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No second-class Christians (Ephesians 2:19)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

I once visited a church and sat next to an alcoholic called Phil.[1] I know Phil was an alcoholic because he told me quite soon after church finished. The whole gathering had been lively and emotional, with professional music and young happy faces on the stage. After it was over, Phil struck up a conversation with me. Phil told me he’d been coming to church for years, and he had been tremendously helped by their program for alcoholics. I was really encouraged by Phil’s simple yet significant ministry towards me. He welcomed me, and he took the time to talk to me. He told me about his faith in Jesus, and he told me what Jesus had done for him through the church. But then, Phil said something that made me feel very sad. He said, “Of course, I’m not a great Christian—like those people at the front of church. They have their lives together. I’m just an alcoholic.” We kept talking for a while after that (in fact, I shared with him something similar to what I’m writing about here) and we prayed with each other. I left church that day with both joy and sadness. I was joyful because of what Jesus had done in Phil’s life. But I was sad because of how Phil felt about his own Christian status.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Somehow, Phil had got the message that there are two kinds of Christians: great Christians who have it all together, and second-class Christians like him who just struggle on. I don’t think the church was deliberately trying to encourage this idea. But that’s how it came across to Phil. And Phil’s not alone, is he? You might feel it yourself. The idea that there are different classes of Christians can easily appear in our churches, even if we don’t ever say it out loud. We can divide ourselves into classes in many different ways: insiders versus outsiders, respectable versus unrespectable, members versus newcomers, those who grew up as Christians versus those who became Christians later, residents versus migrants, people with family connections versus people without them, socialised people verses fringe dwellers, married versus single, young-and-fresh versus old-and-tired, gifted versus ungifted, pastors versus lay people, ministers versus ministered-to, educated versus ignorant. Most of these categories aren’t wrong in themselves—they’re just reflections of the reality of our life together. But it’s so easy for us to take these categories and turn them into something more: ways to classify each other, and symbols of our Christian status.

In Ephesians 2:19, Paul helps us to cut through these status issues. Paul here speaks to people who had once had an inferior status in relation to God’s people. These people were gentile believers: that is, they weren’t from God’s ancient people Israel, but they had come to trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and their saviour. Just before this verse, Paul has been speaking about Jesus Christ as the one who brought peace between Jewish believers and gentile believers (Ephesians 2:14–18). Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross and the message of the gospel, has brought gentiles “close”. Now, Paul goes even further. Not only have the gentiles been brought close to Israel, they have also been made equal to Israel, in terms of their status before God. This equal status is something that really matters. And it’s something we all need to remember and to rejoice in.

So then, you are no longer foreigners and resident aliens, but you are fellow-citizens of the holy ones and members of God’s family.

Ephesians 2:19

The old status

Paul describes the previous status of gentiles as “foreigners and resident aliens”. This description goes back to the Old Testament. The nation of Israel was God’s special, holy people. Non-Israelites didn’t have the same status. Of course, non-Israelites were welcome to come and live as foreigners among the Israelites; if they did, they had to be cared for, and they could enjoy many of the blessings of the Israelites. But as foreigners, they couldn’t enjoy the same status as the Israelites. For example, they couldn’t join in the most holy meals. They also had harsher restrictions when it came to laws about economic servitude. They were “foreigners” and “resident aliens”.

Even the prophetic visions in the Old Testament described Israel as having a greater status than the nations. Isaiah 60–61, for example, describes a future for Israel where the Temple is rebuilt, and Israel is lifted above all the other nations. In this future scenario, non-Israelites could be blessed, but only by becoming servants and vassals of Israel.

By and large, the Jewish people scattered throughout the Roman Empire in Paul’s day took the same view when it came to gentiles who wanted to hear the Scriptures. Gentiles were welcome to come to the synagogue and hear God’s law. But unless they fully converted (which was rare), they could never share the same status as the Jewish people. Gentiles were normally tolerated and at times even welcomed. But they weren’t citizens of the commonwealth. They weren’t members of the family.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Our new status

Yet Christ, says Paul, has changed all this. Gentile believers now have an equal status with Israelite believers. Paul describes this change in two ways: in terms of political status, and in terms of family status. Instead of being foreigners, gentile believers are now “fellow-citizens of the holy ones”. Instead of being resident aliens, gentile believers have become “members of God’s family”. They have equal citizenship status with Israel, and equal kinship status with Israel.

How has Christ made this change? The answer is to look back at what Paul has been saying throughout Ephesians chapter 2. Without Christ, both Israelites and gentiles are sinners and deserving of God’s wrath. But Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead has dealt with their sin and judgment before God. In fact, Christ’s death and resurrection has made all believers “holy” before God. This means that gentile believers share an equal status with Israel—equal citizenship status, and equal kinship status. It’s not that the gentile believers have somehow become Israelites, or somehow moved in to a Jewish family home. Rather, these gentile believers, along with Jewish believers, have been made part of something greater than Israel. They’ve been made holy, and part of God’s family! So they share an equal status as holy people, and the same status as God’s dearly loved children.

Rejoicing in our new status

This equality of status matters for us as well. If you have entrusted your life to Jesus Christ who has died for you and risen from the dead, then no matter how unholy you may feel, you are holy. So you really do share the status of “the holy ones” (or “the saints”, which means the same thing). And if you trust in Jesus Christ, then no matter how much of an outsider you may feel, you really do have the status of membership in God’s family. That’s not because you’re especially holy in yourself, or somehow super-worthy of being a family member. It’s because of what Jesus has done for you. So whether you think of yourself as an insider or an outsider, original or newcomer, respectable or unrespectable, connected or unconnected, married or single, young or old, gifted or ungifted, shepherd or sheep, educated or ignorant—what matters is that you’re a fellow-citizen of the holy ones, and a member of God’s family through Jesus. Yes, we all need to work on becoming more who we are: each of us is at a different place in our personal journey to be more like Christ. Yes, we need to encourage each other in this journey and call on each other to be holy. And yes, we need different kinds of people in God’s family, and there will be different places and roles for different people. But we should never act as if these things give us a different status before God. As believers, we are all fellow-citizens of the holy ones and members of God’s family. This is amazing, isn’t it? It’s something to rejoice in!

Busts in Vatican Museum, Rome

Maybe you’re in one of the groups at your church that could be considered as “first-class”. For example, maybe you’re seen as an insider, or as respectable, or as well-connected, or as gifted. Maybe you have some special role. Maybe others, when they see you and your group, might think of themselves as second-class Christians. If that’s the case, how can you work hard at communicating to others that your status is really the same as theirs? It’s not going to happen just by pretending we’re all exactly the same in every aspect of life, is it? The primary way to do it is actually to do what Paul does here: to remember and to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us that without Christ we’re all sinners, and in Christ we are all forgiven and seated with the risen Christ as God’s dearly loved children. And as we remember and speak the gospel, we need to live it too, don’t we? You might need to work harder at being willing to spend time with others, to associate with others, to affirm and to be encouraged by others. This is about humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love—practical things which Paul spells out in detail a little later in Ephesians (see Ephesians 4:1–3).

So Paul has said many things about the gospel of Jesus Christ in Ephesians 2. The gospel brings us forgiveness, and hope, and life with God. The gospel also brings us close to one another, breaks down walls, and makes us equal. In Christ, while we are different, we are also equal. There are no second-class Christians. This is a powerful and comforting truth, isn’t it?

For reflection

Are there times you are tempted to think you are a second-class Christian? How does the gospel help you to think otherwise?

Can you think of an area where you might be acting in a way that makes other Christians think they are second-class? How might you be able to change your actions?

[1] Not his real name.

Arches of the Baths of Septimus Severus, 3rd century AD, Palatine Hill, Rome.

An extra note: Who are “the saints”?

At this point, it’s worth addressing a particular question that you might have had if you have been reading through Ephesians for yourself. In his letter, Paul keeps referring to “the saints” (which I’ve translated as “the holy ones”, but both phrases mean the same thing). Often people ask: Who are “the saints”? There are two common answers. Some people say “the saints” refers only to Jewish believers in Christ. Other people say that “the saints” refers to all believers in Christ. So which is it? Who are “the saints”?

My answer is: it’s actually the wrong question! If we ask this question while assuming that the answer is simply going to be one or the other, we’re not thinking the way Paul is thinking. To understand what Paul means here, we need see what Paul cares about and what points he’s trying to make in his letter. Paul’s issue is not “Who are the saints”? Paul’s issue is “How have gentile believers become holy?” If we realise that’s what Paul is asking, we can see what he’s doing when he uses the phrase “the saints”.

We need to remember that “holiness” is firstly something that applies to God: God’s supreme excellence as the one who is perfectly mighty and pure and wonderful. In the Old Testament, Israel was “holy” because God had loved them and chosen them to be his own people, to be set apart for his service, to live for him, to be pure, and to live right lives. So Israel is the original holy people. That’s why Paul sometimes called the early Jewish apostolic community in Jerusalem “the holy ones” (see e.g., Rom 15:25–26, 31; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8:4, 9:1, 12). Yet in Ephesians, Paul wants to emphasise the fact that all believers have been made holy and can be called “the saints” (see Ephesians 1:1). Through Christ, the holy status of the original “holy ones” has been shared with gentiles, who can now also become “holy ones”. The gentiles have changed their status. Once they were foreigners. Now they are holy, and so they can be called fellow-citizens of “the holy ones”. This is Paul’s point. It’s not a matter of one or the other. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the original “holy ones” (the early Jewish apostolic community) have now been joined by other “holy ones” (all those who believe in Christ).

Here’s an analogy: think of the sentence “I was given my citizenship certificate today, and so I joined the ranks of Australian citizens”. Who is an “Australian” in this sentence? Is it referring to the people who were previously Australians? Yes. Does it also refer to the person who got the certificate? Yes. So who are “Australians”—the previous ones, or also the new one? That’s not the point. The point is that the person who got their citizenship certificate has now joined the ranks of Australian citizens. This is the kind of point Paul is making in Ephesians. Through Christ, gentile believers are made holy, and so can be called fellow-citizens of “the holy ones”.

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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

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

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.

Published inEphesiansLift Your Eyes

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  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

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