Every so often, I go to a local community college to watch Israeli films with some of my Jewish friends. Recently, we watched a film called A Borrowed Identity. It’s a beautiful film, based on a touching memoir by popular Israeli Palestinian novelist and TV writer Sayed Kashua. The film tells the story of an Arab boy who, through various circumstances, comes to take on a Jewish identity. It explores friendship, love, life, identity, and humanity. Its message is that if we can just come close to people, experiencing their humanity and seeing their struggles first hand, we will be able to overcome our differences. The film offers a hope of peace through shared humanity. But sadly, ideals like this don’t always reflect reality, do they? After we saw the film, we heard a little more about its back story. Just a short while before the film was due to premiere at a significant Israeli film festival, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Palestinians. Then the bodies of the teenagers were found in a mound of rocks. Protesters called for vengeance. The situation escalated. A day after the funerals for the Israeli teenagers, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian was bludgeoned and burned alive as an act of vengeance. And the man responsible for the message of peace through humanity, Sayed Kashua, left Israel for good. He later proclaimed: “The lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.”
Despite our best desires and efforts, we humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. The Arab-Jewish issues stem from complex and deep-rooted historical conflicts involving land and religion. And conflicts like this aren’t just isolated to one part of the world, are they? Most recently, it’s become devastatingly obvious in the Christchurch Mosque shootings on 15 March 2019. Of course, this shooting just the horrifyingly tragic tip of a dark and ominous iceberg in our society. The identity wars are here among us. You could name countless other conflicts: In my own city, Sydney, there are tensions between Korean and Japanese communities going back at least to World War II, deep-seated scars caused by the European treatment of Indigenous people, and many other conflicts. There’s also the name-calling and blame-shouting between the increasingly polarised political “left” and “right”. It’s also true on the personal level. You may have personal scars, stemming from wounding words or actions from people who are close to you. No matter how much you might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending it didn’t happen.
Yet in this part of Ephesians, Paul talks about a deep-seated conflict that really was healed. He talks about people who once were far away being brought close: not just physically near to each other, but personally close. And this closeness that Paul talks about isn’t just for other people in a far-off country. It’s a closeness that intimately involves all of us who believe in Jesus Christ. It’s fundamental to our own identity. It matters. It’s real. And it’s something that we must remember for ourselves.
Therefore, remember that although you who were once the gentiles in the flesh—the ones called “foreskin” by that which is called “circumcision” in the flesh and made by hand, because you were at that time apart from the Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world—yet now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought close by the blood of Christ.
These verses begin with a command—the first command in Ephesians—to “remember”. Paul is telling his readers, who are believers in Jesus Christ, that they need to recall a memory from their past. The memory they need to recall isn’t a vivid personal memory that each one of them would have experienced directly. It’s a memory of something that happened to them together. In fact, it’s a memory that they can only understand properly if they see it in light of a bigger story: the story of the Bible, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because it’s a memory about their relationship with God. More specifically, it’s a memory about their relationship with God’s ancient people Israel. It’s a memory they need to bring to mind so that they can truly grasp their present situation.
The first part of the memory isn’t a happy one. It involves serious hostility: hostility between God’s people Israel and the various nations that lived round about. This hostility is described in many places in the Old Testament. It continued into the time of Jesus and of Paul in the first century, when the people of Israel were ruled by the Roman Empire. At this time, there were a lot of people from other nations living in Israel, and a lot of people from Israel (Jewish people) living among the other nations. Traditionally, Jewish people referred to non-Jewish people using the biblical word for “nation”, which comes across into English as “gentile”. In many places in the Roman Empire at this time, the hostility between Jewish and gentile people, between Israel and the nations, was palpable and deeply entrenched. It manifested itself in various ways, including in various wars, and even in massacres.
One of the ways this hostility manifested itself day-by-day was through verbal abuse. Verbal abuse and name-calling might not seem as serious as wars and massacres, but it does matter: it forms the hostile atmosphere in which these wars arise. What was the focus of this abuse? Jewish men and boys were circumcised, as a special sign that they were to be God’s holy law-keeping people in obedience to God’s command to Abraham (see Genesis 17). Gentiles, by and large, were not circumcised. Often, this difference led to Jewish and non-Jewish people calling each other derogatory names. Jewish people called gentiles the “foreskin” as a term of ridicule or abuse (you can imagine modern equivalents, can’t you?) And Jewish circumcision was often mentioned and laughed at by various non-Jewish groups. This wasn’t just harmless name-calling. It was an expression of a fundamental, deep-seated hostility.
The theological dimension
But this hostility between Jewish people and gentile people didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it had a theological dimension. Jewish people understood themselves to be God’s holy, special, and pure people. This is, after all, what God’s law called Israel to be. They understood themselves to be worshippers of the true God, unlike the gentiles who were impure and worshipped idols. This theological understanding of Israel’s place in the world is what lies behind Paul’s description in these verses of Ephesians: “because you were at that time apart from the Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world”. Paul is talking here about a real hostility, with a real theological dimension. What does he mean?
For some Jewish people living in the Roman Empire, the gentiles were seen as foreign oppressors of Israel, and the “Christ” or “Messiah” was seen as the vindicator of Israel against the gentiles. The Christ was often understood to be a military leader who would come to defeat the gentiles. Those who thought this way believed that when the Christ came, only Israel had any hope of benefitting from his rule. So these words Paul is echoing here are fighting words: they’re saying if you’re not part of Israel, you’re a godless enemy—and that means you have no share in the Christ, and no share in God himself. These words are, in fact, based on things we read about in the Old Testament. Israel was supposed to be God’s special people, and they were supposed to be holy, and God did promise that his coming Messiah would rescue his people from those who oppress them. There’s a truth here. But in fact, it’s only a half-truth (which can be the most dangerous kind of untruth). This half-truth only led to conflict and abuse. But Paul doesn’t want his readers only to remember this first part. He wants them to remember what happened next. And the rest of the memory changes everything.
Paul says: “yet now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought close by the blood of Christ”. This is the key thing they need to remember. Yes, they need to remember the conflict in the past. But they also need to remember what happened next. These gentiles were far away—far away from Israel, and indeed far away from God. But now, these gentiles have been brought close. Brought close to whom? Of course, they have been brought close to God—this is foundational (see Ephesians 2:1–10). But here, the point is that they have been brought close to Israel. This closeness hasn’t been achieved through some kind of amazing diplomacy. It hasn’t been achieved by Israel’s obedience or purity. In fact, it hasn’t been achieved by human hands at all. It has been achieved by “the blood of Christ”. How has this happened?
By the blood of Christ
This is where we need to come back to the things Paul has already said in Ephesians. Paul has already mentioned Christ’s “blood” close to the start of the letter. It’s a way of talking about Jesus’ death on the cross: Jesus died in our place, for our sins, so that our “offences” can be forgiven (see Ephesians 1:7). At the start of chapter 2, Paul says that our “offences and sins” have put us all under God’s judgment (Ephesians 2:1–3). But he goes on to say that we’ve been raised up with Christ and “saved” (Ephesians 2:4–7). Then he insists that this is all by God’s amazing, glorious grace, a grace that isn’t our own effort but all God’s doing (Ephesians 2:8–10). So the “blood of Christ” is about Jesus’ death which, along with his resurrection, means our sins are forgiven and that we have a great hope for the future.
But how does this bring us close? What does it have to do with conflict and hostility between Israel and the gentiles? Everything! Because it means that neither side has anything to boast about when it comes to God. The gentiles certainly have nothing to boast about. And also, Paul insists, Israel has nothing to boast about either. Both Israel and the nations were sinners in need of salvation (v. 3). And everyone who believes in Jesus—whether Jewish or gentile—has been saved purely by God’s grace. So none of us can claim to have been God’s pure, holy people. Not even Israel can claim that. Neither we nor they can paint one side as always being the goodies, and the other side as always being the baddies. Instead, the gospel of our salvation teaches us that we’re all the baddies 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. Therefore we are God’s forgiven yet holy people together. That fact is bigger than any hostility we can think of.
The gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection teaches us that we’re bigger sinners than we can ever imagine. It also teaches us that our salvation is bigger than we can ever imagine. Therefore it teaches us about how to relate to others. It enables us to forgive even those we see as our worst enemies—because in Christ, we ourselves have been forgiven even more. This is how the blood of Christ overcomes hostility. But we need to “remember” it. We need to remember the gospel. We need to remember that though we once were far away, we’ve now been brought close.
In our own conflicts and hostility, this is what we need to remember. If we have been badly hurt by someone, what do we need most? Yes, we may need to speak to the person honestly, or seek repentance, or get closure, or make sure human justice is done—these are all often necessary. But even as we do this, we also need to remember that there is always something greater than the hostility. There is our own forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and our own new life to live. Even when we are hurt even by our own brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to remember. We need to remember Jesus, to remember that we were dead in sin, to remember that the person or people who hurt us were dead in sin, to remember that we have together been saved by grace and been made alive, and to remember that none of us can boast in anything before God. We were once far away. But now we have been brought close by the blood of Christ.
Do you see how the gospel of our salvation from sin and death through Jesus Christ changes everything? It must change the way we relate to one another, mustn’t it? The blood of Christ makes us close. It’s not as if there are two different gospels: one gospel of individual salvation, and another gospel of social reconciliation. We should never set these two ideas off against each other: salvation versus reconciliation, as if we need to balance one against the other, or concentrate more on one or the other. This isn’t how the gospel works. No: one leads to another. Because the gospel is firstly a gospel of individual salvation from sin and death before God, therefore it’s a gospel of reconciliation, and it must make a difference to our relationships and bring peace and reconciliation with others. You don’t have one without the other. Let’s always remember this. We, who were once far away, were brought close. Not by our own efforts. But by the blood of Christ.
Consider a situation where you are (or have been) in conflict with others.
Reflect on what Jesus has done for you in his death on the cross. How does the blood of Christ help you in your situation of conflict?
This article was originally published on Lionel’s website Forget the Channel as part of his series in the book of Ephesians, ‘Lift Your Eyes’. You can subscribe to the whole series and podcast here.