In 1966, Michael Kenneth Frank became the first African-American student admitted to Dallas Theological Seminary, 42 years after the seminary was founded in 1924. Dr. John Walvoord was president of DTS at the time. When DTS had been probed on the admission of blacks in 1951, Walvoord explained the absence of black students in three ways. First, until recently the admission of blacks to white schools was considered illegal in Texas. Second, no black man had ever applied to the seminary. And third, if a black person applied to the seminary, he would be considered on his own merits. When asked about school segregation in general, Walvoord distanced the seminary from the issue. He said, “The Scriptures never discuss the matter of segregation on the basis of race or color…. There is nothing in the Bible which deals with the subject.” In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But because the seminary was a private institution, it did not have to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling. No black students were admitted until 12 years later, and then only very few.
Let’s be honest. The church has often been slow when it comes to ethnic equality within its ranks. Rather than leading in the area of ethnic unity, the church has often lagged behind the unbelieving world. Just think of it. The church of our Lord Jesus Christ falling behind the world in the pursuit of ethnic equality! The slow pace of ethnic integration within the church is deeply embarrassing. For some reason it is hard for many of us to worship God alongside those who are ethnically different from ourselves. Perhaps you have felt the same sense of embarrassment. Our own seminary, the one we love so dearly, failed to have a single African American student for the first 42 years of its existence. The question each one of us must ask is: are we going to be part of the solution regarding ethnic diversity within the church, or through indifference or neglect are we going to continue the problem into the next generation?
Let’s focus our attention on some key biblical principles related to ethnic harmony within the church, based on Ephesians 2:11-22. We will discuss our past position outside of Messiah (vv. 11-12), our present position in Messiah (vv. 13-20), and our present purpose in Messiah (vv. 21-22) as it relates to ethnic harmony within the church. I will end by challenging you with a specific application in this area.
Past Position Outside of Christ
Let’s first discuss our past position outside of Messiah. Ephesians 2:11-12 gives a list of seven realities related to our past position outside of Messiah. Take a close look at verse 11. The verse begins with the conjunction dio, which means “therefore.” This word ties Ephesians 2:1-10 with Ephesians 2:11-22. What Paul just said in verses 1 to 10 are the basis for what he says in versus 11 to 22. Let us be reminded about verses 1-10. Before we trusted in Messiah, we were dead in our sins. But when we placed our trust in Jesus, we were came alive with him, were raised with him, and are now positionally co-seated with him in heaven. The focus of verses 1 to 10 is the individual believer and his essential unity with Messiah Jesus. The focus of verses 11 to 22 is different, although they follow a similar before and after pattern. These verses focus on the relationship of believers of different ethnic backgrounds to each other and their collective relationship to God as one body in Messiah. To state it simply, Ephesians 2:1-10 deals with the individual; Ephesians 2:11-22 deals with the collective.
Another thing to notice about verse 11 is that it contains the only imperative in the entire passage. That imperative is to “remember.” Because the verb is present tense in the Greek, Paul is indicating that his readers should keep remembering what he’s just about to say.
Paul next lists seven things that describe the past position of his audience before they trusted in Jesus. Let’s look at these seven things closely. The first two are found in verse 11, and the last five are found in verse 12. First, his readers were non-Jews, or “Gentiles.” Second, the Jews looked down on them as uncircumcised “foreskins.” The Jews were circumcised, and they were not. Third, they were without the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah promised by the Old Testament was for Jews only. Fourth, they were excluded from the social and political community of Israel. Jews segregated themselves from non-Jews and wouldn’t even eat with them. Fifth, they were without knowledge of the Old Testament covenants of promise, particularly the Abrahamic and New covenants that promised blessing to both Jews and non-Jews. Sixth, they were without any hope. Seventh, they lacked any relationship with the one true God as they went about life. These seven things describe two walls. One wall is between Paul’s audience and Israel—an ethnic divide. The second wall is between Paul’s audience and God. The Ephesians, as unbelievers, were boxed in by both horizontal and vertical walls.
How do these seven things relate to you? These seven things are an accurate picture of you and me before we trusted in Jesus. They describe every unbeliever you come into contact with in your daily life. These are the seven positions of the Gentile unbeliever outside of Messiah. You see, according to Scripture, the position of a person outside of Messiah is one of estrangement, division, and hostility towards God and God’s people. Non-Christians may strive for unity, and in some cases they may reach an appearance of unity. But the unity has no foundation in spiritual reality. There is nothing permanent or lasting about it. They may achieve a temporary peace, but permanent peace alludes them.
The Bible accurately depicts unbelieving humanity. And the biblical picture is confirmed by what we see in the world around us everyday. We see it on Internet headlines and TV news channels. Despite the efforts of well-meaning national and international leaders, the world continues to fragment. Some of you may be familiar with Samuel Huntington’s important book, The Clash of Civilizations. He convincingly demonstrates how major conflict regularly erupts along the borders between the world’s seven great civilizations (Western, Latin American, Orthodox, Eastern, Muslim, and African). As an example, Jewish people are starting to leave Europe again due to a rise in Anti-Semitism. We continue to see hostility along ethnic lines right here in the United States. Look at the neighbourhoods people live in and the churches people attend. Any prison warden can tell you that every prison population in the United States divides between the white, black, and Hispanic populations. Recently we saw the different responses people had to Black Lives Matter and “Defund the Police.” We continue to see hostility along ethnic lines. The unbelieving world continues to fail to reach permanent and lasting ethnic harmony.
Present Position in Christ
Let’s now turn to Ephesians 2:13-20. These verses discuss the believer’s present position in Messiah. There are five important words at the beginning of verse 13. Look at each of these words carefully. The first word is “but,” showing contrast. The next word is “now.” Paul is done talking about who the Ephesians used to be as unbelievers. Now he is talking about their present identity as believers. The next three words are “in Messiah Jesus.” These words indicate the new position of the Ephesians. Before, they were outside of Messiah. Now they are in Messiah. And because they are in Messiah, everything has changed. They used to be those seven things. But now they are in Messiah Jesus.
The remainder of verse 13 tells us the result of the “in Messiah Jesus” position. The result is they were brought near by the blood of Messiah. The blood of Messiah refers to the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross. Brought near to what or to whom? The following verses tell us the Ephesians were brought near to two things: God’s people and God himself. Outside of Messiah, the Ephesians were far away from God and his people. Now in Messiah they are positionally near to God’s people and to God.
Notice the word “peace.” The word “peace” is strategically placed by Paul at the beginning, the middle and the end of this middle section. In verse 14, Jesus is our peace. In verse 15, Jesus makes peace. And in verse 17, Jesus proclaims peace. The peace is a horizontal peace among believers and a vertical peace with God. But the peace cannot take place outside of Jesus. Being “in Messiah” makes all the difference. In the context, Paul is discussing animosity between Jew and non-Jew. At the time Ephesians was written, animosity between Jew and non-Jew was a well-known factor in the Greco-Roman world. Everyone knew it. The Jews hated non-Jews and held themselves as morally and racially superior as God’s chosen people. But the non-Jews were no saints either. They hated the Jews for their arrogance and their unwillingness to blend in. Jews were banished from the capital city of Rome in a.d. 51 under the emperor Claudius. They were banished two other times as well. In a.d. 70, about a decade after Ephesians was written, the Romans destroyed the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, razing it to the ground. Paul’s readers were well aware of the hostility between Jews and non-Jews within the Roman empire. That is what makes this middle paragraph so astonishing.
Paul says in verse 14 that Messiah tore down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and non-Jew by setting aside the Old Testament law through his death. There are two reasons given for this. According to verse 15, the first reason he tore down this wall is to create in himself one new man, thus making peace. Many commentators suggest rendering “one new man” as “one new humanity.” In other words, there are two humanities—one old and one new. The Ephesians used to be part of the old humanity outside of Messiah (or in Adam), but now they are part of the new humanity in Jesus. Notice how many “in Messiah’s” there are. “In Messiah Jesus” in verse 13. in “In himself” in verse 15. “Through him” in verse 18. “In whom” in verses 21 and 22 also refer to Jesus. In other words, those who are in Jesus are in a totally new position with respect to God and God’s people. Notice also the word “create.” It means to bring into existence something totally new. This new humanity never existed before Jesus came, died, and rose again.
Verse 16 gives us the second purpose Jesus tore down the dividing wall of separation. This second purpose is to reconcile the one new humanity, consisting of Jewish and non-Jewish believers to God through the cross. Now that Jew and non-Jew have been created into one new humanity, that one new humanity is ready to be reconciled to God. At the end of verse 16, Paul says the enmity between God and the one new humanity is literally killed. Again let me point out there are absolutely no imperatives here. The only imperative is in verse 11, and that is an imperative of thinking, not doing. In other words, the horizontal and vertical peace footing on which we stand is something already accomplished by Jesus. It is not something we do or accomplish. The peace footing already exists. It is because of this that Jesus is able to proclaim peace far and near. Now the one new humanity is able through the Son to approach the Father by the Holy Spirit. Notice the Trinity in verse 18.
I grew up in Kansas and went to a small church of about 100 people. 95 or so of the members of that church were white, just like me. During my childhood and teen years, I had little opportunity to interact with believers from other ethnicities. It was after college when I was teaching in China that I first glimpsed the oneness of the body of Christ across ethnic lines. I attended an International Church in Shanghai. The members were incredibly diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, and nationality. I will never forget the wedding I attended that year between an African man and Canadian woman. That Christian wedding in Shanghai was a joyous celebration of who God is and who God’s people are. At the home Bible study I attended every week, I consistently met believers from several different countries. This was all very different from the way I grew up. The diversity in Christ I experienced in Shanghai was one of the major reasons I returned to the Christian faith after rebelling against God in college. Perhaps some of your stories are similar.
Present Purpose in Christ
We’ve discussed our old position outside of Christ and the resultant state of hostility to God and God’s people. We’ve also discussed our new position in Christ and the resultant state of positional peace with God and God’s people. In verses 19-22, we see the purpose of our new position in Christ.
At this point, it is important to have a little background about the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was a large and important city in the Roman empire. It boasted multiple marketplaces, a huge theatre, and temples to multiple Greek and Roman gods, including two dead emperors. But Ephesus was especially known for its Temple to Artemis. This is the same temple discussed in Acts 19. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and according to one ancient writer, was the most magnificent of the seven:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.”
The Temple of Artemis was four times larger than the Parthenon, made almost completely of marble. Just like we’ve all heard about the Great Wall and the Grand Canyon, so everyone in the ancient world knew about the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
Now look at verse 20. Paul tells his readers they were built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and that Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone. Paul envisions a new and different temple, consisting of redeemed people. There are three categories. First, Christ is the cornerstone. Second, the apostles and New Testament prophets are the foundation. Third, believers, both Jews and non-Jews, are the superstructure. The present tense verb “is growing” in verse 21 and “are being built together” in verse 22 indicate that this building is under construction. It continually develops as individual building blocks are fitted together. The result will be a finished temple, holy to the Lord. The building blocks are individuals from all people groups and nations. This is a multicoloured, multifaceted temple intended for the one, true living God. It consists of Jewish and non-Jewish believers of the Church age who are fitted together block by block into one temple to the Lord.
Remember the co-enlivened, co-raised, and co-seated with Christ language of Ephesians 2:1-10? Here we have another triplet of “co’s.” Paul says we are co-citizens, and that we are being co-fitted together and co-built together. His focus now is the togetherness of believers in the one new humanity.
Do you see the comparison with the temple of Artemis? That temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But we, the multi-ethnic church, are to be the real wonder of the world for the world to see. The true integration of ethnicities fitted together into one body is one of the most important features of the temple of which we are a part.
But there is a problem here. Our position in Messiah often fails to impact in a real way our practice in Messiah. Although we are the new humanity in position, we often don’t act like the new humanity in practice. Think of our beloved seminary. In the forties, fifties and sixties, DTS missed an opportunity to display to the people of Dallas and the South the ethnic oneness of the new humanity in Christ. Instead of leading, it followed. The justification Dr. Walvoord gave rings hollow, given our position of harmony within the body of Christ.
The lesson applies to us. Unless we are intentional about displaying our oneness in concrete, visible ways, we will be guilty of failing to practice our position. We don’t set out to make Sunday the most racially divided time of the week. It just sort of happens. The causes are apathy, comfort, and tradition. That’s why we have to be intentional about practicing and displaying diversity in Christ.
Just a couple of weeks ago on Palm Sunday, Pastor Bryan Carter, the African-American pastor of Concord Church in Redbird, a South Dallas suburb, traded places with Jeff Warren, the white pastor at Park Cities Baptist Church, as reported by the Dallas Morning News. The pastors were motivated to give a concrete show of unity in response to the racial violence that has occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, and other places. The two churches are collaborating on focus groups, men’s Bible studies, and joint service projects. The choirs, too, blended to sing together “Amazing Grace.” At PCBC, the choir got a standing ovation. These churches are being intentional about bridging ethnic divides within the church, and they provide example for us.
How can we be part of the solution rather than part of the problem? What can we personally do to put our position in Messiah into practice? What is a concrete, practical way we can begin living like the new humanity and visibly show that the church really is the wonder of the world?
Let’s be challenged to be intentional about pursuing visible ethnic harmony within the church. This does not involve a relaxation of biblical doctrine to any degree. But it does involve getting out of your comfort zone. Specifically, as ministry leaders I would like us to commit to finding ways to include believers of other ethnicities on our ministry teams. If your church or ministry is mostly white, seek out believers from African, Latino, Asian, or Pacifica descent to join you. If you lead a predominantly black church or ministry, seek out Latino, Asian, or European believers to join you. Don’t forget about Muslim-background believers and of course our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Go out of your way to reach out. Smile when you see them in the hallway. Break down the walls practically that are already broken down positionally! In this way you will establish a culture of practical oneness across ethnic lines within the body of Christ. The one essential to all of this is “in Messiah.” Ethnic diversity outside of Jesus is ultimately futile. It is “in Messiah” that the new humanity must live, breathe, and operate.
We’ve looked at Ephesians 2:11-22. We’ve seen we are to remember seven things about our past position outside of Messiah. Outside of Messiah, each one of us was on a hostile footing with God and God’s people. Those five words, “But now in Christ Jesus,” have changed everything. Jesus is our peace, he made peace, and he proclaims peace. This peace he has establish is with God and among God’s people. We are already the one new humanity in Messiah. The present purpose of this one new humanity is to grow together into a holy temple where God resides. This holy temple is to be the wonder of the world, far surpassing the greatness of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. So my challenge to you is to be purposeful and intentional about seeking out believers of other ethnicities to join you in your ministry. In this way, we will be a wonder to the unbelieving world, to the glory of God.
(This sermon was preached by Jeff Coleman in Fall 2016, as part of his preaching course at Dallas Theological Seminary.)