(Thoughts on Ephesians 2:12)
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a remarkable book, one that is full of wonderful expressions of truth. In the first three chapters Paul lays out, in glorious fashion, the riches of the grace we have in Christ. His adoration for the gospel just keeps spilling out, and he even gets long-winded (in a good way) as he does so. Take a look at some of his gospel-saturated, lengthy sentences which span several verses at a time (e.g. 1:7-10, 1:15-21, 3:14-19). Some of the most magnificent portrayals of the New Covenant are found in this book.
With this in mind, it’s amazing to consider that today there is a popular teaching insisting that the New Covenant which Paul describes here in Ephesians and elsewhere is NOT the same New Covenant which was foreseen by the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:26-27). This is despite the fact that the author of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah’s prophecy and explicitly states (Hebrews 8:6-13) that this New Covenant had been established in his own time (i.e. in the first century AD). The “problem” seems to be that Jeremiah and Ezekiel addressed their prophecies to “the house of Israel.” Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism are notoriously unwilling to acknowledge that the Church IS spiritual Israel, and their proponents often have harsh words for those who believe this. Shortly we will see that Ephesians 2:12, being just one such example in the New Testament, does not allow their position to stand.
[Please bear with this brief explanation before we get back to looking at Ephesians. Prior to Progressive Dispensationalism taking root in western Christianity within the last few decades, Classic Dispensationalists like H.A. Ironside, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, and John Walvoord claimed that the Old Testament never foresaw the coming of the Church age, and that God will one day bring an end to the Church age and resume His program with national/ethnic Israel. This was the teaching of John Nelson Darby, who founded this theological system in the 1830’s, and of C.I. Scofield, who published his famous reference Bible in 1909. These men and others also taught (or teach) that the New Covenant is reserved for a future millennium period! Consider the following statements regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy of a coming New Covenant:
 “This covenant must follow the return of Christ at the [yet future] second advent… This covenant will be realized in the [yet future] millennial age… the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 must and can be fulfilled only by the nation Israel and not by the Church” (Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, 1958).
 “…the new covenant is with Israel and the fulfillment [will be] in the millennial kingdom after the second coming of Christ… the new covenant as revealed in the Old Testament concerns Israel and requires fulfillment in the millennium kingdom” (John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 1959).
 “The Church, then, is not under the new covenant…it is Israel which is God’s covenant people” (Harry Ironside, Notes on the Prophecy of and Lamentations of Jeremiah, 1906).
One proposed solution by more recent Progressive Dispensationalists is that there are two new covenants (!) in Scripture, one for the Church (now) and one for national/ethnic Israel (later). This belief seems to be true for those who would affirm that the Church presently lives in the New Covenant (and experiences the taking away of sin), but who also assert that Romans 11:26-27 (“And in this way all Israel will be saved…and this will be My covenant with them when I take away their sins”) will only be fulfilled in the future for ethnic Jews. This belief doesn’t stand up either, as we will see. For a much fuller treatment of the implications of this facet of Dispensationalist teaching, please see the first half of this post from our series on Revelation 20.]
Having expressed these thoughts, let’s now look at a very pivotal section in Ephesians 2, verses 11-22. I don’t want to take anything away from the very valuable things Paul expresses earlier in this chapter, and in fact verse 11 begins with “therefore,” meaning that what Paul says next is based on what he has just said earlier. So here’s a quick summary of the first half of the chapter: Paul reminds the believers in Ephesus that they were once dead in their sins (verses 1-3), but that God in His mercy and love had made them alive in Christ (verses 4-5). They are now seated with God in Christ in heavenly places (verses 6-7). It was not by any works of their own that they were saved, but only by grace through faith. Their salvation was a gift from God, and they were created anew for the purpose of walking in good works (verses 8-10). With this as context, here’s what Paul says in verses 11-22:
11Therefore 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— 12remember 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. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once werefar off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by 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, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18Forthrough Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
It would certainly be profitable to break this passage down verse-by-verse, and there are so many rich truths here, but I’d like to mainly zero in on verse 12 which is highlighted above. First, we should note that Paul is specifically addressing Gentile believers (verse 11), that is, non-Jewish followers of Christ. One of his reminders to them is that they were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.” By speaking this way, Paul clearly indicates that they are now part of “the commonwealth of Israel.”
There is simply no getting around the idea that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers are part of God’s people, Israel, here in Ephesians 2:12. And make no mistake about it, Jewish believers are part of this same covenant people of God, but no more so and no less so: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on Him” (Romans 10:12); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). There are no spiritual blessings which are available for males but not for females, nor are there any spiritual blessings which are available for Jews but not for non-Jews. Does Scripture leave us any room to believe that a future age will come along and change this reality? No, it does not.
In Ephesians 2:12 Paul also reminds His believing Gentile audience that they were once “strangers to the covenants of promise.” Again, by speaking this way, Paul clearly indicates that they are now recipients of “the covenants of promise” which were made to Israel. In the next chapter, Paul explicitly defines the mystery of Christ (which had been kept hidden in generations past) as the joining together of Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the partaking of the promise in Christ through the gospel: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). In Galatians 3 Paul likewise declares that all the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. He then defines Abraham’s “offspring,” contrary to what many might expect, as singularly Christ (Gal. 3:16). He finally adds that those who belong to Christ—with zero regard for ethnicity, gender, or status (Gal. 3:28)—are heirs of those promises (Gal. 3:29). So Paul says here in Ephesians 2 exactly what he also says in Galatians 3.
With these things established, can it be possible that any Old Testament covenants or promises are yet to be fulfilled for ethnic Jews only? Can Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27 (which promised a coming New Covenant) be awaiting a fulfillment which Gentile believers will have no part in? No. Such an idea does great violence to all that Paul argues in Galatians, Ephesians, and elsewhere. Those who are still looking for such a covenant to arrive are about 2000 years too late, and far too narrow in their view of to whom this covenant belongs. The New Covenant is already here, and the heavenly Jerusalem is already a reality for God’s people (Hebrews 12:22-24).
I also highlighted Ephesians 2:19 because Paul refers to the Church as “the household of God,” very similar to the way he calls the Church “the household of faith” in Galatians 6:10. It would seem that these phrases are a New Testament equivalent to the oft-used expression in the Old Testament, “the household of Israel,” used by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel as we have seen. As mentioned near the beginning of this post, it seems that Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists tend to trip up over the Old Testament phrase, “the household of Israel,” because they are somehow convinced that the promises made to ancient Israel must only be fulfilled among their physical descendants.
However, we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. First, how often did Jesus and the apostles make the point that being able to physically trace one’s self to Abraham means nothing? Observe what Jesus said in John 8 to the Jews of His day who appealed to Abraham as their father, and observe whom Jesus said was their father instead. Observe what Paul says in Romans 9:6-8, “…For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring… This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Here Paul equates being a part of Israel with being a child of God. In this New Covenant age, then, can you be a child of God and not be a part of Israel? (Of course, I’m not referring to that nation in the Middle East which happens to bear this same name. By “Israel,” I mean God’s covenant people.) In Romans 2:28-29, Paul further says that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly…a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart…” In Galatians 6:15-16, Paul declares that only a new creation counts for anything, and then pronounces peace and mercy upon “the Israel of God.” If, despite the evidence above, you are one of the many who believe that Paul’s use of this phrase, “the Israel of God,” must refer only to Jewish believers, please examine this very well-written and informative article by Michael Marlowe.
Secondly, an honest appraisal of the New Testament will show that the inspired writers of the NT clearly apply many specific promises once made to ancient Israel to the Church, the body of Christ. Shall we rebuke them for promoting the allegedly false teachings of “replacement theology”? As we have seen above, the NT authors also declare that the Church is no longer alienated from ANY of the promises and covenants, because they are recipients of ALL of them. They are all found in Christ, but they are not to be found outside of Christ. Again, Jews are not left out, for a remnant from among them would call out to the Lord and be saved (they have done so throughout the last 2000 years). Paul makes this clear (see Romans 11:1-6, where he uses himself as an example).
Let’s look again at what Ephesians 2:12 says: “[R]emember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” What is “the commonwealth of Israel”? What is it not? As we consider how we are not alienated from this entity, if we try to replace this phrase with “national Israel” or “ethnic Jews,” we’ll see that this doesn’t work. If you are a non-Jew (ethnically speaking), can you say that because of Christ you are now fully integrated into the political nation of Israel? Or can you say that you are very much a part of the worldwide ethnic Jewish community? No, but I believe you’ll find that this explanation given by Albert Barnes in 1834 makes sense:
“Being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel – …This means more than that they were not Jews. It means that they were strangers to that ‘polity’ …or arrangement by which the worship of the true God had been kept up in the world, and of course were strangers to the true religion. The arrangements for the public worship of Yahweh were made among the Jews. They had his law, his temple, his sabbaths, and the ordinances of his religion; see the notes at Romans 3:2… The word rendered here as ‘commonwealth’ – πολιτεία politeia – means properly ‘citizenship,’ or ‘the right of citizenship,’ and then ‘a community,’ or ‘state.’ It means here ‘that arrangement or organization by which the worship of the true God was maintained.’”
Indeed, Paul says this of his own “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3),
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5).
Paul, who agonized over his own people so much that he could have wished himself “accursed and cut off from Christ” (verse 3) for their sake, yet affirms to the Gentile believers in Ephesus that they were present heirs of all the promises and covenants which were articulated to the commonwealth of Israel in times past. All alienation had ceased. It hasn’t resumed since then, it hasn’t resumed in our day, and it won’t resume in the future. It’s gone because of the work of the cross, and that alienation is gone forever. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are a follower of Christ, it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is. You are a full-fledged member of the commonwealth of Israel, and all of God’s promises are yours through Jesus Christ.