There is more going on in Ephesians 2:11-22 than meets the eye:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated 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 once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. — Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV
In my previous post, I suggested that the preceding passage addresses historia salutis rather than ordo salutis. But in the passage above it is much more clear that the beginning speaks of a moment in history when Jesus initiated these things: a once and for all abolishing, which begins an ongoing process of creating, reconciling and preaching.
But Paul is saying something both more subtle and more profound than it seems at first glance. There is, after all, a sense in which Gentiles were not without hope and without God.
God always intended to save Gentiles in every generation. Gentiles were not without a promise of salvation. Before the flood, the seed of the younger son Seth appear to have been in a sort of priestly relationship to the world, in which calling they failed (the “sons of God” in Gen. 6:2). After the flood, Noah appears to establish the younger son Shem in a priestly relationship towards Japheth (Gen. 9:27). There is a possibility that Shem’s priestly ministry was narrowed to the line of Eber, in that the Bible calls attention several times to the fact that Abraham was an Eberite (e.g., Gen. 14:13). In any case, the priestly ministry to the nations is narrowed to the line of the younger son Abraham in God’s covenant with him (Gen. 12:3, 18:18).
Genesis 10 lists seventy nations descended from Noah, and this establishes a biblical symbolism whereby the number seventy often symbolizes the nations of the earth. One of the clearest instances of this symbolism is in Exodus 15:27, where Israel camps by twelve springs feeding seventy palm trees. God intended by this to signify their priestly and life-giving responsibility (as twelve tribes) towards the world of seventy nations.
While the Gentile stranger-sojourner could not participate in the feast of Passover without becoming an Israelite (Exodus 12:48), Gentiles were invited to the feasts of Pentecost and in-gathering (Deut. 16). In particular, the feast of in-gathering (or booths), the climactic feast of the festal calendar, was meant to symbolize that Gentiles would be gathered in to God’s house at the climax of the old covenant. Over the first seven days of this feast, a total of seventy bulls were sacrificed (Numbers 29) on behalf of the nations, with a final bull offered on the eighth day for Israel. The feast of booths followed the day of Atonement; taken together, this indicates that Israel’s priestly ministry to God was not only on behalf of their own sin but also on behalf of the sin of the nations, and for the very purpose of welcoming the nations into God’s feasting and fellowship.
While Israel’s priestly ministry in one sense placed them in a position of honor compared to the nations, it also placed them in a position of servanthood. The Pharisaical situation in the New Testament where Jew and Judaizer despised Gentile was never part of God’s plan. In fact, Gentile stranger-sojourners could present offerings to God at the tabernacle and temple (Num. 15:14-16). The arrangement in Herod’s temple, where Gentiles were separated from Jews (Acts 21:28), was contrary to God’s law. And while clearly the laws of uncleanness had symbolic implications for the nations (Acts 10), individual Gentiles are nowhere as such declared unclean. Since they could enter the assembly to present offerings, it was therefore entirely possible for a Gentile to satisfy the requirement of cleanness (Lev. 7:19-21).
In all this we see that Gentiles did possess a promise, a hope, and a salvation. Gentiles could be saved in one of two ways: either by incorporation into Israel through circumcision; or by remaining a Gentile, submitting to and placing their trust in Israel’s priestly ministry, and supporting and sponsoring this ministry. By these two means, many millions of Gentiles received salvation before the time of Jesus.
A cloud of witnesses
Through faith . . . women received back their dead by resurrection . . . — Heb. 11:35
And the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. — 1 Kings 17:22
But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. — Luke 4:25-26
The best-known example of Gentile salvation through incorporation into Israel is the mixed multitude that came with them out of Egypt (Ex. 12:37-38). Earlier the patriarchs had circumcised all of their numerous servants, resulting in their participation in Israel. Now, in the wilderness, God used a time of intense trial to forge a nation out of Israel’s clans and the mixed multitude. At the time of entry into Canaan, all males were circumcised (Joshua 5). All mention of the mixed multitude has vanished by this point — it appears that they were wholly incorporated into the tribes during their forty years of trial. (A similar thing happened to bring about the mixing of Jew and Gentile in the time of testing of the early church, in the forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem.) Caleb is perhaps the foremost example of this incorporation — he was a Kenizzite rather than an Israelite (Num. 32:12) and yet he is listed as a chief of the tribe of Judah (Num. 34:19).
Another case where many Gentiles converted to Judaism is in the book of Esther (Esther 8:5). While the ESV translates this “declared themselves Jews,” “became Jews” is more accurate. While some of these conversions may have been insincere, there is no reason in context to believe that this is not an overwhelming victory for the gospel. Circumcision is not something entered into lightly. One of the ways that God overcomes his enemies is by their conversion.
There are many examples of Gentiles who remained Gentiles but were saved by covenanting with and sponsoring God’s priestly people, in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham. In fact, the Bible has a name for such Gentiles: God-fearers. This term appears in the Psalms, where several times Israel, the house of Aaron, and God-fearers are listed separately (Ps. 115:9-13, 118:2-4, 135:19-20). Given the overall context of Psalm 66 (“all the earth,” “peoples”) it is likely that Psalm 66:16 also refers to God-fearers. God-fearers appear in Acts 13:16,26, and the Gentile Cornelius is also named a God-fearer (Acts 10:2). Job was not an Israelite (possibly he was the Edomite king Jobab of Genesis 36), and he too is a described as a righteous God-fearer (Job 1:1).
One particularly important group of God-fearers are the Gentile sponsors of some of God’s covenants. Melchizedek sponsors God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 14-15), Jethro (elsewhere called Reuel and Hobab) sponsors God’s covenant with Moses (Exodus 18-19), and Hiram the king of Tyre sponsors God’s covenant with David and Solomon (2 Sam. 5-7; 1 Kings 5-6). Cyrus (probably the same man as Darius the Mede) sponsors the restoration covenant with the return of exiles and the building of the temple. Artaxerxes (likely the same man as Darius the Great and Ahasuerus) further sponsors this covenant by sending Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem itself. These men feared God, trusted in and sponsored Israel’s priestly ministry, and no doubt led many of their people in the fear and worship of God (the widow of Zarephath mentioned above is part of Hiram’s legacy). Melchizedek is a particular type of Jesus’s priestly ministry (Heb. 5-7), and Cyrus and Ahasuerus as God’s “anointed” (Isa. 44-45, literally “Messiah”) are also types of Jesus.
Although the time of exile does not coincide with a generally recognized covenant, Nebuchadnezzar was also appointed by God, with Daniel’s assistance, to care for Israel during this time. He, too, seems to be genuinely converted. During their exile, Israel conducted missionary work in Babylon beyond converting Nebuchadnezzar; we see fruit of this in the wise men from the east who visit Jesus after his birth (Matthew 2). These men are likely the descendents of faithful God-fearers discipled by Daniel. Familiar with Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27), they were waiting for the end of 490 years just like Anna and Simeon, and knew to seek a prince among the Jews.
The patriarchs carried on a ministry of establishing altars and leading in worship, making God’s name known and spreading blessing through the Abrahamic promise. For example, Abraham established altars at Shechem, east of Bethel, and Hebron (Gen. 12-13). Abimelech covenants with Abraham (Gen. 23). The sons of Heth recognized him as a “prince of God” and unanimously desired to honor him (Gen. 23). Isaac and Jacob both establish altars, and another Abimelech actively seeks out Isaac after his departure in order to covenant with him (Gen. 26). By the end of Genesis, we have a preliminary, if temporary, fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, in that the whole world is blessed through Joseph (Gen. 41:57). Pharaoh and many of the Egyptians seem to be genuinely converted. Pharaoh recognizes that the spirit of God is in Joseph, after Joseph has testified of God’s power over the land of Egypt (and by implication, its gods; Gen. 41). Pharaoh also submits to Jacob’s blessing (Gen. 47). The greater always blesses the lesser (Heb. 7:7), and Pharaoh submits to a second blessing even after Jacob’s testimony of God-given trials. Moreover, Pharaoh and his servants seem genuinely glad and unresentful to welcome Joseph’s family. Joseph marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41); she is converted, and possibly her family. Much of Egypt is probably converted at this time, even if later Pharaohs and priests rebel against Yahweh.
While David was on the run from Saul, at several points he stayed with Achish king of the Philistine city of Gath (1 Sam. 21, 27-29). This involved some wise deception on David’s part. But what is interesting is that there is a Gittite in David’s retinue (2 Sam. 15, 18). Another Gittite named Obed-Edom has the great privilege of housing the ark of Yahweh (2 Sam. 6; 1 Chron. 13). Even more astounding, Obed-Edom’s household has an honored place in Israel, among the Levitical musicians (1 Chron. 15-16). Presumably they were circumcised into the tribe of Levi. Finally, when Jeremiah prophesies against the cities of the Philistines (Jer. 25:15ff), one of the five cities is conspicuously absent: Gath. Taken together, all of this seems to suggest that Gath itself may have entered into a God-fearing covenant with Israel.
Earlier we see a similar case with the Gibeonites and their covenanting with Israel (Joshua 9). They do not escape God’s declaration that all of Canaan will be devoted to him. In their case, they are devoted not to destruction but to the honor of service in God’s house (Joshua 9:27). Generations later, we find them still engaged in faithful service (1 Chron. 16:39, 21:29), and God avenges on their behalf (2 Sam. 21).
In the book of Jonah we see the Assyrians repent and serve God (Jonah 3). While the subsequent generation faltered, there is again no reason to doubt that the repentance was genuine or that this was a great victory for the gospel. Just as God appointed a fish to carry Jonah (Jonah 1:17), he was also preparing Assyria to carry Israel for a time.
The Bible is not primarily concerned to tell us about the work God was doing outside of the seed line, so we get only fleeting glimpses of it. Among others, we know of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), whose subsequent loyalty to God’s people may have extended to serving as a spy (2 Kings 6:12). We know of Uriah the Hittite, Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabite, and the queen of Sheba (the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26ff is part of her legacy). Ahab’s righteous steward Obadiah is believed by some to be an Edomite, and others to be a Tyrean.
What, then, of Paul’s statement? In what sense were the Gentiles alienated, without hope, and without God? I’ll address that in my next post.