A very happy Unity Day—or should I say “Happy Unity Weekend”—to each of you. Unity Day is all about, well, unity! And what better place to talk about the need for unity than Vanuatu? 83 islands stretched out over some 264,000 square kilometers of ocean, not to mention 113 different languages, more languages per capita than any other country in the world. Unity? What can be done to break down the walls that separate us? Linguistic walls, cultural walls, tribal walls, religious walls, geographical walls? What can be done to bring about peace in a world that is so torn by war and hostility? I’ve got good news for you! What we could not do, God has already done. Stay tuned!
The Great Wall of China
The largest engineering and building project ever carried out by man was only five to nine meters high, five to eight meters wide. It was built of dirt, stone, and brick. Thousands of workers were involved in its construction which took centuries to finish going back to the fourth century BC, and it has been maintained over the centuries. Although in some places the construction project is hardly wider or higher than the boat, the Big Sista, that travels between our islands, the reason that it is the largest building project ever carried out by man is that it stretches 2,400 kilometers long. I am talking, of course, about the Great Wall of China. It was built as a protection against invading nomads, or wandering tribes, from the north. Walls are built for different reasons, but the Great Wall of China was built to separate people. It was built to keep people out.
Some walls are built to keep people in. Every major city around the world has at least one building whose walls were built to keep people in. The buildings have metal doors and locked gates. The walls are made of solid reinforced concrete with barbed wire on top. The walls are built to keep people in, to keep people apart, to keep them separated.
The Berlin Wall
Another wall that was built to keep people from getting out is known in French as “Le mur de la honte” (the Wall of Shame), commonly known as The Berlin Wall. It was built around the city of West Berlin to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. It started out as a barbed wire barricade in 1961. It was gradually replaced by a 2 meter concrete wall which was raised to 4 meters. It extended 155 km around West Berlin and included electrified fences, fortifications, 293 guard posts, land mines, and automatic machine guns.
In 1987, my wife and I went to West Berlin and crossed over into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and saw the deplorable conditions that the East German people lived in. It was hard to believe that East Berlin was the showcase for communism. We saw people lined up on the street because a store had gotten some coffee, so people waited in line to be able to buy the rare commodity. We sat in a cafeteria, that looked more like an army mess hall, and watched as two old ladies talked. One was visiting from West Berlin. She was finely dressed. The other was from East Berlin, wearing tired worn out clothes. The lady from West Berlin was showing the other lady photographs of family members that had been separated for more than 25 years by the Wall of Shame.
Coming back into West Berlin we visited the museum to see the extremes to which people had gone to escape East Germany into West Berlin. From 1961 to 1989, 588 people were killed trying to get out of East Germany into West Berlin. 38,818 people were able to escape by going over the wall, tunneling under the wall, floating over the wall in hot air balloons, or sneaking out in vehicles, or other methods.
Walls. Whether they are built to keep people in or to keep people out, walls are not built for unity. Walls are built to separate.
And yet, man has a keen sense that we are supposed to be united. We unite with others like ourselves only to separate ourselves from others. We are separated by language, by culture, by color, by religion, by history, by geography, and by a hundred other factors. The United Nations took the place of the failed League of Nations, but the one thing that the United Nations has not been able to deliver is unity.
I misspelled United Nations on my computer and it came out the Untied Nations. We are tied together by our common humanity, our common planet, and our common Creator, but we are “untied” rather than united in so many respects. We talk about unity but continue to build our walls.
Yes, walls are built to separate. But the greatest wall of separation was not between the Chinese and the invaders from the north. Nor was it the Wall of Shame between East Germany and West Berlin. The greatest wall was that wall which separated us Gentiles from Jews, and more importantly, the wall that separated us from God. Paul makes reference to the wall between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:14 when he speaks of the dividing wall of hostility.
Ephesians 2:11-22 (New Living Translation)
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. 14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. 17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. 19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.
Context: Let’s step back and put this into context.
Paul has told us in 1:9-10 that God’s eternal purpose was to unite all things in Christ, not only things on earth, but things in heaven and things on earth.
Ephesians 1:9-10 ESV making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
So God Himself has a plan that will ultimately succeed. God’s plan is to bring everything into submission to His Son Jesus Christ.
Yet, there were…
Three obstacles to the accomplishing of the plan of God.
- The first obstacle to this unity in Christ, as Sinclair Ferguson has suggested, was the demonic powers that Paul talks about in 1:21-22.
Ephesians 1:20-22 NLT [God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else– not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.
Paul mentions all the categories in the Ephesian cosmology so that we would know that this first obstacle to the accomplishment of God plan has been removed. All demonic powers have been placed under his feet, under the authority of Christ. God “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is name, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
- The second obstacle to Christ becoming all in all was our dark human hearts. Paul shows in chapter 2 that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. His description of our condition without Christ was hopeless.
Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil– the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
But thankfully, that is not the end of the story. Paul continues,
Ephesians 2:4-6 NLT But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) 6 For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.
The second obstacle of our dark human hearts was removed by the cross and resurrection of Christ.
- The third obstacle to God’s purpose being accomplished in Christ is the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.
Indications of the wall
Even before we get to 2:11-22, there are already indications that Paul is thinking about the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. There is almost an “us and them” theme in the first chapter: “us” being the Jews, for Paul himself is a Jew, and “them” — the rest of us Gentiles! In chapter 1, Paul says that God “blessed us”, “chose us” and “predestined us”. He says, “we have redemption”, God “made known to us the mystery of his will” and “we have obtained an inheritance”. This all sounds rather inclusive until we get to verses 12 and 13 where it becomes clear. The New Living Translation renders it this way:
Ephesians 1:12-13 NLT God’s purpose was that we Jews who were the first to trust in Christ would bring praise and glory to God. 13 And now you Gentiles have also heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago.
This distinction between “we” and “you” continues in chapter 2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… we all once lived in the passions of our flesh… like the rest of mankind.”
It becomes clearer in our passage (2:11-22). “…you Gentiles used to be outsiders” (NLT).
How could Jews and Gentiles be united? How could they be one? The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile had to be removed.
As we consider this question, we cannot ignore the atrocities that have been committed against Jews throughout history. We cannot forget the Auschwitz and the German concentration camps, some of which I have visited, where six million Jews were exterminated. We cannot forget the horrible attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem just twelve days ago where six people were violently killed, four of them being Jewish rabbis, three of the four rabbis being American immigrants to Israel.
It seems that the wall of hostility still exists. I do not intend to enter into a political discussion of the issues or to justify the nation of Israel on all accounts, but make no mistake about it: the Bible is clear that the nations will be gathered against the nation of Israel to destroy it and the Lord Himself will intervene.
The wall of hostility is broken down only in Christ.
During the first century until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there was a wall of partition which separated the Court of the Gentiles from the rest of the temple. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, said that there were signs posted on that wall in three languages warning Gentiles not to go beyond the wall. In 1871 and in 1934, two of these signs were found. They stated: “No foreigner is permitted to pass beyond this barricade around the sanctuary. Whoever does so will be responsible for his own death.” That’s quite a way to welcome visitors!
In Acts 21, we read that Paul himself was almost killed when the Jews thought that he had introduced the Gentile Trophimus beyond the wall. Paul may have been thinking about this close brush with death as he wrote about the dividing wall of hostility in Ephesians 2:14.
1. There was a wall (2:11-12).
This was the condition when we were without Christ.
In verse 11, Paul draws the contrast in starkest terms. The hostility of the Jews toward Gentiles was demonstrated in the language they used to refer to the Gentiles. They called them “the uncircumcision.” That is a nice euphemistic way of translating a Greek term whose literal meaning none of us would want to hear in a Sunday morning church service. Suffice it to say that it was a term of disdain.
But Paul turns the tables on his fellow Jews. He says that they are “called the circumcision”. Their circumcision is made in the flesh, not in the heart. Their circumcision is made by human hands, not by God. They are only called the circumcision, but they have not experienced the circumcision that produces a clean heart.
Paul defines what it is to be a true Jew in Romans 2:28-29:
Romans 2:28-29 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul is telling us to remember our condition. He is not talking so much about our personal sinful condition. He did talk about that in the first part of chapter 2. He reminded us that we had been dead in trespasses and sins (2:1, 5). There, he spoke of our depravity as Sinclair Ferguson calls it. Here in 2:11, Paul is talking about our deprivation, our historical situation, and it was a condition that for the most part we did not even know about. We just lived in deprivation without knowing it. That’s what life was for us. Paul gives five characteristics of our lives before coming to Christ:
- We were separated from Christ. We were without Christ. We may have known nothing of Christ, not knowing that we needed Christ. Separated from his life, we were dead in our trespasses and sins.
- We were “excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel” (NLT). Citizenship has its benefits. As citizens of this country, you have rights that I do not have as a foreigner. You have, for example, the right to vote and other rights accorded to you by the government. There are benefits to citizenship. There were benefits to citizenship among the people of Israel. There were benefits of growing up in a Jewish home, knowing the Scriptures and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
- Third, we were strangers to the covenants of the promise that God had made. We were not members of the covenant people. We did not know the promises that God had made to his people. We did not know God’s promise to Abraham that through his offspring, Christ, all the peoples of the world would be blessed. We did not know that God had promised through Jeremiah that he would give a new heart and put his Spirit within.
- Fourth, we were hopeless. Before coming to Christ, we had no hope beyond the grave. Shortly before we left Tahiti, we attended the funeral of a young man whose father was a pastor, but who had not served the Lord. As the casket was being closed, his unsaved wife threw herself on the casket begging him not to leave her. She had no hope.
- Finally, Paul says that we were without God in the world. We were godless. Not in the sense of being ungodly, but we did not know God. He says in 4:18 that the Gentiles “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.”
The wall separated us from the commonwealth of Israel and from the promises. We were without Christ, without hope and without God in the world. Jesus said in John 4:22 that salvation comes from the Jews. If you are without Christ, you are without hope and without God. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Peter declared, “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul said that there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).
God’s eternal purpose is to unite all in Christ, all things in heaven and in earth. His purpose is to make us one.
2. The wall was broken down (2:13-18).
This is what happened through Christ.
2.1. The propitiation in Christ Jesus has brought about the change (2:13).
In verse 13, we find the most beautiful words of the Bible. The most beautiful words of the Bible? What are they? Simply this: “But now…” The wall meant that we were far off. We were far from God. “But now!” Notice the contrast. Back in
- 2:2 Paul says that we “once” walked following the course of this world,
- 2:3 we “once lived in the passions of our flesh.
- 2:12 “at that time” we were separated from Christ. At that time we were excluded from citizenship. At that time we did not know the covenant promises that God had made. We were without hope and without God!
“But now!” Everything has changed! We were far off; now we are near. We were without Christ; now we are in Christ (Sans Christ en Christ.) What made the difference? We have been brought near by the blood of Christ. The cross of Christ made all the difference. He offered up his body for us. The “blood” speaks of the violent death that Christ suffered for us. We were by nature the children of wrath (2:3), deserving the wrath of God for our sins and trespasses. But Christ suffered in our place, the just for the unjust, bearing the wrath of God against our sin.
Ephesians 2:13 NLT But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
2.2. In his flesh, Christ broke down the wall of separation (2:14).
In verse 14 we read that Christ is our peace.
Ephesians 2:14 NLT For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.
Christ is the peace between Jews and Gentiles. He is the peace between Christian Arabs and Jews. In our world today we seek for peace. We seek to remove differences between people. We hear a lot about the need for tolerance, the need to remove any ideas that would offend, the need to remove from our vocabulary anything that would suggest to others that we have found the only way to God.
Theologians like the Catholic John Knitter and the former Presbyterian minister John Hick have argued that we must abandon any teaching that Jesus is the only way of salvation. They try to say that all religions are essentially the same and that any religion that claims to be the only way to God is only manifesting its intolerance toward others. And yet, as theologians from different religions gather at the round table, they cannot agree that they are all saying essentially the same thing. What is there that could unite Jew and Gentile, Buddhist and Hindu, Muslim and Gentile? Only Christ is great enough to unite us. As different as we are from one another, as we approach God through Jesus Christ, we approach one another, and in Christ we are one.
Christ is our peace. He has made one of the two by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. The cross is the battering ram that has broken down the wall.
How did he do this?
Ephesians 2:15 NLT He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.
It was the Law of commandments and ordinances that created the difference between the Jews and Gentiles. But Christ ended the system of the Law. How did he do that? By fulfilling it. From the cross he declared, “It is finished.”
Romans 6:14 ESV For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 10:4 ESV For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
So those who would erect new walls based on the Sabbath have failed to understand the gospel. They have failed to see what Christ has done. The Bible says in Ephesians 2:15, that Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility
Ephesians 2:15 ESV by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,
He created in himself one new man, a new humanity. He removed the distinctions. It is not that the Gentiles have become Jews or that the Jews have become Gentiles. No, he created a new humanity.
There was pastor in Australia who was also a school bus driver. There were Aborigines and white children on his bus and on the way to and from school, there was a constant war of words between the white children and the Aborigine children. One day the pastor had had enough! He pulled the bus over to the side of the road and put it in park.
He went to the white children and asked them what color they were. “White!” they said. “No you’re not. Everyone who rides this bus is green. So what color are you?” “Green.” Then he went to the Aborigine children. “What color are you?” “We’re black!” they said. “No you’re not! Everyone who rides my bus is green. So what color are you?” “We’re… green.”
For a while everything was calm in the bus as it carried all the green children down the road. Then a voice was heard from the back, “All the light green children on this side of the bus, and all the dark green children on the other side!”
Well, the pastor had the right idea. God has created in Christ a new humanity, one new people from the two groups. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had said,
John 10:16 NLT I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
That is true unity!
Verse 16: God’s intention is not only to reconcile us with each other but to reconcile us with himself. The cross reconciles us in both directions. Just as there is a vertical beam and a horizontal beam in the cross, the cross reconciles us vertically to God and horizontally to one another. In fact, the closer we move toward God, the closer we move toward one another.
Ephesians 2:16-18 NLT Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. 17 He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. 18 Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.
There was a wall, but the wall was broken down by the cross of Christ. Where there was a wall,
3. There is now a temple. We have become one in Christ (2:19-22).
Ephesians 2:19-22 NLT So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.
The language is marvelous. The transformation is astonishing. From foreigners to family members who live in God’s house. Once we were excluded from the temple; now we are the temple of God.
In the ancient world, the temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the world, but nothing compares to the temple that God is building, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Together we are built on Christ Jesus himself and on the teaching—the foundation—of the apostles and the prophets—not some new prophet, but the apostles and prophets of the Bible. The work of Christ is the cornerstone of the Church. The teaching of the apostles and the prophets is the foundation that we are built on. That is the foundation of true unity.
Will unity ever become a reality? It will become the final reality. God’s ultimate purpose will be achieved in Christ Jesus the Lamb. The Book of Revelation gives us a glimpse into heaven.
Revelation 7:9-10 ESV After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
To be part of that holy throng, we must submit our lives to Christ the Lord in the here and now.
As we celebrate Unity Day this weekend, let us consider the implications of God’s Word about unity:
- The Church must reflect God’s eternal purpose of uniting all things in Christ. In the church, we embrace our new identity in Christ.
Galatians 3:28 NLT There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We might add that there is neither American nor Australian, ni-Vanuatu nor Vietnamese, white man nor black man, for we are all one in Christ.
- We must focus, not on diversity, but on oneness in Christ, our new identity.
- Our mission cannot be limited to a certain group of people to the exclusion of others. We must not ignore those of different nationalities and languages, whether French or Chinese. Our Father in heaven wants to embrace them all.
- We must move beyond our comfort zones to people who are different from us
- whether younger or older
- whether rich and poor
- those of different educational and social backgrounds
- those of different nationalities
- We must demonstrate the peace that Christ procured on the cross.
- We must show the greatness of the love of God in Christ.
On this Unity weekend, let me conclude with Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians in chapter 4 verse 3:
Ephesians 4:3 ESV [Let us be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.