There was something kept secret by God in generations past that was made known through Jesus Christ. This might be hard for us to wrap our minds around because we are so familiar with the Christian faith but in those days there were things that God only revealed in His own good timing,
“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” – Ephesians 3:2-6
It was no mystery that God intended to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:4). What was a mystery was exactly how God planned to go about doing that. In the Mosaic covenant, there was a means for the nations (Gentiles) to become the children of God and that was by becoming children of Abraham by adhering to the identifying markers of Judaism (circumcision, Sabbath, Kosher, etc).
But in Christ something new was taking place that people just couldn’t quite foresee or figure out how it was going to happen. This was a well guarded secret…so much so that Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand it, Paul not understand it…neither did the prophets before them or the angels in heaven (1 Peter 1:11 & Eph 3:9)!
Under the new covenant in Christ, God accomplished the seemingly impossible. He made Jew and Gentile alike co-heirs of the inheritance…all children of God…all of the same body and the same faith even apart from the identifying markers of Judaism. In other words, you no longer had to become Jewish to be a child of God. What is more, that this didn’t make the Gentile Christians second class citizens or step-children in the kingdom of God. They were now on the same level in Christ…in the kingdom economy.
This may not seem like BIG news to us. In fact it probably feels like OLD news to us. But it was big news. It was earth shattering news that Jew and Gentile alike could participate in the covenant blessings of God, have equal opportunity of possessing the Holy Spirit, and be joined together in perfect unity as a spiritual house, as the body of Christ and as a temple to the Lord. Both Jew and Gentile are baptized by the same baptism, have faith in the same God, and made ONE in Christ. This isn’t just some material to get through teaching Sunday school…this is a new reality that has broken into this world that we often take for granted.
Why was this a big deal?
Here is why that is a big deal. It is a big deal because in their world there was an insurmountable barrier between these two groups. You catch this in Acts 10 & 11 when Peter goes to Cornelius’ house (A Gentile, Roman centurion). He stays with them and eats with them…something that Peter had previously considered unclean (Acts 10:28-29) and when the Jerusalem Christians found out he had done this they also criticized him for it (Acts 11:1-3). They criticized him for it because that is what they were supposed to do because up until that point that was breaking the rules! They had no idea that God was up to something new until they received confirmation that this wasn’t Peter embarking on a new History channel show called, “Apostles gone wild” but was the working of God (Acts 11:18). We see this in Acts 15 when the apostles decide that there shouldn’t be unnecessary barriers placed in the way of Gentiles who were coming to faith in Christ (Acts 15:19). They were not starting something new in removing the old covenant stipulations and requirements for citizenship and identity among God’s people. They were following God’s lead both through direct revelation to Peter and through giving the Gentiles gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to show God was accepting them (both in Acts 10). God made a way for Gentiles to becoming children of God that didn’t involve flint knives, giving up pulled pork and still allowing them to mow the grass on Sunday…but it really wasn’t about what they got to do or didn’t have to give up…it was about a new identity, a salvation and reconciliation not just to God but also to God’s chosen people.
Here is how Paul explained this in Ephesians 2:11-22,
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.“
Paul uses some strong words here of the pre-Christian Gentile condition: uncircumcised, separate, excluded, without hope, without God, far away, barrier, dividing wall, two groups, hostility, foreigners, & strangers. That is where they were. But through faith in Christ they have become one with the people of God and so a whole new set of words emerge to describe their new situation in Christ: brought near, peace, one, destroyed the barrier, one new humanity out of two, peace, one body, reconcile, put to death hostility, fellow citizens, members of his household, joined together, rises, built together…
In Christ there is a new reality. The two are now one. This is radical reconciliation…notice that in 2:13 the means to make this happen was the blood of Christ. It was his sacrifice that paved the way for a new humanity in which all the nations can be blessed…not only be blessed but to exist in perfect unity of faith. This is a new identity that Christ has brought to the world. Again, this was a mystery in ages past but it has been revealed to us in Christ through the Spirit.
A bit of application
Now, if God can initiate and sustain that sort of reconciliation…the reconciliation of pagan idolaters with the holy people of God…how much more should we be about the work of reconciliation? How much more should we be about doing the difficult, costly and grinding work of reconciling people with people and people with God? This will cost us something. This will cost us our comfort zones. This will cost us our tradition. This might even cost us our own blood…just remember, Jesus went first and then invited us into His ministry. This won’t be easy but it will be worth it.
Last point here – when we think about ministry a lot of words come to mind: worship, prayer, Bible study, preaching, teaching, leading…but there is one word that is rarely used and I have yet to see a graduate level class offered in it – “The ministry of reconciliation.” Paul tells us point blank in 2 Corinthians 5. More on that in the next post!