United Identity (Gospel Citizens #2)

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–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. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 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, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… (Eph 2:11-19, ESV)

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Last time we looked at our hope, identity and allegiance as citizens of heaven.
In Ephesians we find citizenship again employed as an image of unity and common identity amongst believers, based on central aspects of the Christian message.

However this time there is a significant difference. In the passage above, civic terms such as “commonwealth” and “fellow-citizens” are used to communicate a radical participation in God’s community. One that should annihilate racial barriers and distinctions of the perishing age. New Testament scholar Lynn Cohick comments that Paul is “hinting at the same truth” here as in Philippians: “citizenship within Israel is membership into God’s family.”[2]

Note that Paul speaks of the “commonwealth of Israel” rather than “the commonwealth of heaven.” The emphasis shifts from the higher identity of heavenly citizenship (that we looked at in Philippians) to the common, united identity between all people who have come into a covenant relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The recipients of this epistle were to understand the dramatic nature of the change in their relationship towards God. This in turn should alter the way they saw themselves in relation to others.

In the Christian “commonwealth” of Israel, both Jew and Gentile can now enjoy the full blessings and privileges of “full citizenship” in God’s city-state.

But the other unmissable emphasis of Ephesians must be the realisation that these two historically separate categories of people have had their dividing line radically removed through what Christ did to the place of the legal ordinances in God’s economy.[3]

The dividing wall of the “law of commandments” stood as a massive barrier between observant Jews and pagan Gentiles who hadn’t received the law – keeping the two groups divided for centuries. Whether it’s the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall or Donald Trump’s proposed wall – we’re all familiar with the kind of barrier that separates one group of people from another.

Jesus has brought down the division that kept Jews and Gentiles separated and entrenched hostility between the two groups. The law has been abolished as the way people relate to God. Now whether Jew or Gentile, everyone who wishes to belong to God and His people, must come through Jesus.

Now the future of ethnic Jews and Gentiles lies in their inseparable unification and they have been effectively predestined to inherit the fullness of God together as one people (cf. Eph 1:4-5, 9-12, 3:4-6).[4]

Thus, the citizenship motif in Ephesians needs to be appreciated in order to grasp Paul’s call to an essential unity of identity in Christ. This reaches beyond Jews and Greeks in the first century to encompass all manner of ethnic groups and traditional racial divisions.[5] It ultimately stands in the same biblical tradition as passages envisioning people from every nation united by Christ in the worship of God (e.g. Ps 22:27, 67:1-7; Rev 5:9, 15:3-4; cf. Matt 24:14, 28:19; Mk 11:17; Lk 24:47; Rom 1:5). All believers from all nations have the same eternal destiny as the household, temple and family of God.

For Christians, to live out the truth of our united identity as fellow-citizens is to reject all forms of racial discrimination towards other Christians and to refuse to “make much” of our ethnic or cultural background with a prideful attitude. We don’t get to erect our own barriers when Jesus has torn down the greatest division of all.

Regrettably, I have heard Christians in church contexts where one ethnic identity is privileged or preferred over others remark that this is “not a gospel issue.” But ethnic divisions in the body of Christ are indeed an implicit denial of the gospel. They suggest that Christ’s death to unite all believers as one people is less significant in practice than the commonalities of their shared racial identity or cultural preferences.

It is tragic when a church may subscribe firmly to evangelical doctrine but refuse to allow the gospel to touch this part of their souls.

Churches with one predominant ethnic group who maintain the attitude that others are welcome – so long as they accept they’re part of the minority and learn to do things “the way they’re done around here” – have missed an important gospel truth. In Christ, the things that divide us should be viewed as drastically less significant than the things that unite us. People from other ethnic backgrounds should not have to “conform” to a particular culture to “fit in” – because our culture should be shaped by the gospel and not our carnal, tribal preferences.

The call of Ephesians 2 is for all kinds of Christians to reach out to all kinds of Christians. We don’t just embrace people “like us,” but wholeheartedly celebrate every believer as co-citizens with us.

When we do this, we show our identity, allegiance and belonging are all tied to Jesus and we’re preparing to worship Him in an international society for all eternity. When we fail in this area we send the wrong message to the world about the glorious new people that Christ shed His blood to redeem.

 

 

Sources

[1] Helge V. Keitel “Multiethnic Diverse People in a Circle Holding Hands” (CC BY 2.0) flickr. 

[2] Lynn Cohick, Ephesians NCCS (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2010): 72.

[3]    Lincoln, 150.

[4]    “The believers today are neither Jews nor Gentiles but are Christians who pray and give praise to God as all the saints in former generations.” Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 396.

[5]    Thielman, 150;

 

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