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“Welcome, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the most impossible job on this earth.” Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke these words on 9 April 1953 to his successor. They have become part of the UN’s folklore, echoed by many others down through the decades. The words are a constant reminder of how hard it is to achieve peace and reconciliation in our world. Conflict seems to be our natural state.
Yet the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, keeps insisting that there is someone who brings real peace. In Ephesians 2:11–16, Paul speaks about Christ who “is our peace”. Christ has brought enemies close. Christ has broken down the wall. Christ has killed the hostility. Christ has formed two hostile groups into one new humanity. The two groups Paul has in mind here are God’s ancient people Israel and the gentiles (non-Jewish people), and Christ’s peace-making work is still just as relevant to us all today. The way Christ has brought peace is by his death on the cross. Christ’s death brings forgiveness of sins to all who trust him. Christ’s death makes us holy. So Christ’s death reconciles us together to God. This, says Paul, brings peace.
But does it really? Doesn’t this sound a bit like some cosmic peace up in the sky? After all, Christ is now in heaven, isn’t he? He’s seated “in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:20). So if Christ “is our peace”, does that mean our peace merely exists in some distant ideal heavenly land, far away from the realities of our earthly conflicts?
No, says Paul. Christ’s peace is not merely something that stays “up there” in the sky. Christ does actually bring peace here and now. How? The way he does it might surprise you. Christ doesn’t bring peace through taking on a political role, like the secretary general of the UN. Nor does Christ bring peace just by being an inspiring example to others. Christ brings peace in this way: by being a missionary. Christ brings peace by preaching the gospel. Christ brings peace by evangelism.
Christ the missionary
In Ephesians 2:14–18, Paul says two key things about Christ and what he has done. These two key things are very closely related to one another, and both of them are very important—that’s why they’re key! The first key thing is that Christ “is our peace” (verses 14–16). Christ is our peace because he died on the cross to reconcile us to God. The second key thing about Christ’s work is also incredibly important: Christ “preached the gospel” of peace (verse 17):
And Christ came and preached the gospel: peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were close—because through him, both of us have access by one Spirit to the Father.Ephesians 2:17–18
Christ, in other words, is not only the one who died on the cross to achieve peace. He is also the missionary of peace; the one who preached the gospel and so brought his peace into our world. He didn’t simply stay far away from us, seated in the heavens. He also acted as a missionary: he “came and preached the gospel” (“preached the gospel” can also be translated as “evangelised”).
How did Christ do that? It’s not as if Christ actually came back to earth after he ascended to heaven. He is still in heaven now (see Ephesians 1:20, 2:6). Later in Ephesians, Paul describes how Christ does his missionary activity through other people: through the apostle Paul himself (3:8, 6:19), through God’s holy people equipped by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (4:11–12), and through believers prepared to run with the gospel of peace (6:15). Yet here, Paul wants to emphasise the fact that Christ himself is the missionary. The risen, victorious Christ is the one who is behind it all, running the whole show, through his Holy Spirit. The risen Christ has come to us. Christ is with us, because we are together his “body” (see verse 16). And so, Paul says, Christ, the missionary, preached the gospel of peace.
Christ does stranger evangelism
In fact, Christ was the pioneer of stranger evangelism! He preached “peace to you who were far away”. That is, Christ didn’t just preach to the people of Israel: his own people whom he knew and whom he could easily share hospitality with. The risen Christ (through his apostles, like Paul) preached to people outside Israel, to people who were different and strange. When I have a go at sharing the gospel with strangers—for example, approaching people on the street to ask if they’d like to talk about Jesus—I find it pretty hard. It’s not always enjoyable, and it’s usually a bit awkward, especially to start with. But stranger evangelism is a profoundly Christian thing to do, because it’s what Christ did. Paul says here that Christ preached the gospel to strangers. Christ crossed boundaries. Christ embraced the awkwardness. Christ challenged the barriers. Christ preached those who were far away, because they needed to hear the gospel message; they needed to move from death to life and be reconciled to God. Christ, in other words, did stranger evangelism.
Christ preaches to the choir
But Christ also “preached to the choir”. In other words, for Christ, evangelism wasn’t just something to do to others outside his own people. He preached the gospel “to those who were close”. The gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that Israel needed to hear and believe as much as the nations round about. Those in Israel may have been “close”, but they were still living their lives in sin and facing God’s wrath like the rest of humanity (Ephesians 2:3). So the gospel needed to be preached to everyone, even those who were close. That is still the case. The gospel is something that everyone needs to hear and be challenged by—no matter how far or how close they are.
Christ crosses cultures
Today, when Western Christians talk about “mission”, we often think in terms of taking the gospel message from our own culture (those who are close to us) to other cultures (those who are far away from us). That’s quite right—we need to be wise and think seriously about how to reach other cultures with the gospel. But as we do, we need to remember something even more fundamental. From Christ’s perspective, we are the ones who were far away. Christ is the one who crossed cultures to preach to us. And we ourselves need to keep hearing the gospel: we need to keep letting the gospel challenge our own culture and assumptions and way of thinking, even as we consider how we might bring that gospel to others.
Our common privilege
The gospel that Christ came and preached, to those far away and those close, is a gospel of “peace”. How does the gospel bring peace? The answer is in the next verse: “because through him, both of us have access by one Spirit to the Father”. Preaching the gospel brings a wonderful privilege to those who hear it and believe it: the privilege of having “access” to God. Through trusting in what Jesus has done for us, we can come to God as our Father, by his Holy Spirit whom he has given to us (see how all three persons of the Trinity work together?). So we can come into God’s very presence and pray to him as dearly loved children. We can have our sins completely forgiven. We can worship him and know that he cares for us. And this is true for all who believe in Jesus Christ. We share the one Holy Spirit together. He unites us together to God. So this is a privilege for all of us, and it’s a privilege that’s far greater than any differences that we may have. When we truly grasp this privilege and make use of it, it eclipses any reasons we might have to fight against one another. This is how the gospel brings peace.
Don’t you love meeting people from other parts of the world and finding that they, too, know and trust in Jesus? Don’t you love praying together with them, and sharing together that common privilege of calling God Father? Our local Church Missionary Society runs an annual conference called “Summer School”, where thousands of people of all ages come together to share in God’s word, to pray, and to support and hear from missionaries who are preaching the gospel throughout the world. Summer School is a place where the unity of the gospel—indeed, the unity that comes through the preaching of the gospel—is tangible and powerful. Recently I heard a seminar run by various missionaries who were working to preach the gospel in Australian Indigenous Communities and South African Communities. They shared with us how the gospel, when it is heard and believed, really does bring lasting reconciliation between individuals and communities. These missionaries emphasised that preaching the gospel is not about saying our culture is better than theirs. Rather, preaching the gospel is sharing a message that through Jesus and his work for us, we can all come to call God the Father by the Spirit. And this brings peace. It is not perfect this side of eternity. But it does happen. Christ, through his people, is still preaching the gospel of peace to those far and near.
Peace through mission
Christ came and preached the gospel: peace to those far away, and peace to those close. And as Ephesians goes on, we see that we have the privilege to share in Christ’s mission. Do you believe that mission and evangelism brings peace? Sometimes we can think that gospel mission is something separate from peace-making. We can even think that gospel mission undermines peace-making. We might see the devastating effects of missionaries who arrogantly preach their own culture rather than Christ; or we might see the pain and hostility that comes when people reject the gospel. When we see these things, we might decide we need to move away from preaching the gospel, or at least tone it down, and try to achieve peace in some other way. That’s why we need to keep coming back to Christ. Because first and foremost, it is Christ who is the missionary. Christ is the preacher of the gospel to far and to near. We can only humbly take part in Christ’s mission. But as we do, as the gospel of Christ brings people to come to God together, with sins forgiven, by one Spirit, hostility is overwhelmed and Christ brings peace. So yes, bringing peace to this world is the most impossible job on this earth. Praise God that Christ is in that seat.
How have you experienced the gospel bringing peace in your own relationships?
How might this passage encourage you to take your own part in Christ’s gospel mission?
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.