Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 2:12b “. . .being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,. . .”
Being “without Christ” (2:12a) was a Gentile’s first disadvantage by birth. Gentiles lived with no anticipation of a coming deliverer. They were fatalistic, holding no prospect of better days to come. To them history was cyclical, repeating itself–no climax to come, no glory ahead, just the “same old same old” over and over again. Gentiles were “without Christ.”
The Gentiles’ second disadvantage by birth was “being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.” The Jews were a “commonwealth,” a community of citizens knit together under one polity. The government of Israel was a marvelous wonder, and unique among all others in the history of the world.
The Greeks had practiced democracy, rule by the people directly. Rome was at one time a republic, rule by the people through representatives. Communism tried to be an oligarchy, rule by a small group of people. Many live under a monarchy, rule by one person. Of all peoples, only the Jews ever lived under a genuine theocracy, rule by the one, true, living God.
Whatever mode of government the Israelites were under, they always ideally viewed themselves as being ruled solely by God Himself. Gideon, when offered the throne, replied, “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: YHWH shall rule over you” (JG 8:23). Even after Israel established a monarchy, they viewed their earthly king as merely a deputy, a representative of Israel’s true Sovereign.
Israel’s only king was God (PS 145:1). Thus, to belong to Israel meant to possess citizenship in a commonwealth lofty and sublime. Simply to be a Jew gave one dignity. One truth cannot be denied; the Hebrews truly were unique among the peoples of the earth. Gentiles had nothing to compare to this heritage. They were “aliens,” people of a different country, citizens under inferior types of government.
Today the Church is the commonwealth of God. All outside it are “aliens,” citizens of a different country. The lost do not understand the laws and language of Zion. They hear the preacher, but he seems out of touch. They listen to our music, but the songs seem dull and boring. They read the Bible, but are unmoved by it. The lost are not “at home” with the people of God, but our call is for them to come receive a home among us.
Do not stay outside the borders of the commonwealth. Come home. The cross is a Statue of Liberty, beckoning the alien to come. The statue in New York harbor invites, “Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The cross sends forth an invitation, also:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
And what is Jesus saying? What is His call?
Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home! (Will Thompson)
Our churches need to be Ellis Islands, places where “aliens” feel they can be gladly received and warmly welcomed into the commonwealth of faith.
Eph. 2:12c “. . .and strangers from the covenants of promise,. . .”
“Covenants” is plural; God made various covenants with Abraham and the patriarchs. “Promise” is singular; all the covenants found their focus and fulfillment in the one great promise of Messiah’s coming. These “covenants of promise” were the foundation on which the Jewish faith rested.
Here we have the Gentiles’ third disadvantage by birth. By and large they had never heard of the covenants and knew nothing about them. Their plight was accurately described by the word “strangers,” a term filled with pathos. The term branded a person as one who did not belong to a group. “Strangers” are excluded from the benefits of membership.
The motto of one of our credit card companies is true, “Membership has its privileges.” It is no small advantage to belong to the Church of Christ, to share with its other members the blessings unique to it. The Church of the Nazarene is a people in whom God is peculiarly interested. The Christian Church enjoys favors based on “the covenants of promise”; outsiders do not share in these blessings.
Membership entails advantages; exclusion involves disadvantage. It is terrible to be a stranger, outside the select group, out in the great mass somewhere, beyond the circle of interest and concern. I remember how painful it was as a child to go watch the older boys play football at the local playground. We younger tykes would stand on the sidelines, hoping with all our might we might get asked to join in the game. We were rarely allowed to play. The older guys disdained us. “You do not belong” feels terrible, and the worst kind of exclusion is to be outside the Church.
The decision not to belong to the fellowship of believers must ultimately be made by the individual himself, not by the Church. It is true the Church is an exclusive organization; not just anybody can be a member. A person has to make a public profession of faith and be baptized in order to belong, but we must be careful to make sure people understand this and this alone is the criteria for membership. No other distinctions, such as race, nationality, color, or social standing, matter.
To make sure unbelievers always receive a loud and clear message of “Come and welcome,” the Church must ever go to the lost, inviting them to Christ. We must convince the lost we love them. If they say no to church membership, let it be solely their choice, not due to anything we do or say.
A local church can surround itself with inclusive organizations, groups which can serve as avenues to the fellowship, activities which prove to all they are welcome. Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, worship services open to all, ball teams–these things allow people to participate without having to be Christians. Have contact with Hindus, Moslems, atheists, Hottentots–whatever the label, touch their lives, let them see Jesus.
Bring the lost to the door of the Church, and put their hand on the doorknob. Let the decision of whether or not to turn the knob and open the door be left to them. Let people be “without Christ,” “aliens,” and “strangers” only because they choose that option themselves.
Eph. 2:12d “. . .having no hope,. . .”
The Gentiles’ fourth disadvantage by birth sprang from the first three–no Christ, no commonwealth, no covenants, therefore “no hope.” They had aspirations, conjectures, and desires, but no expectations based on definite and reliable grounds. Hope, this precious gift which gives believers such peace of mind, was absent. The first century was the age of suicide. Life had little meaning. Gentiles had no solid, firmly-anchored assurance of salvation, of life after death. The Roman poet Catallus wrote (50 BC),
The sun can set and rise again, but once our brief light sets,
There is one unending night to be slept through.
Unbelief is the death-knell of hope, the spring-board of pessimism. Men destitute of Christ, outside the commonwealth, without the covenants, have no hope. Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer wrote, “My own feeling respecting the ultimate mystery is such that I can not even try to think of it without some feeling of terror so that I habitually shun the thought.”
Outside Christianity, the world’s deepest thinkers and profoundest philosophers are invariably pessimists, especially as they grow older. Apart from Jesus, this world is, in the final analysis, a place of gloom. Ultimately, the worldling finds himself in agreement with the poet, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” (Shakespeare, in “The Tempest”). The lost man who believes in nothing beyond this life must inevitably say, as Satan does in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Our final hope is flat despair” (Book 2, Line 139).
“Having no hope” is one of the most terrible statements in the Bible. Anything worse can hardly be conceived. The infamous Prison de la Roquette, in Paris, which housed criminals condemned to death, had inscribed above its hideous iron gates, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
When hope departs, “chaos is come again” (Othello). Hope is the last thing to go, for when it is gone, nothing worthwhile is left. Thus, a man devoid of hope must drown out any serious thoughts from his mind. Why do worldlings tend to run through life at break-neck speed? Why do they often listen ceaselessly to TV, radio, or the stereo? What is such a one trying to avoid thinking about? “Having no hope.”
Our word “lunatic” is derived from “luna,” the Latin word for moon. The ancients believed a man would go stark, raving mad if he stared at the full moon all night long. They may not have been far from right. If a man stares at the moon all night, he has opportunity to think, time to ponder ultimate realities, a chance to consider God, judgment, Hell. Grave consideration of these matters could very possibly drive a hopeless man to lunacy.
Friend, if you have irrevocably chosen to live without Christ, outside the commonwealth, with no covenant, do not take time to stare at the moon all night long. Run through life with all your might, leap from pleasure to pleasure, take a second job, moonlight, keep your mind occupied at all cost, grab all the gusto you can. For if you ponder seriously your true plight, if you dwell on “having ho hope,” it might drive you stark, raving mad.
Please leave your hopelessness behind. Receive Christ, join the commonwealth, enjoy the covenants, revel in hope. Come and welcome.