Thoughts on Ephesians 2:15

I came across Ephesians 2:15 yesterday while studying with some close friends, and it caused me to do a double take.

Ephesians 2:14-16 (ESV)
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 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, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Does Paul really claim that Yeshua abolished the law of commandments? It seems pretty black and white when you look at it, but a closer look and a deeper study reveal some issues with this common understanding.

He opens this paragraph to the gentiles at Ephesus by saying “So, remember that at one time you were gentiles, looked down upon and scorned by the Jews for your lack of Covenant with God, and at that time you were separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants which God made with His people, utterly hopeless and without God.” (my own paraphrase)

If you go back to chapter 1 you will discover to what Paul is contrasting this prior hopeless, Godless, covenant-less scenario. Paul is giving us a rundown of everything that God did for us when He chose to send His Son to die for our sins (I’ll let you read it, it spans almost a whole chapter). Basically, God gave the gentiles knowledge of the covenants, gave them hope, gave them an inheritance, and gave them grace by forgiving their sins. Chapter 2 goes on to say “And even tho God gave all authority over the believers to Yeshua as a head and leader of that body, you were still wallowing in your sins and lusts, following the ways of the world, even following satan himself through other men! Yet even so, God, the merciful God that He is, because of his astounding love for us – even though we stank with sin – gave us life thru Messiah, saved us by His grace, and gave us a place of equal inheritance next to Messiah on the throne in Heaven. You have been saved by grace, not by anything of your own doing – it’s God’s gift, so that you can’t foolishly boast.” (Again, my own paraphrase)

Paul is on a tirade of giving the Ephesians both a pat on the back, and a sobering reminder that their faith is not something they get to take credit for, all the glory for their salvation (and ours) goes to God alone.

Then comes the tricky part. Paul tells the Ephesians,

Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)
For we are his workmanship, created in Messiah Yeshua for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up. Let’s back that up just a second. God created us in Messiah for good works, which were prepared beforehand so that we might walk in them? What in the world does that mean? What does he mean by works? And how do we walk in them? I think we need to talk to some friends about this for just a second.

1 John 2:1-6 (ESV)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Messiah Yeshua the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

James 2:14-26 (ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Wow, that’s heavy. I’ve read that before, but it still hits home pretty hard. So many people argue with me that because I view the Torah instructions as valid for modern believers in Yeshua that I believe in salvation by works. No. I believe in salvation by grace, through faith in Messiah Yeshua, and that as redeemed, bought-with-a-price, followers of Messiah, we should prove our salvation with our works. Just as James said, “You have faith and I have works… I will show you my faith by my works.” And John also gives us a sobering slap across the face when he says “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

But back to our selected verse.
Paul continues to sober us up with the passage that I opened with:
“So, remember that at one time you were gentiles, looked down upon and scorned by the Jews for your lack of Covenant with God, and at that time you were separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants which God made with His people, utterly hopeless and without God.”
But now, we who were once far off have been brought near to God by the blood of Yeshua. Paul mentions that God, who is our peace, has made us one by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. Who was made one and what wall was broken down? The Jews and Gentiles (Paul uses the first person plural because he was a devout Jew, and constantly refers to himself as such). How did God do this? By abolishing that law of commandments as was expressed in ordinances.

So I feel at this point that it is necessary to point out a truth that was revealed to me when it comes to understanding scripture, and it consists of two simple rules:
1. Scripture is never wrong or self contradictory; either we misunderstand it, or we are making contradictions that do not exist.
2. If you ever come across a scripture that is either wrong or contradicts another verse, see rule #1.

That being said, let me make this point:
Yeshua himself said in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it,” and if Paul is actually declaring that this is what He did, we then need to refer to the two rules.

More than likely what Paul is referring to is the fence (“traditions)” that Jews put around the Torah commandments in an effort to keep from even coming close to transgressing it. What is ironic is that most Jews fail to realize that in doing so in certain situations, they actually transgress the very Torah they are seeking to guard! One example is the washing of hands. In Mark 7, the pharisees deride Yeshua for not making His disciples wash their hands before eating (a command that is not given in Scripture). Yeshua, in a roundabout way, tells them that it is not the food that goes in to a person that defiles him, rather it is the excrement that is created that defiles a man. What the pharisees did was to create an ordinance, or a fence around the commandment to not enter the temple in an unclean state. This particular ordinance prevented them from seeing that the true purpose in being clean is not for everyday situations, it is for temple service! In their haughtiness and pride, they misjudged others – even distanced themselves from and cast out those who didn’t follow their rigorous purity practices, accusing them and condemning them for a sin that they did not commit. Yet the whole of the Torah can be summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” If they failed to do that in their judgement, they failed the whole of the Torah. This same attitude carries over even today. Many Jews will disassociate themselves from their gentile friends for reasons like kosher eating. Modern halakhah (or traditional observance of Torah Instruction beyond the explicit instructions in the Torah) says that all meat has to be kept absolutely separate form other food so as not to contaminate it with the blood, since God instructs us not to eat the blood, since it contains life (Deuteronomy 12:23). I know a family that has a separate freezer/fridge for meet and vegetables, and when they prepare meet, they cover their entire kitchen in aluminum foil so as to prevent the blood from contaminating other food. Because of this, they never dine with other families (even jews) who do not do the same, thereby neglecting their relationships for the sake of their own satisfaction in their deeds. Certainly this puts their own traditions above God’s instructions. This is what is meant by ordinances. Ordinances are manmade. God did not give a list of ordinances at Mt. Sinai, He gave instructions. Parents give their children instructions, not ordinances. Husbands and wives have expectations for each other, not ordinances.

For one to read Ephesians 2:15 as Paul saying that God abolished the law of commandments because it is nothing more than a list of ordinances does not line up with Scripture. If there seems to be a conflict, refer to the rest of scripture. Too much esteem is put on the letters of Paul, to which the other side is not known.  We don’t know the issues to which he is referring, and in our modern language, we miss all the nuances of his contemporary language and idioms. For us as astute believers and scholars of Scripture to hold a higher esteem for Paul, who’s writings make up little more than 5% of the entire Bible when counting verses, than all the other books (like James and John’s epistles) is simply irresponsible. Paul, who claims himself to be a pharisee, a Jew of Jews, would not have blatantly contradicted the very words of Messiah. Study the scripture. If something in one book seems like it is either going against or replacing something that is said elsewhere (especially when it conflicts with the words of Messiah) study into it. Don’t just accept it at face value because it was written by Paul, or even because your pastor told you so. Study it for yourself and ask God to show you the truth. And always remember the two rules:

1. Scripture is never wrong or self contradictory; either we misunderstand it, or we are making contradictions that do not exist.
2. If you ever come across a scripture that is either wrong or contradicts another verse, see rule #1.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ephesians 2:15”

  1. I like that you’re making your point by letting Scripture interpret Scripture. I wish more people would make this their primary means of interpretation. Surely we would become more unified as a result!
    And, I am right with you. Yeshua didn’t come to abolish even one word of Torah. Because of that realization, I have had to do a great amount of “life inventory”, scrutinizing my own actions and aligning myself with Scripture bit by bit, a little here a little there; trusting that God will complete what He has started.

    I’m especially interested in finding the unity between the root and the wild branch. So, that’s one of my primary investigations at the moment.

    One corrective comment:
    “For us as astute believers and scholars of Scripture to hold a higher esteem for Paul, who’s writings make up less than 5% of the new testament, than all the other books (like James and John’s epistles) is simply irresponsible. ”

    You are right in saying that we should not esteem one writer too highly, but we should not esteem too lowly either. So we try to emulate God by
    examining the fruit and not the fame.

    Paul wrote 13 (possibly 14) “books” of the Brit Chadasha:
    Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, & Philemon (& possibly Hebrews). In the Greek, that equates to:

    2,032 (possibly 2,335) verses with 32,407 (possibly 37,360) words
    by Paul/Shaul out of a Brit Chadasha total of
    7,956 verses with 138,020 words.

    All of that equates to Paul writing
    25.54% (possibly 29.35%) counting by verse
    23.48% (possibly 27.07%) counting by word.

    Source:
    http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/NT-Statistics-Greek.htm

    Obviously your argument is still good, but don’t make the mistake of placing Paul’s writing on weighted scales. I know that is not your intention.

    Keep going, and as we walk, may we be covered in the dust of His feet.
    – Curtis

    1. I appreciate your correction. I was basing that number off bad math and a bad reference obviously haha.
      Certainly Romans 8 is a great foundation for what a follower of Messiah is a part of, but I think the common idea that Romans as a whole unit is a good foundation on which to build a relationship with the Creator is a false notion. There are so many complex ideas and ambiguities in Paul’s writings that require a deeper understanding of scripture that I think people should point new believers to the Gospels before anything else – to the Messiah Himself! And definitely, the intention isn’t to minimize or question Paul’s writings or even his authority, but I think in the context of understanding scripture on the whole, Paul’s letters should be put on a lower shelf — or put on the back burner, if you will — then specifically the Torah and the gospels. If we try to understand Yeshua’s words using Paul’s, we come to grave misinterpretations that lead to the persecution, shunning, and hatred towards Jews and other Christians that authors such as Martin Luther and Tertullian incited amongst believers in their day. I don’t mean Paul’s writings should be discarded or abandoned, or even belittled, as I’m sure you understand. Paul’s contemporaries found his writings hard to understand, and a lot of what he writes is difficult, in some cases impossible, to understand outside of a familiarity with Torah.
      I think Paul’s letters form a good covering, or roof, but when you try to build the roof before you’ve laid the foundation (Torah) you wildly deviate from the contnuity of the Scriptures from beginning to end.

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