“Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded 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 formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” – Ephesians 2:11-18
I preached a sermon on Sunday night about how the birth of Jesus ushered in an unprecedented peace between God and man. For the first time since Eden, they could join together in unbroken fellowship and communion. While studying for this message, I came across several other points concerning peace that I was unable to address because of the pressures and constraints of time. However, I found these insights too beneficial and important to simply leave in a notebook. Consider this an addendum to the sermon, ‘His Birth Brings Peace.’
Reconciliation Between Men
Throughout Paul’s various epistles, he often deals with the issue of fellowship between Jew and Gentile. It’s important that we don’t underestimate the differences between these two groups of people. They viewed one another with much suspicion and their differing cultural practices led to Jews viewing Gentiles as unclean in more than one sense. This difference was one of the biggest issues that the fledgling Christian church had to learn to deal with.
We can see the first hints of a cultural clash in Acts 6 when “a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food” (Acts 6:1). Although both groups involved in this disagreement were Jewish, they came from different cultural backgrounds. The Hellenistic Jews had adopted many Greek ways, including the use of the Greek language, while the native Hebrews had done their best to resist Greek influence and to stay as close to their Semitic roots as possible. This had caused issues within the Jewish community and, since at this point in time Christianity was a largely Jewish movement, the early Church inherited these problems. Fortunately, the Apostles realized that the reconciliation we’ve received with God must be realized in our human relationships as well. They worked out a plan to solve the problem and maintain the unity that Jesus had prayed for before he was crucified (See John 17).
The problems didn’t end here though. Once Peter preached to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his very Gentile family, he opened the door for more conflict to emerge. Jews and Gentiles were separate and they liked it that way. Gentiles weren’t circumcised. They ate pork, shellfish, and other foods that Jews understood as unclean. The two groups did have some interaction but ultimately, there had to be a distinction between the people of God and all other people. The Jews of Jesus’ day believed that distinction was the Law and its requirements. This belief persisted in the minds of many early Jewish Christians.
This problem came to a head when “some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). A council was held and the leaders of the early Church worked alongside the Holy Spirit to come up with a compromise that acknowledged the convictions of Jewish believers while accepting the faith of Gentile believers. This would prove to be a theme throughout Paul’s ministry: the Church is one.
Why did Paul and the rest of the early Church place such a premium on unity within the Church? Why not, as the church in recent centuries has often done, simply separate? I believe Paul hints at an answer in his epistle to the congregation at Ephesus.
Paul reminds the Ephesian believers, many of them Gentiles, that there was a separation between them and the Jews. They were “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope.” But he goes on to say, “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” In other words, the division that had existed before was no longer in effect. Peace has come between Jew and Gentile. The old walls of nationality and ethnicity are no longer viable. Christ “broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” and made “the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.” The reconciliation that Jesus was born into this world to bring did not just apply to a peace between God and man. It was a peace between Jew and Gentile.
But it’s more than that. In Christ, all of the walls which we erect to divide ourselves are torn down. Christ, our peace, has come to reconcile not only Jew and Gentile but Black and White, Israeli and Palestinian, Arab and American. All of the things that people try to build unity through are shown to be a sham. Only Christ can bring true peace – true unity. Only by uniting under the banner of King Jesus and his Kingdom will we be able to experience reconciliation and peace. He must become our peace.
If we believe this then our churches must reflect it – we must practice it. Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples if we “have love for one another” (John 13:35). Part of that love is demonstrated by our willingness and desire to live at peace with one another. We must, as Christians, be careful to separate from other believers. There is a time for separation – Paul deals with that issue in 1 Corinthians 5 – but it is a last resort. Before we reach it, we must be sure that we have followed Paul’s admonition in Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). This is such a vital issue because the reconciliation and peace that we share with our brothers and sisters reflect that which we have with God himself. If we recognize the lengths to which God went in order to bring us peace, should not that spur us to go to great lengths to establish peace with those who will let us?
In all things, we must remember that Christ is our peace. He is what holds together and unites us. If we ever get distracted by anything else and allow it to become our rallying-point for peace, any hope for harmony will be ruined. “For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”
The Spirit of the Peacemaker
During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). God’s family is filled with peacemakers. There is no room for the divisive, the argumentative, or the gossip in the Kingdom of God. In fact, Paul and other early church leaders explicitly state as much. Paul told Titus to “reject a factious man after a first and second warning” and he encouraged the Romans to “keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Titus 3:10 & Romans 16:17). Likewise, Jude warned against “the ones who cause divisions” (Jude 19). We have not received the spirit of the judge but the Spirit of the Peacemaker.
Christians have carried different convictions regarding ways of worship and lifestyle since the very beginning. In fact, Paul addresses this issue in the fourteenth chapter of Romans when he writes, “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only…One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:2,5). What is the answer to all of these differences in conviction?
Should we argue until someone waves the white-flag of defeat?
Should we divide over every difference of opinion and never talk to one another again?
Should we consign all who don’t hold our convictions as tightly as we do to the lowest depths of hell?
Should we call them all heretics and apostates, unworthy of the grace of God?
No, no, no, and no. Paul gives us a different framework. After acknowledging the very real differences that will exist between believers and churches, Paul writes this: “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19). This is the Spirit of the Peacemaker. It’s a spirit that’s willing to make itself uncomfortable for the sake of others. It’s a spirit that’s willing to put others ahead of itself. It’s a spirit that speaks truth in love. It’s a spirit that mourns over division. It’s a spirit that does all it can to see reconciliation realized. Ultimately, it’s a spirit that sees our commitment to Christ as our most important commitment.
If our churches are going to be an example to the rest of the world, we must exemplify the Spirit of the Peacemaker – the Spirit of Christ. When the world sees our willingness to be reconciled to one another in spite of our differences, perhaps they’ll catch a glimpse of God’s desire for the entire cosmos: reconciliation to God and to creation at large.