In our passage today, Ephesians 2:11-13, we read about people going along through life expecting that they were on their way to God. Then they hit a dead end. They were not as close to God as they thought they were. In fact, they were on the wrong path. In the Bible, God gives clear instructions about how we need to approach Him. If we insist on trying to find our own way, we will surely get lost. Proverbs 14:12 tells us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” God’s way might not seem to make sense at first, but it is the only way. Now, let’s read the passage we want to consider:
Ephesians 2:11 “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.”
The first thing we note is that Paul uses the idea of circumcision to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles. The passage is not really about this little surgical procedure. He’s just using it to make that important distinction. Until Jesus died for us, God always worked only through His chosen people, the Jews. In the Old Testament days, if anyone wanted to get closer to God, he had to identify spiritually with the Jews. Non-jews, or gentiles, couldn’t just decide to become a Jew. You had to be born into the Jewish community. But a gentile could become a proselyte, that is he could follow all of the laws and traditions and be counted as a Jew even though he wasn’t born into a Jewish family.
This identifying with the Jews involved accepting Jehovah as God and living in the geographical land of Israel. Let me read you Numbers 9:14 “And if a stranger dwells among you, and would keep the LORD’S Passover, he must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony; you shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and the native of the land.” So this was the rule concerning people who wanted to identify themselves as Jews. Once they were in the land and living under God’s authority, they had all the rights and responsibilities found in the Law of Moses.
There are a few examples of this. One of the best is found in the story of a Moabitess named Ruth. She entered into the blessings of God when she chose to abandon her native land and accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah. At first Naomi didn’t think this was a very good idea. And she tried to convince Ruth to return to her people but Ruth said: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:15-18). Ruth stayed with Naomi and as the story unfolds we see her entering into blessing after blessing as God honoured her decision to identify herself with the God and people of Israel.
In 2 Chronicles 6 we find Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple. In that prayer he underscores that non-Jews seeking God’s favour could do so by honouring God and making their request at the Temple. Here’s what he said: “Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but who comes from a far country for the sake of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm, when they come and pray in this temple; 33 then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name” (2 Chronicles 6:32-33).
Once again, the idea is made clear that to approach God before the death of the Lord Jesus, you had to come through Jewish law and practice. It is important that we understand that God’s way into His kingdom is only on one basis. We have to come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Until we trust Christ, we are separate from Him, excluded from His chosen people, foreigners to the benefits of God’s promises, without hope, without God.
Now, let’s get back to the principle passage we are considering today. Here is what Paul wrote to the Christians in first-century Ephesus: “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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
There are two references to time in these verses. The first is “that time;” the second “but now.” If we’re going to understand God’s way for getting us into His kingdom, we’ll need to pay very special attention to this. If we don’t, we’ll certainly be confused. Remember that Paul was writing to people who were already believers in the Lord Jesus. When he talks about “that time” he’s referring to their lives before they came to faith. He says they were: “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”
Since they didn’t believe in Christ, they were separated from Him. You can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t believe exists or you are unwilling to acknowledge. People in many cultures use “shunning” as a form of social punishment. It’s a refusal to relate to someone in any way at all. To accomplish this we persistently avoid, ignore, and reject them. If this is what you are doing with Christ, you are separated from Him.
Then Paul says that at “that time” they were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. This simply means that these Ephesian gentiles had not been born under God’s covenant with Israel. Of all the social groups on earth, the Jews were closest to God and as I mentioned earlier, being one of them was key to having a relationship with God. Then Paul mentions they were strangers to the covenants of promise. This simply refers to the fact that God had made special promises to the Jews which did not apply to anyone else. Paul underlines the idea that those who are not born Jews or choose to live under Jewish law are unquestionably headed away from God.
Since they were separated from Christ and not part of the Jewish ethnic group, Paul describes the Ephesians as having no hope and being without God. If you have no hope, it’s because you have turned your back on God entirely. Even false gods give hope for a time. Certainly, if you are without God, you have no hope at all. And the people to whom Paul was writing fit precisely into that category. They had rejected every evidence of the true God to pursue their own ideas about how to live. However, keep in mind that as he was writing to them, Paul was describing they were in the past at “that time” before they had come to faith in the Lord Jesus.
Now we need to look at how Paul saw his Christian friends after they became believers. Here’s what he wrote to them: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” This is good news indeed for people who were so far from God. Try as they might, they just weren’t getting any closer to Him. Now, through faith, they were brought near to God through the blood of Christ without becoming Jews first and without having to measure up to some standard of behaviour.
It doesn’t get any better than this. Imagine, people God described earlier as dead in sin, eternally separated from Him, totally without hope suddenly finding out that though they couldn’t make a way for themselves to get to God, someone else had. That “someone” was the Lord Jesus Christ. But making this way to God for the Ephesians (and for us) was not easy. In fact, it cost Jesus His life. When He came to earth as a man, He lived in a human body that was subject to the same weaknesses and limitations as our own. He was sinless, not because He had a special body which allowed Him to overcome temptation, but because He had a special relationship with God which motivated Him to remain pure so that He could do the one great thing that God, the Father, had given Him to do.
That one great thing was to die for us. Mark 10:45, tells us “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” There was never any doubt about what it would cost Jesus to provide a way to bring the gentiles of Ephesus to God. There is no doubt about what it cost Jesus to make a way for you to know God.
This is the central difference between Christianity and all other religions with which I am at least a little familiar. Christianity tells us that we don’t have to clean ourselves up to be accepted by God. We don’t have to try to reach some measure of holiness or even goodness. God does have a standard, to be sure, but we can’t reach it. We know we can’t. God knows we can’t. However, the Lord Jesus Christ does measure up. He perfectly meets God’s standards because He is very God.
When we abandon our attempts at making ourselves acceptable to God and accept Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for our sin, something wonderful happens. Because we are, at that point, identified with Christ in His death and God sees us in Him, God reckons the perfection of His Son to us. We suddenly find ourselves accepted by God in His own beloved Son, not for anything we might be or do, but because of everything He is and has done. What a wonderful thing it is to be allowed into God’s family, to call Him “Father.” This is what gave the early Christians in Ephesus their hope. It is what can give you the same hope, today.