Ephesians 2 and the “Problem” of the Law

I was in a Bible study group a number of weeks ago, delving in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church. The group camped at Ephesians 2:11-22 for a little while, discussing Paul’s reflections on how Christ’s death has accomplished unity between Jew and Gentile. As Paul himself puts it, the death of Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v.14). He goes on to declare that the law was “abolish[ed]” in Christ’s flesh, with the creation of “one new man” the result (v.15). I think everyone agreed that this was something to be cherished.

What struck the group as strange, however, was Paul’s blunt statement about Christ “abolishing…the law with its commandments and regulations” (Eph. 2:15a). As one member seemed to suggest, a de-contextualised reading might imply that Jesus’ death had simply done away with the law. Apart from appearing to be inconsistent with what Jesus himself said (cf. Matt. 5:17-20), this particular group member further suggested that it could lead to overly liberal interpretations regarding the ethical demands placed upon Christians – a salient point, particularly in a society that seems to hold traditional Christian sexual ethics in some disregard.

No firm conclusions were reached, and there was some confusion over what, precisely, Paul meant. What was his main point? Was he saying, point-blank, that the law had truly been abolished? Was it completely obsolete? Was Paul offering justification for some kind of antinomianism? Here, I hope to provide some (general) pointers for interpreting the great Apostle, looking at what he meant in speaking of the law as he did, before sketching out the wider implications of the main thrust of the passage.

Firstly, it should be noted that to read Ephesians 2:15 in isolation is to fail to “read” it at all. That is, one has indeed de-contextualised the verse, neutering its true significance. Shorn of all context, and wrenched from its literary environment, a verse of Scripture can be harnessed by anyone, to substantiate all kinds of agendas. This verse is no different. It’s important, then, that one takes account of the passage in its entirety, which means reaching back to Ephesians 2:11.

After waxing lyrical about the manifold blessings that God has prepared for believers, and proclaiming the gift of divine salvation in the midst of transgression and death, Paul focuses his analysis upon the Gentile congregants and their union with Christ. He speaks of their past – denied citizenship in Israel, far from God, and lacking knowledge of either his law or his truth. “But now,” Paul says, the Gentile believers have been “brought near” through Christ. Prompted by the import of this divinely-wrought act, Paul spends some verses speaking about its implications. However, he is also alert to the pressures encountered by the church in Ephesus (to which vv.11-18 seem to allude), and his letter is, at this point, motivated by those issues. Paul briefly refers to Jews, who were sometimes called (and called themselves) “the circumcision” (v.11). In some churches, demands were made that Gentile Christians undergo the rites and obey the laws of Judaism. Their derision of these individuals as “uncircumcised” had the effect of creating two “classes” of Christian within the body of Christ. Whether that was happening in the Ephesian church is less clear – one certainly doesn’t encounter the “live” issue of Jew-Gentile relations here as in Galatians. At any rate, Paul is making a general, expansive point about the new unity that exists between Jew and Gentile as a result of what Christ has achieved.

Jews (and even many Jewish Christians) put great stock in their ethno-national identity as Jews: God’s chosen people, members of Israel and participants in the covenants. The Jewish people had long used circumcision, along with such strictures as food laws and Sabbath-keeping, as particularly obvious identity markers to guarantee the integrity and purity of the religious community. And although many Jews, along with Gentiles, had been saved into the newly forged household of God, they were still intent on cleaving to those symbols of covenantal uniqueness. The law was viewed as an indispensable identity marker of God’s people. But Paul wants to focus upon the epochal work of Jesus Christ, whose death has, in fact, assured non-Jews of salvation.

Thus, it is not the case that verse 15, where Paul speaks of Christ abolishing the law in his flesh, is meant to be interpreted in some kind of abstract, de-historicised fashion. Paul is not suggesting that the law, as a general moral code, is no longer relevant. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10, which is situated just before the passage in question, the Apostle speaks of believers as God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (italics mine). Paul is no antinomian, committed as he is elsewhere to a high standard of (Christ-centred) ethics (see, for example, Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14).

Clearly, then, Paul was not embarking on a way of life bereft of moral behaviour, and his words regarding the status of the law should not be construed as such. The problem was not with the law per se. Rather, Paul speaks of the abrogation of the law, narrowly defined as the means of establishing membership of the people of God. For it was not the law, in its role as the substantiating force behind a particular ethno-religious identity, that was to be the foundation of one’s status as God’s elect. Paul is quite emphatic: it is Christ Jesus, who provides the final guarantee of one’s entry into God’s house by abolishing the divisive role to which the law (or at least elements of it) had been put. In him (i.e. Christ), Paul says, has a new people been created – forged out of the patchwork of sinful humanity, and drawn together under the unifying auspices of Jesus himself.

This is the main thrust of Paul’s proclamation in 2:13-18. He acknowledges that at one stage, Gentiles were far from God. However, he goes on to declare that peace has come through Christ and his sacrifice, reconciling Gentile sinners to God – not through the law, but through him in whom sin was condemned, once-and-for-all (cf. Rom. 8:3). Paul is not thinking of an inner tranquillity when he speaks of peace. Instead, he refers to the objective peace between God and the reconciled sinner, having been brought about by the death of the Messiah. He becomes the basis for one’s status as a member of God’s house; it is upon faith in Christ, and not the law, that a person is declared to be saved. In Christ, we find the fulfilment of the law, whose life and death satisfied the requirements of the law on behalf of those who trust in him. As such, there was no need for the Gentile believers at Ephesus to become culturally (if not ethnically) Jewish, for whatever merit circumcision had (not to mention other such markers), it could no longer operate as the determining factor in laying down the boundaries of the redeemed community. The law, to the extent that it was relevant, could not be used to prop up the unique privilege of being counted as member of the divine family.

Moreover, it is precisely because of Christ’s death that Jew and Gentile can come together in newly fashioned unity. Since the law cannot act as the “backbone” of covenantal identity, it cannot be said to divide. Christ has come to tear down that “dividing wall of hostility” – in other words, to bring to an end the law’s use as boundary marker between Jews and Gentiles – so that “one new man” may be fashioned out of the old (vv.14-15). At this point, we should be alert to the evocative use of that image, “dividing wall of hostility,” which likely refers to the structures of the Jerusalem temple that prevented non-Jews from going beyond a certain point. Those structures have been torn down; Jesus is the final, consummating basis for entry into, and ongoing membership in, God’s kingdom. As Paul explicitly says, this was his (i.e. God’s) express “purpose”; God intended it from the beginning, such that all racial, ethnic and national differences – even those conceived within the context of a religious-covenantal identity – would be utterly transcended.

As such, the vertical peace that exists between God and sinners as a consequence of the death of Jesus is matched by the horizontal peace that exists between Jews and non-Jews (cf. v.16). According to Paul, a kind of triadic unity has been created: not simply the reconciliation of ethnic groups; nor merely the end of enmity between God and individual sinners; but a comprehensive reunion between these three “parties” via the cross. Ethno-religious identity has ceased to be relevant, for the One to whom the law points has superseded it. This is no new theme, or theological novelty, that Paul has introduced. Elsewhere, in making much the same point, he declares that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, because an overarching oneness has been achieved in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Thus, we see that for Paul, the death of Jesus has erased division, boasting, religious chauvinism – indeed, that sense of spiritual and covenantal superiority – which existed to hamper the Gentiles as they sought to receive the mercy of God. Gentiles qua Gentiles can access that mercy, having been brought near by the same Christ who saves Jews, too. This is also an important point, for Paul is careful to say that not only has Christ’s death granted non-Jews access to God; Jews need to appropriate the benefits of Calvary as well. In verse 14, he states that Christ “is our peace,” thereby including Jews. In verse 16, he writes that both Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled to God “through the cross,” strongly implying that both groups – contrary to what some may have thought – needed just that.  And in verse 18, he explicitly says that “we both have access to the Father by the one Sprit.” Christ’s death has made a way, and it is by God’s Spirit that one acknowledges, receives and responds effectively to that salvific work. Paul could not have been plainer in subverting the seemingly insurmountable power of the law as the guarantor of covenantal identity. Nor could he have been clearer in challenging the “false confidence of the Jews, who…boasted that they were the holy people, and chosen inheritance, of God,” (Calvin). If one is to boast, it can only be in what Christ has done.

***

From what we have seen in this (admittedly) wide-ranging survey, it is not the case that Paul sought to tear down the law-as-ethical-statement in order to replace it, say, with some version of antinomianism. Far from it; Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:11-22 is quite different, and it is a point worth celebrating. Paul demonstrates the double triumph of Jesus’ death: having the effect, not only of bringing individual sinners into relationship with God, but of drawing those same sinners – divided, perhaps, by a raft of ethnic and cultural differences – into relationship with one other. Due to the epoch-making work of Christ, the law’s role as the basis for one’s covenantal status has been rescinded. Paul did not seek to abrogate the law in some kind of abstract, ethical sense. To be sure, we are not called upon to obey the law in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same goal in mind, as the ancient Israelites. It is still deeply relevant, but only in so far as its teachings and strictures are taken up into Christ’s own, and only to the extent that they can be passed through a Christological prism – (re)interpreted in the light of Jesus’ life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrrection. In any case, Paul was thinking of the law in a very specific way when he spoke of Jesus’ death “abolishing” it.

Moreover, it is precisely Paul’s statements on this matter – found in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere – that should give us pause. Nothing can possibly supersede the achievement of Christ; his death and resurrection, and the Spirit-impelled trust one puts in them, is all that is required for someone to be counted a member of God’s household (cf. Eph. 2:19b). However, it is equally true that many who have, across the ages, declared this to be so have also added to that exclusive truth the accoutrements of their own culture, undermining the kind of radical, Christo-centric unity eulogised by Ephesians 2:11ff. Colonial expansion may have brought the gospel, but its proclamation was distorted by, amongst other things, the demand that Christianisation entail Westernisation. More recently, it could be said of many churches – even those that echo the Reformation cry of justification by faith (in Jesus) – unconsciously try and fuse the radically liberating message of Christ with the time-bound norms of post-war, middle class culture. Even today, we who would say “yes and Amen” to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 may be guilty of offering up a new set of identity markers that take their place alongside the inimitable accomplishments of Christ. All such practices have the effect of diminishing those accomplishments – of saying, in effect, that they were not enough. Similarly, they frustrate the universal scope of the gospel, which is meant to encompass people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue under the unifying grace of the triune God. The result is division within the company of Christ, something that is completely at odds with the basic thrust of Paul’s Ephesian missive.

Many, of course, would baulk at such suggestion; their doctrine, they might argue, is robust and pure, whilst they are deeply committed to the transcendent and reconciling power of the Gospel. But it is imperative, if our doctrine is to remain an embodied reality, that we all resist the temptation mask the universality of God’s grace with the particularities of our own cultures.

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