Dec. 9, 2012
Background Scripture: Ephesians 2 & 3
Devotional Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21
I’ve been wondering how often in the past 48 years I’ve written in this column on the Letter to the Ephesians. I recall one occasion, when someone wrote me a note asking why, in column after column, I kept sounding a concern for disunity.
My response was because Ephesians dwells on this subject in all its six chapters. The writer of Ephesians finds different approaches to this one subject. One really cannot study Ephesians without dealing with that concern.
The author of Ephesians opens this subject anew when he distinguishes between “we” (2:1) and “you” (2:3). When he speaks of “you,” he is addressing the Gentiles, and when he says “us” he is referring to the Jews. That may seem to be an insignificant difference, but both acknowledge the deep divide between Jews and Gentiles.
There were other deep divisions that troubled the followers of Christ, for there was an almost insurmountable barrier between the “unrighteous” and “righteous” because the latter kept the religious law in all its complexity. A Jew remained “righteous” only by his keeping of the laws.
And there was the huge barrier between the poor and the rich, for only the rich could afford to keep the requirements of the law, and there was virtually no middle class.
The rules approach
Philip Yancey says it was “a religious caste system based on steps toward holiness” from which were banned “sinners, menstruating women, the physically deformed and other ‘undesirables.’” The Dead Sea Qumran community of Essenes had strict barriers: “No madman, or lunatic, or simpleton, or fool, no blind man, or dead man and no minor shall enter into the Community.”
Although strict rules branded as “defiled” those who came into contact with the sick and sinners, Jesus preached and taught wherever there were people to listen. He touched and healed many who were thought to be “undesirables.”
Jesus also pulled down the traditional divide between men and women. Yancey says: “In those days, at every synagogue service Jewish men prayed, ‘Blessed are thou, O Lord, who hast not made me a woman.’”
Jesus also removed the price tags from certain sins. While people often assume sexual acts as the primary “sins of the flesh,” Jesus also condemned pride, envy, vindictiveness, aggression, vengeance, idolatry, dissension and others, because “the flesh” is our human imperfection – anything that gives sin its chance within us, anything that renders us spiritually “dead.”
The Greek word for sin is usually hamartia, a shooting word that indicates when we miss the target of life. William Barclay says that hamartia brings us face-to-face with what sin is: Our ever-present failure to hit the target, to walk the way of Christ.
Recently I talked with a man who was bitter toward God because, although he had improved the moral tone of his life, God had “failed” to reward him with a desired outcome: “What’s the point of trying if God ignores my good efforts?”
I reminded him that Jesus lived the highest level of life possible and ended up on a cross. This did not satisfy him. He still felt his “good works” gave him the right to expect a reward.
The grace approach
Theodore O. Wedel says, “Any man who thinks that he has earned a good grade before God, even a passing grade, has not really come into the presence of the real God of the Bible at all … The more I try to fulfill God’s demands, the larger grows the vision of my failure.”
It is this vision of our own failures that helps us to understand the meaning of grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works … For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works … that we should walk in them” (2:8-10).
Consider the analogy of the airline miles I receive by using my credit card to pay for purchases and services: No matter how many miles I earn, it never seems enough to earn the flights I want. If the airline should say to me, “Larry, you haven’t earned the trip you desire, but we’re going to let you have it as a gift,” that would be an approximation of grace.
What we achieve with “good works” is never enough to earn God’s mercy. Good works do not entitle us to God’s greatest gift, but they are our responses to that undeserved gift. We are called to good works not to earn God’s grace, but to acknowledge that we gratefully receive it.
Because we do not, cannot earn this grace, neither can we restrict it only to those who live their Christianity as we do. Nor can we restrict others from experiencing it.
Once again, read Ephesians 2:14-22. Note all the different expressions of the unity that God wills for the Church and all humankind: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile as both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing hostility to an end.
“And he came and preached peace to you, who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.