Christ is our peace

Peace Among the Nations

A Bible study on Ephesians 2:11-22

The kingdom of God and Christian community

The second chapter of Ephesians says of Jesus Christ, He is our peace (Eph. 2:14).

The author of this document is writing to a Christian congregation made up of both Jews and non-Jews, or “Gentiles”. He recognizes that they are often described as distinct factions within the church, “the circumcision” and “the uncircumcision”. The Greek word for “Gentiles” is ethné, the root for the English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity”; some versions of the Bible translate the term as “the nations” or “the peoples” and, like the Hebrew word goyim, it signifies all nations other than Israel. In this sense, “the Gentiles” were set apart by Jewish authors as “the others” or “the Other”, as people distinctly different from members of their own community.

The author writes as a Jew by birth. He adopts assumptions that distance him from those who come from Gentile backgrounds. In this section of the letter he addresses “you” Gentiles (2:11) “who once were far off” (2:13; cf. Col. 1:21) as opposed to the chosen people of Israel – apparently, the author’s own biological relatives – “who were near” to God (2:17) even in the past. These historic compatriots within the commonwealth and covenant of God are contrasted with the Gentiles who were “aliens” and “strangers”. It is clear from such words and phrases that members of the earliest church at times viewed their own membership as internally divided.

There are a number of New Testament passages that testify to divisions and jealousies separating Christians. Even within the earliest Jewish-Christian congregation in Jerusalem, there were disagreements among the Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking believers (Acts 6:1). In Paul’s letters, tense relations between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians is found as a recurring theme (for example, Gal. 2:11-14; Rom. 3:1-2, 21-30; and 1Cor. 1:22-24 where the terms “Jews” and “Greeks” are used). The gospels feature accounts in which Jesus is linked with non-Jews; among these Gentiles are the wise men from the East (Matt. 2:1-2), the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30//Matt. 15:21-28), the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and at least two Roman centurions (Matt. 8:5-13; Mark 15:39 and parallels). One of the purposes of these passages is to demonstrate that Christ’s good news is not restricted to the lost sheep of the house of Israel but extends to all.

A point made repeatedly by New Testament authors is that divisions among Jewish and Gentile believers are incompatible with the kingdom of God that Jesus announced. The letter traditionally addressed to the church at Ephesus puts this message in terms of bringing down a barricade: Where once there was a “dividing wall” between one group and another, a barrier composed of “the hostility” that each side harboured against the other (Eph. 2:14), Jesus Christ has acted through the cross to “create one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (2:15).

Pheme Perkins, writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible,[1] examines the role of the cross in Ephesians 2:16:

  The cross has achieved what no human ever could: reconciliation of a sinful humanity with God… By dying on the cross, God breaks down a wall that separated humanity from God. Humans are too trapped in the deadly effects of sin to return to God on their own – or even to notice the wall that is keeping God out. Why is the cross important to Christians today? People still need to be convinced of God’s unconditional love for them.

In the English language, the cross has come to be understood in terms of the Christian doctrine of “atonement”. The word atone originates in the two words “at one” – so that the cross is seen as God acting in Christ to overcome past divisions and bring about the possibility of reconciliation.[2]

The vision in Ephesians is of a congregation, a local community of believers redeemed by the cross of Jesus Christ and living as subjects of the kingdom of God. In this community, each member has equal “access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18). People of different origins – once “strangers and aliens” to one another – will, in the end, find unity as fellow “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (2:19).

Dividing walls of hostility

In the ancient world, cities were surrounded by walls. Towering rows of stone served as a recognition of the hostility that existed between peoples. There was normally a sense of security in being snugly inside the walls; on the opposite side, being shut out of the city marked one’s exclusion from the community within.

Today we find walls, both literal and figurative, in the world around us.

A “separation barrier” mars the landscape of Palestine and Israel. The de-militarized zone (DMZ) divides the Korean peninsula. High fences defend borders between some countries, with camps nearby for the detention of would-be migrants. Baghdad with its “green zone”, Famagusta in northern Cyprus and Belfast in northern Ireland are among the cities of our world demarcated by “blast walls” and barbed wire, keeping one group of inhabitants from easy interaction with neighbouring groups.

In more towns and cities, less tangible barriers are erected between the rich and the poor, the native-born and the immigrants, persons of varying ethnicities, citizens of one faith and people of other traditions. Even when these boundaries are not patrolled by armed guards, the raw material most often used in their construction is mutual hostility.

Despite the many walls that remain, recent history provides at least one memorable example of the real possibility of establishing peace: the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and its subsequent dismantling. Metaphorical walls have fallen, too, in events like the electoral defeat of the minority government in South Africa and the landmark presidency of Nelson Mandela.

The unity of Christians in a divided world

Ephesians speaks directly to the healing of divisions among Christians. Its teaching promotes equality within the church, calling for members of the faith to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

In the nearly two millennia since the New Testament was written, a number of divisions have arisen among Christians. Quite apart from theological disputes, instances of schism and denominationalism have frequently drawn strength from differences in ethnicity, race, nationality, geography. Do the ethnic rivalries reflected in Ephesians and other first-century texts offer a word to us regarding later cases of disharmony among Christians?

And what responsibility do Christians bear regarding disunity in the world as a whole? Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for Christian unity in the South African struggle against political domination by one race. He famously observed that apartheid was “too strong for a divided church”,[3] and as a leader of the South African Council of Churches he inspired the ecumenical resistance to minority rule in his nation. In unity, Christianity found spiritual resources to make a difference in establishing justice and peace in the world. For the author of Ephesians, too, unity in Christ leads the believer to ministries beyond the boundaries of one’s own community. Indeed, the purpose of church unity is conceived and presented in literally universal terms:

Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

(Eph. 3:8-10)


Members of the church of Jesus Christ on earth are called to unity as a stage on their journey outward into the world. They take what they have learned as “members of God’s household” (oikeioi) and apply these lessons to the whole inhabited earth (oikoumene).

Ralph P. Martin has commented[4] on the passage under discussion:

No passage of the New Testament could be more relevant… The world that we know and inhabit is fallen, divided, suspicious and full of the possibility and threat of self-destruction. The apostle’s teaching holds out the hope and prospect of a reconciled, unified and amicable society, whose microcosm is seen in the church’s worldwide, transnational and reconciling family.

It has been said that the church serves as “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for the whole world”. Christian unity is essential so that the church may bear witness to the possibility of “one new humanity” (2:15) extending throughout the world, with access to God “in one Spirit” (2:18). Having once experienced the leveling of walls within the church, Christians will be enabled to bring a convincing “peace testimony” to rulers, authorities and all who long to overcome violence and put hostility behind them.

Breaking down and building up

In Ephesians 2:11-22 we are presented with an image of Christ as one who “breaks down” the dividing wall of hostility that separates peoples and nations (2:14), yet he is also revealed as the cornerstone of a new construction, a home to shelter and nurture all the community within “a dwelling place for God” (2:19-22).


Using images from printed publications or the Internet, construct a collage depicting “the dividing walls of hostility” in our world today – or depicting the overcoming of divisions.

Is there a group within your church or a nearby church whom you regard as “the others”? Describe examples of divisions within churches or in the whole church, and ways in which attempts are made to address suspicions and heal divisions among Christians.

Drawing on your own context, how do you see people of faith “building up”; i.e., contributing to peace among separate peoples or ethnic groups?

In seeking peace among the nations of the earth, what responsibility do you believe churches and church-related institutions have in the realm of lobbying, international diplomacy and peace-making?

Recalling Desmond Tutu’s warning that apartheid was “too strong for a divided church”, discuss where the churches’ priorities lie: To what extent must we concentrate on being reconciled to brothers and sisters in Christ, and to what extent must we focus our time and energy working for peace and justice throughout the world?

Discuss the history, contemporary attitudes, misunderstandings and fears that contribute to hostility between different faith communities. Does religion play a major role in modern-day confrontations between nations? Give specific examples.

Meditate on the cross. Consider the dynamics of “atonement” – between God and humanity, among individuals, between one group and another, among nations.

What are the confrontations in church and world that bother you most? What can Christians do to “break down” walls of hostility still dividing people and nations?

Christ is our peace!” What does this affirmation mean for you?



Bible study by Theodore A. Gill.

[1] P. Perkins, ‘The Letter to the Ephesians’, NIB vol.11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 405.

[2] Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19-21. Atonement with God enables the community itself to be “at one” (Eph. 4:4-5).

[3] Michael Kinnamon and Brian Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva/Grand Rapids: WCC Publications/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 241.

[4] R.P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon in the Interpretation commentary series (Atlanta: John Knox, 1991), 32.