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MARCH 17, 1999

Ephesians 2.15: ton vomon twv enotwn en dogmasin katargesas, ina tous duo ktise en autw eis ena kainon anthrwpon, poiwn eirenen

having annulled the law of the commandments in decrees, in order that He might create in Him[self] the two into one new man, making peace.

The above translation is rather problematic because it is limited to verse 15 in the Greek text. The NASB, NIV, RSV, and NKJV all find it necessary to transpose a phrase from verse 14 into verse 15:

ten echthran en te sarki autou, ton vomon twv enotwn en dogmasin katargesas, ina tous duo ktise en autw eis ena kainon anthrwpon, poiwn eirenen

having annulled in his flesh [the enmity,[1]] the law of the commandments in decrees, in order that He might create in Him[self] the two into one new man, making peace.

In the context of vv. 14-16, Paul is referring to a “dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile which Christ has broken down, reconciling both groups to God in His body on the cross. Thus, the question, “in what sense has Christ annulled the law?” is entangled in the question “what is the dividing wall which Christ has broken down?”

To the latter question, many have answered “the temple balustrade, the court of the Gentiles from the inner courts, and the sanctuary in the Jerusalem temple.”[2] It is intriguing that Paul was in fact arrested in Jerusalem because he was alleged to have brought an Ephesian into the temple area (Act 21.29). However, it is rather unlikely that this is Paul’s meaning, not because his Gentile readers fail to understand such a reference to the temple architecture (pace Lincoln, p. 141), but because nothing from “the laws of the commandments in decrees” restricted Gentiles from the area where lay Israelites were permitted to approach. Gentiles had the same right to offer sacrifices through the Levites as Jews did (Lev 17.8; 22.18; Num 15.14-16). The barrier that kept the Gentiles away from the temple in first-century Palestine was unbiblical. Such a corruption would be a fitting thing for Jesus to denounce (cf. Matt 23.13), or a disciple to realize is without any basis in God’s law.[3] But for those who recognize the unity of Scripture, such a barrier cannot very well be allowed in this passage as a temporary divider in redemptive history because there was no warrant for it at any time in Israel’s past.

Another possibility is that the barrier is the law itself–which entailed separation of Jew and Gentile. Of course, there is much disagreement on how Jesus annulled the law. Lincoln speaks of those who “shrink back from such a forthright assertion” [that Christ annulled the law], but resort to “the dogmatic gloss that it was only the ceremonial and not the moral law that was abolished” (p. 142).

Lincoln’s position is somewhat bizarre in that, assuming that Ephesians was written pseudonymously by one of Paul’s disciples, he asserts that the writer could be more Pauline than Paul was himself!

We can say that at this point Ephesians is in line with the clear stress on discontinuity in regard to the law’s validity that can be found in Paul. But, living in a period when the strong influence of the Jerusalem church and of Jewish Christianity is past, and when Paul’s basic perspective on the law is taken for granted by the churches of the Gentile mission in Asia Minor, its writer finds no need to tread as delicately as the Paul of Romans and can present the logic of his master’s position in an unqualified fashion (p. 143).

Yet Lincoln admits the problem in his position in the very next sentence: “It is, by the way, not without significance that . . . the writer can later draw on . . . ‘the first commandment with a promise’ . . . for secondary support.” But what is that significance? It looks like Lincoln is simply acknowledging a problem with his interpretation without allowing it to deter him.

Obviously, Ephesians 6.2 demonstrates that, however Christ annulled the law, it is still an authority from God in the life of a Christian. However, nothing in the verse itself indicates that only one part of the law (i.e., the ceremonial) was annulled. What does Paul mean when he states that “the law of the commandments in decrees” was the “enmity” and that it was “annulled” by Christ?

Some basic background and contextual considerations need to be kept in mind to understand this passage:

1. In Ephesians, Paul names Jesus as the solution to all sorts of divisions–not only the ethical breach between God and man, and between Jew and Gentile, but even the created difference between heaven and earth (1.10; cf. Gen 1.6-8[4]).

2. This division between heaven and earth becomes an ethical division at the Fall, in which men only live because they are kept away from God’s presence.

3. This ethical breach between God and man was embodied in the barrier between the Tabernacle and Temple and the rest of Israel. For in the Temple was God’s house, and thus represented His heavenly throne room.[5] Thus, for the writer of Hebrews, the going into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle represents passing into the heavens (9.7-12; 5.14; 6.19-20; 8.1-5). And, of course, God made his point by multiplying boundaries: between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, between the Tabernacle/Temple and the courtyard, between the altar, and the courtyard where laymen were permitted, between the Tabernacle/Temple precincts and the rest of the camp or the rest of the Land of Israel, and finally between the Promised Land and the rest of the world.

4. This symbolic embodiment of the distinction between heaven and earth, with restrictions enforced due to the ethical breach between God and man, also involved divisions between people. Obviously, in Ephesians, which is written primarily to converted Gentiles, the emphasis is on the barrier that existed between Jew and Gentile. However, the author of Hebrews, writing to converted Jews who were tempted to apostatize back to Judaism, emphasizes the barrier between the high priest and everyone else. The fact is that there were numerous barriers: between Gentile and Jew, Israelite and Levite, Levite and Aaronic priest, priest and high priest.[6]

5. The division of the nations (Gentiles) among which Israel ministered, and to which Abraham was called to bring salvation (Gen 12.3), was not the product of migration and cultural development, but rather a direct consequence of sin against God and His responding wrath and curse (Gen 11.1-9).[7]

6. This entire system of boundaries and restrictions is part and parcel of the Law given at Mount Sinai. The plans for the Tabernacle came through Moses on the Mountain. The Decalogue itself presupposes the Promised Land (Exo 20.12). The “Law of Moses” includes Leviticus and Numbers. Israel’s promised status as a “kingdom of priests” among the nations (Exo 19.4-6) presupposes the ongoing ethnic divisions brought about at the Tower of Babel.

This whole system of exclusions can be easily seen as “enmity.” It is this system which Christ once and for all brought to an end. By reconciling man to God, Christ reconciled man to each other. By breaking down the barrier between man and God He broke down the barrier between man and man. Christ thus annulled the “law of the commandments in decrees.”[8]

However, having annulled this system by His death, the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit means that the law has been reestablished as the way of life in the Spirit. Paul will go on to exhort Christians:

do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual psalms, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father, and being subject to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord . . . .[5.18-22; NASB; margin readings].

The passage goes on to give instructions for how husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves should live in relation to each other–all of which is presented as an implication of the command to “be filled with the Spirit.”[9] This transfigured life of right relationships entails obedience to the “commandment” of God (6.2). But this commandment has itself been transformed. A promise of blessing to the children of Israel (“that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you”–Exo 20.12), now applies to Gentile children in Ephesus (“that you may live long on the earth”). The law still applies, but it applies in a new creation, a new context devoid of the barriers and restrictions that proliferated in the old creation.

Thus, if forced to make a choice, I would side with those who say that it is the ceremonial law which has been abolished by Christ. On the other hand, while it is fine for us to make such distinctions after the fact, because some parts of the law seem to not be followed at all and others seem virtually unchanged, I doubt that Paul or anyone before him would have thought to divide the law into such tight compartments. The kind of transformation which Paul witnessed as the result of the Gospel was staggering for him. He does not hesitate, therefore, to simply state that Christ annulled the law. Having annulled it, however, by His death, Paul seems to believe that he reestablished it in a new creation.[10]

Finally, we should ask ourselves, is it not possible that Christ did indeed break down a real architectural barrier by what he did in His flesh? Bearing in mind the how barriers between God and man and barriers between man and man are related to one another, there would seem to be an obvious candidate. Jesus’ crucifixion tore open the curtain blocking off the Holy of Holies in the Temple (Matt 27.51/ Mark 15.38/ Luke 23.45). The author of Hebrews, in facts, identifies Jesus’ flesh with the veil in front of the Holy of Holies (Heb 10.20). Unlike, the wall separating “the Court of the Gentiles” from the rest of the Temple area in first-century Jerusalem, the veil in front of the Holy of Holies was a legitimate part of the Mosaic system. By breaking down this barrier between God and man, Jesus also put an end to the enmity between Jew and Gentile.


[1]. Both the RSV and NIV have Christ breaking down the dividing wall of enmity by annulling the law of commandments, whereas the NKJV and NASB have Christ breaking down the dividing wall by annulling the enmity which is the law of commandments. Andrew Lincoln (_Ephesians_ [Dallas, TX: Word Biblical Commentary, 1990], pp. 123-134) sides with the latter view, saying “syntactical considerations favor” it, namely that “It is more natural for phrases which are in apposition to follow one another than to be interrupted by the participle [lusas in v. 14]. I agree with Lincoln’s reasoning, though breaking down the dividing wall of enmity by annulling the law of commandments and breaking down the dividing law by annulling the enmity which is the law of commandments seems like a distinction without a real difference in meaning. Thus, F. F. Bruce, though he comes to the same position as Lincoln, says: “Since ‘wall,’ ‘hostility,’ and ‘law’ are so closely associated, the sense is not materially affected by the construction” (_The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians_, NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984] p. 298).

[2]. Lincoln, p. 141.

[3]. Cf. Acts 10. Peter states that it is “unlawful” for “a Jew to associate with a foreigner or visit him,” but there is no such law anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter must be referring to the oral traditions in which he has been raised. Furthermore, he does not claim that Jesus has now changed the covenantal administration so that a temporary prohibition is now repealed, but rather that the very nature of God means that the “law” (the Pharisaical tradition) was in error all along–“God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (vv. 34b-35; cf. Rom 2.9-11; 3.29-30; 10.12).

[4]. The expanse between heaven and earth, created on the second day, is the only work in the six-day sequence which God does not declare to be good. Like Adam’s singleness, the barrier was meant to be a temporary state of affairs. It is interesting that Lincoln, who does not accept Pauline authorship for Ephesians, and hypothesizes a redactional history for the letter, comments on an apparent (to him) anomaly) “It is best explained as a remnant of the traditional material which originally referred to heaven and earth.” Hopefully, the Biblical background I am mentioning will show that references to heaven and earth are directly related to the division between Jew and Gentile, and do not need to be seen as two different redactions. Likewise, Bruce’s discussion as to whether a “vertical” or “horizontal” barrier is being considered in this passage (p. 286-297) is somewhat unnecessary. We don’t need to choose one option to the exclusion of the other.

[5]. Among many other sources, see James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), pp. 208-216.

[6]. There are several different ways to demonstrate these stair-step divisions. In light of Acts 13.16b, 26, it seems quite certain that those “who fear the LORD” in Psalms 115.11, 13; 118.4; 135.20 were Gentile “God-fearers. Thus, Psalms 115.9-13; 118.2-4 give us a threefold division between the Priests, the Israelites, and the Gentiles. Psalm 135.19-20 gives us a fourfold division between the Israelites, the Priesthood, the Levites, and the Gentiles.

[7]. Thus, the Gospel brings together, not only Jew and Gentile, but nation with nation (Col 3.11).

[8]. So, Charles Hodge: “The design of Christ in thus abolishing the law was twofold,- -first, the union of the Jews and Gentiles in one holy, catholic church; and, secondly, the reconciliation of both to God” (_Ephesians_ [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967, 1856], p. 91. However, Hodge’s insistence that Paul is discussing “the covenant of works” and is only mentioning Judaism because “all who in that day were legalists were Judaizers” (p. 90) seems unwarranted.

[9]. It needs to be borne in mind that the Spirit is especially associated with the resurrection life of Jesus and us (Rom 1.4; 8.9-11, 16-17, 23; 1 Cor 15.45; 1 Tim 3.16).

[10]. For an argument for this point of view in Paul from another passage, see N. T. Wright’s “The Vindication of the Law: Narrative Analysis and Romans 8.1-11” in _The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology_ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, 1991), pp. 193-216. Wright suggests that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” and “the law of sin and death” are both references to the Torah, the second before the death and resurrection Jesus, and the first after it.


  1. I enjoyed reading this analysis very much because of the way it explores every option. It is tempting to take a denominational approach to Ephesians 2:15 and of course we know many do. However, the author being dogmatic It is frustrating though that a definite conclusion cannot be drawn on this important text. In that case, I think it is better to consider that this text as inconclusive rather than to wrest a wrong meaning from it.

    Comment by Brian Hyde — July 27, 2011 @ 1:28 am

  2. Just to add to my last post. If one interprets “ordinances” as ceremonial law (after the manner of some)would that not contradict other scripture that hold the Law of Moses as a single unit and, therefore, indivisible? Thus, if you remove one set of laws must you not of necessity remove all? What do you think?

    Comment by Brian Hyde — July 27, 2011 @ 1:48 am

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