We assume we understand “chapter two” of Ephesians, and therefore generally get the entire Old Testament wrong. We also misunderstand the evangelism in Acts. Our misunderstandings might have happened without Ephesians 2, but the confusion is mutually reinforcing. This confusion (either cause or effect or both) also extends to a practical pastoral concern, the number of Christians who doubt their salvation because they lack a conversion story.
In this post I will start to make my case by addressing a common confusion regarding Ephesians 2:11ff and what we commonly call the “Old Testament.”
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.. (vv. 11-12 ESV).
It is wrong to infer from this that, before Christ died and rose, the Gentiles were doomed. Readers will understand Ephesians better (or be less prone to misunderstand it) if they have come to grips with a basic fact in the Bible: There were plenty of believing Gentiles who were as right with God as Abra[ha]m was, even though they never became Jews.
Paul’s whole argument in Roman 4 depends on this premise. He contends that Abram was justified by God as an uncircumcised Gentile.
He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11–12 ESV).
Abraham was no unique instance. He tithed to, and was blessed by, Melchizedek, a Gentile priest as well as a Canaanite king. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was also a Gentile priest to God. Later in Biblical history we encounter Hiram, king of Tyre, who supported David and helped Solomon build the Temple. There was also Job, who was not an Israelite but whom God declared the most righteous man on earth. (Job’s praise was not from man but from God [Romans 2:29b]).
There is no reason to insist these people were anomalies. Did King Hiram alone have faith in the God of Israel while everyone else worshiped other gods, his wife, his counselors, his people? Did Melchizedek only serve Abram as a priest and no one else in his own kingdom?
I have heard a Christian teacher say that Nebuchadnezzar was not converted by Daniel’s witness because he never got circumcised, as if the only way to be justified by God before Christ was to become a Jew. But was Naaman the Syrian also unconverted when he declared that he would never “offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but YHWH”? (2 Kings 5:7b) No, he was as “born again,” in the Evangelical sense,as anyone! Remember Jesus’ words in his hometown synagogue that so enraged his countrymen:
“But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath (Luke 4:25–28 ESV).
Not only is Naaman named by Jesus, but also a Gentile woman who received mercy from God.
What about the sailors who worshiped YHWH after he stilled the storm after they threw Jonah into the sea? Should we be pessimistic about them and say they were just being superstitious pagans who didn’t really have faith? The book of Jonah goes on to show all Nineveh repenting at the word of God preached by Jonah. It ends not only with their salvation from judgment, but with God rebuking Jonah by assuring him that He loved the people of Nineveh. Did God only care about the earthly lives of the Ninevites and not their eternal destination? When we assume the sailors weren’t “really” converted, I doubt we are reading the book of Jonah as it is meant to be read. Do we know what manner of spirit we are of?
Also, consider the Gentiles in the Gospels who Jesus encountered, who believed in him, and who were commended by Him. The account of the centurion in Capernaum is instructive because Jesus declares him an exemplary believer and the centurion knew there was a barrier between himself and Jesus as Israel’s king. “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:7). Likewise, the Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter demonstrated her faith by accepting Jesus’ analogy of herself as a dog and Israel as children of the father (Matthew 15:21-28). But Jesus commended her faith as well. A barrier exists between Jew and Gentile, but it is not equivalent to the division between believer and unbeliever, those who will inherit everlasting glory and those who will inherit everlasting shame.
We have far more in the Bible than mere instances of believing Gentiles. We have the law of Moses insisting that Gentiles have the same access to the altar service at the Tabernacle as any other (non-Levitical) Israelite. After giving instructions on making an offering at the Tabernacle altar, God tells Moses:
Thus it shall be done for each bull or ram, or for each lamb or young goat. As many as you offer, so shall you do with each one, as many as there are. Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you (Numbers 15:11–16 ESV).
This is mentioned again a little later:
And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD for their mistake. And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake (Numbers 15:25–26 ESV)
Thus, in almost all instances, Gentiles got altar access and the benefits or sacrifice if they were residing in Israel. This is confirmed if we look Paul’s synagogue preaching in Acts and compare it with the Psalms and Solomon’s prayer of dedication at the Temple.
In Antioch, when Paul addressed the people in the synagogue worshiping God, he addressed the congregation as two different groups: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen” (13:16). And again, “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation” (13:26). He addressed both believing Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. They are not pagans. And when they realize that salvation has come to them as well as the Jews, they are very receptive but some Jews are offended by this and oppose the Gospel in unbelief. Acts 13:44-50 spells out how the Jews, once they see crowds of Gentiles responding, get jealous, reject the Gospel, and persecute the Apostle Paul. But note, nothing in Paul’s message involves asking those Gentiles to give up idols and turn to the true God. Paul preaches such a message when he finds a pagan audience (Acts 14:8-18; 17:16-34), but the Gentiles Paul addressed in Antioch in Pisidia were not pagans.
Paul’s language addressing the synagogue congregation is similar the what we find in Psalms 115 and 135, as well as Psalms 118:3-4:
O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. The LORD has remembered us; he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron; he will bless those who fear the LORD, both the small and the great (Psalm 115:9–13 ESV).
So the Psalm writer addresses the priests, all Israel, and these people who fear Yahweh. These were the Gentiles present at worship, the God-fearers. Thus, at the dedication of the new Temple, King Solomon prayed, after asking God to hear the pleas of every Israelite:
Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for the sake of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, when he comes and prays toward this house, hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (2 Chronicles 6:32–33 ESV).
It should be no surprise that there were gentile converts to pre-Christian Jewish “evangelism.” These proselytes attended synagogue with Jews and prayed to the living God, the only true God, the God of Israel.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Romans 3:28–30 ESV).
So is the Apostle Paul’s extreme language does NOT entail that all Gentiles were damned, why does he use it?
…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… (Ephesians 2:12 ESV).
No matter how clear you think the words indicate otherwise, that simply is not their meaning. Gentile believers are too numerous and to frequent to allow for that.
Apparently, Paul is writing according to the rule he articulated to the Corinthians:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it (2 Corinthians 3:9–10 ESV).
A relative difference in blessing and grace is being described in terms that might make it seem like their was an absolute difference.
And, in a sense, the fact that the Gentiles were separated from Israel’s king, alienated from Israel, and strangers to the covenants God made with Abraham, Moses, and David is trivial and perhaps literally true. The Gentiles could own no land in Israel. They were arguably called “strangers” (allowing for translation from Hebrew). They did not serve Israel’s king except when a few were defeated by him and subjected to him.
Ceremonially, this separation was embodied in a prohibition from Passover. Though god-fearers had access, if present in the land of Israel, to the rest of the sacrificial system and the other feasts, only the circumcised with their families could participate in the Passover (Exodus 12:48-49; Numbers 9:14).
This ceremonial and geographical separation, while not a literal damning verdict over all Gentiles as Gentiles, did symbolize excommunication from God’s presence. The land of Israel with the Temple sanctuary was a re-creation of the land of Eden with the Garden sanctuary. So living out in the world, outside God’s special land, signified sin and misery, the natural condition of the human race after the Fall. Adam and Eve had been cast out of the Garden and Eden. They were back in a new form with Israel and the Tabernacle and then Temple, but they also signified the fact that the Gentiles were outside.
But what is signified isn’t literally true of all who are covered by the sign. Just as there were many Israelites through the generations who were pagans worshiping at the high places, sacrificing their own children, and engaging in homosexuality, there were Gentiles who worshiped and served the true God.
Furthermore, it was not clearly stated what God planned to do with the distinction of Jew and Gentile. The Apostle Paul spells this out in the next section of Ephesians:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:1–6 ESV).
So the Gentiles did not know how the salvation to come would effect their situation and status. As dire as “having no hope and without God in the world” sounds, it does not necessitate that all Gentiles were doomed before Christ came. They were without God’s special presence in His sanctuary and they had no definite hope. Now they are being built, with Jewish believers, into God’s new sanctuary (Ephesians 2:19-22) and their hope is openly revealed to them (Ephesians 3:4-6).
It might help readers to remember that this union between Jew and Gentile in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, hearkens back to what Paul writes earlier about Christ’s enthronement.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to his graciously-given riches, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7–10).
The “mystery” is explained more fully in Ephesians 3 as the Gospel mystery, (or “mystery of the Gospel”) where Paul also mentions his “administration” (NASB 1995) which also is a reference to chapter one:
…with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth… (1:10).
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenlies (3:8-10; NASB 1995).
The division of the world into nations was, rather than a natural migratory process, a judgment on God at the tower of Babel. The goal of that project was to “build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). So when Jesus was raised to the heavens (1:3, 20), and gained a name above every name (1:21), that shows his death had canceled the judgment of the Babel, and abolished the Law of Moses that encoded that separation (2:14-15). Abolishing the expanse separating heaven and earth (Genesis 1:6-8) entails the abolition of the divisions in humanity.
Christ is the true tower of Babel. In his ascension, both are being
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:20-22 ESV).
The Gentiles were not all damned before Jesus died and rose and ascended into the heavens. Paul teaches about the salvific benefits that believing Gentiles receive whether they already believed or believed after the events.
Obviously, Gentiles who don’t believe the Gospel do not get these salvific benefits. They are “sons of disobedience” (2:2; 5:6). But, just as obviously, their unbelief does not change the fact that Jesus has accomplished in his ascension a new administration of the cosmos and humanity. Ephesians 2:11-22 is about what Jesus did objectively to the relationship between Jew and Gentile, it is not the story of the conversion of the Gentiles.
Which means we might consider the implications in the parallel narrative to that passage, Ephesians 2:1-10.
Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and writes at www.SolomonSays.net. He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.
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