Remember Where You Came From.
So far in this series of posts we have noted that God’s purpose is to reconcile the people of the world both to himself and to each other, and that his plan is to do this through Christ. This means it is imperative for us, his people, to cooperate with God’s purpose by helping people come to him and also come together, and to do that most especially on the basis of Christ. It is important to remember that unity is a major theme and concern throughout the book of Ephesians (1:9-10; 2:9, 11-22; 3:6, 10-11; 4:2-6, 13, 16, 25-27, 29, 31-32; 5:1-2, 21)
One specific practice Ephesians teaches us, that is both healthy in itself and will also contribute to unity, is to remember where we came from. Paul devotes considerable attention to this in chapter 2, in two different ways.
In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul reminds the Christians to whom he is writing that they were previously dead spiritually due to their sin, and to following the way of the world and the prince of darkness. He says that we all once lived that way, gratifying our passions and desires. We did what came natural, and as a result we were suffering God’s wrath (cf. Romans 1:18ff.).
But then God made us alive with Christ! (2:4-10). He raised us up to new life with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, with much more kindness and grace to come in the future. He saved us from our sins because of his great love and grace. It was not because of anything about us—we were dead! Specifically, he did not deliver us because of any good works we had done. Rather, it was his doing, through Christ, because of his grace. We are, however, his workmanship (something he has made) and our purpose now is to do good works. Still, these works do not save us. Our salvation is due to his gracious work in Christ.
I used to view Ephesians 2:1-10 as a great passage on grace. In a sense it is, but it is not an isolated “position paper” on the topic of grace or the subject of salvation. Rather, it has a context in a book written to real people dealing with real problems. In context, it is not a passage written to Christians to reassure them of salvation in spite of their many sins. Nor is it a passage written to non-Christians telling them how to be saved. Instead, in the context of Ephesians, it is a passage written to Christians to remind them of where they came from as a means to preserving the unity of the Spirit.
We’ve already seen that unity is a major issue and concern in the book of Ephesians (see the verses at the end of the first paragraph above). One attitude that is terribly destructive to unity is pride—the notion that I am better than you. If our salvation were something we achieved by our works, we would have something to boast about (Ephesians 2:9; cf. Romans 3:27; 4:2). Since, however, we were not saved by doing good works but by the gracious work God did in Christ, there is no place for boasting. Ephesians 2:1-10 is not an isolated passage on grace but is a reminder to Christians of where they came from to help them avoid boasting so as to bolster unity among them.
The second way Paul reminds these Christians of where they came from follows immediately in Ephesians 2:11-22. These words are addressed specifically to the Gentile Christians in Paul’s audience. He reminds them that they were previously separate from Christ, alienated from Israel, strangers to the covenants, without hope and without God. They were far away, and there was much hostility between them and the Jews.
Now, however, God has brought them near by Christ and made peace not only between the Gentiles and God but also between the Gentiles and the Jews. Both groups are reconciled to God through Christ. As a result, the Gentiles are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens, members of God’s household, and vital components of God’s “house” or “temple” (i.e., God’s people). They now belong! If they will remember where they have come from, they will be more likely to have the attitudes that are needed to support God’s purpose of creating one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles.
History shows that there is a tendency for those who are chosen and blessed to start thinking they are superior to others. A prime example is Israel, the people God chose as his own in the Old Testament. God clearly stated that he did not choose them because they were so large (Deuteronomy 7:7) or devout (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Instead, he chose them because of His own love, mercy, and purpose. God wanted to bless them and wanted them, in turn, to bless the rest of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). Unfortunately, however, Israel let God’s choosing and blessing go to their heads to the point that they thought they were special and superior to all others. This led to all sorts of sin and also to an abysmal failure to pass God’s blessings along to others. The example of Israel warns us of the danger of thinking that God’s choosing and grace make us superior to others and entitles us to special treatment.
Boasting and superiority can be problems in the church too. These sinful attitudes ran rampant among the Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:21; 5:6; 13:4), and they were found in other churches as well (Romans 12:2; Galatians 6:13-14; James 3:5, 14; 4:16; Jude 16). Pride, superiority and boasting cause division (1 Corinthians 1:10). The solution is found in the cross. God determined that people could not come to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, they could only know him through something that seems weak and foolish to the secular mind, namely, a crucified Jew (1 Corinthians 1:21-24). In fact, God deliberately chose things considered weak and foolish, lowly and despised, to nullify any wisdom that humans may boast in (vv. 27-30). Instead, we are to boast in the Lord (v. 31; Jeremiah 9:23-24). Near the end of his discussion of how the cross negates pride and creates unity (1 Corinthians 1-4), Paul addresses the Corinthians tendency to be “puffed up” with some challenging questions, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (4:6-7). That the good things we have are things we received, not accomplished on our own, there is no basis for boasting about them. Paul’s reasoning here takes us back to Ephesians.
By reminding his readers that they were dead in sin, as well as aliens and strangers, Paul is reminding them that they don’t have anything now that they did not receive. And since they received it, there is no room for boasting (Ephesians 2:9). The realization that God has graciously saved us and given us countless blessings in Christ displaces the divisive and destructive sin of pride and replaces it with gratitude and humility. We’ll see these qualities again in Ephesians but for now the point is that remembering where we have come from is a safeguard against the divisive and destructive danger of pride. We have come from death, distance, and dissonance with God. We need to remember this and let it affect our attitudes. This is indispensable to unity. It is a key way of cooperating with God’s purpose of bringing the world together as one.