Does Ephesians 2:15 teach that the Ten Commandments were abolished?
by Edwin M. Cotto
Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:15 that the Ten Commandments have been abolished.
THE SHORT ANSWER
The “commandments contained in ordinances” cannot be the Ten Commandments because Paul actually commands the Gentiles to keep portions of the Ten Commandments in this same letter. He will either mention a commandment directly or indirectly. For example, the fifth commandment to honor parents (6:1-2), not lying (4:25) and not stealing (4:28), along with warnings against coveting (5:3) and idolatry (5:5). Allusions to the commandments are made as well, such as the third commandment when he warned against speaking corrupt, evil and foolish words (4:29, 31, 5:4). Lust and fornication are also mentioned (4:19-22, 5:3) which is connected to the seventh commandment (cf. Matt. 5:27-28), and anger is forbidden (4:26, 31), which Jesus connected to the sixth commandment (cf. Matt. 5:22).
The commandments mentioned in verse 15 pertain to the tearing down of the “middle wall of separation” in verse 14, and the resulting unity between Jews and Gentiles in the surrounding context. According to the historian Josephus, there was a literal wall in Herold’s Temple that seperated the court of the Gentiles from the area which only Jews could enter. This wall with its ordinance that “no foreigner should go within that sanctuary” was merely one of many other ordinances invented by the Jews (cf. Matt. 15:9). On one occasion in Acts 21 Paul was accused of bringing an Ephesian Gentile into the Temple, passing this wall (see verse 29), so the phrase “middle wall of separation” would likely have been familiar to their minds upon reading this portion of his letter. However, since the wall was still erected at the writing of this letter, it seems more like Paul is using it as a metaphor to represent the general hostility or “enmity” that existed between the two groups. According to Galatians 3:28, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was Paul’s consistent message to the Gentiles and is the main purpose of his letter to the Ephesians. To claim that he was instead abolishing the Ten Commandments does no justice to the context and causes Paul to contradict himself.
THE LONG ANSWER
Critics have long said that the Ten Commandments were abolished at the cross. To support this claim, many of them will point to Ephesians 2:15 as proof, which says that Christ, “abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances.” Despite the obvious contradiction with the rest of the letter (i.e. 6:1-2), critics, like those at bible.ca, insist that the “commandment contained in ordinances refers specifically to the 10 commandments”(1).Elce Lauriston Thunder, a self-proclaimed anti-sabbatarian critic, references this text and wrote that “Christ abolished the commandments which caused separation.”(2) This is the general sentiment of most antinomian critics when it comes to this text.
Bible commentaries seem to assist in this process. Some versions cross reference Eph. 2:15 with Col. 2:14 because the same greek word δόγμα (dogma) is used. The King James Version translates them both as ordinances. Additionally, it is tempting for critics to see in the term “commandments” a reference to the Ten Commandments which uses the same word, since other texts clearly use the word in that very context (see Mark 10:19, Luke 23:56, Rom. 13:9). While these points seem legitimate, they ignore the immediate and overall context of Ephesians 2:15 which we will now examine.
Before heading off to other texts, bible students should first seek to understand a verse according to its own context. Once that is done, we then go to other verses to help expand our understanding. The letter to the Ephesians stresses the importance of unity between Jews and Gentiles, and, by principle, people of all classes. Immediately Paul begins his letter by using unifying pronouns such as “us” and “we,”(3) glorifying Christ as the head of the united church (1:22-23), and the victory gained by the church through the saving grace of Jesus (1:15-2:13). Whatever it was that separated the Jews from the Gentiles in 2:15, it has now been removed, making way for both to be “fitted together” into a “holy temple of the Lord” (2:19-22).
Various other metaphors follow further elaborating on this unity, including the church being collectively the body of Christ (4:1-16), the bride of Christ (5:23-32) and a military unit against dark spiritual forces (6:10-20). Spiritual gifts are imparted to detect any teachings or teachers that could destroy this unity (4:1-16), along with warning against various sins that will also disrupt this unity. Examples of these include warnings against lying to each other, stealing and speaking corrupt words, with an appeal in the midst to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you (4:32). Paul even appeals to couples, children and even slaves and masters to be respectful and loving towards each other (5:22-6:9). With such a heavy emphasis on ecclesiastical, familial and social unity, one wonders how the Ten Commandments could cause such separation among them to such a degree that it had to be literally “abolished.” Actually, the very opposite is true. The Ten Commandments are a recurring theme in Ephesians which Paul consistently references to prevent separation. The clearest reference comes from 6:2 where Paul quotes directly from the 5th commandment:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’” (Eph. 6:1-3)
We have other examples, such as not lying (4:25) and not stealing (4:28) which were mentioned before, along with warnings against coveting (5:3) and idolatry (5:5). Allusions to the commandments are made as well, such as not speaking corrupt and evil words, and staying away from foolish talking, which would fall under the third commandment (4:29, 31, 5:4). Lust and fornication are also mentioned (4:19-22, 5:3) which is connected to the seventh commandment (cf. Matt. 5:27-28), and anger is forbidden (4:26, 31), which Jesus connected to the sixth commandment (cf. Matt. 5:22). In fact, the call to “walk in love” in 5:2 covers all of the Ten Commandments, since love is the fulfilling of the Ten Commandments (cf. Rom. 13:8-10).(4) And, as if to warn them of anyone seeking to remove these prohibitions, Paul warns, “let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:6-7),” and admonishes the Ephesians to “expose them” (verse 11). Shouldn’t we also, today, heed this warning? Of course the question is now, how does Eph. 2:15 abolish the Ten Commandments while the rest of the letter enforces them? Obviously, this cannot be. God through Paul would not on the one hand abolish the Ten Commandments, while on the other hand enforce them. Evidently, the reasoning of our critics is nonsensical and does not fit the context. Consequently, the “commandments contained in ordinances” cannot be the Ten Commandments, and must be something that the critics have not considered.(5)
Moreover, there should be a careful analysis of the verse itself. The word “ordinances” (Greek δόγμα) is found 5 times in the New Testament and each time in different contexts. In Luke 2:1 and Acts 17:7 it is used regarding decrees from a secular monarch. In Col. 2:14 it is used regarding the handwriting of ordinances which was nailed to the cross. The word “handwriting” translates cheirographon which signifies a record of debt, of which the entire system of ceremonial laws were a part of.(6) In Acts 16:4 it is used with reference to the decrees determined at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and in the Septuagint the word is found in the context of various decrees mostly by secular monarchs.(7) Unfortunately we cannot determine what those ordinances were by a mere analysis of this word, but we do have another word in verse 15 that qualifies those commandments, the word “enmity.” This is a pretty strong term, signifying intense hostility, or an enemy. It is translated “hatred” and listed within a group of sins that will prevent people from inheriting the “kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). According to verse 16, this enmity was put to death. If this enmity was the Ten Commandments, would Paul then command the Ephesians to partake of that which was put to death by telling them to keep the Ten Commandments as he obviously does in the rest of the letter? Hardly. It seems quite evident that those “commandments contained in ordinances” cannot be the Ten Commandments. So, what are they?
It will help for us to look closely at the immediate context. Note verse 14:
“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.” (Eph 2:14).
The words “middle wall of separation” sets the context as to that which was abolished in verse 15. But, what was that wall of separation? Immediately after verses 14-15 we see Paul’s effort to make it clear that there is no longer a separating line between Jews and Gentiles. That through the cross both are united as one (verse 16), both have access to the Father (verse 18) and both, especially the Gentiles, are now “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (verse 19). Thus that “middle wall of separation” is a phrase representing the animosity or “enmity” that existed between the two classes of people and how Christ tore that enmity down. There is also an allusion in the phrase to an actual wall that existed in the temple court, which, according to commentator Matthew Henry, “separated the court of the Gentiles from that into which the Jews only had liberty to enter.”(8) Note how the Jewish historian Flavious Josephus describes it:
“There was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits: its construction was very elegant; upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that ‘no foreigner should go within that sanctuary’ for that second [court of the] temple was called ‘the Sanctuary,’ and was ascended to by fourteen steps from the first court.”(9)
There is a possibility that the Ephesians were well acquainted with this “middle wall of separation” because of an incident that took place with Paul in Acts 21. The Jews found Paul in the temple and dragged him outside, beating him to near death, supposing that he had brought an Ephesian gentile named Trophimus passed this wall into the Temple (ibid, verse 29), which likely he didn’t. Nonetheless, that was one of the accusations they leveled against Paul and Trophimus the Ephesian, and the phrase “middle wall of separation” would have immediately been familiar to them upon reading it in this letter.
Though there is a possible allusion to this very literal wall, it seems like Paul is using it more as a metaphor to represent that enmity which existed between the two groups. This is because that wall was still up at the writing of this letter, since the Temple had not been destroyed yet. The ordinance on that wall which read, “no foreigner should go within that sanctuary” was merely one ordinance among many others invented by the Jews (Matt. 15:9) and seem representative of all that animosity, or all that “enmity” which existed between them. Jesus’ ministry demonstrated His intent on tearing down that enmity by reaching out to and performing miracles among non-Jews, which was finally torn down by His death on the cross. Now, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This was Paul’s consistent message to the Gentiles and is the main purpose of his letter to the Ephesians. To claim that he was instead abolishing the Ten Commandments does no justice to the context and causes Paul to be self-contradictory.
1) See: https://www.bible.ca/7-10-commandments-abolished-Ephesians-2-15.htm. The author at this link goes through great lengths to show how the words “commandments, statutes, ordinances, etc” are used interchangeably when speaking about the Ten Commandments and the ceremonial laws. However, this is a strawman argument because distinctions are not so much in the specific terms used, but in the nature of each commandment. Obviously, “thou shalt not kill” is moral in nature while laws commanding sacrifices are ceremonial in nature. It may be that some Adventists have tried to make these distinctions using terms, but that is not an official teaching of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
2) See: The Sabbath: 16 Propositions against Mandatory and Salvational Sabbath Keeping, page 7.
3) Note the frequency of these words in verses 3-14 of chapter 1.
4) It is true that Romans 13:8-10 does not mention the Sabbath commandment, but neither does it mention the first three commandments. Since contextually Paul is speaking about our conduct towards earthly authorities (verses 1-7), we expect him to mention those commandments which pertain to our relationship towards our fellow man.
5) Of interest it should be noted that Paul speaks of the enmity as being “abolished.” The Greek term used here is καταργέω and it is the same Greek term used in Romans 3:31 which says that faith actually establishes the law, and by law Paul means the Ten Commandments (see 2:21-23). It would not be consistent for Paul on the one hand to write that the law was abolished while on the other hand write that Christians don’t abolish it through their faith.
6) A comparison of Col. 2:14-17 with Hebrews 10:1 reveals striking similarities (shadows, things to come) evincing that Paul was speaking about ceremonial laws which, like any good debt would do, remind the people of their sins which were never really dealt with in the manner it would be when the messiah arrives. Cf. Hebrews 10:3.
7) See Ezra 6:8, Eze. 20:26, Dan. 2:13, 3:10, 3:12, 29, 4:6, 6:8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 26, LXX.
8) Matthew Henry Commentary, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Eph/Eph_002.cfm?a=1099014
9) See: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/josephus/complete.iii.vi.v.html