A Commentary by John Stott
In Verses 1-3 Paul has portrayed all mankind (Jews and Gentiles alike) in sin and death. Here in verses 11 and 12 he refers particularly to the Gentile or heathen world before Christ, to those whom the Jews (*the circumcision*) scornfully called *the uncircumcision*. Circumcision had of course been given by God to Abraham as the outward sign of membership of his covenant people. But both the physical rite and the word had come to assume an exaggerated importance. Gentiles and Jews regularly called each other by derogatory names. Paul emphasizes this here. Gentiles were *called* ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is *called* ‘the circumcision which is made in the flesh by hands’. It is as if Paul is declaring the unimportance of the names and labels, in comparison with the reality behind them, and hinting that behind ‘what is called the circumcision which is made in the flesh by hands’ there is another kind, a circumcision of the heart, spiritual not physical, which was needed by and available to both Jews and Gentiles alike (cf. Rom.2:28-29; Phil.3:3; Col.2:11-13).
In verse 12 he drops the business of what Jews and Gentiles called each other, and comes on to the serious reality of Gentile alienation. In Romans he had listed Jewish privileges (9:3-5); here he lists Gentiles disabilities. First, they were *separated from Christ*. The expression is the more tragic because in chapter 1 he has unfolded the great spiritual blessings of being ‘in Christ’, and in the earlier part of chapter 2 he has explained how God has quickened, raised and seated us ‘with Christ’. But *at one time*, that is throughout the whole period BC, the Gentiles were neither ‘in Christ’ nor ‘with Christ’ but ‘separated from Christ’; they even had no expectation of a coming Messiah.
The Gentiles second and third disabilities were similar to one another. They were both *alienated from the commonwealth of Israel* and *strangers to the covenants of promise* (literally ‘of the promise’, referring probably to the foundation promise made by God to Abraham). Israel was a ‘commonwealth’ or nation under God, a theocracy, and a ‘covenant people’ to whom he had committed himself by a solemn pledge. Thus he had bound himself to them and ruled over them. But the Gentiles were excluded from this covenant and kingdom.
The fourth and fifth Gentile disabilities are starkly stated: *having no hope and without God in the world*. They were ‘hopeless’ because, although God had planned and promised to include them one day, they did not know it, and therefore had no hope to sustain them. And they were ‘godless’ (*atheoi*) because, although God had revealed himself to all mankind in nature and therefore had not left himself without witness, yet they suppressed the truth they knew and turned instead to idolatry (See Acts 14:15ff.; 17:22ff.; Rom. 1:18ff.). It is no exaggeration, therefore, to describe the ancient non-Jewish world as ‘hopeless’ and ‘godless’. The golden age of the Greeks was past; they had no promised future to look forward to. Moreover, the Gods of Greece and Rome entirely failed to satisfy the hunger of human hearts. The people were *atheoi* not in the sense that they disbelieved (on the contrary, they had a plethora of Gods), but in the sense that they had no true knowledge of God such as he had given to Israel (Ps.147:20), and (because of their rejection of the knowledge they had) no personal fellowship with him.
This, then, was the terrible fivefold deprivation of the ancient Gentile world before Christ. They were cut off from the Messiah from the theocracy and the covenants, from hope, and from God himself. In William Hendriksen’s summary they were ‘Christless, stateless, friendless, hopeless and Godless’. In Paul’s single phrase they were ‘far off’ (13), alienated from God and from the people of God.
And we ourselves in our pre-Christian days, it is necessary to add, were in exactly the same plight. We were alienated from God and from his people. Worse, there was in our hearts the ‘enmity’ to which Paul refers later, so that we rebelled against the authority of God and knew little or nothing of true human community. Is it not the same in today’s world without Christ? Men still build walls of partition and division like the terrible Berlin wall, or erect invisible curtains of iron or bamboo, or construct barriers of race, colour, caste, tribe or class. Divisiveness is a constant characteristic of every community without Christ. We ourselves experienced it. Now the apostle says *Therefore remember* (verse 11), and again *remember* (verse 12). There are some things which Scripture tells us to forget (like the injuries which others do to us). But there is one thing in particular which we are commanded to remember and never forget. This is what we were before God’s love reached down and found us. For only if we remember our former alienation (distasteful as some of it may be to us), shall we be able to remember the greatness of the grace which forgave and is transforming us.