In the second chapter of Ephesians there is a widely misunderstood
passage: “For He [Christ] Himself is our peace, who has made both one,
and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances,
so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace” (Eph.2: 14-15).
What is this “middle wall of separation”---or “middle wall of partition between us,” as it’s rendered in the KJV? Also, what is “the law
of commandments contained in ordinances” that was abolished by Christ’s crucifixion?
We will now look at the answers to these questions, and the truth may be surprising!
Consider the context of the passage above. First, the verses which immediately precede the passage: “Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are
called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— that at that time you were without
Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from 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” (verses 11-13). Now,
the verses which follow the passage: “and that He
might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off
and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit
to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and
foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (verses 16-19).
So, the entire context of this passage is a discussion of how the Jews and Gentiles had
been very separate from one another, but now ---through Christ’s sacrifice---
they could become one.
Both groups could be “spiritual Israelites.” Yes, all
true Christians are Israelites ---i.e., spiritual Israelites--- Israelites by grace, not
necessarily Israelites by race. It is only through Christ that a Gentile can become a spiritually adopted Israelite---and
thus become a seed (child) of Abraham---who was the father of Israel, and to whom the promises of God were made.
(see subheading “New Covenant for GENTILES?”) Speaking
to Gentile-born Christians in Galatia, Paul said, “And if you are Christ‘s, then you are Abraham‘s seed, and heirs according to the promise² (Gal.3:29).
Now that we have the overall picture, let’s look
more closely at the separation and animosity that had existed for many hundreds
of years between the Israelites and Gentiles.
It was, in fact, according to God’s will that
the Israelites---God’s chosen people---keep themselves somewhat separate
from the rest of the world (Deut.7:2-6; 12:29-31; Jer.10:2; Num.33:51-56; Neh.13:23-27; Ex.34:15). However,
at times, Jewish religious leaders had wrongly taken this concept to an extreme.
“In the days of the apostles social intercourse [interaction] with gentiles… rendered a Jew ceremonially unclean, according to the tradition of the elders. Even entering a gentile house (for example,
John 18:28) or handling articles belonging to gentiles did so. Bread, milk or
olive oil coming from gentile farms and marketplaces could not be eaten by an observant Jew….To sit down and eat with
a gentile was unthinkable.”1
At the Jewish Temple, a literal wall separated the Jews from any Gentiles who worshipped there. In
fact, attached to this wall were multiple written commands prohibiting the Gentiles
from crossing this barrier. Excavations
during 1871 and 1934 have recovered two such inscriptions which were on the wall.
One of them is as follows: “No foreigner [non-Israelite]
may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone
who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”2
It was the breaking
down of that wall, to which Paul made an analogy---when he said that Christ had
“broken down the middle wall of
That brings us to the second question:
What is “the law of commandments contained in ordinances,” spoken of in verse 15? Whatever
it is, verse 15 says that it caused “enmity [hostility],” and that it was abolished
in Christ’s flesh.
Many people assume that this refers to God’s
spiritual law as summarized by the Ten Commandments. However, such is not the case! It was not the Ten Commandments that were nailed to the cross! Furthermore, in no
way, would Paul have stated that God’s spiritual law had been “abolished”---since
Paul repeatedly endorsed God's law and knew that it remains in effect for Christians!
What, then, were these “commandments
contained in ordinances,” which caused hostility between
Jews and Gentiles?
The word “ordinances” in verse 15, is translated from the Greek word “dogma,”
and it refers here to human laws and decrees (see Note #1 below).
Notice a slight variation of this word---“dogmatizo”---which Paul used
in Colossians chapter 2: “Wherefore if ye be dead
with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances [dogmatizo],
(Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?”
(verses 20-22, KJV). These ordinances (dogmatizo) of “Touch not, taste not, handle not” refer to man-made ascetic ordinances. In fact, verse 22 above calls
them “commandments and doctrines of men”!
So, just as the “ordinances”
spoken of in Col. 2:20-22 are man-made ordinances, the “ordinances”
spoken of in Ephesians chapter 2 are, likewise, man-made ordinances. Furthermore,
these ordinances in Ephesians chapter 2 caused enmity, or hostility, between the Jews and the Gentiles.
This is speaking of, on the one hand,
the restrictive pharisaical decrees, which burdened and set apart the Jews---and,
on the other hand, the restrictive and divisive ordinances of the Gentiles, who were under the influence of pagan philosophers. The Gentiles---with their “great” philosophers---looked down on
the Jews, just as the Jews looked down on the Gentiles.
“Both sets of human ordinances [Jewish
and Gentile] contributed to feelings of prejudice, animosity, suspicion, and separation
between the Jews and gentiles who were being called into God’s Church. These
ordinances acted as a ‘middle wall of partition.’” 3 Some Jews who converted to Christianity found
it difficult to forget and change this deeply ingrained part of their lives.
Even the Apostle Peter was affected,
as evidenced in the following statement by Paul: “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood
him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for
before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when
they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision”
Yes, Paul rebuked Peter. Why? Because Peter was not acknowledging by his actions that Christ had
broken down this “wall of separation.”
In conclusion, we have plainly seen that in Eph. 2:15, where Paul speaks of the
“commandments contained in ordinances,” he is not
referring to God’s commandments.
Rather, he is referring to man-made
ordinances---which he also spoke of in Col.2: 20-22.
1. Regarding Paul’s usage of the Greek word “dogma”: His usage of this term in Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:20
is discussed above. The only
other scripture where Paul uses the term is in Colossians 2:14. Here, it does not refer to human laws and decrees. Yet, the reason that it does not, is because in this particular verse the word “dogma” is used as part of a Greek idiom---as discussed in the article "What Was Nailed to the Cross?"
1. “If You Had Seen Peter’s Vision…” Herman L. Hoeh, The Good News, January
2. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary,
vol. 11, p.40
3. Letter #88, August 1987, Personal
Correspondence Department, Worldwide Church of God