Despite a literal and spiritual dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles—centuries of conflict starting with Abraham—in Christ, they are reconciled. Their identity is no longer circumcised or uncircumcised, it is a new people, “Christian.” Even more amazingly, in Christ, God and sinners are reconciled. Christians are reconciled to one another and together are a dwelling place for God.
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 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, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Well, some of you know my story. I grew up in south Seattle, right by the airport, and it was a very, very diverse neighborhood, actually not far from where we have Mars Hill Rainier Valley today. As is often the case, we had a lot of people who had just moved into the country. That’s what happens if you live near a port or an airport. As people move into the area, they tend to, initially at least, settle there while they figure out where they’re going to go, and work, and start their life in a new country.
So, I grew up in an area with a lot of diversity, and it was really, actually, pretty fun and enjoyable. A lot of my friends were bilingual, and you’d go to their home and their parents still were struggling and straining to learn English. But I’d meet all kinds of fascinating people, meet the kids who were coming in from Vietnam trying to get their life restarted, some families fleeing real hardship in Cambodia, Muslim friends coming into the country from North Africa, all kinds of religions. I never knew there were so many religions, so many languages.
As you go into people’s homes, you start to realize, “Oh, they do things different than us.” They’ve got a different religion, and different language, and different food, which usually tasted better, and they’d organize their home differently, and I just found it really fascinating. I’ve always, since I was a little kid, found people really fascinating, and so it got me studying and wondering, well, how do we get all these nations, and what’s the history, and what are cultures like today.
So, I remember as a young boy getting on my BMX bike and pedaling many miles to get to the library, and I would go often, especially during the summer. I really liked the library, and I would try and check out books on history and figure out the history of the world, and I’d get a lot of magazines and try to see where my friends were from. What’s Cambodia like? What’s Vietnam like? What’s North Africa like? What are the Philippines like? I just wanted to see where some of my friends and their families had come from, and it got me really interested in travel.
I wanted to go see the world. I’m sitting in a house right next to the airport, so the planes fly overhead and just rattle the windows on the home. And I remember as a kid, especially during the summer months when the weather’s nice and I was outdoors playing baseball, as the planes fly over, just wondering, “I wonder where that one’s going. It’d be pretty amazing to get on a plane and just be able to go somewhere and see something.”
Well, we were a working class, poor family. We couldn’t afford airline tickets, and I didn’t get to go on an airplane until I was fourteen. It was for a baseball tournament and I was really excited because I was finally going to get on a airplane. And we flew to Ohio, not the cross-cultural experience that I was hoping for. It was like, “Yeah, this is—yeah, this looks white.”
And so it wasn’t what I was hoping for, and it wasn’t until my mid- to late twenties as a Christian pastor that I finally got to start to travel internationally a little bit and go see some of the world. Well, some years later now, I’ve had the great honor of traveling all over the world, and almost everywhere I’ve been—or I should say, in fact, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve noticed a trend, and that is there are at least two groups of people that really don’t like each other, and they build huge walls between them.
For example, when I went to Northern Ireland, the walls are actually suicide bomber walls with security checkpoints. Huge, concrete walls with chain link and barbed wire on the top dividing the Catholic and Protestant sections of the city, history of violence. In South Africa, saw the same thing, many of the blacks living in very poor townships surrounded with enormous walls, and then whites living oftentimes in more affluent communities also surrounded by very high walls and barbed wire with armed guards to even get into their neighborhoods.
But I’ve never seen anything quite like Israel. When you enter into Israel, you first realize there are walls literally everywhere, and the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter are all very, very much divided, and you have to pass through security checkpoints at certain times to actually go from one area to another. The dividing walls are protected by soldiers with guns, and unless you have permission, you’re not allowed to even pass from certain sections of the city into others.
During the tour with my family, we wanted to go visit Bethlehem, and that was amazing. I mean, you’re looking at miles of an enormous suicide bomber wall that you can’t even drive a car through, and they’re trying to defend themselves from terrorist attacks on both sides. Huge walls, covered with chain link, barbed wire, security cameras, military personnel, armed guards up on turrets. You’re looking at passing through security checkpoints to even get to the other side of the wall.
So as an American, as we were touring in Israel and we wanted to cross over into Bethlehem, the bus pulled up to the security checkpoint, armed guards, military soldiers welcome us off of the bus. I look at our tour guide and say, “Are you going to go with us?” He says, “I can’t go over there. I’m not allowed to go on that side of the wall, I’m Jewish. The bus can’t go on that side of the wall, it’s a Jewish bus.” I don’t know if they circumcise the bus or what, but it’s a Jewish bus. “And the driver can’t go to that side of the wall because it’s a Jewish driver. So, you have to walk through the security checkpoint, and then there’ll be another bus, another driver, and another tour guide that are not Jewish, and they’ll take you around Bethlehem, but we’ll wait for you and then you can come back when your tour is done in Bethlehem to this side of the wall.”
What is interesting is that physical realities often illustrate spiritual realities, that when we see barriers between people, they represent spiritual barriers as well. And as we get into Ephesians 2:11–22 today and we look at the issue that I am reconciled, you’re going to hear this word from the Apostle Paul: “A dividing wall of hostility.” A “dividing wall of hostility” is what he is speaking of, and it’s a spiritual wall of hostility, but it actually, as well, was a physical wall of hostility. It was a dividing wall.
And they would have thought, in large part, of the temple, and in that day, the holiest place on earth where the Holy of Holies dwelt, where the presence of God was, was the temple, and God dwelt there. And the holiest people were given the closest access to God, so let’s say that the Holy of Holies is here . . . well, the priests are here . . . and then other religious leaders are here . . . and then Jewish men are here . . . and then there are walls, walls, walls, walls, then the Jewish women are here . . . and the Gentiles are somewhere else. They’re in a place called the Court of the Gentiles. They’re far away, they’re on the proverbial back of the bus. You’re probably not going to worship the real God, and if you do want to show up, stay out of the way over on this wall, this wall, this wall, this wall, the very last wall, that’s where you go. And if you pass through the wall and try and get any closer access to the presence of God, they will kill you. It was a death sentence. So, there was a literal and spiritual dividing wall of hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles.
And as this relates to the theme of our study in Ephesians on identity, I told you previously, if you idolize, you demonize. So, if you idolize your race, you demonize other races; if you idolize your culture, you demonize other cultures; if you idolize your nation, you demonize other nations; if you idolize your gender, you demonize other genders; if you idolize your political party, you demonize other political parties. When we idolize, we are finding our identity in our tribe, and then we declare war on their tribe, and that’s identity idolatry, and that was, assuredly, some of what was going on here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and it’s what’s behind what we call racism, and classism, sexism, and the like.
So the first thing the Apostle Paul wants us to know is that Jew and Gentile are reconciled in Christ. Here’s how he says it in Ephesians 2:11–15: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh,” okay, that’s us, the non-Jewish people, “called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision,” we’ll get into all of this, “which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the,” what? The “dividing wall of hostility 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.”
This might be complicated, let me try and explain it for you, and it may be complicated because we’re Gentiles, okay? Jewish people, this may have made more sense. For those of us who are Gentiles, it may be a little more complicated. What he’s saying is there is a conflict, there is a hostility, there is animosity between two people groups: those who are Jewish, called the circumcision, and those who are Gentile, called the uncircumcised.
And this may even have been a bit of a pejorative slang term. When one group doesn’t like another group, we tend to nickname them negatively. Sociologists will tell you that we tend to nickname people we love and hate. We tend to nickname people we love and hate, and so we’ll have a good nickname for people we love and we’ll have a pejorative nickname for those that we hate.
So, in that day, apparently there were some Jewish people saying, “We are the circumcised. They are the uncircumcised,” and this was one of the demarcations for which team you were, in fact, on in that day. Well, as is often the case, any time you see a cultural or a racial conflict— you and I can be a bit naive, we can show up late to the scene and say, “Why don’t you guys get along?” And all of a sudden, they each start telling their story, and it tends to go back in history.
And here, as we trace the conflict, we go all the way back to a man named Abraham. You may have heard of him, one of the most important men in the history of the world, all the way back in the book of Genesis. And what we find is that this conflict between Jews and Gentiles is, in some ways, an extended family feud that had been going on for thousands of years.
Here was the situation: Abraham had two wives. Just so you know, that’s one too many. That’s one too many, okay? The result was that he had two sons, one with each woman, and then the conflict was sure to ensue. Which son would be considered the firstborn with the inheritance rights, the family name, and the blessing that was promised to the descendants of Abraham? And so what you had was two women, two sons, a massive conflict.
To this day, if I could go on a bit of an excursus for a moment, the conflict between Christians, and Jews, and Muslims is, in large part, the result of this family feud. Christians and Jewish people will read the Bible and say, “Well, Abraham, his real wife was Sarah, and Abraham and Sarah had Isaac, and he’s the son of the promise.” But then those who are Muslims, they’ll come along and say, “No, no, no, it’s Hagar, not Sarah, and it’s Ishmael, not Isaac, and we are the descendants of Abraham, and we inherit the promises, and Abraham is our father, and that’s the illegitimate side of the family,” and so the debate and the hostility is very deep and it has a very long history.
Well, the result was that Abraham circumcised himself and his household, and began circumcising his descendants as an outward sign of an inward covenant with God that ultimately would be fulfilled with circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant. And so what happened was you had this side of the family, they are the circumcised, this side of the family is the uncircumcised.
So, let’s talk first about the Gentiles. So they are called, in this section, “the uncircumcision, separated,” so they’re over there, right? “We live over here, they live over there. We don’t live together.” They’re called alienated. They’re treated like aliens. “We don’t know them, they are of another people group.” It says that there is “no hope.” So, there’s no way for these two groups to, in and of themselves, reconcile their hostility.
And it says that these are people who are “without God.” They have their own religions, they have their own religious leaders, they have their own religious traditions, and it’s all demonic, it’s all evil, it’s all corrupt, and it’s all damnable, and that’s us, okay? That’s us. Any of you who are not Jewish, that’s your heritage. We’re godless pagans.
Let’s say there were two boys out playing. Let’s say one was a Jew, one was a Gentile, and they weren’t supposed to be playing together, but they were out playing and they saw one another. Let’s say the Gentile boy asks the Jewish boy, “Oh, so are there any Gentiles in the Bible?” He’d probably, at first, feel very encouraged to hear the Jewish boy say, “Yeah, actually there are a lot of Gentiles in the Bible.” “Oh, so we made the Book?”
“Yeah, you guys are the Babylonians, you’re the Chaldeans, right, you’re the Egyptians. You heard of Nebuchadnezzar? Your guy. Do you like the story of David and Goliath? David was our guy, Goliath, your guy. All the bad guys, those are your guys. All the enemies of God and his people, those are your guys. Alright, if this is an old school Western, all your guys are wearing black hats and all my guys are wearing white hats. We’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys. God loves us, hates you.”
In fact, that’s what some Jewish leaders said. They said, “The only reason God made Gentiles was he wanted kindling for hell.” A little intense. Hostility’s a good word. Paul’s going to use it a few times. The hostility was so deep that if a Jewish man or woman came across a Gentile woman who was struggling to give birth, they were told not to assist her because you would be bringing another Gentile into the world.
Let’s say that a Jewish person fell in love with a Gentile person and they got married, a funeral would be held and that person would be considered dead by their family. It’s kind of like we’ve experienced even in Mars Hill Church where, let’s say, a Muslim exchange student is sent to the United States, and at Mars Hill they meet Jesus. I’ve actually seen this a few times. And then they fall in love with somebody who loves Jesus and they get married. Their family, if they’re devoutly Muslim, has held, for members of Mars Hill, a funeral. “They’re dead, they’re dead, they’re dead to us.”
So, this is the conflict, and this is how the Gentiles were regarded, and they were regarded this way by the Jews. They’re here referred to as the circumcision. And they were prone toward a haughtiness, a pride. After all, it’d be like, “Well, God chose one man, our father Abraham, and all of the prophets come from our family. And all of the priests and the kings, they come from our family. And the Book is primarily about our family. And Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, oh, that’s our family. And God says we’re the apple of his eye, and that he chose us, and that he’s our Father, and that we have eternal life, and that we are the chosen ones. We’re the good people. And if you would like to consider or join our religion, you have to become Jewish. You need to learn our language, your men all need to be circumcised, you need to change your diet, you need to celebrate our holidays, and those pagan things you used to do, even if they were just cultural, those need to stop, and you need to just become Jewish. But because you’re not of the pure bloodline, you’re still not going to perhaps be considered a first-class citizen. You’re a convert, but you’re not pure entirely.”
Now, what’s interesting is, if you read the Scriptures, there’s no reason that God’s people should have been haughty and proud. You know, it’s like, Abraham. Oh, the guy who committed adultery, and polygamy, and gave his wife away twice? It’s not like he has this amazing resume of sinlessness. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—I mean, I preached through the book of Genesis some years ago, and these guys commit adultery, incest, polygamy. There are some serious problems in this family.
You keep reading and God sends prophets to these people. “Repent, you’re in sin, it’s wicked, I’m tired of it.” He’s rebuking them, and when they don’t repent, which is often the case, what they end up doing is murdering the prophets. And then, on occasion, God sends them into exile. He uproots them from the land he promised and the blessings he provided, and off they go to Egypt, or off they go to Babylon. They’re taken captive somewhere else as punishment.
So it’s not as simple as saying, “The Gentiles are sinners and the non-Gentiles, God’s people, they are holy.” Now, if they are holy, it’s because God has set them apart, and loved, and forgiven them, but it’s not because they are any better.
And if you trace it back far enough, you may not know this, and maybe if you are Jewish, you know, buckle your seatbelt, but I’ll tell you something. Abraham was a pagan Gentile. That’s how he started until God saved him, and that’s how we all start until God saves us. So, the story in Genesis is there was a place called Babylon, and they built a tower called Babel, and God judged it, and confused the languages, and scattered the people. And then he chooses a man named Abraham, and he’s really elect. He wasn’t seeking God, God was seeking him, and God saved him, God entered into relationship with him. In one of the most important lines of the Bible, it says, “Abraham believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” that he was saved by faith through trusting in the grace of God.
Now, who was Abraham? Well, I’ll give you two places you can look at in preparation for your Community Group. But in Nehemiah 9:7 and Acts 7:2–3, we read that Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldeans. You probably haven’t done a lot of research on Ur of the Chaldeans, but here’s where it was: Babylon. Insofar as we can tell, Abraham was a godless pagan living in Babylon, uncircumcised, just a regular old pagan Gentile, and then God showed up, saved him, he trusted in the Lord, he became the father of all who believe, and that means he then had to circumcise himself as an outward sign of an inward change. And so the Jewish people should have all known we all descend from Gentile pagans, and God saves by grace through faith. That’s how he did it with Abraham.
How many of you, you have a little haughtiness because you’re from a religious family, a moral family, a significant family? “My parents are the kind of people that, you know, they’re really honored in the community,” or “My grandparents did a wonderful thing,” or “My great-grandfather was a war hero,” or “You know, we’ve really contributed a lot to the community. I come from pretty good stock. We’re good people, we give back, we serve. Maybe we’re religious, we’re traditional, you know, we’re really committed to our church traditions and our piety.”
The truth is, if we trace our family line back enough—well, two things. Number one, if we’re honest about our history and our family history, there’s a lot we’re embarrassed by, right? Like, if I did what Abraham did, I would be your former pastor, right? Like, “Here’s my wife, here’s my other wife. Here’s my son, here’s my other son. And I gave away my wife twice. You know, hey, it’s biblical!” You’d be like, “Uh-uh, you are our former pastor. You can’t get away with stuff like that.” So, if we look at our life and the life of our family, let’s all be honest and say there’s a lot of sin in there. And sometimes when we’re religious, it’s amazing because when it’s our sin, we close our eyes, but when it’s their sin, we open our eyes.
Number two, if we trace our family history back enough, we all come from a bunch of godless pagans, amen? Some of you don’t have to do a lot of research, right? It’s Christmas, “Hi, Dad,” that’s all the research you need to do.
Now, for my dad and I, we— some of you know my story. We were County Cork, Southern Ireland, Irish Catholic O’Driscolls, okay? And so my pops and I, now that we’re both saved and Christians, we wanted to go kind of back to the home country and just see where did we come from, what can we find out about our family heritage? So, we went to Ireland and visited Northern and Southern, but in Southern Ireland we went to kind of Baltimore Harbor, and Skibbereen, and other sort of leprechaun-sounding towns, and enjoyed ourselves, and did a little bit of the history, and we found somebody from a heritage center and said, “Okay, tell us about our family.”
And I was thinking it’d be something great. It was greatly troubling. What they said was, “Oh, you guys are the liquor pirates.” I was like, “Well, we used to be, and explain that.” And she says—she was a very sweet woman. She said, “Well, the O’Driscolls were famous because, you know, they had castles, and when they were dispossessed and lost their land and their castles, as ships would come through the port, your family would sail out as pirates and seize the ship and steal the wine.” Actually created quite a few conflicts, and at certain points our relatives were then apprehended, and taken away, and exiled to other nations as punishment for liquor thievery.
Two things I’ll say: number one, aren’t I doing good? Some of you are like, “He needs work.” Look at all the progress! Just the fact that I’m not out right now taking the car stereo out of your car is sort of a step forward, right? And secondly, if we all trace our family history honestly, we all come from a bunch of godless pagans.
So, there’s the Gentiles, the uncircumcised, there’s the Jews who are the circumcised, and sort of the thought is we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and they need to just join us if they want to be with God. And he says it’s hostility. That’s what it is. There’s a great conflict and animosity that exists here.
Well, then what happens, Jesus comes. Jesus was Jewish and he said he was God, and so then one thing that Jews and Gentiles agreed on is, “We need to kill him.” Jews and Gentiles tended not to work together, but they did in the murder of Jesus. So the religious leaders said, “We need him dead,” and the political leaders who were Gentiles said, “We agree,” so they, together, participated in the murder of Jesus because he said he was God. And Jesus dies on the cross, and then he rises from death, and then he ascends back into heaven.
And now, his first disciples are all Jewish, his first converts are Jewish, and the early church is largely Jewish, but as things spread, Gentiles start getting excited about Jesus. Now we’re into the New Testament and all of sudden, Gentiles are, in large numbers, converting to Christianity, and they love Jesus, and their sins are forgiven, and they’re filled with the Holy Spirit. And we’re going to get into all of this when we start Acts after Easter, but what happens then is there are a lot of questions, like, “What do we do with all these Gentiles?” Because when the Bible has existed, when the Word of God has existed in one culture for a long time, and then people from another culture start worshiping the God of Scripture, they have a lot of questions.
And so a lot of our New Testament, quite frankly, is—like, let’s say Corinth. They’re asking questions like, “Hey, can we be homosexual? Can we go up to the temple with prostitution for the pagan gods? Can we eat the meat sacrificed to idols and demons? Can we marry our mother-in-law?” And the Jewish people are like, “What the heck kind of questions are these?” These are not things in synagogue, like, “Can I marry my mom and get drunk?” Like, “No. What?” That Q&A never happened in a Jewish synagogue. Everybody knew, no, you cannot get drunk and marry your mom, but these are the questions that the newly converted Gentile pagans have because that’s how they did their life. And so much of the New Testament in the epistles and the letters are answers to the questions that get raised by newly converted Gentiles.
Mars Hill, this has been our experience. I mean, we’re working, in large part, in cities that are Gentile, and pagan, and not historically Christian. And a lot of people who become Christians, they’re first-generation Christians, and they’ve got all kinds of new questions that the church people tend not to have. And so I answer them and we answer them, and then the Internet blows up and the religious people freak out because you’re not supposed to talk about certain things, but these are questions that our people actually have.
And so the case here is that they have a church with Jewish people and Gentile people, and they have some questions about, “What do we do?” And I’m sure, as was the case in the early church, the Jewish people were simply saying, “Well, just tell them to be Jewish. Tell all the guys to get circumcised,” and all the guys are like, “Are you sure? Because we want confirmation. We are not unwilling, but if there is an exception clause, we unanimously vote for it.” And so there are these kinds of—and that’s the whole book of Galatians, to some degree, is the debate over that issue. So these questions get raised, so then Paul writes this letter, and he’s trying to answer this question. The Gentiles are probably saying, “Well, we can just be Gentile believers in Jesus and junk all the Jewish stuff,” and the Jewish people are saying, “No, no, no, it’s in the Book, and what do we do?”
What would you say? What would you say? What Paul says is something that had never been said. And we live in a day that really wants cultural diversity, but Paul—or I should say, God the Holy Spirit, through Paul, provides an answer that you will only find in Christianity. He uses this language: “One new man in place of the two.” You see the fight? The Gentiles are, “No, no, no, you guys need to be Gentiles.” The Jewish people are like, “No, no, no, you need to be Jewish.” Paul comes along and says, “No, no, no, no, no, you all need to be in Christ, a new man.”
Some theologians will call this a new race or a third humanity. Is it this or that? No, it’s something entirely new. This, friends, is an issue of identity. Their identity is no longer uncircumcised Gentile or circumcised Jew, it is in Christ, reconciled together as a new man. So, there’s this new group, there’s this new category, there’s this new people called Christian.
I was trying to ascertain how to say this to you: it’s kind of like a wedding. Okay, what happens in a wedding is there are a husband and a wife, a bride and a groom, and they come together. He doesn’t join her family; she doesn’t join his family. Together, the two become what? One, and they make a new family that has some elements and aspects of their former family, but it’s a totally new family. The two become one and they make a new family. It’s kind of like that with Jesus. Jews and Gentiles are reconciled together in Christ. They become one, the church, and they start a new family called Christianity. It’s kind of like that.
And so for the Jewish people, they’re trying to figure out, “Okay, our primary identity is in Christ.” For the Gentiles, “Our primary identity is in Christ. We shouldn’t be fighting with one another, we should be loving one another and figuring out what it means to be this new family if God is, in fact, our Father, and Jesus our saving Big Brother.”
And so he uses language through this section of Ephesians like this, that together they are “brought near.” See, if Jesus is in the center, and the Gentiles come to Jesus, and the Jews come to Jesus, they’re brought what? They’re brought near to each other by their relationship with Jesus.
He says, “They have access in one Spirit to the Father.” What that means is that there is no front of the bus, back of the bus, first- and second-class for Christianity, that God’s a Father who loves all of his kids, black, white, rich, poor, young, old, Asian, Hispanic, male, female, Democrat, Republican. He loves all his kids equally, and he places the Holy Spirit in each of them, and they each have equal access to their Dad. There’s no wall of hostility.
It’s not like a family where, you know, Dad lives on the main floor and all his favorite kids live around him, you know, and there’s a house out back for the other kids, but they don’t need to have access to their Dad. It’s not like that. God’s a Father who loves all of his kids, gives the same Holy Spirit to each of his kids, and provides equal access to himself for all of his kids.
Then he goes on to say that they become together a dwelling place for God. It’s like a family all living together. And Mars Hill Church, that’s what we are. That’s what you are. We are seeing here a radical transformation in the history of the world, and nothing is the same after Jesus Christ.
So, two things I would say. Number one, old things may explain us, but they no longer define us in Christ. So, perhaps your previous, primary identity was, “I’m American, or this is my race, or this is my culture, or this is my gender, this is my family, this is our history, this is our tradition.” That might explain you, but it no longer defines you. No longer defines you. Your primary identity is in Christ, which means your primary allegiance is to those who are in Christ.
Number two, there is a difference, and we need to make note of this, between cultural preferences and culture prejudices. Probably the most famous African-American pastor in the United States of America is Bishop T. D. Jakes, and I don’t want to get into all the theological issues. Just one conversation I had with him that was very insightful last year in Chicago, and we were talking, and he articulated the difference between prejudices and preferences as we were having a meal together.
And it’s insightful to me because it’s okay to have cultural preferences. We need to be careful not to elevate them into prejudices. You may say, “I like the way that this people group does life together.” That’s okay, but then to say, “So we’re better than they are, we’re superior to them, they do it wrong.” We’re not talking here about issues of sin, we’re talking about issues of style. Not issues of sin, but issues of style.
And what can happen is we turn our preferences into prejudices, and when we do that, we’re not loving the whole family. And what we are creating is dividing walls of hostility saying, “You know, if you want to be with us, then you need to be like us. And if not, there’s some sort of spiritual if not physical wall that we have erected here. And unless you are just like us, you’re not welcome to be with us.” And then God throws his arms around all the kids and says, “No, this is the us. It’s all my kids and I need my kids to have my heart for the whole family.” Jew and Gentile are reconciled together in Christ.
Number two, you and God are reconciled in Christ. Now, here’s what’s mind-bending. You look at all the history, and the complexity, and the acrimony between the Jews and the Gentiles and say, “That’s pretty amazing that God could reconcile them.” Here’s what’s even more amazing: not only does God in Christ reconcile Jew and Gentile, God in Christ reconciles God and sinner. You think about the differences between us and God: Creator, created; holy, sinner; infinite, finite; and we’ve sinned against God, and the result is there is hostility between us and God.
Now, some of you say, “I don’t feel that way.” It’s because you’re not the victim. See, the offended party’s always the one who’s hostile. The offender doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem, but the offended knows that it is. In our relationship with God, he’s the offended party. We’ve sinned against him. I mean, this is Psalm 51:5, “Against you only, Lord God, have I sinned.”
Friends, you’re a sinner, I’m a sinner, we’re all sinners by nature and choice. We’ve rebelled against God, we’ve declared war against God, and God, who is holy, has a serious problem with us, and if he didn’t, he would cease to be holy. How is this relationship going to be reconciled? We can’t change ourselves, we can’t save ourselves. He already said that we are “without hope.” That means if we are to save ourselves, then we are without hope.
So, what does God do? Ephesians 2:15–18, it goes on to say, “That he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making,” what? “Peace, and might,” what? There’s our word, “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” Whose body? Jesus’ body. “Thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off,” right, us pagan Gentiles who live far away from Israel, “and to those who were near,” those who are, by birth, descendants of Abraham. “For through him,” that is Jesus, “we have access in one Spirit to the Father,” he says. The whole Trinity is there. We have access to the Father through the cross of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, let me explain this. God, because of sin, knows that there is a wall of hostility between us and him. Okay, friends, it’s a wall that you’ve built, it’s a wall that I’ve built, a wall of rebellion, sin, and folly. And so God lives in heaven, we live down here. He lives in a holy place, we live in an unholy place. He lives where there is no sin, we live in a place that is filled with sin. He lives in a place where there is no death, we live in a place where there is death. And we have built a wall and we have spiritually lived our lives apart from God.
And God comes as Jesus Christ. God becomes a man. The Creator enters creation. The Spirit God who made all adds to his spirit human flesh and he goes from heaven to earth. He goes from being worshiped to being hated. He goes from a life of affluence to a life of poverty. He goes from a life of notoriety to a life of hostility. Jesus is God coming over that wall that we have built. It is God coming to seek, and to save, and to serve us. It’s a rescue mission.
And what he does is he lives without sin, he declares himself to be God, which is why he ultimately was put to death, and he dies. And it says that we are saved, we’re reconciled through his body. So, Jesus takes upon himself all of our sin and the penalty for sin, which is death. And it says that he kills the hostility by dying in our place.
So, if you are in Christ and your faith is in Christ, he died in your place, and God is no longer one who has hostility toward you, he has peace with you. That’s exactly what he says. He has peace with you. He won’t punish you because Jesus was already punished in your place. And he has eradicated, in the body of Jesus on the cross of Jesus, that dividing wall of hostility. And now, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the children of God and there’s no barrier. The spiritual barrier of sin has been removed, and now God dwells in us and God dwells with us.
So Jew and Gentile are reconciled in Christ. Even more amazingly, sinners and God are reconciled in Christ. And then functionally and practically, it means for those of us who are in Christ, and that’s now our primary identity—not our cultural affinity, but it’s now our primary identity—we are reconciled in Christ. You and others are reconciled in Christ.
Here’s how he says it, Ephesians 2:19–22, “So then,” in light of Jesus, “you are no longer,” what? “Strangers and aliens, but are fellow citizens with the saints,” there’s your identity, “and members of the household of God,” there’s your community, “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
See, it used to be that God’s people would go to a place called the temple, and it was high on a hill. It was, in fact, a city on a hill, and they would often walk for many, many miles. And then, when they arrived at the base of the hill, they would wash themselves to get clean and they would adorn themselves in white, and then they would sing what was known as the Psalms of Ascent. You can find these in the book of Psalms.
And they walked, literally up, to Jerusalem, the city on a hill, and the temple was high and exalted. And the presence of God and the Holy of Holies was at the center, and they’d be trying to purify themselves for sin and prepare their heart to meet with God. And they would come, literally, as close to God as a human being could without dying because they’re a sinner. So, that wall would still be in place, but they would get as close to God as they could.
And they would offer sacrifices, and confess their sins, and animals would die, and blood would be shed, because the wage for sin is death, and all of that is foreshadowing the coming of Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The temple is all foreshadowing the coming of Jesus, because the temple was all about the presence of God on the earth. We are here, he is there, there is a dividing wall of hostility between us, and Jesus breaks through it and comes to be Emmanuel, God with us, and then Jesus is the temple of God.
Friends, it’s why today I’m not going to encourage you all to get on a plane and go to a place called the Holy Land. If you want to go, it’s fine, you’ll learn a lot. I enjoyed it, but I don’t necessarily refer to it as the Holy Land. Jesus was there, but today it is just land. Holy is wherever the Holy Spirit is, and what’s interesting is we no longer go to a holy place, but a holy God comes to any place to meet with his people. That’s good news.
And he uses this language of temple, and he’s telling the Jews and the Gentiles. The Gentiles are probably thinking, “Do we need to go to the temple?” He’s like, “You are the temple.” “What is Paul talking about?” And then he uses this analogy. See, when you go to the temple, it is literally carved out of rock—or what remains of the temple, and as you go underground on the tour, you’re going to see enormous hand-hewn stones that serve as the foundation. And if you take the tour and you underground, some of these are the size of railroad cars. Just think, in the day before electricity and modern technology, how did they even create this amazing temple and its foundation? And he says, “God has done something even more amazing. It’s a temple not built by human hands, that the Lord Jesus Christ comes and the presence of God is with us.” So friends, today, we’re not going to go to a sacred building, we’re going to go to Jesus— in fact, let me restate that. Jesus will come to be with us. We don’t go anywhere, God’s the one who comes to us.
And he says that you are stones in this temple called the church that God is building. So he says, “The cornerstone is Jesus,” right? That means everything rises and falls with Jesus. When you lay the foundation of a building, the most important thing is to lay the cornerstone correctly. If you lay it incorrectly or you lay the wrong cornerstone, whatever you’ve built will eventually crumble. You know why religions fail? You know why psychology fails? You know why moralism fails? You know why nations fail? You know why businesses fail? Do you know why people fail? Do you know why spiritualities fail? If the cornerstone isn’t Jesus, it’s only a matter of time before it all crumbles. So, it all starts with Jesus, and it all rises and falls with Jesus.
So, at Mars Hill, we like to say that it’s all about Jesus. So, we talk about Jesus and how he relates your marriage, and Jesus and how he relates to your kids, and Jesus and how he relates to your singleness, and Jesus and how he relates to your suffering, and Jesus and how he relates to your poverty, and Jesus and how he relates to your job, and we don’t talk about anything unless we’re also talking firstly about Jesus, amen? So, we start with Jesus. Everything states with Jesus, and everything rests, and rides, and resides on Jesus.
And then he says there are the apostles and the prophets, so the New Testament and the Old Testament leaders, those who are, in large part, responsible for giving us the Scriptures, and then he says God is building the church. So you need to use this physical imagery to teach you spiritual reality. And as I said, sometimes physical things will illustrate spiritual truths. So it is with a building. If you go to, let’s say, a brick building, you say, “That’s amazing how that’s all stacked up and it holds together.” Mars Hill, you’re the bricks. You’re the bricks that God stacks us together.
And for a few thousand years Christianity has existed. It’s the biggest thing in the history of the world because Jesus is still alive. And in two thousand years, five thousand years, ten thousand years, whenever the Lord Jesus decides to return, we do not know, all the nations will come and go, and the companies will come and go, and the church will still be here because it’s a miracle. It’s something that God does, it’s something that he built. He saves people, and he stacks them together as the church, and the church just keeps growing.
Some of you say, “Why is Mars Hill always so worried about growth?” Because we want to see the church grow. There are people out there who are far off, and they’re alienated, and they’re separated, and they’re living in hostility, and we want them to meet Jesus and to be part of the church family, and we want to get to know them, and, “Hey, you stack your life next to mine, and let’s love each other and be the people of God.”
And let’s just say, Mars Hill, there are some weird bricks, right? Have you noticed? I mean, you walk into a church and you say, “I can’t see these people all coming together for anything else.” Like, “What do you guys have in common?” “Jesus. We’re very different.” We’re very different, right? I mean, just think of Mars Hill Church, just all the different life stages, and backgrounds, and races, and cultures, and experiences, and commitments, and all that makes us who we are. And as we’re all stacked together, if somebody walks in and asks, “What? How? What?” “Oh, Jesus. He loves them, he loves me, he put us together, and it’s to show how loving, and how gracious, and how good he is, and he’s building his church.”
So, you know, I was thinking about it when I went to Israel and I got to see the foundation of the temple, and was underground on the tour, and the huge hand-carved stones, and I thought, “This is amazing, but the people of Mars Hill Church are more amazing than this. They’re more amazing than this. They’re living stones that are stacked together on Jesus to give testimony to God.”
And then he says that we become, then, a dwelling place for God the Spirit. There’s a difference between God being present with you in your life, and he is, so if you’re singing in your car, or you’re reading the Bible at home, or you’re praying at work, God is with you, but the Holy Spirit loves to be present with the people of God. So, when we come together, Mars Hill, we don’t believe that a building is particularly sacred. We could meet in a school, we could meet at a theater, we could sell a building and go get another one. What make a place holy are the people of God being present and Jesus being made much of.
And when we come together, God is eminent, he is present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and he is reminding us that we’re reconciled to him and one another, and he is revealing to the world the reconciliation that happens in Christ, and that means that we come together to sing, and as we sing, we’re showing we’re reconciled in Christ, and we’re reconciled to God in Christ.
And so when we come together, we become like the Old Covenant temple. The difference there was only the holiest man on the holiest day of the year would be able to enter into the very presence of God, but even that dividing wall of hostility was torn from top to bottom at the death of Jesus—it was a curtain in the temple—and then the Spirit of God was free to be released and among the people of God. So, all of those barriers have now been removed and the Holy Spirit is with us. Just like he used to be present in the Holy of Holies, he’s present in the praise of God’s people.
So Mars Hill, when I’m done preaching, please remain singing; that the Holy Spirit is not just with you, he’s with us; and it’s not just your life and your body that are the temple of the Holy Spirit, it’s also our church and our collective family together, together, which is a “dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” We are “a holy temple in the Lord.” That’s our new identity, that’s our new activity, because together in Christ, God’s made us a new community. This is why there’s nothing like the church. There’s nothing like it, and when people, out of the fact they’re made in the image and likeness of God, they want to see reconciliation. Well, the answer is Jesus. The answer is Jesus.
So, in closing, let me explain to you the fact that ideas have consequences. Some of you say, “Well, okay, we’ve looked at the biblical ideology. What’s the alternative?” Ideas have consequences, and let me be so bold and controversial as to say that apart from what I will call a biblical worldview, racial/cultural equality, love, affection, appreciation, and reconciliation, it’s inconsistent if not hypocritical.
I’ll show you. Have you heard of The Origin of the Species? This is the underpinning of the evolutionary worldview. Have you heard of the book The Origin of the Species? Have you heard of that? Here’s the original title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin. They cut the second half off because it’s a little controversial. So, you were told he wrote a book called The Origin of the Species. No, it’s also The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
A purely evolutionary worldview says that we were animals, some of us have become people, and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. In our nation’s history, shamefully it meant that for governmental purposes and representational purposes, some people were considered three-fifths human, which means you’re still part animal and part human, but you’ve crossed over the line. You’re more human than animal. This was the case for those who were black, or sometimes Native American, or Hispanic, or Asian, various groupings.
Mars Hill, do we believe that? Why do we not believe that? Because we believe the Bible. The Bible says that no matter what group you’re in, we all actually descend from one man and one woman. So, we’re actually all part of one big family. In addition, the Bible teaches that God made animals who don’t bear his image and likeness, and people who do, and there’s nothing in the middle. So, all people equally bear the image and likeness of God, are worthy of equal dignity, value, and equality. That’s what it says, that’s what it means. And again, we’re not talking about issues of sin, but issues of style. It doesn’t mean that everything everybody always does is okay in God’s sight, but it does mean that everybody is equal because they equally bear the image and likeness of God.
Now, let’s bring it to Christ. Let’s say you are in Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, Jesus loves you, the Father adopts you, and he reconciles us together. In the family of God, there are no second-class citizens, right? There are no children who are half in the family and half not in the family; half in the inheritance, half not in the inheritance. God’s not a Father who treats his kids like that, and because of the Bible, we should never see people like that.
Is there anybody you are prejudiced against, any group? Is there anybody you’re not reconciled to and they would say they’re a Christian? We are reconciled, if we’re Christians, in Christ, and we can be reconciled together as Christians around Christ. And I would just beg you, seek reconciliation, and even if they don’t reciprocate, don’t have a funeral in your heart where they’re dead to you.
Now, you contrast this worldview of evolution where people are part human, part animal, and we’re more evolved than them, and they’re basically animals, and we’re superior. With biblical ideology, it’s what really worked toward the eradication of slavery. It’s why William Wilberforce in Great Britain really fought for the abolition of slavery, because he was a Bible-believing Christian.
It’s why, in the United States, the same thing was enacted by Abraham Lincoln, fighting for the abolition of slavery because he was a Bible-believing Christian. I watched the movie. I thought it was amazing. I wish they would have included his relationship with Jesus and his commitment to biblical truth that really compelled him forward. That’s why during the Civil Rights Movement, a man like Martin Luther King, Jr., comes into leadership as a pastor, preaching biblical themes of redemption and equality from things like the Exodus.
Ideas have consequences. Ideas have profound consequences for the well-being of people, and it’s one of the reasons that I really love the Bible and I really appreciate that it’s not only true but it’s incredibly helpful. And it allows us to be a people of God, a family of God, where our preferences don’t have to become our prejudices, and where those things that explain us don’t have to define us because we’re a new group together in Christ.
And in closing, for those of you that don’t know the history of Mars Hill, let me just say something practically that I hope is helpful. When Grace and I moved back to Seattle and we knew, eventually, we were going to plant a church, we found the most diverse, Bible-believing church we could find, and we worshiped there. And it was an African-American pastor who was gracious enough to fund us, and send us out, and allow us to start the church.
And it was my heart’s intent to have diversity in the leadership early on. My belief is it’s easier to get diversity in the church if you have diversity in the leadership because when you make decisions, if you don’t have other cultural perspectives, sometimes you can make one that isn’t the most hospitable for all people.
I realized that recently talking to a Christian hip-hop artist, African-American guy from another city, and he was talking about attending his church and bringing his friends, but it was a really white church and he said, “They don’t even know how to make you feel welcome.” I was like, “Okay, explain that.” He said, “Well, they get up and say, ‘Hey, if you’re new, we’d love to take you out for a cup of coffee.’” He said, “In our neighborhood, we don’t have coffee shops and we don’t all go out for coffee. That’s a really white thing.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, it is.” So, you know. And so, again, just a simple reminder that when there’s diversity in leadership, it opens more hospitality to different people.
So, early on, I invited one man to come with us to be an elder, African-American man, a godly man, but his job forced him to go on the road, and he was gone a lot with a young family, and they were living far away, so he transitioned out. There was another young man who was a very gifted up-and-coming young African-American preacher that I was investing in, then he joined the military and left. And so, we started with not exactly the leadership team that I would have hoped for.
And some years later, our hope is that our churches would look like the communities they’re in. So, Albuquerque is going to be very diverse with Hispanics, natives, and those who are white. Rainier Valley is very diverse, and other places like Portland, not so much. Portland is the whitest place I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know if they sell wheat bread in Portland it’s so white.
But if you’re at Mars Hill and you say, “Man, I’m from a different culture, racial, ethnic background. I love the church, but I don’t know if this is the best place for me,” might I just say you’d be a real gift to us in leadership, that we really could use your help, and you could help us learn and grow. We have some diversity, and by God’s grace we aspire to more, because if Jesus has reconciled us, then we need to do this together. And so we’d appreciate it, if you are feeling called toward leadership, especially those of you who maybe, you know, aren’t just white indie rockers who play guitar, smoke, and blog. Like, we—if you are here, welcome, but we have a lot of you. If you’re someone else, we love you, we welcome you, and you could be a real blessing and help to us, and so help us to welcome you so that together we can welcome all of God’s people, amen? Alright, that’s all I’ve got for today, probably. I’ll pray.
Father God, thank you for an opportunity to teach the Bible at Mars Hill Church to the people that I love. I thank you for this great temple that is being built and all of these amazing stones that are being laid, one life upon the other as we do life together. God, I thank you that in Christ we can be reconciled to you, and in Christ we can be reconciled to one another. And God, the names may change; it used to be Jew and Gentile, maybe now it’s black and white, and young and old, and rich and poor, and those who are Democrat, those who are Republican, those who are Hispanic, those who are Asian, those who are suburban, those who are rural, those who are urban. Father, the categories change, but the issues remain the same. And so we ask you, Lord Jesus, to fill us individually and collectively with the Holy Spirit and to, together, come to the fullness of an understanding of what this amazing reconciliation is, in Christ’s good name, amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.