Spiritually, Scripture reveals that God surrounds those who properly fear and obey Him with a beneficial and protective “wall” (or “hedge”) that guards them from evil (Job 1:9, 10). Conversely, practicing sin separates or cuts people off from God (cf. Numbers 9:13; Matthew 7:23; 13:49–50).
The Bible also reveals another wall—an ancient physical wall that came to symbolize a spiritual wall. And the Bible revealsthat two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ broke down that spiritual wall! What was it? What spiritual condition did it represent? And what are the New Covenant lessons for Christians today? It is very important for us to understand the amazing promise of Ephesians 2:14, what Jesus Christ did, and what His actions mean for us today.
Confusion in the Commentaries
Ephesians 2:13–16 records the words of the Apostle Paul on this topic:
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 both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.
What was this “middle wall of separation,” and why did Christ abolish it? How do many misunderstand this passage of Scripture? And what benefits and obligations do Christians have because Jesus broke down the wall?
Many reputable Bible commentaries provide helpful history and context when discussing this passage, but they often give only part of the answer, or may even mislead the reader. The respected Expositor’s Bible Commentary is a good example, mixing a little helpful information with misleading assumptions. Let’s look at its comments on Ephesians 2:15 and then examine them more closely:
The barrier between Jews and Gentiles was overthrown when Christ effectively disposed of the old law with its meticulously defined sanctions enshrined in its innumerable decrees. Paul explains elsewhere that in itself the law is right and good, but that unregenerate man is incapable of complying with its demands Romans 3:19–31…. A somewhat cumbersome phrase (literally, “the law of the commandments in decrees”) covers the Mosaic ordinances regarded as a statutory legal code. “Regulations” (dogmata) was applied to imperial edicts (Volume 11, 1981 Edition).
This explanation is a little ambiguous, which can be confusing—especially for those wrongly influenced by “grace alone” theology. In its explanation, Expositor’s uses the phrase “old law with its meticulously defined sanctions enshrined in its innumerable decrees” and then references the “Mosaic ordinances.” What does that mean? It can seem as though Expositor’s is saying that Jesus Christ “effectively disposed” of the entire Old Covenant and even the Ten Commandments. What exactly did Jesus Christ “effectively dispose of” in Ephesians 2:14-15? As we’ll see, there is a better explanation.
Another popular commentary—Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, or JFB for short—in its explanation of Ephesians 2:14 explains that the “middle wall of partition” was “a balustrade of stone that separated the court of the Gentiles from the holy place, which it was death for a Gentile to pass.” Additionally, JFB rightly explains that it was Jesus Christ who made peace and became our “peacemaker”—reconciling Jews and Gentiles together and reconciling both to God. However, JFB then attempts to use Ephesians 2:14–15 to “do away with” the law—as so many other commentaries, as well as many who profess a doctrine of “grace alone,” attempt to do today.
JFB wrongly takes the wall of partition that Christ broke down and equates it with “the Sinaitic law,” asserting that the law God gave at Mount Sinai separated Gentiles from Jews and from God—and thus suggests that Jesus Christ had to break it down because it was the “Sinaitic law” (i.e., the Ten Commandments) that was at fault!
These commentaries get it wrong! The “wall of separation” that Jesus broke down was not the “Sinaitic law.” Jesus Christ did not destroy or “break down” the Ten Commandments! It is wrong to interpret the grace that the Father and the Son demonstrated through Jesus Christ’s act of sacrifice—which is the topic of Ephesians 2:14—to mean that Christ did away with the Law!
How do we know this? Claiming that Ephesians 2:14–15 does away with the Law contradicts many scriptures, including Matthew 5:17, where Jesus Christ Himself explained that He did not come to “destroy” the law. Instead, Jesus explained that He came to “fulfill” the law—which can be translated “to perform to perfection” or “to cause to abound.” Jesus Christ obeyed God’s law perfectly, and we should try to imitate Him in this regard (1 Corinthians 11:1)!
What Were the “Ordinances”?
So, what is Ephesians 2:15 saying that Christ abolished, and why? The word “ordinances” in the phrase “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” comes from the Greek word dogma. This term can refer to public decrees (for example, by the Roman Senate) or to the civil decrees that the Jews had put in place, separating Jew from Gentile in society and in various facets of worship. In this regard, some commentaries like Expositor’s Bible Commentary and Jamieson, Fausset & Brown can be helpful. For example, Expositor’s rightly identifies the regulations as dogmata (the genitive case of the word dogma), a word indicating “statutory legal code” issued by civil governments—i.e., “imperial edicts.” However, it then wrongly assumes Paul was applying the word to “Mosaic ordinances,” God’s law, when the passage says nothing of the sort. In fact, as we’ve already noted, that would contradict many other scriptures. The “ordinances” here do not refer to God’s Holy Law—the Ten Commandments and their related statutes! The dogma referred to here were particular humanly devised ordinances.
For example, in Luke 2:1, we see that a “decree” (a dogma) went out from Caesar Augustus that the entire Roman Empire should be registered. This was, of course, why Joseph and Mary went up from Galilee to Bethlehem and how Jesus came to be born there.
Note what Mr. Richard Ames wrote in his March–April 2008 Tomorrow’s World article, “How To Study Your Bible”:
Some careless Bible students wrongly take Ephesians 2:15 to mean that God’s Ten Commandments and His moral law are done away for Christians. That verse reads: “having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances.” But if we look closely at that verse, we see that the word translated as “ordinances”—which is dogma, in the Greek—refers to the man-made laws, which many Jews of Jesus’ day had used to cause division between themselves and Gentiles. The principle is to study all the Bible’s references on a topic, so we can be sure we understand it.
Old Testament Principles of Separation
Why did the Jews add these man-made laws or ordinances—these dogma that came to symbolize a larger division between themselves and Gentiles? We do not know all the details, but they may have created such ordinances as man-made extensions of principles in the law—such as those passages that communicate God’s qualifications for inclusion in the “assembly of the Lord.”
We sometimes may not consider just how much God was working with Old Testament Israel in a spiritual sense as well as in a physical manner. For example, God desired for ancient Israel to be righteous (Deuteronomy 4:7–10). This is a spiritual condition. When we consider God’s ceremonial regulattions, it is profitable to consider what spiritual lesson may have been intended, as well.
Deuteronomy 23:1–8 is an example of where God is giving both physical and spiritual conditions for one to be included in the house of Israel—the “assembly of the Lord.” Notice that Moabites and Ammonites and their descendants were forbidden from being part of the congregation, even to the tenth generation (v. 3). Why was this? Did God not love such people?
Of course He did. John 3:16 makes it very clear that God loved the whole world enough to give His Son for all. The Moabites and the Ammonites were excluded for a time because they had been hostile to Israel after the Exodus (v. 4), demonstrating that sin brings consequences to a people. Likewise, those of illegitimate birth and their descendants were prohibited from being part of the “assembly of the Lord” for a time (v. 2). Why? Again, because sin brings consequences. But God never intended there to be perpetual division or animosity between Jews and Gentiles!
Even if, for ceremonial purposes, the inner courts of the Temple grounds were for circumcised Israelites only (cf. Ezekiel 44:5–9), God never intended there to be a permanent closing off of Gentiles forever from being part of the people of God.
The Jews added civil ordinances of their own design to God’s ceremonial ordinances, found in places like Deuteronomy 23. These man-made ordinances concerning the “middle wall of separation” on the grounds of the Temple in Jesus’ day—keeping Gentiles on the outside while Jews were on the inside—were used by Paul to represent the human attitude of division and animosity that the Jews had toward the Gentiles. Many of the Jews—on their own—would never have been inclined to accept Gentiles into fellowship (cf. Acts 11:2–3). There was no peace between Jew and Gentile in that way. Yet God brought Gentile (as well as Israelite) “near” through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13). He broke down the “middle wall of separation” by His sacrifice (v. 14). He abolished the enmity and made peace between Jew and Gentile, making them one in the faith, with each other and with Him (vv. 15–16)!
Why Ancient Israel Was Special
Ancient Israel was called by God to be a special people. This was not because they were better than anyone else. As John 3:16 makes clear, God loves every nation. However, God does tell us why He chose and delivered Israel—and it was not because of Israel’s greatness. It was because of Abraham’s faith and obedience and God’s covenant with him that He chose Israel.
Genesis 17 records the Eternal’s conditional covenant with Abraham, before Isaac was born (vv. 1–8) Then, Genesis 22 records that God made His covenant unconditional, promising to pass it on through Isaac to Abraham’s descendants (vv. 12–18). Exodus 2:24 then notes that God remembered His covenant with Israel when they were in captivity—and while they were far from being a mighty people! God made it clear time and time again that He worked in mighty ways with Israel, giving them His laws and delivering them from bondage, “because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them” (Deuteronomy 4:37). Consequently, God expected Israel to behave as a special, holy nation (vv. 39–40).
God desired the children of Israel to be a “holy people,” because they were His “special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2), and He desired for them to be an example to the nations around them (Deuteronomy 4:1–6). But God is very clear that He did not choose Israel because they were a great people. Instead, He explains that they were the “least [numerous] of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7), they were stubborn, and they were “stiff-necked” (Deuteronomy 9:6)! And Israel—all the children of Israel, not just the Jews—has remained this way even to Christ’s time and, without doubt, to our own time, as well!
By the time of the Apostles, when Jews were living side by side with Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, Jesus Christ and the Apostles plainly instructed that all races and peoples share an equality before Christ (John 3:16; Romans 2:11). As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:11, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” This is very similar to what the Eternal instructed ancient Israel when He commanded, “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:49, NASB). God also explained that He “shows no partiality,” telling Israel to “love the stranger” because they had been “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19).
In Romans 11:13–18, Paul explained that Jesus Christ was grafting these Gentiles (“branches”) into the spiritual house of Israel (the “root”). Remember, the word “Gentile” simply referred to any nation that was not of the twelve tribes of Jacob. Gentiles whom Paul would have encountered in the Roman Empire would have included Arabs, Germans, Persians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Indians, Syrians and many other tribes and nations.
Together in the “Assembly of the Lord”
The Scripture is powerfully clear that if we have been brought near by God, if we are repentant, and if we have accepted Jesus Christ as our living Lord and Savior—resulting in our baptism and the laying on of hands for the receipt of God’s Spirit—then we are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). Such individuals are in “the Assembly of the Lord”—the Church of God—regardless of their nationality. If we have been reconciled to God in one body through the cross (cf. Ephesians 2:16), then, as converted Christians, we will be deeply repentant of our past carnality and self-will, and of breaking God’s law. As “new” men and women, we will be “renewed in the spirit of [our] mind” (Ephesians 4:22–23), seeking to have our thoughts and our very life transformed through Jesus Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:2).
Speaking of the need to deeply appreciate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and how He works in those whom He is reconciling, Dr. Roderick Meredith warned that “as converted Christians, we should have the continuing realization of the awfulness of sin. Otherwise, it may be too easy to take Christ for granted and slip right back into sin. We need to realize our need for the shedding of blood to cover our sins, and realize that it had to be the shed blood of the very Son of God who created us and whose life is worth more than all of ours put together!” (“What Does Christ’s Death Mean to YOU?,” September-October 2006, Living Church News). Through this calling, our acceptance of Jesus Christ as our living Lord, our repentance from sin and our submission to God’s law, converted Christians—whether Jew or Gentile—have peace and reconciliation as “one body” (Ephesians 2:16).
When Christ “[broke] down the middle wall of separation,” He allowed for the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to each other, leaving no room for animosity or the sin of racism. Most importantly, He allowed for all who repent and become converted to be reconciled to Him (Acts 2:27–39).
This promise is not only for God’s Church now. During the reign of Christ, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), God will bring all nations into peace and reconciliation with each other and with Him. Israel will be settled in its land (cf. Ezekiel 48), and God will again establish Israel to be an example to all the nations. Then, Israel and all the nations willlearn to obey God in righteousness and in peace (Zechariah 14:16). God will permit no ordinances that cause animosity between the nations in the Millennium! As the Apostle Peter taught, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34–35).
We are thankful for the peace and reconciliation of Ephesians 2:14—thankful that He has broken down the middle wall of separation and that we have been brought near through His blood. The body of Christ includes many people from different nationalities, but we are one spiritual body. In the Church, if we are converted Christians, then we not only individually have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Father, but all of us together also share the same hope and calling. If we are repentant, converted Christians, then, through Jesus Christ living in us, our hope is to become “one” forever with the Father and Jesus Christ at the resurrection (John 17:20–22). This is the ultimate peace and reconciliation!