Nearly 18 years ago President Reagan challenged the Soviets to tear down the infamous Berlin Wall. But the apostle Paul talked about the tearing down of an even more important wall that separates people.
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! " (Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, Germany).
In perhaps his most memorable speech, President Reagan helped change the course of history (in ways still to be seen, prophetically). From 1961 to 1989, an estimated 1,000 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall from East Germany to West Germany. One man reportedly "bled to death after being shot during a 1962 escape attempt..." ("Berlin Wall Stirs Emotions," Aug. 13, 2002, cnn.com/world). Walls can carry tremendous significance, both good and bad.
Death Penalty and Wall Removed
The Bible speaks of the removal of a wall, resulting in a far more profound change to the course of history. Christ broke down the wall that divided Jews and gentiles—people of every ethnic group:
"For He Himself is our peace , who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation , having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace " (Ephesians:2:14-15, emphasis added throughout).
The "law of commandments contained in ordinances" alludes to a man-made law (not God's law) that was posted on a temple wall, separating the Jewish inner courts from the court of the gentiles.
"These two courts were separated by a low wall, as Josephus states, some 41⁄2 feet high... a stone was discovered by M. Ganneau in 1871, built into the wall, bearing the following inscription... ' No stranger is to enter within the partition wall and enclosure around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be responsible to himself for his death, which will ensue'" (Easton's Bible Dictionary).
It's interesting that a low wall, only 41⁄2 feet high, could sustain such intense segregation. Yet this placed the threatening sign at about eye-level.
Paul, a former Pharisee, had to unlearn this man-made practice before he could be the apostle to the gentiles. He experienced what it's like to be on the other side of this law: "... For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple... Now as they were seeking to kill him... all Jerusalem was in an uproar" (Acts:21:29-31).
It's not that Jews and gentiles were committing hate crimes against one another. There was peace, as long as the gentiles didn't get too close . Yet the Jews' definition of "too close" did not reflect God's definition.
Such deeply rooted viewpoints did not vanish instantaneously when Jews and gentiles entered God's Church. Likewise, it's possible for the lingering effects of man-made social norms to skew our perspective of "godly" boundaries between members in God's Church.
In Ephesians 2, was Paul "digging up" racial issues from the past? What relevance could this predominately gentile congregation glean from a temple wall analogy? Actually there were many gentiles, known as "God-fearers," who regularly worshipped in this gentile court before converting to Christianity. Paul and Barnabas targeted this group.
"Their policy was to visit the Jewish synagogue in each place . . . because there they could usually be sure of finding a group of 'God-fearing' Gentiles who might become the nucleus of a Christian church" (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History , 1969, page 272).
Former God-fearers were probably keen about the idea of being "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians:3:28). Their spiritual status would no longer be restricted by their ethnic identity.
While some walls maintain God-ordained barriers, the "middle wall" is absent from diagrams of the first temple, which Solomon built. But Herod's motives for building the second temple were geared more toward gaining favor from the Jews.
A House for All People
Though gentiles were barred from the Jewish inner courts, many Jews regularly visited in the court of the gentiles. Jesus displayed a zealous concern for the activities within this court:
"Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, 'Is it not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations "? But you have made it a "den of thieves"'" (Mark:11:15-17).
Money changers made excessive profits while exchanging currency and doing business with foreign Jews. But Jesus' outrage was not limited to this materialism. Christ quoted Isaiah:56:7, which describes the conversion of gentiles from "all nations." Expositor's Bible Commentary discusses this significance:
"The first passage quoted by Jesus is Isaiah:56:7, a prediction that non-Jews who worship God will be allowed to worship in the temple. By allowing the Court of the Gentiles, the only place in the temple area where Gentiles were allowed to worship God, to become a noisy, smelly public market, the Jewish religious leaders were preventing Gentiles from exercising the spiritual privilege promised them. How could a Gentile pray amid all that noise and stench? And God's house was supposed to be 'a house of prayer for all nations.'"
Similarly, God intends for the climate in His spiritual house to be cleansed of things that are counterproductive to it being a unified and spiritual dwelling for all ethnic groups.
Ironically, even relationships between Jews had ethnic challenges in the first century. A mental obstacle developed internally between Judean Jews and Galilean Jews. Fausset's Bible Dictionary notes:
"The northern part of Naphtali . . . was inhabited by a mixed race of Jews and Gentiles... Hence called (Isa:9:1) 'Galilee of the nations,' or 'Gentiles' (Matt:4:13, 15-16)... Galilee's Gentile character caused the southern Jews of purer blood to despise it (John:1:46; 7:52)... Galilee's debasement made its people feel their need of the Savior, a feeling unknown to the self right . . . its freedom from priestly and pharisaic prejudice, were additional grounds for its receiving the larger share of His ministry" ("Galilee," 1998).
Pride always leads to division. Physical Jews had to unlearn biases even against one another. Spiritual Jews are also capable of rebuilding arm's-length approaches within our fellowship. If, or when, we fall short in this area, we should ask God to give us wisdom concerning the best way to encourage one another, "... in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians:6:1).
By the end of the first century, the apostle John resided in the predominantly gentile city of Ephesus. The Church's overall demographic had transitioned from being all Jewish to heavily gentile. God's calling had worked out differently than most anticipated (John:6:44; 1 Corinthians:1:26; Romans 11).
This would have been a major challenge had mental barriers been sustained in God's Church. Such a mindset would have been inclined to "keep score" regarding the Church's ethnic identity, as is done in today's society. The potential results of this type of quota mentality were documented by a Swedish sociologist, Gunnar Myrdal, in his detailed 1944 study of race relations, An American Dilemma :
"It is also true that many white churches in the North have a few Negro members, and that they rarely would turn away Negro visitors . . . But usually they cannot afford to let the Negro membership grow too large... A prominent white church leader explained... 'I for one would like to have them stay. I believe it is in accordance with the doctrine of Christ, but the proportion is growing so large that white people are drifting away from us... Our organization is expensive to keep up... If we allow the Negroes to attend freely it means that eventually all of the white people will leave..." (pages 869-870, vol. II, 1996 edition).
The primary issue here was not behavioral—morality, sin or righteousness. Instead they stumbled at fellowshipping across ethnic lines and money issues. Diversity was a good thing, until it exceeded unwritten quotas and disturbed comfort zones. This same mistake could occur in a congregation that's predominantly African-American or any other race.
Gunnar Myrdal used a term, "moral overstrain," to describe one who "believes in and aspires to something much higher than its plane of actual life" (page 21, vol. I). That which is in accordance with the doctrine of Christ should not succumb to the actual life of our society. To some degree, all Christians are confronted with a moral overstrain in some aspect of life (Romans:7:14-25; 1 John:1:8-9).
Globally, there are many walls, even between people of similar ethnic background. Consider this report about Sudan: "It may seem strange that here in the middle of Africa, one type of black person—they call themselves Arabs—would drive another blacker type of person from their homes. But then remember, the Hutus massacred the Tutsis in Rwanda. And whites ethnically cleansed whites in Bosnia. Ethnic cleansing always seems to be rooted in dark historical feuds and it is the same here" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3752871... ).
Thankfully, God's Church today has experienced progress in regard to fellowship and unity among members from diverse racial backgrounds. The Church's international efforts today have certainly been positive steps toward this end. However, as long as there's room for growth, biblical standards will continually point us toward overcoming. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians:10:12).
We, as firstfruits, have an awesome task ahead of us in the Millennium. It will take a miracle for people to overcome the "historical feuds" that have embittered them. However, we have already received the type of miracle needed to rise above these obstacles—the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the more we are lights to the world in this regard, the more God can use us to bring ethnic enemies together after Christ returns.
Tear Down This Wall, Repeatedly
Can you imagine one trying to rebuild the Berlin Wall? Actually plans are already underway!
"They spent 40 years trying to tear [it] down, but a German artist now wants to rebuild the entire Berlin Wall for its 45th anniversary in 2006, coinciding with the city holding the football World Cup...
"Mr. Blaesius said: 'The World Cup shows all nations can communicate and cooperate with each other while the wall separates. Today there are still several divided nations, such as the Koreas, Israel and Ireland, and we want to remind people of both the past and the future in a meaningful way. Walls are not just physical, but also exist in your head '" ( Guardian Newspapers , Aug. 13, 2003, "Artist Aims to Rebuild Berlin Wall," www.buzzle.com/editorials/8-13-2003-44166.asp ).
Walls exist in your head? Not if we don't let them! UN