Tearing Down the Dividing Walls

A Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

In this letter Gentile Christians are reminded that Christ had united Jews and Gentiles into one community, breaking down the “barriers of hatred that had divided us” (2:14 CEB). Although the NRSV uses the more traditional “dividing walls of hostility,” the Common English Bible catches well the dynamics —both Gentile and Jew looked at the other with hatred, but that hatred has been overcome in Christ. Jew and Gentile, having once peered over walls of hostility and hatred, have been brought into one community of faith. No longer will they be strangers or aliens, but rather they will be fellow citizens. Ethnicity no longer is the marker as to whether one is a member of God’s covenant people. It’s not that God has ended the covenant with Israel, but in Christ God has extended the borders of the “commonwealth of Israel” so that the ncircumcised as well as the circumcised might be recipients of God’s grace. 

In order for this to occur, however, the practices that divided one from another must no longer have precedence. This wall that consisted of suspicion rooted in religious and ethnic differences has been taken down. For Gentiles this is good news, because according to the letter, prior to Christ’s intervention, the Gentiles stood outside the covenant and were a people without hope. Of course, it’s not as if the Gentile peoples didn’t have a pantheon of gods, it’s just that they didn’t have any true knowledge or understanding of God. Their situation has now been, forever, changed in Christ. What this means for Jewish Christians, however, is that the dietary and ceremonial practices that had defined their relationship with God couldn’t be placed upon Gentiles, who came into the covenant through grace received by faith.

As one reads this passage, unsettling questions of Jewish- Christian relationships emerge. There is a tendency to read this passage in a way that suggests that the church supersedes or replaces the covenant God made with the Jewish people. As we consider the implications of this passage, we should remember that Paul made clear that the covenant God made with Israel cannot be broken (Rom. 1 1 :1 ff), but Paul also makes clear that God has chosen to embrace the larger world into God’s kingdom in Christ.  One should keep this in mind as one reads the statement about the abolishment of the law, with its ordinances and commandments.  The point here is the creation of the new humanity, not the dismissal of the Hebrew foundations.

As we read this discussion of barriers of hatred, we should keep in mind the cultural and ethnic barriers that continue to divide. For Christians, if the barriers have come down in Christ, the question becomes how far do we extend the conversation? What does this passage have to say to us about questions of immigration, gender equality, discrimination against ethnic minorities, the disabled, and those whose sexual orientation isn’t heterosexual? What barriers do we place in the way of people experiencing the fullness of God’s transforming love?

Excerpted from my study guide on Ephesians --   Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide (Energion, 2010), pp. 27-29.


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