The Lord’s Day Morning
“Formerly Far Off, Now Brought Near”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter two, as we continue our way through the Book of Ephesians together.
Last time we were together on Sunday morning, we were in Ephesians 2:8-10, that glorious passage in which the beautiful truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is set forth. We saw there the Apostle Paul explain to us that we have been saved from sin, from slavery, from spiritual death, [and] from God’s just condemnation; we’ve been saved by God Himself; it’s God’s grace that has saved us, and nothing that we have done or earned or deserved; and, that God has saved us from walking in accordance with this world in order that we might walk with Him in good works which He prepared from beforehand, from the very foundation of the world, that we would walk in them. So, we are saved from God’s just judgment, by God’s grace, in order that we would walk with God in doing that which is good and well-pleasing in His sight: good works which He by His grace has prepared from the foundation of the world.
Now, as we’ve studied this chapter together we’ve noticed in the first seven verses (from Ephesians 2:1-7) the Apostle Paul concentrating on describing our situation apart from Christ – what we were apart from Jesus Christ. And really from the thirteenth verse all the way to the end of this chapter, Paul is going to be talking about what God has made us in Christ.
And so the passage that we’re studying today is something of a transition passage. Verses 11 and 12 go back and once again ask us to consider what we were apart from Jesus Christ, what we were like apart from His saving work, and then verse 13 explains to us what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, and so begins a section that will be continued on in verses 14 through 19 describing to us the benefits that we have in Jesus Christ.
Let’s outline the passage together before we hear it read today.
First of all, if you’d look at verse 11, you will notice there the Apostle Paul explaining that what we are merely according to the flesh does not, in the final analysis, really matter. Whether we are “circumcision” or “uncircumcision”, whether we are Jew or Gentile - that, in the final analysis, does not matter. One can be circumcised or uncircumcised and still be under the just judgment of God. Paul makes that clear in a variety of places, not the least of which is in Romans 2, at the very end of that passage where he says that the circumcision that counts is not circumcision of the flesh, it is the circumcision of the heart which is done by God in the inner man.
Now, in verse 12 we see a second thing that Paul wants to draw to our attention in this passage. Here is Paul’s brief five-part description of what we were apart from Christ. Here he describes the state of every person before faith in Christ, before faith union with Jesus Christ, before having received the benefits of Christ’s death – and it is not a pretty picture.
And then in verse 13 we see the third thing that Paul is going to draw our attention to today, and that is what we have been made and what we have received from God, having trusted in Jesus Christ. And so let’s prepare to hear God’s word by looking to Him in prayer and asking His help and blessing. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this Your word. We ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment, knowing that Your word is truth. You have given it to us for our sanctification, for our growth in grace. Give us seeing eyes and hearing ears, and willing and understanding hearts as we come to this Your word. By Your Spirit cause us to behold wonderful things in Your word. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is the word of God:
Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded 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 formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It’s really hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of Gentiles living in the time of Jesus and Paul, and to understand fully the antipathy that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It’s hard for us to understand the nature of the alienation that existed between Gentiles and the Jewish people. After all, the whole intent and purpose of vast stretches of the ceremonial law given in the Book of Leviticus was to keep Jews from fraternizing, from developing friendships and normalizing relationships with unbelieving Gentiles. The food laws were in large measure given so that Jews would not be able to share meals with Gentiles, because they would not be allowed to eat many of the things that Gentiles were eating.
Many of the other laws were designed to set Israel apart and make them distinct, and of course in Jesus’ and Paul’s own day the temple itself provided a powerful illustration of the division, the distinction, the alienation, the estrangement, between Jew and Gentile. There was the Inner Court in which the priests went, and then around it the Court of the Laymen of Israel, and then around that the Court of the Women of Israel; and then, five steps down, behind a three-cubit wall, was the Court of the Gentiles.
And, at the entrances to the Court of Israel where the men and the women of Israel would be allowed, there would be messages in Greek to any Gentile who had the idea of stepping into those Jewish-only courts, and that message said basically this:
“Anyone unauthorized entering into this Court has himself to blame for his ensuing death.” We’ve found some of these inscriptions, one in 1871 and one in 1935, in parts of the world which indicated that separation which existed between Jew and Gentile, and we get a feel for that in verse 11, don’t we, where Paul describes one of the names that the Jewish people called the Gentiles? They were “the Uncircumcision.” They were “the Uncircumcised.” They were those unbaptized heathens; they were those lesser breeds without the Law. They did not partake of the blessed promises of God to Abraham. They did not have the Law of God given to them at Sinai. They did not worship the one true and living God, but went after all manner of creatures and worshiped those creatures as god. And they were separate, and the Jews looked down upon them.
Well, the Apostle Paul is preaching this message to a mixed congregation of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. They themselves have already experienced the uniting work of Jesus Christ, how Jesus Christ through His death had brought together these two groups into one, and Paul is going to speak about that in this very chapter. He’s going to talk about how the Lord Jesus has brought down that middle wall of partition, and He has brought together these two groups into one. But before he gets to that, Paul wants those Gentile Christians in Ephesus to remember from whence they came. He wants them to remember what they were apart from Christ. Why? So that they can appreciate to the full what God has given them in Jesus Christ.
And this message is, of course, not only significant for those Ephesian Gentile Christians in that local church and for the Jewish Christians listening to this point of the message, but it’s important for you and me, for all of us need to remember what we were apart from Christ in order that we can appreciate to the full what God has given to us in Jesus Christ.
And so there are three things I want to draw your attention to today, and the first thing you see again in verse 11.
I. What we are merely “in the flesh” does not in the final analysis matter.
Paul telling us that what we are merely in the flesh does not in the final analysis matter. These circumcised Jews could call the Gentiles the Uncircumcision, they could look down on them as apart from God and apart from His mercies, and apart from His blessings and His benefits, but the Apostle Paul indicates here by the very way that he speaks that it’s not what we are in the flesh that finally matters. Listen to what he says:
“Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands....” Paul, just in passing, you see, is indicating that in the final analysis it is not whether you’re circumcised or whether you’re uncircumcised that matters when it comes to receiving the blessings of God in Jesus Christ. What matters is that you have faith in the Messiah. Not that you’re circumcised or uncircumcised; what matters is who is your trust in for the hope of your salvation.
And so the Apostle Paul there, you see, is scuttling formalism and sacramentalism. Those Jewish people could have said ‘We’ve received the sign of the covenant’ [yes, indeed you have]; ‘We have received the ceremonial law’ [yes, indeed you have, and apart from faith in Christ do you know what that will get you? It will get you nothing but condemnation, because salvation is in Jesus Christ.] And so Paul at the very outset makes it clear that it is faith in Christ which gets us the benefits of Christ’s saving work, and being “Circumcision” or “Uncircumcision”...well, in the end, it doesn’t matter.
This is the same thing, of course, that Paul says in Romans 2. Turn with me there. In Romans 2, Paul in verse 26 says,
“If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And will not he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will He not judge you who through having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law of God? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
Now, Paul is not saying anything new there. Paul is saying exactly what Moses said in Deuteronomy 10, that it is the circumcision of the heart that matters. It is the work of grace of God in the heart of men and women that transforms them from the inside out that matters. Those outward signs – the circumcision, the dietary laws, the ceremonial laws – those things were outward signs of inward spiritual realities; but if the inward spiritual reality isn’t there, the signs avail for naught. So the Apostle Paul is making it clear that what really matters is not whether we’re circumcised or uncircumcised, but whether we’re trusting in Christ.
And, my friends, that’s very important for baptized Christians. You know baptism is that sign that marks us off and sets us apart from the world, and it would be very possible for us to say of ourselves, ‘Well, we’re baptized Christians. We’re communing Christians. We’re part of an evangelical church. We partake of the Lord’s Table”, and yet not in reality be trusting in Jesus Christ. And the Apostle Paul is waiting for us there, and says it is faith in Christ that matters. Let us hear him loud and clear.
II. What matters, part one: What we all are apart from Christ – without a Messiah, a people, the promises, the hope, and God.
Well, there’s a second thing I want you to see, and you see it in verse 12. Paul says, ‘Here are the things that matter. The first thing that matters is this: what you were apart from Christ. You were,’ he says, ‘separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.’
Paul is describing what people are like apart from union with Christ, apart from faith in Christ, apart from saving trust in Jesus Christ. What is our condition? He describes it here in five parts. Notice it: separate from the Messiah; excluded from the people of God; without assurance; without hope; and then, finally, without God. Look at what he says.
First of all, we’re separate from the Messiah – “...you were at that time separate from Christ.” Now, he means not only that as Gentiles they didn’t have a hope in the coming Messiah like all good Jewish people did as they looked forward to God to send His Messiah into the world. He means even more than that. He means that these Gentiles, apart from faith in Jesus as the Messiah, were excluded from all of the benefits of the coming of the Messiah. What did Jesus do? He fulfilled the Law. What did Jesus do? He atoned for sin. What did Jesus do? He opened access into the very presence of God. He paid the way for the true and saving knowledge of God, and Paul is saying apart from Jesus Christ, apart from faith in Him, you do not have access to God. You are without a Messiah.
Secondly, notice he said you were “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.” In other words, they didn’t have a place in the people of God. The temple was a standing testimony to that: ‘Gentiles, don’t cross this line. You don’t have a place in the midst of the people of God when they gather to worship the one true God.’ And Paul is saying, ‘Apart from Jesus Christ, that is where you were. You were apart from the people of God.’
Now, this is ironic, because many of the Ephesian Christians who were Gentiles may well have had Roman citizenship. It was the most coveted citizenship that you could have in that part of the world. The one thing you wanted to have was Roman citizenship, and yet here’s Paul saying to these Gentile Christians, some of whom may have been Roman citizens, you don’t have a citizenship in the midst of the people of God. You are not a citizen of the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. You’re a citizen of this passing world, but you’re not a citizen of this city with foundations that will go on forever and ever. You have no place in God’s country; you have no citizenship in the city of God; you have no claims among His people. That’s the condition of every man, woman, boy and girl, apart from Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, notice he goes on to say that they are “strangers to the covenants of promise.” What does that mean? Well, you remember that God had given a glorious promise to Abraham to be his God, and to be a God to his children and his children’s children unto all generations. And in order to confirm that promise, God had made a series of covenants with Abraham and with his descendants, so that God covenanted with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and with Moses, and with David and [Isaiah], and by a succession of these covenants God had confirmed His promises to His people in order to – what? In order to assure them of His mercy.
But the Gentiles had never received those assurances. They had never been welcomed into those covenants of promise. They had no claims on the rich and gracious promises that God had given to His people, and that is our condition apart from Jesus Christ.
Paul doesn’t stop. He goes on to say that these Gentiles were “having no hope”; that is, they were without the hope of all God’s people. The Old Testament hope was the coming of the Messiah; the blessed hope as it is described in the New Testament is the looking for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of God’s universal and sovereign rule. And Paul is saying to these Gentiles, ‘Apart from Christ, you walk in this world without the enormous blessing of that hope which is set before all the people of God, so that they know that even though here, if they’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, there is coming a day when God will set everything right; that even though here, if they’re walking through the vale of tears, yet then God will establish His glory forevermore.
And finally, notice Paul says in verse 12 that they are without God. All those who are apart from Christ are without God, and that’s the ultimate tragedy. We’re made as human beings, all of us, in the image of God. We are image bearers, and we’re made for fellowship with God. The very purpose that God made us for is that we might glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But these Gentiles are apart from God, the Apostle Paul says. They’re not trusting in Jesus Christ. Even if you’re the Romans and you have a pantheon, and you have gobs of gods to worship, you’re apart from the one true and living God, and you do not know Him. You walk through this world without the knowledge of the true God. And the Apostle Paul says that was your circumstance apart from Jesus Christ.
And, my friends, it’s important for us to pause and remember where we were apart from Jesus Christ, and it’s important for all of us to take stock today: that no matter what we have in this life, no matter what affluence we have, no matter what influence we have, no matter what vocation we have, no matter what associations we have, no matter how blessed we are in the sight of the world...if we are apart from Christ, ultimately we have no Messiah, we have no home, we have no assurance, we have no hope, we have no God. And that means that we can have everything this world has to offer and in the end have absolutely nothing that will last. And the Apostle Paul says it is vitally important for us to realize where we are apart from Christ.
III. What matters, part two: Trusting in Christ, being united to Christ, being brought near by the blood of Christ.
Then he ushers in this glorious verse, and you see it in verse 13. It’s the first of a cascade of verses in which Paul describes the blessings that all those who trust in Jesus Christ have. Listen to what he says:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Here he says this is what really matters: that though you once were apart from the people of God, and though you once were apart from Christ, and though you once had no assurance of God’s promises, and though you once did not share in the blessed hope, and though you once did not know God, now in Jesus Christ you have been brought near by His blood. By trusting in Jesus Christ, by faith-union to Jesus Christ you have been brought near to God by the blood of Jesus.
And I want you to see three things quickly in this verse. The first thing is this beautiful description of what it means to be united to God through Jesus Christ: It is to be brought near. That is a beautiful Old Testament phrase describing the experience of the believer of true knowledge and fellowship with the living God.
One Old Testament way of talking about knowing and experiencing life with the true and living God you heard the choir sing about. That is, one way Old Testament saints talked about knowing and experiencing life with the living and true God was that He was watching over them, even when they slept – because He never slumbers or sleeps. Even if they’re surrounded by their enemies, He is watching over them. Even if they’re going through trials, He is watching over them. Even if they’re asleep and they can’t take care of themselves, He is watching over them, because He never slumbers or sleeps. That is one Old Testament way of talking about the believer’s experience of the knowledge of the living and true God.
But another Old Testament way to talk about that is that God has drawn near to us. Let me give you two examples of that. Turn with me to Deuteronomy, the last of the five Books of Moses, fifth book of the Old Testament – Deuteronomy 4:7. And there Moses says, as he reflects on Israel’s privileges amongst the Gentiles (Deut. 4:7):
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God whenever we call on Him?” Moses is saying, ‘What nation has a god who is so near? We cry out to Him, we turn around to call on Him, and He’s there! He’s near to us. He’s drawn near to us. We know Him. He’s near to us.’
And the Psalmist sings about this. Turn forward to Psalm 148. Verse 14 in the 148th Psalm. In the fourteenth verse, the Psalmist says this about God: “He has lifted up a horn for His people, His godly ones; even for the sons of Israel...” [and then listen to how He describes the people of God]: they are “a people near to Him.”
So the Old Testament, when it describes people who know God, speaks of God being near to them, and they being near to God. He’s not a distant and afar off. You know, like the song says, “He’s watching us from a distance....” No, no, no, no! The people of God in the Old Testament said no, our God is near to us. He didn’t wind the world up and go off somewhere. He’s near to us. He’s right down in the middle of our lives, because of His mercy and grace.
And here you see the Apostle Paul saying, ‘Gentile, there was a time when you were far from God, but in His mercy He has come near to you, and He has drawn you near to Himself.’ Isn’t that a beautiful way to describe the benefit of God’s saving work?
And Paul is going to describe now a cascade of benefits in verses 14-19, but there are two more things I want you to see in verse 13, and that is the first – how is it that God drew us near to Him? You see it in the last words of verse 13: “...by the blood of Christ.” It was through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary that God atoned for sin, caused our just judgment to be visited upon Jesus Christ so that we could draw near. His Son, His only Son, was sent to the far country that we might be drawn near to Him.
But notice again, secondly and finally, that Paul emphasizes that we are drawn near to God in Jesus Christ. Notice his words: “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near....” That is, through faith union with Jesus Christ, through trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, we are brought near. You see, Paul’s message is not that Christ has brought all Gentiles near to Him, but that Christ has brought all who trust in Him near to God. All those who have had faith in Him, all those who have been converted by the saving, uniting work of the Holy Spirit have been brought near.
And that brings us again to where we are today. Who are we trusting in? Are we trusting in Jesus Christ? If you are trusting in Jesus Christ today, remember what you were before He drew you near.
If you’re not trusting today in Jesus Christ, then verse 12 describes where you are, no matter what else you have. And so the only place to turn and run is to the One whose blood was shed for all those who will trust in Him.
Our Lord and our God, grant us faith in Christ, that we might be drawn near. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: Jesus Shall Reign]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Amen.