is an analogy that can be drawn from the Old Testament that conveys a deep truth; this building grows into a holy temple. We see the truth as we note the actual word used. It is not the general word (hieron) that described the whole of the temple precincts, but that used for the inner shrine (naos). The temple in Old Testament days, and especially considered as naos, was above all else the special meeting-place between God and his people. It was the place on which the glory of God descended, the place of his presence. When Christ came, he made obsolete the tabernacle or temple made with hands. He himself was the place of the divine dwelling among men, a truth that is expressed particularly in John 1:14 and 2:19–
21. That temple is no longer among us, but now God seeks as his dwelling place the lives of men and women who will allow him to enter by his Spirit.
Two further points are to be noted about the apostle’s thought here. Firstly, verse 21 ends with the words in the Lord, and verse 22 with in the Spirit to emphasize yet again that it is only by a person being in Christ, in the Spirit (see on 2:18), that the work of building into the habitation of God can take place. Abiding in Christ and Christ in his people belong inextricably together (cf. John 15:4–7). None can have any true place in the eternal building of God, unless they have found life in Christ. Secondly, we are reminded how far removed the New Testament thought is from our individualistic concepts. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul does speak of the individual Christian’s body as the ‘temple [naos] of the Holy Spirit’, but his thought dwells rather on the community of Christians as the temple (2 Cor. 6:16), or as one organism indwelt by the living Christ. It is true that unity is not a matter of organization, but of the sharing of the common life and tasks of the body, but it behoves all Christians to take warning of the danger of individualistic Christian service, and to consider seriously the things that hinder the expression of that common life and the united fulfilling of the tasks. In Philippians 2:1–3 and 4:2 Paul had to speak against divisions due to personal rivalries, and in 1 Corinthians 1 and 3 against the danger of breaking up into sects for the sake of loyalty to honoured leaders rather than to Christ. Here he has had in mind the Jewish-Gentile animosities that in earlier days threatened to make two churches instead of one, and now to Gentile Christians he says—what many Jewish Christians before had been loath to accept—you also are built together into this holy temple, this dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
- Christopher Mack