It’s time to look at another “problem passage.” In a few weeks, my wife and I expect to begin a study of Ephesians in one of our small groups. During that study, we will no doubt discuss Ephesians 2:14-18. Those who believe that the missionary Paul was anti-law will often refer to this passage as a proof text, so let’s take a closer look at it.
In my version of the NIV it reads this way: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing, in his flesh, the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Eph 2:14-18 NIV)
So, there you have it folks. Paul says it right there – in Jesus, God has destroyed the wall of hostility by abolishing the law – which of course, includes all the commandments and regulations! Hmmmm! Really?
Not so fast!
One of the bedrock principles of hermeneutics is that Scripture never contradicts itself. So, what about all those other passages that make it clear “this just ain’t so?” How about Romans 3:31 where Paul himself asks “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” and then answers his own question with these words, “Not at all! Rather we uphold the law.” Is Paul really saying that we are to uphold that which God has already abolished? It’s not hard to see the problem here.
What about the words of the Master himself in Matthew 5:17? (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law”) These and similar passages make it clear that it is not the “law of Moses” that is being abolished. So, what is it?
What are we really talking about here?
Let’s start by taking a step back and looking at the context. Paul is back to talking about those ethnic Hebrews who felt that new non-Hebrew converts needed to be “circumcised” – that is, to go through the rituals of becoming a Jewish proselyte. These regulations do not appear in the law of Moses, rather, they come from the Talmud or oral law. As we discussed when dealing with the book of Galatians, Paul makes it clear that justification comes by faith and not with the aid of any additional man-made ordinances.
Time to look under the hood
When I say “look under the hood” I mean go to the original language – Greek in this case. According to the experts (I am not a Greek scholar, so like many of you, I depend on their insight) Paul uses Greek words (and phrases) which tell us exactly what he had in mind. The first of these is the word “phragmos” which means fence. It was a common Rabbinic injunction to put a fence around the Torah. One such rabbi said, “Tradition is a fence to the Law; tithes are a fence to riches; vows are a fence to abstinence; a fence to wisdom is silence.” Rabbinic “fences” had been around so long that they were deeply entrenched traditions by Jesus’ day and he addressed the real issue with them in Mark 7:9-13.
The second thing to note in this passage, is that Paul did not use the Greek “ha nomos” for the law. Instead, he used a phrase that should be translated “the law of commandments in ordinances” to make it clear he is talking about the oral law, not the Torah. How do we know for sure? Because the last word in this phrase is “dogmasin” or dogma in English. In the LXX and the Messianic Writings, this word “dogma” is never used of the law given at Mount Sinai.
The “fence” of dogma
We have already seen how the dogma of oral tradition affected early Jewish and Gentile believers. We saw this demonstrated in the way Peter was called in to explain entering the house of a Gentile. (Acts 11) So, the ordinances of the oral laws had created a fence of separation between non-Hebrew converts and ethnic Hebrew converts. As we saw, these ordinances were nowhere to be found in the written law. They only existed in oral tradition. So, the big question that raged during the early church was if it was God’s intent to bless Gentile converts as part of the Hebraic community or as a separate community. Paul’s position was clear! The oral traditions not withstanding, in Christ, there is a level playing field. We enter the same family and God himself makes no distinction. It is a family of faith, not a family of lineage or ethnicity – much less, dogma.
The oral traditions created a fence of hostility (or enmity) by separating ethnic and non-ethnic Hebrews within the body of Christ. God always intended to make us one in Jesus. The (Rabbinic) law contained in the ordinances (dogma of the oral law) threatened to divide us. By his choice of words, Paul is saying that the dividing elements of this (artificial) fence were destroyed by the sacrifice of Jesus’ body.
Does this mean that there is nothing of value in the oral law – the Talmud? No, not at all. Jesus himself affirmed some of the oral “fences” as agreeing with the written law from Sinai. Others he rejected entirely because they nullified or weakened clear, written commands. (Mark 7:9-13)
Though I really like the way many passages are translated in the NIV, this one in Ephesians is poorly communicated. I can readily see why it is misleading. Other translations do a much better job. The Amplified version makes it clear that it was the “enmity” that was abolished: “By abolishing in His [own crucified] flesh the enmity [caused by] the Law with its decrees and ordinances”. The next verse in the Amplified goes like this: “And [He designed] to reconcile to God both [Jew and Gentile, united] in a single body by means of His cross; thereby killing the mutual enmity and bringing the feud to an end.” (v16) Notice that it was the impact of the cross that “killed” the mutual enmity – not doing away with the written law.
I will end with a question: As western “Christians”, is it possible that we foster hostility with and separation from our Hebrew brothers by failing to observe the Sabbath – an everlasting covenant? Something to think about.
For those who want to geek out on the technical
Some “experts” have suggested that the “dividing wall of hostility” Paul refers to here is the “soreg” – that low wall in the 2nd Temple that had 12 gates and separated the Gentile court from the “clean” courts. Gentiles were not allowed past this barrier and historians tell us that a warning was inscribed in the wall itself. That warning made it clear that a Gentile caught on the wrong side of the wall would be responsible for his own death. It is not difficult to see why some gentiles considered this racist.
I seriously doubt though, that this is what Paul had in mind. While it is true that the “soreg” stood as an illustration of the “dividing wall”, Paul’s original readers, the believers in Ephesus, were a long, long way from Jerusalem and the temple courts. The “soreg” was not an “in your face” issue to them and may have been of little concern.
Another argument against the soreg position, is that Paul says Jesus “has destroyed the barrier” (past tense). At the time Paul wrote, the temple with its soreg was still standing. This dividing wall had not yet been destroyed. Paul knew that, for he had personally been in the temple at Jerusalem. Such a statement would have been misleading.
Greek scholars say Paul’s choice of words also steers us away from the stone wall option – but that’s going too far for this post. For those of you who either heard, or were taught, that the dividing wall in the temple was what Paul had in mind, these are just some of the reasons it may not be the best answer. Keep digging!