The Horizontal Gospel
Charles Brown was a 21-year-old West Virginia farm boy when he took off on his first combat mission in WW2, flying a B17 bomber over German territory. It was just four days before Christmas in 1943. While flying over German territory, his squadron was swarmed by German fighter planes, leaving his B17 badly damaged and barely flying. Half of his crew were wounded and the tail gunner was dead. At one point, he and his co-pilot looked outside the cockpit window and were paralyzed by fear. Hovering on their wing was one more German Messerschmitt, just waiting to make the kill.
But then something strange happened. The German pilot – whom they could see face to face – gave him a nod and continued flying in formation. Franz Stigler, the pilot, knew that German anti-aircraft gunners on ground could take out the plane at any moment. He also knew that the Germans had their own B17 bombers, planes that were rebuilt after being shot down and used for training. By flying in formation, he disguised Browns plane as German and safely guided it through German skies and back to the North Sea. Once safely out of German territory, he saluted Brown and his copilots and turned back, saying to himself “good luck, you’re in God’s hands now.”
But there is even more to the story. You see Stigler had every earthly reason to do the exact opposite of what he actually did. As one of German’s top fighter pilots, he was just one downed plane away from receiving The Knights Cross – the most distinguished metal a German soldier could earn. In addition, his only brother August – also a pilot – had been killed earlier in the war, and American pilots like Brown were responsible for killing many of his comrades and bombing many of his cities. And then there was the death penalty. This was the price a German pilot would pay if he spared the enemy.
So what on earth motivated this man to not only refrain from killing his enemy, but actually escort him to safety? The account I read said this of Stigler as he approached the wounded plan: “Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot.” Of Brown, the account said: “He flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.”
The article I found was about something called the Warrior Code – which many of you likely know well. It’s an unspoken rule of war that causes a man to refrain from killing a helpless enemy. But Charlie and Franz’s story, I believe, captures something more. I believe it shows how two men who knew Christ exercised and experienced the horizontal gospel. What is the horizontal gospel you say? Well, we’re going to get to that. But first, let’s pray.
The passage were are going to study today is Ephesians 2:11-22, if you want to turn, or scroll, there in your Bibles.
But before we get to those verses, we need to step back a little and see this wonderful chapter as a whole. To do that, we need to capture the central point of the verses leading up to this passage, verses 2:1-10. These verses create the movement from which the second half of chapter 2 flows. What we’ll see when we do is how the Holy Spirit, through Paul, has masterfully captured the whole essence of the gospel.
I don’t have time to go through verses 2:1-9, but I would submit to you that the central point of these verses is this: That Jesus Christ, by His work on the cross and through His resurrection, reconciled the Gentiles – and in turn all of us – to God. Put another way, because of the blood of Jesus, we now can have a relationship with the Father. Paul writes:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. – Eph. 2:4-7
Paul is pointing out that the Gentiles (and in turn us), who were once dead to God, have been reconciled to Him through Jesus such that we all have the “surpassing riches” of eternity with Him. These passages are all about how, through His Son, the Father is gathering His people back to Him. But not just the children of Abraham. He is gathering the children of Adam. And He does so by His own will, and not based on anything we have done. As Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
So we have here our relationship with God restored through His gift of grace made possible by His gift of faith in Jesus Christ. This is what we might call the vertical gospel. Through this gift, Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law that we could never achieve. But having received this gift, what is our response? A thank you note? A Star Bucks gift card? No, of course not. Our response, I would submit to you, is to keep the Commandment on which “the whole Law and Prophets depend,” as Jesus testified to in Mt. 22:40. Our response is to honor God’s command that: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Mt. 22:37-38.
So that’s a brief recap of verses 2:1 – 9. But the chapter doesn’t end there. One way to think of this is that the first half of this book is like a locomotive engine that powers us to salvation. The engine can easily get itself from point A to point B – but if that is all it is intended to do, what’s the point? The engine has two purposes, to get itself to the chosen destination and to bring the rail cars with it. As Calvin put it, “faith alone saves, but faith that saves is never alone.” The verses that follow are those cars – they are that which accompanies our restored relationship with God.
Let me push the train metaphor a little further, and hopefully it won’t break down. If the first half is the engine, and the second half the rail cars, verses 2:10 and 2:11 are the couplers – they lock these two sections together. Let’s start with verse 10:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. – Eph. 2:10
What I want us to focus on here is that clause – “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” That is to say, for the purpose of good works. We weren’t merely created to be saved. We were created for good works, which God prepared beforehand. That means God purposed from the beginning that believers would do good things. This is a common theme in Pauline literature:
“to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.” – Rom 2:7
“And God is able to make all grace abound in you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for very good deed.” – 2 Cor. 9:8
So verse 2:10 acts as the first half of our coupler, attached to the engine – or verses 2:1-9. The second part of the coupler, attached to verses 11-22, comes in the very next word, in verse 11 – the single word “therefore.” This conjunction indicates a result – namely what the result of everything in the first half, verses 2:1-10, should be. Paul is basically saying “as a result of our salvation and the fact that you were made for good works, our response should be… what? – He gives us one command. It’s the only imperative contained in all of these verses – to Remember. This it seems is what binds the vertical gospel to what we will see next.
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision”, which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
The first thing Paul calls on Gentiles to remember is their state before Christ came. And they are called to remember two things in particular; first that they were “in the flesh” and second that they were separated from Christ. “In the flesh” is a phrase, as Paul used it, that would have captured the totality of the flesh, a flesh so dominated by sin that nothing good can come of it. As Paul put it in Romans 8:7, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God, for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.”
But then Paul adds this phrase about uncircumcision and circumcision. What does he mean by this? Well here he is pointing out that not only are Gentiles separated from God by virtue of their sin, they also are outside of His covenant people by virtue of their standing. Note he calls it a “so-called” circumcision, in other words circumcision in name only, without any meaningful spiritual connection. And he uses this phrase “made by hands” (χειροποιήτου) to describe the circumcision. Interestingly, the only time this phrase is used in the Bible is to refer to man-made idols that are worshipped in lieu of God, or temples these idols dwell in. What Paul is saying, in essence, is that the Jews have taken what once was a godly rite – circumcision being a sign of their covenant with God – and turned the practice into an idol unto itself. Worse yet, the idol was being used to create an exclusive, self-defined community, as opposed to the blessing to all families of the earth that God promised through His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:3.
This should lead us to ask ourselves, are there gifts God has bestowed on us that we have turned into idols and a means to separate ourselves from culture? Hmmm. Too convicting, Moving on. The important thing to grasp here is that the Gentiles were separated from God both by their own sin and by the judgment of those within God’s covenant. They were truly destitute. Apart from Christ, they were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Take a moment and reflect on that. If you are a believer, ask yourself this – where would I be without the hope of God? Before you knew Him, what did you cling to for hope and purpose? Your job, your possessions, your spouse, your kids? Did you live in fear knowing that you could lose any of these things at any time, leaving you with nothing – hopeless in the world?
Paul purposefully takes his readers, and us by extension, back to that dreaded place – when we were separate from Christ and having no hope because we were without God. His first instruction is to remember where you came from. While we shouldn’t live in the past, we should also never forget it. Why? Because the story we lived is the story someone else is living now. Indeed, it may be the story some of you are living today. Through our empathy, we are able to share the experience of Jesus with those who don’t know Him. Without it, we share only the idea of Him. But in our world and especially our area, one more intellectual idea may not be enough to yield salvific fruit.
Having recalled their miserable state of separation from God, Paul next reminds the Gentiles of the joy they have being reconciled to God through Jesus. But he is also doing something else here. He is reminding them that by His blood, Jesus not only reconciled Jews and Gentiles to God, He also reconciled these long-time enemies to each other.
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Eph. 2:13
Terms such as “far off” and “near” were commonly used in the Old Testament to differentiate Gentile nations from Israel. Paul, here, is drawing out this very distinction – Gentiles are no longer far off, or separated, from Jews, but rather have been brought near. The word “near” (ἐγγὺς) is talking about a closeness in terms of proximity, the Gentiles are literally in the same camp as the Jews through their belief in Christ. Note what Paul says next:
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. - Eph. 2:14-16
There is a lot here, but the critical theme to catch is how integrated our reconciliation to one another is with our reconciliation to God. The metaphor of the “dividing wall” – literally “the dividing wall of separation” – is profound. Many believe, myself included, that Paul is referring to a wall in Herod’s Second Temple known as the soreq, which divided the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of Israel – and of course from the Holy of Holies. This is a powerful image when coupled with what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew writes: And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The veil refers to the inner curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place – it’s tearing signified that Christ made it possible for believers to go directly into God’s presence – the very theme of the first 9 verses. But directly in tandem with this, Jesus also tore down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, signifying that this division too was vanquished in Him. In that universe-altering moment on Calvary, Jesus not only united believers with God, He also united them with one another.
But the term “dividing wall” has double meaning; it also refers to the Law. Jews in the diaspora were not socially distinguishable from Gentiles – thus their keeping of the Law became the means by which they distinguished and separated themselves from their long-time rivals. Indeed, the keeping of the Law of commandments became the basis for the “enmity” or hostility between Jews and Gentiles; the thing that separated them. And this is the enmity Christ abolished through His death and resurrection. He intended to “make the two into one new man” and in so doing “establish peace.” And this part is critical, Jesus did this so that He “might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross.”
What should be evident to us in these verses, thus, is that Christ died for more than our personal salvation – our personal reconciliation with God. He died also that we would be reconciled with one another. We can’t be about the business of rebuilding walls that Jesus tore down through His very death. This is especially true for believers – Jesus here is talking to two different groups of believers who are maintaining an ungodly animosity toward one another. They are tearing apart what God intends to be united, and doing so over matters that are not spiritually fundamental. The lesson here should be clear to us too. When there is division among Christians, we are outside of Christ’s will – we rebuild walls He died to tear down.
Let me be clear about what I am saying here. I am not arguing for so-called “church unity” at all costs, because there are a lot of false prophets out there masquerading as the church. And as you know, it is a fundamental tenet of this church that we preach and teach truth. We preach this [BIBLE]. You aren’t going to hear messages that merely stringing together humorous anecdotes about what the Bible says, throwing in the occasional pop-culture reference. We preach truth. So I am not talking about unity at the cost of orthodoxy – I am talking unity in orthodoxy.
That said, when we as Christians become divided over matters that are not ultimate, we start rebuilding the wall Jesus tore down. We need to be careful about that. Whether it’s the color of our skin, our politics, our position on anything related to a pandemic – whatever it may be that divides us – if it’s less important than God’s desire that all should be saved – it has no business coming between us. Moreover, we need to consider what our division does to our witness. Have you ever been around a constantly bickering couple? How uncomfortable is that? They may be telling you how important it is to get married on one hand, and demonstrating how miserable it is on the other. You walk away wondering why anyone would want that? Division among Christians can have the same effect.
But when we as Christians are united on ultimate things, we stand on common ground that is the only stable ground there is, the only firm foundation, the only rock that endures. This is the solid ground of Calvary, not the crumbling earth and sinking sand of worldly philosophies.
As Paul told the church in Corinth: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” – 1 Cor. 1:21-24
In these verses, we come to see that as fellow believers in Jesus Christ, no matter where we came from, what we look like, what our views of various non-ultimate issues may be, we are one in Christ. He has reconciled even the most bitter of enemies to Himself, and in so doing to God and to one another.
Now, although this passage is aimed at believers, the overarching theme that Jesus came to reconcile all people to God through His church is equally clear. Paul’s reference to Isaiah 57:19 carries this point:
And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near, for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
Again, those who are far away is a euphemism for the Gentiles, representatives of the unsaved world. Today they might be Americans, Europeans, Africans or Asians. They might be tall or short, thin or fat, pretty or homely. However we want to categorize people, Jesus died for them so that all made in God’s image would, through Him, have access in one Spirit to the Father.
We talked earlier about not rebuilding walls between us that Jesus has torn down. But I think it is important to note that walls between believers and nonbelievers are equally detrimental to God’s plan. These too must not be built, and where they are, must be torn down. I am reminded of a story about a mission in rural South Africa that I actually visited some years ago.
The mission is located outside a city called Mthatha, which like most urban areas in Africa, has a burgeoning squatter population. Folks coming from rural areas to look for work would settle on any open land they could find. The missionaries there maintained fields for farming, which in turn provided food and income. (You can see where this is going). It was all going along well until one day – almost overnight really – dozens of squatters started taking over their fields and property. A few members of the staff went to the head missionary in a panic. They feared losing everything to the intruders. Now what do you suppose his response was? What would yours have been? Panic? Anger? Fear? Resentment? Deep lament? (At least that would have been Godly). Nope. Do you know what he did? He told his staff to praise the Lord. “We’ve been laboring for the Lord for years, going out time and again to search out lost. But look what God has done! He has brought them right here to us.”
And there you have it. No new walls. Just open arms. It may be that some people will move into our spheres that make us less than comfortable. But don’t ever assume that’s against God’s will. It more likely is His will.
But on a happier note, what Paul gives us next is the beautiful and powerful image of the church Jesus built, the church we belong to, the church that God has empowered to deliver hope to the nations. You see, these verses are really about good news. Really good news.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord., in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2:17-22
There are no strangers or aliens in God’s household, only fellow citizens of His kingdom – fellow believers in the eternal hope Christ has given us. And that hope, God’s household, is not built on a foundation of shaky, earthly philosophies, but on the eternal truth the prophets testified to all along, the eternal truth the apostles gave us through the gospels and the epistles, the eternal truth which is Jesus Christ Himself, the cornerstone of our faith. The cornerstone, in ancient times, was the most important stone in the entire building, because once it was placed every stone was lined up according to it. If the cornerstone was off, the whole building was off. But if the cornerstone is correctly aligned, the building will be too. Our corner stone is more than correctly aligned – it is perfect. Our cornerstone is God Himself.
Paul concludes with this wonderful summary statement of the entire passage. First, he notes “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord…” That is the outcome of the reconciliation of all people to one another through the blood of Christ – we are perfectly fitted together and ever growing into a holy temple in the Lord. That is the outcome of what Paul describes in the verses we just explored. This is the horizontal gospel.
And yet, he adds in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. That is to say, by God’s grace, through your faith (gifted by Him), you – individually – are growing as a dwelling of God. This is the vertical gospel. Isn’t that cool. Everything just fits together in Jesus.
Ok, so this is all well and good, but what do we do with it? Earlier, I suggested to you that the two sections of Ephesians 2 parallel the Greatest Commandment – that is to say, they frame up why the Greatest Commandment should be our ongoing response to God’s outworking in our lives. So in response to the truth of our reconciliation to God through Jesus as laid out in Ephesians 2:1-10, we should do this: Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. But what should our response be to the truth verses 11-22, that Paul calls us to “remember”? The truth that Jesus through His death on the cross reconciled us all to one another. Well, there you have the reason for the Second Greatest Commandment.
The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Mt. 22:39
The question is, how are we doing with this, the horizontal gospel? I would say pretty good. But we can do better. For one thing, you should know the commitment that BCC has made to transforming our community and our world is very serious. We give 13 percent of all we receive directly to ministries and missionaries in our community and around our world who are breaking down walls to the gospel with the truth, hope and love of Christ. When you give, you give to a lot more than just what you see here. You give to widows and orphans in the poorest areas of Africa. You give to struggling pastors and church leaders laboring in the slums of Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Mozambique. You give to the imprisoned. You give to the unborn. You touch so many lives in our world.
But there is one more thing you give to that I want you to know about. Something closer to home. You give to the opening and operation of BCC’s Care and Counseling Center. Brothers and sisters, these ministries are the very definition of the horizontal gospel in action – the loving of our neighbors. Whether in our church or in our community, through this Center God will heal and transform broken lives. But it’s not just about money – in fact it’s not about money at all. It’s about the community of Christ engaging in the good works God has prepared beforehand.
But we can do better. So in conclusion, I have two simple challenges for you today. They’re super easy. First, if you haven’t already, I want you to download the awesome BCC App, look under events, and register to attend the Care and Counseling Center Open House next Sunday at 12:30 pm. And if that’s too much, we’ve got sign-ups right out in the lobby. This is a great way for you to explore opportunities for putting the horizontal gospel in action. The second challenge is this: love one another.
Remember Charlie and Franz – the fighter pilots? Charlie tracked Franz down 47 years after that God-inspired encounter. And it turns out the war cost Franz just about everything. He was exiled after the war; it cost him his brother, his country and his countrymen. But he had this – a onetime enemy who turned out to be his closest of friends. All because Charlie exercised the horizontal gospel – tracking down Franz and returning the gift of grace and love he so mercifully received. In a book Franz had given Charlie, this inscription was found: “In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.”
And that’s how the horizontal gospel works.