What Jesus’s Death Kills

I just put the finishing touches, for now at least, on my translation of Ephesians 2:13-16.

This is the heart of a passage of Scripture that I have been thinking a lot about over the past couple of months. The borders of the larger segment are commonly drawn around v. 11 and v. 22.

Here’s my translation, with some of my thoughts:

And now, in Messiah Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For he is our peace, the one who has made both “us” and “them” one and who in his flesh has torn down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility. He has abolished the law of commandments and ordinances, decrees and dogmas in order that he might in himself create of the two one new humanity—that is, making peace—and, that he might reconcile both “us” and “them” to God through the cross, having on it killed the hostility.

  • The Pauline letters are addressed to Gentile or mostly Gentile Ephesuscommunities. The “you” being addressed here is a mix of pagan groups who express fidelity to the God of Israel through Jesus Messiah. While an aim of this translation has been to keep as much of the original nuances of the original Greek as I could, “us” and “them” has no direct equivalent in the original language text. Instead, we have a word that could be translated “both” or “all.” In this letter, on the other side of the pagan mix we call “Gentiles” are members of Israel/the Jewish people. Messiah is their concept; mashiach is their word. Many translations rightfully bring in the word “groups,” in reference to Jew/Gentile distinction in this community. However, since in our Jesus community today this distinction is not really around anymore, I have chosen to use “us” and “them” to translate into our context what was in this ancient context the dynamic of the Gentiles being “those other people,” and the Jews being “we who have belonged to this thing since before we were born.” (And, depending on your ethnic identity, the “us” and “them” could certainly have been the other way around.)
  • There are certain English words that have been used so much within Christian contexts over the centuries that they become detached from their first-century context, and thereby lose much of their meaning. One of these is “Christ.” I try whenever possible to translate christos with another English word that comes to us by way of Hebrew, “Messiah.” We have become so accustomed to thinking of “Christ” as only another way of referring to Jesus that when we refer to “Christ’s love” and the like, we forget that we are actually referring to this: the love of the anticipated rightful, anointed, ruler of the ethnic group/nation of Israel who would show up to establish justice and peace for this particular ethnic group/nation–with perhaps the rest of the world graciously benefitting from it, as well.
  • Those on the outside have first and primarily been brought near, welcomed, invited in to a people, a community. It is ultimately God’s hospitality, but it’s communal hospitality nonetheless.
  • Lest we continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that the Mosaic Law is a bad thing that God saves us from, the law, nomos, of things that I translate with four words here are actually two in Greek. There’s overlap in meaning between the two words that is fleshed out in English adequately only by bringing in a couple more. These are warped versions of good  things that divide people.
  • Markus Barth points out, “Most amazing is the fact that in Paul’s […] argument, peace between Jews and Gentiles precedes the description of the peace made between God and man. Verse 18 [“for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”] shows that both dimensions of peace are inseparable.” The Gentiles/ethne/nations were “far off” not primarily in that they were far off from God. They were first far off from Israel, and then by extension far off from God. This is evident as well in v. 12 in that first they are “aliens and not citizens of Israel,” and then “strangers to the covenant of God’s promise.” The text translated here is an allusion to Isaiah 57:19, in which it is those of exiled Israel that are far and the peace is between them and God. Here, the peace is between Israel and the nations. Barth: “Paul was obviously unable to imagine a peace given by God to those far and near which would not also be a peace between the two. Peace is not simply a matter of the soul or of individuals only; if it is peace from and with God, then it is also peace among men. Only by changing man’s social relations does God also change man’s individual life.”
  • This is why my favorite all-purpose English translation, the Common English Bible, is tragically misleading in its rendering of this verse. It reads, “He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” This translation actually goes further than other major English translations in how it provides an extra word to what is in the original simply “the hostility.” The only other major translation I’ve seen that adds a word here is the “looser” translation, the New Living Translation, which glosses it as “hostility toward each other.” That is exactly what the idea is here, and is what in this vision Jesus’s death kills.

Now, to tell us what I think all this means, I could extend this out and have more blog posts, a sermon, a series of sermons, or a book or whatever.

Instead, let’s just read this. We need this read, and read again. At different parts of the day, in different places, with different people–preached, taught, memorized, meditated on, and made real.

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