The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on the 27th day of October 2013:
Memory is a wonderful gift from God that enables life; without it true living is virtually impossible. Remembering structures our minds to live for God. It frames our identity and sets us on course for life in Christ. We need to remember sin, because part of sin’s delusion is that it keeps us unaware of sin. And that is the Word of God to us tonight, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles. . . were separated from Christ. . . having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11, 12). This is a command, not a suggestion. It is not something that the apostle Paul found the people doing, and then said, “Stop doing that.” It is part of the Christian walk. It is important. It is not to be leapfrogged over so that you only begin reading at verse 13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” That kind of leapfrogging is extremely dangerous.
“11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
The passages up until now, are long elegant sentences in the original Greek (1:3-14; 2:1-10), and in this first verse is the first time Paul says “Therefore” in this entire letter. You know what that tells us? That what Paul is about to say is really important. By Paul saying this, he is indicating that what he is about to say is his very reason for saying what he has already said in this letter. He says “Therefore” in light of the glorious change that God has effected (2:1-10), and the completely unmerited blessings God has imparted to them (1:3-14), these Gentile readers are to “remember” their pre-Christian past from another standpoint.
Recall in the passage above (2:1-3) that Paul was reminding his readers of their pre-Christian past to draw attention to God’s mighty acts in Christ. Now here in verse 11, Paul gives the command to “remember” not because his readers have forgotten what they were, but that the privileges they now enjoy would be appreciated all the more if they remembered the spiritual condition from which they had been rescued. So Paul says, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision. . .” You will notice that there are two camps that come into play in this passage of Scripture: the Jews and the Gentiles. And to be called “uncircumcised” was a Jewish term of ridicule, and it signified that someone was a Gentile, outside the covenant people of God. For the Jews, circumcision, which had been given by God to Abraham (Genesis 17) was the physical sign of their covenant with the Lord, the God of all the earth. It pointed to the special relationship that Israel had with the God of that covenant. The “uncircumcision” of Gentiles was evidence of their separation from God.
After this lengthy description of his Gentile readers, Paul returns to his main point of urging them to remember (v. 12) the deficiencies of their pre-Christian past so that they might appreciate more fully the many spiritual blessings of who they are now in Christ. Five of these deficiencies are explicitly stated and I would like to point them out to you:
1) “separated from Christ.” A more natural reading of the Greek here is to understand separated from Christ as the first of the Gentile’s former disadvantages. In other words, “you were, at that time, apart from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What you need to make note of is that Paul is using things pertaining to Israel, God’s chosen people, to prove a point of importance. Paul is building on a powerful argument by using things pertaining to Israel. If that is the case, then how does “separated from Christ” relate to Israel? Well, we know that Jesus’s last name is not Christ. Christ is a title and it is given to Jesus meaning “Messiah” or “chosen one.” The Messiah, according to the Bible, is the first and foremost king of Israel through whom God’s saving purposes are accomplished. So, although unbelieving Jews may have been separated from Christ, they were not separated from the knowledge of the promises of what the Messiah would do. Paul says in Romans 3:2, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God”, and these oracles spoke of the Messiah.
2) Secondly, Paul commands the Gentiles to remember that they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” If you were separated from the chosen people of Israel, then you were at a serious disadvantage; being separated from Israel meant being outside of any covenant relationship with Him.
3) So if that is the case, that these Gentile readers were separated from the chosen people, then it makes sense too that they also were “strangers to the covenants of promise.” The Gentile’s separation from the community of God’s people meant that they had no share, no access to the covenants which promised the Messiah and what He would do.
4) Now the Gentiles’ serious condition comes to a tragic climax: they had been without hope. That is serious business. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t have plans or hopes for the future, but rather that they were outside the sphere of God’s people and His promises. So they did not share in the hope of Israel in the promised Messiah and the salvation He would bring.
5) Finally, their being “without God in the world” signifies that they had no real relationship with the true God, the God of Israel.
Remember That God Was Once Not Your God
Paul’s command here for the Gentiles to remember their former plight is just as urgent for us as it was for them; especially since we are the Gentiles! When Paul says “Remember that you were without God,” he didn’t just mean, “Remember that you once lacked some knowledge about God.” He meant, “Remember that God was once not your God,” and if He was not our God, then He was not for us, but against us; He was not our justifier, but our condemner; not eternal life, but eternal damnation lay before us. And it’s just this that Paul wants us to remember. Remember that apart from Christ, Almighty God would be against us; apart from Christ, we would be storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:4, 5; Ephesians 2:3); apart from the free and unmerited mercy of Christ, we would go away into “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Concerning your plight before Christ, Paul means “Let it grip you.” Let the memory seize you and move you. Feel the memory. Feel the plight you have been saved from. An intellectual recollection of facts will be of no spiritual benefit if it does not move the heart. Any Christian can list what they have been saved from if you ask them. But they don’t feel it. It does not move them. It’s not real to them. John Piper gives us a memorable illustration of this fact:
“It’s like the lady in the circus who spins on the wheel while the knife thrower pretends to throw knives around her. If you ask her at the end, “Don’t you feel glad that’s over? Aren’t you happy you’re still alive?” And she says, “It’s just a trick. The knives pop out of the wheel. What’s to get excited about? It’s just a fake threat” (Remember That You Were Hopeless, Dec. 27, 1981).
And so it is true of many Christians: if they remember their plight without Christ at all, they remember it like a fake threat. They have never begun to imagine the horror of the reality from which they have been saved! But when Paul says, “Remember that you were without hope,” he does not mean, “Treat your plight without Christ like a fake threat.” He means, “Know it, feel it, be gripped by it.”
But Now in Christ Jesus
We do need to remember our former selves, but we need also to remember who we are in Christ. Paul lists a number of things concerning who we are in Christ over in Ephesians 1, but he names the greatest of these in v. 13. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” He says that a dramatic change has occurred. In contrast to their former position as deprived Gentiles who were separated from Israel and her God, Paul’s readers have now been brought near to God through the sacrificial death of Christ. The Gentiles who had no part in ‘Christ,’ the Messiah through whom God’s saving purposes were being worked out, had actually come to know Christ Jesus.
Did you know that that the highest, most supreme good of the gospel is not heaven? It is not forgiven sins, it is not a clear conscience, it is not a sanctified life, it is not inclusion into the church of God, and it is not escaping from hell. The highest, most supreme good of the gospel, and of reconciliation is God! God is what makes heaven good. The ultimate aim of everything that happened on the cross of Calvary was to bring us near to God! Whenever you think of propitiation or redemption or justification or substitutionary atonement or reconciliation (v. 13), the ultimate aim of them all is summed up in the ultimate gift of God Himself. First Peter 3:18 is the clearest about this: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” And verse 13 is the second clearest statement of that truth: “But now in Christ Jesus. . . you have been brought near to God.” God did everything necessary, most painfully in the death of His Son, to enthrall us with what is most deeply and durably satisfying: God Himself. If God is enjoyed as the highest and greatest good of the gospel, then all His other gifts will be enjoyed accordingly.
Why is all of this important to know? I think the Presbyterian minister, Matthew Henry, tells us why very well: “Every believing sinner owes their closeness to God to the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”