The Lord’s Day
October 23, 2005
“Formerly Far Off, Now Brought Near”
Dr. J. Ligon
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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