Brought Near by Christ's Blood (Ephesians 2)
My favorite Dr. Seuss book is "The Butter Battle Book." The villages of the Yooks and the Zooks are separated by a wall. The reason for the wall? Which side their bread is buttered. You see, the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down. Both sides try to destroy each other becase they disdain the others' way of life. They develop bigger, more powerful weapons. But the struggle never ends. At the end of the book, the Yook general and the Zook general are both standing on the wall with their ultimate, hand-held nuclear bombs, waiting for the other to twitch. The hostility between the two groups was so tense that NOTHING short of divine intervention would make it stop.
Such was the hostility that separated Jew and Gentile. Hostility filled with so much malice, arrogance and hatred that it seemed to be as solid as the wall between the Yooks and the Zooks. Throughout most of antiquity, there were two types of people: Jews and Gentiles. The distinction is ancient. The distinction is physical. The distinction was ordained by God. God separated the Gentiles "in the flesh" (v11). The distinction was made with God's covenant with Abraham. The seal of the covenant was circumcision.
"Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. ... So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (Genesis 17:10-14). All circumcised males were part of the covenant people of God. Anyone not circumcised was not part of the covenant. What was God's covenant with Abraham? "I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you" (Genesis 17:5-6). And so it was. Through Abraham's children, we have the Israelites, the Arabs, the Midianites, the Sabeans, the Edomites, the Amalekites, the Horites and many others. Many of those are nations which God tells the Israelites to wipe off the ace of the earth when they enter the Promised Land. Why? They dropped (or never had) circumcision because the covenant was promised through Isaac.
All the tribes of Abraham's seed that were not Israel, not Jacob's descendants, were outside God's covenant of grace. They refused the sign of circumcision and therefore were cut off from God's grace. They were "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (v12). They were so far separated from God and His grace they had no hope of any salvation. That brought about the rise of all the natural religions and mythologies. Those outside of the true God's covenants still had the hole in their soul inherited from Adam. They tried to fill that hole in any way possible. Certainly, the Gentile Christians in Ephesus had plenty of gods before coming to faith. In fact, Ephesus was the main center of worship of the Greek goddess Artemis. They sought a repair to their hole by going anywhere and everywhere. But there was no hope.
No hope except through the people of Israel. No hope except through the evangelistic measures of those they hated. How hard is that to swallow? The only way to repair the hole comes through trusting your natural-born enemies. Even though the Israelites were called to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) and "be a light to the Gentiles" (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32), they seldom brought outsiders into God's covenant of promises. Even when they did, there was a large sign on the wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Women in the Temple warning Gentiles to go no further on pangs of death. Even those Gentiles who were attached to the covenantal promises through proselytism were still "far off".
Jesus, through His Blood, brings these who are "far off" "near". He brings Jews and Gentiles together, but that's not His primary work. Jesus' primary work is to bring men "near" to God. That's the covenantal God at work. Bringing people "near" instead of leaving them "far off". These phrases were used in the rabbinical writings to separate the righteous and "near" God from the godless and "far off". Jesus brings all people "near" through His Blood. When He died on the Cross, He broke down "the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances" (vv14-15). By shedding His Blood, He brought everyone "near" by bringing even those who were "near" nearer.
When Jesus breathed His last, the curtain in the Temple was torn in half. Matthew, Mark and Luke all bring out this point in their Passion narratives. This curtain divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This was the curtain that could only be passed through by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. This curtain was the ultimate dividing wall. It divided the holy God from sinful people. With Jesus' death, that dividing wall is gone. The hostility of God's wrath has been killed. Through His death, Jesus killed all hostility. By Jesus' death, the dividing wall between God and man was destroyed. With this destroyed, Jesus breaks down the wall between the Jews and the Gentiles. Divine intervention has come to tear down the wall dividing the Yooks and the Zooks. But how do we live as Yooks and Zooks without the wall? How do we live without the arms race? How do we live as neighbors and family? That's what Jesus has made us. "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (v19). We no longer trust that "those people" won't cross the wall. The wall isn't there to be crossed. "Those people" now live right next to us. We see them in the store. We pass them on the street. They sit around us in church. How do we live with "those people"?
First and foremost, we have to stop categorizing people as "us" and "those people". We have to understand that we ARE "those people". We are the ones who, by birth, were "far off" and have been "brought near by Christ's blood" (v13). Everyone has been brought near through Christ's blood so that "A multitude comes from the east and the west to sit at the feast of salvation with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the blest, obeying the Lord's invitation" (LSB #510.1). The "feast of salvation" comes to all those who have been brought "near" no matter who they are or where they're from.
Second, we must understand that this question is nothing new. The Jewish Apostles had qualms with this. Peter himself was awestruck when the Holy Spirit descended upon Cornelius and his Gentile family EVEN BEFORE they were baptized. "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him" (Acts 10:34-35). When Jesus was giving His final instructions to the Apostles, He didn't say, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the Jews in all nations." He said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). No ethnicities were exempted. It was everyone. Jesus is the Savior of Jew and Gentile--Yook and Zook alike. The Apostles struggled with the question, but the Holy Spirit--the same spirit that inhabits you--"will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26), including the commandments and the ordinances from the Old Testament to evangelize all nations.
Finally, we must see that we, as the body of Christ, are an organic Temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). The foundation of the Temple is Jesus Christ as He is brought to us through holy Scipture--the words of the Apostles and Prophets (v20). Everything written in here revolves around Jesus' death on the Cross for your sins to bring you who were "far off" "near" to Him for all eternity. Everything written here has been written so that we might learn (1 Corinthians 10:11). And by learning these things, we continue to grow in faith. That's why we come to church on Sunday morning. That's why we open this book and study it as God's family. That's why we receive Christ's Body and Blood. So we can grow as His organic Temple throughout the world. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (v13). No matter what side of the bread you butter, No matter what color your skin, No matter what background you come from, you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. A citizen of the kingdom of Heaven. A member of God's household. As His family, God tenderly invites you to come and sit at His table and receive from His hand the gifts He has for you. Amen.