Ephesians Part 3 — Chapter 4, verse 17 to Chapter 5, verse 12

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Holiness is to show itself in living a pure life

In chapters 1 to 3, Paul rehearsed for the Ephesians the great things their Savior and Redeemer-God has done for them in giving them spiritual life and bringing them into the Christian church.

In chapters 4 to 6, Paul helps them understand what their response should be to such grace. What is expected of them is, to summarize it in one word, holiness. Paul has already urged them to show such holiness by striving to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (4:1-16).

Now he advances to a second area of emphasis: holiness that reflects itself in the purity of their lives and conduct. Very earnestly he warns them:

Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 17-19
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Commentary

It is important to realize that the holiness Paul is advocating is not to be done in order to gain favor with God or improve our standing before him. Our redemption and salvation have been completely taken care of by Christ’s work. But is it merely optional that the redeemed child of God conform his life to God’s holy will? No! As God’s representative, Paul tells the Ephesians, and “[insists] on it in the Lord,” that they are no longer to live as the Gentiles do, “in the futility of their thinking.”

The problem with the Gentiles was that they had no proper set of values. Their thinking was all messed up. Paul attaches a devastating description to them. He charges them with being “darkened” in their understanding, “separated” from God, having “ignorance” because they have “hardened” their hearts.

With such a wrong set of values and with such wrong thinking, it was inevitable that they would become guilty of wrong actions. Paul continues, “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust
for more.”

Although it is not evident from the NIV translation, in the Greek “having lost all sensitivity” is an active form of the verb. It is not that their sensitivity was taken from them; they abandoned it. The next clause also has an active verb: “They have given themselves over to sensuality.” The Gentiles did what they wanted to, but, instead of satisfying them, it simply heightened their desire for more. Paul’s point is that Gentiles in their pagan lifestyle were hopelessly enmeshed in immoral ways.

The Ephesians, of course, were Gentiles and came from precisely the kind of pagan society Paul describes. But in their case a wonderful change had taken place, a change that did not originate in any way from paganism. Their changed and improved status came from Christ and the body of Christian doctrine that Paul and other gospel preachers brought to them. Paul invites the Ephesians to reflect on how that change came about.

Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 20-24
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way [via paganism]. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Commentary

We’ll catch the point of these five verses if we reduce them to the main line of thought: “You were taught . . . to put off your old self . . . and to put on the new self.”

Paganism did nothing to bring the Ephesians to their present fortunate state. That came only when they learned of Christ, when they “were taught . . . in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.” Christ’s truth was totally at odds with the values of their “former way of life.”

Recall Paul’s telling the Ephesians that Gentiles not only give themselves over to sensuality but also enjoy their depravity, continually lusting for more (verse 19). The reason for that lies in the fact that the old Adam, that is, natural, unregenerate man, “is being corrupted by . . . deceitful desires.”

The desires are “deceitful” because Satan is behind them, and he makes promises on which he doesn’t deliver. Satan has a dozen bogus reasons for the sinner to go ahead and sin: it will be enjoyable; it will be profitable; it’s fashionable; everybody’s doing it; no one will be hurt by it; and so on. All these promote wrong thinking. Hence, they’re deceitful.

There is only one remedy, and that’s the Christian solution that was taught to the Ephesians: “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds.”

Duped by Satan, natural man (the “old self”) is not able to make the change Paul is promoting here. That change can come only through the law-gospel message that the Ephesians had been taught by Paul and his coworkers. A clear exposition of God’s holy law had informed them how far out
of line they were in their sinful lives. And the realization of their wickedness had struck fear and terror into their hearts when they realized the just consequences of their sins.

But with such people—terror-stricken sinners—Paul and his coworkers could share the gospel. They could inform the Ephesians, as the prophet Nathan did King David, “The LORD has taken away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13), or as John the Baptist did when he directed his hearers to Christ with the words, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Paul now appeals to people of a new attitude of mind, people who are looking in faith to Christ, the Lamb of God. He urges them “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” The “new self” is the converted, regenerated child of God, whose newfound reverence and love for God enables him to want to do what God wants done. Note that this new man has been “created.” He is not someone the Christian has brought into being. He has been brought into being by God’s almighty, creative power.

And what God has created is intended “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This new creation is a return to the image of God in which man and woman were created (Genesis 1:27), but which they lost when they fell into sin. Unfortunately, this restoration will not be complete here on earth, because we Christians all too often succumb to temptation (note Paul’s experience, Romans 7), but it is a start. The new man has a keen desire to live in the true righteousness and holiness that pleases his Redeemer-God.

Paul appeals to this desire to please a gracious and loving God when in the next section he urges a life of sanctification. Aware of the many evil situations that engage Christians every day, Paul chooses some representative examples of the kinds of evil they are to put off and the kind of holiness in living that God would have them put on.

Examples of pure living

Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 25-28
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

Commentary

Shading the truth a bit and adjusting the facts are common weaknesses among people. They should not, however, be the Christian’s way of doing things. Dishonesty is especially damaging when it occurs among believers, “for we are all members of one body.” To deceive a fellow Christian is really to harm oneself, because just as in the human body all the members work together for the common good, so it is also in the church. Being dishonest with another Christian is like shooting oneself in the foot.

Many things stir Christians to righteous anger. They cannot stand idly by while God’s name is taken in vain or his Holy Word is taught falsely. They rightly become angry when children are neglected or abused. They feel indignation when owners are defrauded of their property. The danger, however, is that righteous anger can turn into hatred and vengeful reprisal. Satan would love to see that! It gives him a “foothold.” Quoting Psalm 4:4, Paul urges that anger not be allowed to fester. Rather, if at all possible, the matter causing the anger should be addressed that very day, before it has the opportunity to turn into something sinful (see also Luke 12:58).

Bringing home a few supplies from work in a lunch bucket is not a new problem. Paul urges the thief to give up his pilfering ways and put in an honest day’s labor. Although it is by no means his main point, it is interesting to see how Paul asserts the dignity of manual labor. In the Greek world such tasks were left largely to women and slaves. For the men, a dignified and meaningful occupation meant being out in public life. Paul doesn’t reflect that point of view. The Christian, Paul says, will engage in any kind of honest labor, including “doing something useful with his own hands.” Then he won’t have to take from others, but he’ll have enough for himself and can even “share with those in need.”

Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 29-31
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

Commentary

Sanctified living involves the whole person, including how he handles his tongue. It includes what he says as well as how he says it. Controlling the tongue is not an easy task. James acknowledges that when he writes, “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Natural man can’t tame the tongue, but the Holy Spirit can. And he does so in the new man, who is active in the Christian. Paul is appealing to that new man when he urges the Ephesians to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of [their] mouths.”

Unwholesome talk grieves the Holy Spirit. He has done his sanctifying work of calling, gathering, and enlightening people. He has made them his own and set his seal of ownership on them by dwelling in them. His goal is to keep them safely in the Christian fold “for the day of redemption,” that is, until judgment day. Christians who engage in unwholesome talk jeopardize not only their own faith; they also put the faith of others at risk. Rather than harm others by unwholesome talk, Christians are to speak “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.”

This reminds us of what Paul shared with his readers earlier in this chapter. The ascended Christ gave his church public servants of the Word who are to prepare God’s people for service-work, part of which is strengthening others through the gift of speech. Talking to others is a key part of the process. This does not mean getting up on a soapbox and making ourselves ridiculous or
obnoxious. Quiet, ordinary, day-to-day conversation reflecting Christian insights and value judgments can do much to “benefit those who listen.”

Talking often discloses the evil in a person’s heart and mind. But whether its damaging presence is shown by talk or by actions, Paul strongly urges the Ephesians, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”

Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 32 to Chapter 5, verses 1-2
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Commentary

Instead of being bitter and angry with our neighbor or using loud and insulting speech, Paul urges God’s people to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. That’s not easy! After all, we’re talking here about a fellow Christian who has committed real sins against us. She has lied about us and spoiled our reputation; he has defrauded us in a business deal. Her abuse of alcohol has deprived our family of the support it needs. Don’t we have some rights? Doesn’t he or she deserve some of the anger and bitterness we feel?

Paul tries to help the Ephesians in this important area of sanctification by bringing up a well-known and winsome picture. We’ve all been intrigued by the sight of a toddler trying to imitate his father—pounding with a hammer, throwing a ball, raking leaves. Paul is suggesting something similar when he advocates kindness and compassion, love and forgiveness. He says, “Be imitators of God.” Do as your Father has done for you. He urges the Ephesians to be forgiving of one another “just as in Christ God forgave you.” He urges them to live a life of love “just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

What our Father has done—that makes all the difference in the world! His actions not only set a pattern and serve as a model, but they give loveless sinners new hearts and new minds. It is God who creates the new man in Christians, who now have the power and the ability to forgive a repentant brother or sister.

And Christians will do it. They will not merely go through the motions but will forgive sincerely—from their hearts. They can do so because they are now living lives of love, in imitation of their heavenly Father. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Ephesians Chapter 5, verses 3-7
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

Commentary

When Paul directed his readers to what God has done for them and asked that they become imitators of God, he was clearly advocating what is proper activity for God’s holy people. In this section the apostle returns once more to prohibitions and warnings against what is improper. A significant segment of his concern has to do with infractions of the Sixth Commandment.

Paul states that there should not be a hint of sexual immorality or impurity among God’s people. They are not only to avoid doing evil, but they are to avoid even the appearance of doing evil. Paul even goes a step further. Not only are the Ephesians to avoid immoral activity, they are not to debase God’s gift of sexuality by making it the subject of humor and coarse jokes. Note how Paul returns again to the subject of controlling the tongue. The tongue is not to be used for spoiling God’s gifts but, rather, to thank and praise him for his goodness.

We usually think of greed as being an inordinate desire for money or material things. Paul, however, makes an interesting observation here when he indicates that, in a manner of speaking, the inordinate desire for sexual gratification could be called “greed” as well. In that case, what
should be God’s good gift to man has in fact become his god. It’s what he lives for and what controls his life. Such a person, in the final analysis, is an idolater and sins against the First Commandment as well as the Sixth. The idolater who seeks his highest joy and greatest satisfaction from a false god cannot expect anything from the true God. He has no “inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

That assessment of the situation holds true, no matter how much the old Adam in sinful men and women may argue against it. All kinds of defenses are made for promiscuous sex, for living together outside marriage, and for alternate lifestyles. Paul says, “Let no one deceive you with
empty words.” Those arguments will not hold up before God’s final bar of justice. Rather, for such things “God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” For the Ephesians and for us, Paul’s message is clear: “Do not be partners with them.”

Ephesians Chapter 5, verses 8-14
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

When Paul says, “You were once darkness,” he is using a figure of speech called a metaphor. Notice what the figure of speech does for Paul’s line of thought. Formerly the Ephesians were spiritually in the dark regarding God’s will for them. But when Paul says, “[They] were once darkness,” he is taking it a step further. Not only were they misled and under the influence of wicked paganism, they themselves were a bad influence. They were the darkness that misled others to practice and even enjoy gross immorality and wickedness.

Understanding Paul’s metaphor about darkness makes the parallel metaphor regarding light all the more striking. The Ephesians were not only enlightened by knowing Christ; they themselves have become light. Not only were they influenced by his gospel, but they themselves are now the influence that builds up their brothers in the church and wins new converts.

Remember Christ’s declaration to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14). He didn’t say, “You really should be the salt of the earth” or “Strive to become the light of the world.” He said, “You are the light of the world.” Because God’s people are light, Paul can urge, “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” This sentence has two slight complications in it. First, NIV translators have put part of this verse into parentheses. This is helpful because it indicates that Paul is telling us in advance what he means by a life that “pleases the Lord” (verse 10).