“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.” (Ephesians 2:11–12).
Paul believed sin caused double alienation. In his view, sin divides us from God and one another. The entirety of Ephesians 2 demonstrates how God has dealt with that double alienation. The first half, which we’ve already studied, taught us how God dealt with our alienation from Himself. The second half, which we’ve now come to, teaches us how God dealt with our alienation from one another.
Two episodes from the apostle's life come to mind. In the first, he is on the road to Damascus. On his knees because of the light of Christ, Paul realized his lostness and the love of God to provide the cross of His own Son as a way of rescue. Through faith, God delivered salvation to Paul. This story encapsulates Ephesians 2:1-10.
In the second story, decades later, he is on the island of Malta, shipwrecked on his way to Rome as a prisoner. After a handful of miracles, he preaches the gospel to the residents of the island; people considered barbarian by the Greek culture. Some are saved. He considers them brothers and sisters in Christ. This Jewish Pharisee is such a new man he can fellowship with His cultural opposite. This story encapsulates Ephesians 2:11-22. The double alienation caused by sin can be dealt with by the blood of Jesus Christ.
So in this section, we will look again at what we were, what Christ has done, and what we now are, just as we did in Ephesians 2:1-10. Only instead of the backdrop of our relationship with God, the backdrop will be our relationship to each other. Paul has already shown us how God has united us to Himself — now he’ll show us how Christ has united us to one another. We’ll look at what we were, what Christ did, and what we are today.
His first description of what we were is divisive; we were called a derogatory term by the religionists who thought themselves better than the rest of the world, a superior people. He typifies this in a statement he used to make—Gentiles were called “the uncircumcision” by Jewish religionists.
It is important to note that, by Paul's day, Jewish circumcision was far removed from God’s original intention. In Genesis, God had called Abraham, telling him it would be through his line all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This was a prophecy of the future Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would provide a means of salvation for all nations. Abraham believed God, so God imputed righteousness to Abraham. He was forgiven, righteous in the sight of God.
Later, God decided to give Abraham and his offspring a personal sign to remind them of the covenant God had made with them. He gave them circumcision, a sign so private only Abraham and his wife would be conscious of it. But over time in Israel, circumcision became less a sign of God’s grace and more of a work which made one righteous. Circumcision should have induced humble gratitude, but it devolved into spiritual pride.
By Paul’s day, circumcision had lost God’s intended meaning and had become a line of separation between Jew and Gentile. The chasm between Jew and Gentile was insurmountable, and both used derogatory terms to describe the other. Jews called Gentiles “the uncircumcision.” Gentiles called Jews “the circumcision.” Both expressions were meant as insults.
So Paul’s first description of what we were illustrates a powerful truth: if the blood of Jesus can bring together a divide as wide as the Jew and Gentile divide had become, then certainly it can bring together our lesser divides. This concept will be at the forefront of the rest of Ephesians 2, for Paul must continue showing the Gentile portion of the church what we were, what Christ has done, and what we now are.