Introduction: Christian Fights Himself
Have you ever read The Pilgrim’s Progress? It’s an old book from 1678 written by John Bunyan about a man named Christian. He’s on his way to the Celestial City and Bunyan documents all the troubles and victories he encounters along his pilgrimage. It is a wonderful work that represents theological truths through allegory. It’s a story that represents the believer’s real pilgrimage through this sinful world, as we are on our way to eternity with Christ. For example, Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman who attempts to sway him from his narrow path, clearly representative of the “wisdom” this world offers to deter us from walking with the Lord. Another example in this story is a man named Evangelist who points Christian on to the right path to the Celestial City, which represents the duty of all believers – pointing others to the right and only path to God.
There are dozens of other characters and events that represent biblical truths through allegory, and I would encourage you to read it. Recently I was reading it and there was a particular encounter that attracted my interest – and it was Christian’s encounter with a monster. Along Christian’s journey, he meets a beast named Apollyon. They fight against each other, and as Apollyon seeks to take Christian’s life, he throws “a flaming dart at his breast . . . [and] he had almost pressed him to death; so that Christian began to despair of life.”¹ Of course, we know that this was an epitome of Satan, powerful Satan, that Christian had fought against. But here’s what is interesting: Christian only fought with Satan for “above half a day.” The battle was brief and momentary – it was deadly, but it was quite pithy when you consider that Christian fought with himself all the way to the Celestial City. He only battled Satan for a short time, but he battled a war within himself all the way through the rest of his journey. Throughout the rest of Christian’s pilgrimage, he is tempted to give up; he is tempted to go astray; he is full of doubt; he continued to battle within himself.
And this exemplifies a profound but painful truth: no enemy can be as powerful as ourselves. The influence of the world, and the fiery darts of Satan may come and go, but they cannot cause us to sin – we make choices to sin and fall short of God’s glory. And the reason we make those choices are because of desires. So while it is true that we face many other enemies in the Christian life,² none of them can control our actions. Satan cannot force you to sin, because he cannot control your desires – he can only use your sinful desires against you. Neither can the world force you to sin, even with its sinful influences. Only you have the ability (a weakness, really) to act on your desires. Our sinful desires are far more deadly than our adversary Satan, and the world – because sinful desires lead to sinful choices and acts. Scripture states that the source of our temptations are our desires (James 1:14), and that we should overcome them through the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). The 90’s rock band Lit had it right when they sang, “It’s no surprise to me that I am my own worst enemy.”
This doesn’t mean we should subject ourselves to nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless), and it doesn’t mean that we should be pessimistic about ourselves. But evidently, the warnings of Scripture about our own sin nature appear to be very serious and urgent. In James’ letter where we are warned that our desires are the source of our temptations, it is because those desires lure and entice us (James 1:14). In Galatians, we are exhorted to walk by the Spirit because there is a war taking place between our desire to sin, and the Spirit’s desire to glorify God (Gal. 5:16-18). In Romans, we are strongly exhorted not to supply our flesh with the weapons that it needs to defeat us in temptation: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
Among these warnings about our flesh and sinful desires, one of them is found in 1 Peter 2:11. This is perhaps the most imperative of all the warnings regarding our desires and sinful nature. In this verse, Peter the apostle admonishes his readers: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
Peter has been calling his readers to holy living all throughout this letter – he is genuinely concerned about their sanctification. And one of the noticeable patterns that emerges as you read this letter is that imperatives follow realities. Peter will state what has happened to the Christian, or Peter will state who the Christian is, and he will follow this with a command or exhortation. For instance, Peter states that the believers have been born again (1:3-5), and because of this they are called to set their hope fully on God’s grace (1:13). Or you could look at 1:22-2:3, where Peter exhorts his readers to live sanctified lives because they have been born again.
This pattern is also found in the verse we just read. This verse follows a statement about a certain Christian reality, and it’s only one verse above it: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:10). Christians are God’s people, who have received God’s mercy. And it is on this basis that Peter admonishes his readers to abstain from their sinful desires. Because they are Christians, they have battle to fight – and just like Christian on his pilgrimage, it is a battle within with ourselves.
It is warfare, conflict, and combat. What is true of war is true of the war with our own passions and desires. For Christians, there is a war going on. It is real, it is deadly, and it is costly. It is with this in mind that we now look at this verse together. And as we unpack this passage, we are going to see why we are in this war, what we are fighting, why we are fighting, and how to fight this war.
The Text: 1 Peter 2:11, ESV
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
I. Who We Are (v. 11a)
Peter first describes who we are – we are citizens of God’s kingdom and His holy nation. He says in the first part of v. 11 that it is because of who we are (or better, whose we are) that a war is going on. He says that believers are sojourners and exiles, as he addresses his readers, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles” (v. 11a).
Because we are God’s people, there’s a war going on. There wouldn’t be any battle with sin if we still lived under the dominion and tyranny of sin. But because we are “set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7), and because we are those called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), we are in a war against sin. That’s what Peter just finished talking about. He told them, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (v. 10). Since we have received God’s mercy, we are His people, now in an ongoing conflict with the sin inside us.
He addressed them as those whom he loves, as those “Beloved,” and then urges and exhorts them as sojourners and exiles. Those are terms used to describe outsiders, foreigners, a group or individual that doesn’t belong or fit in. Peter is saying that we as Christians are citizens of God’s holy nation, not primarily citizens of the society that we live in. As the old song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through.” So this is who we are: citizens of God’s kingdom and rule. This echoes Paul, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
We are citizens of God’s kingdom because He has saved us through faith in Jesus Christ and has given us that privilege. Now this says a lot about the way we should live our lives. Citizens of a particular country conduct themselves in accordance with what is required of their citizenship. A Chinese man does things as a citizen of China that we wouldn’t do as a citizen of the United States. A citizen of an indigenous tribe on the coast of Vietnam has different requirements for citizenship than would a Hispanic living in Mexico.
We are citizens of God’s kingdom and world, so we are outsiders in our own society. This doesn’t mean we should completely abandon our social responsibilities, but it does mean that we should live as citizens of God’s world. Are you living like a citizen of God’s kingdom? Can people see a difference in you?
II. What We Fight (v. 11b)
We’ve seen who we are, and that answers why we are in a conflict. But what are we fighting in this war? What is our enemy? Peter answers by telling us that we are fighting the passions of our flesh, our own sin nature: “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” As one enlisted in battle, we have objectives to carry out. We have a task to be done if we are going to come out of this battle as victors, and that is to refrain from engaging in anything related to our sinful passions. The sinful passions that Peter is referring to here basically means our sinful impulses and desires to sin against God. Even though we are saved, it doesn’t make us immune to experiencing temptations to sin. And Peter calls us to abstain from the desires that cause our temptations.
In many schools today, students are taught about the importance of abstinence from sex before marriage. It’s an important program that I believe every student should go through. Sex is an irreplaceable gift that God has given to a man and woman within the boundaries of marriage, and misusing that gift is like opening a Christmas present that was meant for somebody else. What schools seek to do through teaching abstinence is to help students refrain from engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage. It’s a struggle to fight those impulses, but if we want to be safe and prevent ourselves from seriously damaging our bodies, we should abstain from sexual activity before marriage. Peter has a similar idea in mind. He is telling us to do the same thing with passions of our flesh. He is telling us to refrain and stay away from the passions of our flesh, because indulging in them can bring great harm upon us, even our own souls (v. 11c).
Abstaining from these passions and desires to sin against God is to be obedient to one of the greatest commands in Scripture: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-17). We must abstain from the passions of our flesh if we are truly members of God’s kingdom and society (we will see at the end how we can do this). This is our chief objective as soldiers against sin in this deadly war.
III. Why We Fight (v. 11c)
Now that we know who we are, and what we are fighting (the passions of our flesh), then why are we fighting? Why go through all the trouble to fight the sin in our lives? It shouldn’t hurt to indulge in a little sin should it? Peter tells us why it is urgent to abstain from the passions of our flesh and fight with all our might: “abstain from the passions of the flesh [because they] wage war against your soul” (v. 11c).
Our sinful desires wage war, and they do so upon our own souls. Our sinful desires have declared war upon us the moment we crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). The army of sinful desires have encamped around us, ready to ambush at any time – and like any army, sin has great strength. One person cannot wage war against an army, but war consists of armies against armies. So it is with our sin – it wars against us with an entire camp of evil desires.
Peter is also says here that the passions of our flesh target our own souls. They are aiming at our souls, they are shooting at our souls, they are fortifying their equipment against our own souls to wage a deadly war. And this is imperative to realize because our souls are the most valuable thing about us, and if our souls are lost, then everything is lost.
These passions don’t wage war against our physical bodies, but they seek to destroy our own souls. Everyone has a soul, and our souls are our innermost beings. God gave us all a soul, and it is what gives us life. We are not just fleshy beings with emotions and desires, as today’s evolutionists teach. We actually have souls, and these sinful desires, even though they may seem harmless, “wage war” against our souls. If they are not fought, they can do the most serious damage to us. This is why it is urgent to abstain from the passions of our flesh.
IV. How to Fight (Rom. 8:13; Prov. 6:27; Psa. 51:10; 119:11; 1:1-3)
We’ve seen who we are, which explains why we are in this war. We looked at what we are fighting, and why we are fighting. But we would not do justice to this passage of Scripture without knowing how to fight those passions of our flesh. So how can we fight those desires within? How can we abstain from the passions of the flesh?
1. Depend on the Holy Spirit to overcome the passions of the flesh (Rom. 8:13). The Holy Spirit indwells believers, enabling them to live a victorious Christian life. Galatians 5:16-18 teaches us that if we will depend on the Holy Spirit, submitting to Him consistently, we will overcome our sinful desires. He will give us the power we need to overcome sin. So we must walk daily with Him in order to abstain from the passions of our flesh.
2. Do not allow the occasion for the passions of the flesh (Pro. 6:27). We should not be willingly putting ourselves into situations that we know will light up our sinful desires like a fire. It is meaningless to try and fight our desires if we are putting ourselves in tempting situations that will only supply weapons to our desires. Anyone knows not to park a freshly washed car underneath a tree full of birds – and we should not expect to be clean if we put ourselves into situations that we know will get us dirty. The Proverbs give us practical warnings, and in Proverbs 6:27 we are warned that one cannot expect to remain unharmed or clean if he involves himself in sinful situations.
3. Pray that God would change your desires (Psalm 51:10). If the passions of our flesh are the problem, then they need to be changed. We need to ask God to create within us a clean heart, and continually ask Him to change our desires. When we have a sinful desire present in our lives, we need to combat it with the word of God and with prayer.
4. Get into the word of God, and let the word of God get into you (Psalm 119:11). If there are particular sins you struggle with, memorize particular Scriptures. We are familiar with Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The psalmist there says that his defense against sinning was that he had stored God’s word in his heart. Scripture memory involves not only getting into the Bible, but allowing the Bible to get into us. It is allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16). Scripture memorization involves taking time to memorize the Bible, whether a few verses or a few chapters.
It is very beneficial, for we can call to mind a Scripture that is especially helpful for us in a time of need or when we are dealing with our sinful desires. The Spirit of God can’t call to your memory a Scripture you’ve never read or memorized. If the word of God is in you, then you’ve brought the greatest weapon you have to the very place of battle.
5. Remember the results of godly living (Psalm 1:1-3). Keep it constant in your mind that God doesn’t want you to live a life defeated by sin. God wants you to live godly. Living a godly life is living a prosperous life that God blesses, and He blesses our lives when we abstain from sin and associate ourselves with Him and His word: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3).
There is a war going on inside of us – our sinful desires wage war against our own souls. We must fight through the sustaining and empowering grace of God that He will freely give us.
1. Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), pp. 80-81.
2. For further study, please see War of the Soul: Introduction.
Often times when we read an account like this, we tend to run over it, believing that it is not relevant for us today and we read on to the next passage. But the Bible says different: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This means that every portion is relevant for our lives. I don’t have to make the Word of God relevant; it is already relevant.
“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”
Paul, the Prisoner for Christ
First Paul writes, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles. . .” (3:1)
For what reason? Well, look at Ephesians chapter 2. What is that chapter all about? The gospel that gives life and includes the Gentiles. This is the guiding purpose in all Paul does. So he writes, “For this reason [for the reason of this great gospel] I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” Paul was a prisoner at the time of writing this letter (You can read about that in Acts 28). Paul was a prisoner in Rome because he had been preaching the gospel. And Paul writes that he is a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” here in this passage. That is interesting to note, because he could have said “a prisoner, held captive by these filthy Romans.” It’s interesting because he doesn’t once place blame on anyone for his being held captive. Paul views his imprisonment positively. His imprisonment was definitely a hardship. His imprisonment was an embarrassment. But to our surprise, he gives little focus to his difficulty. He doesn’t blame the Romans, he doesn’t blame God, but you can almost hear a tone of honor in his voice as he says, “I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s theology of hardship never focuses on the hardship itself, but on the Christ, His gospel, and His people. We know this all too well from the pen of Paul to the Philippians: “12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (1:12-14). Yes, Paul is aware of something much larger than his own circumstances. He is aware of something of infinite worth. Something on which no value can be placed. Something worth giving up everything for. Something that is worth losing everything for—and that something is Someone, and He is Jesus. Was Paul’s imprisonment life-threatening? Of course. But Paul’s imprisonment did not define who he was. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ defined who he was.
The Gospel is What Defines
Let me clarify: Paul wasn’t talking about suffering as a result of sin and evil in this world. There are different types of suffering—death, sickness, and disease, but the kind of suffering he was talking about was suffering for Christ. And so we unearth a foundational truth of the Christian life: The gospel will cost you something. The gospel always costs you something. What matters is where your heart is when you lose things for the gospel. And when we will lose things for Christ’s gospel, Jesus asks us if our heart is in the right place when we suffer on His behalf. When we lose things for the gospel. And it’s in a very strange passage of Scripture: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). What Jesus is saying here is that following Him will cost you dearly. You know your dad won’t approve. He’ll roll his eyes and mumble something about you getting carried away with your religion. Your brother or sister won’t know what to make of your decision to lose everything for Jesus. Your friends may distance themselves from you. There’s a good chance your husband or wife will criticize you for losing everything for Jesus. And Jesus is saying, “Yep, that may be part of it. And if you’re not willing to choose me over your family (and over everything, knowing that you may lose it in this life), then you are not ready to follow, and maybe it’s time for you to go on home.”
If you lost everything for the gospel would it still be worth it?
Ephesians says yes. Because when you lose things for the gospel you are not really losing anything—but you are gaining that which is of infinite worth and that is God. Nothing on this earth can compare to God—not the greatest amount of wealth and possessions, not the most power, not popularity from anyone and everyone, not conquest, not great achievement—nothing ever will and ever can compare with the infinite worth of God. “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:25-26).
And nothing can ever take Him away from you. No force, no power, no nothing can every take you away from God if you belong to Him through faith in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). So what if you lose something for the sake of Christ and the spread of His gospel? That’s the attitude that Paul had here. Paul rejoiced in his suffering and counted it as an honor to be called a “prisoner for Christ Jesus.” And so asked his readers: “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (v. 13).
Value the Treasure
Paul didn’t allow his circumstances to define who he was. He let the gospel do that. He was a prisoner for Christ Jesus. And we need to remember that the gospel defines who we are. Folks, the gospel is all we have. It’s all we need—but it’s all we have. This gospel is the good news that even though we are born haters of God (Rom. 1:30), sinners by nature (Eph. 2:3), enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), not seeking Him(Rom. 3:11)—that God had a plan from eternity to save us (Eph. 1:4) and that salvation was accomplished through Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 5:8) and is available to all who would turn away from sin and have faith in Him as Lord and Savior of their lives.
If you are a believer, no sin defines who you are, no past shame defines who you are, no difficulty in life defines who you are, not even death defines who you are—but only the gospel of Jesus Christ defines who you are and that gospel says that you are God’s forever, to enjoy Him forever and make Him your infinite delight.
“Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly” (vv. 2-3). Paul stops his prayer here and doesn’t come back to it until 3:14. He stops here to explain the nature of his apostleship and his ministry. Paul’s readers would have heard of God’s entrusting of His grace to Paul if they had only read the above chapters. That’s all it would take. In fact he states in the next verse: “when you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (v. 4). He says that he was steward of God’s grace. And he tells his readers that the mystery of the gospel was made known to him by revelation and he was written about it briefly. Paul viewed himself as a manager of grace. Why? Well he had a specific task given to him. In Acts 22, Paul says that Jesus commanded him: ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (Acts 22:21, emphasis mine). Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles was unique, and God used Paul to write Holy Spirit inspired letters—and while we can never duplicate Paul in exactly every way, Paul’s theology of grace here really teaches us something that I think we often forget.
Grace enlists. Grace commissions. Grace always brings responsibility. Christianity is not a religion of works, but it is a religion of action. If we think that God’s grace is limited to the gift of salvation, and it stops there—then we are deceiving ourselves. This text forces us to reflect on the fact that grace enlists. We are all managers of grace. If we have received the grace of God, we are told to extend it to others: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). In fact, you may disagree, but I would go as far as to say that if grace is not being worked out in your life, then you never had grace to begin with and are not saved. Grace always brings responsibility and forces us to take action folks. If we are not taking action in our Christian lives today, then did we have grace to begin with? Paul even says later in this passage, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power” (v. 7).
But let me clarify two things:
1) Grace doesn’t just enlist clergy. Grace doesn’t just enlist pastors, Sunday school teachers, and crazy youth pastors. All believers are called to extend God’s grace to others and to live in a way that draws people’s attention to Him. We are all ministers folks. In fact if you want the Bible’s specific definition of how we are all ministers, here you go: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).
2) Ministry is God’s gift to you. It’s not your gift to Him. Often times we think we are doing God a favor when we engage in some spiritual project. But what is really happening is this: God is inviting you through obedience to glorify Him. God delights in that, but really it is a gift to us because we are enjoying God as we are glorifying Him. That’s the cool thing about our relationship to God. Our full joy in Him does not compromise His being glorified and uplifted. Those two things go hand in hand. For example, in the Westminster Catechism the first question asks: “What is the chief aim of man?” The answer there is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” It doesn’t say ends. We glorify God by enjoying Him. And we will enjoy Him as we extend His grace to others by doing things that will draw people’s attention to Him.
The Mystery Revealed
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (vv. 4-5) Paul says that when his readers read this, they can perceive into his insight into the mystery of Christ. This is a conditional statement. They will not understand the mystery without reading his letter. And Paul says that this mystery was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets. And it wasn’t. This “mystery of Christ” was not known to human beings in earlier generations. However, he insists that the Law and the Prophets (who in past generations attested to the gospel): “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Rom. 3:21). Moses and the prophets had written of Christ and his coming salvation, and God even promised Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3), but the full realization of who Christ was and the great extent of His salvation that would come to the Gentiles was not clear until the giving of the Spirit. That’s how Paul says that this mystery was revealed: “by the Spirit.” The Bible attests elsewhere: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 2:21, emphasis mine).
What is the ‘Mystery of Christ?’
Paul has made mention of this mystery a few times already and now he explains what that mystery is: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). Here’s the mystery Paul says: These people who were separated from Israel and her God, (like we’ve seen before in Eph. 2) are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. How are they made into these things? “Through the gospel” (v. 6 b). What Paul is demonstrating here is a theology of unity. Paul has fought so strenuously for establishing the doctrine of unity between Jew and Gentile. In fact, that has been an aspect of our study in Ephesians since we started. Paul has a real concern for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the body of Christ. Paul is expounding the mystery of Christ and says that the Gentiles belong, and they are on the same footing as Jewish Christians and receive the same benefits. Their unity is not grounded in the similarity of skin color, their unity is not grounded in following the law, their unity is not grounded in anything else but the Lord Jesus Christ.
If being in Christ unites Jews and Gentiles into one body (members of the same body), does it not do the same for us with all other believers who are in Christ? That’s the theme we draw from Paul’s usage of language of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile that we have observed so much.
Unity: Are We Living It?
We are unified in Christ. Regardless of our differences. Regardless of our past. Regardless of any barrier that may make us different from any other person. If we are in Christ, we are unified in one body—Christ’s body. The question is not, Are we unified? The question is, are we living unified? We are not asked to like other Christians, we are not asked to be like them, agree with them, but we are to recognize and to put into action that we are one with them in the Lord, and we share the same benefits. When we realize that we are all “fellow heirs,” “members of the same body,” and “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus,” we will view our brothers and sisters in Christ in a biblical way. We will see each other on the same level. We will encourage one another because we know that we all struggle with one ultimate problem: sin. We will worship as a family. And all sorts of other benefits.
Here’s where disunity starts to get damnable: if we do not live in unity, then we proclaim a false message to the world. The message of the gospel is a message of unity and a message of peace. And if our church life is characterized by divisions, strivings, and arguments, then we are putting our light under a basket, when we should be “letting [our] light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Unity is a lifestyle that we need to put time and effort into folks. We live in a day when people come to church to see what they can get. Some people come to church to fit their preferences and if they don’t get what they want, often times they leave. Or someone will have a petty disagreement with somebody or a wrestling with someone and they leave the fellowship. There are right reasons to leave certain fellowships and there are wrong reasons to leave certain fellowships. And if you’re someone who breaks from a fellowship because you didn’t get your way—that is a wrong, unscriptural reason to leave the fellowship.
Folks, when we meet together as a body—a great protest takes place. That’s right, a protest. When we fellowship together as a family, worship as fellow heirs, see each other as members of the same body, our presence together is a bold protest against division. We meet together as a body to protest divisions and to hold up our picket signs against divisions—and those picket signs have painted on them, “We are one in Christ!”
I Am the Very Least
After Paul describes what this mystery is, he goes on to say, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power” (v. 7). Again, Paul talks about the “grace-enlisting” that we discussed earlier. He tells his readers that he was made a minister of this great, triumphant gospel. How was he made a minister? “according to God’s gift of grace, which was given me by the working of his power.” Again, grace enlists. Grace enlists.
Verse 8 reads, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. .” Paul maintains such humility here and says basically, “I of all people, was given this grace to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” But what else was he given this grace for? “. . . and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (vv. 9-10).
Paul has said that this plan of the mystery was not revealed to “the sons of men in other generations” (v. 5), and the plan of this mystery (as he says here) was hidden for ages in God who created all things. Paul attests to God creating all things to imply that God doesn’t need a creator. That is the only rational explanation for the existence of the universe. Something (we know Someone) outside our realm of existence would have to supernaturally create the universe as we know it. And this something would have to have never had a beginning. Something that doesn’t depend on something else for its existence. This something is Someone and that’s God.
And Paul says that this plan of the mystery was hidden in this eternal God. If God is eternal, then He didn’t need a creator and this plan of the mystery was hidden “for ages” in the limitless, eternal God. Which is why Paul says in the next verse, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11). Paul also says that God gave him grace to bring to light for everyone this mystery for a special kind of testimony: “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (v. 10). Didn’t see that coming. Have you ever read that in the Bible? This means that our testimony provides evil angelic powers with a reminder that their authority has been decisively broken and that all things are subject to Christ.
Thus you have a triumphant testimony of the gospel’s power: No power of hell, no scheme of the devil, and no influence of a demon can hinder the advance of the gospel to Gentiles or their inclusion into the church. And that goes for everyone who would trust in Jesus Christ. The living, breathing Church of God testifies to even demonic powers that we have been unified by Christ and are in subject to Christ.
Boldness and Access With Confidence
Paul says of this Christ, “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (v. 12). Paul says that through Christ we have these things.You know, it’s strange that Paul was not frequently discouraged with the failures of his churches. He did criticize the sexual immorality of the church in Corinth, he did exhort the believers in Galatia to stop getting away from the true gospel, but he was convinced that things would work out. So Paul was eager for his readers to share his confidence rather than be discouraged—and once again the gospel is what sustains that: Paul says that in Christ he has “boldness and access with confidence,” through his faith in him.
We have something that the rest of the world doesn’t: access to God. Not only that, we have access to God with confidence. However, “boldness and access with confidence” (v. 12) does not mean that:
1) We have freedom to do whatever we want boldly before God. He sees anyway so I will do sin all the more.
2) We should feel superior to others because we have access to God; Boldness and humility go hand in hand.
3) It also doesn’t mean that we should be passive. It doesn’t mean that confidence in God should result in not taking action.
We know that life is difficult, we have suffering, evil and death all around us. Often times we can make a mistake and deny that these suffering are really impacting us. Listen to me, denial of the struggles in your life is not the solution. Paul knew the difficulties and was still confident. He looked his struggles straight in the eye but said, “I have access with confidence to God.” When we are aware of the fact that we do not go through hardships alone, when we are aware of the fact that we have a Savior who was “in every respect . . tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15), then we have a great comfort. We as believers even have confidence over death as part of belonging to God.
So Paul concludes by asking his readers, “not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you.” Why? “it is their glory.” Paul’s suffering was worth it because he knew that he wasn’t really losing anything—but gaining that which is of immeasurable worth: God.
May God develop within all of us an attitude like Paul’s here.
The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on the 24th day of November 2013:
The Design of the Death of Christ
If you care about the Son of God, if you care about the blood of Christ, if you care about the death of the greatest person who ever was, you have to care about the design of the death. (1) That’s where Ephesians 2:14-18 comes in. These verses form the centerpiece of this entire section (2:11-22) because they explain how the Gentile readers’ coming near to God was made possible through Christ’s death. The Gentiles, who were completely separated from Israel and her God (2:11-12) have now been brought near to Him (2:13). God’s Word to us tonight explains how.
“14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
He Himself Is Our Peace
“For he himself is our peace. . .” (v. 14a). This is an important, but strange affirmation about Jesus. If you’re like me, you’re used to seeing Jesus as making peace (“We have peace with God. . . through Jesus” Romans 5:1.) or as proclaiming and commanding peace (“Blessed are the peacemakers. .” Matt. 5:9). But here Paul says, “He himself is our peace.” The reason Paul says this is because Jesus is the central figure in establishing peace (as you will see in this passage) between both Jew and Gentile. Christ is the central figure who effects reconciliation and removes hostility in its various forms. If you notice in 2:14-18, every time Jesus in named, He is followed by the word or phrase peace. 1) v. 14 “He himself is our peace.” 2) He established peace (v. 15) 3) He came and preached peace (v. 17). And once you take a good long look at Christ’s reconciling work through the cross, you will have no wonder why Paul states, “He himself is our peace.”
Made Us Both One
“. . who has made us both one” (v. 14b). This refers to the resulting unity of Jewish and Gentile believers. Christ has made both Jew and Gentile one. You may say, “Okay. Great.” But do you understand what a great accomplishment this was? The Jews hated the Gentiles. A. T. Lincoln rightly says, “In accomplishing this, Christ has transcended one of the fundamental divisions of the first-century world” (2). And that’s what makes this verse so amazing. He has made both one. They have been brought into a mutual relationship and a unity which surpasses what they once were (vv. 15, 16, 18).
How did Christ make the two one? “[He has] broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (v. 14c-15a). This is a rather strange metaphor from the apostle Paul, mainly because no such parallel exists in the entire New Testament. But by simply stating this, Paul indicates that there was a real dividing wall that existed between the Jews and Gentiles. There was an inscription on the wall of the outer courtyard of the Jerusalem temple warning Gentiles that they would only have themselves to blame for their death if they passed beyond it into the inner courts. This was segregation for them. If you grew up during that time, then you can best grasp what life was like for Jews and Gentiles. Though this serves as a great picture of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, this isn’t what Paul is referring to here. The “dividing wall of hostility” was, in fact, the Mosaic law itself with its detailed holiness code. It separated Jews from Gentiles both religiously and sociologically, and caused deep-seated hostility. “The enmity which was caused by the Jews’ separateness was often accompanied by a sense of superiority on their part,” says Peter O’Brien (3). Paul isn’t ‘downing’ the Law here. Why would he count the Law as worthless when he says, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” over in Romans 7? Paul is saying here that what has been abolished is the ‘law-covenant,’ that is, the law as a whole conceived as a covenant. In addition, Christ said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). It is not the Law as revealing the will and character of God that Christ has abolished, it is the ‘law-covenant.’ It is then replaced by a new covenant for Jews and Gentiles.
If the Law in some way was the dividing wall in the ancient world, for us it is racial difference. The hostility between races, especially between blacks and whites, in virtually all countries continues as an embarrassment. Did Christ’s death abolish all the barriers? The barrier between Jew and Gentile was one of the most obvious in history. If this barrier has been “broken down,” what other barrier can be justified? If God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:11), if all are created in His image, if God’s purpose is unity, if we are to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44), if Christ took the hostility into Himself to destroy it, on what grounds can we justify keeping any barriers in place? If this hostility was so deep, large, and wide that God desired it be broken down through the crucifixion of the most important person who ever was, then who do we think we are to hold prejudices and hostility against a brother or sister in Christ? “He has made us both one!”
If you belong to the family of God, “He has made us both one!” You will have differences with one another. But our differences shouldn’t create hostility because the cross is at ground level. No one has higher value than someone else in the church of God. If you are male and she’s female, if you’re rich and he’s poor, if you’re black and she’s white, if you’re Calvinist and he’s Arminian, if you wear Blue Jeans and he wears a suit, if you’re older and she’s younger, if you like Contemporary and he likes Bluegrass, if you’re country as cornbread and she’s a city-girl, and if any of those things create hostility between you, remember this: None of our barriers, none of our ways of devaluing, limiting, and taking advantage of others, has any basis. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Abolishing the Law
The purpose of Christ’s removing this hostility was twofold: (1) to create in Himself one new man in place of the two (v. 15b), and (2) in this one body to reconcile both of them to God (v. 16a). If Christ has broken down, crushed, and shattered the “dividing wall of hostility,” then how did He do it? The first part of verse 15 tells us. Christ brought them together in a sovereign act that was nothing less than a new creation. Paul has already spoken of God’s salvation in terms of a new creation (2:10). Believers are his workmanship who have already been created in Christ Jesus for good works, and these are part of God’s intention for that new creation. If God had in mind to create a new humanity, His church, it could not take place by transforming a Gentile into a Jew and it could not take place by transforming a Jew into a Gentile, the only way it could take place was by transforming sinners into new persons through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Reconciliation between Jew and Gentile takes place through the death of Christ by the one similarity that they actually shared: they were sinners in need of salvation.
Reconcile Us Both to God
If Christ has removed the hostility between Jew and Gentile and has reconciled the two into one body, then it follows that we must both be “reconciled to God.” Do you hear the vivid language in verse 16? “And might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” What an oxymoron! While “creating in himself one new man” (v. 15), Christ also kills the hostility. Christ has abolished the law as a divisive instrument separating humanity from God and Jews from Gentiles. He has created a single new humanity that transcends the former deep divisions and made peace between them. He has reconciled both Jew and Gentile in this one body to God, killing the hostility. This does not mean, however, that the whole human race has been united and reconciled.
Is God Distant?
Sometimes, as believers, we can think of God as distant or unapproachable. This lack of a sense of the nearness to God lies at the root of much of human failure. But the Bible tells us here that we have been “reconciled to God.” In Christ, we have been brought to God, and the barriers blocking access to Him, such as sin, hostility, and the weakness of the flesh have been removed. But when we feel distant from God, it isn’t He who has moved. It is us. God asks Israel in Jeremiah 8:4-5, “When men fall, do they not rise again? If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?” Backsliding starts in such a subtle way that most of us are not aware of it, and many of us may be backslidden and may not realize it. And while we need to fall on our face in repentance and return to God, we are no longer separated from God. J.D. Greear captures this truth by means of prayer, “In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less.” (4)
Christ the Preacher
Having dwelt at length on Christ’s work of reconciliation, Paul now turns to his proclamation of peace to both Gentile and Jew. “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (v. 17). The One who is ‘our peace’ and who made peace through His cross now announces that peace to those who were far off and those who were near. Christ Himself is the evangelist, the herald of good tidings from Isaiah, and His announcement, which is based on His death on the cross, is a royal proclamation that hostilities are at an end. You see, the Jews were near to God because they already knew of Him through the Scriptures and worshiped Him in their religious ceremonies (the outward expression of the Law). The Gentiles were “far off” because they knew little or nothing about God. Because neither group could ever be saved by good works or sincerity, both needed to hear about salvation available through Jesus. Both Jews and Gentiles are now free to come to God through Christ (v. 18).
Commanded and Commissioned
If preaching peace to all was good enough for the Man who died on the cross, then it ought to bee good enough for us. And while Christ is our example in everything, what’s more is we have been commanded and commissioned by Christ Himself to take this message of peace to our communities, our nation, and to the nations (Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15). Did you know that are 2,925 unreached people groups and 6,578 people groups where evangelical Christians make up 2% of the population? (5) We must “Go and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). You see, you may know a great deal about God and the teachings of Scripture, but do not forget that you were once without Christ and in need of a Savior, just like everyone else on the face of this planet. Do not forget your plight before Jesus stepped in (Eph. 2:11).
Access in One Spirit to the Father
To draw near to God and to enjoy Him forever in a new creation is both mankind’s greatest good and the ultimate accomplishment of Christ’s earthly work of redemption. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (v. 18). What an appropriate conclusion to this section of Scripture! Through Him, we of different races, different interest, different social status, different economical status, different looks, have access in one Spirit to the Father. Paul’s focus here is on their (Jew and Gentile) continuing relationship with the Father which is the result of Christ’s act of reconciliation. This is important because if Christ has in fact “created in himself one new man (v. 15), then this verse tells us how this new creation will continue to grow. The Holy Spirit will continue to apply the work of redemption to people’s lives and the Holy Spirit will continue to give new spiritual life to the undeserving. And it is the Holy Spirit who will empower us to carry this message of peace to the lost, to the dying, and to those in need of salvation.
Through this reconciliation work of Christ on the cross, we have access to the Father in a relationship with Him. It isn’t the Law that is the expression of our covenant with the Father, the sacrificial death of Jesus is the expression of our covenant with the Father. Indeed, He Himself is our peace.
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.”