According to St. Thomas Aquinas, when the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of those who are “in Christ,” it means by faith and love: “You are in Christ Jesus, intimately united to Him through faith and love” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians)
- ‘He who remains in love remains in God, and God in Him’ (1 Jn 4:16).
- ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but a new creature’ (Gal 6:15)
The Old and the New Testaments speak of Gentiles coming to God: “Your sons shall come from afar and your daughters shall be carried in arms” (Is 60:4). “For some of them,” namely, the Gentiles, “have come from far away” (Mk 8:3).
The Letter to the Ephesians announces: “Now you are made near by the blood of Christ.” Thomas reflects that this means, “through His blood by which Christ draws you: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself’ (Jn 12:32).”
Thomas considers that it is by His love that we are brought near: “This was on account of His vehement love which most forcefully revealed itself in the death of the cross. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore have I maintained My faithful love for you’ (Jer 31:3)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas comments that Christ has brought both Jews and Gentiles together: “Christ is the cause of this drawing together, for which reason he affirms For He is our peace, who has made both one. This is an emphatic way of speaking to better express the reality, as though he said: Rightly do I say that you are drawn near each other, but this occurs through Christ since He is the cause of our peace. ‘My peace I give you’ (Jn 14:27)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ is the cause of our peace, as Thomas shows: “It is usual to adopt this way of speaking when the totality of the effect depends on its cause; for instance, we say that God Himself is our salvation because whatever salvation is present in us is caused by God. In the same way, whatever peace we possess is caused by Christ and, as a result, whatever convergence [men have with one another]. For when a man is at peace with another he can securely walk towards or approach Him. Hence, He is our peace. Angels announced peace at His birth: ‘Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to those He is pleased with’ (Lk 2:14). ‘May the just man flourish in his days, and peace pour down till the moon be no more’ (Ps 72:7). He Himself proclaimed peace when He arose from the dead: ‘He said to them: ‘Peace be with you’ (Lk 24:36)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ made Jews and Gentiles one, as Thomas explains: “It follows that He has made both one, joining into unity both the Jews who worshiped the true God and the Gentiles who were alienated from God’s cult. ‘And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold; them also I must bring. And they shall bear My voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd’ (Jn 10:16).”
Ephesians declares that Christ broke down the barrier of hostility. Thomas reflects on the nature of this barrier: “The manner of convergence is revealed when he states and breaking down the middle barrier of partition. The method, then, consists in removing what is divisive. To understand the text we should imagine a large field with many men gathered on it. But a high barrier was thrown across the middle of it, segregating the people so that they did not appear as one people but two. Whoever would remove the barrier would unite the crowds of men into one multitude, one people would be formed” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas develops the image of the world as a field: “What is said here should be understood in this way. For the world is likened to a field: ‘The field is the world’ (Mt 13:38); this field of the world is crowded with men. A barrier, however, runs down the field, some are on one side and the rest on the other. The Old Law can be termed such a barrier, its carnal observances kept the Jews confined: ‘Before the faith came, we were under the guardianship of the law, confined in anticipation of the faith which was to be revealed’ (Gal 3:23). Christ was symbolized through the Old Law: ‘See, He stands behind our wall’ (Cant. 2:9). Christ, however, has put an end to this barrier and, since no division remained, the Jews and the Gentiles became one people. This is what he says: I affirm that He has made both one by the method of breaking down the middle barrier”(Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas considers why Ephesians speaks of a “barrier” rather than a wall: “I say a barrier of partition and not a wall. A barrier of partition is one in which the stones are not mortared together with cement; it is not built to last permanently but only for a specified time. The Old Law was a barrier of partition for two reasons. First, because it was not mortared together with charity which is, as it were, the cement uniting individuals among themselves and everyone together with Christ. ‘Be careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3). The Old Law is a law of fear, persuading men to observe its commands by punishments and threats. While that law was in force, those who kept it out of love belonged by anticipation, as Augustine holds, to the New Testament which is the law of love. ‘For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons’ (Rom 8:15). Secondly, the Old Law is a barrier of partition because it was not meant to last permanently but only for a definite time. ‘As long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a servant, though he is master of all; but he is under tutors and governors until the time appointed by his father. So we also, when we were children, were slaves to the elemental powers of the world’ (Gal 4:1-3)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas examines whether Christ “broke down” the old law: “A problem arises here since he says ‘breaking down the barrier of partition’ and, on the contrary, Matthew 5:17 states: ‘Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.’ I reply. The Old Law contained both moral and ceremonial precepts. The moral commandments were not destroyed by Christ but fulfilled in the counsels He added and in His explanations of what the Scribes and Pharisees had wrongly interpreted. So He says in Matthew 5:20: ‘Unless your justice abounds more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ And further on: ‘You have heard that it has been said: ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you’ (Mt 5:43-44). He abolished the ceremonial precepts with regard to what they were in themselves, but he fulfilled them with regard to what they prefigured, adding what was symbolized to the symbol” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas asks, what law did Christ break down?: “It should be understood, therefore, that in saying breaking he refers to the observance of the carnal law. To break down this barrier of partition is to destroy the hostility between the Jews and Gentiles. The former wanted to observe the law and the latter had little inclination to do so, from which anger and jealousy sprung up between them. But certainly, Christ has abolished this animosity in His assumed flesh. For at His birth peace was immediately proclaimed to men (cf. Lk 2:14). Or, in His immolated flesh since ‘He has given Himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph 5:2). In this sacrifice all the former sacrifices were fulfilled and came to an end: ‘For by a single offering He has perfected for ever those who are sanctified’ (Heb. 10:14)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
What “commands” did Christ break down? “What that barrier was he implies when he says the law of commandments, as though he said: Breaking down the barrier which is the law of the commandments. The Old Law is termed the law of commandments, not because other laws lacked injunctions since the New Law has commandments: ‘A new commandment I give you’ (Jn 13:34). There are two reasons why [this title is applied to the Old Law]. One is the great number of legal injunctions it contained, so many that men could not possibly keep them all, according to that text of Acts 15 (10): “Now, therefore, why tempt God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
Thomas questions whether it is a law of works?: “Or, it is called of commandments meaning of works. ‘Where then is your boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith’ (Rom 3:27). Thus the baptism of John was called a baptism of water since it would cleanse only externally and not sanctify interiorly. Likewise, the Old Law was termed of works because it ordained only what must be done, but did not confer the grace through which men would have been assisted in fulfilling the law. The New Law, on the other hand, regulates what must be done by giving commands, and it aids in fulfilling them by bestowing grace (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas states: “I affirm [that Christ in his flesh was] making void the law of commandments as the imperfect is made void by the perfect and the shadow by the truth. ‘When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away’ (1 Cor 13:10), that is, the imperfection and shadow of the Old Law of which Hebrews 10:1 asserts: ‘The law has a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things.’
Thomas explains that the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law were done away with: “This happened by the decrees, referring to the precepts of the New Testament through which the law was annulled. ‘You shall eat the oldest of the old store; and, the new coming on,’ that is, the precepts of the Natural Law together with the New Law; and having received these precepts ‘you shall cast away the old (Lev 26:10), meaning the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law as they were in themselves” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Faith in Christ took the place of the Old Law: “He reveals the purpose of the convergence when he states that He might make the two in Himself into one new man. The end is that the aforementioned two peoples would be formed into one people. Whatever unites must come together in some unity, and since the law divided they could not be united in that law. But Christ took the place of the law, and faith in Him, as the truth of those symbols, made them one in Himself. ‘That they may be one as we also are one’ (Jn 17:22); ‘For, where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20) (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ makes us new: “This is into one new man, making peace. That is, into Christ Himself who is called a new man on account of the new manner of His conception. Another factor is the novelty of the grace He bestows: ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any meaning, but a new creature’ (Gal 6:15); ‘and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man who is created according to God’ (Eph 4:23). [Christ is also a new man] on account of the new commands He sets forth: ‘A new commandment I give you: that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 13:34)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas asserts that love of neighbor is the way to peace with God: “It should be realized that love of neighbor is the way to peace with God; for, as is mentioned in 1 John 4:20: ‘He who does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God whom he does not see?’ Let no one pretend he has peace with Christ, Augustine asserts, if he quarrels with another Christian. Hence, he first mentions the peace among themselves Christ brought to men and then the peace of men with God. For this reason he says that He might reconcile both the united peoples in one body of the Church, namely, in Christ: ‘We, being many, are one body in Christ’ (Rom 12:5). Then he reconciles us to God through faith and charity: ‘For God indeed was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself’ (2 Cor 5: 19)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ killed human enmity in Himself: “He achieved this by the cross, killing the enmities in Himself. In fulfilling the Old Testament symbols, He killed the hostility that had arisen through the law between the Jews and the Gentiles. But the hostility that existed between God and men through sin, He killed in Himself when He blotted out sin through the death of the Cross. He “who gave Himself for our sins” (Gal 1-4); “Christ was offered once to carry away the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). Therefore, he says killing the enmities, that is, sins, in Himself, meaning in the immolation of His own body. ‘Making peace through the blood of His cross, both as to the things that are on earth and the things that are in heaven’ (Col 1:20). ‘When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son’ (Rom 5:10). ‘God wanted all fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him, to reconcile all things unto Himself’ (Col 1:19-20). Since Christ satisfied sufficiently for our sins, reconciliation occurred as a consequence of His having paid the price (cf. 1 Cor 6:20)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ preached peace: “The reconciliation of God to man through Christ has been made known because Christ Himself not only reconciled us to God and destroyed the hostilities, but also coming in the flesh He preached and proclaimed peace. Or, coming after the resurrection when He stood in the midst of the disciples and said. ‘Peace be to you’ (Lk 24:36). ‘He has sent Me to bring good news to the afflicted, to heal the brokenhearted’ (Is 61:1). ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who preaches peace, brings good news and announces salvation’ (Is 52:7) (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Christ preached peace through the apostles: ‘He preached, I say, not to one people only but to you Gentiles that were afar off; although not in His own person, nonetheless he proclaimed peace to you through his Apostles. “Go, therefore, and teach all nations” (Mt 28:19). “Hear, you that are far off, what I have done: and you that are near, know My strength” (Is 33:13). Christ in His own person announced the peace to them that were near. “For I say that Christ became a servant of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8)” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
We have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit: “He indicates the cause and form of peace by saying For by Him we have access both, that is, the two peoples, in one Spirit, meaning we are joined by the union of the Holy Spirit. ‘Careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3). ‘One and the same Spirit produces all these’ (1 Cor 12:11). The way we enjoy access to the Father is through Christ since Christ works through the Holy Spirit. ‘Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him’ (Rom 8:9). Hence, whatever happens through the Holy Spirit also occurs through Christ” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Thomas understands the “access … to the Father” to mean to the Trinity: “When he says to the Father, [our access] also must be understood as pertaining to the whole Trinity. For, by reason of the unity of the Divine Essence, the Son and the Holy Spirit are in the Father, and the Father and the Son are in the Holy Spirit. In saying to the Father he especially shows that whatever the Son possesses He has from the Father, and that He recognizes He has it from the Father” (Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/