A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 2:15a a). The abolition of the law of commandments.
The first assertion Paul makes is that Christ broke down the wall, the hostility, *by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances*. At first sight this is a surprising, not to say a startling statement. How can the apostle declare that Christ abolished the law when Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount specifically declared the opposite, that he had not come to abolish it but to fulfil it? (Mt.5:17). We shall see that the discrepancy is only verbal; in substance they were referring to the law in two different senses.
In the Sermon on the Mount the context shows that Jesus was referring to the *moral* law. He was teaching the difference between Pharisaic righteousness and the Christian righteousness, and urging that Christian righteousness involves a deep and radical obedience to the law. Paul’s primary reference here, however, seems to be the *ceremonial* law and to what NEB calls ‘its rules and regulations’, that is, to circumcision (the main physical distinction between Jews and Gentiles, verse 11), the material sacrifices, the dietary regulations and the rules about ritual ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ which governed social relationships. The parallel passage in Colossians alludes to circumcision, and also to ‘questions of food and drink’, and regulations regarding ‘a festival or a new moon or a sabbath’ (2:11,16-21); so it seems probably that these were the *commandments and ordinances* which Paul has in mind here. They erected a serious barrier between Jews and Gentiles, but Jesus set this whole ceremonial aside. And he did it *in his flesh*(surely a reference to his physical death) because in the cross he fulfilled all the types and shadows of the Old Testament ceremonial system.
It seems probable, however, that Paul is making another though secondary reference, this time to the moral, not the ceremonial law. Jesus certainly did not abolish the moral law as a standard of behaviour (it is still in force and binding on his followers); but he did abolish it as a way of salvation. Whenever the law is viewed in this light it is divisive. For we cannot obey it, however hard we try. Therefore it separates us from God and from each other. But Jesus himself perfectly obeyed the law in his life, and in his death bore the consequences of our disobedience. He took upon himself ‘the curse of the law’ (the judgment it threatens to those who disobey it) in order to free us from it. (Gal.3:10,13). Or, according to the Colossians parallel, God is able to forgive us all our trespasses because he ‘cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross’ (2:13-14). Acceptance with God is now through faith in Christ crucified alone, whether for Jews or for Gentiles. The law was a barrier between us, but faith unites us, since all of us have to come to God through Christ in the same way. This had been one of Paul’s major emphases in Galatians, namely that we are all brought to the same level at the foot of Christ’s cross.
To sum up, Jesus abolished both the regulations of the ceremonial law and the condemnation of the moral law. Both were divisive. Both were put aside by the cross.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 2:15b. b), The creation of a new single humanity.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|