In the Beginning
Racial hostility didn’t begin in 1619, nor does America own the patent on it. Many long centuries before the founding of America, sin plunged the world into a pandemic of racial and ethnic hurt. In Genesis 10, God called the nations of the world to scatter, subduing the earth. In Genesis 11, mankind united against God under the leadership of Nimrod and built the Tower of Babel, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” At the Tower of Babel, we find the launch pad of racism.
Genesis 11:1 tells us that “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” – humanity united against their Creator God. God sent them to subdue the earth, but mankind refused to be scattered. They could not forget the absolute destruction caused by the flood, and they refused to believe God’s promise, symbolized in the rainbow, that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood. Rather than rest in His promise, men united to protect themselves and their offspring from such a tyrant God. They built a tower to the heavens in the vain delusion that if God again sent a flood, they would be able to escape it. As Matthew Henry explains,
God had told them indeed that he would not again drown the world; but they would trust to a tower of their own making, rather than to a promise of God’s making or an ark of his appointing.
Ethnic hostility is rooted in sinful man’s antagonism towards a holy God. When the nations refused to spread throughout the earth and subdue it for God’s glory, God introduced disunity between the different families of the earth:
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.Genesis 11:6-9
In Thee Shall All Nations Be Blessed
On the heels of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 12 traces Abram’s genealogy through Shem. God promised a restored humanity through Abram’s seed. Separating him out from among the nations, God promised to bless all nations of the earth through Abram.
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
In Genesis 15, God strengthened the covenant He had made with Abram. Notice the way God set this promise against the backdrop of ethnic hatred:
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
To confirm this oath, God required Abram to divide in half a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. In the night, God passed between those divided pieces in the form of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp, strengthening the terms of His covenant with Abram:
In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:
We may not fully grasp the symbolism of this “self-maledictory” oath. God’s message to Abram was plain enough: “If I do not fulfill this promise, then I will be divided into pieces as these animal halves.” God pledges His own destruction if He did not keep His covenant (see Hebrews 6:13-19).
Years passed. In Genesis 22, God called Abram (now Abraham) to take his promised son and offer him in sacrifice. When Abraham obeyed the Lord, refusing to spare his only son Isaac, God again strengthened His promise to reconcile the nations through Abraham’s seed.
And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
Hostility towards God causes hostility towards others. The racial/ethnic divide intensifies racial hatred. God responded to this hostility by making Himself the victim of it, for God-in-Christ suffered and died at the hands of hateful men – the hatred of the world poured out on the Son of God – to heal our racial divisions.
The Middle Wall of Partition
God chose to heal the nations through the seed of Abraham. Sin drove the wedge deeper, particularly between the nations of the world and the nation of Israel. God’s special favor on Israel stirred up an intense racial/ethnic hatred. Centuries before the race riots of the 1960s, Gentiles despised Jews, and Jews despised Gentiles. This animosity was cemented in the heart of Jews and Gentiles symbolically through the “middle wall of partition.”
Israel came by their ethnic antagonism somewhat honestly – initially, theirs was a desire to honor God’s law (Numbers 1:51) and avoid mingling with the heathen, whom God cursed. But Israel responded to God’s special blessing and favor with pride and arrogance. God never intended for His blessing on Israel to produce the kind of hostility displayed by Israel. Quite the opposite. God meant His favor on Israel to be the fountainhead of blessing to the nations. “In thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed.” Israel forgot this part of the blessing and failed to invite the nations to share in this blessing. Instead, Israel came to detest the heathen as dogs.
According to William Barclay,
The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made… It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of that Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death. (quoted by John Stott in The Message of Ephesians, p. 91)
The history of the 1960’s racism in the South illustrates the antagonism that has been prevalent throughout human history. This racial antagonism has afflicted every nation in every age – it is natural to our human fallenness.
Before any healing of the hatred between the nations can happen, another hostility must be treated. The root of all ethnic hostility is the animosity between sinful man and His Creator God. Ephesians 2 shows us how the gospel heals this hostility:
And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: (Ephesians 2:1-6)
Having laid the ax to the root, Paul shows us how the gospel addresses our racial animosity. Jesus broke down the middle wall of partition between us – that is, between Jew and Gentile – the most severe and lethal form of racism in history. Here we find the blueprint for healing the racial divide:
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
The middle wall of partition was truly magnificent. Fixed between the court of the Gentiles and the inner courts of the Temple proper, this imposing middle wall barricaded any Gentile from entering and afforded them nothing more than a majestic view. Two sets of stairs – one fourteen steps high, the other five steps high, with a walled platform in between – led from the court of the Gentiles to the inner courts.
The wall was a potent thing for reinforcing ethnic and racial prejudices. In 1871, archeologists discovered an imposing white limestone slab in the area of the Jerusalem Temple. Inscribed on the limestone was this message, written in Greek:
No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death. (from John Stott, Ephesians, p. 92)
Similar slabs were hung all around the court of the Gentiles, alternating between Greek and Roman letters. Paul was stoned nearly to death on the mere suspicion that he had brought a Greek – interestingly, an Ephesian – into the Temple.
Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place. (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.) (Acts 21:28-29)
The middle wall of partition provided a constant reminder of the Gentile’s alienation from God and God’s people. In Ephesians 2, Paul intentionally rehearsed this hostility between Jew and Gentile. He referenced the ethnic slur which Jews used to describe Gentiles – Uncircumcision. He reminded them that the slur and the hatred it referenced were not entirely unwarranted. Circumcision marked the Jew as belonging to God. And the Gentile nations had no part with God.
The Gentile problem was not discrimination or prejudice or the fact that the Jews marginalized them. Their problem was that they were without Christ (v. 12) – separated from Him. They had no covenant connection to Christ. They were aliens, cut off from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise because they were without Christ. They had no hope. They were without God in the world.
Paul equates this rift between God and man with the rift between Jew and Gentile. In almost every verse between verses 13 and 18, Paul conflates the two hostilities. In v. 13, Paul says that “ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh.” In v. 14, Paul speaks of Christ making “both one.” In v. 15, Paul speaks of the way Christ made “in himself of twain one new man.” In v. 16, Paul speaks of Christ reconciling “both unto God in one body.” In v. 17, He speaks of the way Jesus preached peace “to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.” And in v. 18, He reminds us that through Christ, “we both have access.” The message is clear: when a sinner is reconciled to God, he can be reconciled to his fellow man. Heal the one and the other will be cured.
The alienation between Jew and Gentile was necessary to an extent. God demanded that His people be a holy nation. Therefore, the Old Testament required this separation between Jew and Gentile. But God never intended that this separation be permanent, and in fact, God wanted His people to be a fountainhead of blessing on the Gentiles by teaching them to be reconciled to God.
In Ephesians 2, Paul is not speaking to the Jews about their Gentile problem. Paul is speaking to the Ephesians, who are Gentiles. More than a Jewish problem, the Gentiles had a God problem. So, Paul reminds these Gentile believers, “This is what you were – you were far off. But now (v. 13), this is what you are – you are made nigh.” By verse 18, Paul treats these hostilities as if they were a thing of the past.
In this day of BLM and social justice, we can learn a valuable lesson. We will always have a racial problem, as long as we have a sin problem. Racial strife can only be resolved when we come to God through Christ. Our culture has strained mightily to end bigotry and racism. But the problem can’t go away apart from gospel reconciliation. And the more our culture shakes its fist at God, the deeper the divide will become.
Paul teaches that when our relationship with God is repaired, our relationship with our fellow man will also be improved. The gospel provides the only balm for the healing of the nations. Ephesians 2:13 mentions two ways that we are reconciled: in Christ and by His blood.
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
These two phrases point to two stages in bringing us to Christ: the historical event when our sins were punished in Christ on the cross, and the moment when we accept that payment for ourselves. Paul introduces our reconciliation this way, but then He explains the process to us. Ephesians 2 describes three ways Jesus reconciles mankind:
- First, He is our peace (v. 14).
- Second, He made peace (v. 15).
- Third, He preached peace (v. 17).
Jesus is our peace
Jesus made peace for us by being our peace – not just our peacemaker, but our peace. We find peace in the very person of Jesus. He is our peace. The bone and marrow of our peace is the bone and marrow of our Lord Jesus Christ. What He did on the cross was necessary to our peace. But Paul wants us to know that Jesus did this because He is our peace. “He is the bond of union between “both” in God.” 
Jesus is our peace because God’s nature and man’s nature are perfectly united in Him. For the first time since Adam sinned, God and man had perfect harmony in one place – in the physical body of Jesus. That is how Jesus can be our peace.
Jesus made peace
Jesus didn’t craft a peace accord or make a treaty. He made peace itself. He did this by making a new creation. Notice how v. 15 describes it: for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace… The “twain” has two senses, based on the two hostilities in the passage. The war between God and man caused a conflict between Jew and Gentile. So, Christ reconciled man to God in His own flesh, when He died the sinner’s death (2 Corinthians 5:19). Then, He reconciled Jew and Gentile in Himself by making the two into one new man – the born-again Christian.
Jesus preached peace
He “gospelized peace.” His message is peace (Luke 2:14). And before He commissioned us to preach it, He preached it himself. He sent us to echo His gospel, but Jesus is the preacher, and we have the simple task of broadcasting His message. When Jesus rose from the grave, He came forth preaching. His first message to His gathered disciples was the gospel: “Peace be unto you” (John 20:19). When we preach the gospel, Jesus is preaching peace through us. We are His mouthpiece.
As we preach, we should remember that both those who were far off and those who were nigh needed the same message. Gentiles were far off; Jews were nigh. Both alike are alienated from God by their sin. Both are reconciled to God the same way, through the blood of Christ.
Paul spoke as if the middle wall of partition had already been removed (Ephesians 2:14 “hath broken down…”), though it remained in his day. As Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesians, and as the believers in Ephesus read his epistle, that middle wall still reminded all who would enter the Temple grounds of the hostility between Jew and Gentile. Yet, even with such a stark reminder, Paul insists that the middle wall is removed. Though the Jews retained that hostility, God did not. And in the Christian church, all such hatred is erased in the “inexpressibly sweet” fellowship we enjoy with Christ and His people. Since the hostility between Jew and Gentile is removed in Christ, hostilities between blacks and whites can also be removed.
We have no need to explain these things in terms of oppressor and oppressed, as Critical Race Theory attempts to do. Racial hostilities are resolved when sinful men come to God through Christ. The one place capable of dissolving the racial vainglory that has plagued us for so long is the New Testament church.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 346). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.