‘Alienation’ is a word that has become common parlance over the past hundred years, a familiarity that was perhaps bolstered most by the writings of Karl Marx, who truly popularized the word.
Alienation can come in many forms. For Marx it was primarily economic and political; as John Stott noted, alienation is partly a “sense of disaffection with what is” and partly “a sense of powerlessness to change it,” a feeling that is widespread in the present day.
Yet alienation was a viable concept long before the writings of Marx, so much so that it is this idea which is the focus of the second chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This chapter of the letter focuses on two even more radical sorts of alienation, that is, alienation from the God who created us, and alienation from our fellow creatures.
The opposite of alienation, it might be said, is reconciliation. In turn, the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians focuses on these ideas of alienation and reconciliation; the first half focuses on the idea of reconciliation between God and man, the second half on the idea of reconciliation between man and his fellow man. Thus it could be said that the first half focuses upon vertical reconciliation and the second on horizontal reconciliation, two vitally linked reversals of the overall alienation that is present in the world.
In order to properly analyze the way in which this reconciliation plays out – with special focus upon the reconciliation of man with his fellow man in the form of racial reconciliation – it will be necessary to look at the context of the passage, at Paul’s purpose in writing this passage, and at what Paul’s meaning with certain images conveys (such as the “wall of hostility” being broken down). With this done, one may then analyze what the implications of this message are for Christians today, what it communicates in regards to reconciliation in such realms as race relations, and how the truths presented here by Paul may be useful to the individual.
Context and Purpose
In order to get a proper understanding of the truths being conveyed by Paul to the Ephesians, one must first develop an understanding of the context and of the purposes which envelop this text. First, there is the broader context of Paul’s letter.
The broader context here is that Paul is writing to the Ephesians, who were by the old Jewish system considered Gentiles. In the old Jewish system, the religious world-view had become one of exclusion, one of placing the chosen people of God – the Jews – above all of those around them. They were a group who were deemed to be set apart, to be holy; what this idea devolved into in the religious life of the Jews is what T. N. Lee suggests be described as “covenantal ethnocentrism.” John Stott perhaps best sums up this idea when he states that Israel had “forgot her vocation,” that they had forgotten that they were supposed to be a light to the nations and had instead twisted their place of privilege into a sort of favoritism which resulted in them despising those who were not of their ethnicity, “detesting the heathen as ‘dogs.'”
The Gentiles, on the other hand – that is, all those who were not Jews – had neither “part or lot in the Messianic people.” The Gentiles were alienated from the people of God, and they had never been anything other than alienated; they were considered by the Jews to be outcasts and objects of derision. This alienation was both social and spiritual; on the one hand they were alienated from the people of God, and on the other they were alienated from God himself. They were without a messiah, without part in Jewish commonwealth, strangers to the covenants of God, without any divine promise, and without the true God (Ephesians 2:12).
Even more, this division had a physical representation in the ancient world, a literal wall of separation. In Jerusalem the temple constructed by Herod the Great was built upon a platform, with individual courts for the priests, the lay men, and the lay women. Five steps below this platform was a walled platform, on the other side of which was another even lower walled platform, beyond which was the court of the Gentiles.
The Gentiles were not allowed beyond this wall into the upper courts on pain of death; for a Gentile to pass the wall was to forfeit their life. This wall was still present at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, as it was not destroyed until 70 A.D. when the temple itself was destroyed by the Romans. The presence of this division – of this alienation – is the essential background of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
In turning from this background of alienation, one may observe that the central message of the letter to the Ephesians is one of the need for unity and reconciliation, due to the already accomplished reality of that unity in Christ; that is, for the visible characteristics of the church to coincide with its invisible characteristics, namely, unity and oneness in Christ. Therefore, the grand theme of this portion of text is that Christ has destroyed both of the divisions which had previously existed, vertical and horizontal.
This can be easily seen in that Paul begins his letter detailing how all mankind has been reconciled to God, progresses through discussing how Jew has been reconciled to Gentile, continues in how we are all members of one body, and then elaborates upon this in the particular ways and relationships in which we should therefore walk in love. Paul’s purpose is to remind his readers of where they once were – residing in alienation – and then to encourage and instruct them in unity; they were once “alienated” but Christ has “reconciled us both God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
The Wall of Hostility
As has been noted, the central theme of this passage of Ephesians is of moving from alienation to reconciliation. One of the key images that Paul uses to describe this movement is that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15). There are various possible meanings which one can attribute to this image. For instance, if one were a Gnostic, one might interpret the wall as referring to the comic barrier separating heaven from earth.
Most directly, the verse itself makes reference of the “commandments expressed in ordinances,” that is, the ceremonial law; thus John Calvin concisely asserts “this obstacle was the in the ceremonies.” From this approach, the vertical and horizontal reconciliation is best summed up by Charles Hodge when he states that: “The abolition of the law as a covenant of works reconciles us to God; the abolition of the Mosaic law removes the wall between the Jews and Gentiles.”
Yet further still, the ceremonial laws found their power in the Jewish temple, and in turn, one might easily draw a connection from the “wall of hostility” to the wall of the temple which literally kept the Gentiles out, the wall which kept them from accessing the Jewish ceremonies. As was previously stated, this wall did not fall until after Paul wrote this letter; this creates a parallel of sorts to the way in which the temple itself did not fall until this time, despite Christ assertion that he would rebuild it in three days (John 2:19). This means that the wall being referenced is not merely the literal wall, but rather it is being used as a literary image. When this literal wall is used as a literary image, it becomes more clear that when Paul referred to the wall he was referring to the “the wall as symbolic of the social, religious, and spiritual separation that kept Jews and Gentiles apart.”
The breaking down of this wall, therefore, refers to social, religious, and spiritual reconciliation of the Jews and the Gentiles, as exemplified in the removal of the ceremonial laws and the eventual destruction of the literal wall of the temple. Whereas before there was division, Christ removed the wall, and brought everyone together in unity, the result of which was the creation of “one new man in the place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). Thus, as John MacArthur puts it “spiritually, a new person in Christ is no longer Jew or Gentile, only Christian.”
The two groups were reconciled, where to ‘reconcile’ is defined as effecting “peace and union between parties previously at variance.” In reconciling the two groups Christ created in himself a common identity, a new group which would not be defined by ethnic features but by faith in Christ, and he did this through “his flesh,” through his death. Yet further still, when Paul speaks of “one man” and “one body,” he is in fact referring to an entirely new humanity; it is much broader than merely a breaking down of the barrier between Jew and Gentile, it is a breaking down of all barriers which divide the people of God from one another: divides of class, of sex, of nationality, of race. This much can be seen when this passage is taken in the light of such verses as Galatians 3:28, which asserts that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
While the removal of the distinction between Jew and Gentile does have enormous consequence in and of itself for us as contemporary Christians – for otherwise the vast majority of us could not count ourselves amongst the people of God – it also has implications beyond the mere (yet glorious) fact that it allows for our salvation. As was shown above, Christ not only broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, but broke down all divisions which attempt to establish themselves in the body of Christ, divisions which still seek to establish themselves today. One of the most notable contemporary examples of this is the racial division which has so long plagued the modern world, yet as has been and will be shown, Paul speaks to the healing of this divide.
Looking back at the context of what was being written, if any group seemingly had the right to be ethnocentric, it was the Jews. They were the chosen people of God, the one He had made His promises to and set His covenant with. Douglas Sharp notes that sociologists and anthropologists define ethnicity as “a sizable group of people who share a common history, geography, language, religious tradition and way of life that are transmitted as learned behaviors from generation to generation”; the Jews had their own pure version of all of this.
As Bryan Chapell points out, from the Jewish point of view there were only two races of people: the Jews and everybody else. That is to say, no division of nationality or skin color, no class distinction or cultural barrier has ever been “more absolute than the cleavage between Jew and Gentile was in antiquity.” The alienation between the Jew and the Gentile was the division par excellence. Thus, in breaking the barrier between Jew and Gentile, Christ broke the strongest earthly division there was to break, and in doing so both set an example and demonstrated that such divisions have no place in the body of Christ.
In response to this, it is our duty in the modern world to work towards casting down these barriers where they might present themselves, such as in the great need for racial reconciliation. We have become one body – one humanity, one family – in Christ, and thus we must love one another as brothers; yet one cannot love somebody and restrict them, oppress them, or treat them differently. Instead we must work to build up our fellow brothers in Christ, to remove the barriers that our ancestors put in place and that a great number of us now benefit from and even in some cases perpetuate (if only through our self-sustained ignorance). As Chapell states: “Paul will no longer allow any sense of ‘you’ versus ‘us’; it’s all ‘we’ and ‘us.'” This means that our shared identity in Christ must take precedence over all else, and in turn, racial prejudice cannot be tolerated, for as we draw closer to God we necessarily draw closer to one another.
Thus, Paul’s words are of eminent relevance to us today, for in addressing the widest distinction – that between Jew and Gentile – all other distinctions are included. Yet not only are Paul’s words a motivation to work for the social justice of racial reconciliation, but it is also of practical benefit in guiding the believer. For one, passages such as this can be used in order to show that they cannot consistently live as a Christian in hostility towards their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; thus, if they are living in hate or prejudice, they can be called to accountability by the Word of God. They can be shown their sin to be what it is.
If the individual is needing guidance in understanding what to make of the divisions in the world around them, this can be used to show what God’s final will is for those divisions, namely, their destruction. Perhaps most importantly, this passage can be used to convey to the individual where their ultimate identity resides. If one is to live a fulfilled life it is imperative that one know where one’s identity resides, and as Paul shows here, that identity resides with Christ. Yet it doesn’t reside there on its own, it resides there with that of the of the person who is of a different nationality, of a different race, of a different gender. Salvation is a group affair; the individual cannot exist in isolation nor can they find their identity in isolation. This is not to say that we have no other identity, but that those identities cannot take precedence over our shared identity in Christ.
There is much work to be done in the task of racial reconciliation, yet the first step towards that end is the realization that working for said reconciliation is a necessary part of our life as believers as commanded by God. Racial reconciliation – as well as other forms – are not an option in the Christian life, they are a duty; the invisible church is unified, thus it is inconsistent for us to promulgate disunity within its visible representation. As was stated by John Stott “Men still build walls of partition and division like the terrible Berlin wall, or erect invisible curtains of iron or bamboo, or construct barriers of race, color, caste, tribe or class,” which means that “divisiveness is a constant characteristic of every community without Christ.” Note, that they are a characteristic of every community without Christ; they must not be part of a community with Christ, and we must work to make it so.
These issues of alienation from our fellow man, of divisiveness and of pride, of not being reconciled to one another, are still very present today, and the place that we must begin doing away with them is in the Christian community, for if they cannot be dispelled there then they cannot be dispelled anywhere. We must not let ourselves become like the early Jews in their ethnocentrism, but must fight for the unity of the body of Christ. There are some things that the Scriptures tell us to forget, such as when somebody hurts us, but one of the things that we are commanded to remember is that we were once alienated and have been reconciled (thus Ephesians 2:11 begins “Therefore remember”); we cannot forget what and where we were before God’s love reached us.
We have been reconciled to Him, yet if we are to draw closer to him we must necessarily draw closer to one another, for these two types of reconciliation happen together and inseparably through our faith in Christ. If reconciling alienated groups from one another was one of the things accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross, this being “brought near by the blood of Christ” of Ephesians 2:13, then we will wonderfully exalt the Lord when we strive for a greater ethnic diversity and harmony in our personal lives, in our church communities, and in society at large.