Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 06/21/1998
"For He himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall by abolishing in his flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one Body to God through the Cross, by it having put to death the enmity."
God's great goal of building in the Church a temple to the eternal glory of Jesus Christ faced some tremendous obstacles; there were incredible barriers that had to be overcome. Before you and I could become living stones in a holy temple, our sins had to be taken out of the way. Before we could become living stones we had to be raised from spiritual death to new life. God's answer to these problems, as we have seen, was the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Taking on our nature so he could stand as our representative, our substitute, and our head, he died for sin in our place and was also raised to new life for us (2:4-7). But there yet remained another obstacle. Before these living stones could be brought together in one unified structure, there was one more hurdle to get past. If the building is to hold together, the stones must be reunited not only with God but also with each other. If you think this is not a major difficulty, you betray an incredible naivete about both history and present experience. So great an obstacle is this, and so elegant and perfect was God's plan for our salvation, that the answer to this problem also is found in nothing less than the death of Christ.
So rich is this passage that I want to take you through it phrase by phrase.
It is true that at the end of v. 15 Christ "establishes" peace. But the more basic truth is that he "is" our peace. Peace is not something extraneous which Christ did or provided which operates apart from himself. It is not something he said that if we would just apply it we would have peace with one another or with God. It is Jesus Christ himself whose very person is the basis for peace between man and man as well as between man and God. He is the only leader large enough to be the focal point, the center of unity, for men and women of every diverse tongue, tribe, and nation. Only his love living in and through us can enable us to overcome the natural enmity between one person and another. He IS our peace. Where he is truly present there is peace; where he is absent, we may cry "Peace, Peace!" but there is no peace.
What groups? In the immediate context, Jew and Gentile. This was in fact the major social and cultural barrier that the 1st Century Church had to overcome. But it is also a test case. Paul picks as it were the hardest case. For most of us in the present, it is hard for us to see why this was such a big deal. But in the 1st Century situation, it was plain to see that if God could overcome this barrier, if he could unify Jew and Gentile in one body, he could unify anybody. Why were these groups such a problem? The answer is given in the next phrase.
This phrase refers to a literal wall that had been constructed in the Temple complex in Jerusalem, dividing the "Court of the Gentiles" (into which Gentile tourists were allowed to come in order to see Herod's Temple, which was one of the wonders of the world), from the Temple proper. On this wall there was a sign warning Gentiles to proceed no further: "Whosoever passes will have only himself to blame for his ensuing death." Well, that's pretty harsh! But it well represents the typical Jewish attitude toward Gentiles at the time. Paul uses it as a symbol for the enmity between the races, which ultimately stemmed from the Law, particularly the Ceremonial Law with its dietary restrictions, circumcision, etc. These provisions, originally intended to preserve the separate identity of the Jews as God's holy people, had become a matter of racial pride for them, and they looked down with great derision and contempt on the poor benighted heathens who did not follow them. A serious Jew would feel defiled if he even ate at the same table with a Gentile. Well, when people treat you with contempt, you tend to return the favor. Hence the enmity between Jew and Gentile that was such a problem in the early Church, with the Judaizers wanting all the Gentile converts to be circumcised before they could have fellowship with them. When your central act of worship is a symbolic communal meal and half of the congregation won't eat with the other half, you've got a serious problem on your hands!
Through the Ceremonial Law, God had built as it were a fence around Israel to keep her pure until Messiah could come. If she had been just one more nation, how could she prepare for his coming? Hence E. K. Simpson in a wonderful phrase calls the Old Testament "a dispensation of distance." Don't touch Mt. Sinai while God is giving the Law; don't touch the Ark of the Covenant--you'll die! Only the High Priest can come into the direct presence of God in the Holy of Holies, and he only once a year, bearing blood. But now the purpose of all this distance has been served. Messiah has been sacrificed, and through his blood the way into the sanctuary has now been opened for all, who only need faith to walk in. To symbolize this radical change, the veil of the Temple, which had separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, was split in two when Christ died. Now, based on the blood of Christ, the way is open and God is near. The Temple is over; the Sacrificial System is over; they have served their purpose and are now superceded, for the Holy of Holies is opened by the blood of Christ.
Paul's point here is that just as the Veil was split, so also the Middle Wall of Partition is rendered obsolete. The Ceremonial Law has also served its purpose and is done away. Circumcision and Kosher may remain as part of Judaism's cultural identity, but they are no longer to be a barrier to fellowship with others who have faith in Christ. Those old divisions have been superceded by the new situation that has come with the death of Christ.
One of the most bitter rivalries on record is that between the Lakeshore Lancers and the Headland Highlanders in high school athletics. It came to a head in the 1968 region 2AA championship football game. Lakeshore had won the South Subregion, Headland the North. The winner of this game would advance to the state playoffs. And Headland bought the officials. I am not lying; this is a totally unbiased eyewitness account. Lakeshore was trailing 10-9 in the last seconds of the game. We had the ball at midfield for one last drive to win the game. On three successive plays, fullback Eugene Bell, the human cannonball, was called for a false start. Careful viewing of the film after the game clearly showed the official's flag hitting the ground BEFORE Eugene moved. Time was running out. Tim Duke, the tight end, finally caught a desperation pass, cradled it securely into his arms, took THREE STEPS, and then went out of bounds on the Headland 20 yard line, setting up a last second field goal attempt by Frank Wilkins that would almost certainly have won the game. But no: the official ruled that Duke had caught the pass out of bounds! The bad call was so blatant that a riot almost broke out; the officials left the field under heavy police escort. And from then on, a Headland Highlander was the most hated and reviled of all human beings--utterly beneath contempt. Seeing a Highlander jersey ahead of you in the mile run in track the next spring was even better motivation than having your girlfriend in the stands. The Lancers had no dealings with the Highlanders; a Jew would sooner have been friends with a Samaritan, would have felt less defiled by eating with a Gentile.
But in the mid 80's, this Lancer embraced Headland Highlander Bill Ivey with open arms, was a guest in his home, went to Braves games with him, and even nominated him to be an elder and treasurer of the church he was pastoring. Why? Because that earlier rivalry had been swallowed up in something bigger. High School was over. We no longer found our identity as Lancers or Highlanders, but had become Georgia Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellowjackets. Oh, wait--they are supposed to be enemies too! But we had found something even bigger than that to unify us: a common Lord, Jesus Christ. That is also what the death of Christ did: it abolished the old divisions, rendered them no longer operative, replaced the old alliances with something bigger. The point is, if you accept the death of Christ as payment for your sins, you are logically obligated to accept it as abolishing these old petty enmities too! And that is a part of the Gospel we do not so easily hear.
There are two words translated "new" in the Greek NT: NEOS means new in time; KAINOS means new in quality, a new kind of thing. It is the second word that is used here. Chrysostom explained it thus: from two statues, one of lead and one of iron, God has melted them down and transformed them into one new one made of gold. Such is the wonder, the importance of what God is creating in the Church, that when you come into it any old, conflicting ties and loyalties are dead. They can have no more influence. Headland and Lakeshore High Schools do not even exist any more. As the Atlanta area has grown, they have both been reassigned as middle schools. Those old loyalties and enmities are meaningless. That's what the death of Christ has done to the Middle Wall of Partition. It was rendered obsolete when the Veil was split. So it is time to let it go. We aren't Lancers and Highlanders any more; we are all Bulldogs now, and if an old Highlander can help us beat the Florida Gaiters, so be it.
What does this new situation created by the death of Christ mean for our life together in the Church? It surely highlights two realities:
It is important because of the price paid for it. It took the death of Christ to break down the Wall as much as it did to tear the Veil. It took the death of Christ to bring unity as much as it did to bring forgiveness. It is simply intolerable to any who love him that he should have died in vain.
It is also important because of its purpose. Unless the structure of this Temple holds together, there will be no summing up of all things in Christ (1:10). So long as the unity of the Church is fractured, only some things can be summed up in him. Unless the structure of this Temple holds together, there can be no demonstration of the love and grace of God to men and angels. That is, unless the natural strife between Jew and Gentile--man and woman--black and white--rich and poor--even Lancer and Highlander--is overcome in Christ, in the practical experience of believers in the Church, the plan of God is frustrated and to that extent the death of Christ was in vain. That is what is at stake in Mat. 18:15-17, where we are commanded to speak to our brother in private when there is anything between us, and if reconciliation does not follow, to eventually involve the Church. That is why in such passages refusal to be reconciled is considered grounds for excommunication. It hinders and delays the fruition of that for which Christ died. This is a serious matter indeed.
This reconciliation happens through the Cross. There is only one strait and narrow path into the Kingdom of God, and it leads past the Cross of Christ. Every true Christian is a person who has kneeled before that same Cross, confessing himself a miserable and helpless sinner, and had the burden of his sins lifted from him by Christ. How then can any true Christian ever again feel superior to his brother for any reason? We all came in through the same gate, one which strips away from us all pretensions to pride. And therefore, we can never again finally refuse to forgive a repentant brother without denying the Lord who bought us! Tragically, such denials are a major theme in Church History, and one of the primary messages we give the world today. So unity is not optional. How practically do we express it in an age in which denominational distinctives cannot simply be abolished by the snap of a finger? We will come back to this in a future message
If our Lord died to remove the Middle Wall of Partition between Jew and Gentile, then we dare not erect new ones in his Church between ourselves and anyone he died to save. Therefore if there is any one here that you need to forgive, then leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled--now--before Communion. For He himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall by abolishing in his flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one Body to God through the Cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams