Through His death Jesus put an end to rules that regulated who might approach God based on ancestry.
Specifically, circumcision is no longer the mark of who is and who is not God’s. Circumcision was replaced by baptism and receipt of the Holy Spirit under the new covenant. In addition, humanly devised traditions that attempt to enforce separation and categorization of people into groups acceptable to God and unacceptable to God are not part of the New Covenant. To make this second point, Paul uses the example of an actual wall that was built around the Jerusalem temple grounds to keep out non-Jews.
The big picture message of Ephesians is that God’s chosen people are now a Body of believers drawn from all the various categories of humanity. God brings individuals into that Body through faith and marks them with the seal of His Holy Spirit Ephesians 1:13-14 Ephesians 1:13-14 13 In whom you also trusted, after that you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that you believed, you were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,
14 Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory.
American King James Version×. That body of believers is referred to as the Church ( ekklesia, or “called-out-ones”) of God.
This was a big change from God’s previous method of managing His interactions with humanity. Paul speaks of this new approach as a new administration, of which he was a minister (Ephesians 3:2-7 Ephesians 3:2-7 2 If you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
3 How that by revelation he made known to me the mystery; (as I wrote before in few words,
4 Whereby, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
5 Which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
6 That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:
7 Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effectual working of his power.
American King James Version×). This new approach is most commonly called the New Covenant.
What Was the Old Way?
Previously, God had worked with a nation that was present on the world scene. That nation, called Israel, was chosen from among all nations to be separate and distinct. Their distinction came from possessing God’s written code explaining His standards of behavior and by living according to the standards of that code. People became part of that nation through the family they were born into and were marked by circumcision.
Even the people of that nation Israel could only approach God through a group of intermediates or priests. These priests maintained scrupulous regulations of personal and social purity so they could bring sacrifices of atonement before God. Some of those regulations came from God as recorded in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Some of those regulations were added later by the Jewish authorities.
With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the old way of managing God’s interactions with humanity through the nation of Israel was formally ended. The new way would be through the Church of God, a spiritual nation drawn from all humanity (1 Peter 2:9-10 1 Peter 2:9-10 9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;
10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
American King James Version×). So the idea of a nation before God is still present, but has been reinterpreted and adapted to a situation forever changed by Jesus Christ.
A God-given Regulation That Separated People
Under the former way of doing things God commanded that the males of all the families of the chosen nation carry the mark of circumcision as a sign to separate them from the other nations. God wanted Israel to stay separate from the other nations to avoid mixing true worship with false, or mixing the true principles of godly behavior with false.
Separation and distinction remains God’s goal, but it is now handled very differently. Now the assembly of people who remain separate, who worship in spirit and in truth, and use His commands to guide their lives, is the Church of God.
With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the old way of marking the special people of God was replaced. The new way would be through baptism into the death of Jesus Christ and the receiving of God’s Holy Spirit, which baptism makes possible (Colossians 2:11-12 Colossians 2:11-12 11 In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised him from the dead.
American King James Version×; Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×). The active work of the Holy Spirit in God’s people sets them apart from the world around them. So the idea of a mark of separation is still present, but has been reinterpreted and adapted to a situation forever changed by Jesus Christ.
In Ephesians 2:11-13 Ephesians 2:11-13 11 Why remember, that you being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
12 That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who sometimes were far off are made near by the blood of Christ.
American King James Version×Paul mentions circumcision as a regulation that marked and categorized people based on ancestry. In verse 13 he teaches that there has been a change because of Jesus Christ. Now through Christ all peoples can approach God.
A Humanly-devised Regulation That Separated People
Paul then goes on in the next few verses to mention a “dividing wall” of separation and hostility that has been destroyed Ephesians 2:14 Ephesians 2:14For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
American King James Version×. This is more than a dynamic word picture, it is referring to an actual wall built by humans to separate people and regulate their interaction with God.
I mentioned earlier that the Jewish people had devised some of their own regulations to mange personal and social purity. The Jewish leaders sat in the seat of Moses and had legitimate authority to impose such regulations on the nation. However, that does not mean God liked their improvisations or was bound to keep such regulations in place once their authority was terminated along with the Old Covenant. Note: During His ministry Jesus was highly critical of many of these regulations.
One such humanly devised regulation was to build a wall around the temple courts to separate gentile visitors from the Jews. Jews thought they needed a physical barrier because, around the time of Jesus, the land was occupied by Roman forces, and there were lots of non-Jewish people living in the territory of Israel.
That wall had inscriptions attached to it at regular intervals warning non-Jews not to proceed any further on pain of death. Two examples of these inscriptions (written in Greek) have been found by archaeologists and are currently on display in museums in Istanbul and Jerusalem. Talk about a wall of hostility!
Why might a wall built in far off Jerusalem have any meaning or significance to the people in Ephesus who first read this letter from Paul?
Did You Know Paul Was Writing to Ephesus From Prison?
In Ephesians 3:1 Ephesians 3:1For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
American King James Version×and Ephesians 3:13 Ephesians 3:13Why I desire that you faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.
American King James Version×, Paul refers to himself as the prisoner of Christ Jesus, suffering for their sakes. That’s because he was writing from prison.
According to Acts 21:27-36 Acts 21:27-36 27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,
28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teaches all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and has polluted this holy place.
29 (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)
30 And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and immediately the doors were shut.
31 And as they went about to kill him, tidings came to the chief captain of the band, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.
32 Who immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them: and when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul.
33 Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done.
34 And some cried one thing, some another, among the multitude: and when he could not know the certainty for the tumult, he commanded him to be carried into the castle.
35 And when he came on the stairs, so it was, that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the people.
36 For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him.
American King James Version×Paul’s arrest came about because he supposedly took a non-Jew past the barrier wall into the inner courts of the Jerusalem temple. The accusation was false, and no witnesses to the fact could be produced, but Paul had to stay in prison while he awaited his day in court. So that wall would have been on everyone’s mind.
Some Changes Are Made to the Commands and Regulations
Circumcision was a God-given command. The wall was a humanly devised regulation. Within the context of the Old Covenant each had the function of creating separation between categories of people, Jew and non-Jew. Both are now rendered inactive (abolished) because of the death of Jesus Christ. The old command has now been updated (baptism and receipt of the Holy Spirit replace circumcision). The humanly-devised regulations creating separation (such as the dividing wall) are now rendered invalid.
Under the administration of the New Covenant, humanity’s access and approach to God is through Jesus Christ. The risen Jesus Christ is the living head of the assembly of God’s people. Through Him the members of that body are drawn from all people based on faith, not on ancestry. Jesus Christ is the High Priest who offers sacrifice to atone for our violations of God’s commands. Through Him we can each approach God. This understanding is fundamental to the new covenant.
Please Don’t Be Fooled
If you have been tricked into thinking Ephesians 2:14-15 Ephesians 2:14-15 14 For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace;
American King James Version×means that God’s Ten Commandments are not His expectation for how you should live and the criteria for how you are evaluated, I urge you to reconsider. Thinking and teaching along such lines is contrary to the plain teaching of Jesus Himself (Matthew 5:17-20 Matthew 5:17-20 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×).
If you want to learn more about how God’s commandments, statutes and judgments are to be understood within the administration of the new covenant read our free Bible study guide The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God’s Law? Pray over the scriptures pointed out in this guide, and ask God to give you wisdom to discover the truth written in His Word.