Why are you a Christian?

There are a few different ways you might answer that question. Depending on how you look at it, you might say that it’s because you accepted Christ or placed your faith in Him at some point. Or you might say that it’s because your parents nurtured you in the faith, so there’s never been a time that you did not believe in God and trust in Christ as your Savior. If you look at it from God’s perspective, you might say that it’s because He elected you to salvation before the foundation of the world and that you came to faith because of His sovereign work in your life.

But what if we ask the question differently: Why are you a Christian and not a Jew?

If you are like most Christians, you are a gentile, that is, not of Jewish descent or a convert from Judaism. Under the old covenant, gentiles had to become like Jews by marking themselves off from the surrounding nations—literally, in the case of circumcision, and figuratively, by abstaining from common pagan practices and worshiping the God of Israel alone.

In the Old Testament, it was expected that the nations would hear of the God of Israel and would come to worship Him. Israel was meant to be a blessing to the nations, who would then come to worship their God (Gen. 12:1–3). There are clear examples of gentiles converting or otherwise petitioning the God of Israel in Joshua 2, the book of Ruth, and 2 Kings 5; some other possible examples of gentile faith are found in Jonah 3 and Daniel 4 and 6.

The center of the old covenant religion was first the tabernacle and then the temple. At the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon assumes that gentiles will come to worship the Lord there, and he asks that their prayers would be heard (vv. 41–43). Isaiah speaks of the nations’ coming to worship alongside Israel (Isa. 55), and the sons of Korah speak of the conversion of Israel’s enemies and their coming to the temple mount (Ps. 87). In the restoration after the Babylonian exile, the rebuilding of the temple meant that once again gentiles could come and entreat the God of heaven and earth (Hag. 2:7; Zech. 8:20–23).

In the early church, the relationship between the gentiles and the Jews was a bit of an open question. During His earthly ministry, Jesus spent most of His time among Jews, but He also interacted with gentiles and Samaritans (see Matt. 8:5–13; 15:21–28; John 4). There were many gentiles present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but the early church wasn’t sure what to make of gentiles at first. It seems to have been a pleasant surprise in Acts 10–11 that gentiles were granted repentance unto life alongside Jews (11:18). At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the leaders of the church had to decide what was required of gentiles who placed their faith in Christ, concluding that they were not required to be circumcised. By not requiring of gentiles the entrance rite into Judaism, the church leaders were affirming that it is not necessary to become a Jew into order to be a Christian.

So, what is a Christian? A Christian is something else. He is not a Jew or a gentile. Paul addresses this new reality in Ephesians 2:11–22. In this letter, he is addressing a group of gentile Christians (v. 11), and he explains their relationship to God, to Christ, and to the Jews by using two metaphors. The first is spatial, and the second is architectural.

Christ has fulfilled the old covenant expectation that the nations would stream into the temple, but He has done so in a surprising way.

The spatial metaphor concerns these gentile believers’ distance from God and His people. They were once strangers and aliens: “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12; see also v. 17). Their separation from God and His promises to Israel meant that they had no hope of salvation. But now, through Christ and His sacrifice, they have been brought near (v. 13).

The ironic thing is that the Jews had typically thought of themselves as strangers and aliens when it comes to the world—they were separated from the nations, sometimes exiled among them, and strange because of their strict monotheism and repudiation of paganism. The gentiles, while they were at home in the world, were at the receiving end of an implicit rebuke stemming from the Jews’ separateness. This resulted in a state of hostility between Jews and gentiles. In Christ, this breach has been healed: “He himself is our peace” (v. 14).

Here is where the architectural metaphor begins. In the tabernacle and temple, there were various divisions. The outermost area was the court, which led into the Holy Place, which led into the Most Holy Place. How far in you were able to go was determined by who you were. Jewish men were allowed into the court. Levites were allowed into the Holy Place. But only the high priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place, and then only on the Day of Atonement. Not everyone had equal access to God. In the time of the New Testament, this gradation of access was expanded in the Herodian temple. Herod enlarged the temple of Ezra by adding a court for Jewish women and a court for gentiles. Depending on who you were, you could come so far, but no farther.

Paul says, “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” (vv. 14–16). Notice first that the “dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down. This is a metaphor referring to the enmity between Jews and gentiles, but it has a real-life referent in the actual walls that kept the gentiles out from the inner courts of the temple. In Christ, this wall, this separation between Jews and gentiles, is abolished. In Christ, gentiles have equal access to God.

How is this so? It is because He “has made us both one” (v. 14). You could say that under the old covenant, there were two kinds of people: Jews and gentiles. In Christ, there is only one kind of people. There is no Jew and no gentile, no male or female (Gal. 3:28). There are only Christians, and we all have the same access through Christ, the “one new man” and “one body” to whom all believers are united by faith and through whom they are reconciled to God (Eph. 2:15–16).

Christ, by fulfilling the laws and ordinances of the old covenant, has rendered them obsolete (Eph. 2:15; cf. Heb. 8:13). They are no longer necessary for a worshiper to be allowed into God’s presence. To continue to observe these ordinances would be to repudiate the work of Christ, for they pointed forward to Him and were rendered obsolete by His sacrifice. Christ now grants us the access to God that we need: “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). More than that, we have a new identity: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (v. 19). This is the glory of the gospel: those who were far off have been brought near and included among God’s family.

But Paul is not done with the architectural metaphor. Once Christ came and the purpose of the temple and its ordinances was fulfilled, what became of the temple? It was transformed: the people of God are now the temple. Christ through His work expanded the temple into all the nations. Believers are the new, living temple of God, one that is “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” (vv. 20–22; cf. 1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6). So, Christ has fulfilled the old covenant expectation that the nations would stream into the temple, but He has done so in a surprising way—not by having them come to a physical building in Jerusalem, but by dwelling in and among them by His Spirit (v. 22).

We are the nations, and God has been gracious in bringing us in through Christ. We do not need to observe the civil and ceremonial regulations because Christ has fulfilled them on our behalf. We do not need to become Jews because through Christ we are the new man. We do not need to go to a physical temple to have access to God, because we are the temple through Christ, the cornerstone. All of this is for the glory of God, who has wonderfully fulfilled all His promises through Christ.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on August 22, 2018.

Prayer: A Discourse with God

A Fresh Look at Basics