The Creator and Redeemer God passionately loves the world and all realities it entails past, present and future. The world created supremely good, then subject to futility and corruption through human disobedience, has never escaped God’s majestic and mysterious plans. Plans once unknown and beyond human imagining but then shockingly, powerfully and bodily manifested in Jesus. Plans for the fulness of God’s mercy, love and grace to more than match, in fact to vastly exceed, the lethal reaches of sin, so as to re-make the human person, re-form the human community, and thus restore the world from its epic brokenness.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he describes these plans as originating before Creation and culminating with a cosmic coronation as “all things” find their place under the loving administration of Messiah Jesus (Eph. 1:9-10). Clearly the whole Gospel has both vertical and horizontal impact. If the good news centers in the cross of Jesus then it speaks to the brokenness between heaven and earth, and its relational shrapnel that pierces and tears the fabric of all things human.
The Gospel’s Vertical Reach (Eph. 2:1-10)
The good news (gospel) is that all of us can be raised up from the dead, that is from ways of living that are actually ways of dying, through the person of Jesus. More, all of us may be set free from the slavish habits, destructive tendencies, dogged dependencies, nagging worries, compulsive inclinations, and the endless cycles of thinking, feeling and acting that wear us down, tear us up, and leaves us wasted. Indeed, all of us may rise to life in sync with God that brings blessing to others and the world.
Not because we somehow “have it in us,” not because there is a way to access the untapped potential within our inner core. Rather, because God is everything we are not—alive and life-generating, potent and competent, and contending and conquering! Because the everything that God is (and we are not) turns out to be precisely for us and the world! We may rise-up, free and clear, to become our true selves as we were always meant to be (but never were), and then to contribute to the cosmic design and destiny of the world and its peoples. Yes, all of this because God is rich in mercy, great in love, and generous in giving. Once you were dead … but now you are alive … because, as Paul famously summarizes,
You are saved by grace … It’s a gift!
Not your own doing … but God’s doing
You have come to trust … and so
You are God’s new creation—made new through Jesus the Messiah …
Empowered for living well and doing the good God designed us specially to do (Eph. 2:8-10).
This is classic conversion language and teaching, core to evangelical theology and experience. But we must note carefully three things about this teaching that stands in tension with the way it is often taught and presumably lived.
First, Paul carefully stresses that this great salvation stands quite apart from our works. Nothing we could do results in all that God has done. Once, Paul reminds them, “you were dead” in your trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3, 5). “Dead” as a result of whatever you/we did. But then, out of sheer mercy and deep love, God made us alive. It was nothing any of us did or could do; it was what God alone has done. Therefore, no one can boast, since no one “saves.” No one. Which means there is no basis for one person or group to claim superiority over another.
Here’s the thing, however. Though we are not saved by works, Paul goes on to say, still we are saved, made alive by grace, precisely for “good works.” In fact, we become God’s new-creation-work in the Messiah Jesus, designed for doing good, which God planned to be our way of life from now on (Eph. 2:10). To be “saved” and “alive in Jesus Messiah” entails learning and living in ways that God calls “good.”
Second, to be made alive does not mean we “have a life.” That is, God’s new-creation design for our lives does not lead us automatically to live that way. Therefore, the gift of life must be received, nurtured, learned and practiced. The gift of new-creation-life is the gift of opportunity—life from death, and of capacity—life empowered and sustained. Aliveness in Jesus may be the gift of a moment, but the gift is a life to be learned and lived “into the ages,” (Eph. 2:7).
Third, Paul tells the conversion story of his readers in terms that are personal but also communal. Certainly, God’s mercy and love reach toward each one of us and make us alive; each one of us has been shown mercy and loved from death to life; and each one of us will be the continuing recipient of unending grace. And yet the personal and individual experience of each one of us is the common experience of all of us. We were all once dead, but now God has made us alive. And this “aliveness” is a life shared with one another as well as with God. We were made alive, raised up, and seated with Christ together Paul stresses (2:5-6, all the verbs stress this togetherness). Which anticipates how Paul continues.
The Gospel’s Horizontal Reach (Eph. 2:11-22)
The gospel conversion story Paul has told thus far is not yet the whole gospel. Just as we celebrate and embrace the vertical reach of the gospel—from God’s heart to ours, so we celebrate and embrace the horizontal reach of the gospel. As we do, and only as we do, we celebrate and embrace the whole gospel. It is important and timely for us to grasp this.
Once, Paul reminds them, not only were you dead in sin, you were “gentiles,” (2:11). Remarkably, Paul is writing to his mostly ethnically non-Jewish readers. He reminds them: You were “gentiles;” You were uncircumcised—as gentiles usually were; And you were labelled by the circumcised—ethnically Jewish people—as pagan heathens.
Once, Paul reminds them, not only were you dead in sin, you were alienated and estranged from God’s people. More, you were hostile toward them, and they were hostile toward you. In a word, you and they were enemies (2:14,16).
Once, Paul reminds them, you were outside God’s people as alien-enemies to Israel, unaware and excluded from the covenant promises God had made to Israel for her blessing and the world’s. And, as a result, you lived in the world without hope and apart from God. Your “vertical” deadness toward God manifested “horizontally” as estrangement and alien status toward God’s people, promises, and provisions (2:12).
But now, because God is rich in mercy and generous in love you are alive, raised up and seated together in Jesus the Messiah. Now, you are in the Messiah. Therefore, though you were far away now you have been brought near; though you were outsiders now you are insiders; though you were enemies now you are comrades and friends. More than that, you are now sisters and brothers together. More still, you and they are one in the Messiah (2:13, 15-16).
How on earth can this be? In a word “Jesus.” In another word “Messiah.” Jesus Messiah, Paul says, is himself “our peace,” (2:14). The weight of the word “our” here overloads the mind. Jesus establishes himself as peace-maker, peace-bringer, and peace-sustainer for the most divided, splintered, and scattered groups of human beings, whose children have been rendered twisted and distorted by the splintering from one generation to another.
How on earth can this be? Paul says: It was by the blood of the Messiah which drew those far away near (2:13); It was by the flesh of the Messiah that destroyed the walls that divided them from us and that killed the enmity between them and us (2:14); And it was through the cross—where the Messiah’s blood was shed and Messiah’s flesh died—that God created one new humanity from both them and us, putting hostility to death, reconciling the enemies, and making peace (2:15-16).
How on earth can this be? Paul sums it up this way: Jesus came proclaiming good news of peace to you gentiles ethnically who were far away and to those who were near, who are Jews ethnically (2:17). As a result, the two become one new kind of humanity (literally, “one new human,” 2:15) and both—now one and at peace—have access in one spirit (or Spirit) to the Father (2:18). In other words, Jesus came to share the gospel which made people alive, made them one, and gave them both alike the same access into the holy presence of God.
Therefore, Paul declares, you are no longer foreigners or refugees, but you are compatriots, full citizens with the saints, in the household of God, constructed upon on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Messiah Jesus himself being the capstone. You now belong to the household of God, a community of Jews and gentiles formed into a new expression of humanity and family, growing together into a holy temple, where God dwells in the Spirit (2:19-22).
Vertical AND Horizontal
We see here the whole gospel reaching horizontally as well as vertically. When Paul says we were made alive, raised up and seated with the Messiah together (2:5-6) he was celebrating the holistic healing and renewing of humanity. Their oneness with God in the Messiah includes oneness with others, even if they once had been the bitterest of enemies. For several reasons Paul’s account of what the gospel does has timely relevance just now.
Paul stresses that in Jesus we are made alive and given a life. Although we were dead, entirely through our own doing (our lethal trespasses and sins), God’s mercy and love breathed new life into us, raised us from all manner of dead-end living, and empowered us to live well, to do good as God originally planned from creation onward.
And Jesus accomplishes such gracious wonders in my life and yours, along with countless others, Paul insists, together. In Jesus Messiah we are each “brought back from the dead,” and in Jesus Messiah we are inducted into the new creation, for through Messiah “God takes the two (or how many ever there may be) and makes them one new humanity.” Just as the old “passes away” in terms of our past lives individually, so the old “passes away” in terms of the interpersonal, familial, and social relationships between people. Just as Messiah Jesus forgives, liberates and brings flourishing to our personal lives, so the Messiah Jesus draws together a fragmented humanity, bridging the gaps, collapsing the walls, and reconciling families, clans, tribes, and people-groups.
Some make a distinction between the gospel itself (as they might put it) which addresses the problem of sin and its damage in the personal lives of people—salvation proper—and the consequences or the relational implications of “salvation” that followers of Jesus work out in relation to other people and the world more generally. But that is not the way Paul describes “salvation.”
One of the most telling indications of this is that when Paul describes the new humanity created by the Messiah Jesus, he uses the terms and concepts we often reserve for personal salvation. Paul says Jesus evangelized (proclaimed as good news) peace to gentiles and Jews when they were bitterly divided. He says that it was Jesus’ blood and flesh and cross that destroyed the hostility and enmity between Jews and gentiles. In fact, when Jesus died on the cross he demolished the walls of separation, reconciled each group to the other, and transformed them together into a new humanity.
On the strength of such “evangelization” Jesus Messiah does what no other faith, philosophy, social program, or political ideology could do: He names the brokenness of the human family, lays the flesh of his body down, offers the blood of his body up, and dies on a cross. In so doing, he establishes peace for those near and far from God and each other. In so doing, he takes them and us into the fellowship of God’s Beloved. That is, he pronounced peace, and there was peace.
I cannot help but conclude:
- That the whole gospel is both personal and social, with both horizontal and vertical reach.
- Since Jesus proclaimed personal and communal peace, and gave his life for it, to heal and restore individuals and people groups, we should preach, teach, pray and practice “the peace.”
- The one place on earth where people of all places, cultures and backgrounds can be one is within the community of Jesus that participates in new creation and becomes a new humanity.
- If Jesus prioritized such peace-making, we should too—bridging the divides on the strength of the gospel.
- If we are saved individually to a life of good works, then pursuing social and relational justice expresses at least some of the good works central to the life God intends us to live.
- In societies like ours where individuals and groups may shape the governing structures and systems of the land, followers of Jesus will humbly recognize the value of every person and group of persons and will eagerly welcome and facilitate the contributions each may offer in every sphere and sector of society possible.
- The church, in her ministries of word and deed, showcase the power of the whole gospel to draw people into the new creation and the new humanity Jesus brings. Her members, the People of God, live as envoys and agents of the Messiah’s peace. They demonstrate the accomplishments of Jesus Messiah in the cosmic plan of God. In time, all things are to be made one under the Lord Jesus. Before the time, both the possibility and the actuality of this plan is mirrored when, in the Messiah, former enemies become friends, siblings, and one people of God.