He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. ~Ephesians 2:14
We live in a world at war. This is not an overstatement; turn on the news and violence upon violence flashes by. History is a conveyor belt of corpses. Broken relationships, broken hearts, and broken bodies fill this broken world, and it has been that way since we first broke it.
It’s in your life too, although you might not use those same terms. You have tensions with people at your job, in your class, in your family. He betrayed your trust; she stabbed you in the back. Sometimes it’s over trivial things; sometimes not. With so much conflict in our lives and in the world, what we need is peace.
Good news: peace is one of God’s great designs in the gospel. The gospel is the good news of peace with God, and the Christian life is basically an outworking of that vertical peace with God into horizontal peace with people. There is a reason that Jesus is called “the Prince of Peace;” he has come to reestablish God’s rightful rule at the center of history and of human hearts, and thereby restore the peace that we were created to enjoy with each other and with our Creator.
GRACE AND PEACE
Have you ever noticed that every one of Paul’s letters begins with the same greeting, or some variation of it? “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s not just a stock introduction like “Hello,” “How are you?” There is significance here; at the outset of every single one of his inspired letters, Paul announces his purpose: “I’m writing this so that two things will come to you: grace, and peace.” You can think of this phrase as the purpose statement of practically the entire New Testament: “grace and peace.”
So what’s the connection between the two? What does grace have to do with peace, and why are they so often in such close connection? The reason is simple: grace is the only thing that makes peace possible.
PEACE WITH GOD
All authentic, lasting peace between people starts with peace with God. If it doesn’t, it’s not truly peace; it’s just a cease-fire. Unless we have peace with God, we will never have peace with other people. The reason traces all the way back to Genesis 3 and the Fall and Curse; when our relationship with God broke, our relationship with everything else– with creation, with each other, with ourselves– broke as well. So if you want restored relationships, you must begin with the only relationship that ultimately matters: your relationship with God. And the only way to restore that relationship is grace: free, unmerited mercy.
Romans 5:1 lays out this central goal of the gospel: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be “justified” is the center of the gospel; it means that, in Christ, God considers all our sin as nailed to the cross with Jesus and paid for by his death, and Jesus’ life of perfect obedience credited to us, so that we can now approach a holy God, no longer as his enemies but as his friends and children. To be “justified by faith” means that this new status of being forgiven and reconciled to God is not something we earn by our own goodness or merit, by somehow having our good deeds outweigh our bad ones, or going to church enough or any sort of religious rituals. No, the only way into everlasting relationship with God is faith: believing that what Jesus accomplished is enough, and trusting him to be your Savior, Lord, and Treasure forever. This is the gospel– this is what the Bible calls us to believe and receive, and thus be saved.
The goal of this good news of justification by faith in Romans 5:1 is “peace with God.” This means hostility ceased, relationship restored, fellowship and intimacy and unity enabled. This is the best possible news in the universe: the God for whom we have been created, who is the source of all joy and life, has made a way for us to enjoy his fellowship forever.
“Peace with God,” however, carries with it an assumption: before we are brought into peace with God, we are in a state of hostility and enmity against him. This assumption is confirmed just a few verses later as Paul continues unpacking the gospel: “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Before coming to Christ in faith and repentance, every single person on the planet is an enemy of God. From Hitler and Osama bin Laden, to your friendly and morally upstanding neighbor, to your adorable five-year-old child, every person apart from Christ is in an active state of rebellion and enmity against God. Whether or not you are a nice person is irrelevant; your response to God’s free mercy and offer of pardon is the only thing that counts in the courtroom of heaven’s perfect justice.
Ephesians 2, from which our Cross Connection verse is taken, tells the story of how enemies of God are brought into peace with him, and then peace with each other. The rest of this lesson will be an unpacking of that great story, with a particular eye for its application to this fruit of the Spirit: peace. It’s a story that starts with bad news (remember, the good news of the gospel only makes sense in the context of the bad news of sin), but quickly soars into the most spectacular, glorious good news this broken, war-torn world has ever heard.
SAVED FROM THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (EPHESIANS 2:1-3)
Okay, so Ephesians 2 isn’t about zombies. It is, however, about the walking dead: the walking spiritually dead, which is everyone before God intervenes with rescue. Paul begins the story of good news at the darkest possible moment of bad news.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
The story of peace with God begins with enmity, and worse. Ephesians 2 not only says that our condition as fallen enemies of God is woven into our very DNA (“by nature children of wrath”), but that our condition apart from grace is one of spiritual death. “Spiritually dead” means, first of all, that we are unresponsive to the things of God; his glory, love, and power do not move us to love and worship, but leave us bored, uninterested, or hostile. Secondly, spiritual death means that we cannot save ourselves; a dead person cannot administer CPR to themselves or will themselves back to life. If a dead person comes back to life, it is because an external, life-saving force operated on them.
But the way that Paul describes our spiritual death makes it clear that our condition is not that of passive, innocent helplessness. No, our death is active– “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” We daily walk out our spiritual death by following the course of this world (which means we look just like everybody else, loving all the same things as them) and following “the prince of the power of the air” (which is one of Paul’s names for Satan; our spiritual death is demonic in its blinding influence on us). The irony of this deathly, demonic slavery is that we are willing participants in our own destruction: we are “carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Being a spiritual dead enemy of God means doing what you want, when you want it, because you want to.
THE RESURRECTING RESCUE (EPHESIANS 2:4-10)
It is into this desperate situation that the two best words in the Bible break in: “But God.” If you could summarize the gospel in two words, these would be it. As seemingly hopeless as the human condition is, these two words are the beacon of hope, the proof that no matter how deep our sin goes, his grace goes deeper still.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, 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 coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not 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, that we should walk in them.
Even after years of being a believer and knowing this text, I still find God’s response to our rebellion breathtakingly, wonderfully inexplicable. What could he possibly have seen in me, a deadened an hardened rebel, that would prompt him to go to such extraordinary, costly lengths to rescue me? The answer is: there was nothing in me; it was everything in him. It was his rich mercy, it was his great love, that caused him to look on me and love me and say, “I want that rebel in my family.” Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin, and his resurrection raised me, along with all who trust in Christ, into everlasting union and life with Jesus. And all of this came freely, in direct opposition to what I deserve and what I’ve earned– that, after all, is what the word “grace” means. And now, instead of walking in trespasses and sins, I’ve been given a new nature, new heart, and new ability to live the life that God has created and re-created me for: walking in a life of cross connections, a life of good works– good works like peace.
Oh believer, rejoice in the gospel! What has happened to you is beyond extraordinary; all human language fails to reach the heights and depths of the incomprehensible love of Jesus for you (Ephesians 3:18-19). You might wonder what all this has to do with the fruit of the Spirit, peace. It has everything to do with peace; as we’ll see, as Paul continues in Ephesians 2, horizontal reconciliation with people is built on our appreciation for the vertical reconciliation that God has brought about with us. The more we are thankful for the vertical, the more effective we will be at the horizontal.
REMEMBER (EPHESIANS 2:11-13)
Ephesians 2:11-13 goes back to describing our hopeless condition apart from Christ as a means of building a bridge between the vertical reconciliation of 2:1-10 and its implications for horizontal reconciliation in 2:14-22. The key word here– and I think, the key to true and lasting peace– is the word “remember.”
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– 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.
The primary issue at hand that Paul is addressing here is one which, at first look, doesn’t seem particularly relevant to us. Paul is addressing the separation between Jewish believers and Gentile believers, which was a major problem in the early church as crowds of “unclean” Gentiles started putting their hope in the Jewish messiah, Jesus. To put this in a modern context, it was if African-American believers started flooding into your lilly-white conservative church in Alabama in 1950 (or, sadly, perhaps, in 2014). The ethnic and cultural clash threatened to arrest the spread of Christianity and capsize the fledgling faith.
But the hostility between Jews and Gentiles ran even deeper than any modern-day example, because in addition to the racial and cultural barriers between the two groups, there were very real religious issues at play. Jews were not wrong when they said Gentiles were excluded from fellowship with God; under the old covenant, God had bound himself in covenant love and relationship only to the Jewish people. If a Gentile wanted in, they had to become a Jew, with all of the (painful) initiation that required.
But with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of the new covenant, the doors of fellowship with God had been thrown open and the command given, “Go and make disciples of every nation.” All ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious barriers to fellowship with God were abolished when, at the cross, the dam of divine justice that held back divine love broke, unleashing mercy on the entire world. No longer would law and justice and commands keep people from God.
What Paul says here about Jews and Gentiles has massive implications for a major barrier to peace in our day: race relations. As I write this, riots are raging in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager. Supporters of the teen and his family and supporters of the officer involved in the shooting are lining up on the old, predictable lines of politics and race. A year ago, there were protests over a similar incident in Florida. A year from now, there will probably be something else that shines the spotlight on these old racial divisions that stubbornly refuse to heal, even in our supposedly enlightened age. Does the gospel have anything to say about this? How does the cross address our prejudices and privileges and pride? That’s what this text is about.
What I find remarkable about this text is how Paul uses the cross to simultaneously address Jews and Gentiles at the very core of what kept them from peace. And while this particular racial line might not exist in our churches today (although anti-Semitism, the ironic reversal of this first-century prejudice, is sadly alive and deadly in many hearts and churches today), the way Paul goes about disassembling these old dividing walls cuts right to the heart of our divisions, racial and otherwise, today.
The primary obstacle to peace is pride, and Paul uses grace here as powerful reminder to both Jew and Gentile that grace removes all grounds for boasting, and that it is grace, and grace alone, that allows anyone to stand before God. Speaking to Gentiles, Paul essentially agrees with the Jewish religious objections to their full inclusion, and tells them to remember the unprivileged position from which they have come. “Remember who you were,” Paul says to them– and to us. “You were cut off from Christ, outcasts from the people of God, excluded from any saving benefit in any divine promise, without hope and without God. Remember that.”
God intends for the gospel to dismantle our pride by reminding us of our condition outside of grace. That’s why so much of this lesson, and so much of Ephesians 2, keeps coming back to our hopeless, helpless state apart from Christ. Dead in trespasses, a slave of sin, a child of wrath, separated from Christ, alienated from God’s people, excluded from his promises– remember that! Remember, Christian, who you were, and who you would be if God’s sovereign, resurrecting grace had not moved on you to conquer your rebellion, open your eyes, give you faith, and drawn you into relationship with him. And let this remembrance constantly draw you to your knees in humility before God, and to humble reconciliation with others.
ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS ONE (EPHESIANS 2:14-18)
Paul then continues using grace to tear down the dividing walls that prevent peace, and addresses the pride of Jewish privilege. Just as grace should give us a sobering, humbling reminder of our true condition apart from Jesus, grace goes further and strips us of any grounds for pride before God and before others.
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 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 two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
At the cross, Jesus fulfilled and abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances,” nullifying its misuse as a dividing wall that separated the “good religious people” from “those other people.” External rituals and obedience no longer defines God’s people; grace does. No longer could Jewish privilege and pride hold back the grace of God from the nations. No longer can squeaky-clean church people look down their noses on the tattooed, pierced sinners for whom Christ died. No longer do you have any reason to think of yourself as any better than anyone else; your only basis for acceptance before God (which is the only acceptance that matters) is grace, and grace alone.
The result of this devastation of our pride is an interesting spiritual math problem. Four times in these verses, Paul states that the two opposing sides have been made one in Christ. One plus one equals one. Verse 14- he has “made us both one.” Verse 16- he has “reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross.” Verse 17- the same Savior “preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” And verse 18- “through him we both have access in one Spirit through the Father.” The emphasis on unity in diversity is striking.
Diversity is a popular buzzword in our culture today. But the center of this unity is not any effort on our part to increase appreciation of diversity; the power of this unity is the Person at the center: Jesus Christ. “He himself is our peace.” It is only because his cross destroys the basis of boasting that pride is removed as an obstacle to peace (2:14). It is only because he paid the full penalty for sin that we can be reconciled to God and to each other (2:16). Jesus is the center of the gospel of peace that offers pardon both to you and to your enemies (2:17). And it is only through Jesus that you and I and every person who comes to him for mercy receives the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is peace and who gives us free access to the throne of grace (2:18). Only with Jesus at the center is unity in diversity possible.
WALLS GO DOWN, WALLS GO UP (EPHESIANS 2:19-22)
As Ephesians 2 comes to a close, Paul paints a beautiful picture of the kind of peace that God intends for the gospel to produce in the lives of his people. The walls of hostility and pride have been torn down by Jesus’ death on the cross. And now the Holy Spirit is building a new structure on those ruins.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and 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.
With the walls of division gone, new walls of grace are going up. The gospel’s goal of peace does not end with divisions removed; no, God is intent on building a community living out the reality of saving grace in their interactions with each other. This is what Jesus has formed his church to be– a holy temple, a dwelling place for God, that shouts the perfect wisdom of God in its unified diversity (Ephesians 3:6-10). If the world could see different people of different races, different backgrounds, and different personalities united around the cross of Christ, how greatly this would honor our Savior! The gospel says to you, and to the person next to you with whom you’ve never gotten along very well, “No longer strangers! No longer exiles! Fellow citizens, bought by the blood of Jesus!” This reality should govern all our relationships with our fellow believers.
Yet far too often, our churches are characterized not by unity, reconciliation, and bridges built across racial, economic, and political lines, but by the same tired tribalism, pettiness, discrimination, and cliquishness that characterizes the rest of the world. We have failed to connect the gospel to this vital fruit of the Spirit, peace, that is so close to the heart of what the church’s very existence is supposed to be about. We remain mired in the pride that Jesus died to remove. Brothers and sisters, this should not be!
To implement this vision for the church and for our lives, we need some practical help. We’ve seen the cross connections between the Gospel and peace in Ephesians 2. Now we need to look at how to practically live those connections out.
PEACE MADE PRACTICAL
In order to flesh out what this looks like practically, we’ll draw from Ephesians 2 and some texts outside of it. I have three practical applications of the truth that peace remembers grace: Jesus as the center, Jesus as King, Jesus as Savior.
JESUS THE CENTER
One of the overriding takeaways from Ephesians 2 is that Jesus Christ stands at the center of this new gospel-driven peace. He purchased peace between you and God, and makes possible peace between you and others. So practically speaking, what should it look like that Jesus is the center of all true peace?
Think of a specific relationship with someone else that could use more peace. Perhaps you have hurt them in the past, or they have hurt you. Maybe an ongoing conflict or disagreement hangs over the relationship. Or perhaps your personalities or interests simply don’t mesh very well. When we try to get closer to another person, our efforts usually look like this:
The problem is, in between me and you are usually all sorts of problems– conflicts, hurts, personalities, interests– that act as barriers to peace:
It’s very hard, humanly speaking, to overcome that conflict that separates us. Usually the best we can hope for is to just ignore it or try to forget about it, and operate at a “safe distance” from each other. Instead of being transparent and accountable and encouraging and invested in each other’s growth in godliness, we keep our distance. On the surface, this might look like peace, but it’s not. “Peacekeeping,” or keeping things civil or superficially friendly, is a lot different than “peacemaking,” or actually pursuing reconciliation, transparency, and unity with each other. Jesus singled out “peacemakers” as those who are blessed and truly reflect the heart of the Father (Matthew 5:9). So as believers and those who want to live in the fullness of God’s blessing on peacemakers, we can no longer afford to tolerate these kind of shallow “peacekeeping” relationships.
So how do we get around those obstacles? How does it work? Remember, the key is knowing that Jesus is the center of all peace. Instead of working on strategies to get around that conflict between us, if you will start pursuing Jesus and a fuller grasp on the gospel, and I will start pursuing Jesus and a fuller grasp on the gospel, this is what it will look like:
As you and I individually set our hearts on a closer walk with Jesus and a greater appreciation for his grace in the gospel, I will start moving closer to Jesus, and you will start moving closer to Jesus:
Lo and behold, we’re closer together than we were before! As we both move closer to Jesus, we will move closer to each other. This is the key to peace between believers: Jesus at the center. So think of your relationships as a triangle with you, the other person, and Jesus at the three corners. Pursuing Jesus together will move you up the sides of the triangle and closer together.
Of course, this means that peace is a two-way street, and if only one of you purposes to pursue Jesus at all costs, then peace won’t be achieved this way. But that’s why refreshingly practical verses like Romans 12:18 are in the Bible: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Your responsibility does not lie with the other person; it lies with you and what direction your arrow is pointing, so to speak. Set your heart to pursue Jesus at all costs, and encourage others to do the same. This is where the next practical application comes in.
JESUS THE KING
So what have you gained if you pursue Jesus with all your heart, but the other person in the troubled relationship doesn’t? What then? Colossians 3:15 points us towards an answer:
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.
There is a reason that Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. He is a ruler, a monarch, and as such he is determined to reign. The way for Jesus’ peace to hold sway in your heart is for Jesus’ reign to hold sway in your heart. Where Jesus is King, peace follows. “He shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea” (Zechariah 9:10). See the connection?
So set your heart, whatever the cost, to obey Jesus as your King. Oh how many relationships would be mended, and how many fights avoided, how much “drama” snuffed out, if one person was determined to honor God above all else by repaying good for evil, telling the truth, and keeping his word! If all the qualities surrounding Colossians 3:15 were yours in ever-increasing measure– humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love– how many conflicts in your life would be avoided! The simple truth (simple, yet so hard to believe) is that every conflict requires two people. If you determine, as far as it depends on you, to live out the cross connections of peace, love, and more, in reliance on the Holy Spirit with Jesus as your Savior and King and your Rock, the waves of conflict may break on you, but you will not be dragged into the storm.
JESUS THE SAVIOR
You might have noticed a nagging problem all through this study of Ephesians 2. The peace that Ephesians 2 talks about is a peace between believers. So you might be wondering, “This is great, but what about my unbelieving co-worker who is constantly undermining me at the office? What does this have to do with how I interact with unbelievers?” That’s a valid question, and while letting the peace of Christ rule in your heart, as discussed previously, will help you to avoid many conflicts and build bridges of peace even to unbelievers, more has to be said.
Let this simple observation guide how you think about relating to unbelievers: “That used to be me.” Everything that Ephesians 2 says about unbelievers might be true of that frustrating co-worker, but it also was true of you, and the only difference between you and them is grace. Titus 3:2-4 reminds us of this in yet another cross connection between God’s grace and our pursuit of peace.
Speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people. For (because!) we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…
Here’s how the logic of that passage works: pursue peace by avoiding slander and quarreling and exhibiting gentleness and courtesy, because you used to be defined by your sin, and God’s grace reached all the way to you. And if God’s grace reached all the way to you in your sin, then you owe the gospel and owe grace to every other sinner you meet.
So back to that troublesome unbelieving co-worker (or sibling, or classmate, etc.): you owe them the gospel. You have been rescued from sin just as dark as theirs, and now you owe them the same good news that rescued you. You owe them good news in your words and good news in your actions, as you let the peace of Christ rule in your heart and demonstrate what God’s grace looks like in how you respond to their antagonism. They may or may not come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, but you will have discharged your gospel duty and done what was in your power to make peace. As with everything else, results have to be left up to God. But oh, what freedom there is in simply obeying him and letting him be God in your relationships!
God of peace, Thank you for making peace with me by offering your precious Son as a sacrifice in my place to pay for all my sin, for reconciling me to yourself with matchless grace. How great is your love! Help me now to apply that vertical reconciliation horizontally; bring to constant remembrance my desperate condition apart from Christ, destroy all my grounds of boasting, and keep me humble at the foot of the cross.