Following up on yesterday’s post, I would like to address the claim that the judicial law of Moses was part of the dividing wall that separated Jews and Gentiles. When arguments are made against applying the general equity of the judicial law to societies today, the argument is sometimes made that the judicial law was a form of bondage that New Covenant believers are freed from. I addressed that argument in the aforementioned post. Today, I want to look at another verse that is sometimes used to claim the judicial law is no longer to be applied. In this case, Ephesians 2:14-15 is used to present the judicial law as part of the “wall of hostility” that Christ came to break down. (Reading yesterday’s post first will help this one make more sense.)
To begin, let’s consider the whole context of this passage by looking at Ephesians 2:11-22.
Therefore 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—remember 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For 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. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 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. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
The passage begins by drawing a distinction between Jews and Gentiles as it relates to the ceremonial law (v. 11, circumcision versus uncircumcision). The Jews viewed the uncircumcised as outside the covenant people of God and therefore outside the great blessings that God had promised Abraham and his descendants. This is why the Gentiles are referred to as having been “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). The text itself gives absolutely no indication that Paul believed the Gentiles were alienated from God because they couldn’t apply the judicial law in their communities. The focus is clearly on the ceremonial law, with the focal point being circumcision. (Circumcision is often used to represent the entirety of the ceremonial law; see Romans 2:25-28.)
The fact that the dividing wall is focused on the ceremonial law is further confirmed in Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” The Jews (and knowledgeable Gentiles) understood that the whole sacrificial system (of which the ceremonial law was tied to) was based upon the shedding of blood (cf. Hebrews 9:22). It was this sacrificial and ceremonially system that drew very strong distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. In fact, the ESV Study Bible notes that there “was an inscription on the wall of the outer courtyard of the Jerusalem temple warning Gentiles that they would only have themselves to blame for their death if they passed beyond it into the inner courts.” The sacrificial system, with its inherent wall of division between Jews and Gentiles, has now been abrogated by Jesus Christ. His once for all sacrifice was made for both Jews and Gentiles. There are no longer any ceremonial distinctions to identify the people of God. The distinction is between those who have faith in Jesus Christ and those who do not.
Given all this, it makes no sense to assume that either the “wall” or the phrase “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15) are referring to the civil case laws of the Old Testament. The entire context points to the ceremonial law. Nevertheless, the ESV Study Bible uses imprecise language when commenting on the “commandments” and “ordinances.” It identifies these things “as the Mosaic law, which included many commandments that served to separate Israel from the other nations.” It goes on to note that “the law was a ‘dividing wall’ (v. 14) which Christ has abolished or rendered powerless both by fulfilling it and by removing believer’s from the law’s condemnation.” This leads to some serious obfuscation to the casual reader.
First of all, the purpose of the judicial law was not to separate Israel from other nations—its purpose was to apply the moral law and see that justice was done in the land (for both Jews and Gentiles). Furthermore, there are specific case laws which point to the inclusion of Gentiles into the nation, not their exclusion (cf. Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 24:22). Note that this shows a clear distinction between the judicial law and the ceremonial law. An uncircumcised gentile could be treated with justice and fairness according to the judicial law, but would have been cut off from the worship of God and covenant community due to ceremonial distinctions.
Furthermore, the ESV Study Bible’s reference to Christ having fulfilled the law and removed the law’s condemnation does not fit into any context dealing with the judicial laws (or even the ceremonial law). (Note: I am not saying the ESV Study Bible was attempting to argue for the abrogation of the judicial law, only that its comments on this passage are similar to those who would attempt to use this passage to argue for the abrogation of the judicial law; therefore, I am interacting with them to show that the comments—and the Ephesians 2 passage—have nothing to do with the judicial law.) The condemnation of the law has nothing to do with the contents of the law. It has to do with a person’s rebellion against that law and their disobedience. The condemnation is that we have broken the moral law of God. The freedom from the condemnation of the law is not related to the ceremonial law or even the judicial law explicitly. The ceremonial law condemned no one. In fact, the Apostle Paul argues that if one kept the moral law and not the ceremonial law, they would be regarded as “ceremonially clean” (Romans 2:25-29).
So our freedom from the condemnation of the law relates to the removal of our guilt because of Christ’s work on our behalf—but even the freedom from the condemnation of the law in no way lessens our obligation to obey it! However, Ephesians 2:11-22 is not dealing explicitly with either the moral law or the judicial law (which was an application of the moral law), but rather with the ceremonial law. After all, neither the moral law, nor the judicial law, was a “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles. However, the ceremonial law was in many ways. The ceremonial law represented the fact that only the Jews had complete access to God. A Gentile could never be a High Priest, let alone enter the inner courts of the temple. However, the reality of Ephesians 2:11-22 shows us that now the most lowly Gentile has direct access to the Father through Christ (Ephesians 2:18). In summary, the imprecise language of equating the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances” to simply the “Mosaic law” and then saying that Christ freed us from the law’s condemnation leads to confusion and obfuscation.
Some who oppose the modern application of the judicial law use similar imprecise language and say that passages such as Ephesians 2:11-22 demonstrate that the “Mosaic law” has been abolished. They may say it is still “useful,” even if not “binding.” However, once again, using the term “Mosaic law” to refer to the ceremonial law and the judicial law is very imprecise. Furthermore, it is often argued that while we do not have to obey the “Mosaic law,” we do have to obey the “eternal law” which is expressed in the Ten Commandments. Any God-fearing Jew who heard “Mosaic law” would have immediately thought of the Ten Commandments. Using the term “Mosaic law” to refer to ceremonial law and the judicial law even though the most important aspect of the “Mosaic law” was the moral aspect allows people to get away with misdirection and imprecision (intended or otherwise).
It is true that God chose Israel to be a special people. Whereas he gave his moral law to all people, he gave specific revelation and case laws to the people of Israel, in addition to the ceremonial law, conquest promises, messianic prophecies, and so forth. However, the fact that God chose to reveal himself specifically through Israel did not mean that other nations were free to create any type of judicial laws they wanted. God dispossessed the Canaanites from the land because of their sin (no doubt including injustice). God also said that the pagan nations would see the laws of Israel and stand amazed at the justice and wisdom of them (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). Since the moral law is to obeyed by all people, and the general equity of the judicial law is nothing more than the application of the eternal moral law, it makes sense to conclude that all nations were (and are) expected to govern according to God’s Law, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, the point of this post was not to argue for the application of the judicial law today, but rather to show that using Ephesians 2:11-22 to argue against it is not cogent.
Yesterday we looked at the claim that the judicial law was “bondage” and briefly considered Romans 6:14 and Romans 7:6. Today we’ve looked at the claim that the judicial law was part of the dividing wall in Ephesians 2:11-22. In the days ahead, we will continue to look at passages that are used to argue against the application of the general equity of the judicial law.