Breaking Down the Walls
Jesus came to break down the walls that divide us. God’s grace gives us a way to escape “us and them” thinking. We often view grace as something that affects our relationship with God, but it also affects our relationship with other people. It brings peace between us and our neighbors even if we have different worldviews.
In Galatians 3, Paul speaks of the three greatest distinctions in the ancient world. There was a dividing wall between the Jew and the Greek (Gentile), the slave and the free, and between men and women. It wasn’t just that these groups were different. These separations had to do with human worth. One group looked down upon and devalued the other. People commonly thought God, Himself, built these walls and to try to tear them down was to oppose Him.
The first century Temple in Jerusalem illustrated the division between Jews and Gentiles. In God’s house, there wasn’t just a figurative wall. There was a real one, and to cross it unlawfully could bring dire consequences.
The Temple had three major courts or divisions. The outermost area was called the Court of the Gentiles. It was a space reserved for tourists and Gentiles who came to honor Israel’s God. People came from all over the world to see Herod’s glorious Temple, and as long as they were respectful, the Jews allowed them to behold the majesty of God’s most holy building. Foreigners could also purchase various animals for the priests to offer as a sacrifice though they had to use the Temple’s own holy currency. And that required the assistance of money changers, who were notorious for giving very unfair exchange rates. Because of these money changers, Jesus said the Temple had become a “den of thieves.”
At the entrance to the second court, a large sign spelled out an ominous warning in bright red letters. Not too long ago, archeologists discovered fragments of the original engraving. It said:
Those who were not descendants of Abraham, who were uncircumcised, who were unclean, or who did not keep Torah could not enter the second court. It was more holy than the first court, and a worshipper had to follow suit to cross the divide.
Your heritage and your deeds defined you. The decedents of Abraham stood apart from everybody else. If you were not among the chosen, you were among the rejected. The devout divided the world between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the Sabbath keepers and the Sabbath breakers, and the clean and the unclean. The obedient were above and the disobedient were below, and the two did not mix.
The Jewish people were merely portraying human nature. We all tend to put that which differs from us below ourselves. When the Gentiles came to Christ, many of them thought God loved them more because they were not circumcised! Paul responded in Galatians, saying “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation (Galatians 6:15).”
Another great divide stood between slaves and the free. Historians estimate that at least half the world was enslaved to the other in the first century. If you are someone’s property, that says something about your worth.
How did half the world find itself so far below the other half? We might think the enslaved were merely conquered people, and it was just a matter of brute force. Yet, the driving force behind slavery was not war but high taxes. The Romans placed a heavy tax burden on the common man. We have a graduated tax system where the poor pay less, not so with the Romans. For example, they had a head tax, which meant the bigger your family, the higher your taxes.
The world in that day consisted primarily of agrarian economies, which meant in good years, people had enough to meet their basic needs and maybe purchase a few luxuries. In bad years, they did without, even going hungry at times. Placing a huge tax burden on a family that just gets by is a recipe for disaster. When the inevitable happened and families could not pay, they couldn’t resort to bankruptcy. They either paid or faced crucifixion.
Fortunately, there were “kind” wealthy people willing to come to the rescue. All these imperiled families had to do was to sell their land and become slaves. Their problems would be over but so would their lives. The rich would pay the Romans, but at terrible cost to the debtor.
A third great dividing wall was between men and women. In the first century, distinctions between men and women were even greater than they are today. Again, we turn to the Temple for a vivid illustration. The second court of the Temple was divided into three sub-courts. The first was the Court of the Women. As the name implies, Torah keeping Jewish women could enter here, but they could go no further in the Temple.
People believed God favored men more than women. Women were not allowed to be educated in theological matters. They could not sit at the feet of the great Rabbis, and men did not talk to women in public.
A prayer from the rabbinical writings of the day sums up these three great distinctions. “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me… a goy[Gentile], a slave, or a woman.”
In our day, we marvel at the walls that divided people in the first century. Yet, we have walls of our own, and some of them stand just as tall. Many still reject their neighbor based on religion and nationality. Although the divide between men and women is considerably smaller, most women would say it still exists. We no longer have slavery in most of the world, but we still have an enormous gulf between the rich and the poor.
We have created other divisions in the United States. If we watch the news, we would conclude that one of the biggest is between liberal and conservative or between Democrat and Republican. Yet, if Paul was alive today, he might write “In Christ there is neither Democrat nor Republican.” Considering how both these sides are trying to subjugate the other, such a statement might seem ludicrous. How could things so different be one? To understand how this can be so, we must turn away from what humanity did to build these walls to what Christ did to tear them down.
Jesus came to redefine us. Before He came, we defined ourselves according to who we were, what we had, what we believed, and what we did. These were the old measures of self, and if who you are, what you have, what you believe, or what you do differed from me, there was apt to be a wall between us. The dividing walls came from self. Christ came to give a new measure of who we are, and that measure would transcend the differences between us. The new measure is Christ, who He is and what He has done.
My wife and I like the BBC television show Sherlock (spoiler alert!). It is a modern telling of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson story. In an episode Mary, John Watson’s wife, stepped in front of a bullet that was meant to kill Sherlock. Her heroic act ended her life. Afterwards, Sherlock went into a terrible depression. He felt guilty, but it was deeper than that. He said that Mary’s sacrifice had assigned a value to his life that troubled him.
As we watched, I thought “What a glorious Christian statement!” Christ’s act of sacrifice assigned a value to our lives. His deeds, not our own, became the measure of our worth. Unlike the finite deeds of humanity, His act was an infinite act, and thus our worth has become immeasurable. The flesh found worth in finite deeds, good or evil, and that is why we could compare ourselves to others. Jesus took away our comparisons by giving us Himself.
But that is just the half of it. Christ, in dying and rising from the grave, tied who we are to Who He is. We have all heard teachings about finding our identity in Christ. Usually, we define our new identity in terms of good and evil. We were bad but Christ made us good. Yet, this definition falls short. Christ identified with us, so we could identify with Him. We share in His identity. His death and resurrection tied who we are to Who He is. If you are a Christian, you must not look at self to find out who you are. Rather, you must turn away from self and look at Christ. Only in knowing Him do we find out who we are.
The early church understood this concept well. An early sermon from a fellow named Melito (AD 195) describes our tie to Christ in a most profound way. Speaking of Christ, he writes:
Therefore, to build a wall between us and our brother is to contend with Christ.
Christ did not come to make us all the same. He did not come to turn Democrats into Republicans or vice versa. Our finite differences do not go away. Yet, God gives us something that transcends those differences…Himself. Therefore, we must no longer see our neighbor in light of who they are, what they have, what they believe, or even of what they have done. We are to see them in the light of Who Jesus is and what He has done. If we do, we won’t see any walls, only the glory of the God who has made us one. In other words, when we look at our neighbor, we will see Jesus.
The world spends so much energy taking worth away from others. It thinks the way to raise self is to lower others. In Christ, we have a different calling. We are to give worth to the world, not take it away. We are to tell people the good news that God has raised their worth to the heavens. Yet, we are also to walk in our Lord’s steps. We assign worth to other people’s lives by counting them more important than ourselves. In doing so, we point the way to Christ who gave Himself for us.