Explore the Bible Series
October 24, 2010
Lesson Passage: Ephesians 4:17-32
Paul’s epistles often evidence the twin concerns of theology and ethics. Christianity, as I understand it, stands on these two legs; indeed, failure to understand these emphases will cripple one’s apprehension of Pauline Christianity. Our lesson immunizes against a lame religion that limps on uneven limbs.
First, I must observe that Paul never espoused a merely theological understanding of the Christian faith. Of course, he scaled the heights of profound theological ideas, but he, I think, refused to treat doctrine as a mere intellectual or academic concern. Even theology, for Paul, was practical; therefore, I have some minor issues with those who speak of Paul’s letters as having a “doctrinal” section and a “practical” section. In the past I have used such language in analysis of Paul’s letters, but perhaps I should have used greater care. These epistles always depict theological ideas in relation to the most practical aspects of Christian life. What one does is an inevitable extension of what one is; so, for Paul, ethics never degenerated into scolding people to just rehabilitate themselves and do better. Instead, the flower of righteous behavior grows from the soil and root of covenant theology (by “covenant theology” I mean doctrine grounded in the gracious redemptive work of Christ and its glorious effects on those transformed by its power).
Second, Paul was not merely an ethicist. He did not advocate ethical conduct as a method of “greasing the wheels” of culture or commerce, and he avoided the strained philosophical ethics that characterized ancient Greek intellectual history. Instead, he saw righteous behavior as an effect of a person’s relationship with God. Ethics, for Paul, always centered on regeneration, renewal, and relationship. For this reason, Paul saw Christian behavior as a growth process. Believers do not emerge, fully developed, from the “womb” of regeneration, but they must grow to maturity.
Here, then, is a “marriage” of doctrine and conduct, and, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” These ethical principles, I should note, do not degenerate into the kind of fundamentalist rule-making that has characterized much of conservative evangelical life. The “rule-making” mindset brings frustration, unwarranted guilt, frustration, and despair. Paul’s ethics affirm life, vitally intertwined with the life of God, in Christ Jesus.
I. A Call to Abandon Old Patterns of Life (vv. 17-19): The Gentile makeup of the Ephesian church made it necessary for Paul to encourage his readers to abandon their previous conduct, conduct that still characterized their larger culture. The apostle, claiming divine authority (See v. 17a), identified several disturbing qualities of Gentile society.
A. “futility of their minds” (v. 17b): The phrase does not mean that unbelievers are not intelligent; rather, it denotes the vanity and emptiness to which the world devotes its intellectual capacities. They dedicate themselves to things that have no lasting, eternal value.
B. “they are darkened in their understanding” (v. 18a): The unregenerate mind lacks moral discernment—cannot distinguish between right and wrong, according to Paul’s theology.
C. “alienated from the life of God” (v. 18b): This is the life that God gives. These folks have unregenerate minds, cut off from the life-giving power of God. Dr. Vaughan described the Gentile world as “held in the grip of death.”
D. “because of the ignorance that is in them” (v. 18c): Dr. Vaughan coupled this phrase with the next, “due to their blindness (hardness) of heart.” Some translations render this word “blindness”, but the Greek term meant “petrifaction.” It denoted a hard callousness that produced insensitivity to spiritual things.
E. “being past feeling” (v. 19a): The RSV translates this word “callous”, and it reflects, again, spiritual insensitivity; a general hardening of the conscience; shamelessness.
F. “given themselves to lasciviousness” (v. 19b): The Greek denotes one who surrenders to wanton, shocking lewdness.
to practice every kind of uncleanness” (19c): “Greed”, of course, may describe
covetousness, but it, in this case, may have a broader meaning—desirous to
satisfy every unseemly desire of the heart.
Paul ended this dismal paragraph with a forceful reminder that the
II. An Appeal to Godly Conduct (vv. 20-32)
A. The ground for Paul’s appeal (vv. 20-24): Paul drew a sharp distinction between the conduct of these Gentile believers, prior to their conversion, and their new experience in Christ. Note the apostle’s insistence that the Ephesians had learned these new principles of behavior; that is, the “truth of Christ” included important theological claims (as rehearsed in Chapters 1-3) and insistence on new patterns of behavior. This new manner of life is described with three powerful verbs: “put off”, “be renewed”, and “put on.”
1. “put off the old nature” (v. 22a): In a sense, Christian discipleship demands a discarding of one’s former life, like a person removing a filthy (note Paul’s use of the terms “corrupt” and “deceitful lusts”), worn out garment. No one can simply improve or rehabilitate the old nature; it must be “put off.”
2. “be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (v. 23): “Be renewed” translates a present tense describing an ongoing process of renewal.
3. “putting on the new nature” (v. 24): The imagery demands that disciples put off the old nature before he can put on the new—two aspects of the same action. This new “garment” issues in the believer growing in Christ-likeness, walking in righteousness and holiness.
B. Fitting Qualities of the New Nature (vv. 25-32): This section lists five qualities necessary for growth in Christian behavior. Note that the text states these qualities negatively and positively.
1. “putting away all lying… each speak truth with his neighbor” (v. 25): This admonition enjoins truthfulness and transparency in godly relationships. It includes speaking the truth, business integrity, and straightforwardness.
2. “be angry and do not sin” (vv. 26-27): Paul seems to imply that not all anger is sin, but the believer must not harbor longstanding bitterness. Satan gains an advantage in the hearts of those who cherish their bitterness.
3. “let him who stole steal no more… let him labor, working with his hands” (v. 28): Not only should the former thief work to meet his own needs, but he should develop a generous, giving spirit that focuses on the needs of others.
4. “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is necessary for edification” (v. 29): This caution includes filthy language, but it also forbids worthless, empty speech. Instead, Christians should edify one another with their conversation.
5. “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (vv. 30-32): Paul concluded this list with this directive concerning the Holy Spirit. All of these sins (lying, anger, theft, corrupt communication-- Note that he restates these sins in v. 31) grieve the Spirit. This is particularly important because the Spirit plays such an important role in the believer’s security and assurance (sealing). The power of the Spirit flourishes in an atmosphere of kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.