Reading Time: 11 minutes
Human beings need boundaries. We need physical boundaries, we need personal boundaries, we need emotional boundaries, we need family boundaries, we need boundaries between work and rest, and we need all sorts of other boundaries too. We need boundaries to survive and we need them to thrive. In fact, we need boundaries for our very sense of self: our boundaries enable us to define who we are and who we are not. When we have good boundaries in place, we are generally stronger and more resilient. That equips us to love and help others from a position of strength.
But in this sinful and broken world, healthy boundaries often become hostile walls. Walls are a way of keeping other people out: physically, personally, emotionally, and in various other ways. Putting up a wall might mean shutting down, refusing to listen, moving away, turning off, or going home. And sadly, these walls are often necessary. We need to put up walls when other people transgress our boundaries; when others overwhelm us and we lose control, we have to put up a wall to stop them doing it again. But sometimes we put up walls for other reasons. Sometimes we put up walls as an over-reaction, because we didn’t have good boundaries in the first place. Sometimes we put up walls simply out of fear: we’re insecure and afraid that our boundaries might be transgressed, so we feel we need to keep people out just in case. We can even use our walls as a weapon: defining ourselves over against others, and so using harsh words and put-downs and even violence.
But it’s not just in our personal relationships that we put up walls. There are also walls between families, groups, communities, and nations. Sometimes there are literal, physical walls; tangible walls which act as symbols and expressions of the relational walls. The Berlin wall was a symbol of the Cold War, and the hostility between East and West. President Trump’s threatened wall between the USA and Mexico is a tangible symbol that taps into the fear of a nation: the fear that boundaries are being transgressed somehow, somewhere, and we need to close ourselves down. But where there are walls, there is no real peace, is there? There is, at best, a temporary cease fire. Walls remind us that there is something very wrong in our world and in our relationships.
In Ephesians 2:14–16, Paul speaks about a wall—a wall that was broken down:
For Christ himself is our peace: he made both one, and broke down the dividing-wall of separation—the hostility, having made the law of the commandments in decrees null and void in his flesh. He did this to form the two, in himself, into one new humanity, so making peace, and to reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility by it.Ephesians 2:14–16
The wall-breaker in these verses is Christ. Christ himself, says Paul, who “is our peace”, broke down a wall. Which wall is Paul talking about? To start with, Paul seems to be talking about a literal, physical wall. But as he goes on, we see that this physical wall is only a symbol of something more significant: a wall of hostility involving God’s people. Christ, who is our peace, has broken down this wall. Paul shows us that this wall-breaking matters for all of us.
At this point in Ephesians, Paul is talking about the hostility between two specific groups: God’s ancient people Israel versus all the other nations (see Ephesians 2:11–13). When Paul says that “Christ himself is our peace” and that Christ “made both one”, he’s talking about this particular issue. The word “both” is referring to Jewish people and gentiles. Christ has achieved peace between these two groups and made them one. How has he done it? This is where the question of the wall comes in. Christ “tore down the dividing-wall of separation—the hostility”.
To understand where this wall came from, we need to go back to the Old Testament. In the law, we can read about how God gave his people Israel good and proper boundaries—boundaries that defined them as his special people. These boundaries were part of Israel’s “holiness”: God wanted Israel to be special and separate from the other nations, for the sake of their special relationship with him. For example, in Leviticus chapter 20, God says:
You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them,… And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.… I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples… You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.Leviticus 20:22–26 ESV
This is about Israel’s holiness boundaries, given to them by God. The boundaries involved various laws, ranging from moral commandments to regulations about food. The boundaries were there to mark them out as holy. This wasn’t just for their own sake; it was for the sake of God’s purposes in the world. In fact, Israel’s special holiness was meant to lead to blessing for the entire world: they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (see Exodus 19:5–6).
But by the time Jesus came, many of Israel’s holiness boundaries had become hostile walls. In fact, there was a physical “wall” that symbolized the hostility: a stone balustrade (i.e. a railed barrier) in the Temple in Jerusalem. This wall separated the “Court of the Gentiles”—an outer area where gentiles were allowed to go—from the holier areas—where only Jewish people were allowed to go. There were inscriptions attached to this balustrade. These inscriptions seem to have been quite well-known in the Ancient Roman Empire, even to people who hadn’t been to the Temple. A surviving example, currently in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, reads:
No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and forecourt around the sacred precinct. Whoever is caught will himself be responsible for (his) consequent death.Hannah M. Cotton et. al. (eds.), Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, Volume 1: Jerusalem, Part 1: 1–704 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), pp. 42–45 (quotation from p. 43).
This inscription is an example of a “decree”—a formal communal decision aiming to interpret the Law of Moses for the present-day situation. What situation was that? A situation of Roman occupation, where the Jewish people felt they were in danger of being overrun by gentiles. The decree is probably based on Numbers 1:51, which prohibits “foreigners” to come into the holy place in God’s tent, on pain of death. So the decree said that any gentiles who went past the barrier could be killed by the Jewish people. The Romans allowed the Jewish people to have this decree, and possibly the Romans even allowed them to enforce it. In Acts 21:26–31, we read about some Jewish people who (wrongly) presumed that Paul himself had brought gentiles past this barrier, and stirred up a mob to get him killed.
Do you see the walls of hostility here? This was a literal barrier in the Temple, but it pointed to a greater wall of hostility. The Jewish people rightly understood that they were God’s holy people, and therefore needed to keep separate from gentiles. But to enforce their holiness in this situation, they felt they needed to kill. How could there be any hope of peace in such a situation? This is the issue that Paul is talking about here. For those Jewish people and those gentiles who had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and who had trusted in Jesus’ death on the cross for them, peace could, and did, come. How did Christ achieve this peace? He didn’t do it by literally taking a sledgehammer to the barrier. Rather, Christ did something far greater: he destroyed the very reason that the wall was there in the first place.
Null and void
The way that Christ broke down the hostility was by making “the law of the commandments in decrees null and void.” The “law of the commandments in decrees” is talking about a particular way that the Law of Moses was understood and used by Jewish people. It was seen as a set of commandments that was interpreted and expressed in these kinds of hostile “decrees”—i.e. the kind of formal decisions that we read about in the inscription in the Temple. But, says Paul, Christ has made this way of interpreting the law null and void. It no longer applies to the situation. So how has Christ rendered it null and void?
Through the cross
The way that Christ has achieved peace, Paul says, is “in his flesh”, “through the cross”. The cross is the way that Christ has “made the law of the commandments in decrees null and void”. The cross is the way that Christ has “killed the hostility”. We can see what this means, and how this works, by looking at other things that Paul says in Ephesians about Christ’s death on the cross.
Firstly, Christ’s death on the cross has dealt with our sin and our judgment before God (see Ephesians 1:7). Both Jewish and gentile people are sinners equally—a point that Paul has just made a few verses earlier (see Ephesians 2:1–3). If Israel had kept the law, they would indeed have been a holy and distinctive people, blessed by God and respected by all the nations (see e.g. Deuteronomy 28:1–14). However, Israel had sinned against God, and God had judged them by sending the nations against them. So this distinctiveness had turned into hostility. But Christ, by dying on the cross for their sins, has rescued both Israel and the nations from sin and from God’s judgment. In Christ, Israel and the nations both need to see themselves as forgiven sinners, not as hostile enemies.
And because of this, Christ’s death has in fact made believers holy—believers both from Israel and the nations. Paul addresses his gentile readers as “the holy ones—those who are also believers in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1). He reminds them that God chose them in Christ “to be holy and blameless in his presence” (1:4). Because of Christ’s death for our sins, all believers can be called “fellow citizens of the holy ones” (2:19) and part of a “holy temple” (2:21), living lives as is “proper among the holy ones” (5:3). Christ loved the church and died for the church, to make it “holy” and to “cleanse” it (5:25–27). So Christ’s death means that both Jewish and gentile believers are “holy”. If that is true, there is now no need for hostile decrees to guard Israel’s holiness. Christ’s death has rendered this way of thinking null and void. He has broken down the wall, and killed the hostility, by his death on the cross.
One new humanity
Christ’s peace-making activity is about forming a new kind of humanity. The reason Christ broke down the wall of hostility was “to form the two, in himself, into one new humanity, so making peace, and to reconcile both in one body to God”. This new humanity is one where Israel and the nations are united, as one “body”. In this new humanity, God achieves his plans to bless the nations through Israel. Paul wants his readers to grasp this wonderful unity between Israelite believers and gentile believers. It is a unity that is based on Jesus’ death on the cross, and comes about through the preaching of the gospel (see verses 17–18). It is in fact a key part of God’s plans to sum up “all things” in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
Now it’s possible to take this idea of unity in the wrong direction. Just because the wall has been broken down doesn’t mean that all boundaries have been dissolved. The one new humanity still consists of “both” Jewish and Gentile people (see Ephesians 2:18); so unity does not mean uniformity; equality does not mean homogeneity; the killing of hostility doesn’t mean the erasure of identities. The unity Paul is talking about doesn’t involve blurring boundaries or making everybody precisely the same in every way. He is talking about peace and reconciliation. Most importantly, he is talking about the reconciliation between human beings and God himself, that Christ achieved by his death on the cross. It’s because of this reconciliation between us and God that peace and reconciliation with one another can happen.
We put up walls when we’re afraid of people transgressing our boundaries. In this sinful and broken world, we sometimes really do need walls to protect ourselves, don’t we? Sometimes our fear is legitimate. But sometimes the fear is not legitimate. And sometimes, those walls need to be broken down, so that we can truly love others.
As Christians, we ourselves can set up walls when we fear contamination. God has made us to be holy, and he wants us to hold on to the truth of the gospel and defend it. But sometimes, we can unfortunately go further. We can start to define ourselves as people who are always behaving in a way that is holy—holier than others. We can start to define ourselves as people who are always right. And when we define ourselves primarily as the holy people, or the good people, or the right people who are against the rest of the world, this is where the walls can easily be constructed.
The walls come when we forget the gospel of Jesus Christ. They come when we forget that we, like others, are sinners in need of salvation. They come when we forget that those who believe in Jesus Christ are reconciled together to God, and that God loves us and forgives us and makes us secure and holy, together, by the cross of Christ. That’s who we really are. As soon as we forget who we really are, we define ourselves in some other way. So we need to keep coming back to the cross of Christ. Because it’s in his death that the walls are broken down.
What walls might you have put up against others? Are all of these walls really just healthy boundaries, or do you have some hostile and illegitimate walls?
How does the death of Jesus help to break down any illegitimate walls you may have?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.