One New Man: Inclusion and Identity in Christ
“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)
What does it mean to be “in Christ”? I would describe it as a positional spiritual reality. When God looks at those who have humbly submitted to his authority and placed their faith in Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross, God sees us as having a certain position in his kingdom. He treats us as though we have achieved the same righteousness that Christ has achieved. He bestows on us the same favor and grace that Christ has earned. He knows that our spiritual resumes don’t warrant this grace, but by our faith-association with Jesus, we have been brought into a special position.
Another way to think about it is imagining Jesus as a separate nation or country. If I am “in Christ,” I am a citizen in that nation-state and receive the benefits of all those who are “in Christ.” The favor, position, and grace that Jesus earned has been passed on to all who live within his borders. When God looks to Jesus, all who are “in him” receive the same exalted status.
This not only changes our spiritual position, it changes our spiritual identity. To understand all this entails, it’s important to consider the historical and cultural context into which Paul is writing. His statements were and are absolutely radical. The church was birthed in a time of great religious, racial, cultural, and economic division. The Jews and Gentiles were separated by seemingly insurmountable differences in each of these categories of life.
Jews were monotheists, the chosen people of the One True God. The Gentiles were poly- and pantheists.
To the Jew, the Gentile was accursed because of his rejection of God and worship of idols and multiple gods.
Jews were separated from Gentiles on the basis of their direct descent from Abraham, forbidden to intermarry with other ethnic and racial groups.
Culturally, the Jews observed hundreds of rules and regulations meant to distinguish their community from Gentiles who, in turn, partook of many distinctly Greek and Roman cultural practices. Gentiles saw these practices as evidence of their technological, philosophical, and biological advancement over their contemporaries.
It is no exaggeration to say that the chasm between these two people groups was as great as any that has ever existed, whether in Civil War America, Apartheid South Africa, or refugee-overrun Europe. Into this tribal, divided, and hostile climate, Paul states that Christ has rescued the estranged spiritual foreigners, the Gentiles, and carried them to God, reconciling the broken relationship.
By fulfilling the law so that righteousness could be credited to all who believe in Christ, the source of religious and cultural division, the Law, was removed as a barrier to fellowship between Jew and Gentile. First, because neither Jew nor Gentile could fulfill the righteous requirements of God’s law, and second, because all peoples must trust in the righteousness achieved by Jesus and credited to them by faith. By not only giving Jews and Gentiles access to God, but uniting them to God by faith, Christ has created one new community, utterly different from either community that existed before. Truly, now in Christ, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), Jesus has inaugurated, not just a new community, but a “new way to be human.”
Paul goes on to argue that in order for us to live in this new reality, we must understand that more than our relationship to God has changed. He goes on to say in verse 19 that our identity has changed. Gentiles are no longer estranged from God and His promises, but have been made members of God’s family, integral pieces of the work God is building in the world, a meeting place where the Spirit of God dwells.
A New Community
In order for this to reach its fullest expression practically, Christians of every race, ethnicity, national origin, cultural upbringing, socioeconomic status, sex, and political persuasion must first recognize our shared, desperate need for Christ. Then, as we gather at the foot of the cross, we must recognize that all mankind has gathered together on a level playing field, seeking the same grace and forgiveness.
Next, we must all abandon our prior identities, built on earthly distinctions, and embrace our new, shared identity as those chosen, gathered, and forgiven by God. We then move forward in a radical commitment to the mystery of Christ, that God had always planned to bring the nations into his Abrahamic promise, so that Christ will receive ever-increasing recognition as the wisdom of God. To the extent that we can embrace these truths by God’s Spirit and live with them in the forefront of our mind, we will experience radical inclusion through the Gospel in a new humanity, displaying God’s power to unite all mankind across every division.
What might such a community look like, on a practical everyday level? A local church that has truly incorporated these spiritual truths would see radical relationships of vulnerability across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. We would see spiritual leadership coming from men and women of minority status, and we’d see people of majority status gladly submitting to this leadership, because we understand that God is not a respecter of persons and he bestows gifts impartially to all people. CEOs would be discipled by janitors. People of elevated status in society - politically, economically, and racially - would be the first to serve those around them, gladly choosing to become last.
In a church that has embraced our “one new man” identity in Christ, we would see integrated neighborhoods, rather than racial and economic segregation. There would be eager sharing of resources and a common concern for the problems of every community represented. The ubiquitous “us vs. them” mentality in our culture would be totally undermined in this kind of community. Often, suburban white Americans ask questions of the urban poor, “Why can’t they solve their problems?” Conversely, city-dwelling believers look suspiciously at suburbanites, asking why they have abandoned the needy for strip mall comforts. This mentality is antithetical to a true experience of the one new man. “They” become “us” and their problems become ours. We would see Christians working together across all divisions to address each other’s issues, because we are all one in Christ.
The gospel Paul preached doesn’t simply rearrange our vocabulary to include new theological concepts like “propitiatory atonement.” It rearranges our tribal allegiances to prefer every person bought by His blood. It rewrites our personal identity, pursues the inclusion of all types of people into God’s redemptive plan, and jealously desires our union together as a reconciled community. When we embrace that gospel and all its implications, the church uniquely displays the profound and multi-faceted wisdom of God, revealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.