What to Learn Some Theology?

Part 1 Ephesians and Covenant Theology.

Theological Preaching–Rich and Deep | The Heavy Laden Bookshelf

This is a series i have put together from my old seminary/college papers. There is some really interesting nuggets buried in the text. I challenge the reader to bite the bullet and learn some theology.

An Examination of Ephesians 2:11-22:

The Nature of New Testament Israel

Dear reader, over the next few minutes please think with me through this important subject: Paul’s expansion of the gospel.  A casual reading of Paul’s letters reveal a developing theme concerning the issue of Israel.  One might say, “What does this issue have to do with me?”  Well… everything!  To understand this subject is to properly understand the gospel from which our salvation hinges.  Proper doctrine, gives way to glorious doxology that empowers pure doing.  The tenor of Paul’s epistles showcase this sentiment.   He sets forth a proper doctrine (gospel) so that he can then urge the reader in practical matters.  The book of Ephesians is a great doctrinal book, it is the quintessential Paul in doctrine.  The first three chapters give doctrine while the last three concern application.  My focus will be on chapter 2 and portions of chapter 3.  These sections deal with Paul’s expanding gospel.  It is the mature and logical development of Paul’s gospel.   The flow of our paper consists of a brief exegesis of Ephesians 2:11-22, examining the nature of New Testament Israel, and that Paul’s mystery gospel is the expansion of Israel by including the Gentiles.   The purpose is to clarify the Israel of God in light of Christ, understand the believer’s position in Christ, and embrace the ancient promises given as our covenant in Christ. 

The author understands that there is some doubts among scholars regarding Pauline authorship of the book of Ephesians.  We will proceed with our discussion in siding with a Pauline authorship saving this debate for another time. 

The passage we are discussing is Ephesians 2:11-22:

11Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;

12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:

13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.

14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;

15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;

16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:

17 And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.

18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:

22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.  

A brief exegesis of the above passage. 

Verse 11-13

The apostle calls the hearer to mind that the subject of his discourse is clear.  That is the person and work of Christ.  Paul uses the word dio, wherefore, which calls to mind a practical application of the previous doctrine.  Next, he exposes the hearer’s former position without Christ: they were uncircumcised, aliens, strangers, and without hope.  This speak of several aspects of alienation.  First is the alienation from the sign of circumcision.  God has used signs, historically, as a means/signal of grace.  Removal from the sign has been a token of divine judgement.  Calvin points this out in Adam’s expulsion from the tree of life.  He notes that “by taking away the sign, the Lord took from him also life itself.” (Calvin)  The same principle here, removal from the sign of circumcision is a pronouncement of death: a separation from the promises and people of God. 

They were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.  The term commonwealth is politeia which refers to the theocracy of Israel which includes the covenants and citizen rights afforded by the commonwealth.  (Wuest)  The Gentiles had no claim on the promises, because they are not part of the commonwealth.  They were also strangers to the covenant promises.   

The hearers were also without Christ.  Not only was the absence of the sign present, but the absence of the reality: Christ.  All promises and life are in Christ.  The progression goes further to say that the Gentile was without God in the world v. 12.   The meaning here is that without Christ, a person, no matter how religious, is without God.  They are in effect an atheist.  When one has Christ, one has God the Father.  

Christ has incorporated the Gentile believers into the commonwealth, covenant, hope and peace with God.  Notice the phrase in verse 13, “in Christ.”  Union with Christ is in view as well as the satisfactory blood of atonement. 

Verse 14-17

“He is our peace…” Paul now changes tone and includes Jews into the effects of Christ’s work.  God is at peace with men, through Christ.  How glorious!  Notice that our peace is not only by Him but the text says in Him.  By Him the fence (representing the separation of Jew and Gentile) has been broken down, so that all are one body. 

Now we come to a difficult portion.  How was the Jew separated from the Gentiles?  The chief means was through the decree of God that he passed over Gentiles and secured a people to himself.  The other means were the ceremonial elements of the Mosaic Law.  The appointment of God in separating the Jews from the Gentiles, uses the ceremony of the law as avowed symbols of that separation.  (Calvin)   

Christ abolished this portion of the Law as a surety that we are one body.  The distinction that ceremonies gave the Jewish people were taken away by Christ.  The only distinction now is being in Him.  There is no Jew or Greek, male, female, or bond or free (Galatian 3:28).  The hand writing is therefore destroyed signifying the abolishment of the ceremonial distinction. 

Gentiles have not only been reconciled to the Jews through Christ creating one body, but all have been reconciled to God.   This great peace is afforded to us by the cross as the apostle mentions in verse 16.  We should always keep in mind the sacrifice of Christ that illustrates the terribleness of sin, which has alienated us from God.  Verse 17 is added so that the fruits of this great sacrifice can published among Jews and Gentiles alike.  As Paul calls it in II Corinthians, the ministry of reconciliation.  This is the message of peace that Christ has brought through is death, peace among Jews and Gentiles and peace with God. 

V. 18-22

Verse 18 is interesting as we see the working of the Trinity here.  Christ provides the means through His cross to the Father.  The Holy Spirit regenerates, applies, and brings the believer to the Father.  Verse 19 is another declaration of what was already stated in verses 11-13.  The difference now is that instead of a negative case we have a positive situation for the Ephesians.  They are fellow citizens in the household of God.  The admission continues in verse 20.  The believing Ephesian are admitted based upon the doctrine of the apostles and prophets.  This doctrine being the Gospel.  Any true believer or church will have been regenerated and united in Christ through true doctrine.  The Gospel is the means of inclusion in the household of God.  A person or church that has not the Gospel is false.  The chief foundation is Christ.  Or as the text puts it the chief corner stone.  Everything is built upon Christ.  All preaching, service, and fellowship is founded in Christ. 

In this spiritual structure mentioned in verse 21 and 22 we must first have a fitting together.  The apostles means that an element of unity is necessary.  This unity is found in Christ, the chief corner stone.  The unity is found in the doctrine of the apostles and prophets.  A fitting metaphor is that the church is like a temple.  This is also used elsewhere in the apostle’s writings I Cor. 6:19, II Cor. 6:16.  This temple, whether personally or corporately as the mystical church, is dwelt in by the Lord. 

Why the metaphor here?  The apostle has given a context of growth through the doctrine he has laid before the Ephesians in the preceding chapters.  He urges the church to grow through the doctrine he has given.  A doctrine of unity and peace in Christ.  The last phrase of verse 22 tells us that God dwells with us through his Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that illuminates the mind and changes the heart.  We can do nothing without his ever present power.    

Now that we have expounded this portion of Ephesians, we will look more closely at the relationship of Israel and the church.  What is the nature of the New Testament Israel?  There seems to be much confusion within the church today concerning the place of Israel.  While there are still aspects of ethnic Israel that causes some theological problems, the nature of Israel is clearly developed in the New Testament.  First of all, the scripture clearly teaches that there are no special privileges to ethic Israel regarding salvation.  All men are saved through Christ, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (John 5:12)  There is no other plan or means by which people are saved.  So to understand that an ethnic Israel will be saved outside of faith in Christ presents a huge theological problem that could erode the very foundations of sola fide, solus Christus.  The doctrine of justification is applicable to an ethnic Jew as a Gentile.  Romans 3:30 states, “Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.”    Again in Philippians 3:3 “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.

It is clear from passages like Matt. 3:9 and John 8:33-39 that the Jews thought because of their ethnicity that they were heirs of the promises of Abraham.  John the Baptist noted that God was “able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham”.  Noting that their ethnicity was vain respecting salvation.  Likewise Jesus refutes Abrahamic linage as criteria for salvation.  (John 8:39)  In John 8:33 the Jews stated that, “we be Abraham’s seed…”  Jesus responded in verse 39, “if ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the work of Abraham.”  The context of the passage reveals that being the physical seed of Abraham does not free one from sin and does not make one the children of Abraham.  In the mind of the first century Jew, the association was clear: to be a Jew ensured covenant relationship with God.   Yet we see a clear distinction from Jesus and John the Baptist. 

This distinction is further carried out by Paul.  In Galatians 3, Paul carries out this distinction to its conclusion.   He narrows down the covenant promise of Abraham to only Isaac’s seed.  He then further narrows the promise to a singular seed, Christ Jesus. 

Galatians 3:16, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.  He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ.” 

The importance of this statement in Galatians 3:16 cannot be undervalued.  In fact, this statement actually is a set up for the mature doctrine of Ephesians.  Listen to the words of Ephesians 2:12, 13,  “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”  The covenant promises of Abraham are not given to a natural people but a spiritual people.  Those that are in Christ have the promise.  Schreiner writes:

Thus, Gentiles by virtue of their participation in Christ become the children of Abraham and the heirs of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…. They are participating in privileges which the Jews thought were reserved for themselves.  In other words, Paul is transferring a title to believing Gentiles which was usually restricted to Jews.  (Schreiner)

This brings us to the second logical progression of the nature of New Testament Israel, the spiritualization of the term Israel.   When I say spiritualization I mean taking the term Israel to mean something other than the ethnic nation/people.  Storms speaking of Ephesians 2 writes, “As I read this chapter I discover that because of the work of Christ the meaning of “Israel” has now expanded.” (Storms)  The problem we have is the separation of the nation of Israel and the church in the minds of people.  There are distinctions.   The Jewish people have salvific history, they have been elect of God as the vehicles of scripture and promises.  This is an advantage.  Yet in terms of soteriology, any Jew must be united with Christ by faith to be a child of Abraham in a salvific sense.  The New Testament teaches that there is not two distinct churches, one Israel, and one Gentile.  It is clear from Ephesians 2 that through Christ there are no strangers and foreigners but one body by the cross.   Galatians 3:28, 29 states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond or free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if ye be Christ’s then are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” 

As a result of one body of believers, the mention of Israel by Paul is often a reference to the church.   This is reflected by Paul’s use of Old Testament language applied to the church.  In particular the spiritualizing of the rite of circumcision (Rom 2:25-29, Phil 3:3, Col 2:11).  This rite was the passage of a person into the covenant relation with God.  By applying this terminology to the church, referring to circumcision of the heart, Paul is showing that the church is the true Israel.  Schreiner says:

Not only does it show a process whereby the church was adopting Old Testament language, but it also reveals that the Church considered itself to be the true people of God.  Circumcision was the necessary rite of passage of covenant people…Paul, by spiritualizing it, was saying that the new rite of entry into the people of God was the circumcision of the heart….Just as the rite of entry into the people of God was spiritualized, so too the very nature of the people of God was spiritualized.  (Schreiner)

Peter also applies OT references to the church when he writes, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession”.  (I Peter 2:9)  Notice here the rich OT language and figures that was reserved for Israel is now applied to the church.   In his first letter, Peter’s ecclesiology resembles Paul.  Peter alludes that the believer is a “spiritual house” where “spiritual sacrifices” are offered.  This echo’s Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:21-22 … “the whole building, as it is joined together, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  (Johnson)

This changes the landscape first century theology.  I contend this is the mystery of Ephesians 3:3, 9 that being united in Christ is to be the true Israel.  This teaching is in perfect alignment with context of Ephesians 2, 3.  Furthermore, I maintain that Ephesians 2, 3 is the maturation of the doctrine of Galatians 3:16.   Believers united in Christ are the true Israel.  This truth is based upon the doctrine of unity in Christ, the spiritualization of the term Israel and application of Old Testament language to the church.    

As a parenthetical one may bring up the issue of Romans 11:26.  This passage seems to suggest a separate plan and particular salvation for ethnic Israel.  We refer again to Schreiner for clarification.  The top interpretations of this passage are in brief: 1. Israel is meant to be the church would receive an ultimate salvation.  The problem with this interpretation is that it does not fit into the context of the passage.  2.  The second interpretation is that the apostle is referring to ethnical Israel.  That the elect of Israel will all be saved at the appointed time, and not in an eschatological sense.  This, again, does not fit the progression of thought.  3.  That the term is ethnical Israel and has an eschatological sense.  Yet, the salvation is totally dependent upon the mercy of God and would in no way interfere with the Gospel of justification by faith in Christ.  Salvation is not based upon national heritage but the mercy of God.  Nygren says it well:

 “The grace of election of God can never serve as the basis for human pretentions.  But on the other hand, man’s faithfulness can never nullify God’s faithfulness…..But here, in chapter 11, he is not discussing a proud Israel that trusts in its advantage; to a rejected Israel he is affirming God’s faithfulness, despite everything.” (Nygren)

This author leans toward this interpretation.  Paul is not contradicting his developed gospel of a spiritual Israel, or justification by faith in Christ.  He is simply saying, God is faithful, and based upon this Israel as a nation can be saved.  This salvation must be through Christ alone and faith alone. (Romans 11:23). 

We need to be careful with terminology here.  I have problems with the terms replacement theology or the new Israel.   God has done nothing new in the Gospel.  There has been no replacement or “plan b” God has implemented.  Christ is the seed of promise and is the author and finisher of faith.  The term replacement gives a straw man meaning to covenant theology. I contend that God has not replaced Israel.  Israel has always been those that believe upon Christ.  (John 8:33-39)   In fact our text in Ephesians chapter 2 uses the terms, fellow citizens and fellow heirs.  There is no mention of anyone being “replaced”.   Storms says, “Contrary to how some have taken this, no one has been replaced.  Rather believing Gentiles have been “included”, such that now, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:14-15, there is only “one new man”, i.e., the church.” (Storms) 

In conclusion, the obvious principle in understanding the nature of Israel, the church, the covenant and promises of God is to view scripture in a Christocentric way.  In rightly dividing the word of God calls for Christocentric paradigm.  Paul clearly states the reason that the gentiles had no claim with the promises of Israel was not because of their physical decent but their position outside of Christ. Ephesians 2:11-13.  Faith and union with Christ qualifies one as a seed of Abraham and heir to the promises of God.  The promises are contingent upon Christ: the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (II Cor. 1:20).  Christ is the theme of the scriptures and brings them to wonderful unity.  The Old Testament, with its promises, people and covenants does not exist in a vacuum.  They are to be interpreted in light of the New Testament.  Particularly in the light of the person and work of Christ.  “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

On a personal note, this study has enriched my understanding of the totality and unity of God’s plan of redemption.  I also drink strength from a deep study of God’s word.  I pray the Holy Spirit strengthens and builds me and the reader up to a fitting temple for the indwelling of our Lord. 

                                                                    Works Cited

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentary Volume XXI. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.

Johnson, Dennis. “Fire in God’s House: imagery from Malachi 3 in Peter’s Theology of Suffering.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1986): 290. Web.

Nygren, Anders. Commentary on Romans. Philidephia : Fortress, 1949. Book.

Schreiner, Thomas. “The Church as the New Israel and the Future of Ethnic Israel in Paul.” Studia Biblica Et Theologica (1983): 17-38. Web.

Storms, Sam. The Church, Israel, and “Replacement” Theology Part 1. 18 March 2007. web.

Wuest, Kenneth. Word Studies in the Greek New Testament Volume I. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Comany, 1973.

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