Ephesians: One God, One People
We now come to the second half of the Ephesian letter. In some ways, this section has a very different quality than the first half. Up until now, the letter has seemed very scholarly and abstract. By comparison, what follows is going to seem relatively “preachy”. There will be exhortations, admonishments, and reminders of various sorts. We even noted at the end of chapter 3 that we had come to a doxology, very much giving the impression that Sha’ul considered the letter complete, and ready to ship. So, it seems like the rest of the letter is almost an afterthought.
However, afterthought though it may be, the following half of the book is intimately tied to the subject matter of the first half. Have you ever started a letter, set it aside for a day or two, and come back to it with all sorts of ideas about how to further develop the text you had already written? That’s how I view Ephesians. Sha’ul thought he was done, but as he reviewed what he had written already, the Spirit gave him fresh insights regarding how the idea of Gentile inclusion could be expanded.
So, now that Sha’ul has offered praise to the Father for the vast, overwhelming plan that brings Jews and Gentiles together into one community, he begins to exhort his Gentile readers. As new members of the Israeli commonwealth, there are two things they must always keep in mind. These two things are important for us to remember today, as well.
Lead a Life Worthy of Your Calling
What does this mean? Well, Sha’ul tells us. It means being humble, gentle, and patient with each other. That means putting others first, and being mutually deferential to one another. If we always put others first, and others are always putting us first, then we all demonstrate the mutual submission that is supposed to characterize believers in Yeshua. We will all be living the self-sacrificial life that Yeshua modeled for us.
This will lead to “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. What does that mean? It means that we are not supposed to be fighting, arguing, and bickering all the time. We are supposed to be demonstrating to the world what it means to be a community that is bound together with one heart and one soul—one common purpose of serving the Father of all spirits. Yeshua prayed that we might be one, even as he was one with the Father.
Consider what it meant to the early believers to hear such exhortation. Here they were, Gentiles, being told to live in peace and harmony with people who, not so long ago, were teaching that Gentiles were “dogs”, not fit for human company, only tolerated at best. Gentiles were not welcome into Jewish society, and Gentiles returned the sentiment. A comparable situation would be telling a black man in 1950’s Birmingham to make sure he endeavors to bear with his white neighbors in love and peace—it may be a nice idea, but certainly not very practical.
And yet, that is precisely the setting in which the model of love is best demonstrated. The early believers were characterized by outsiders as fanatical lovers of fellow community members. “Behold, how they love each other!” was a sarcastic attack, believe it or not!
Can that be said of us today? Are we mocked for “loving too much”? Perhaps it is time that we seek such mockery. What would happen if followers of Yeshua were actually known more for our peaceful spirits and mutual edification than for our political positions and fund-raising capabilities? “Peace” and “Love” ought to be our lifestyle, not just mottoes and bumper sticker slogans. Especially among us who claim to be living according to the example of Yeshua and the model of the first century Messianic Community.
Be One as God Is One
I get great enjoyment out of hearing people argue over the meaning of verses 4-6 of Ephesians 4. Especially those who think “one baptism” means “water” versus “spirit” baptism! That was actually the context of the first discussion I ever heard about this passage.
But what does Sha’ul mean by all these “ones”??? What is the point? When you read these three verses by themselves, they seem redundant to the point of boredom: “One… one… one… one… one… blah… blah… blah….” It has all become such old hat for us, or else such a standard proof text, that we cease to be impressed by the significance of this list.
We have become so blasé about these verses that we gloss over these glorious singularities without properly recognizing their significance. These are wonderful “ones”! Think about what they mean in the context of all that has gone before in this letter:
Not two. There is not one community for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. God has one people that he calls his own—Israel. And now Gentiles are granted admission into this fellowship through the atoning work of the Messiah.
Again, not two. The same Ruach Hakodesh that brings Jews to repentance also draws Gentiles. The same Ruach that dwells in the heart of a Jew now dwells in the heart of a Gentile.
The concept of Messiah was sometimes referred to as “the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). But this whole letter has been devoted to justifying why Gentiles should be admitted into the community of Israel because of their trust in Messiah.
Not a pantheon, a la typical Greco-Roman religions. The Messiah is a singular King, not one of many competing deities.
In this context, Sha’ul is probably not referring to “faith” as “trust” or “belief”. The word can also mean the body of informational content which all believers affirm.
Immersion, known in Hebrew as “mikveh”, was the symbolic washing ritual associated with repentance and conversion. Sha’ul affirms that both Jews and Gentiles were practicing the same ritual cleansing as had been done for centuries by the Jewish people.
One God, the Father of All
As Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Shema, Yisrael, YHWH Eloheinu, YHWH echad!”
There is only one God—the God of Israel. He rules over Heaven and Earth. We all know that. But more importantly, YHWH is available to both Jews and Gentiles. He is not a mere tribal deity. He is not exclusive to the Jews. Just as we described back in the first chapter of Ephesians, the Messianic Kingdom is a worldwide empire, home to all who will call upon the name of Messiah Yeshua.
So we see that this whole section is dedicated to the concept that there is no second class citizenship within the Messianic community. There is one belief, one mode of access, one initiation ritual, and one community. Anyone who claims anything different has missed the whole point of this letter!
In conclusion, this whole section of Ephesians is the inevitable mission statement of a man whose life was dedicated to introducing Gentiles to the Jewish Messiah. This is Sha’ul’s statement of “How Things Are”, targeting the prejudices and animosities that have been built between Jews and Gentiles for centuries.
In our day and age, we all assume we know “how things are”. We have been taught that there is something called “the church”, and the church is basically a Gentile organization where Jews are welcomed, as long as they blend in by demonstrating their “freedom in Christ” by giving up everything we regard as distinctively Jewish. While we are a bit more subtle and civilized these days, the medieval practice of “ear a ham sandwich for Jesus” is still being practiced!
But the letter to the Ephesians reveals a different sort of premise. The original community of believers was entirely Jewish, building their perspective on Jewish theology and Jewish Messianic expectation. The one major new distinctive these followers of Yeshua added was to allow Gentiles to participate as fellow heirs with the Jewish people in the global Messianic Kingdom.
At this point, I think we have sufficient evidence to make a specific statement regarding a concept that has been labeled “bi-lateral ecclesiology”. This doctrine states that Jews and Gentiles should rightly maintain separate and distinct worship communities, even though both claim to follow Yeshua as Messiah. This manifests in all possible areas, including the claim that Torah is binding upon Jews, but not Gentiles; that Gentiles should form distinct worship communities apart from Messianic Jewish synagogues; and Gentiles wishing to affiliate with a Messianic Synagogues must undergo formal conversion to Judaism, complete with circumcision, in order to be a full member.
All this flies in the face of what we have seen in this letter to the Ephesian community. Gentiles are supposed to be welcomed into the believing Messianic Jewish community, acknowledged as full participants in the Messianic Kingdom, and regarded as full members with all the rights and responsibilities appropriate for any Jewish believer.
So, the next time you hear somebody taking the position that there should be two distinct communities of people who believe in Yeshua, just point them to Ephesians 2, 3, and 4. The text leads clearly to the conclusion that there is only one Messianic Body, composed of Jews and Gentiles, all living together in harmony… as One. One God, One Body.