“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…”
— Genesis 11v4
Some churches are bitterly and openly divided, congregations of hostility and suspicion, factions and power plays. These churches often end up splitting, with ugly results. Other churches are divided, but without such tension — diverse people use the same building to worship the same God, but with little appetite for deeper integration. Some churches are unified and peaceful, but only because they are so culturally homogenous that conflict is rarely an issue. Rare indeed is a church that is both genuinely diverse and genuinely united.
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to find, create, and maintain a united church, then there may be some comfort to be found in the fact that the problem is nothing new. Two thousand years ago Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus in the hopes of dealing with the same problem. Addressing a predominantly Gentile church, Paul addresses a significant problem: how can Jews and Gentiles be members together of one church? Having explained the effects of Christ’s work in reconciling individuals to God, Paul turns his attention to the way in which Christ’s work reconciles individuals to each other. The source of all division in the church and the world, Paul says, is the flesh, and the solution is new life in the Spirit. As he writes from 2v11:
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— 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
These Gentiles were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. Why? Because of the flesh, because of something in their bodies — that they were uncircumcised. There are two types of people in the world: circumcised and uncircumcised. But in order to understand this division in humanity, we have to go back to Genesis. Whether looking at ancient history or modern politics, it may seem that division is simply a fact of the human condition, that we always have been divided and therefore always will be. Returning to the book of Genesis, however, we see that there was a time before disunity.
There are Two Types of People in This World…
Genesis 11 is the last place that humanity united: one people speaking one language and living in one place. Rather than spread throughout the earth as God had commanded, they wanted to stay were they were and build a tower to make a name for themselves. Humanity was once united, and united against God. So God creates division where there was unity, confusing their language, so they can’t understand each other anymore, divides them, scatters them. From one group come many, as many peoples as there were new languages.
A second division comes shortly after this. After dividing and scattering humanity, God calls Abram in order to make a covenant with him, promising through Abraham to bless the whole world, to bring unity where he had made division. As a sign of this covenant, he gave Abraham a sign: circumcision, a cut in the flesh, marking a new division in humanity. Instead of many groups, there are now only two: the circumcised and the uncircumcised. This is the division that Paul speaks of in Ephesians, and this is the division in the church that the Ephesians feel acutely. They know that they’ve come to believe in the Messiah, the descendant of Abraham through whom the whole world was to be blessed, but they know that they are still part of the wrong social and ethnic group. And Paul knows that they know this, addressing them as such, ‘you Gentiles in the flesh, were called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision’.
What did circumcision, the cut that divided humanity, symbolise? It symbolised what it literally was: a cutting off the flesh. It represented a rejection of living according to the flesh. Not a rejection of life in the body, for Jesus himself had and still has a body, and through his body we are saved, but rather a rejection of a way of life determined by the flesh, in which human strength and sensual pleasure become the means and the ends of all our endeavours.
Abraham, for example, had been promised a son by God, though he and his wife were too old. After receiving this promise, he is told to circumcise himself, to inflict a wound upon the very organ that he needed to produce a son. And so he puts off the flesh, trusting that that son would come from God, not him, not his own flesh or virility. For all Israelite men after him, this was supposed to be a physical and ever-present call to put off the flesh. Rather than imitating the men of Babel to make a name for themselves, they were to imitate their father Abraham, trusting God to make a name for them.
So much for the idea, but Paul sees the irony: that circumcision is also made in the flesh by hands. So here we were, two types of people, separated from each other because of our flesh, and the Gentiles undoubtedly left worse off: cut off also from Christ, from the promises made to Israel, from the covenant, from hope, from God. This is the fruit of life in the flesh: division, alienation, hopelessness.
From Flesh to Spirit
Yet through the flesh of Christ, we are led from life in the flesh to life in the spirit, from division to unity. ‘We who were far off, have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, reconciling us through his body.’ In his death, Jesus breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, because in his death, Jesus puts off the flesh. His flesh is cut off from Israel, and he trusts God to give him life again, to vindicate him and establish his name.
And in becoming Christians, we do the same. We repent of our sins and we are baptised, putting off the flesh, and coming to new life in the Spirit of God. We no longer value the things of the flesh, no longer regarding Christ or anyone else according to the flesh, but the spirit. Ethnicity, religious upbringing, job, accent, level of education, nationality or citizenship, surname or salary: these things no longer define us. Rather, we are Christians, the baptised who have cut off the flesh and been made alive in the spirit.
Whereas life in the flesh left Gentiles alienated and hopeless, now Jews and Gentiles have access in one Spirit to the Father. No longer strangers and aliens, Gentiles are now fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. From Abraham onwards, there were two types of people, and the difference was all in the flesh, in the body, what one wore, what one ate, what Paul calls the law of commandments expressed in ordinances in verse 15. In the church, there is one type of person: the person who is in Christ, the Christian.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
So what does this mean for us and for the world? It means that peace is personal. It is Jesus himself who makes peace. He is the blessed peacemaker, the son of God. Humanity is not reconciled by the idea of Jesus, nor by agreeing on a common set of Christological doctrines. It is Jesus himself who reconciles us, and there is no hope for true, lasting peace and reconciliation that Jesus doesn’t bring about.
How does Christ make true peace between us? By calling us to put off the flesh. This starts with personal piety, which then overflows with socio-political ramifications.
Firstly, putting off the flesh means repenting of sin at every level. Life in the flesh is a way of life in which human strength and sensual pleasure become the means and the ends of all our endeavours, and this must be put to death. As Paul says in Romans, if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Secondly, more relevant to Paul’s concerns in Ephesus, putting off the flesh means disregarding all those things that one might think of as ‘who I am’ — be it nationality, sex, age, race, class, education, sense of humour, language, interests — and saying that none of that matters compared to being in Christ. We no longer regard each other according to the flesh, but rather see that we have access to the same heavenly father through the same spirit. Worshipping the Father of Jesus through his Spirit, all fleshly divisions give way to this unity, as these videos of Jewish and Arab Christians worshipping together demonstrates.
A question may arise here though: does this mean that we all have to leave our previous identities at the door? Is colourblindness the goal for the Church? No — we no longer regard the flesh as we once did, but we need not dismiss these differences as though they do not matter. Jewish Christians and Arab Christians remain Jews and Arabs still, and we ought not to ignore this. We ought not to ignore this fact because in Christ these differences cease to be grounds for hostility and begin to be grounds for worship, for Christ has triumphed over the flesh that once divided us. If we ignore the differences, we’ll miss the glory.
Of Towers and Temples
On the Plain of Shinar, man, desiring unity, built a Tower to preserve his name. We cannot fault the desire for unity, for God too desires to bring all the scattered children of Adam into union through Christ. To be sure, God desires unity as well, but where man is building a tower, God is building a Temple: ‘you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.’
The Tower of Babel was built for the praise of man, but God builds a house his name, a temple to be a place of worship, thanksgiving, and sacrifice, a house of prayer for all nations. As we put off the flesh and come to new life in Christ, we are brought together despite all our differences, and are able to look around us in the church and see that this is the house God built.
2 thoughts on “Of Towers and Temples: The Flesh, the Spirit, and True Reconciliation in Ephesians 2”
Great stuff. Have you read my blog posts on Ephesians?
Here’s the one which linked to Babel: https://authorsintension.blogspot.com/2022/08/EphesiansandActs.html?m=1
Here’s the one about Ephesians 2: https://authorsintension.blogspot.com/2022/08/EphesiansandIsaiah.html?m=1
There are lots of similar ideas in your blog. Gentile inclusion is such a key theme of Ephesians, and so is the temple language which you pick up on at the end.
What I’m not as sure about are you comments on circumcision. E.g.
“What did circumcision, the cut that divided humanity, symbolise? It symbolised what it literally was: a cutting off the flesh. It represented a rejection of living according to the flesh.”
Where do you get that idea from? What is allowed within the category of “flesh” and why? Why is strength/ sensuality encompassed within the same word?
Thanks for the links — I’m looking forward to reading your posts.
As for circumcision, Colossians 2:11 would be a key verse for making explicit contact between the two ideas here, as Paul calls putting off the flesh in baptism the circumcision not made by human hands. So I’m then reading back from Paul, who seems to me to be reading that symbolism in the act of circumcision.
As for my definition of flesh, I’m drawing mostly from Gal. 5 and Rom. 13 for the sensuality, and from the Corinthian epistles for the dichotomy of fleshly power or spiritual power. Both of these are seen in Christ’s teaching as well: his call to take up the cross is a call to renounce fleshly means of gaining power and comfort, and while Christ doesn’t make the connection between taking up the cross, circumcision, and putting off the flesh, Paul connects the dots for us.