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. 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). 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). 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; Acts 2:38). 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 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. 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 and Ephesians 3:13, 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 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. Because of the death of Jesus Christ physical circumcision is no longer required—but circumcision of the heart is now for all people: "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit" (Romans 2:28-29). The old command has now been updated in Christ. 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 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).
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.