Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 2:11b “. . .that ye being in time past Gentiles. . .”
God who raised us from the dead can enable us to live a victorious life. The correct use of memory helps us be confident. Thus, Paul calls the Ephesian Gentiles to remember their previous, lowly condition.
“Gentiles” refers to all non-Jews. It has always required as much grace to save a Jew as it does to save a Gentile. All men are equally lost. Nevertheless, we must admit, from a human perspective, the salvation of Gentiles in the New Testament era came as a much greater surprise.
We can hardly conceive the marvel which swept the Jewish world as they saw their own Scriptures being taken by their own kin to other races. We cannot imagine how close-minded Jews were against Gentiles. Jews would discuss the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and other theological matters, but the salvation of Gentiles was a closed issue, a dead letter.
When Paul spoke to the Jewish crowd near the temple, his audience was long attentive. He spoke of his Damascus Road experience; they listened. He mentioned the blinding light, the voice from heaven, his sight being restored; they listened. But then he said God had sent him to “the Gentiles. And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live” (AC 22:21-22). They screamed and tore their clothes. The rabble would have killed Paul had he not been rescued by temple soldiers. Gentiles were outsiders, and Jews wanted the status quo maintained.
Eph. 2:11c “. . .in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that
which is called the Circumcision. . .”
Gentiles carried evidence of their lowliness in their own flesh. They had a stigma; they were uncircumcised, destitute of the outward symbol of inclusion in the covenant. They lacked the mark, the sign, of being Jews.
Circumcision was enjoined by God upon Abraham as a token of the covenant. This surgery marked out the people of God and distinguished them. The extent to which this mark singled out the Jews was revealed in the days of persecution under Antiochus. Forced to compete naked in Greek gyms, Jews resorted to counterfeit foreskins to conceal their nationality.
Circumcision began as a symbol of faith, but became a badge of arrogance. Jews called themselves “The Circumcision” and gave Gentiles a nickname, a disdainful tag of contempt, “Uncircumcision.” Jews uttered it loudly when alone, muttered it quietly when near Gentiles. It succinctly said everything a Jew felt about Gentiles. Jews counted Gentiles as dogs, and fuel for the flames of Hell. The Talmud forbade a Jew “to give good advice to a Gentile.” Doctors were “forbidden to cure idolaters, even for pay; except on account of fear.” Midwives could not help Gentiles in labor, for this would only bring more pagans into the world. A Jew who married a Gentile was declared dead and given a funeral. All these feelings of contempt were summed up by Jews in one word of disdain, “Uncircumcised.”
To be fair, let me hasten to tell the rest of the story. Jewish contempt for Gentiles was equalled and often even superseded by Gentile hatred for Jews. The animosity was mutual and reciprocal. Gentiles also hated one another. The Greeks called all other peoples barbarian, and the haughty arrogance of the imperialistic Romans is legendary. We emphasize Jewish prejudice not to slander them, but because they were the nation of God, and we who are now the people of God must not duplicate their error.
We Christians have ample dirt clinging to our garments to keep us busy cleaning a long time. We are often harsh on others and use nicknames we should avoid. We sometimes pick on fellow Christians, as if it somehow increases our own piety to question the piety of others. We often make little banners to wave over our own heads, as if we are the only believers who are truly elect and chosen. This attitude is wrong. We do not have to agree with all believers, but our Master expects us to love them all.
Christians must also be careful about their attitude toward those who are not believers. God help us not to reproach and despise those who are destitute of salvation. We are to help the fallen, not step on them.
We are called to show a most difficult trait: the ability to hate the sin while enveloping the sinner in love. Anti-semitism is on the rise again. In these sensitive times, let believers cease and desist from slurs or jokes berating Jews. Our task is not to demean Jews, but to woo Jews to Jesus.
Certain segments of our culture have become violent against homosexuals. “Gay-bashing” is now a common word in our vocabulary. As reprehensible as we find homosexuality, as angry as we are about the role of gays in spreading AIDS, we must somehow find grace to love the sinner. People of reason, in legitimate forums, must come to grips with how to decrease homosexual activity and protect us from AIDS. Sticks and stones are no way to handle gays. They need to be drawn to a Savior.
Bigotry and prejudice are always out of place, especially among believers. We neither deny differences of opinion nor condone error, but every solution believers offer to the world’s ills must come from a premise of love.
Eph. 2:11d “. . .in the flesh made by hands;”
Circumcision was hand-wrought on the body. Paul is not trying to discredit the rite of circumcision. Rightfully done, it was honorable. The ritual merely needed to be kept in its proper place. Paul’s complaint was not as much against the use of circumcision as against its abuse. From the first, circumcision had been intended as only a symbol (GN 17:11). When not matched by inward faith, circumcision was meaningless, worthless, a mere work of the flesh. By misunderstanding their own Scriptures, Jews came to think the only thing which mattered was the token in the flesh.
Unbelieving Jews began to focus solely on the symbol. They possessed the sign, but not the thing signified. They had merely undergone a minor surgery, a manual procedure. Nothing had happened inside them.
The Jews made the classic error of religious people. They focused on superficial, physical, external distinctions. Having been cut by human hands on a body made for the tomb, Jews felt secure. Gentiles had never had the cut done on their physical bodies, and were thus outside the pale.
Beware, believers. Hypocrites usually value themselves primarily on their external privileges. It is a poor circumcision indeed which never touches the heart. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership, outward goodness–these are nothing if not matched by an inner response. Outward symbols are meaningless if not prompted by inner realities.
Eph. 2:12a “That at that time ye were without Christ,. . .”
Gentiles were not to be derided or hated, but this does not negate the fact they were distinguished from Jews by God. Jews and Gentiles were separate, and God Himself had made the distinction. Do not underestimate the differences. They were real and stark. The Gentiles’ lack of the symbol of the covenant was an apt portrayal of their actual spiritual condition.
Verse twelve reveals five disadvantages a Gentile faced due solely to his birth. The first disadvantage was being “without Christ.” Gentiles at large were excluded from those events which led to the coming of Messiah.
God made the Jews separate in order to maintain a pure seed from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David for the Messiah. In fact, everything God did for the Jews was with an eye to the coming Christ.
God intended for outsiders to be welcomed in Israel if they were willing to accept the distinctions and laws He gave the Jews. Ruth and Rahad did this very thing. The Jews were meant to invite others to join them and share in their separateness, but their attitude became one of exclusion. As verse eleven showed, Jews misunderstood the reason for their own separation. They were divided to be a blessing, but began to see themselves as a privileged sect. Instead of building roads to the blessing they held, Jews constructed walls. “Come and welcome” degenerated into “Stay out.” A Gentile woman once came to Rabbi Eleazar asking admission to Judaism. The rabbi replied, “No,” and shut the door in her face.
Gentiles were in essence “without Christ.” What a bleak outlook. Jews, even at their worst, had the prospect of a coming deliverer, a Messiah. This was a vital part of their heritage. Gentiles, though, were left out, “traveling a road to nowhere and. . .busy doing nothing” (Powell).
What was true of the Gentiles before Christ came is still true of all unconverted sinners; they have no saving interest in Christ. As J. Vaughan says, this is the worst of all spiritual miseries. “Without Christ,” having to stand before God as a man is in himself; no righteousness, no substitute to pay the sin debt, no pardon. “Without Christ”–standing before God in one’s own real character, no refuge, no forgiveness, no intercessor, no mediator.
“Without Christ”–no one to make the last lonely journey with you, to go into the unknown alone, no arm, no companion, no sweet voice to say, “I am with you!” I read this week of a man who considered himself open to all religions. He loved for ministers to call, but fatefully decided he was not a sinner in need of a Savior. Two weeks after stating this belief, on a sudden death-bed, his dying words were, “Who will carry me over the river?”
“Without Christ”–may none of us be guilty of causing anyone to be in this position. If I or anyone of this church has done anything to keep you from the Savior, if you sense in us any vestige of exclusiveness, I beg your forgiveness. Do not let our faults keep you from the faultless Savior.