No other New Testament passage addresses race relations in the church as directly as Ephesians 2. In verses 11-22 Paul addresses both Jewish and Gentile Christians urging them to adopt an attitude of humility. Both groups depend upon Christ for their salvation and in that truth both groups should find unity.
The key verse found in this passage is verse 15b-16,
His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body. (VOICE)
For most of my life I have focused upon the role Jesus’ death on the cross plays in allowing God to forgive our sins. Forgiveness and restored relationship with God epitomise the cross.
So when I read these verses in Ephesians 2 I’m forced to expand my understanding of the cross. We’re told here that Jesus died to break down walls between Jews and Gentiles. To welcome them both in to the kingdom of God.
This is where the Bible gets tough for us. If Jesus died to remove barriers and dividing walls. If Jesus came to preach peace. Then this is an element of the Gospel that we must proclaim also. If God could make one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles, what can he do with us?
The church doesn’t have the luxury of preaching oneness in Christ and peace with God while having nothing practical to say to our society caught up in racial tension in cities across the country. However, the church has a credibility problem. We want to tell Charlotte, Baton Rouge, Ferguson, San Diego, etc that Jesus brings peace and removes the “dividing wall of hostility”, but in too many cases the church is as segregated, or more so, as our communities.
If Jesus died to remove barriers between people so that people could be reconciled to God, then what are we doing about that?
As a first baby step we challenged the church to make October a “Month of Hospitality”. Over the next 30 days we propose to remove some barriers by having each member enjoy a meal (or coffee, etc) with another member on the other side of a common dividing barrier:
- Racial divisions;
- Age divisions;
- Education divisions;
- Income divisions;
- Political divisions;
- Marital status divisions; and
Why only apply this challenge to members in the church? Because, if we can’t overcome the barriers that exist within the church, we have no credibility to tell the world that we bring a message of God’s peace and reconciliation.
What will you do to live out the Gospel that breaks down barriers?
Each of the four Gospels present Jesus in a slightly different light. Luke walks the fine line of emphasising Jesus’ humanity while also calling him Saviour.
Luke wanted to make sure that we saw not just the Divinity of Jesus, although that’s present, but Jesus walking among us, getting dirt under his fingernails, comforting those who hurt, and helping those abandoned by others. Jesus interacts with humans as one of us. Luke emphasises the social interactions of Jesus.
In particular Luke highlights Jesus’ care for at least four groups marginalised (at a minimum) by the so-called righteous Jews of his day.
1. Samaritans and Gentiles. These people don’t care about the Torah and worship their own gods in their own temples. Any law abiding Jew that comes in contact with them must go through a purification process before they can again worship at the Temple. Yet Luke describes Jesus rubbing elbows with them! But he even includes a story of Jesus called “The Good Samaritan”. That’s the definition of an oxymoron to most Jews.
2. Tax Collectors and Sinners. Sinners are easy to identify. They’re the Jews who turned their back on their faith and their heritage. Some of them even became Romans! In chapter 15 Jesus describes one perfectly in the story of the Lost Son. He turned his back on everything he should value and partied like it was still BC!! Then there’s the tax collectors. Regarded as traitors, these men such as Zacchaeus, rob their countrymen giving some of their “taxes” to Rome and keeping the rest for themselves. Yet again, Luke tells of Jesus forgiving these people. After all the hurt they’ve caused and sins they’ve committed, Jesus just says, “You’re forgiven, let me throw a party for you.”
3. Women. Luke goes to great lengths to make sure he includes women in his stories. Jesus may have heard the prayer that later generations of Jewish men recite each morning,
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a gentile. Blessed are You, Lord our god, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a slave. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids…” (Dig Deeper HERE.)
Yet Luke shows Jesus demonstrating a different attitude. At the start of chapter 8 we find a group of women traveling with Jesus like they’re his disciples.( Goodness only knows the scandals that launched.) In chapter 10 he praises Mary’s devotion to his teaching even while she neglects her womanly responsibilities in the kitchen with Martha. Then in chapter 15 Jesus describes God himself as a woman who first loses then finds some coins.
4. Poor, Hungry & Diseased Chapter 16 tells a story where the rich man goes to hell and the beggar goes to Paradise. That’s certainly counter-cultural. I wonder what Theophilus and his friends thought of that? We also see Jesus’ care for the diseased and suffering in the various accounts of healings throughout the Gospel.
It’s not that the other Gospels don’t contain similar (or the same) events, but Luke has a concentration of these encounters not found in any other single Gospel.
Jesus didn’t become human for fun, he came to make a difference.
Luke describes Jesus as Saviour and teaches salvation while the other Gospel authors don’t use the word “save” at all. In chapter 7 Luke details Jesus’ interactions with a Gentile, a mourning woman, and a sinful woman. As significant as those encounters are just because Jesus talked with these people, he did much more than just talk. He healed. He resurrected. He forgave. He saved each person from their immediate distress.
As Luke concludes the story of Jesus’ encounter with the tax-collector Zacchaeus, he wrote in chapter 19:10 what might be the key verse for his book (Maybe you’d like to memorise it.) “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Jesus didn’t just come to find the lost. He came to save the lost.
At Lawson Road we use the word Rescue as part of our LR-cubed mission: Rescue, Reconcile, Renew. Rescue is just another way of saying “save”. Luke teaches some important principles about our rescue mission.
- No one is off limits. The people you don’t like talking to. The people others don’t like you talking to. The people you know well. They all need Jesus. They all need rescue. But I wonder, “Is anyone off limits to you? Are there people you don’t want to talk to, let alone invite them to church?“
- Jesus spent a lot of time with needy people, and he didn’t just talk theology with them. Jesus sought out and helped needy people. How do you help the hurting and hungry?
- Jesus is our Savior not because he feeds us, but because he died for us. He saves us from eternal death and gives us eternal life. That is the ultimate message of Good News that Luke, and Jesus, wants us to hear. It doesn’t matter if you’re a slave, a gentile, a woman or a sinner, Jesus knows us and can save us all. But the first step we have to take is to acknowledge that we’re lost.
I find the Apostles’ apparent reticence to leave Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus perplexing. I don’t know if they were disobeying God, just misunderstanding Him, or carrying out their role just as He intended. In this post I want to lay out one perspective that makes me wonder if they weren’t disobeying God. It also seems that racial issues have a lot to do with it.
- Read Acts 1:1-9 here and Acts 11:19-30 here.
- You can listen to the related sermon here.
- This post draws heavily on chapter two of the book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church.
In Luke 24:45-49 the resurrected Jesus tells the apostles “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem…. stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then Luke begins the book of Acts by again noting the instructions “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…. you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But the apostles seem to stay in Jerusalem long after the Holy Spirit arrives. What’s going on?
The Holy Spirit arrives with power in Acts chapter 2. Peter preaches a great sermon and the first mega-church is born. (2:41)
The story (and the apostles) then stays in Jerusalem until Acts 8:1.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (tNIV, emphasis added)
The Gospel has begun to spread. The movement is on. It started in Jerusalem and now it seeps into Judea and Samaria. But the Apostles stay put! Eventually, in 8:14 after the Samaritans begin accepting the Gospel the apostles Peter and John travel to Samaria where they stay and preach before returning to Jerusalem.
Chapters 9-11 revolve around God convincing the apostle Peter that it was okay to baptise Gentiles. God convinces him by gifting Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit: A sign Peter could not reject. Then Peter has to return to Jerusalem and convince the church there that God allowed Gentiles into his kingdom. The Jerusalem church still wanted to exclude Gentiles.
While the Jerusalem church and the apostles were struggling to come to terms with God’s admission of Gentiles into his kingdom, other Christians were busy spreading the Gospel to everyone. In 8:1 we learn that persecution scattered many of the Christians from Jerusalem, but 8:4 notes “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” One of the places they went was to Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire at the time. Acts 11:20 tells us that “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”
When the church in Jerusalem learned of the Gentile Christians in Antioch they sent Barnabas (not an Apostle) to investigate. Barnabas was excited about God’s work in Antioch, but instead of returning to Jerusalem he traveled further north to find Saul and brought him as partner in teaching the Gospel in Antioch.
Then over in Acts 13:1-3 the church in Antioch blesses Saul and Barnabas and sends them on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.
At this point one might think that the racial and religious tensions between Jews and Gentiles would be resolved. One might also expect that after the Apostles in Jerusalem had accepted Peter’s experience with Cornelius and heard the reports of Barnabas and Saul that certainly the Jerusalem church had worked through this issue. But in Acts 15:1 we find Christians traveling from Jerusalem to Antioch and demanding that Gentile Christians submit to circumcision. Basically, they were teaching that Gentiles needed to become Jews before they could become Christians! Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with this teaching.
So everyone travels to Jerusalem for the Apostles to make a ruling. (Yes, they’re still there.) In 15:6-7 the elders and apostles meet to consider the question, then the text says, “After much discussion…“. This still wasn’t a straightforward issue for the church. Finally, the Apostles Peter and James give speeches stating that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or to observe the Mosaic Law. Acts has 28 chapters and it takes until chapter 15 for Gentiles to be accepted in the Jerusalem church.
It appears that despite the instructions of Luke 24 and Acts 1 the Twelve struggled to accept first that God wanted Gentiles to receive the Gospel of Jesus and enter his kingdom. Second, they appear slow to recognise that Jesus’ command to go into all the world applied to them.
The Good News
I don’t intend to write all this just to criticise the Apostles. What’s fascinating about all this is realising who really helped kick start the church in carrying out the Great Commission. It wasn’t the Apostles or even missionaries sanctioned by the Jerusalem mother ship.
Some Jewish Christians from remote parts of the Roman Empire initiated the Gentile mission and the struggle against legalism and prejudice. Acts 11:20 doesn’t tell us their names, but notes that they came to Antioch from Cyrene (northern Africa) and Cyprus. Later the Cypriot Barnabas joined the work and he recruited Saul, a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Turkey. This diverse group of Godly men opened the doors of God’s kingdom to “all nations”.
This encourages me that I don’t need to be the lead minister at a big city mega-church for my ministry to have profound influence within the church and the world. I hope it likewise encourages you that God can use anyone to take giant strides for Him. The rag tag group of Christians in Antioch understood the mission of God in ways that the Jerusalem church never seems to wholeheartedly embrace. They just loved their neighbours enough that they couldn’t keep their life changing good news to themselves. Through this church, God changed the world.
God used persecution of the church to send Christians into the world preaching as they went (8:1). But the Apostles remained in Jerusalem. I wonder if God didn’t finally use the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD as the ultimate endorsement of the Gentile mission and to force the Apostles to leave Jerusalem and spread His Good News with the world.
I’d love for you to share your thoughts with me.
- Did the Twelve have good reasons to remain in Jerusalem?
- Is the Jew-Gentile conflict in the early church comparable with racial prejudices in our society and churches?
- KEY VERSE: I didn’t reference Gal. 2:9 in the discussion above. Does it change your perspective on this discussion?