Gospel Community | Hebrews 3: 12-14
Prayers for the Saints (1 Thessalonians 3: 6-13)
I don’t know about you, but as I look around today, I see so much division. People seem to be move divided than they’ve ever been, at least during my lifetime. We have two candidates who seem as opposite as they could possibly be. They represent these two constituencies that show just the extent of the divide. We’re a deeply divided nation. And the kind of unrest we see here is happening all over the world.
There is a question I want to pose for us - the people of God - this morning. How can we lead those around us toward unity and peace? How can we help those fighting all around us to get along? The answer to that question lies here in verses 14-18, I’m convinced. And it’s really not too complicated.
Before we get there, let’s review what we’ve seen here in Ephesians chapter two. We spent three weeks together on verses 1 through 10. We saw together this picture of where we once were - dead, enslaved, condemned. “But God.” That’s what verse 4 says. “But God.” Now, by God’s grace, we’re alive, raised up, seated in the heavenlies.
We’ll also spend three weeks on verses 11 through 22. We’re on week two today. This section also has that before/after glory. But Paul focuses here on the state of the other nations before Christ. They had no king, no community, no promises, and no hope. And in case you forgot, we’re Gentiles, or non-Jews, too. That was the state of those outside of Israel. “But now.” We have two more epic words here in verse 13. “But now.” Now, by Christ’s blood, we’ve been brought near to God. We’re now “in Christ.” Everything has changed for us in Jesus.
That brings us to our passage today. Paul gives the reason everything has changed in verses 14-18. He clarifies what Jesus has done for us. We learn that Christ hasn’t just brought us near to God. He’s brought us near to each other. This morning, I want to walk you through Paul’s message here.
Through that, I want to answer that opening question. Paul here has four main points, with the main two as bookends: what Jesus has done, how He brought it about, why He endured it all, and what Christ is still doing.
What Jesus Has Done
A couple of years ago, on one of our first trips to Japan, I sat down with a man named Michael Oh. Michael directs C.B.I., a training institute for pastors in Nagoya, Japan. I just assumed he was Japanese, but, no, he’s Korean. And that’s actually a big deal. Why’s that? Koreans don’t typically like Japanese. There’s lots of racial tension between the two countries. But there Michael is, living in Japan, sharing Jesus. Why? Jesus had brought peace. He wanted to take peace there.
Jesus has brought peace. That’s what verse 14 clearly says. He’s “made us both one.” That’s Jew and Gentile. It’s Korean and Japanese. Christ has brought sinful human beings together.
But notice carefully what it actually says. “He himself is our peace.” Paul is going out of his way here to emphasize that Christ is the source of peace. Yes, He alone brings it about. But He is peace. It’s not just what He does. It’s who He is.
It reminds me of that familiar Christmas verse, the one that promised His coming:
Is. 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
He’s the Prince of Peace. That’s why, at His birth, the angels proclaimed, “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). The One who is peace - had come. And for that reason, peace would come. Bringing people together is just one part of why Jesus came. Look back at Ephesians 1:7-10 once again.
Eph. 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 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.
Our concept of peace is far too small - that is, compared to the Biblical picture. It comes from the Hebrew idea of shalom. Shalom doesn’t just refer to a “peaceful, easy feeling.” It’s even more than the absence of conflict. It’s the hope of everything messed up in the fall being made right. Shalom is complete wholeness. Wholeness in heaven and on earth. All things in complete unity. That was the Father’s plan - that everything would be united in Him one day. That there would be perfect shalom. That’s why He sent His Son - to bring all of that about. He would bring peace. He is peace. Jesus is its very source.
If we want to know where peace is found, if we want to find the source of peace, it’s in Jesus. Jesus alone. It may not be politically correct, but it’s true. On that note, you may have heard 1 John 4:8. It says that “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” People have no problem rallying behind this verse. God is love. That’s because we think we can talk about some vague deity that lurks behind every world religion. But if someone talks about Christ as the only way to peace, no. We don’t want to do that. But hear me clearly: only the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is love - although that’s not all He is. And only His Son, Jesus Christ the King, is peace. That’s where peace is found. That’s what Jesus has done. He’s brought peace.
How He Brought it About
Let’s look at how He brought it about. If you head 20 minutes or so to the east, you’ll be in Fulton. And you’ll be on the campus of Westminster College. There, on those grounds, is a section of the Berlin Wall. I’ll never forget that barrier - the one that separated East and West Germany, that marked the line between the Eastern Block and the free world. I’ll never forget it getting torn down. What a historically huge moment that was.
But Paul tells us here of an even bigger historical moment. He tells us in verse 14 that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Christhas torn down the wall. To get his point, though, we have to understand the illustration he’s no doubt making here. You may not have known this, but in the old temple back in those days - the one built by King Herod - there was an area surrounding the temple called the “Court of Gentiles.” And that’s the only place non-Jews could go. There was a wall that divided that court from the temple itself. Signs were posted. They barred foreigners from going inside that wall, warning that violators would be executed. Paul knew that wall well. That’s because the Jews once mistakenly thought he had taken a Gentile in there. And the apostle almost got stoned to death.
Although that wall was still standing at this point in history, Paul says it’s like it’s been torn down. The division between Jew and Gentile is gone. This is how this unity has come about. Christ has smashed that wall. And notice clearly here: he’s broken it down “in his flesh.” That’s talking about the cross. On His cross, Jesus purchased “people from every tribe and language and people and nation.” He paid the painful price there for a diverse, unified church. That all could come near. The sacrifices done in that temple pointed forward to this.
Maybe you’ve seen this picture of Jesus in cheesy Christian bookstores. It’s one of Jesus on the cross, spreading His arms. It reads, “Jesus loved you this much.” Think of it this way. How much did Christ want the nations to be one, to be at peace? That much, friends. That much. He died to tear that wall down. Not just between Jew and Gentile, but between black and white, and rich and poor, and Republican and Democrat, and hipster and redneck.
But we see another way here that Jesus brought this all about. Verse 15. He made us one by breaking down that wall and “by abolishing the law and commandments expressed in ordinances.” This is a complicated section. But Paul seems to describe how the wall came down. It fell by the end of the law.
If you think about it, that’s what separated the nation of Israel more than anything. They had received the law, the Old Testament, from God. And it marked them out as different from all those around them. It did make a separation between the Jews and the Gentiles. Now the purpose of the law was to show that we couldn’t do it. It was to show us our need for a Savior. But the Israelites - who frankly sucked at living it out - they convinced themselves otherwise. They thought they had arrived. They looked down on the surrounding nations. And instead of living different lives and being a light to the nations, they ridiculed their darkness. And they turned this wall that was to separate them from the nations for the sake of the nations into a judgmental barrier that kept all the other nations out.
But in Jesus, that law was completely fulfilled. Romans 10:4 says “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” He put an end to it. He kept every single command. He died for every violation of it. And that took down that wall between Jew and Gentile. Jesus didn’t just tear down the curtain, so we could all go into the holy of holies. He took down this wall, so that all the nations could flood in there, as well.
Why He Endured It All
We see here also, though, why He endured it all. We see why Jesus went to the cross. There are two things mentioned here. But first, many of you have heard the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a pastor in Germany back in the days of Hitler. Most of those in the ministry sided with the Fuhrer in that day. But Dietrich stood strong. He ended up dying for that cause shortly before the Third Reich came down. Why did Bonhoeffer the Gentile die for the cause of the Jews? Why did He make the ultimate sacrifice? He saw Christ’s passion here in these verses.
Notice a couple of things with me. First, Jesus did this to create a new humanity. It reads, in verse 15, that He did this “that He might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” You might not know this, but the early church often called themselves a “new race,” or a “third race.” A couple of early Christian writings attest to this. They knew there was one fallen race, the one tied to Adam, the first man. All human beings were a part of that. But there was also new, redeemed race formed in the second man, Christ. There was no Jew or Gentile. There was no black and white. There were humans. There were Christians. Christ had died to make a new man, a new humanity, a new race.
This is a bit of a tangent, but this is why I strongly resist talking about different races today, and it’s why I think you should, too. Race is a concept used by Nazis to condemn. It was coopted by slave owners, as well. It’s a term used to put people down. “You’re in another race.” Let’s not do that. I much prefer to talk about ethnicity. We’re all of the same race, but our distinctiveness comes from God. In fact, it glorifies God in a great way to see people who look and talk differently come together as a part of this new race in Jesus. We’re not talking about a melting pot. We’re not talking about being color blind. It’s as the different colors and textures of the body shine together that God gets glory. And it’s why Jesus died. He died to create this new man, a new race that would be at peace. One where everyone would be on the same footing.
Second, He did it to bring us to God. Hear verse 16. Jesus tore down the wall, He took out the law, that He “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Here’s something really important to understand. The peace that’s needed isn’t just horizontal. It’s vertical, too. In fact, that’s the bigger problem - that we’re separated from God, that we’re at odds with Him. As Bobby talked about last week, Jesus made atonement. God was our enemy. We were His. He was angry at us over our sin. We were mad at Him. But Jesus took our punishment on His shoulders on the cross. And that ended this separation between us - that is, if we believe. That killed the hostility. Christ may have been killed on the cross. But He was doing the real slaying here. And before we can get to that subjective feeling of peace, this objection division with God has to be dealt with.
Notice that He reconciled “us both to God in one body.” We were brought to God together. Not separate. Together. Some people today talk about their supposed Christianity and their racism in the same paragraph. But there’s no room for that here. Those people aren’t going to like heaven, so they shouldn’t bother booking their flights. Right? He reconciled us, it says, “both to God.” Again, no matter our differences. Together.
We’re also brought into a body together. I get so frustrated as I hear the lack of love people have for the church today. Jesus didn’t die just to give you a personal relationship with Him. He died to make you a part of His people, the church. And He died to make you a part of a diverse people at that.
The other day my oldest was just spontaneously talking about how much he liked all the people in our church. He talked about how they were our true friends. He gets to excited to go to one of our dude’s houses and watch the NBA finals with them. You’re getting it, son. He died to bring us into a body. Into a new people who are right with God.
What Christ is Still Doing
There is one more important thing we see in this passage. We see what Christ is still doing. What? Where am I getting that? Look at verse 17. “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” So here is my question for you: when did Jesus ever do this? When did Jesus go and preach this message of peace to the Ephesian church of Paul’s day? Simple answer: He didn’t. Or at least, not in person. After His resurrection, we see Jesus in the gospel of John proclaiming peace. He shows Himself to His disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” Evidently, this is what Jesus talked about after He rose from the dead. Peace had come. It was coming. But we have no indication He went to Ephesus in Asia Minor.
Here’s a better explanation. He did it through the Apostles, through people like Paul. He did it through other Christians. To those “far off” - the Gentiles. To “those who were near” - the Jews. Jesus preached. This is Isaiah 57:19 being fulfilled. It happens then. And guess what? He’s still doing that today.
And He wants to do it through us. He wants us to share this message of shalom with people across the tracks and to the ends of the earth - to Japan, as we’re about to send the Glossons to do. Here in the First Ward, right outside these walls. That’s our calling. To share this message that is explained even further here.
Hear verse 18: “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We now have access to the Father. And we again have access together. He’s the Father of all who believe. And we can now draw near to Him. And that’s the way this section all started, right? Verse 13: we’ve “been brought near by the blood of Christ.” How do we come? “By His blood.” But verse 18 adds another layer. We come “in one Spirit.” The blood gives us the path to get to God. The Spirit gives us faith that He’ll actually accept us when we come.
Catch the Trinity in those verses. “Through Him (Jesus) we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity. All working to bring us to Himself. And to one another. Now that’s the message we need to be proclaiming. That’s what Christ is still doing today among His people, the Church. Pointing the world to that peace. He brought that peace. He is that peace. He proclaims that peace. And He does it through us.
Spreading the Message of Peace
And that leads to that opening question I began with. How can we lead those around us to unity and peace? First, we have to share it. Jesus alone is where peace is found. He brought us to the Father through the cross. He died to make us a part of a diverse family. We have to preach it.
But, second, we have to live it. And that’s where I’m going to focus the rest of our time today. By God’s grace and for His glory, we should labor to increasingly look like a preview of heaven - a place where a diverse group of people unite only around the gospel alone. We can think about diversity in a couple of ways. I’m going to argue we should want diversity of both types.
First, there are aspects of who we are, things we can’t change: our ethnicity, our cultural background, our social ability, our age, and to an extent, our economic status. Second, there are aspects of what we do and think, things we could change: our passions, our convictions, our politics - things like that. How do we school our kids? What do we think about the presidential candidates? What kind of music do we like? We should desire both types of diversity in our midst.
But you might say it’s too hard. Black and white. Really? Republicans and Democrats? For real? Koreans and Japanese? Really? Sounds impossible. But let’s not forget the historical context we’re dealing with here. Paul’s talking about bringing Jew and Gentile together. And that was no small task. It was a really big deal. Jews hated Gentiles. They referred to them as dogs. Listen to how William Barclay explains it:
“The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made … It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of that Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death.” (William Barclay)
Gentiles also hated Jews. After all, Israelites didn’t play well with others. They had all of these weird customs. The nation of Israel had been the punching bag of the nations for generations. And it was still that way in this day. The Lord overcame all of that and made those two warring groups one. He can bring unity today!
But so much of the time, we choose the easy way out. Mark Dever, in his great book, The Compelling Community, says we usually accept less than what God wants. We choose community that would have happened naturally, without the Holy Spirit. We separate our churches into groups that would normally hang out together anyhow - stay-at-home moms, college students, golfing buddies. But when people who are different, who would never be together apart from Jesus - when they become family, then people take notice. Dever puts it like this:
“As people with little in common in the world’s eyes love each other as if they are closer than family, all heaven looks on with wonder at what the gospel has created.” Mark Dever
D.A. Carson states that what sets the church apart is this diversity.
“Ideally the church itself is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common ancestry, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort… In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.” D.A. Carson
Think about it: among the disciples, you have Simon, a man who’s trying to take down the Roman government. You’ve got Matthew, who’s a sell-out to the Roman government. Yet Jesus takes them and makes them one. Isn’t that what we want?
I know we already talked about why Jesus did this, but let’s take it a bit deeper. Why would God want this? First, diversity images what exists in the Trinity. God in three persons - Father, Son, and Spirit. Three persons. One God. Each equally God. But each person is not the same. You have a Father. You have a Son. You have a Spirit. Three distinct persons. But they also have three distinct roles. The Father plans salvation. The Son accomplishes it. The Spirit applies it. We saw that clearly in chapter 1. There is diversity there. When we are diverse, it points to the glory of God - of who He is in His essence.
Second, diversity displays the power of the gospel. This message of peace creates a community unlike any other. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t just point to who God is, but what He does. The gospel brings those who would be natural enemies into a family together. He then uses them as a body together.
Again, what we so often choose today is uniformity. Not unity. Uniformity. We hang out with those who look and think and act just like us. I’d argue that even those who say they welcome everybody are at the end of the day pretty uniform. They just hate a different group of people. They choose uniformity and then flight. They get away from those who don’t agree with them.
Another thing we can choose to do is to fight. We can bully people into agreeing with us. This is happening everywhere today, but it’s especially difficult when it’s coming from Christians. Believers who want to go back to yesteryear when everyone at least acted like Christians can try to force people to act a certain way. But our weapon is the Spirit, not the sword. And we’re building God’s kingdom, not America. Right? We proclaim this message of peace in Jesus. We seek to do all we can to live it out. As Scott Sauls has put it, “When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be the least offended and most loving people in the world.”
Taking a Look at Our Hearts
I want to still take things a bit deeper. Why the flight with people who look, think, and act like us? And why the tendency to fight to get people on our side? To be in conformity with our views? Let’s think about it some more.
One of the most iconic images of American history is the flag of Iwo Jima. You’ve seen it - the Marines struggling to raise their flag on the hill on that island in Japan. Here’s my question for you: where are you staking your flag? What’s most important to you? What are you all about? More important than anything is what’s in the center of your life. If we want to be this people of peace and show this peace to our world, we have to focus first and foremost on the Prince of Peace. Too much of the time, we find our identity in being a Democrat or a homeschool mom or an NRA member or a Calvinist and then everything gets out of whack. Karis, “He himself is our peace.” If we plant our flag in Him, we’ll live in unity. We must focus on the One Who is Peace.
There’s another thing we gravitate to as humans - Christian, non-Christian, whomever. After we fix our focus on something, we then come up with laws. A good person does this. A bad person does that. A smart person thinks like this. A dumb person feels like that. Good parents let their kids cry it out. Good Christians don’t drink alcohol. Sophisticated people recycle. Idiots think guns kill people. We do this all the time.
We make up all these rules. We use them to prop ourselves up. We use them to put other people down. We compare ourselves to others. Church, He’s “abolished the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” How dare we write up our own. We must avoid what He came to destroy.
Of course, we also build our walls - again, people who believe in Jesus, and people who don’t. We make something our identity. We construct rules that support that identity. We then have walls for those who are in or out. Old fogies are out. Young progressives are in. Vegans are out. Hunters are in. Breastfeeding moms are in. Bottle feeders are out. Successful businessmen are in. Homeless people are out. We act like junior high kids at the lunch table.
Karis, you’re either in Christ or you’re not. He’s “broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” I’ll never forget back as a kid President Reagan standing in Berlin, giving that speech. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Brothers and sisters, tear down the walls. Tear them down. Don’t put them back up again. We’re not meant to be divided. He came to bring us peace.
Here’s another thing we do when our focus is off Christ. We don’t want what He wants. We don’t want this new race He came to put together. We want our people who think and look and act like us. But He died to create this new humanity, to bring us to God together. Don’t resist what He came to do, what Jesus is so passionate about.
We get our focus off. We list commands. We build walls. We idolize something. We demonize others. We don’t desire what He desires. This happens in our relationships. We’ve actually had people leave our church, because they were repelled by people’s strong views on secondary issues. That just can’t take place.
And nowhere does this come out more than in social media. Ask these questions before you post. First, does this make clear the centrality of the gospel? Second, does this work toward unity around the gospel? If you can’t answer yes to both questions, don’t post it.
Otherwise, you’re potentially giving a wrong message to both the church and the world. Will our church be a place where differences are appreciated and cherished? Will the gospel be central? And will non-Christians around you be drawn to Jesus and the gospel? Or will they be repelled by secondary things?
How can we lead those around us toward unity and peace? We have to preach it. But we have to live it. Now I know some of your are visual learners, so I want to throw up some graphics here as we close. I think they’ll further explain what I’m saying. They’ll clarify what I don’t mean. Forgive the labels here, but they’re helpful.
At the top left you have liberal Christianity. You say you have some sort of vague Christ at the center, but there are no boundaries at all. You really stand for nothing. You’re all on some journey, but only God knows to what or where.
At the top right, you have fundamentalist Christianity. They say Jesus is at the center, but He looks nothing like the Jesus in the gospels. There you have this really hard perimeter. You have to fit in this box, or you’re not welcome. Everything is a hill to die on.
At the bottom, you have an alternative, what I’ll call missional Christianity. Jesus is at the center. He’s our focus at all times. We talk incessantly about the gospel. Christian, non-Christian are both called to embrace Him and move toward Him in discipleship. Notice the porous boundary. All are welcome to be among us - no matter how far people might seem from Christ.
But there is a clear boundary. It’s called membership. Members embrace the essentials. They ask other members to hold them to a covenant. But inside that outer circle, we expect all kinds of diversity. Diversity of both types - who people are, what people believe and do.
Jesus as our peace. No more fences or rules. A love for each other that’s so strong, that transcends any differences and even appreciates them. That will make people stop and listen. Let’s pray.