The Church as Christ’s New Creation: How a Multi-Ethnic Church Fulfills God’s Promises to Israel

tung-wong-70780This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
— Ephesians 3:6 —

In Ephesians 2 Paul spends a great deal of time explaining how the Jews and Gentiles are no longer divided by covenant or country, but instead have become in Christ ‘one new man in place of the two’ (v. 15). This “two becomes one” theme culminates and crystalizes in Ephesians 2:18–21, when he says that the temple Christ is building is comprised of Jews and Gentiles. He writes,

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.

Amazingly, in these verses, Paul highlights at least three ways in which the temple is comprised of Jews and Gentiles.

  1. He says that Christ preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near (v. 17), which is to say Christ preaches peace by his Spirit to far off Gentiles and near(er) Jews. There is not a different message for each group and there is certainly not a different covenant. Rather, the same message of Christ-centered peace is offered by Christ to all people—whether Jew or Gentile.
  2. He says both Jews and Gentiles have access in one Spirit to the Father (v. 18). Indeed, in Christ those who were once near do not have a greater access than those who were far off. Like John and Peter (John 20:4), one may have arrived at the empty tomb sooner than the other, but the first one to Christ did not get a greater blessing. So it is with Jews and Gentiles in Christ—both have access to the triune God and neither have more access than the other.
  3. He says Gentiles, who were once separated from the blessings of God (Ephesians 2:11–12), and Jews, who once clearly had multiple advantages over the Gentiles (see Romans 3:1–2; 9:4–5) are now fellow citizens. Indeed they are fellow members of the household of God, such that only with one another can the temple of God be joined together.

In short, Paul’s explanation in Ephesians 2 of reconciliation makes clear that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but instead there is one new covenant people who possess all the same blessings in Christ. In context, to argue for anything else would do massive damage to a young church composed of Jews and Gentiles (read Acts 18 and 19).

Moreover, to solidify this unity in the church, Paul goes on in Ephesians 3:1–13 to explain how the Gentiles are included in mystery of Christ. Instead of preserving a greater place for Israel in the short or far future, he says the Gentiles are co-heirs (sugklēronomos), co-members of the same body (sussōma), and co-sharers (summetoxa) in the promises of God (Ephesians 3:6). The ESV captures this truth, but doesn’t capture the symmetry of the wording—Paul adds the preposition (syn) to the front of three words heightening the cohesion of Jews and Gentiles.

In truth, I’m not sure Paul’s language could be any stronger. In this verse, he asserts the oneness of God’s people, with equal privileges shared between Jews and Gentiles. In this way, Paul all but eliminates any need or space for some later, distinct blessing given to the Jews. Indeed, in the Jerusalem Church (comprised of Jews only) the gospel saved a large remnant of Jews and has ever since been bringing in people from Israel. At the same time, however, as Acts records the Church in Jerusalem quickly added Samaritans and Gentiles, until by the end of the book the church is neither Jewish nor Gentile. Rather, as Paul paints it in Ephesians, the church is one new humanity conjoined by the gospel of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, sent on mission to see men and women from every nation—whether Jew or Gentile—fitted into the Christ’s world-encompassing temple.

This is what Ephesians 2–3 tells us about the church. And this foundational truth has massive implications for Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Neither Jew nor Gentile: The Church as Something Else Entirely

At the same time, the idea of the church being the cohesion of Jew and Gentile shows up in other letters, like Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. For example, in two brief verses we can see the revolutionary effect of the gospel on Jews and Gentiles, and how in Christ, the people of God are set apart from both parties.

1 Corinthians 9:20

First, in 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul writes, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.” In context, this line speaks of Paul’s willingness to accomodate himself to others, so that they might be saved (see vv. 19–23). But it’s important to recognize: Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, says that he must accommodate himself to the Jews.

(Insert quizzical emoticon here.)

What is Paul doing? Isn’t Paul a Jew? Of course, just read Philippians 3:3–8. Yet, 1 Corinthians 9:20 indicates how he thinks of his Jewishness. No longer does he submit himself to the law covenant of Sinai, as every Jew would. (Later in the same verse he says, “though I am not under the law”). If he did submit to the Law, he wouldn’t need to become a Jew. He would only need to become a Jew if he no longer saw himself as a son of Israel, but as a new creation in Christ.

Indeed, in this odd verse, we learn something radical. Though born a Jew, Paul identifies himself first and foremost with Christ, such that he can say he must take strides to identify with Jews who are still living under the laws of Moses.

In short, Paul teaches us that he was no longer clinging to God’s promises to Israel. He was instead clinging to the Promised One of Israel. That is as a massive change, and one that uncovers much about his view regarding the church and Israel. For him, the church is not a second people of God; it is the people of God—comprised of Jews and Gentiles, but no longer synonymous with either, as we’ll see in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians.

 

1 Corinthians 10:32

Second, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” Notice how Paul contrasts Jews and Gentiles with the Church of God. In this verse, he doesn’t identify two groups—the saved and the unsaved, for instance. Rather, he separates Jew and Gentile and he separates both of these parties from the church. For Paul, the Church is neither Jewish nor Gentile. Rather, the Church is the Spirit-born people of God who come from either a Jewish or Gentile background.

Unlike some modern evangelicals who want to posit a division between Israel and the Church along ethnic lines, Paul does not. He says that under the new covenant, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only a new creation (cf. Galatians 6:15). In truth, this is what the gospel of Jesus Christ does. It buries the covenantal and racial distinctions between Jew and Gentile in the same mass grave of sinful humanity (cf. Romans 11:32). Then with all hostilities based on race, face, and put to death, it raises Jews and Gentiles together in Christ, such that there is no longer an cultural or covenantal divide.

In Christ, therefore, the promises to Israel have been fulfilled. And in Christ, the promise that Abraham’s seed would bless the nations (Genesis 12:3) has come true. As the promised seed of Abraham, the lone surviving obedient Son of Israel, and the long-awaited heir to David’s throne, all the promises to Israel have terminated in him (2 Corinthians 1:20). And now in Christ, lawbreakers from Israel and lawless idolaters from every nation can find grace in the king of Israel.

The Promises to Israel Fulfilled in Christ and Completed in God’s Multi-Ethnic Church 

As Ephesians 3 reports, this storyline was hidden from the full view of God’s old covenant people Israel. But now to the apostles and prophets, Paul says this mystery has now been revealed to Christ (Ephesians 3:6). And thus from passages like Ephesians 2–3, Hebrews, and 1 Peter 2, we learn how God has made one holy nation out of many unholy nations, how he has raised up a royal priesthood from a people who were once enslaved to idols, and how in Christ he is building a new temple that is built out of Spirit-filled flesh and blood—not wood and cloth, stone and mortar.

Indeed, though this concept of Gentiles dwelling in the temple—let alone becoming the temple—would have been inconceivable in the Old Testament, now in Paul we find a revelation (read: apocalyptic vision) that explains how this is so. And thus the church cannot be set aside as a people distinct from or in opposition to Israel. Rather, the church is the ekklēsia (assembly or gathering) of Israel’s believing remnant who have been joined by the Spirit to gospel-believing Gentiles.

This is what Ephesians 2–3 intends to communicate to a church learning how to be the church. And in comparison with other passages, perhaps you can see why Paul in Romans 11:33–36 bursts into praise when he thinks of God’s wisdom to unify Jew and Gentile together in God’s gospel.

In context, Romans 9–11 gives the most extensive treatment of God’s plan of redemption. In Romans 11:32 Paul says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” In this verse, Paul is not speaking exhautively of all people without exception; he’s not exclaiming unfettered universalism (“all will receive mercy”). Instead, he is marveling at how God has led Jews and Gentiles to disobedience, so that Jews and Gentiles might cease boasting and find grace and mercy through Christ’s finished work.

Indeed, this is what Paul has in mind when he speaks about the wisdom of God in Ephesians 3 and Romans 11, and thus it is fitting to close with his words, as he marvels at God’s wisdom which designed a way of salvation that began with Israel, led to Christ, and widened to unite Jews and Gentiles in the finished work of Christ.

May we labor to understand what Paul has said in Ephesians 2–3 and what God has done in the church, so that our praise might reach the same heights as Paul, who says in Romans 11:33–36:

33Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
35  “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Tung Wong on Unsplash

One thought on “The Church as Christ’s New Creation: How a Multi-Ethnic Church Fulfills God’s Promises to Israel

  1. Pingback: Grace on Display: In Paul’s Ministry and Christ’s Church (Ephesians 3:1–13) | Via Emmaus

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