No Longer “Afar Off”

WE CONTINUE READING the Epistle to the Ephesians today, moving on to chapter two. Here St Paul reflects on the new reality in God’s plan for the salvation of the world, the Church. The People of God is now more than the people of Israel — Jews and Gentiles have been brought together by the grace of God. As Paul tells his Gentile readers, “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 in the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

In describing this new reality St Paul uses some terms which may seem strange to us today, but which would have made perfect sense to the original readers of this epistle. The first such term comes at the beginning of chapter two.

“The Prince of the Power of the Air”

St Paul uses this term to refer to Satan: “And you He made alive, who were dead in the trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience…” But why is he “the prince of the power of the air”?

Modern fundamentalists often point to radio and television or the internet as the power of the airwaves, which corrupt people. These media are therefore satanic, according to this interpretation. While there is much in these media to be avoided, St Paul is certainly not referring to them — the only airborne media existing in his day would have been smoke signals!

Others have pointed to meteorological phenomena as indications that there is a demonic presence in our midst. There is no basis in fact for such an assumption, other than that these phenomena take place “in the air.”

Rather, in the understanding of the Jews at that time, there were three regions above the earth. The lowest was described as the air (in Greek, aer), the place of spiritual powers hostile to the human race. Above that were the heavens, or heavenly places, realm of godly spiritual powers, and above that the “heaven of heavens,” the unapproachable dwelling place of God. St Paul identifies the ways of this world as being under the influence of these hostile spirits “of the air.” In other words, the ways of the world, the spirit of the age — or as we might say “the way the world works” — are all subject to forces beyond us. Not only the airwaves, if you will, but also the politics, social and cultural movements of a world that does not acknowledge God, are all guided by a malevolent power.

“The Middle Wall of Separation”

Throughout the Mediterranean world of St Paul’s day Jews and Gentiles lived side by side. The one place where they could not mingle was in the temple at Jerusalem. Non-Jews who wished to worship the true God could do so — and did — in the “court of the Gentiles,” the outermost precinct of the temple. This area was separated from the “court of the Israelites” by a wall called the soreg, beyond which Gentiles could not pass. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing only a few years after St Paul, described it as follows: “There was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits [i.e. 5½ feet]: its construction was very elegant; upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that ‘no foreigner should go within that sanctuary’ for that second [court of the] temple was called ‘the Sanctuary,’ and was ascended to by fourteen steps from the first court” (Jewish Wars 5.5). It is this barrier to which St Paul refers.

Portions of this wall and some of the signs posted on the pillars survive to this day. One such inscription, in Greek, is found in the National Archeological Museum in Istanbul. It reads, “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary. And whoever is caught will only have him-self to blame for the ensuing death.”

St Paul describes this wall of separation as “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” which is abolished in Christ. This refers, not to all commandments of the Torah, but to those directions which set forth the required separation between Jews and Gentiles.

Faith in Christ and baptism eliminated the racial divisions between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, but there remained a division in worship still evident in the design of our churches. The Christian equivalent to the “court of the Israelites” is the nave where the baptized gather to worship. The place of catechumens in the early Church was in the narthex, since only those baptized into Christ are part of the new People of God, the Church. In some conservative monasteries and congregations only baptized Orthodox Christians are permitted to enter the nave to this day.

“A Holy Temple in the Lord”

The imagery of the temple continues to figure in this epistle. In vv. 19-22, the temple in question is not a structure in a given place like Jerusalem; rather it is the people who make up the Church, Jew and Gentile alike. “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

St Paul describes all believers — Jew and Gentile alike — as the building blocks of this temple erected on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ being the cornerstone. An important aspect of this image is that St Paul does not see the structure as completed. Rather he tells his readers, and us, that we are still in the building process. The foundation is complete, but the structure of this temple, God’s People, is still being formed in those who are open to God’s work in every age.

Why “the Prince of This World?”

“Further, why does he call the devil the prince of the world? Because nearly the whole human race has surrendered itself to him and all are willingly and by deliberate choice his slaves. Not one so much as gives any heed to Christ, though He promises unnumbered blessings; while all yield themselves to the devil, who promises nothing of the sort, but sends them on to hell. His kingdom then is in this world, and he has, with few exceptions, more subjects and more obedient subjects than God, in consequence of our indolence.”

(St John Chrysostom, Homily 4 on Ephesians)