June 14, 2020
It’s vital for us to live in relationship with one another. So what can account for ongoing division and inequality? Before we were united with Christ, we were helpless and hopeless, alienated from God and living in hostility toward others. As Alistair Begg explains, while efforts like legislation and education are worthwhile, they can’t change our natural condition. Only in the person of Jesus Christ can we be reconciled to God and transformed to live in unity as He designed.
Well, I invite you to turn to Ephesians and to chapter 2 and to follow along as I read:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that [now] is … at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised … up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Well, I invite you to turn again to Ephesians and to chapter 2. And as you’re turning there, let me mention something. In the book of Chronicles—in 1 Chronicles, actually—where we’re given the record of the putting together of the divisions of soldiers and leaders who are supporting David as the kingdom is taken from Saul and given to him, in the long list that appears there in that chapter, we’re introduced to the men of Issachar, of whom it is said: they “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel [had] to do.” They “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel [had] to do.” John Stott wrote a wonderful book years ago entitled Preaching between Two Worlds—the challenge of recognizing the immediate context in which we come to the Bible. And that has been very much in my mind in these days, and it is in that spirit that I come to our study this morning.
And so, let us bow and seek God’s help:
Our Father, we thank you that your Word is fixed in heaven. We thank you that it is ultimately the Lord Jesus who comes and brings it home to us by the Holy Spirit. And so we look from ourselves to you to accomplish in us and through us the purposes that you have prepared for your Word in this moment and in these days. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I would like to have been present during the March on Washington. I was only eleven years old. It was the twenty-eighth of August 1963. I would like to have been there not simply to listen to the oratory of Martin Luther King, for surely it is a classic illustration of how to give a speech, but, in actual fact, on account of the content of that speech. None of us who have listened to it or read it subsequently can fail to be stirred by it. For example: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” “We will,” he goes on, “be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. … We will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Now, Dr. King was bemoaning the fact, in that speech, that a hundred years on from the Emancipation Proclamation, segregation still held sway. And I found myself wondering this week what he would think of the events of the past two weeks here in the United States and beyond—especially in light, again, of his own speech. Listen to him:
Something … I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. …
We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.
Almost five years to the day, and just weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, the Beatles released “Revolution.” It was the B-side of “Hey, Jude.” And Lennon sang,
You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know,
We all want to change the world. …
But when you talk about destruction,
Don’t you know that you can count me out?
Sadly, somewhat ironically, Lennon was murdered himself in 1980, leaving behind his dream, which has become something of a poor secular anthem: “Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
Now, this is the world in which I have grown up. This is the world that I inhabit. This is the world that frames my thinking. This is the world in which I come to the Scriptures, coming here in 1983, the year after sitcoms like Cheers were launched. It ran for eleven years, introducing us to the one place in the world “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Now, even in this random survey, when you put these pieces together, you realize how vitally important it is for men and women to live in relationships. And that is, of course, because of the way in which God has framed us.
Now, I begin here this morning, essentially picking up from where we left off last time. We were borrowing from Christopher Ash, when he talks about the fact that God has provided in the authentic local church “the genetic blueprint” for “a broken world remade”—translated, “When people encounter God’s people in local congregations, they are supposed to get some kind of sense of what God is planning to do ultimately when sin and tears and sorrow are no more, when in a new heaven and in a new earth all that he has purposed will be brought to pass.”
But we’re left asking the question: Why is it that consistent attempts to tackle inequality and injustice, to deal with hostility and disunity, sooner or later flounder and fail? Because they do. And the answer to that is very straightforward—at least the answer the Bible gives to it. It is because we fail to recognize, we fail to accept, the gravity of our condition as human beings—human beings, as we consistently say, made by God for a relationship with God, and yet separated from God on account of the fact that we have doubted his goodness, we have rejected his wisdom, and we have rebelled against his authority. The superficial remedies for fixing things are inevitably destined to fail. Education is vitally important. Legislation is clearly necessary. But neither one nor both of them together are able to deal with the basic issues of the human heart.
Now, those of you who have been around for a long time will know that we studied this section of the Bible back in 2016. In fact, we were right around here almost four years ago to the day. And we were considering then what we consider now: that in Jesus, God creates a new society—a new society where the divisive barriers are broken down by grace. Now, back in 2016, I think we had six or seven sermons on this chapter in Ephesians 2. Clearly, that will not happen this morning, and I’d like to gather my thoughts just under three straightforward words: alienation, reconciliation, and transformation. ART, A-R-T.
If you look at verse 12 of this chapter that we’ve read, the writer, Paul, is urging his readers, Jew and gentile in their background, to remember, as he addresses the gentiles in particular, what their circumstances were before they had been saved. And the summary of it is there in that twelfth verse or so. Hendriksen, the commentator, puts it memorably in these succession of words: they were Christless, stateless, friendless, helpless, hopeless, Godless. In two words, they were “far off.” You will see that there in verse 13: “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off…”
Now, you say, “Well, what are we dealing with the gentiles for, and some circumstances that are so far in the past?” Well, we know that all of God’s Word was written so that what happened in the past would be able to teach us in the present. And so, the description of the gentiles here is simply a representation of our natural condition. Back up at the heading of the chapter, this is described for us: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” It’s not a very pleasant description of humanity, but it is the biblical description of man outside of God in Jesus. In other words, the walking dead—not The Grateful Dead, but the walking dead. Spiritually dead, and yet going through all of the emotions. Not only dead, but disobedient: “You were simply following the inclinations of the human heart in the sons of disobedience.” And as a result of that, the Bible says that mankind is therefore condemned. Dead, disobedient, and condemned. That’s the significance of the phrase “[we] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
So in other words, when we think in terms of the predicament of man and we think of it in relationship to alienation, what we discover is that not only are we alienated, as it were, on the vertical axis but also horizontally. And, of course, that was the condition or the issue that Paul was addressing here. These individuals from a Jewish background and then the newcomers, as it were, from the gentile background were separated from one another. There was a deep-seated hostility between them. It’s not too much to suggest that they hated and were hated by one another—that there was a wall of hostility that existed, separating them from one another. You’ll see that in verse 14: “the dividing wall of hostility.”
Now, there’s a metaphor in this, but it is on account of the fact that there actually was a wall. If you do any research into this and look in the background of the architecture of the [Temple] of Herod, you will discover that between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Israel there was a thick stone balustrade that was five feet high, and we have discovered subsequently notices that were on that barrier that did not say Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted; the sign said Trespassers Will Be Executed.
So in other words, the predicament of the folks was that they were separated from God by that curtain that hung in the temple, and they were separated from one another by that wall that existed between them. And Paul is pointing out, as we’re about to see, that only in Christ is this ended. Only in Christ is this ended. It is Jesus who breaks down all these walls of hostility, ultimately.
Back to Martin Luther King: he says, thinking about walls, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.’” Education can teach us that it’s wrong. Legislation can enforce change. But who can change the human heart? We may modify our language, but we cannot change our hearts.
That’s why Paul is addressing the alienation in terms of reconciliation. And the answer is not in a program, it’s not in a philosophy, but it’s in a person. And so, in verse 13 you have this wonderful statement: “But now in Christ Jesus … brought near”—at the end of the verse—“brought near by the blood of Christ. For,” verse 14, “he himself is our peace.” He has preached peace, he has come to proclaim it, and he actually embodies it. “In me,” he says on one occasion, “you [will] have peace.” “In me you [will] have peace.”
Now, how has this been accomplished? Well, you’ll see there are a number of verbs here. He has “abolish[ed] the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Now, what does this mean? We could spend all morning on it, but we won’t. The Jews had in their background all of the ceremonial regulations: circumcision, dietary issues, certain days, certain feasts, certain celebrations. And they were tempted to take them and make them so preeminent that those gentiles who professed faith in Jesus Christ would then be isolated and separated on the basis of those regulations.
And what Paul is pointing out as a converted Jew is that in Jesus, he has fulfilled all of those ceremonial regulations. And also, he has abolished the law as a ground of salvation. In other words, those who were using the law as a mechanism whereby they could try and do their very best and finally make it into the presence of God—Jesus has dealt with that. And therefore, that has taken place. And this abolishment is, you will notice again, “through the cross.” “Through the cross.” Christianity is a cross-focused and cross-centered faith. And at the cross, the ground is level. And Paul is making that point.
So, he is our peace, having abolished those elements which would separate us. And then, you will notice, in order that he might create: “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two.”
Now, we read this wrongly if we think that what Paul is saying is simply this: what he has done is he has made it possible for Jewish and gentile people, separated in their backgrounds, to accommodate one another in such a way that the Jew will become just a little less Jewish and the gentile will become a little less gentile. But that is not what the Bible is saying! It is actually saying that he is creating himself “one new man in [the] place of the two.” In other words, Christianity uniquely proclaims this reality: that the reconciliation that is achieved through the blood of Jesus on the cross has opened up a way whereby those of us who are tempted to identify ourselves solely by either our intellect, our race, our creed, whatever else it may be, may be understanding that all of that has now been subsumed in the cross of Jesus Christ.
So he has abolished, he has created, and he has done so in order—verse 16—that he “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” “Killing the hostility.” It’s quite wonderful. And you will see that this is on account of the fact—verse 17—that “he came and [he] preached peace to you who were far off.” Well, of course, he never came to Ephesus, did he? Jesus had already ascended into heaven. So what does Paul mean, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off”?
Well, what he means is what we were saying in our opening prayer: that ultimately, if the Bible is to be brought home to us, it must come, as it were, through the lips of Jesus himself—that by the Holy Spirit, it is not enough simply to hear the voice of a mere man, but in it, through it, and beyond it, we actually hear Christ. And he’s saying to these Ephesian believers, “And Jesus came, and he preached to you.” Now, of course, it was Paul who preached. But they heard Jesus’ voice. “Today, if you hear his voice, [you] do not harden your hearts.” So, in other words, he came, and he announced this. He announced it. First of all, he achieved it, and then he announced it—and it is for men and women to accept it. To accept it.
You see, the message of the gospel, which is clearly in the pages of Scripture, is not a story that says, “Because Jesus achieved this, therefore we are all automatically forgiven.” No. What he has achieved he has now announced, and has announced it in such a way that men and women must accept it—accept it as the free gift that it is; accept it on account of God’s grace.
So the alienation that exists on a vertical and on a horizontal axis is addressed by the reconciliation that is provided in the work of Jesus—which in turn leads then to transformation. If we go back up to earlier in the page, back up to verse 5, we have this wonderful record of what God has done, beginning this work of transformation, putting us in a right relationship with himself and in a unique relationship with one another.
He has “made us alive”; “even when we were dead in our trespasses,” he has “made us alive together with Christ.” You see, until I realize that I am dead, then there will be no need for me to ask for any kind of life.
That was the amazing encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Nicodemus, you need to be born again.”
“Born again? Why would I need to be born again? I’m sitting here talking to you. And furthermore, how could I be born again? Could I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born?”
And Jesus says, “No, no. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I say to you, ‘You must be born again.’ Nicodemus, you’re a religious man, but you’re a dead man walking. You have all the rules and all the regulations. You’re interested enough to come under cover of darkness and talk to me. I am heading towards the cross, where the penalty for sin will be secured. And I say to you, Nicodemus, you need to be made alive.”
See, that’s the difference between religion… Anybody can adopt a religion—take the ten most important things, begin to put them into practice, try and do my best, try and be a nicer person and so on. But you’re still a dead man walking. No, in this transformation accomplished by God in Jesus, we are made alive.
And at the same time, we are raised up. That’s verse 6: “By grace you[’ve] been saved—and raised … up with him.” Raised up with him. And not only that, but “seated … with him.” Seated with him!
This is amazing, isn’t it? Isn’t it wonderful if you go somewhere, and you think that you’re just scraping in by the skin of your teeth—you manage at the end of the day to get a ticket or some way of entrance, and perhaps you went to see somebody that was going to be singing or performing or speaking in some way, and all of a sudden the person says, “Why don’t you come up here and sit beside me?” You say, “Oh, it couldn’t possibly be.” But you see, that is what has happened here.
Do you understand, you see, what it means—to become a Christian means to be united with Christ. Our union with Christ, to be in Christ, does not mean to be “in Christ” in the way that, for example, I have a box of pens at my home, and I have all these different pens, and the pens are “in the box.” That’s not it. No—as if we were just inside something. No, it is to be organically in Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches. We are united with him by grace through faith. We didn’t fall into this. We didn’t create this. We didn’t inherit this. It’s a miracle of his provision. There comes a point where we hear the Word of God, it is proclaimed to us, and we accept it—and somehow or another, we’re caught up into him.
So, for example, when you read in the Gospels or you read in the Epistles, “On the third day he rose again, he ascended into heaven, and he sat down,” that is his resurrection, that is his ascension, and that is what we refer to theologically as his session, as in the court: “The court is now in session.” Well, the heavenly court is now in session.
And if you are in Christ, you have been raised with him, you ascend with him, and you are seated with him. How else are we going to face the court—we who by nature, as we saw, were dead in our trespasses and in our sins? How else can we be made alive? How else can we remove ourselves from the muck and mire of all that is ours in this earthy pilgrimage? What prospect do we have? Well, it is all here in Jesus.
Because—because—he is “rich in mercy.” What a wonderful little phrase: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…” “He loved us”! You see, the wonder of the love of God—the wonder of the love of God—is not that his love is upon us because of merit that we bring, because somehow or another we have managed to put ourselves in a position that seems a little more acceptable than before. No, what Paul is actually saying here, in an economy of language, is that neither our works nor our faith have any merit. It’s not as if there’s a transaction here whereby God brings to the equation his grace and we bring to the occasion our faith. Faith is simply the empty hands that lay hold upon the offer of the gospel. “The gospel train is comin’, and there’s room for many-a-more. There’s room for many-a-more.”
Now, that which God has begun, as Paul says to the Philippians—that which has begun in us as a good work will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. And so he reminds these people, “Here is what is true of you: you’re all citizens of Christ’s kingdom.” Verse 19: “So then you[’re] no longer strangers and aliens, … you are fellow citizens.” “Fellow citizens.” No distinction. “You are … members of the household of God.” Who are you? What’s your identity? What do you say? Do you have a passport? Do you have a social security number? How do you want to identify yourself? How do you wish to distinguish yourself? “Well, by God’s grace I am a citizen of the kingdom in which he reigns. I am a member of the household which he loves. I am a stone in the temple which he builds.” It’s fantastic.
Only in Christ. Only in Christ. “One new man.” You say, “Well, does that mean that all of these other elements are irrelevant?” No, not at all! He’s not suggesting that the fact of their Jewish background is completely obliterated in Christ, or their gentile background in the same way. No! No. We are who we are, as made in the image of God, fashioned according to his purposes. But the unifying factor is that out of two he has made one new man.
And we are building. We are building: “The whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple [to] the Lord.”
We are building day by day,
As the moments pass away,
A temple that this world cannot see;
And every victory won by grace
Will be sure to find a place
In that building for eternity.
So we come full cycle. I said we need to know the times; I suggested perhaps there’s one or two ways in which we can find pointers. Because God has planned that in an authentic local church there should be a blueprint of that which will be there in its fullness on that day.
But as we said last Sunday morning, if these things are the credentials of our justification, you know, our credentials need a little bit of polish. Because we are not immune. We are not immune from creating barriers of our own: of status, of color, of class. We have to be prepared to acknowledge how easy it is for us to get this wrong. We have to be prepared to repent of how it is that we can so easily excuse or even condone that which is displeasing to God. And it is not only displeasing to God, but it is a stumbling block to the world when it looks on. We cannot, loved ones, go out there and say, “We are citizens in the same kingdom, we are members of the same family, we are stones in the same building; however…” No. We can’t have the “however.”
Can you imagine saying, “Good morning, and welcome to Parkside Church; this is ‘a dwelling place for God by his Spirit’”? Because, loved ones, that’s exactly how Paul puts it: that the local church is a dwelling place of God, for God, by his Spirit. And that, you see, is why the message of the gospel, when you go to the apostolic pattern as we’re looking at it here—precept and pattern of the apostles takes us again and again to the gospel. “I delivered to you,” says Paul in Corinthians 15, he says, “I delivered to you of first importance that Christ died, that Christ was raised, that Christ ascended.” Why does he come back to that again and again? Why does he not divert course and deal with matters of all the chaos and craziness that was represented in Corinth or in Ephesus, all the need for justice and so on? Because he recognizes that only God can soften our hard hearts, and only God can open our blind eyes.
Alienation. Reconciliation. Transformation.
Now just a moment of silence.
Our gracious God, we humbly pray that you will write your Word in our hearts. We recognize that we have “a few more marchings weary” before we “gather home”; there will be “a few more storm clouds dreary” till we “gather home,” and “o’er [life]’s rapid river,” then “soon we’ll rest forever.” And yet, in our weary marchings, Lord, and as we think of that march upon Washington—O Lord, fill us with this awareness: that you, being rich in mercy, according to the great love with which you loved us, have poured your love into our hearts in order that it might flow from our hearts in Christ himself. Help us, Lord, because there’s much still to be done. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 1 Chronicles 12:32 (ESV).
 See Psalm 119:89.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream…” (1963), https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
 King, “I Have a Dream….”
 John Lennon, “Revolution” (1968).
 John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971).
 Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (1983).
 Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: The Heart of the Bible Story (n.p.: Good Book, 2019), 163.
 King, “I Have a Dream….”
 John 16:33 (ESV).
 Hebrews 3:15 (ESV). Emphasis added.
 See John 3:1–8.
 See John 15:5.
 The Apostle’s Creed. Paraphrased.
 “The Gospel Train.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Philippians 1:6.
 Fanny J. Crosby, “We Are Building.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 (paraphrased).
 See Jeremiah 31:33.
 Fanny J. Crosby, “A Few More Marchings Weary” (1882).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.