Sabbath School Lesson for July 22-28, 2023

Overview Lesson 5, Horizontal Atonement: The Church and the Cross

Memory Text: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one.” Ephesians 2:13, 14 ESV

What to expect:

  • Sunday: Brought Near in Christ–healing the feud of the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised”
  • Monday: Reconciliation, God’s Gift From the Cross–dissolving our quarrels through grace and forgiveness
  • Tuesday: Breaking Down the Dividing Wall–giving the Gentiles access to worship
  • Wednesday: Jesus, Preacher of Peace–receiving the gospel of peace from Jesus
  • Thursday: The Church, a Holy Temple–becoming the temple of the living God

The first ten verses of Ephesians 2 provide a thrilling portrait of how a person is saved through the merits of Christ. The rest of the chapter reassures the Gentile believers that they are, with their Jewish counterparts, also saved by God’s grace.

He reminds the Jews and Gentiles of the abundant grace of God that makes it possible for these two groups to be reconciled. They should no longer be at odds with each other. Through God’s forgiveness, they can become a powerful force to represent God to the world.

We enjoy reconciliation from both directions. Vertically, the cross removes our alienation from God. And horizontally, it brings peace among people groups. We become a new temple of humanity, a dwelling place for God through His Spirit. The partitioning wall that previously divided worshipers in their places of worship was no longer relevant. Jews and Gentiles together now have the mission to proclaim God’s gospel of peace, something they had always found difficult to accomplish on their own.

Sunday: Brought Near in Christ

It must have brought a sigh of relief when Paul described the Ephesians as being reconciled with each other, as well as with God. They were once without God, without Christ, and therefore, without hope in ever being able to overcome the artificial barriers that had sadly separated them from each other.

One symptom of their entrenched previous hatred for each other was their name-calling. You were either of “the circumcision” or the “uncircumcision”. There was a wide chasm between Jews and Gentiles that only the cross of Christ could erase. God’s forgiveness made it possible for them to forgive each other. The love that would develop between the groups would be a grand testimony of their mutual love for God.

At last there was no need for them to be separated from God, nor with each other. Christ, their promised Messiah, had come to heal the unfortunate breach they had created to keep themselves holy and pure.

Bible Verses:

Ephesians 1:1-3 and 2:11, 12

  • Although both Jew and Gentile believers were called saints, how would you describe their actual differences with each other?
  • What alone would give them hope of a reconciliation?
  • What kind of divisions exist in the church today, and how might they be overcome?

Monday: Reconciliation, God’s Gift From the Cross

Jesus, both in His life of ministry and His death on the cross, exemplified to the Jews how important it was to reach out to Gentiles and welcome them as joint heirs. They had as much right to worship God as anyone else. The divisions between them were not as great as they had imagined.

Much of Christ’s preaching and healing was done for those outside Jerusalem, in and around Galilee. Many of those who felt God’s love through His ministry were those who were considered “unclean” by the Jewish religious leaders. Christ did not hesitate to receive them and even socialized with them to the extent that He was criticized, even condemned, for His benevolent actions.

Then, the crowning act of His mercy, His tortuous death on the cross, made the love of God most obvious. The whole universe witnessed how He took it upon Himself to forgive all who would believe in Him. All sinners would have access to the mercy of God if they chose to follow Him. No one was denied forgiveness who asked for it. Both the thief on the cross next to Him begging for mercy as they hung there together, and all those sinners who did not know what they were doing. Jesus asked the Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Bible Verses:

Ephesians 2:14-16

  • How do walls separate God’s people even today?
  • How important is this work of reconciliation that needs to take place, and how does it happen?

Tuesday: Breaking Down the Dividing Wall

The Prince of Peace shines forth in Ephesians 2:14, 15. Paul mentioned the “middle wall of separation” that Christ, our peace, broke down. This referred to an actual fence or balustrade that partitioned off parts of Herod’s temple that were unlawful for Gentiles to cross, under penalty of death.

This must have sent an unfriendly message to those whom the Jews were supposed to attract to God’s cause. How could Gentiles not feel left out of fellowship with such a barrier to their physical and social interaction? No wonder why it has been called the dividing wall.

Verse 15 spoke of the abolishment of “the law of commandments contained in the ordinances”. Some Christians have taken this to include the Ten Commandments, the only part of God’s law written with His own finger. But Paul’s defense of the law in numerous other verses in the New Testament refutes this idea.

It makes more sense in the context here to understand the law Paul describes as the ceremonial aspect of the law which had separated Jews and Gentiles. Even more likely it spoke of some of the Old Testament laws that were interpreted, added to, and misused by the Jewish religious leaders over time.

It was natural for this to happen without the law being kept with the whole heart, as God desired. The law of love should never to be an instrument of dividing people, which in turn, could only make God’s church less effective.

Bible Verses:

Ephesians 2:14, 15, Romans 3:31, and 7:12

  • What did Paul mean by the “middle wall of partition”?
  • Why would the “law of commandments contained in the ordinances” not include the Ten Commandments?
  • What do these ordinances probably refer to in the context of this verse in Ephesians?

Wednesday: Jesus, Preacher of Peace

Both the greeting and closing of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contain wishes for their peace (Ephesians 1:2 and 6:23). Paul declared in Ephesians 2:14 that Christ Jesus was their peace.

The Savior preached peace to them, as Paul further explained in Ephesians 2:17. We evidently are to do the same, because one of the pieces of armor we are encouraged to have is footwear that enables us to preach the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15).

This peace isn’t just an absence of conflict with people, but it includes a sense of having been made whole that we feel when our relationship with God is what it should be. This sense of overall peace and contentment was included in the Jewish concept of shalom.

Jesus repeatedly made references to this feeling of shalom, by telling His followers “Peace be with you”  (John 14:27, 16:33). Especially in the upper room, where He met with the disciples following His resurrection, He expressed His desire for them to have this kind of peace (John 20:19, 21, 26).

Bible Verses:

Ephesians 1:2, 6:23, John 14:27, 20:19, 21, 26

  • What is so special about greeting someone with shalom?

Ephesians 2:14

  • How is Christ our peace, and with whom can we have peace?
  • What kind of peace has Jesus given you personally?

Thursday: The Church, a Holy Temple

As shown in the Ten Commandments, God is interested not only in our relationship with Him, but how we can best relate to our brothers and sisters. Improvements in both these areas result in a special bond that glorifies God (the first four commandments) and uplifts humanity (the last six).

Our spiritual growth in these relationships consists of making ourselves a living temple of believers. We become part of God’s church that receives blessings of love from God and returns those blessings by loving those around us.

The Holy Spirit enables us to be building blocks for a grand dwelling place that belongs to God and to effectively share His plan of salvation to the world (Ephesians 2:22).

The whole universe benefits from this mission being accomplished. Jesus, while He was with us on earth, worked diligently to establish such a church that would be unified with power from the Holy Spirit, our Comforter and connection with our divine benefactor.

Bible Verses:

Ephesians 2:17-22

  • What part did Jesus and the Holy Spirit have in building a church for God?
  • Why do church members have to stay connected with each other? How does this benefit our mission of spreading the gospel?
  • In what ways might we improve our relationship with God and with each other, so neither suffer neglect? How does this effort unify us?

Friday: Final Thoughts

No wonder the cross, made from a piece of timber that reached upward, and one that was joined horizontally, has become a fitting symbol of Christians around the world. But, even earlier, the Ten Commandments had made it clear that both our reconciliation with Him and each other were needed to give the universe a glimpse of God’s kingdom of love. Both Old Testament and New Testament believers have no excuse to be anything but grateful to God for forgiveness and the ability to forgive others.

Let’s remember that when we keep ourselves separate from others, we may also be keeping them separate from God. This is not to say there won’t be differences in lifestyles that we must be careful not to adopt, but we should never make others feel they are not good enough to be in our company.

True unity can never be achieved in a church that can’t even heal the breaches within itself. The Holy Spirit helps with all our relationships so we can more effectively fulfill the mission God has given us.

Next Week: The Mystery of the Gospel

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