We’ve been exploring what a life transformed by Christ looks like. Paul has some strong words for us in the verses that follow, some that are hard to hear in this day and age. We have come to a time where just about anything goes and to say otherwise can mean the loss of a job, the ending of a friendship, or most painfully, the estrangement of family. Because of that, some believe it best to just let things go, assume that maybe it isn’t all that big a deal to God after all. What we see here though is a dire warning that God does take the sins of sexual immorality, greed, and edgy jokes about those activities seriously. Yet, in this text, we are also given a beautiful hope that those who are trapped in those works don’t have to be. We are going to be looking at our two points today: God will judge abusers of His good gifts. And yet we are commanded to Call such abusers to join in the wise life of worship.
In the previous section, we were told to walk in love as imitators of God, but we are about to be given a huge contrast. Paul lines up the sins of this world as if he were speaking directly to America sexual sin and covetousness or greed. These are sins so serious, that Paul says that they should be as far away from us as possible. There shouldn’t even be an accusation of such things amongst us. He is not saying we don’t talk about these sins (indeed, he wouldn’t be following his own advice!), but simply that these are serious things to stay away from.
It might seem odd to talk about greed or covetousness in the same category as sexual sin in terms of seriousness, but that is only because we are around greed so much, we’ve gotten used to it. I mean if I were to walk into the room and see someone throw a magazine away so I wouldn’t see them with it, I would be relieved to find out that it was a gun or fashion catalog rather than something else. Yet, when we are greedy, and I mean like, “I am not going to find happiness until I have this thing” already our heart is moving away from God. One scholar put it this way, “The covetous man makes a god of his possessions, and offers to them the entire homage of his heart. That world[,] of which the love and worship fill his nature, is his god, for whose sake he rises up early and sits up late.” (Eadie qtd in Thielman, 333). When we find our life’s meaning in something else other than God, we are in a very dangerous position, and that thing (whatever it is) will not treat you well. Look at the stars that have idolized their youthful appearance. They’ll put themselves through rough and harmful diets, spend thousands on creams and makeup, some even going as far to have multiple, painful surgeries that end up mocking them with results that look worse than anything that would have naturally happened to them. Look at those who idolize their children. Their lives go up and down on the whims of a child. Pressure is put on those kids that they can never sustain, as now whether or not their father is delighted with them depends on what happens at T-ball. Men can idolize their work. It doesn’t even have to look like promotions and more money. Some men crave so much the affirmation of their bosses they will forsake the good of their family to get it.
When God is at the center, however, everything else falls into place. When it is about God being glorified, screaming at the kid’s coach or ref just doesn’t really come up. When it is about serving God, you will work hard at work but also have the confidence to act like there are other important things. Even as the outer person inevitably wastes away, we can look away from ourselves in the mirror and focus on the work that God is doing on the inside.
Sexual sin works in a lot the same way. We tend to forget that sexuality is a gift from God to be used in His ways! However, when we use that gift immorally for impurity, we selfishly use it for our own ways. One scholar put it this way, “Fornication and sexual perversion of almost any kind might be included under the word porneia (translated immorality by RSV first edition, 1946). Mitton (NCB) says it involves ‘any sexual indulgence outside the permanent relationship of marriage, in circumstances where the sexual appetites are used merely as a means of pleasure without any sense of responsibility or care for the partner’” (Bock). Did you catch that last part? It reminded me of an article I read a while back that talked out a major mistake that men (though this can certainly apply to women as well) make when it comes to sexuality. That mistake is feeling like one is entitled to pleasure in that way, and it should be experienced by any means necessary (Challies). This is not what a Christian should be about. Being greedy for things or experiences is not the life that we are called to.
In fact, this life should be so far away from us that we shouldn’t even make it the object of our humor. At that time, the Romans had social events in the form of banquets that would often by bawdy both in action and in speech, and Paul is telling the people then to not live like that. Our social engagements look different, but those same temptations exist today. Our words should be spent in thanksgiving and lifting up other people rather than complaining and tearing down. Our words are powerful, and as Christians we should always think to use this instrument in the way that God would want us to.
In verses 6-7 we get a stirring warning from God. There will be those who will not take those warnings seriously and dabble in these sins. Don’t do that. The wrath of God falls on people who practice sexual immorality, sexual, coarse talk, and greed. We don’t want to join in those sorts of acts. Now, this doesn’t mean that anyone who has ever been greedy, told a dirty joke, or even fornicated is automatically going to hell. The gospel rescues all kinds of sinners; just look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This also doesn’t mean that if we find out someone we know is sinning in this area, it doesn’t mean that we have to shun them 1 Cor 5:9-10. If they are in the church, they need to be disciplined (see Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5:11-13), and if they are in the world they need to hear the gospel. They can’t hear the gospel if we are all shunning them. My old seminary professor put it this way “…instead of emphasizing the battle to keep oneself free from societal evils, Paul in verse 11-14 will underline the transforming effect that illuminated believers can have on the darkness around them.” (339)
Be light to such that they may join in the wise life of worship.
We can bring them the gospel just like it was brought to us, as we see in verses 8-10. Note that it says that we were darkness. Not in darkness—WAS the darkness—but now we have been made light (Thielman, 338). We have been transformed, and now we can be the agents of the transforming gospel in the lives of others. We cannot do that well if we are continuing without repentance in the same sins that they are. Instead, we are to show the world that their sin is killing them. It’s hard to tell someone to stop drinking poison if you are sharing the bottle with them, but your words will mean so much more if you are not participating in those actions yourself.
Verse 13-14 have been the subject of much debate, but in my mind, the explanation that this is referring to conversion makes the most sense. (Thielman, 350-1). Those things that get exposed by the light become that light. You have a powerful weapon in the gospel, so shine it on that sin. Expose the sin for what it is, but then offer the hope of change. It doesn’t mean that everyone that you witness to automatically becomes a Christian, but know that the gospel is the brightest light to shine in the darkest of places. With such a wonderful resource, we must make sure that we are living our lives rightly. The Christian life is not one where we just wander around. We don’t have time for that. We need to bring wisdom in the way we speak, live, and preach because the day is evil. This term “redeem” means to “buy back,” but who or what are we buying such time back from? The answer is “evil.” Again from Thielman, “The business of buying time out of its slavery to evil takes place day by day, moment by moment, in the practical decisions of everyday life” ( 357). Evil forces are more than happy for you to fritter time away in sinful, useless pursuits. Don’t let them keep the time. Buy it back, for there is a world to save!
How do we do this? Well, it comes by being controlled by the Holy Spirit. Paul goes into what seems like a tangent, but it’s really not. Drunkenness was a very common problem in the ancient world (see that note on the Roman banquets). Honestly, life really until about 100 years ago was just super hard. Your life depended on what could grow in the weather you had that year. Life was under near constant threat of invasion or oppression. Death was common especially among infants, and disease had very few cures. The temptation to escape life’s constant problems must have been strong. But here the Lord tells us not to be drunk with wine, as this is a sin. Rather, we are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit.
How does one become controlled by the Spirit? Well, this comes first from saturating your mind with the Word of God.This is the way that He speaks to you. This is where wisdom for how to live is found. Secondly, you are controlled by the Holy Spirit by, well, asking to be controlled in prayer. Taking time to ask for God’s help and the Holy Spirit’s guidance is the way to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. We don’t mention this part as much, but it bears bringing up. Don’t forget that you aren’t just a soul either. You are a body. Just like when you fill up your brain with alcohol, if you abuse your body in other ways, it can make being controlled by the Spirit harder. If you find yourself easily irritated when you don’t get enough sleep, then do your best to get your rest. The same goes with eating, exercise, taking your medicine, all of those things are helps in your journey. We aren’t just a body or just a soul. You are both and both need care.
One great evidence that you are in the control of the Spirit is worship which we see in verses 18-20. Here Paul gives out a list of words for songs that are more or less the same sort of thing. They are pieces of music that are sung to the Lord, and to each other. This is one of the benefits of corporate worship. When we sing these great songs and hymns of the faith, we are reminding each other of the life-giving truths within them. Singing to each other that God’s Faithfulness is Great is an amazing reminder, especially when it is sung by someone who has had to cling to that promise. Watching someone who has had a death in the family sing through the tears is a powerful testimony of who God is and what He can do.
This is what we as light want to bring those who are darkness into. This is the invitation that we offer to them, to be a part of a community that knows and loves Jesus and is being transformed into people that worship Him. That is the goal of evangelism, more worshippers!
I know that we have tackled a lot in these verses, so let’s summarize this passage as a whole to find our takeaway. We have been called into a very different life, one that is not motivated by sexual opportunities and monetary advancement or even joking about it. Instead our lives are focused singularly on worshiping and glorifying God. This is an amazing turnaround, because God’s wrath is for those who live in those sinful ways. Since that is the case, we want to be light to other people so that they may see Jesus and be made into light themselves.
Let’s think through how this might apply. I know that there likely many of you who know someone marked by one of those sins mentioned. Perhaps you have a family member who is making a practice of homosexuality or transgenderism. Does this passage forbid you talking to them? No! Now, you cannot tell them that God is ok with those things. That wouldn’t be kind to them, as that would be lying to them. Instead, bring them the good news of Jesus that can set them free from those practices. No, it won’t be instantaneous, but it will be gradually making progress as the years roll on. Pray for them, be clear on where you stand, and love them as best as you can. The same is to be said of believers who are in sin. We don’t pretend that what they are doing is ok, but we need to have contact in order to bring them back to a right relationship with Jesus.
What we must keep in mind is that there is no darkness into which Jesus can’t shine. No relative or friend or even you can be beyond hope. Bring them the gospel, live in the light of that gospel yourself, and there will be tremendous hope that they will one day be controlled by the Spirit worshiping God forever!
Bock, Darrell, Ephesians, Tyndale
Challies, Tim, https://www.challies.com/articles/things-for-christian-men-to-think-about/
Thielman, Frank, Ephesians, Baker
Enjoy some articles that I found to be especially helpful this week! Just click the title to read the article!
If you were going to create a study of love, what would you call it? You could call it “loveology” or perhaps “Valentinianism” if you wanted to be fancy. But what if I told you that such a name already exists for the study of love? You may be surprised to find out that the study of love is named “Ethics.” Ethics isn’t ultimately a study of yes vs no, right vs wrong. That is the practice that comes out of a proper study of love. Now, I’m not just saying that because it is February and love is in the air. I’m not even saying this because it's a particularly original idea. This goes all the way back to Jesus. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me,” What? “Keep my commandments.” If you want to study how to love Jesus, then you need to study His commandments. If you want to comprehend how to love your neighbor, then you need to know God’s laws.
But why God’s laws? Don’t we all somewhat intuitively know how to love? Why not just say, “As long as you don’t hurt people, you’re good” and leave it at that? Well, we can’t just make this up as we go along, because moral commandments that we make up have no real authority to them. Who are you to say what is right and what is wrong? Who am I to say such things? Instead, we look to the only authority Who matters, God Himself. He is the one who defines love, and He is the one who sets how love is to be displayed. To study His commands, then, is the only way to know how to really love people and how to love God. Doctrine, as Herman Bavink once said, is God loving us, and ethics is us loving God.
As always, I’ve got our two points I want us to look at today: True ethics benefits the church and Lack of true ethics grieves the Holy Spirit
True ethics benefits the church
After explaining to us how much God has loved us by choosing us, raising us from the dead, and bringing us all together, Paul is now showing us how we practically love one another. Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are other things we need to do other than don’t lie, steal, or speak wrongly, but if you look at what God commands us to do in place of those things, and especially why God commands us to do those things, you’ll see that you will be well on your way towards the ethical life. Note how much our speech matters in this list (Thielman, 310)
The first command that we see here is speaking truth to our neighbor. He tells us that since we have laid aside falsehood, we should speak truth to our neighbor. One commentator sees this as speaking in particular truths about God (Thielman, 311), but this can certainly be broadly applied as us speaking the truth in general. Note, though, the reason why Paul tells us to be truthful. He says that we are members of one another. Listen to this quote from a preacher going all the way back to the 400s, “Chrysostom aptly says, ‘If the eye sees a serpent, does it deceive the foot? if the tongue tastes what is bitter, does it deceive the stomach?’” (Chrysostom quoted in Bock). In other words, the members of your body don’t lie to each other because that is not in the best interest of the body as a whole. In the same way, when we lie, it doesn’t benefit anyone, in fact, it hurts the body as a whole. This is especially true when we say untrue things about God. We can mislead people very badly if we are not careful what we say about God, and that harms the church overall.
Now, considering what has just been said, the next verse is a little surprising. Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin. This is rather confusing, especially when we get to verse 31, Paul says to put away all anger from you! Which one is it, Paul? It isn’t a translator error, as this is the same word in both places. The word for anger here is also used of God’s anger 39 times in the Bible (Hoehner, 619), so obviously anger in and of itself doesn’t have to be sinful. There is such a thing as righteous indignation. This can be the case, “When wrong has been done against a person or against God himself. However, when God is angry, he is always in control of his anger. Unlike God, however, people have a tendency to allow anger to control them.… For example, when someone in the body of believers has been wronged, it is correct for one to be angry but not to be consumed by that anger” (Hoehner, 621). If you are not able to put down being angry, you are being controlled by that anger and thus in sin. One commentator went so far as to say, “If [our anger] is not free from injured pride, malice, or a spirit of revenge, it has degenerated into sin” (O’Brien, 340). That’s a rather high standard, isn’t it?
What are we supposed to do instead? Well, Paul continues and says that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger. If we let our anger fester, it gives the opportunity to the devil to tempt you to more sin. “Anger is not called sin here, but there lies in the background the thought that when one is angry sin c[r]ouches at the door.” (Stählin, quoted in Bruce, 361, n. 139)” When we feel anger rise up within us, we should immediately ask the question of what should we do with it? If it is an issue that needs to be and can be confronted, then it needs to be worked out. But what if it can’t? FF Bruce is very helpful here: ““if that is not possible – if the person with whom one is angry is not accessible, or refuses to be reconciled – then at least the heart should be unburdened of its animosity by the committal of the matter to God… If retribution is called for, let God take care of it: his retribution will be just, and free from self-regarding motives.” (Bruce, 361). Let anger drive you to prayer not punching, supplication not strangulation. And by leaving the matter with God when it cannot be resolved, your heart is freed from anger to embrace love.
Next on the list is not stealing. Again, this isn’t particularly new information, but note the reasoning. It goes beyond, “Don’t steal as it is wrong.” He goes on to say, “Don’t steal, but instead work hard so that you may be generous.” That is a comprehensive turn around! All of a sudden someone goes from being so selfish that they will take from others to become someone who is so UNselfish they work extra hard just so that they can be generous! They don’t steal so that they can honor God and help others with their riches. That is ethics in action.
Next on the list is the way that we use words. Paul gives us the negative, don’t let corrupting talk come out of your mouth. Literally, the word here translated corrupting would be like the term “rancid fish,” and this would cover speech that is sexual or foolish in nature, or just untruths about God (Thielman, 316). Our culture has trained us not to react as strongly to these smelly words. When I was in college, I would get the opportunity every once in a while to get the chance to eat with the students. Sometimes they would bring their own food, and that would be very strange to my nose. I remember once I had the chance to eat authentic Indian curry chicken. It’s the only meal so spicy that I sweat through it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could eat like that all the time, but they couldn’t figure out how I could stand so much sugar in my diet! The answer of course to all of that is exposure. You get used to what you have. In the same way, it is easy for us to get used to the language that is around us. It begins by stopping being offended by it, then it’s funny, then one day you find it added to your vocabulary. Here, we are told that our words are important. In fact, Matthew 12:36 tells us that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Your words are a window into your hear; there is nothing that comes out of your mouth that wasn’t in your heart in the first place, as Paul Tripp once said. Christians need to take their words seriously.
Paul also tells us what we should be saying. He says that we should use our words to build up, edify. It isn’t just not swearing, but it is only using our words to build up. This doesn’t mean that criticism is bad, but the aim of all our speech should be to build up, even if we have to relate hard truths.
So what have we seen thus far? Ethics is the study of love, and look how each of these commands play into that theme. We are honest because we don’t want to cause harm to the body. We take control of our anger lest it be the starting point for greater sin and harm to the body. Finally, we see even down to the words that we say that all of it should be employed in the cause of love.
But what happens when we don’t? What happens when we choose not to go this way? What if we could find ourselves in a circumstance where no one finds out about our actions? In other words, do we only cause harm if someone else finds out about it?
Lack of true ethics grieves the Holy Spirit
Here is where we get to verse 31. We find out that using our words improperly (and I think this extends to all sins) grieves the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit? Well, we shouldn’t think of it as if the Holy Spirit is this emotionally fragile person. Rather, this is the term of a person who loves deeply. Listen to this sermon clip from Spurgeon on this verse comparing and contrasting anger and grief:
…grief is a sweet combination of anger and of love….When I commit any offense, some friend who hath but little patience, suddenly snaps asunder his forbearance and is angry with me. The same offense is observed by a loving father, and he is grieved. There is anger in his bosom, but he is angry and he sins not, for he is angry against my sin; and yet there is love to neutralize and modify the anger towards me. Instead of wishing me ill as the punishment of my sin, he looks upon my sin itself as being the ill. He grieves to think that I am already injured, from the fact that I have sinned. I say this is a heavenly compound, more precious than all the ointment of the merchants. (you can read the whole sermon here)
In other words, when we grieve the Holy Spirit, it isn’t out of fragility but out of deep love that the Holy Spirit reacts. There is something of a mystery here because often our grief is due to not expecting what happens. God obviously knows all things that are to happen, so His grieving is different from ours but honestly impossible to really explain.
But what we can talk about is what that grief feels like on our end. I think Spurgeon is actually quite helpful in that analogy of a father who grieves the sin of a son (as he goes on later to explain in that sermon). If you have ever grieved your parents, you can feel that break in relationship. You can be in the same room yet seem to be miles away. They haven’t disowned you, you are still their child, but you don’t enjoy the peace of that relationship. Your relationship with God works in the same way. When you sin and persist in that sin for a season, God will withdraw that peace and security so that you will seek Him. It’s critical to say here that you don’t lose your salvation (that would imply that you could do something to gain it in the first place!), but you can lose the enjoyment of that salvation. If that happens, seek out the Lord, repent of that sin, and in time, you will find that enjoyment again.
Coming quickly to conclusion, we see Paul making some summary statements about all the anger that we put away. In contrast, we are to be kind and forgiving, but note what the motivation is for that: God has forgiven you. I was reading the other night the story of the woman who was a sinner who came in to wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. She stood in vivid contrast to the Pharisee who sat there and barely gave him the niceties of a guest. Jesus points out that those who have been forgiven much love much. Beloved, you have been forgiven much. If you spend some time honestly remembering how gracious God has been to you, it will empower you to extend that forgiveness to others.
This brings us to the final couple of verses in our time together that sum up all that has come before: walk in love. We are back to where we started: ethics is the study of love. Love isn’t a feeling but an action, and the greatest action that love ever performed was Christ on the cross. As my old professor put it: “The curious phrase “for a fragrant aroma” was an OT idiom for God's acceptance of a sacrifice because of the sincerity and wholeheartedness of the worshiper.” (Thielman, 322). Christ’s sacrifice for you was wholehearted and accepted by God. The Son gave a gift to the Father, and you were accepted! That love that we see there, is an example of how we should love one another (Thielman, 322)
So what is our takeaway: We have been profoundly loved, so we should love back with our obedience. The obedience is not the ground of love, you don’t earn love by obedience, but you show love by your obedience. We also show what Christ has done for us. We speak the truth because that’s what Christ did for us. We provide for others because Christ provided for us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Rest and remember the love of Christ for you, and you will be empowered to go and love with your ethical life.
Frank Thielman, Ephesians, Baker
Harold Hoenher, Ephesians
FF Bruce, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon
Bock, Ephesians Tyndale
Image by Ylanite Koppens
We are in the midst of a week-long revival happening at Asbury University, and it is not the first time for this place of learning. Revivals there began in the early 1900s and the last one occurred in 2006. Today, we are seeing students, faculty, and even folks from all over the country journeying to the campus to see what is going on. What they are finding is, by all accounts, sincere (and spontaneous) singing, confession, and prayers that have been offered up nonstop over the last week.
What are we to think about this? It’s no secret that I am a Presbyterian, and thus it is expected that I would approach anything that has the slightest hint of emotion with enormous suspicion. Here is my reaction:
I am happy. See? Presbyterians can emote.
I am glad to see students singing their hearts out to God, encouraged to see students confessing their sins, and overjoyed to see them praying for each other, for this is what God calls us to do. May the revival never end, if this is what it looks like! I pray that what is happening there spreads to other places and produces lasting change in those who participate in it. I hope that the truth is preached there and such preaching moves out across the country.
My purpose in writing about it is I want to add something to this now national conversation: this is not the only or even main way that we can see God move. Yes, it is exciting when we see mass, public expressions of worship and should rejoice in that, yet God will continue to move even after the doors of Asbury chapel shut empty. In fact, there can—indeed, should—be revival happening in your heart day by day if you are a Christian. I don’t mean that you should be leaping from one emotional high to the next. I mean something far more lasting and important than that.
In Romans 12, we are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, a process that happens with God’s Spirit and the Word being daily administered into our souls. The process of transformation occurs over a lifetime with peaks and valleys along the way. Theologians call it sanctification, becoming less like sinner and more like Jesus. One doesn’t need a large room filled with people to experience the transformation of God. All one needs is an open Bible and an open heart. This kind of revival is slow, but it brings about profound change. Christians will experience the lessening and even disappearance of anxiety, anger, sexual sin, and see the building up of contentment, peace, and chastity. This process isn’t fully completed in this life, but we do see the great progress that is made over a lifetime. This is the revival that all Christians should be striving for, indeed, are commanded to pursue.
Whether or not the Asbury revival is a lasting move of God will only be revealed in time. I’m not interested in trying to call what it is when it has only happened for a week. In the same way, I rejoice if someone says that a sermon of mine was moving to them on Sunday but I don’t immediately try to gauge their sincerity or level of change in that moment. The Lord is praised for all good things whenever we have opportunity, but pastors do well to wait and see how God is going to move. How the Lord will use that sermon in someone’s life may not be apparent for twenty years, but what I do know is that God’s Word always accomplishes something (Isaiah 55:11), so I trust Him with the results. I am not crushed if things don’t happen immediately, because I know that God is not bound to a moment of stirred emotion. The same can be said for this expression at Asbury. If people are changed to follow after Jesus for the rest of their lives after this, then we can say with confidence that it is a move of God. True conversion will always produce fruit, and God has promised to use His Word, prayer, and the sacraments to tend that fruit.
Are you using those means? Then you can expect revival in your heart, too.
Image by Avery Fan