11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV
Paul was addressing a congregation that was likely comprised of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity but, because of its location in Ephesus, there was likely a much higher percentage of non-Jews in the fellowship. And at this point in his letter, Paul focuses his attention on those whom he calls “Gentiles in the flesh” (Ephesians 2:11 ESV). He is not using the term “flesh” (sarx) to refer to their sinful natures but as a designation of the physical characteristics that differentiate them from Jews. Not only did Jews and Gentiles have distinctively different physical characteristics, but Gentile men were uncircumcised. Paul even points out that Jews, who bore the sign of circumcision that had been ordained for them by God, derogatorily referred to all Gentiles as “the uncircumcision.”
Among the Jews, the rite of circumcision had been faithfully practiced ever since the day God had prescribed it to their forefather Abraham.
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-14 ESV
For the Jews of Paul’s day, circumcision had become a point of pride because it “marked” them as God’s chosen people. They viewed circumcision as a badge of honor that separated them from the rest of the nations of the world. It was a physical “sign” of their unique status as those who had been set apart by God as His prized possession.
Prior to the coming of Jesus, the focus of God’s favor seemed to have remained upon the Jewish people. They were still considered the apple of His eye and the designated recipients of His covenant blessings. But for generations, they had lived in open rebellion to His will and in violation of His law. Even Jesus said of His fellow Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NLT). Yet, despite their disobedience, God remained committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 17:7 ESV
But with the coming of Jesus, God began to do a new thing. Jesus was born a Jew and began His public ministry by proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom to His own people. But as the apostle John records, the reception Jesus received from His fellow Jews was less than enthusiastic.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV
From the moment Jesus was born, He had been ordained by His Heavenly Father to be the “offspring” of Abraham who would fulfill God’s promise to bless the nations. Jesus had been sent to the Jews, but His message of repentance and reconciliation had always been intended for all mankind. At one point, He revealed to His Jewish disciples that His coming death would be for the benefit of all men, not just those of the circumcision.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:14-16 NLT
And Paul wanted the Gentiles in his audience to grasp the significance of their former status as uncircumcised outsiders. They had not been part of God’s chosen family. Paul reminds them that they had been “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV). Their pre-salvation condition had been dire and hopeless. As Gentiles, they were separated from Christ, the Messiah of Israel. They were not beneficiaries of the covenant promises. They were considered unclean and unholy outsiders who were unworthy of the blessings that God had promised to the seed of Abraham.
Yet, with two simple words, Paul reminds them of the marvelous transformation that had taken place in their lives.
Something incredible had taken place. They were no longer separated, alienated, estranged, hopeless, and godless. The great chasm that had once existed between them and God had been removed. They had “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV). Even though uncircumcised, they had been welcomed into the presence of God because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, had become the Redeemer and Savior of all men. Not only had Jesus made it possible for sinful humanity to be restored to a right relationship with God, but He had arranged a way for Jews and Gentiles to live as brothers and sisters within the family of God.
For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. – Ephesians 2:14-15 NLT
For Paul, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus had eliminated the former burden of trying to keep the law as a means of attaining a right standing with God. He had come to understand that the law had never been intended by God to produce righteousness in men. In fact, in his letter to the Romans, Paul asserted that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT).
Paul knew that, like circumcision, the law had become a point of pride among his fellow Jews. They viewed themselves as more righteous because they had been given the Mosaic Law as a guide to living. But what good was the law if it was not obeyed? What good was the rite of circumcision if it didn’t result in a set-apart life? That’s why Paul asserted that ethnicity, physical markers, and outward observance of religious rules were not the signs of righteousness. It was a changed heart.
The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.
For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:25-29 NLT
With His death on the cross, Jesus reconciled Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another.
Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. – Ephesians 2:16 NLT
Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, God created “one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16 NLT). There was no longer any distinction between Jews and Gentiles. There were only those who were saved and those who were lost. The Gentiles in Paul’s audience could rejoice in the fact that they had been brought near to God through faith in Christ. And the Jews in his audience could rest in the fact that they no longer had to try and earn their right standing with God. It had been accomplished for them by Christ. And Paul sums it all up with the good news that “all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (Ephesians 2:17 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.