The events of the last two weeks have revealed what many have already known, but most would choose not to admit: the racial divide in America is still deep and wide.
I am proud of the pastors, churches, and Christians who are speaking out against injustice, reaching across the great divide, and demonstrating unity in diversity. I am praying for my pastor-friends in Minneapolis as they bear this tremendous weight on our behalf. Yet, I get the impression (at least in the more rural parts of the nation) that many Christians still think that racial reconciliation is optional. There’s still this “if that’s your thing, that’s cool, but it’s not really for me” sort of attitude. I’ve even heard some pastors say they won’t address it because they don’t want to cause division. Hello? Division? We’re already divided, pastor! What you really mean is you don’t want to offend the rich white influencers in your congregation (forgive me if I’m wrong).
Others have the right response, but insufficient reasons. They want to fight for racial justice because they just know it’s the right thing to do. And it is. As Christians, we’re called to love all people. Period. (Matthew 22:37-40 & Luke 10:25-37). However, our reasons for seeking racial reconciliation go even deeper than Christ’s command to love people and the truth that all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It is at the heart of everything Christ said and did. Racial reconciliation isn’t just ancillary to the Gospel; it is the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul describes this central tenet of the Gospel as a glorious mystery God had planned all along that is now revealed through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.
This is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)
I know it may not seem like that big of a deal but hang on. This is one of those deep rich truths that you really need to dig down deep into to fully understand (although we’ll never truly fully understand this side of heaven). In order to better comprehend the implications of God’s plan, we have to understand the nature of Jew-Gentile relations in the First Century Roman Empire.
Racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the first century were not all that different than racial tensions today. Every culture group and religion have beliefs, customs, and lifestyles that rub others, not of that same tradition, the wrong way. This certainly was no exception for Jews and Gentiles. Most Jews at this time thought of themselves as being chosen by God, set apart from the other nations and people groups of their world. For Jews, circumcision was the outward sign of this being set apart. Anyone who was not circumcised was outside the circle and, therefore, outside the realm of God’s blessing – “unclean” sinners.
You can imagine what it would be like to live in that sort of environment where one group thought of themselves as better than the other. Oh wait. You don’t have to “imagine” it because we’re living it right now. As we can currently see, it can create a little hostility.
But this hostility was a two-way street and it was not just religious. It was political, as well. To the Jews, land and nationhood were big parts of God’s promise to them. But here they are living under Roman rule, essentially as foreigners in their own land. They are the chosen people of God, but they are subordinated to Gentile authority. How utterly frustrating!
Social Context of Ephesus
We also need to understand the social context of Ephesus (the city where the Christians lived that Paul wrote this letter to). Ephesus was no sleepy little town. It was the capital of Asia Minor, the richest region in the Roman Empire, and the headquarters of the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana) – the goddess of fertility. The popularity of the fertility cult and the lively economy it produced brought people to Ephesus from all over the world to live, work, and worship. This made Ephesus an extremely diverse city, both religiously and ethnically.
When we read the Bible, we tend to think of “Gentiles” quite narrowly – like there are only two kinds of people in the world: Jews and non-Jews. Of course, that’s exactly how the Jews saw it, too, but that wasn’t Paul’s understanding in this context. When he talks about Gentiles in Ephesus, he has in mind people from all over the known world — Anatolians, Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Syrians, etc. – people of every race, color, culture, tribe, and language who were living, working, and worshipping in Ephesus.
Now when we read Ephesians 3:6 through the lens of the historical-social context, we get a better picture of just how profound this Gospel truth is. God’s mysterious plan revealed in the Gospel is that everyone, of every race and ethnicity, be joined together in one body through Jesus Christ.
In short, God’s plan is that everyone be reconciled to each other through Christ.
Racial Reconciliation is the Gospel
Paul lays the foundation for this when he says:
For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
This metaphor of “breaking down the wall” would have been crystal clear to the Jews Paul was writing to. There was a literal wall that divided the outer court from the inner courts of the Jewish temple. On this wall was posted a sign warning Gentiles not to enter and threatening them with death if they did. But this wall was more than just a physical barrier; it was a religious dividing wall, as well, that manifested itself in the rules and regulations of Jewish law. These rules and regulations Paul’s talking about here aren’t of the “essential to faith” variety. These are all the manmade rules they concocted to build up a wall to preserve their “purity” and keep Gentiles out.
Christ came into the temple swinging and demolished the walls dividing all people by becoming peace. Listen, Jesus isn’t some 60’s psychedelic tie-dyed preacher hangin’ on the corner saying, “Peace, brother. Make love, not war.” Nor is he some referee that steps into a boxing ring to break up the fight and send the fighters to their corners. He’s also not the parent breaking up the shouting match between siblings saying, “Now say you’re sorry. Kiss and make up.” No, Jesus doesn’t make peace, he is the peace. He is the death of racial hostility and the birth of racial harmony. In him and through him are all people reconciled.
“Peace” in this sense (the biblical use) is not just the ending of aggressive behaviors (“Can’t we all just get along?”). It is “peace” in the widest possible sense – encompassing both “peace with God” (what the Bible calls “salvation”) and “peace among people” (reconciliation). Christ has brought a way not only for people to be reconciled to him, but to one another through him. Christ overcoming the divisions between Jews and Gentiles means that all dividing walls have been torn down (cf. Galatians 3:28).
God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10)
This idea of “rich variety,” or “manifold” as some translations put it, is used to describe an intricately embroidered pattern of many colors – a beautiful mosaic. The richness and vast array of God’s wisdom is displayed through the splendid diversity of cultures unified in his church. In this way, the multiethnic church is a powerful and constant witness to God’s plan of salvation for all.
Consequently, the people of God are no longer to be known through the keeping of laws and rituals, but through their multiethnic unity. The Church is not only the pattern, but also the means by which God is using to show that his purposes for all creation are triumphantly progressing forward. The entire universe will see the manifold wisdom of God when the Church truly becomes one new people united together in Christ.
Let us continue to work and pray for such a day.