Ephesians 2:14 is often used to teach that Christ has abolished Torah, the Mosaic Law. Yet this view directly contradicts the teaching of Christ and does no justice to the immediate context. Rather, Paul shows that Messiah’s death crushed the man-made barriers which kept early Jewish believers from fully embracing their Gentile brothers in the faith. The “enmity” of Ephesians 2:14 was not Torah; it was ungodly Jewish tradition that was hindering “one new man.”
There is in Christianity an ongoing debate between those who focus on obedience to God (Law) and those who stress the forgiveness and mercy of God (Grace). On the one hand, Law says we cannot be right with God without obeying him; on the other hand, Grace contends that God sent His son Jesus to die for our sins so that our relationship to God does not depend on our obedience.
There is here, as one often discovers in such debates, valuable truth on both sides, as well as what looks like contradiction. Either side may focus too much on their particular persuasion and become imbalanced, contradicting plain statements in the Bible and missing the heart of God.
Rather than merely winning such debates, believers aim to get all of the truths of God, to hold them all at once, even those that seem contradictory on the surface. This is not usually an easy thing to do, but there is rich reward in it. When it comes to pursuing and finding truth, failure is not an option for a committed believer.
In this debate, Grace is evidently the most common position in Evangelical circles today, and teaches that Jesus has abolished (all, or at least parts of) Torah, the Mosaic Law, the standards, rules and commandments introduced and explained in Genesis through Deuteronomy. Grace teaches that in abolishing Torah Christ has freed us from any obligation to obey it. This perspective is upheld, in one form or another, in most every Evangelical publication dealing with the topic. It is very difficult to find a respected evangelical witness challenging this perspective.
A key passage used to support this claim is Ephesians 2:13-18, with the core text highlighted in red.
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; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
On the surface, the Grace interpretation of this passage may appear plausible if the highlighted text is taken in isolation, without considering the flow and thought of the immediate context before and after it … or the rest of the Biblical witness. However, considered carefully in context, and in light of many other plain statements in the Bible, the Grace perspective on this text cannot be considered reasonable.
Firstly, thinking that Christ has abolished Torah contradicts His first command in The Sermon On the Mount (Mt 5:17-19), where Christ explicitly forbids us to think that any aspect of His work or teaching minimizes our obligation to keep Torah. His command is so clear and precise that few (if indeed any) respected evangelical leaders miss it. The command itself is as follows:
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
If we carefully consider this command of Christ, “Think not,” we must look for alternatives when Pauline passages seem on the surface to contradict Him. What we always find in doing so is that the fuller context of our passage will point us to a conclusion that is consistent with Christ’s heart on the matter. Paul will never contradict Christ. This is explored more fully in the article, Keep My Commandments.
Secondly, when we look at the immediate context we note that the law abolished by Christ formed a “middle wall of partition between” Jew and Gentile. If this were a description of Torah then we should find commandments in Torah forbidding Jews from communing with and interacting closely with God-fearing Gentiles. Yet when we search Torah we don’t find any such thing … we actually find just the opposite: Torah encourages all Israel to treat as equals those who migrate into their midst seeking God and wanting to obey and follow Torah. (Ex 12:48, Le 19:34) God does not require Gentiles to become Jewish, nor does He define any process for conversion to Judaism. The whole concept of an explicit barrier between Jew and Gentile is actually quite foreign to Torah and is antagonistic to God’s intent in giving it, which is to provide the knowledge of God to all nations — in the context of these nations retaining unique national identity. (Ge 26:4, De 6:26, 7:13-14) God does not diminish or reject nationality by requiring people to become Jewish when they come to Him.
Thirdly, in light of the above, the abolition of Torah does not support the flow or intent of the remaining context of the passage, which is the bringing of Jew and Gentile together into “one new man,” a group of spiritual brothers and sisters from multiple nationalities, social classes and cultures, bonding together in a living, wholesome community and fellowship. Abolishing Torah does not tend to do this, but actually makes this process much more difficult. When we abolish Torah, which openly provides for rich multi-cultural fellowship in God, we destroy any working definition of sin (1Jn 3:4) and we leave people to speculate about what is pleasing and displeasing to God. Rather than promoting wholesome, loving community, disregarding Torah tends to divide believers by allowing carnal minds to create arbitrary standards of godliness that enable unhealthy ambitions and agendas. This is evidently what has happened in much of mainstream Christianity over the centuries. Healthy spiritual community is practically non-existent in our churches, especially communities involving multiple nationalities, races and cultures. Biblical community has been largely absent in Christianity ever since she left Torah. This should come as no real surprise: when you throw out Torah you throw out light (Pr 6:23), and godly fellowship does not flourish very well in spiritual darkness. Carnal men can certainly imitate the Church with religious clubs and organizations, but dynamic, living, authentic spiritual community cannot be feigned for very long … and nothing else is really worth the having here.
In order to interpret this Pauline passage correctly we must become aware of the fact that there were man-made Jewish laws and traditions being followed by many sincere believers in the early Church that were hindering the formation of unified spiritual communities of Jews and Gentiles. In fact, during this early period the Gospel was not preached to Gentiles at all, only to Jews. (Ac 11:19)
The Apostle Peter himself was following these man-made laws when God confronted him about it in a vision of clean and unclean animals on a rooftop in Joppa. (Acts 10) In Peter’s description of the event later he refers to these man-made laws when he says: “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.” Peter was not referring to Torah when he said this (for, as we have noted, there are no such laws in Torah); he was referring to Jewish tradition, laws created by Jewish leaders to help people keep Torah but which were actually preventing the spread of the Gospel to the nations.
Christ himself often refers to these man-made Jewish laws and traditions in His teachings and, as in the case of these laws separating Jews and Gentiles, denounces them when they are contrary to Torah. (Mk 7:6-13)
Peter finally began to understand as he meditated on the rooftop vision and was confirmed and comforted by the Spirit in the process. He eventually confessed that these man-made Jewish laws were not of God: “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The concept was not an easy one for him to accept, it was actually a breathtaking course correction for him. This can be seen in the events following as the other Apostles confronted him about his actions.
When the Apostles and other Jewish believers heard about Peter communing with Gentiles and helping them come to faith in Christ, they were very agitated about it. (Acts 11:2-3) As they struggled to understand what was happening, they too began to see that these man-made Jewish laws were contrary to Torah. If we look carefully at what they said during the debate, we may obtain a glimpse into how they were thinking and feeling.
You see, up until this time the Apostles had understood that eternal salvation was nationalistic; they had been taught from childhood that only good Jews could be part of God’s family and that no one else could be. If you wanted to be in God’s family they thought you had to convert to Judaism first. However, when they heard that the Holy Spirit had fallen on Gentiles, people that had not first converted to Judaism, and that Peter himself had personally witnessed this and verified it, they were stunned speechless. In the face of Peter’s testimony they finally had to admit that these man-made laws and traditions were contrary to Torah. You can feel the struggle in Peter as he exclaims: “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17) It was a huge paradigm shift for all of them. “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, ‘Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.'” (vs 18) The Apostles finally began to understand that nationality did not play a part in salvation, and they began to try to explain this to their Jewish brothers and sisters.
But this was no easy task. Jewish believers continued to struggle with this concept for years. In Acts 15:1, many years after Peter’s vision on the rooftop, we find false teachers coming down from Jerusalem to Antioch teaching the Gentile believers that unless they converted to Judaism they had no hope of salvation. Peter himself, the one through whom God initially proclaimed the availability of the Gospel to the Gentiles, was so caught up in the conflict that he sided with the Judaizers! Peter would fellowship with Gentiles as long as his more conservative Jewish brothers weren’t around, but when they showed up he would withdraw from fellowship with his Gentile brothers for fear of upsetting his Jewish friends. Peter’s influence was so strong that even the most mature and godly leaders among them followed along in the error. Paul had to stand up against all of them, all on his own, and publicly call them out on it. (Gal 2:11-21)
Paul argued fervently with these men, including Peter, but could not convince them, and as a result the congregation became confused and alarmed. They finally sent a delegation of trusted men back to Jerusalem to get clarification from the Apostles for the benefit of the Gentile churches. After much debate and searching of the Torah the Apostles came again to the same conclusion: salvation was not a nationalistic offer, all are saved by faith in Christ without regard to nationality or culture.
As we can see from looking carefully at the historical narratives, this was not a problem that died out easily; Paul wrestled with this sort of unhealthiness throughout his ministry, continually reminding and teaching believers of these basic, fundamental principles of the faith every chance he could.
In this spirit of confirmation, Paul is reminding the Ephesian believers what God had taught Peter and the Apostles years earlier, a truth easily neglected and/or forgotten during that particular time in Church history, one which needed constant reinforcement: that the man-made Jewish laws and traditions which had hindered Jews and Gentiles from coming together into spiritual community for so long had been openly denounced and abolished in the Cross of Christ.
These laws separating Jew and Gentile were never good: God didn’t change His mind about them at the Cross. As Christ had testified long before, the men enforcing these laws tended to shut up the kingdom of heaven to any seeking it (Matt 23:13), and they continued to do so for years afterward. (1 Thes 2:16) In dying for sinners Christ showed us all, Jew and Gentile, that we come into His family by faith, and that this is independent of our culture and nationality. We must learn to be part of a spiritual family that includes all races, nations, cultures and social classes, to be in close, organic spiritual community with others that are different from us based on the fact that God receives us all without regard to our heritage or status in life. The man-made Jewish laws and traditions that prevented this unified community were, “the enmity, the law of commandments contained in ordinances.” These commands and regulations were at odds with any kind of spiritual health and were openly exposed and condemned by Christ through His redemptive work.
Paul refers to these same ungodly Jewish ordinances in a similar address to the Colossians:
Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which
was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them
openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:14-15)
Here Paul reveals that the spiritual authorities which created, promoted and enforced these man-made laws separating Jew and Gentile were ungodly, and that they were openly exposed and defeated at the Cross. This is clearly not a reference to godly spiritual authority, but to the demonic powers that had infiltrated and harnessed Jewish religious leadership, even moving them to crucify their own Messiah. Again, to be sure, this is not a reference Torah, which Paul calls “good” (Rom 7:12), but to corrupt man-made traditions which are “against us, contrary to us.” Paul begins the larger context in Colossians 2 by warning us not to be corrupted and spoiled by man-made rules and traditions (vs 8), and concludes by referring to these same Jewish ordinances as “commandments and doctrines of men” (vs 22), encouraging both Jew and Gentile to avoid them.
In the Law-Grace controversy one must be careful to avoid wresting scripture to support either side. The truths of God need not be wrested, but are most surely found by considering the whole of Scripture. While this particular text in Ephesians is often used to show that Torah (Mosaic Law) has been abolished, the text actually makes no reference to Torah. Rather, it explains that ungodly man-made Jewish regulations, which initially hindered both the spread and understanding of the Gospel of Christ, were exposed and annulled by Christ when He died for our sins on the Cross. God’s purpose in teaching us that these man-made laws are abolished is to restore His original intent in giving us Torah, which is to promote thriving spiritual community welcoming not only Jews, but those from all cultures, nationalities and social classes who are pursing God.