We Encourage One Another

| Ephesians 4:17-32

Week of August 16, 2020

The Point:  We need the encouragement of others – and they need ours.

The New Life:  Ephesians 4:17-32.

[17] Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. [18] They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. [19] They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. [20] But that is not the way you learned Christ!– [21] assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [22] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, [23] and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, [24] and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [25] Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [26] Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, [27] and give no opportunity to the devil. [28] Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. [29] Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. [30] And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. [31] Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. [32] Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  [ESV]

“The doctrinal basis [4:17-24]. It was essential at the outset for his readers to grasp the contrast between what they had been as pagans and what they now were as Christians, between their old and their new life, and further to grasp the underlying theological basis of this change. What is immediately noteworthy in these verses is the apostle’s emphasis on the intellectual factor in everybody’s way of life. While describing pagans, he draws attention to the futility of their minds, adds that they are darkened in their understanding and attributes their alienation from God to the ignorance that is in them. He thus refers to their empty minds, darkened understanding and inward ignorance, as a result of which they had become callous, licentious and insatiably unclean. But in contrast to them the believers had learned Christ, heard him, been taught in him, all according to the truth which is in Jesus. Over against the darkness and ignorance of the heathen Paul thus sets the truth of Christ which the Christians had learned. Scripture bears an unwavering testimony to the power of ignorance and error to corrupt, and the power of truth to liberate, ennoble and refine. A. The pagan life [17-19]. But what is the origin of the darkness of heathen minds, when God himself is light, and he is continuously speaking to mankind through his creation, and both heaven and earth declare his glory? It is due to their hardness of heart, says Paul. If we put Paul’s expressions together, noting carefully their logical connections (especially because of and due to), he seems to be depicting the terrible downward path of evil, which begins with an obstinate rejection of God’s known truth. First come their hardness of heart, then their ignorance, being darkened in their understanding, next and consequently they are alienated from the life of God, since he turns away from them, until finally they have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. Thus hardness of heart leads first to darkness of mind, then to deadness of soul under the judgment of God, and finally to recklessness of life. Having lost all sensitivity, people lose all self-control. It is exactly the sequence which Paul elaborates in the latter part of Romans 1. The Christian life [20-24]. Over against heathen hardness, darkness and recklessness Paul sets a whole process of Christian moral education. He uses three parallel expressions which center on three verbs, all in the aorist tense, learned … heard … taught, with a final reference to the truth is in Jesus. These are remarkable expressions. They evoke the image of a school and refer to the catechetical instruction which Paul assumes, indeed knows, they have had. According to the first, Christ is himself the substance of Christian teaching. Just as evangelists ‘preach Christ’, so their hearers ‘learn’ Christ, and ‘receive’ him, that is, a tradition about him. But what sort of Christ do they learn? Not just the Word made flesh, the unique God-man, who died, rose and reigns. More than that. The implication of the context is that we must also preach his lordship, the kingdom or rule of righteousness he ushered in, and all the moral demands of the new life. The Christ whom the Ephesians had learned was calling them to standards and values totally at variance with their former pagan life. Secondly, Christ, who is the substance of the teaching, is himself also the teacher (‘you heard him’). Paul assumes that through the voice of their Christian teachers, they had actually heard Christ’s voice. Thus, when sound biblical moral instruction is being given, it may be said that Christ is teaching about Christ. Thirdly, they had been taught in him. That is to say, Jesus Christ, in addition to being the teacher and the teaching, was also the context, even the atmosphere within which the teaching was given. When Jesus Christ is at once the subject, the object and the environment of the moral instruction being given, we may have confidence that it is truly Christian. For the truth is in Jesus. The historical Jesus is himself the embodiment of truth [John 14:6]. But what exactly is this truth that is in Jesus? If heathen darkness leads to reckless uncleanness, what is the truth which sets Christians free and leads them to righteousness? The next verses [22-24] give the answer. To ‘learn Christ’ is to grasp the new creation which he has made possible, and the entirely new life which results from it. It is nothing less than putting off our old humanity like a rotten garment and putting on like clean clothing the new humanity recreated in God’s image. When does this take place. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:9-10 shows that this ‘putting off’ and ‘putting on’ took place at the time of their conversion. It is because we have already put off our old nature, in that decisive act of repentance called conversion, that we can logically be commanded to put away all the practices which belong to that old and rejected life. These commands are the very ‘truth as it is in Jesus’ which they had been taught and learned. What had they been taught, then? They had been taught that becoming a Christian involves a radical change, namely ‘conversion’ (as the human side of the experience is usually called) and ‘re-creation’ (the divine side). It involves the repudiation of our former self, our fallen humanity, and the assumption of a new self or re-created humanity. Each of these two Paul calls your old self and the new self, which are vividly contrasted with each other. The portraits Paul paints of both balance one another. The old was corrupt, in the process of degenerating, on its way to ruin or destruction; the new has been freshly created after the likeness of God. The old was dominated by ‘lusts’, uncontrolled passions; the new has been created in true righteousness and holiness. The lusts of the old were deceitful; the righteousness of the new is true. Thus, corruption and creation, passion and holiness, deceit and truth are set in opposition to one another, indicating the total incompatibility of the old and the new, what we were in Adam and what we are in Christ. In between these contrasting portraits of the kind of person we ‘put off’ and ‘put on’ comes verse 23: and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds. This verb is a present infinitive, in distinction to those of verses 22 and 24 which are aorists. It indicates that, in addition to the decisive rejection of the old and assumption of the new, implicit in conversion, a daily – indeed a continuous – inward renewal of our outlook is involved in being a Christian. If heathen degradation is due to the futility of their minds, then Christian righteousness depends on the constant renewing of our minds. In all this teaching the divine and the human are beautifully blended. In the command to exchange our old humanity for a new one, Paul is not implying that we can bring about our own new birth. Nobody has ever given birth to himself. The very concept is ludicrous. No, the new humanity we assume is God’s creation, not ours. Nevertheless, when God recreates us in Christ according to his own likeness, we entirely concur with what he has done. We ‘put off’ our old life, turning away from it in distaste, and we ‘put on’ the new life he has created, embracing it and welcoming it with joy. In a word, recreation (what God does) and repentance (what we do by his grace) belong together and cannot be separated. Looking back over these verses, we can perhaps grasp more clearly the two solid doctrinal foundations for Christian holiness which Paul has laid. They are like two roots from which holiness sprouts and grows. First, we have experienced a new creation, and secondly, in consequence, we have received a new mind which is constantly being renewed. Moreover, the two are organically related to one another. It is our new creation which has given us a new mind; and it is our new mind which understands our new creation and its implications. Since it is a new creation in God’s holy image, it has involved for us the total putting away of our old fallenness and the thankful putting on of our new humanness. Therefore, Paul continues, each one of you speak the truth [25]. That is, because you did throw off your former self once and for all, you must now throw off all conduct which belonged to your old life. Your new behavior must be completely consistent with the kind of person you have become. Since by a new creation we have put off the old humanity and put on the new, we must also put away the old standards and adopt new ones. One new role will mean new clothing, our new life a new ethical lifestyle.

Five concrete examples [4:25-32]. It is marvelous to see how easily Paul can descend from lofty theological talk about our two humanities, about the Christ we have learned and the new creation we have experienced, to the nitty-gritty of Christian behavior – telling the truth and controlling our anger, honesty at work and kindness of speech, forgiveness, love and sexual self-control. All very practical. And before we come to his five examples, we need to notice three features common to them all. First, they all concern our relationships. Holiness is not a mystical condition experienced in relation to God but in isolation from human beings. Secondly, in each example a negative prohibition is balanced by a corresponding positive command. It is not enough to put off the old rags; we have to put on new garments. Thirdly, in each case a reason for the command is either given or implied, indeed a theological reason. For in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles doctrine and ethics, belief and behavior are always dovetailed into one another. A. Don’t tell lies, but rather tell the truth [25]. The avoidance of lies is of little use without the active pursuit of truth. The followers of Jesus should be known in their community as honest, reliable people whose word can be trusted. The reason given is not only that the other person is our neighbor, whom we are commanded in Scripture to love, but that in the church our relationship is closer still, for we are members one of another. Paul brings us back to his doctrine of the church as the body of Christ. Fellowship is built on trust, and trust is built on truth. So falsehood undermines fellowship, while truth strengthens it. B. Don’t lose your temper, but rather ensure that your anger is righteous [26-27]. Be angry and do not sin is an echo of Psalm 4:4. It seems clear that this form of words is a Hebrew idiom which permits and then restricts anger, rather than actually commanding it. Nevertheless, the verse recognizes that there is such a thing as Christian anger, and too few Christians either feel or express it. Indeed, when we fail to do so, we deny God, damage ourselves and encourage the spread of evil. Scripture plainly teaches that there are two kinds of anger, righteous and unrighteous. In verse 31 anger is one of a number of unpleasant things which we are to put away from us. Evidently unrighteous anger is meant. But in 5:6 we are told of the anger of God which will fall on the disobedient, and we know that God’s anger is righteous. So was the anger of Jesus [Mark 3:5]. There must therefore be a good and true anger which God’s people can learn from him and from their Lord Jesus. I go further and say that there is a great need in the contemporary world for more Christian anger. We human beings compromise with sin in a way in which God never does. In the face of blatant evil we should be indignant not tolerant, angry not apathetic. If God hates sin, his people should hate it too. If evil arouses his anger, it should arouse ours also. At the same time, we need to remember our fallenness, and our constant proneness to intemperance and vanity. Consequently, we always have to be on our guard and act as censors of our own anger. If we are wise, we shall be ‘slow to anger’, remembering that ‘the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’ [James 1:19-20]. So Paul immediately qualifies his permissive be angry by three negatives. First, do not sin. We have to make sure that our anger is free from injured pride, spite, malice, animosity and the spirit of revenge. Secondly, do not let the sun go down on your anger. This instruction illustrates well the folly of excessive literalism in interpreting the Bible. We are not to understand Paul so literally that we may take leave to be angry till sunset. No, the apostle’s intention is to warn us against nursing anger. If we become aware of some sinful or selfish element in our anger, then it is time for us to cease from it. Paul’s third qualification is give no opportunity to the devil, for he knows how fine is the line between righteous and unrighteous anger, and how hard human beings find it to handle their anger responsibly. The devil loves to lurk round angry people, hoping to be able to exploit the situation to his own advantage by provoking them into hatred or violence or a breach of fellowship. C. Don’t steal, but rather work and give [28]. In echoing the eighth commandment, the apostle goes beyond the prohibition and draws out its positive implications. It is not enough that the thief stops stealing. Let him start working, doing honest work with his own hands, earning his own living. Then he will be able not only to support himself and his family, but also to share with anyone in need. Instead of sponging on the community, as thieves do, he will start contributing to it. D. Don’t use your mouth for evil, but rather for good [29-30]. The apostle turns from the use of our hands to the use of our mouths. The word Paul uses for evil is used of rotten trees and fruit. When applied to rotten talk, whether this is dishonest, unkind or vulgar, we may be sure that in some way it hurts the hearers. Instead, we are to use our unique gift of speech constructively to edify people and not damage or destroy them. Then our words may give grace to those who hear. Jesus taught the great significance of speech. Our words reveal what is in our hearts [Matt. 12:33-37]. If we are truly a new creation of God, we shall undoubtedly develop new standards of conversation. Instead of hurting people with our words, we shall want to use them to help, encourage, cheer, comfort and stimulate them. It is not immediately clear why Paul now introduces the Holy Spirit [30]. He has just warned us to give no opportunity to the devil; now he urges us not to grieve the Holy Spirit. Since he is the ‘Holy Spirit’, he is always grieved by unholiness, and since he is the ‘one Spirit’, disunity will also cause him grief. In fact, anything incompatible with the purity or unity of the church is incompatible with his own nature and therefore hurts him. One might add that because he is also the ‘Spirit of truth’, through whom God has spoken, he is upset by all our misuse of speech, which has been Paul’s topic in the preceding verse. We notice also in verse 30 the references to being sealed with the Spirit and to the day of redemption. The sealing took place at the beginning of our Christian life; the Holy Spirit himself, indwelling us, is the seal with which God has stamped us as his own. The day of redemption looks on to the end when our bodies will be redeemed, for only then will our redemption or liberation be complete. So the ‘sealing’ and the ‘redemption’ refer respectively to the beginning and the end of the salvation process. And in between these two termini we are to grow in Christlikeness and to take care not to grieve the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is a sensitive Spirit. He hates sin, discord and falsehood, and shrinks away from them. Therefore, if we wish to avoid hurting him, we shall shrink from them too. Every Spirit-filled believer desires to bring him pleasure, not pain. E. Don’t be unkind or bitter, but rather kind and loving [4:31-32]. Here is a whole series of six unpleasant attitudes and actions which are to be put away from us entirely. Bitterness is a sour spirit and sour speech. It is an embittered and resentful spirit which refuses to be reconciled. Wrath and anger are obviously similar, the former denoting a passionate rage and the latter a more settled and sullen hostility. Clamor describes people who get excited, raise their voices in a quarrel, and start shouting, even screaming, at each other, while slander is speaking evil of others, especially behind their backs, and so defaming and even destroying their reputation. The sixth word is malice, or ill will, wishing and probably plotting evil against people. Alternatively, it may be inclusive of the five preceding vices, namely silently harbored grudge, indignant outburst, seething rage, public quarrel and slanderous taunt. There is no place for any of these horrid things in the Christian community; they have to be totally rejected. In their place we should welcome the kind of qualities which characterize the behavior of God and his Christ. We are to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. We are to act in grace towards one another, as God in Christ has acted in grace towards us. It is noteworthy how God-centered Paul’s ethic is. It is natural for him, in issuing his moral instructions, to mention the three Persons of the Trinity. He tells us to imitate God, to learn Christ and not to grieve the Holy Spirit.” [Stott, pp. 174-194].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Note the “either/or” emphasis in our passage. List the contrasts that Paul gives us for how we should think and live. Note Paul’s emphasis that the way we now live must be completely consistent with the new person we have become. Pray daily that God will quickly convict you when your behavior is not consistent with your “new self”.
  2. Trace the terrible downward path of evil depicted in 4:17-19. How does this sequence ring true in your experience? What are the two solid doctrinal foundations for Christian holiness which Paul has laid in 4:20-24? What is the relationship between them? Why is it significant that the verb renewed [23] is in the present tense? What does this indicate for the way we live as a believer? How are you obeying this command?
  3. Paul now gives five examples of how Christian holiness works out in practice [25-32]. What are they? What three features do they have in common? What reason does Paul give for putting away falsehood and speaking the truth? Can you think of occasions in your experience when this has been relevant? When is it righteous to express anger? What safeguards does Paul give against anger becoming unrighteous? What does 4:30 reveal about the Holy Spirit and our relationship with him? Are you aware of any of the attitudes of 4:31 in your own life? What antidotes does Paul recommend? How would they work out in practice for you?

References:

Ephesians, James Boice, Baker.

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

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference resources for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.