How can the book of Ephesians contribute to conversations surrounding modern race and justice issues? Tim and Jon interview New Testament scholar Andrew Rillera and discuss Ephesians 2 and the unified, diverse family of God.
What Paul is articulating is that certain political gatherings are under the lordship of these powers that have been usurped by Jesus, or Jesus has been exalted over. So these powers that rule over the systems and institutions of the world bring death and hostility, division, all these things...What does that actually mean that you’ve been saved by this God in this way of being raised and seated? Well, it looks like participation in this new humanity, in which former hostilities have been abolished, and you are, together, united before God.
In part one (0:00–11:00), Tim and Jon kick off their interview with New Testament scholar Andrew Rillera.
Part of what shaped Andrew’s passion for biblical scholasticism was his upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses tradition. Jehovah’s Witnesses have nontrinitarian Arian beliefs, meaning that they believe Jesus was God’s son but not God himself and is therefore subordinate to the Father. But when Andrew’s mom became a follower of Jesus, he was forced to grapple with hefty theological issues at a young age. His curiosity led him to a relationship with Jesus and then to study the Bible at the PhD level.
While the Bible has at times been used as a tool for oppression, it is really a conduit of freedom and redemption, and Andrew sees the Bible as the lens through which we see everything else in life.
In part two (11:00–19:45), the team discusses Andrew’s interpretive work on Ephesians 2.
Therefore remember that previously you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the people of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who previously were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in his flesh the hostility, which is the law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances, so that in himself he might make the two one new person, in this way establishing peace. And that he might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through him, we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
Paul is saying that non-Israelites were at one time estranged from the Messiah because they didn’t bear the covenant sign of circumcision, but now they have been brought into Abraham’s family by the blood of Jesus.
But some theologians wonder if Israel is superseded by the Church. Some propose that God has abandoned Israel as his particular covenant people because they failed to recognize the Messiah, making the Church his covenant people now. A softer view proposes that the Church has not superseded Israel due to punishment but simply because we are in a different dispensation in history.
The problem with this view of supersession is it results in the abolishment of that which is distinctively Jewish for Jewish Christians, and Christianity becomes marked by a homogenized sameness that ignores ethnic differences. This way of looking at salvation and ecclesiology not only results in antisemitism but in ethnocentrism. Our theology of salvation (soteriology) gets wrapped up in drawing people into a sameness.
In part three (19:45–30:00), the team asks Andrew to expound on the topic of supersessionism.
Supersessionism states that if you are putting your faith in Jesus, you are leaving behind your identity from before. For instance, Jews leave behind their Jewish identity to take on the new humanity and become ethnically colorblind.
However, in Paul’s theology, the new humanity in Jesus does not erase ethnic identity. If it did, our new identities would become whatever the majority culture of the time is, which is the Babylon design pattern all over again. But it’s all too easy to arrive at this conclusion because of what Andrew identifies as a poor translation of the original Greek text.
Ephesians 2:15 (NRSV)
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.
You won’t find “in place of the two” in Greek manuscripts. It was added later by translators, leading to the conclusion that peace is conditioned upon the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) being done away with.
This view identifies the law and Jewish traditions as a source of division in God’s family. However, the biblical authors and first followers of Jesus didn’t see it this way. The decision the disciples made in Acts 15—affirming that Gentile believers did not have to become Jewish to follow Jesus—was necessary because of their assumption that Jewish followers of Jesus would continue to observe the Torah.
In Andrew’s words, the question for Paul was never, “Has the Church superseded Israel?” Paul’s question was, “Are you in Christ, who has superseded the powers of darkness? If so, then you need to be in a diverse, unified community, the body of Christ.”
It’s the diverse, hospitable, unified body of Christ that signals to spiritual forces of darkness that they have lost their power.
In part four (30:00–43:30), Tim, Jon, and Andrew look at the introduction to Paul’s argument that begins in Ephesians 2:11.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
For Paul, participating in salvation is participating in a political reality. (Andrew defines “political” as “public, common life together.”) Paul is saying that previous political (communal) gatherings have been under the authority of dark spiritual powers. Those powers create division, or Babylon unity, under homogeneity.
When God raises us with Jesus, seating us in his own authority in the heavenly realms, we must participate in political gatherings under a new authority belonging to Jesus, who preserves diversity within unity in his family.
For Paul, this is absolutely essential. It’s the way we participate in our salvation corporately right now and not just in our individual, postmortem fates. What will actually tell the dark powers they are powerless is when people continue to practice their unique cultures and discover unity with other cultures through Jesus Christ.
In part five (43:30–55:00), Tim, Jon, and Andrew discuss the “dividing wall” Paul mentions in Ephesians 2.
Due to the language Paul uses throughout Ephesians 2, it’s clear he’s referring to God’s covenant with Israel. So looking back at God’s covenant promises can give us a clue about the nature of the dividing wall.
When we look back at the blessings God promises Israel when they keep his covenant, as well as the curses for breaking it, we see that nothing happens in a sociopolitical vacuum. The curses for breaking the covenant always result in hostility between the nations and Israel. The condition from which Jesus saves both Israel and the nations is the covenant curse of mutual hostility and slavery to foreign gods.
That means the Torah itself is not the dividing wall–—the age-old hostility between Israel and the nations is. (Paul’s mention of the Torah is simply to indicate that this is the same hostility described throughout the Torah.)
In part six (55:00–61:15), the team revisits what it means for humanity to live in a new covenant with Jesus without the dividing wall of hostility.
In Ephesians 2, Paul is saying that the nature of reality defined in the Torah covenants still applies. We can choose the path of death, and the resulting human division and subjugation to other gods. Or we can choose life, resulting in unity with God and humanity. Jesus has made it possible for us to choose life and pursue that eternally, based upon his righteousness, not our own.
The cross is the moment where the Jewish Messiah gets put to death by ancient Jewish hostilities in conjunction with Gentile hostility. Jesus permanently removes the conditionality of the covenant contingent upon Israel’s obedience. Now, obedience is just part of humanity living into what it means to be image bearers above the hostile powers.
Paul’s understanding of oneness is seen in the way he speaks of husband and wives in Ephesians 5—one flesh that doesn’t obliterate the “two-ness” of the couple. This is imagery straight out of Genesis 1 and 2.
In part seven (61:15–64:30), the team concludes with a brief look at what Paul’s theology says to contemporary race and ethnicity issues.
Paul’s vision for a new humanity under the lordship of Jesus is one where cultural differences are a source of enrichment in the lives of others, rather than becoming a source of division.
Race and ethnicity are so complicated because we’ve reduced our primary differences to skin color and genetic code, which is how the powers of this world organize us. True diversity in the body of Christ is less about skin color and more about differences in customs, practices, traditions, languages, etc. Unity in that kind of diversity is almost impossible, which is what makes it so remarkable—and why it has to come through the Holy Spirit!
Show produced by Dan Gummel. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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