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The blood that brings peace

As the Israel-Gaza war rages, with all the tragic death and suffering it entails, many pressing concerns naturally spring to our minds. Why is the situation so dire? Who is to blame for the suffering? And what are our political leaders doing about it? I can’t begin to answer all these questions in this short article. But I want to point us to something that will help us: the cross of Jesus Christ. How does it help? I’m convinced that the message of the cross gives us a deep foundation and a vital framework for making sense of issues of conflict in our world as well as in our lives.

I’m taking my cue here from the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul directly raises the issue of conflict with Israel. And he immediately answers the issue by reminding his readers of something that has brought peace: the cross of Christ. (Here, I’m summarising and paraphrasing some key points from my online text and audio series on Ephesians called Lift Your Eyes; you can find more details there if you want to follow it up).

Just to be clear, I don’t believe the modern state of Israel is identical to ancient Israel—either politically or theologically. Yet I am convinced that what Paul says about this situation of ancient conflict in Israel is still highly relevant to us today whenever we face situations of conflict—including the present and pressing conflict in Israel.

Israel, conflict and hostility

Ephesians 2:11–12 is about the ancient conflict between Israel and “gentiles” (non-Israelites). This hostility is described in many places in the Old Testament. It continued into the time of Jesus and Paul in the first century when the Roman Empire occupied the land.

One of the ways this hostility manifested itself was through verbal abuse on both sides. Jewish circumcision was commented on and laughed at by various non-Jewish people. On the other side, various Jewish people called gentiles the “uncircumcision” (literally, “the foreskin”) as a term of abuse (you can imagine modern equivalents, can’t you?) Paul refers to this hostile name-calling in verse 11.

But it wasn’t just name-calling. For some Jewish people living under the Roman Empire, the “Christ” (or “Messiah”) was seen as God’s hoped-for military and political vindicator of Israel against the gentile oppressors. They read Old Testament prophetic hopes in terms of national military victory (see, for example, Psalms of Solomon 17). At times, those ideas erupted into direct conflict between Jews and gentiles. Paul is probably referring to those ideas, at least in the background, in verse 12.

The answer: the cross

How, then, does Paul address these issues of hostility and conflict? We might expect that he would face it head on by pointing to some human solution, such as a military plan, a political compromise, or a philosophical appeal to shared humanity. But he doesn’t. Instead, he points squarely to God’s solution: “the blood of Christ.” Jesus’ death on the cross, he says, brings peace in the face of hostility:

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 (Ephesians 2:13–14)

What does Paul mean by this? How on earth can Jesus dying on a cross solve the issue of conflict? How can blood bring peace?

This is where we need to look at things that Paul has already said in Ephesians about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t a random act of bloodshed. It was God’s plan. Jesus died in our place, for our sins, so that our “trespasses” can be forgiven (see Ephesians 1:7). Even though these “trespasses and sins” have put us all rightly under God’s judgment (Ephesians 2:1–3), God has raised us with Christ and “saved” us (Ephesians 2:4–7). This is all by God’s amazing, glorious grace, which isn’t our effort but all God’s doing (Ephesians 2:8–10). So Jesus’ death and resurrection means our sins are forgiven, and we have a great hope of eternal life.

What does this have to do with conflict and hostility? Everything! It shows us that when it comes to God’s grace, nobody has anything to boast about (Ephesians 2:9). Before a pure and holy God, both Israel and the gentiles are sinners in need of salvation (Ephesians 2:3). And everyone who believes in Jesus—whether Jewish or gentile—has been saved purely by God’s grace. None of us can claim to have been God’s perfectly pure, holy people. We can’t paint one side as purely perfect and the other side as purely evil. Instead, the gospel of our salvation teaches us that we’re all sinners when it comes to God. So we’re all saved by God on the same basis. We’re forgiven and made holy by God’s sheer grace. That means that those who trust in Christ are God’s forgiven and holy people together. That fact—that shared reality—is bigger than our human hostilities and conflicts.

The gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection teaches us that we’re greater sinners than we can ever imagine. It also teaches us that our salvation is greater than we can ever imagine. Therefore, it teaches us how to relate to others. It enables us to forgive even those we see as our worst enemies; after all, in Christ, we ourselves have been forgiven even more. Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with others. This is how the blood of Christ overcomes hostility. But we need to “remember” it (verse 11). We need to remember God’s grace. We need to remember that though we once were far away, we’ve now been brought close (verse 13).

That’s why Paul can say Jesus’ death creates a new, united “humanity” (verse 15). Christ’s blood “reconcile[d] us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (verse 16). And as this gospel message is preached and believed, it brings peace to far and near (verse 17), life together in God’s presence (verses 18–22) and hope together of eternal life (see Ephesians 1:13–14).

This is the opposite of what bloodshed normally does. Bloodshed normally creates greater conflict. It stirs people to war and revolution, to fight for vengeance against injustice. For example, Hamas leader Isamil Haniyeh recently declared that “The blood of the women, children and elderly […] we are the ones who need this blood, so it awakens within us the revolutionary spirit, so it awakens with us resolve.” Yet Christ’s blood does the precise opposite. Instead of stirring up revolution and further bloodshed, it kills hostility and brings peace and reconciliation, with God and with others.

But does it really work?

But isn’t this just religious pie in the sky? Surely, you might say, all this talk about Jesus and the cross is fine for our private spiritual devotions and otherworldly church services, but when it comes to war on the ground, what we really need is immediate justice and decisive political action!

Yes, we do need justice and action. But even more, to ground it all, we need the cross of Christ. The cross makes a massive real difference—and it still does. In his book Dominion, historian Tom Holland argues in detail that this message of the cross of Christ has enormously impacted our Western civilisation.[1] In fact, the cross of Christ is foundational to our modern striving for peace and the worldview behind it. Even though the cross has always seemed foolish and weak (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–31), in so many ways, the message of the cross has brought peace, tangibly, in our world. And this will be seen even more clearly when Jesus returns to bring the world to rights.

So yes, there is a need for immediate responses and concrete action to work towards peace. But as Christians, we must remember that we have a more fundamental message of peace through Jesus’ death on the cross. No matter what else we do or say, the cross of Christ must remain our fundamental answer. We can’t afford to neglect it. As you pray, speak, grieve, and engage online about all these issues, don’t neglect the gospel of Christ crucified. It truly is our ultimate hope—and the world’s hope—for peace.

[1] Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Abacus, 2019).