How graphic, how forcible is the language of Scripture! How a few simple words, inspired and dictated by the holy Spirit, describe our condition by nature, and especially that of the heathen world, as uninspired man could never have expressed it, with the utmost of his boasted wisdom, knowledge, or skill. "Dead in trespasses and sins;" "By nature the children of wrath even as others;" "Strangers from the covenants of promise;" how forcible are these expressions, and how, by a few simple touches, they lay out, as it were, for open view, the whole length and breadth of man's fallen state.
And now come two expressions which seem almost more than any other to describe the forlorn and miserable condition of man as alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in him, because of the blindness of his heart—"Having no hope, and without God in the world."
Pursuing, then, our fixed track, we shall now proceed with our exposition of the chapter before us.
1. The first expression which demands our attention is "having no hope," as specially descriptive of the state and condition by nature of the Gentile world before God.
By "having no hope" is meant that they had no well-grounded hope, no hope such as God would recognize, or to which salvation was attached (Rom. 8:24); and the reason was because no special promises had been given to them or prospect of deliverance held out to them by the word of God from their state of death in sin, or from the wrath of God, which was their due as sinners. For them there was no covenant of which God could be mindful. They might groan under their misery. The whole earth might be filled with the habitations of cruelty; widows and orphans might be plundered and oppressed; torrents of innocent blood be shed; wickedness triumph; crime go unpunished, and earth be a charnel house, in which the victims of ambition and war should be slaughtered by myriads without help or hope. As Elihu said, "By reason of the multitude of oppressions they make the oppressed to cry; they cry out by reason of the arm of the mighty. But none says, Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?" (Job 35:9, 10.) None of the oppressed could say, "Where is God my Maker?" To none of them were given "songs in the night," in the hope of deliverance; but they perished in sullen silence, or reckless despair. Whatever misery they suffered, it was not with them as with the children of Israel in Egypt—that God heard the groaning of the prisoners, for there was no covenant that he had made with or for them which he had to remember. (Exod. 2:24.)
Thus on the side of God, the Gentiles had no hope, for he was not bound to look upon them, or have respect unto them; and on their own side they had no covenant to look to (for a covenant implies two parties,) as containing any promises of mercy for them. Nor had they any written revelation of the mind and will of God afforded them, and nothing beyond the faint remains of tradition, such as sacrifices, which they abused, or what they could learn of his eternal power and Godhead—those invisible things which were to be seen and understood by the things that were made, but which not retaining in their knowledge, they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:20, 21.)
How different from this condition was that of Israel! An Israelite under oppression or trouble had a covenant to which he could look, full of promises; sacrifices which, to an enlightened mind, spoke of atonement by the blood of Messiah to come; a written revelation which he could read, as unfolding to him the mind and will of God; priests who could teach him (Mal. 2:6, 7); and prophets who could warn, admonish, or encourage him. The prayer of the Levites (Neh. 9:5-37) most beautifully and touchingly unfolds the peculiar privileges of Israel, with their abuse of them, and yet the infinite, unchangeable mercies of God in spite of their disobedience. If individually and personally, or even to a great extent nationally, the children of Israel abused all these privileges, and made God's name blasphemed among the heathen (Rom. 2:24), that did not affect their relationship to God by outward covenant, nor cancel his promises to them. To the Jew, therefore, there was hope, for to him belonged the promises. But to the Gentile there was no hope, for with him God had made no covenant, and to him, therefore, there were, on that ground, no promises.
We find, therefore, the apostles preaching the gospel in a different way to the Jews and the Gentiles. To the Jews it was preached as a fulfillment of the covenant and the promises made to their fathers. Thus Peter, after telling them that "the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of their fathers, had glorified his Son Jesus," whom they had denied and killed, at the close of his discourse says—"You are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in your seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities." (Acts 3:25, 26.) In almost a similar way Paul preached to the Jews at Antioch, in Pisidia—"And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God has fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he has raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, You are my Son, this day have I begotten you." (Acts 13:32, 33.)
But when they preached to the Gentiles, they preached simple faith and repentance—"To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins." (Acts 10:43.) "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commands all men everywhere to repent; because he has appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained; whereof he has given assurance unto all men, in that he has raised him from the dead," (Acts 17:30, 31.) Our space does not admit of our dwelling further on this point, but, unless clearly seen and understood, much of the Acts and the Epistles will be dark and obscure. In fact, it was the great and absorbing question of that day.
To return, then, to our exposition. "Having no hope." What a knell do these words seem to ring to the whole of the Gentile world! "Having no hope." Picture to yourself an emigrant ship, crowded with passengers, which has just struck on a hidden rock in the middle of the sea, and is now slowly sinking in the deep waters; figure to yourself their terror when the captain, abandoning all further effort to save the ship, says, "There is now no hope!" Or take the idea of a beloved husband on his dying bed, and picture the agony of the poor distressed wife, soon to be a forlorn widow, when the physician says, "There is no hope!" Or, what is nearer still, figure to yourself a dying man, almost if not wholly in the jaws of despair, feeling and crying out, "There is no hope! I must go to hell, with all my sins on my head!" How forlorn, how dreadful are all these cases! To have lost all hope is to have lost what often is our chief support under pain, trouble, and affliction, which we only bear with some degree of patience as looking forward in hope to a change for the better.
But suppose, just as the ship is about to sink, deliverance comes in the near approach of a vessel; or a favorable turn is given to the sickness of the dying man; or the Lord breaks in on the soul of the poor despairing sinner. There is now hope, and this is a hope which makes not ashamed. The passengers and crew are saved; the dying husband restored to health; the despairing sinner blessed with pardon and peace. Such is the gospel to the poor Gentile, when it becomes to him the power of God unto salvation, and all the more prized and precious because it comes to him when without hope.
2. But now comes the last and as if finishing touch to this powerful description of the Ephesian Gentiles before called by grace—"And without God in the world." The word rendered "without God," is literally "atheists." But what a description does this one lifelike touch give of the carnal, godless, atheistical state of the heathen world. Ignorant of him in whom they lived and moved and had their being, and who had given them life and breath and all things, they thought, spoke, and acted as if they had had no Creator who had called them into existence, no Preserver who had maintained their being, no Judge to whom they were accountable for their actions, no Avenger of oppression, no Protector of the oppressed. They were atheists in the true and proper sense of the word, for their gods were either mute idols of wood and stone, or deified representatives of every lust and crime which had debased human nature below the beasts. Jupiter, their head god, at whose nod Olympus trembled, was guilty of incest, adultery, rape, and other crimes for which, in this country, he would have been hanged; Bacchus was a drunken profligate; Mercury was an accomplished thief; and Venus a prostitute. Thus their very religion, such as it was, debased and degraded their minds, fostered every vile lust and passion by the example of their deities, and was really, as the Apostle declares (1 Cor. 10:20, 21), a service and a sacrifice to devils. But we need not pursue this point further, as it is sufficiently plain.
Let us then apply this description of the state of the Gentiles by nature to our own case. It is true that, viewed outwardly, we do not stand exactly in the same position with the heathen nations. Living in a nominally Christian land, the word of God having come to us in both Old and New Testaments the gospel being preached with more or less clearness in our midst, many examples of Christian men and women being daily before our eyes, having had parents, or teachers, or friends who knew something of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, our case by nature was not outwardly so hopeless, or our state so thoroughly atheistic as that of the Ephesian Gentiles. We would be unmindful of, and ungrateful to the providence of God which has cast our birth in this highly favored land, if we despised as worthless and valueless all such privileges; and yet, spiritually and experimentally viewed, as far as the salvation of our souls is concerned, there was but little real difference between us and them, for we had no well-grounded hope of eternal life, and, if not speculatively and avowedly infidels or atheists, practically and really we were without God in the world. Acknowledging him by our lips, we denied him in our hearts and by our lives; and if we did not worship gods of wood and stone, or deify our lusts, yet idols filled every niche of our heart, and we lived in rebellious defiance of the God of heaven. Thus practical, if not speculative infidels and atheists, we thought, spoke, and acted as if there were no God who searched our heart, heard our words, marked our actions, hated our sins, or would bring us into judgment for them. Such we were, such we would have continued to be, such we would have lived, and such would we have died, but for the sovereign, superabounding grace of God.
"O to grace how great a debtor!"
Having thus beautifully and graphically described the state by nature and practice of these Gentile Ephesians, the Apostle now goes on to show how mercy, pure mercy, reached their case—"But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were afar off are made near by the blood of Christ." (Eph. 2:13.) How continually does the Apostle bring before us union with Christ Jesus as the foundation of all spiritual blessings! If you will read carefully the first chapter of this Epistle, you will see how again and again he says, "in Christ Jesus," "in Christ," "in the Beloved," "in whom," as if he would dwell on this union as a bee dwells on a flower to suck all its sweetness, and fetch away the honey for others also.
And observe also, as to be "without Christ" is to have no hope, and to be without God in the world, so to be "in Christ" is to be made near unto God by his precious blood. As poor Gentile sinners we were "far off." Sin had set us at an infinite distance from God. For us there was no hope; and being dead in trespasses and sins, under the influence and guidance of the Prince of the power of the air, children of wrath, even as others, without Christ, having no hope and without God in the world, we were as far from God as sin and Satan could set us. Whence, then, and why did mercy come to us in our low and lost estate? The key to it lies in the words "in Christ Jesus." These three simple words harmonize the two chapters. Taking us back to eternal election in Christ, and to redemption through his blood, they tell us why these poor hopeless and godless heathens, and we among them, who were once (that is, formerly) afar off have been made near by the blood of Christ. Thus it is not the whole of the heathen world who are made near by the blood of Christ, either by universal redemption, or as put, as modern divines teach, in a salvable condition. But it is those who had been blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ before the foundation of the world, and therefore were interested in that everlasting covenant which was both anterior and superior to the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There was no covenant made with the whole body of the Gentiles as with the whole body of the Jews; and therefore the whole body of the Gentiles was not brought near by the blood of Christ as the whole body of the Jews by the blood of the sacrifices. The blood of the everlasting covenant was shed for elect Gentiles, and elect Jews, and these only are brought near unto God by it.
It was, therefore, only as having an eternal union with Christ, as being chosen in him before the foundation of the world, and having redemption by his precious blood as a fruit of that union, that these poor, godless Gentiles were brought near unto God. These, and these only, are called by grace; these, and these only, are quickened from a death in sin, for it is by grace only, that is the free, distinguishing favor of God, that they are saved.
We, therefore, read—"And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved," or, as the word might be rendered, "Those who were to be saved." (Acts 2:47.) And again—"As many as were ordained to eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48.) We must carefully distinguish between the world at large and the elect, whether Jew or Gentile, or we shall fall into confusion. Whatever distinction there was between Jew and Gentile as to outward privilege, distinct from, and independent of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, no such distinction exists between them as viewed in union with him. In him all such distinctions vanish. As chosen in his dear Son, as blessed with all spiritual blessings in him, accepted in the Beloved, and redeemed by his precious blood, all the elect of God, whether Jew or Gentile, stand before him one in Christ Jesus.
But how are they brought near by the blood of Christ? They are so in two senses—1. As regards their persons; and 2. As regards their experience.
1. As redeemed by the blood of Christ, the separation and distance from God, caused by sin, are put away and removed. It was sin which separated between them and God. (Isa. 60:2.) Being enemies in their mind by wicked works, they were far off from him. But when Christ put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb. 9:26), he by his precious blood reconciled their persons unto God, and thus brought them near unto him.
2. And when they receive the atonement (or "reconciliation," margin, Rom. 5:11), that is into their hearts and consciences, then they are brought near unto God in their own happy experience. There is no other way of being made near unto God, either as regards the acceptance of our persons or access to his presence.
But now observe what further benefits and blessings spring out of being thus brought near by the blood of Christ—"For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us." (Eph. 2:14.) He is our peace. This necessarily springs from being reconciled and brought near by the blood of Christ. Sin has not only made us enemies to God, but made God an enemy to us. What peace, then, can there be between us while thus mutual enemies? Peace is between friends, not between foes. During this state of hostility and warfare, as there is no real peace, so there can be no felt or enjoyed peace. But the removal of the cause of the war brings about peace, first really and then experimentally. Christ has made peace through the blood of the cross. (Col. 1:20.) There is now no enmity on the part of God, for it was a law enmity. God always loved his people in Christ; and as he is unchanging and unchangeable, he never could or did hate them. But as a judge is an enemy to a criminal, even were that criminal his own son, so as Judge and Lawgiver, God was an enemy to his own elect, viewed as law-breakers. But when the law was fulfilled, and all the breaches of it atoned for by the obedience and death of his dear Son, then this law enmity was removed, and the anger of God against sin and the sinner pacified. Sin, therefore, being put away, the whole cause of that law enmity is removed; and when we believe in the Son of God, and receive the atonement by his precious blood, then there is no enmity on our side; for the goodness, mercy, and love of God melt the heart into the sweetest humility, affection, and love to and before him.
But Christ "is our peace" in another sense, and this seems to be the chief drift of the Apostle here. There existed a deadly enmity between Jew and Gentile. The Jew loathed and abhorred the Gentile, and the Gentile hated and despised the Jew.
To the Jew—the Gentile was an unclean dog, with whom he would neither eat nor drink, whose very touch was profanation, and his presence in the land of Judea a hateful and intolerable burden. To the Gentile—the Jew was odious from his narrow bigotry, his obstinacy, his refusal of all communion, his grasping covetousness, and his hatred of a foreign yoke. When, then, elect Jew and elect Gentile were alike brought near by the blood of Christ, they needed to be reconciled to one another as well as unto God, and as all those distinctions which had kept them separate were done away in Christ, they were to be united in the closest bonds of affection and love. As one in Christ they must also be one with each other. In this sense Christ is "our peace."
The Apostle therefore adds—"And has broken down the middle wall of partition between us." There seems to be some allusion here to the temple at Jerusalem, in which there was a low wall separating the court of the Gentiles from the inner court, which none but Jews might enter. There is a similar allusion to this in Rev. 11:1, 2, where the outer court of the temple is given to the Gentiles. This middle wall of partition symbolized, therefore, the separation between Jew and Gentile, which was one cause of the enmity between them. The Jew, as we see from Acts 21:28-31, viewed the entrance of a Gentile into the temple, or even beyond the outward court, as polluting the holy place, and a crime worthy of death. And the Gentile so resented this exclusion that the object of every foreign conqueror, as in the case of Antiochus, Heliodorus, Pompey, etc., was to break through this restriction, and personally enter into and profane the most holy place. As long, then, as the middle wall of partition stood, Jew and Gentile were kept asunder. But the blessed Lord, as our peace, and by uniting into his own mystical body elect Jew and elect Gentile, and thus making them one in himself, broke down (it is literally "loosened," or "dissolved") the middle wall of partition between them. Thus all distinction between Jew and Gentile is dissolved and gone. No middle wall of partition now separates them, for they are one in Christ Jesus.
All this may seem very plain and simple to us, but it was not so when first revealed and made known. Indeed it was the mystery made known to Paul by special revelation. "How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote before in few words, whereby, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel." (Eph. 3:3-6.) This mystery, or, as the word means, heavenly secret, hidden in the bosom of God from the beginning of the world, was the union of elect Jews and elect Gentiles into one mystical body, of which Christ should be the ever-living and glorious Head. He had, therefore, to remove out of the way all causes of separation between them, and thus break down the middle wall of partition.
But there was another cause of separation of which the middle wall in the temple was but a symbol—"By his death he ended the whole system of Jewish law that excluded the Gentiles. His purpose was to make peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new person from the two groups." (Eph. 2:15.) The Jews had a law which the Gentiles had not. This law the Apostle calls "the law of commandments contained in ordinances." By this we understand chiefly the ceremonial law, which he calls "the enmity," as being the main cause of the enmity which existed between Jew and Gentile. It was by the ceremonial law that the Jew was peculiarly separated from the Gentile. At Mount Sinai God gave not only the ten commandments, or moral law, but all those ordinances of worship which we call ceremonial, as chiefly consisting in the performance of a number of prescribed rites and ceremonies. These rites and ceremonies being for Israel only, and intended not only to give them a right and acceptable worship of God, but to keep them separate from all other nations, fostered, through the depravity of man's heart, enmity against the Gentiles. God bade separation, as needful for their preservation as his peculiar people; but their national and religious pride turned separation into enmity. Similarly, the Gentile burnt with enmity against the Jew for his exclusive spirit, and against the ordinances which caused it and fostered the enmity which sprang out of it.
This law of commandments, then, contained in ordinances Jesus abolished in his flesh, that is in and by his incarnation, for by his sufferings, blood shedding, and death he not only fulfilled the moral law, but the ceremonial. All the sacrifices, rites, and ceremonies of that burdensome law he fulfilled by his one great sacrifice. All these types and figures he, the anti-type, accomplished, and they then, having served their appointed purpose, were virtually abolished. When, then, he abolished in his flesh the law of commandments contained in ordinances, he abolished at the same time the enmity between Jew and Gentile by abolishing the cause of that enmity. All that had separated them and kept them separate was now removed. Circumcision, sacrifice, temple worship, meats clean and unclean, fasts and feasts, and the whole Jewish ritual, were virtually abolished; and these causes of separation being removed, the mutual enmity between Jew and Gentile fell with them. All causes of enmity being thus removed, the Lord now could "make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace."
But we must defer the consideration of this point to our next paper.