7.6 Ephesians -- the Gentile Question
Starting in Eph 2:11, Paul begins to deal specifically with the racial issue. Yet all the preceding teaching is a precondition of what he is about to cover. The predestination of God's purposes, the redemption of mankind through the blood of Jesus, the raising up of Jesus and of believers with Him -- all of this applies equally to Jews and Greeks. Paul is writing to Gentiles, and mentions nothing of Jewish history or the priority of the Jews in God's plan of salvation. Having laid a firm foundation that applies to all humanity, he takes up the "Gentile question" half way through the second chapter.
As we have seen in Acts and the other Pauline epistles, this question was a burning one of the day. How is the church at Ephesus to relate to that of Jerusalem? How can three different types of believers worship together? -- converts from the local synagogue, righteous Gentiles who have semi-converted to Judaism and obey parts of the Law, Greek idolaters with no background in Jewish religion. What practices are to be followed in such critical matters as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, dietary laws, holy days? And let us not neglect an overtly racial element of the friction among these groups: the Jewish faith was familial and exclusive, centered around the synagogue, with a fixed and fairly static membership composed of Diaspora Jews and their descendants. The families of the righteous knew one another and were endogamous (married within the group). Proselytes from the pagan world were accepted only after stringent instruction and purification. The Jews lived as outposts of fidelity in a world of barbarians, whom they despised.
The preaching of Paul challenged the defensive posture of Judaism in Gentile society. As we have seen, the opposition to Paul on the part of many Jewish leaders in different cities came not just from theological disagreements (the Messiah has come), but from the perceived threat to the Jewish community and synagogue from letting in large numbers of Gentiles:
On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying (Acts 13:44-45).
Previously, "many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism" had been interested in Paul's message. But when hordes of Gentiles showed up, they grew frightened and angry. They were "filled with jealousy." Why jealousy? Because they had lost their special privilege of moral superiority over the heathen. As Paul put it,
Through [Jesus] everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39).
When the Gentiles turned up en masse to hear Paul's preaching, the Jewish leaders realized they had lost their monopoly of granting membership in God's nation. The Law of Moses was their "property," they administered it, and now Paul was overturning the Law. He was introducing a new standard of membership to replace the Law. As gatekeepers of the holy community, the rabbis had been careful to apply Biblical standards to screen prospective converts. Paul was quite literally tearing down the gates and letting in "everyone who believes."