We hear much today about the need for unity and reconciliation whether in family life, community life, national life or international life. No doubt, many of the attempts to bring about harmony are praiseworthy, although they are hindered by two factors. One is that the root cause is often ignored, that is, sin, and the second is that God’s basis for unity and reconciliation is ignored as well, which is, the cross of Christ.
An obvious barrier that existed in Paul’s time was that between Jews and Gentiles. He illustrates this racial and religious barrier by referring to an actual wall that existed in the Jewish temple and prevented Gentiles from entering particular areas in the temple. There were four courts in the temple; three were on the same level, although of graded importance and each limited to a particular group (the most important was the court of the priests, then the court of Israel which was for males, and then the court of the women); on the other side of a wall, and on a lower level was the court of the Gentiles, and written on the barrier were warnings of death to any Gentile who would venture further.
Jesus dealt with this barrier by removing something and creating a new entity. He abolished the ceremonial law, which God had given to Israel at Sinai, by fulfilling what it depicted in its various types and rituals. The ceremonial law gave illustrations of spiritual reality. By describing certain features as unclean, it reminded people of their need of cleansing. By demanding particular sacrificial rituals, it showed people that they had to identify with a substitute in order to be acceptable to God. Its detailed Sabbath requirements indicated the desirability of spiritual rest. There were many other aspects to the ceremonial law such as circumcision and spiritual feasts. These activities separated Israel from the nations, but they were burdensome because they were not the reality – Christ is the reality who fulfilled what they pictured. He gives cleansing, he enables us to worship God, he gives spiritual rest, and he provides spiritual celebration.
The new entity Paul describes as a ‘one new man’, that is a new race, as it were. One of the titles that the early Christians gave to themselves was ‘the third race’, as distinct from the other two groups of Jews and Gentiles (see 1 Cor. 10:32). Clement of Alexandria wrote that ‘we who worship God in a new way, as the third race, are Christians’.
This means that Christians live in two worlds simultaneously: at one level they live within the structures of society and at another level they live as members of God’s new society. Both societies, the earthly and the heavenly, have their structures. The structures of society may be removed and replaced with improvements, but the structures of the new society are foretastes of the heavenly world. It is a new humanity, united to Jesus Christ, in which he guides and directs it, protects and cares for it, blesses it with peace and joy, whatever may be the situation in the earthly society.