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Ethnic Arrogance Dies Beneath the Cross

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I didn’t always love Paul for his work of ethnic reconciliation. There are years in my past for which I am ashamed — years of racism when I was so in the thrall of my Southern culture of the 1950s and 1960s that I could not see what was staring up at me from the pages of Paul’s letters. I don’t say it that way to lessen my own guilt, as though I could somehow blame my blindness on culture. I was a more-than-willing accomplice in the racial ugliness of those days. I’ve told the whole story in Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian.

But there came a time when the scales began to fall away. (I say began so as not to imply the total absence of blinders still.) Of course, it was the work of no mere man. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32). No. This was a gracious, sovereign work of Jesus by his Spirit. But, as always, he used a human agent. He used human words. In fact, he used the apostle Paul.

Paul, My Liberator

Paul could help me because he had at one time been as prejudiced against Gentiles as I was against African Americans. Paul called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). He considered his ethnic and religious pedigree, with the zeal of a persecutor and the blamelessness of a Pharisee (Philippians 3:6), to be almost without peer in his generation (Galatians 1:14). He would have said with his fellow Jewish apostle Peter, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28).

But then something happened. It was both devastating and liberating. It devastated every ground of boasting that Paul had. And it liberated him for the experience of a new humanity that was not defined by race or ethnicity or cultural custom. He tallied up all the pride and gain he had achieved through ethnic and religious distinctives and called it excrement in comparison to Christ.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as excrement, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7–8, my translation)

The Revolution of the Cross

By God’s illuminating grace, Paul penetrated to the ethnic achievements of the cross of Christ. Here’s what happened when Christ died:

“No follower of Jesus has said more important or more explosive things about race and ethnicity than the apostle Paul.”

In Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] 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 [Jew and Gentile] and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. . . . For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:13–16, 18)

“By the blood of Christ . . . in his flesh . . . through the cross. . . . He made us both one . . . breaking down the hostility . . . creating one new man . . . reconciling us both to God . . . with access together in one Spirit to the Father.” These are revolutionary words. In that day or in any day. In Rwanda, or Cambodia, or Iran, or India, or in South Carolina.

And they are not first and foremost political words, or social-justice words, or civil-rights words, but gospel words. They are blood-bought, Christ-exalting, heaven-opening words. They are the triumphant fruit of the death of the Son of God. To love the old rugged cross is to love the fruit of the cross. Christ died to create “one new man.” Christ died to remove the “wall of hostility.” Christ died to “[be] our peace.” Christ died so that there would not be multiple segregated accesses to the Father, but that “we would both [name your ethnic rivalry] have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

For the Church First

And all of this is “in Christ” — in Christ you have been brought near. This is not first a mandate for secular culture. This is first a mandate for Christians — those who are in Christ — a mandate for how we relate to each other. In the church, this is the way it should be. Christian exiles and sojourners are not responsible for making unbelievers act like believers. But oh, how responsible we are to love what Christ died to achieve, and to act like it!

Here “in Christ,” here in the church, Paul says in Colossians 3:11, “There is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Because Christ is worth all, and is in all, racial and ethnic differences should no longer create hostility or suspicion or distrust or disrespect or disregard or disparaging thoughts, words, or actions.

New Race, New Ethnicity

Paul gives us a personal glimpse into his own transformation from a high-octane braggart about his Jewish ethnicity to a new man in Christ. Look carefully at what he says about his own adaptability:

“These are not first and foremost political words, or social-justice words, or civil-rights words, but gospel words.”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. . . . I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–21, 23)

Here’s the strangest and most surprising thing about these words. Even though Paul was ethnically a Jew, he said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew.” What does that mean? How can a Jew become a Jew? Does it mean he had switched ethnicities and was now a Gentile outside the law, so that he could sometimes “become” a Jew? No. Because he also said, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law.” Well, who was he?

He was a Christian. He was a new creation in Christ — a new kind of human being. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The calling of this kind of person — this new creation — is “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Christ died to “create in himself one new man” (Ephesians 2:15).

The more you think about these words in a world like ours — I mean a global world like ours — the more astonishing, radical, and revolutionary they become. Almost every country and every region of our world is torn by racial and ethnic tension, or outright violence. It is a global and contemporary problem — in many places a problem of deep and deadly proportions.

How Paul Has Shaped Me

No follower of Jesus has said more important or more explosive things about race and ethnicity than the apostle Paul. My world was blown up by this man. And I love him for it. I shudder to think of what I could still be apart from Paul’s radical call to a new humanity in Christ. I wouldn’t have preached the way I preach. I wouldn’t have lived where I live. I wouldn’t have the friends I have. I wouldn’t have written the books I have written. I wouldn’t have the same hopes for the church and for heaven that I have. And I wouldn’t have an African-American daughter. I would be impoverished spiritually and relationally.

“People from every ethnicity will co-reign in one kingdom with Christ. No hostility, no distrust. Only perfect love and peace and justice.”

At times I feel that I have scarcely begun to see the glories of Christ in the cross and what God achieved by it. But I have seen something. I have tasted enough of God’s glorious aim for the age to come to know some of what it might look like here. Here’s a picture of the future that the blood of Christ purchased:

“Worthy are you [Lord Jesus] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)

People from every ethnicity, ransomed by the blood of Jesus. Why? So we might be priests serving the Lord together in one temple, co-reigning in one kingdom with Christ. No hostility, no tension, no distrust, no disrespect, no disregard or disparaging thoughts. Only perfect love and peace and justice. I love this picture. And I love the apostle who painted it for me.