Paul's letter to the Ephesians is about God's marvelous plan to bring peace, unity and salvation to all peoples—Jews and gentiles alike.
"Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:6, NIV).
Paul's letter to the Ephesians is about God's marvelous plan to bring peace, unity and salvation to all peoples—Jews and gentiles alike. To achieve that goal, God has "made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10, NIV).
His message to those in Colosse contains similar language: "For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Colossians 1:19-20).
Therefore, Paul appeals to Christians, "As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace" (Ephesians 6:15, NRSV). To achieve that goal, both one's thinking and way of life must be rooted firmly in the teachings of God's Word.
Paul speaks plainly to the non-Jewish Christians whose former conduct had not been based on the Word of God. "So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking" (Ephesians 4:17, NIV). They must cease living according to the "course of this world," which is controlled by the "wiles of the devil" (Ephesians 2:2; 6:11).
Instead, they must recognize that they "are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Ephesians 2:10, NIV). Paul's words here are consistent with his words in another letter. Only by studying the Scriptures as "the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) to receive accurate " instruction in righteousness" is it possible that "the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Gentiles and Jews united by a common inheritance
As in other letters, Paul again makes the point that for gentiles to inherit God's promises they must first be grafted— like branches of a wild olive tree— into the root of Israel, the natural olive tree that has descended from Abraham.
Notice how forcefully Paul stresses this: "Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called 'Uncircumcision' by the so- called 'Circumcision,' . . . remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded 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 formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:11-13, NASB).
To what were they brought near? To the promise of the same inheritance claimed by Christian Jews! "For He [Christ] Himself is our peace, who has made both [Jews and gentiles] one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation" (verse 14).
What "middle wall of separation" had to be "broken down" so Jews and gentiles could be reconciled in the "one" body, the Church? In verse 15 Paul describes this wall as the "enmity" that divides Jews and gentiles. Whatever that "wall" was, it was a clear symbol of Jewish-gentile enmity. Sadly, that " wall" of enmity is often misinterpreted as God's commandments—His law.
Is that what Paul had in mind in this analogy of a wall that separated Jews and gentiles? Not even remotely! Let's correctly identify the "wall" that vividly symbolized the barrier between the Jews and the gentiles. For that we need to accurately understand a little bit of history and the meaning of two key Greek words that Paul used.
The temple's "middle wall"
In the New Testament the Greek word mesotoichon, meaning "middle wall," occurs only in Ephesians 2:14. The Greek word phragmos, translated "of separation" or "of partition" (KJV) in the same verse, means a "fence" or "railing" and is sometimes translated as "hedge" (Matthew 21:33; Mark 12:1; Luke 14:23).
The meaning of these words indicates that Paul's expression "middle wall of separation" refers to some barrier that divides people as would a fence, railing or hedge. Here a brief history lesson is helpful.
Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian from a priestly family. In his book Wars of the Jews he used both Greek terms—in separate contexts—for a particular balustrade or barrier at the Jerusalem temple (Book 5, chap. 5, sec. 2 and 6).
Which barrier evoked Paul's comparison to the divisions that existed between gentiles and Jews? It was the wall erected by the Jews to isolate the outer court of the gentiles —the area of the Jewish temple complex where gentiles were allowed—from the inner area around the temple itself, from which all gentiles were banned.
The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Acts explains: "That no Gentile might unwittingly enter into the forbidden areas, notices in Greek and Latin were fixed to the barrier at the foot of the steps leading up to the inner precincts, warning them that death was the penalty for further ingress.
"Two of these notices (both in Greek) have been found—one in 1871 and one in 1935—the text of which runs: 'No foreigner [gentile] may enter within the barricade which surrounds the temple and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death'" (1974, p. 434).
Humanly erected barriers
Setting up that physical wall in the outer court of the temple was not commanded in the Scriptures. God never issued any order to erect it. To Paul, this barrier erected by the Jews was a fitting symbol of the enmity Jews and gentiles had for each other.
The literal, physical "middle wall" was demolished when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. However, several years before its physical destruction Paul pointed to it as a fitting symbol of the prejudicial ethnic and religious barriers that divide human beings.
All such man-made barriers must be "broken down" before mankind can enjoy the peace and unity for which Christ died. Yet, to this day, the world is filled with man-made taboos that divide people culturally, religiously, ethnically and nationally.
Paul is pointing out that in God's plan true reconciliation requires the elimination of barriers that separate people contrary to the intent of the Scriptures. As he had explained to the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
Was Paul teaching the gentile converts in Ephesus to reject the Jews? No, the thrust of his remarks was just the opposite.
He was making the point that the hope and spiritual future of the Christian gentiles is through participating in the promises made to that "commonwealth" of Abraham's "seed"—not in rejecting the Jews. And neither should the Jews reject the gentiles. The long-standing barriers between Jews and gentiles needed to be broken down. (Be sure to also read " Paul Imprisoned Over a Man-Made Taboo" on page 106.)
Once we understand that man-made ethnic, gender, religious and cultural prejudices are what really stand in the way of the peace and unity that Paul is addressing, then the rest of his remarks begin to make sense. The main focus of Paul's message in Ephesians is "that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:6, NIV).
The greatest lifestyle changes had to be made, not by Jewish Christians, but by Christian gentiles. So Paul tells these gentile converts, "You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them" (Ephesians 4:17-18).
Ignorance alienates people from "the life of God" as revealed through His servants, the apostles and prophets who wrote the Scriptures (Ephesians 2:19-20). When false beliefs are presented as "truth" they become powerful tools of deception.
Traditions that blind humanity
In Ephesians and Colossians we find several closely related passages that address human traditions and warn against yielding to their deceptiveness. In one passage Paul lumps deceptive human traditions together in the phrase "law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15).
Notice this warning that Paul gave to those in Colosse: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8, NIV). The ideas Paul was fighting in Colosse were not biblical ideas but worldly philosophical ideas rooted in human tradition.
It was also human tradition —not God's law—that Paul was combating in Ephesus. We may confirm this by examining both the meaning and usage of certain key Greek words that Paul uses in Ephesians 2 and comparing them to similar or identical Greek words in Colossians 2.
In the Bible, the word "commandments" generally refers to commands of God. But that is not always case. The context in which a command is given will normally reveal its source. For example, a "commandment" could originate from human rulers, military commanders or others who claim to have authority—regardless of whether their claim to authority is legitimate.
This fact is important. In Titus 1:14 Paul uses the Greek word entole for "commandments" which he clearly labels to be "of men." He uses the same word for "commandments" when he writes of "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" in Ephesians 2:15. This Greek word entole is directly related to the Greek word entalma, also translated "commandments"—referring to "commandments and doctrines of men"—in Colossians 2:22.
The point is that Paul's use of entole (Ephesians 2:15) and entalma is not restricted to God's commandments. Claiming that in Ephesians and Colossians these words should always be interpreted as referring to God's law is unsupportable. Both words can be, and often are, used in other ways.
And in Ephesians and Colossians Paul uses them both in reference to commandments of men. This becomes even clearer as we examine some additional words Paul uses.
The Greek word translated in the King James Version as "ordinances" in Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:14 is dogma. It is rendered variously as " requirements," "decrees" or "regulations" in other English translations. Like the words described above, its meaning is not limited to biblical law or biblical decrees.
Technically, the Greek word dogma means "a formalized rule (or set of rules) prescribing what people must do" ( Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 1988). Dogma is commonly translated as "decree" and refers to decrees made either by man or God. It is certainly not limited to biblical decrees or laws. Paul uses it in both Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:14 in the context of man-made requirements and regulations.
Dogma was such a common Greek word that it was imported into the English language. In English, "dogma" is defined as: "An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true" ( The New American Heritage Dictionary ). We use the English adjective "dogmatic" to describe adamant or unyielding statements and opinions. This corresponds closely to Paul's use of the Greek word dogma in Ephesians and Colossians.
A variation of dogma is the Greek verb dogmatizo, meaning "put under obligation by rules or ordinances, obligate" or, in passive form as in Colossians 2:20, to "submit to rules and regulations" ( Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2000, p. 254).
Paul's use of these words is plain. He uses the word ordinances ( dogma in Colossians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:15, dogmatizo in Colossians 2:20) to mean humanly imposed regulations and rules—the " commandments and doctrines of men." The context of his remarks makes it clear that this was his intended meaning. In both letters (Ephesians and Colossians) Paul is addressing dogmatic, man-made decrees that separate human beings from one another.
God's law is never a factor when Paul is discussing these man-made restrictions. Neither his words nor his grammar in those contexts give confirmation to such a conclusion. Yet that is the most common conclusion presented—without merit—from these passages.
Those who try to make God's law the focus of Paul's comments inject their own prejudices into his remarks. They do this because for hundreds of years such traditions have influenced theological thinking. However, this anti-law, anti-Jewish thinking is currently being rejected by some of today's most knowledgeable scholars.
Long ago Paul put his finger on the real cause of this thinking when he wrote: "For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God's law, for it is unable to do so" (Romans 8:7-8, Holman Christian Standard Bible). So long as hostility toward God's law dominates human thinking, mankind will never achieve peace. God's solution is to write His laws in our hearts and minds.
For that to happen, we first must drop from our reasoning those human traditions that are contrary to God's laws—traditions promoting hostility and division instead of peace, love and unity. The true Christian teaching is, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).
Paul's use of "law" in Ephesians 2:15
We now come to the meaning of the Greek word translated "law" as used by Paul in the phrase, "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Ephesians 2:15). That Greek word is nomos, which can be used with a broad range of meanings.
In the New Testament nomos is generally used for biblical law, especially the Torah (the five books of Moses) either as a whole or in part. But, like the word commandments, it is not exclusively limited to biblical law.
In addition to divine law it also may mean: "procedure or practice that has taken hold, a custom, rule, principle, norm" ( Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 677). Nomos is so broad in meaning that it may, and often does, refer to customs, principles or laws that are distinct from the law of God.
The awkward expression "law of commandments contained in ordinances" may be more accurately rendered "the rule of decrees contained in regulations" made by men. That would better reflect Paul's intended meaning.
In Ephesians 2:15, Paul is simply stating that Jesus Christ—in His "flesh" (by His death for our sins)—invalidated human regulations devised by men as the criteria for judging others. His emphasis is that Christ's example is the proper yardstick for all relationships.
He summarizes the point in these words: "We should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head— Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:14-16).
Christ has "abolished" hostility
Notice how the Greek word katargeo —translated "abolished" in Ephesians 2:15—fits Paul's intended focus. The basic meaning of katargeo is "to cause to lose its power or effectiveness, invalidate, make powerless" ( Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 525).
The Friberg Analytical Lexicon explains that "the term always denotes a nonphysical destruction by means of a superior force coming in to replace the force previously in effect, as, e.g. light destroys darkness" (emphasis added). Paul uses this word in a context of replacing enmity (hostility) with loving unity and respect.
Accepting Christ's death to blot out personal sins put Jews and gentiles on equal footing before God. By making forgiveness of sin available to all peoples, Christ abolished every excuse to maintain hostility toward others. This is the real message in Ephesians 2.
And that message is supported by Paul's comments in Colossians 2. Neither chapter has anything to do with abolishing God's law.