For twelve seasons, Cheers (1982–1993) was a hit television show on NBC. Besides its beloved collection of misfits, the show is remembered for its opening song that boast Cheers as the place “where everybody knows your name.” The song suggested that Cheers was a welcoming place, one where people of different stripes were on common ground. It was a place where its customers truly felt they belonged. Is a fictitious bar in Boston the only place where societal categories fade into the shadows of genuine unity?
This essay addresses Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. In this letter we see just how it is that God is able to make people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, levels of education, and socio-economic standing into one united people of God, particularly in the context of a local church.
People Once Separated from God (Eph 2:1–10)
Paul begins chapter two describing what kind of people we used to be, when we were apart from God. The list serves to show just how desperate our situation really was and still is for all who are outside of Christ. We were: (1) “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1); (2) we “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air [the devil himself]” (2:2); and (3) we lived to “[gratify] the cravings of our flesh and [follow] its desires and thoughts” (2:3a). Because of this “we were by nature deserving of [God’s] wrath” (2:3b). We were not “good” people.
But—that is a wonderful little word, isn’t it? The Bible utilizes this little contrastive often to reveal something great and glorious that God has done, as it is used here: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgression—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (2:4–6, emphasis added). We were once separated and alienated from Christ. However, through an act of sheer grace God made us alive with Christ even while we were still dead in our sin and trespasses. Please notice that we bring nothing to the table that God would desire. There is nothing about us or nothing we could ever do that would make us worthy of God’s love and acceptance. It is an act of astounding grace that he desires to love sinners such as you and me.
But what exactly is this act of grace God has done to save us? We need to go back to chapter one to see. In 1:7–8a, Paul declares, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” Notice the connection between the two chapters: (1) God’s grace is described as “riches” (ch. 1) and God is also “rich” in mercy (ch. 2); and (2) God lavished his “grace” on us (ch. 1) and God saves us by his “grace” (ch. 2). Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection secured our salvation. It is this act of grace and this act alone that was necessary for sinners to be saved.
Paul continues to explain how we appropriated God’s grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (2:8–9, emphasis added). We trust—that’s what faith means—in what God has done alone in Christ to save us. And even this act of faith in God is “the gift of God.” It is something that at the end of the day we can in no way sit back and say, “I did this.” No, it is something God has brought about in each of us “so that no one can boast” except to boast in what God alone has done to redeem sinners such as you and I.
One People in Christ (Eph 2:11–22)
So, we were once outside of Christ, but now because of God’s great love for us, he has brought us near to him in Christ (2:11–13). The reason we were outside is that we are Gentiles, non-ethnic Jews, those who were not part of God’s covenant people. But—there’s that word again—“now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).
Paul goes on to explain precisely how Christ’s blood has brought near Gentile Christians. Jesus’ death “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between Jewish and Gentile persons (2:14). This is because, as the Bible makes clear, God shows no partiality, but saves all people the same way, “through the grace of [the] Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11). So there isn’t a separate means to salvation for one or the other, but one way, through Christ’s own death (Eph 2:16).
So Christ has secured for God one people through his death. Not only has the hostility between Jews and Gentiles been annihilated in Christ, but also the hostility between sinful humanity and God, “in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (2:16).
Paul continues that Jesus preached a message of peace to both Jews and Gentiles (2:17). This peace appears to be the peace between sinful humanity and God, rather than between Jewish and Gentile Christians. This peace is not simply the absence of hostility, but also includes communion between former combatants: “For through him [Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (2:18). In this one verse Paul highlights the oneness Jewish and Gentile Christians now share as those whom the same Spirit fills, and the new relationship both possess with the Father through the Son.
Paul concludes the chapter remarking upon the necessity of the whole church, both Jew and Gentile, being built into a building. This building has for its “chief cornerstone” the Lord Jesus Christ (2:20). In the ancient world, the cornerstone was the stone that controlled the shape and structure of an entire building. In using this metaphor, Paul marks out the central place of Christ in the Christian faith. He is the one who shapes everything we do and say. Remove him, and the whole thing becomes twisted, distorted, and unstable, and will inevitably collapse. He is the chief cornerstone upon whom we are dependent and through whose death we are made one people of God.
One People According to God’s Plan (Eph 3:1–13)
After covering how Gentiles became a part of the people of God and how there is no longer Jew and Gentile but one people of God that Christ has redeemed with his own blood, Paul now argues that this is the way it is supposed to be, because it is the way God always planned it to be. First, Paul mentions that this plan to make one people of God was once hidden, but now has been made known through the gospel (3:4–6). Second, he describes how he, Paul, was set aside to declare the gospel specifically to the Gentiles (3:7–9). Finally, Paul states that the hiddenness of God’s plan did not mean he lacked a plan. On the contrary, it has always been his plan to make one people for himself out of Jews and Gentiles. In fact, this reality is “according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11). So while things unfolded slowly, over thousands of years, the movement from old covenant to the new covenant, and the intentional availability of the gospel to all who repent and believe has always been in the mind of God for all of eternity.
People Transformed by Christ (Eph 4:17–5:10)
Now that we as Gentiles have been brought near, we must no longer live as Gentiles, those who are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (4:18). Rather, Paul commends the Ephesian Christians to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24). This putting on the new self is a process of becoming more and more like Christ. That means not doing certain things and instead doing other things. While it’s popular to say Christianity isn’t a list of dos and don’ts, the Bible contains lists of dos and don’ts for Christians. And this is what we have in 4:25–5:7. Three things are important to note about this list of moral imperatives that Christians are to live by.
First, we cannot even begin to live the kind of life God calls us to live apart from God making us alive (regeneration). Remember, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (2:1, 5) and our old sinful selves were being corrupted and were decaying (4:22). This kind of person is unable to do what God commands; how could they? They’re dead. However, we have been made alive in Christ (2:5) and are new creations (4:24) now able to do the will of God.
Second, the ability to become more and more like Christ is only possible because of the indwelling Holy Spirit whom believers receive upon new life in Christ. Paul encourages believers, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30). The Holy Spirit in this instance is referred to as a “seal,” but elsewhere he is the one who produces fruit, evidence of new life in Christ (cf. Gal 5:22–26). The more we “walk in the Spirit” (5:16)—to borrow another Pauline phrase—the less likely we are to grieve the Spirit and the more likely we are to honor Christ our Savior.
Third, the impetus or motivation for living this new life in Christ is to remember what God has done for us in Christ. For instance, in Ephesians 4:32 Paul writes, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” So when another person has wronged us, we are to consider God, whom we wronged and do wrong time and time again, but who didn’t strike us for our sin, but rather inflicted his own Son with the punishment that was due us, so that we might be forgiven. We forgive others, because we have been forgiven much.
Theological Reflection & Application
- One thing these chapters bring to light is the realization that there is continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenant. For instance, there is continuity between the two covenants with regard to the need for holiness from God’s people. This truth carries across the entire Bible. On the other hand, there is discontinuity between the two with regard to who are the people of God. In the old covenant the Jewish people were God’s people, while in the new covenant all people who repent and believe the gospel—Jewish and Gentile included—are God’s people.
- The ground or basis for our salvation is always the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The appropriation of our salvation is always faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- Christ’s death not only paves the way for people to enter into fellowship with him by faith, but it also paves the way for different kinds of people—whether that be ethnic, economic, educational, or whatever—to enter into fellowship with one another. Hostility has ceased between God and humanity, and those who are Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.
- While genuine believers may disagree with one another, such disagreements should be civil and should not divide genuine brothers and sisters. We did not earn our salvation. Christ bought us with his own blood. Neither can we remove a true Christian from salvation. The Holy Spirit keeps them. So division from other genuine believers can never be. We are all in Christ. Thus, every effort should be made to remain at peace and united in the faith. This, however, does not exclude the need for such things as church discipline or boundaries for fellowship between professing Christians.
- While the Holy Spirit is the person that enables growth in holiness, the motivation for growth in holiness is meditating upon the gospel. Both are necessary.