Expounding the greatness of salvation in Christ Jesus, especially as it is now manifested to believing Gentiles, Paul continues to describe the Gentiles’ situation before Jesus’ arrival in today’s passage. He reminds Gentiles that they should not be haughty on account of their redemption, for they were as far away as possible from God’s grace before Christ came and have no reason to believe their rescue from sin and death was due to any inherent worthiness. Of course, the same could be said for Jewish Christians — they had no intrinsic merit that moved the Lord to save them. They did have certain advantages, however, in that they at least had access to the oracles of salvation and the promises of God given to Abraham, Moses, and David (Rom. 9:4–5). Prior to the advent of Christ, however, the Gentiles were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12a).
In referring to the Gentiles as “separated from Christ” prior to the advent of Jesus, which implies that all the Jews were united to Him, Paul does not mean that every person born into the old covenant enjoyed salvation. The idea here might be better rendered as “separated from the hope of Christ,” that is, “separated from the hope of the Messiah.” Even though many Jews before Jesus’ incarnation never entered into a saving relationship with the Lord God Almighty, the nation as a collective whole had the revealed promise of the One who would come, crush the Serpent, and rule in righteousness forever (Gen. 3:15; 49:10; Isa. 53; Amos 9:11–12). The Gentile nations as a whole, however, had no such assurance.
The Gentiles were also “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12a). Paul uses this language as another way of pointing out the relative disadvantage of the Gentiles to the Jewish nation. Despite the failure of old covenant Israel to live up to its high calling as a collective body and its frequent refusal to be separated from the ungodly world, the Jews did have the distinct advantage of special revelation (the Old Testament) that always called them back to a right relationship with God. The Gentiles, however, lacked such benefits, being left to themselves to pursue their own destructive desires.