No Walls, No Ceiling?
“No walls, no ceiling…,” cried a plaintive 1970s song. It expressed a longing for freedom from restrictions and inhibitions that many in our modern world feel hemmed in by. Indeed, the words “liberty” and “liberation” have been used to explain some definition of “freedom” which people want, or which Jesus Christ is supposed to have brought to sinners. “Limitless” or “unlimited,” a word bandied about by mobile phone service providers and by some restaurants, expresses the idea. So does the wish or boast: “without borders” or “beyond borders.”
The question is: Is there never a place for walls and ceilings – for limits or borders — in our lives? What is God’s Word on this?
What makes this an intriguing question is that God allowed Jerusalem to have a wall. Even the New Jerusalem is described as having a wall, too – and a high and richly embellished one at that (Revelation 21:12-21)!
If walls are so bad, why did Nehemiah weep over the sad state of Jerusalem’s wall since its destruction by the Babylonians? And why did God hear Nehemiah’s cry and prayers, why did God help him rebuild the wall despite so many setbacks (Nehemiah 1:5-11; 3:4-9, etc.)? In fact, Nehemiah acknowledged that his God had put it in his heart to do that very thing, to rebuild the wall (Nehemiah 2:12).
Nehemiah in part motivated his fellow Jews to rebuild the broken wall by setting a goal: “that we may no longer be a reproach” (Nehemiah 2:17). He wanted to have the reproach removed by rebuilding the ruined wall. He also motivated them by testifying about “the hand of my God which had been good upon me” (2:18). As a result, the people said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then “they set their hands to this good work.” So motivated were they that they finished rebuilding the wall in what may have well been record time then: 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15).
Besides the obvious purpose of defense, what’s the use of walls anyway?
Today’s “no walls” philosophy
Modern psychology, with its roots in humanism and human reasoning, espouses a “no walls, no ceiling” approach to human behavior. The bad thing about restrictions, says this approach, is that they squelch the person’s creativity. As a result, this permissive philosophy has, over the decades, spawned a generation of creative producers – but also a generation of rebellious and self-willed, hard-to-get-along-with individuals. Can we see how this has produced an atmosphere of “lawlessness” that Christ prophesied would become rampant in our times – these “end times” (Matthew 24:12)?
Thankfully, some psychologists are now seeing the bad fruit of this permissive approach. They are now saying that a child needs to have, and know, the limits to his behavior in order for him to become a stable and secure person. A child that is left to himself, without any clear parental guidance in his conduct, will later bring shame and reproach on the parents in the public eye (Proverbs 29:15), just as the broken down wall of Jerusalem had been a reproach in the eyes of the nations around them.
Some people who are extremely confused about what behavior is expected, or not expected, from them exhibit more anxiety than those who have well-set standards. That anxiety from ambiguity can tend to lead some people to self-destructive behavior.
Over a century ago, the eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim studied the connection between these two factors and published his study in his classic book Suicide (1897). Perhaps more psychologists are beginning to realize that the confusion about behavioral limits may be a factor in the rash of suicides among youth – and even adults — today.
Why this suddenly opposite realization?
Everyone needs a limit
It may come as a surprise to many to realize that everyone needs a “limit.” All-powerful though God is, even He has set some limits to what He can do. For example, God cannot — and will not – sin! Paul describes Him as “God, who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He.” Peter, quoting Isaiah 53:9, applies the prophecy about the Messiah to Jesus of Nazareth – the God who became man: “who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).
How much more do we humans need limits to our conduct in order that we can function the way our Maker intended us to! “For we are His [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). As supreme and sovereign God over all creation, God sets the rules – the standards for what is good, and what is evil. [See: The Divine Prerogatives.]
Before God ever handed down any other “laws” to “regulate” man’s behavior, He gave our first parents, in the Garden of Eden, only one prohibition (but with far-reaching consequences): don’t eat the fruit of the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17). [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!"] Otherwise, man had the full range of choices – freedom to eat of any and all the fruit-bearing trees (edible, needless to say) in the garden (verse 16), including the Tree of Life right smack in the middle of the garden alongside the forbidden tree (verse 9).
Our first parents made the wrong choice, and all of us their descendants have followed their way that seems to us right [like eating the forbidden fruit, contrary to God’s instruction, seemed right to Eve] but which leads to death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). Like Adam and Eve, all of us, their children, have earned the just reward for sin – death (Romans 5:12; 3:23; 6:23). “For… in Adam all die,” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 15:22). But, the good news is that God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from that sure death – and we will get to live forever. “…Christ died for our sins…was buried, and…rose again the third day…even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 22).
Now, if there is something positive about walls after all, what about the “middle wall of separation” which Paul wrote about in Ephesians 2:14? Isn’t this wall something that separates and divides – quite contrary to God’s desire that human beings eventually call upon God, serve and worship Him “with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9)?
And, as many have suggested, shouldn’t we be “building bridges” instead of walls? We will discuss more of this later.
Wall that separates
Many religious writers have rightly understood the wall which Paul refers to as something that separates Israelites [“the circumcision”] from Gentiles [“the uncircumcision”]. And what did the “wall of separation” comprise? The answer: “…the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15).
Indeed, God called out and chose Israel to be His special people, a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19). God set them apart – separated them – so that they would be distinct and different from the heathen nations around them that did not believe in the true God. To make this distinction, God gave Israel His laws and statutes that were different from those which the heathen people had established and followed.
In Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Moses told the children of Israel: “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?”
Yes, there was no other nation that had such statutes and righteous judgments as those God gave to Israel. And, yes, the Israelites were a people who had God “near” to them, while other nations were thus “far” from God. These two conditions set the Israelites apart from the Gentiles and served as a kind of “wall” that separated them from each other. Because of God thus especially dealing with the Israelites, they were called God’s “peculiar people” – His “peculiar treasure” (Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:18; Exodus 19:5; Psalm 135:4).
Enmity – and amity
Paul also described that “separation” as some kind of “enmity” – opposition, being poles apart – but, as we will examine, not in antagonism. He described the Gentiles as being “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12) – “strangers and foreigners” (verse 19). It’s a matter of exclusion versus inclusion!
In the Old Testament, God was primarily dealing with the people He had personally “chosen” – Israel. He called Israel His “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22) – that is, the first among nations to receive His grace and favor. By that God did not mean that He had an airtight policy to disallow non-Israelites (Gentiles) from ever becoming a part or member of the Israelite community. The Old Testament records a few Gentiles who did enter as members of that community – Rahab (a Canaanite, Joshua 6:17, 25; Hebrews 11:31), Ruth (a Moabite, Ruth 1:1-4, etc.), among others. [See: Predestination.]
However, God did not intend His laws to be a wall that would alienate Gentiles from the Israelites, as contrary to God’s purpose as that may sound! Yes, through His laws God “sanctified” or set apart Israel from the Gentiles – but not so the Israelites would be an elite, ivory-towerish nation. The Israelites were, rather, to be a show-window of God’s way that would bring blessings to them. The other nations, which would see God’s way work well among the Israelites, would be inspired to follow that way and be blessed also for it! In these Israelites, God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation [as his descendants the Israelites became], and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Genesis 18:17-18.)
In this sense, God’s laws cannot be some impenetrable wall to simply separate or alienate Israelites from Gentiles in a hostile way. Rather, God’s laws were to illuminate the Gentiles. God meant Israel, as He meant the Messiah, to be a “light” to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; Matthew 5:14-16) as God’s people obeyed those laws. This is how God meant Israel to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2-3; 22:18).
And light became dark
Although God intended Israel to be a light and a blessing to the nations, the sad fact is that, throughout their history, the children of Israel continually failed to keep their part in their covenant with their God when they turned away from God’s laws. We see that failure over and over again from the time the Israelites were in their wilderness sojourn, to their establishment in the Land of Promise, to the dividing of the nation of Israel into the northern House of Israel and the southern House of Judah, to the successive captivities of those two houses into Assyria and Babylon, to the return to Judea of the Jewish captives, and all the way to the first coming of Jesus Christ. God called Israel a “stiff-necked,” rebellious nation or people (Exodus 32:9; 33:3, 5; Deuteronomy 89:6, 13; Acts 7:51; Isaiah 30:1, 9; 65:2; Ezekiel 2:3, 5, 8,; 12:9, etc.).
Thus, because of the disobedience of the children of Israel, their light became dark. Instead of blessings, they received cursing – just as God had warned them about (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Despite their rebellion, however, God has vowed not to make a complete end of Israel (Jeremiah 5:18; 30:11; 46:28). [See: God's Kingdom and Israel.] Every time the children of Israel were in trouble and they cried out to God for help, God mercifully delivered them. And, because of God’s irrevocable covenant with the “fathers” (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), God will yet save all of Israel and restore to Israel all things that God had intended for Israel (Romans 11:26-29; Acts 1:6).
When Jesus came to earth, He had the mission to seek and save “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). This does not mean that Jesus exclusively ministered to the Jews, for we see from the “gospel” accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that Jesus entertained many Gentiles who sought and came to Him. Eventually, His supreme sacrifice at Calvary would bring God’s blessings and salvation to the Gentiles as well as to Israel.
Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples [both Israelite and Gentile] to Myself” (John 12:32). Verse 33 explains: “This He said, signifying by what death He would die” – that is, by crucifixion. True, since His crucifixion Jesus has drawn peoples to Himself, but He did not say He would do that for each individual person in “one fell swoop” — all people at the same time. Rather, the Bible tells us that God saves each people in a time He has allotted for each of them. [See: Predestination and This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation.]
How Christ abolished the enmity
Ephesians 2:14-15 shows how Jesus broke down the “wall of separation” and abolished “the enmity”: “in His flesh.” Before His human birth, Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. [See: The True Christ.] That God had to take on the form of human flesh, flesh and blood – “a little lower than the angels” — for one main purpose: “for the suffering of death…that He…might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:6-7, 9). He came as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) – through His death on the cross.
Through His death – “in His flesh” – Jesus abolished the “enmity,” broke down the “wall of separation” that kept the Gentiles from participating in the commonwealth of Israel, in the covenants of promise, and in the household of God – and from having hope and God (Ephesians 2:12, 19). Gentiles, who “once were far off have been brought near [to all that Israel enjoyed], by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).
The “wall of separation” and the “enmity” that once separated Israel from the Gentiles have now been broken down and abolished, in and through Christ, thereby making Gentiles now able to participate in all that God has prepared for Israel. Gentiles, through Christ, can now become “one” with the Israelites. And that “oneness” is made complete by reconciling both sinful Israel and sinful Gentiles “to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:16). Both Israelites and Gentiles now “have access by one Spirit to the Father” and “are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18, 22).
Paul could not have described the resulting “amity” or unity between Israelites and Gentiles, through Christ, more picturesquely than in his analogy of the olive tree, in Romans 11.
Here Paul likens God’s work of salvation as God planting a tree (compare with Isaiah 61:3; 60:21; Matthew 15:13) – in this case, a “cultivated olive tree” (Romans 11:24) symbolizing the nation Israel. Paul compares the disobedient Israelites to “natural branches” that God has cut off from the tree (Verses 21, 24). In place of these natural branches, God has grafted, onto this cultivated olive tree, branches “cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature” – symbolizing Gentiles who are called and come to faith in Christ (Verse 24).
As grafted branches, Gentiles partake of the goodness that God has provided for Israel. Ephesians 2:12 calls it “the commonwealth of Israel,” which includes “the covenants of promise.” And these covenants include, as terms or conditions, obedience to God’s commandments as proclaimed under the “first covenant,” the “old covenant.” [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant.] Paul also assured that those natural branches which had been severed can also be grafted back in; God can place back into His commonwealth those erring Israelites who will repent and obey His laws.
Did Christ, then, abolish the law of God?
Now we come to this question, to which most Bible students would answer a firm “Positive!” Is Paul teaching us that, in Christ, the law and commandments of God are now abolished? Far from it! The apostle Peter has warned that Paul’s writings have “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
Ephesians 2:14-15 is one, among others, of those “things hard to understand” in Paul’s letters which could trip us into misunderstanding Paul’s true intent or drift. As explained above, the “enmity” Paul says here is the estrangement and alienation of the Gentiles from the commonwealth of Israel – which commonwealth, of course, includes the laws and commandments that God gave to Israel to live by. However, by Christ removing this “enmity” through His sacrifice at Calvary, He has not abolished the Law of God.
Jesus clearly declared that He did not come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets” but rather to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Paul affirmed that Law to be “holy, and the commandment holy, and just and good” (Romans 7:12). He asked: “Do we then make void the law through faith?” His emphatic answer: “Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). [See: Freed From Bondage, The Law of Christ, and Moses and Jesus -- Are They Contraries?]
With the proper understanding that the “wall of separation” which Jesus came to break down does not mean that Jesus has abolished God’s law, let us now understand how God’s people can be “building bridges” instead of walls with other people who have not been brought to faith in God through Christ.
Actually, no human being can build a bridge between man and God, and between man and fellow-man! A bridge has already been built by God. We cannot build something that already has been built! We can only point others to that bridge, and enhance that bridge, through our works. (Compare the analogy with Christ as the only foundation that can be laid, and no other, in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17.)
What – or who – is that “bridge”? None other than Jesus Christ!
Paul tells us: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified [or revealed] in due time [at His return]” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). It is Christ alone — through the sacrifice of His blood and through His resurrection — who can bridge the gap [which sin causes, Isaiah 59:2] between God and men. Regardless as to what men teach, no other human being can be that Mediator! [See: Mary Worship.]
Drawing on Jacob’s vision of the ladder between earth and heaven where angels ascended and descended (Genesis 28:12), Jesus told Nathanael of Himself: “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is the true “Stairway to Heaven!” He alone can bring mankind back to God. Jesus said: “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). [This is not to say that at death “good” people bodily go to heaven. See: What Happens to Man After Death?]
Likewise, it is Christ alone who can bridge the gap that occurs when humans sin against each other – when both or one of the persons transgresses God’s law. Sin not only separates or alienates mankind from God (Isaiah 59:2). Sin also alienates man from fellowman. And who has not sinned against others? There is no exception – all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Improperly handled, sin can perpetuate man’s alienation from fellowman, unless man knows how to repent, and be patient, merciful with others and forgive them.
All sinners can find forgiveness of their sins from God the Father through Jesus alone. But Jesus gives us one condition, besides heartfelt repentance, for that forgiveness to continue to take effect in a Christian’s life: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). James 2:13 reinforces Jesus’ teaching: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.” The sad reality, however, is that forgiving others is one of the most difficult acts for human beings to do. That is why there is so much conflict and war in the world today. [See: World Peace -- At Last!]
Through Christian acts of love, the true disciples of Jesus Christ promote unity and peace – especially among the “brethren,” the people of God. And that unity among brethren – and eventually the unity of all men — is possible only through Christ.
Jesus prayed: “I do not pray for these alone [those now in God’s Church], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:20-23).
Living within limits
As mentioned earlier, many people think that living within limits restricts man from fully realizing his full potential. That it stunts creativity. That it is a backward way to live. “Look,” some would say, “Would we have the kind of progress there is in the world today if the world’s best minds were restrained from whatever unlimited imagination man is capable of? Why, we would be back to the Stone Age!”
It has never been the intention of God to stunt man’s creativity and imagination in placing before man His laws – we might say, His “rules of the game” of life. God defines what is harmful behavior and its bad consequence, as well as what is good behavior and its reward, for man’s good (Deuteronomy 4:40; 6:24). Beyond those rules, man has complete freedom – freedom to exercise his imagination and creativity, within the borders God has prescribed. God has, in fact, placed in man so much potential that He said of men: “…nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6)! [See: "He Marveled."]
Indeed man has used his creativity to devise many mind-boggling inventions, but because man has chosen the path of disobedience to God’s rules, those inventions have also brought dire consequences along with the benefits. We might call them bad “side-effects.” “Progress” in industry, for example, has been invariably hounded by the frightfully increasing pollution and degradation of our planet and the quality of human life. Advances in the medical sciences have produced many seemingly miraculous cures, but in many cases the cures have also caused many side effects, in turn needing more cures – until death catches up with the patient anyhow. Man has used his genius to devise ever more sophisticated weapons that can destroy mankind and our very planet many times over!
A better way coming!
Jesus predicted that at some point in the future, things would get so bad that the only prospect we have is total annihilation of all life on this planet! “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved…” (Matthew 24:21-22).
We are getting mighty closer, every day, to that time!
But the good news: we won’t see total annihilation! As Jesus assures: “… but for the elect’s sake those days [of great tribulation] will be shortened” (latter part of verse 22). Christ will return, with His holy angels and His army of glorified saints, in time, to “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). He will put down all opposition to God’s rules and set up God’s perfect kingdom on this earth.
The “gospel” (which simply means “good news”) which Jesus brought (as did the prophets of all and the apostles of the New Testament era) is about the coming kingdom of God that will right everything that’s wrong in the world today. While at His return “the slain of the LORD will be many” (Isaiah 66:16), there will be a sizable number of survivors from many nations who will thereafter become subjects of that kingdom of God on earth (Isaiah 6:13; Zechariah 14:16-17).
Isaiah 2:2-4 prophesies about that kingdom, to which all those surviving nations will come: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains [symbolic of kingdoms], and shall be exalted above the hills. And all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion [Jerusalem] shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”
For more details on this exciting future, click on this link: http://www.herbert-armstrong.org (Click on “ENTER HERE” and then choose “Books & booklets” and scroll down to the booklet with the title”The Wonderful World Tomorrow – What It Will Be Like” on its cover, or the book Tomorrow…What It Will Be Like.) [Also, see: "The Next Chapter of History."]
And the key to that bright future: everybody will live within the walls and ceiling God has prescribed for mankind’s good! No longer will man’s creativity be allowed to be used for evil. Christ will rebuke man’s wickedness (Isaiah 2:3-4). There will be true progress without any bad side-effects. [See: The Great Wall.]
May that day come soon!
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.