Seeking Purity in a Sensual Culture

Lesson Focus:  We can live pure lives by being imitators of God and walking in His love, light, and wisdom.


Walk in Love:  Ephesians 5:1-5.

[1]  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. [2]  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. [3]  But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. [4]  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. [5]  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

[1-2]  Therefore signals that Paul is now drawing his admonitions in 4:25-32 to a close by stating clearly the principle he has been developing. The previous section has ended with the statement that his readers’ re-creation in God’s image should motivate their behavior, and the new section began with a therefore showing that Paul intended to explain what this meant with specific examples. Now at the close of this section, Paul summarizes his admonitions by returning to the thought that, in their behavior, his readers should be imitators of God. Specifically, Paul’s readers should be imitators of the love of God and of Christ for them. This is the first mention of love since the end of the last major section of the letter [4:15-16], and here it has a summarizing quality. Speaking the truth [4:25], working hard to give to the needy [4:28], using edifying speech that equips others to do the work that God has given them to do [4:29], and being kind, compassionate, and forgiving [4:32] – these are all expressions of love. Paul’s reference to his readers as beloved children probably alludes to their own experience of God’s adoption and love that forms such an important theme in the letter. God’s richly merciful, gracious, and forgiving love for them, so unconditional that He decided before He created the world to show it to them, should provide the pattern for their own relationships with one another. Similarly, his readers should walk in love, as Christ loved. Paul’s use of the verb walk for the first time since 4:17 brings this section of his exhortation to a close and forms a positive counterpart to the admonition there that his readers should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk in the futility of their mind [4:17]. In a way similar to the movement from 2:1-3 to 2:10, Paul has taken his audience from the futility, darkness, estrangement, ignorance, hard-heartedness, and despair of Gentile life apart from Christ [4:17-19] to a life of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love in Christ [4:32-5:2]. Paul’s next clause spells out what Christ’s love has entailed. Christ expressed His love for us when He gave himself up for us. The idea that Christ’s death was in the place of others goes back to Jesus Himself [Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 11:24]. By the time of Paul, the proposition that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures had already become part of the standard theological instruction handed down to new converts [1 Cor. 15:3]. Here Paul emphasizes Christ’s own willingness – a willingness that arose out of His love – to give Himself over to death to atone for the sins of God’s people. This emphasis is visible not only in Paul’s use of the reflexive pronoun (gave himself) but also in the metaphorical statement that Christ gave Himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Fragrant offering was an Old Testament idiom for God’s acceptance of a sacrifice because of the sincerity and wholeheartedness of the worshiper. Here in 5:2, then, Paul says that Christ stepped forward willingly, out of His love for God’s people, to sacrifice Himself and atone for their sins. This, Paul tells his audience, is how they should live in their day-to-day relationships with one another.

[3-5]  Paul begins a new section of his letter with but, just as he does in 3:20 and 6:21. In his summary of the previous section, Paul has just explained that his readers should walk in love in imitation of God and of Christ. Now, he says, they should also avoid the contrasting way of life. He describes this way of life with three lists, each containing three vices [3-5]: the first list describes activities [3], the second list describes mainly speech [4], and the third list describes people who engage in the activities in the first list [5]. The first list of three vices introduces the subjects that will dominate the three lists: sexual immorality and all impurity on the one hand and covetousness on the other hand. Sexual immorality refers generally to any sexual intercourse outside marriage. Impurity, used in a literal sense, means any substance that is filthy or dirty. Sometimes it takes on metaphorical connotations that become sexual in contexts such as the present one, referring to sexually deviant behavior. Here Paul makes this broad reference even broader with the adjective all, which here carries the connotation ‘any kind of’. Thus his readers are to avoid sexual activity outside marriage and all forms of sexual deviance. Covetousness is greed and generally refers to acquiring and holding wealth as it replaces God in the lives of believers. The greedy are those with a strong desire to acquire and keep for themselves more and more money and possessions, because they love, trust, and obey wealth rather than God. With particularly emphatic language Paul underlines how pervasive their avoidance of these vices should be. They should not even be named among you. This is simply an emphatic way of saying that within the people of God a culture should prevail that is utterly different from the culture described in 4:17-19, where these vices are so common. Perhaps his statement that sexual immorality, impurity, and greed should not even be named among the holy prompts Paul next to list three vices (filthiness … foolish talk … crude joking), primarily of speech, and all of them with sexual connotations. Filthiness can refer to obscene behavior as well as speech. Foolish talk is associated with dullness of mind, sometimes induced by drunkenness, and lacking in good judgment. Crude joking is associated with a quick wit, able to pinpoint precisely the weakness in an opponent that can be mocked and elicit laughter or able to turn an otherwise innocent phrase into a sexual allusion. Obscenity, nonsensical babbling, and coarse or mean-spirited humor, Paul continues, is out of place among the saints. Instead of unfitting speech, holy people should engage in thanksgiving directed to God. Here Paul may have in mind an attitude of thanksgiving in one’s private prayers or the expressions of thanksgiving that characterize Christian worship. In either case, speech oriented toward God should replace the self-indulgent, self-promoting speech that Paul has described in the first part of the verse. In verse 5 Paul gives the reason why it is so important to avoid sexual immorality, and speech about it, as well as greed. He underlines the importance of the reason he is about to give with the phrase for you may be sure of this. The warning that comes next provides an emphatic conclusion to the two lists of vices in verses 3 and 4. Paul now gives a list of three types of people who are defined by the behaviors he has described in the first two lists: the sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous. Such people have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Paul adds that the greedy person is also an idolater because wealth rather than God is the greedy person’s security, and the object of their love and devotion. Here, then, Paul is saying that because of their present position of victory – seated with the anointed king at God’s right hand – believers should be careful how they live. Those who have an inheritance in the kingdom of the Messiah and of God should not engage in the kind of conduct characteristic of unbelievers, who have no share in the Messiah’s reign.

Walk in Light:  Ephesians 5:8-12.

[8]  for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light [9]  (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), [10]  and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. [11]  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. [12]  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.  [ESV]

[8-9]  In addition to the reason Paul has just given for avoiding sexual immorality and greed (God’s wrath comes on those who do these things), his readers should avoid them because participating in these sins would be inconsistent with the basic orientation of their new existence. Paul’s readers were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. They were not merely in darkness but were darkness, and so their entire existence was defined by it. Now their existence is defined by the light because the boundaries of their existence are defined by the Lord. This is the language of both conversion and ethical instruction and was common in early Christian literature. In verse 9 Paul inserts a parenthetical comment expanding on the idea that children of light should walk in a way appropriate to the basic orientation of their existence. Just as children share their parent’s nature, so the fruit of a plant shares the nature of the plant that produced it. If Paul’s readers are light and are children of the light, then they should produce fruit appropriate to the light. The use of the term fruit in an ethical sense is characteristic of Paul. He has previously contrasted the works of the flesh [Gal. 5:19-21] with the fruit of the Spirit [Gal. 5:22-23], has spoken of the fruit of righteousness [Phil. 1:11], and has described sanctification as the fruit that enslavement to God yields [Rom. 6:21-22]. Here the ethical fruit produced by a life oriented to the light is all that is good and right and true. Just as the lists of vices in 5:3-5 came in sets of three, so this contrasting list of virtues comes in a set of three. The term good supplies the opposite of the greed that features so prominently in the vice lists of 5:3-5. Those who are in the Lord shine as light when they are benevolent toward others, demonstrating their goodness to them in practical ways. In the context of this verse, right and true also refers to upright behavior. Paul was probably thinking of behavior that is forthright and honest. Jewish and Christian literature from antiquity frequently describes the character of God in terms of these three virtues. Behind Paul’s choice of these three terms, then, is probably the theme of the imitation of God that has surfaced more explicitly in 4:24 and 5:1.

[10-12]  Paul now picks up in verse 10 his main thought again after the explanatory digression of verse 9. His readers should conduct themselves as children of the light, bearing the fruit of all goodness, righteousness, and truth, by discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. Acting in goodness, righteousness and truth is clearly pleasing to the Lord Jesus Christ, but these are general terms that offer only a broad form of ethical guidance. Deciding what is benevolent, right, honest, and therefore pleasing to the Lord in any given situation is often complicated, and Paul recognizes this by qualifying his imperative to walk as children of the light with try which refers to the believer’s use of critical judgment to find out in any given situation what the believer should do. Although Paul certainly handed on to those under his pastoral care a set body of ethical teaching [4:21-24], he also intentionally left room for believers to make decisions by using their own renewed thinking [see Rom. 12:2]. Thus Paul urges his readers to use discernment in deciding what is pleasing to the Lord – what counts as benevolent, righteous and true – in any given situation. In verse 11 Paul turns to the negative counterpart of the positive command to walk as children of the light. His readers are not to participate in the unfruitful works of darkness. This admonition repeats the sentiment of 5:7, where Paul urged his readers not to associate with the sons of disobedience whose behavior is marked by greed and sexual immorality. The works of darkness are unfruitful. Like the light, darkness gives rise to activity, but unlike the light, whose activity bears fruit, the activity of the darkness is not fruitful. In other words, it yields no profit and has no point. The description of the works of darkness as unfruitful, then, is part of the theme of the futility of existence in the unbelieving world that Paul has already developed in 2:1-3 and 4:17-19. It stands in utter contrast to the purposeful, goal-oriented existence that characterizes the believing community because of its union with Christ. Rather than participating in such futile activity, the believer’s existence as light in the Lord leads him or her to expose the unfruitful works of darkness. If darkness serves as a cloak for the deception, then light can expose it. Expose can also take on positive connotations, however, by referring to the action of pointing out error in order to correct it and put someone back on the right path. Here exposure has the positive result of conversion. In verses 12-13 Paul expands on the two contrasting parts of 5:11. He gives the reason why (for) his readers should not participate in these deeds in 5:12, and in 5:13 he explains why they should be exposed. First, then, Paul gives the reason why his readers should not participate in the unfruitful works of darkness. They are so evil, Paul says, that they are shameful even to mention. Just as with his admonition that sexual sins and greed must not even be named among God’s people [3], so here, Paul is exaggerating for the sake of emphasis: he is simply underlining how far out of bounds the behavior of some unbelievers lies. The activities that Paul describes here are shameful even to mention for the same reason that those who do them seek to keep them secret: they are especially evil. The way Paul expresses this draws his readers’ attention not only to the unmentionable deeds themselves but also to those who do them. Those engaged in the unmentionable deeds of this verse are unbelievers, people who have no inheritance in the kingdom of God and Christ and to whom the wrath of God is coming [6]. In keeping with the imagery of exposing wrongdoing that would otherwise remain hidden, Paul describes the deeds of these unbelievers as done in secret. These acts were probably done in secret either because those who did them were themselves ashamed or because the acts were viewed with such disgust in the wider society that public knowledge of them could damage one’s reputation or position.

Walk in Wisdom:  Ephesians 5:15-16.

[15]  Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, [16]  making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.  [ESV]

[15-16]  Paul now issues a warning to his readers to walk carefully and wisely, and this warning arises out of what he has said in the previous section. Paul’s readers should not participate in the activities of the sons of disobedience and should not be deceived by false teachers claiming otherwise. Paul is aware that his readers are engaged in a battle of the mind in which human trickery and cunning make false teaching look attractive [4:14], and the futile and darkened understanding of unbelieving Gentiles, which his readers once shared, can still pose a threat [4:17-19]. His readers must walk through a mental minefield of ideas that, if they are not careful, will lead them to despair, shame, and the wrath of God [4:19; 5:6,12]. Therefore they should carefully watch their step. Paul describes the care they should exercise in their behavior with two phrases. First, they should walk not as unwise but as wise. Here the adjective wise describes the person who is skilled in discerning what is pleasing to the Lord [10]. Paul will repeat this thought in different terms in 5:17. Second, they should also walk carefully by making the best use of the time. What has a grip on the present time? Paul explains in the phrase the days are evil. By this expression Paul means what he has already said in 2:2, that the course of this world is aligned with the devil. His readers are to buy the present time out of its slavery to evil and to use it instead in ways that are pleasing to the Lord. 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.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does it meant to walk in love? Contrast it to the walk of the Gentiles in 4:17-19.

2.         How can thanksgiving be a remedy for unsanctified conversation and thoughts of sexual sin, impurity, covetous desires and heart idolatry that lie behind it? What is Paul’s logic here? How can you put this into practice the next time you are confronted by these temptations?

3.         What does Paul’s use of the imagery of light and darkness teach us about walking as children of light? Describe the fruit of light.

4.         What can you do in order to become a “time-redeemer” instead of a “time-waster”?


Ephesians, Frank Thielman, ECNT, Baker.

Let’s Study Ephesians, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

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