A sermon on Ephesians 4
Our nation is full of immigrants. Many of us were born in a different nation, and we moved to America at some point in our life. Or maybe it was our great-great grandparents who moved to America from “the old country.” Even if we are Native Americans, if we go back far enough, we will see that our ancestors came to this land from somewhere else.
Many of us have moved from one state to another. Now, whether it was us or our ancestors, why did we move? I think in most cases, it’s because we thought our life here would be better than if we lived somewhere else. We were all looking for a better life. We would have more good things here, than wherever we were before. A better job, a better place to live, better clothes, and other amenities.
But I suggest that we need to look for a better life in a different sense: we need to be better people. We need to live in a better way. We need to help others, and to have better relationships with others. We not only want a higher standard of living, we also want a higher standard of life. We want life to be more than it presently is.
We know that God wants to give us a better life – and I do mean “give.” Ephesians 2 tells us that we are saved by grace. But what then? We have a new life in Christ, but what does that look like in real life? What does it look like in our friendships and relationships with other people?
Today I’d like to look in the book of Ephesians to see how the apostle Paul describes what the good life is really like. Let’s go to chapter 4, starting in verse 22. Paul tells his readers – and that includes us today – “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.”
Paul is describing here a change in behavior. The old way was corrupted – it was rotten – and the problem was caused by the way we think. We wanted stuff that wasn’t good for us. We deceived ourselves into thinking that happiness comes from material goods, from sensual pleasures, from thinking of ourselves as better than other people, from winning the competitions we had with other people.
It was basically a selfish approach to life, and it ended up hurting other people, hurting our relationships, and hurting us, as well. So Paul says that in Christ, we have been taught to put off our old ways, and find a new approach to life.
Verses 23 and 24: “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.” Since the problem with the old way of life was in our desires, the solution involves a new attitude – we need to set our hearts on something different. We need to have desires that do not deceive us – we need to want things that are really better for us.
Paul says here that our new self is created to be like God – that is the purpose for which we were made in the first place, and that is what our new self in Christ should look like. We have been created to be like God. Not in power or brilliance, but in righteousness, in the sense of doing what is right.
We were made for that purpose. God wants us to live with him forever, and he is telling us what that sort of life is like. This is what we call the Trinitarian life, the way that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live with one another. If we had to describe it in one word, we could call it righteousness – or we could also say holiness – or love, joy, peace, faithfulness, meekness and kindness.
This is the way that life works best. If we are going to live forever, and that’s what God is offering us, then we need to live in such a way that we are not going to cause problems for other people. If we are supposed to be like God is in righteousness, then we need to find out what he’s like, and then we need to be like that, too.
But as Paul tells us in other places, we cannot be like God all by ourselves – it comes only from God living in us. God is the one who does it; our role is simply to agree to what he wants to do in our lives.
That’s kind of the overview. Paul gives us some specific examples starting in verse 25: “Therefore [that is, because we have been created to be like God], each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”
So the first thing Paul mentions is that we need to tell the truth. We should stop trying to deceive other people, because that really messes up relationships. It destroys trust, but relationships need trust. We cannot have long-range loyalty without truth and trust. When we deceive people and they find out, they feel betrayed and hurt.
In eternity, we won’t need jobs and houses and clothing and other material things. We won’t worry about our health or all sorts of other stuff. But we will have relationships – that’s what we will have in eternity, so it’s important for us to get our relationships right.
That is what the word “righteousness” means – it means right conduct in our relationships. Righteousness has no meaning when it comes to the way we treat rocks. There is no “right” way to treat a rock. The concept of righteousness has meaning for relationships, especially relationships with other people, and that’s something that will last into eternity.
So in order to be like God, to participate in a life like God has, then we need truth rather than falsehood – and notice the reason that Paul gives us: “because we are members of one body.” We are in this together – we are going to be living with each other for a really long time, so if we hurt somebody else, it is like shooting ourselves in the foot. We are hurting ourselves, in the long run.
Paul is saying that the main reason for right behavior is that we are all members of one body. We are one community, one people. God has made us so that we will be like he is in righteousness, in the way that we treat other people. God’s purpose for us is righteousness, and that means good relationships.
Let’s look at his next example, in verses 26 and 27: “‘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.”
Anger, in itself, is not always wrong. The Bible describes God as being angry at some of the stuff some people do to hurt and abuse defenseless people. Parents are right to be angry when one child purposely hurts another. We love them and are angry at what they have done, all at the same time.
So in theory, anger isn’t always wrong. But in practice, it usually is. Anger is very destructive to human relationships, and so Paul says, Be careful with your anger. Don’t stay angry, don’t go to bed angry, because if you keep nursing a grudge against someone, you are acting like the devil, accusing people and being an adversary. That sort of attitude kills relationships.
Another example is in verse 28: “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.”
It’s not enough to just quit stealing, or just stop doing bad stuff. No, we also need to start doing something good. We don’t just go from bad to neutral, from doing bad stuff to doing nothing at all. Rather, we replace bad behavior with doing something good. In this case, we try to earn enough money so that we can help someone who needs help.
Do you think that there was a big problem with thievery in the first-century church? I don’t think so. Everybody in the ancient world knew that they weren’t supposed to steal stuff.
So why did Paul tell people to stop stealing? I suspect that he includes this because it’s a really good illustration of replacing destructive behavior with constructive behavior. It shows a change of attitude from greed and selfishness, to generosity and helpfulness. It’s a change from the attitude of “get” to the attitude of “give.”
So far, Paul has mentioned:
- the words we use – truth rather than falsehood –
- and attitudes that we have – peace rather than anger –
- and actions that we do – giving rather than stealing.
Now in verse 29 he gives another illustration about words: “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.”
What does he mean by “unwholesome” talk? I’m not sure, but it seems to be words that tear other people down instead of building them up. It’s gossip about how bad they are. It’s negativism that says, “You’re never going to amount to anything; you are too ugly; you are too sinful for God to ever like you.” Those sort of comments damage relationships, and they are contrary to God’s purpose for our lives.
So what do we do instead? We need talk that helps others according to their needs, that gives them some sort of benefit. It encourages them, helps them improve, lets them know that somebody cares about them and wants them to do well in life. It’s words that tell people that the Creator of the Universe made them for a purpose, and he won’t give up on them. It’s words that strengthen bonds of friendship, words that express loyalty rather than betrayal, words that build community instead of tearing it apart.
The next verse in this chapter seems at first to be on a completely different topic. In verse 30 he writes, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Everything else in this part of Paul’s letter is about our relationships with one another. Why is he suddenly concerned about our relationship with the Holy Spirit? Why does he say, Don’t disappoint the Holy Spirit?
I think he does this for two reasons. First, the Holy Spirit does care about how we treat one another, and the kind of words we use with one another. When our words are used to tear down instead of build up, the Holy Spirit is sad – sad at what we have done to the relationship, sad at how we have hurt someone in the same body, sad that we are reinforcing in ourselves a habit that isn’t good for us.
Second, the Holy Spirit is the divine life that is working in us. He is the one who encourages us to do right, to be helpful, to be truthful. When we refuse his advice, we are refusing him, and that grieves our relationship with him. He does care about what we do, but even more about what sort of persons we are.
Now, all of us fall short. We disappoint ourselves, and sometimes work contrary to what God is trying to do in our lives. But there is no reason for us to despair, Paul says, because the Holy Spirit’s relationship with us is not fragile. He is not looking for an excuse to break it off and abandon us to our own folly.
No, Paul says that the Holy Spirit seals us for the day of redemption – the time in the future when we will be resurrected and given transformed bodies far better than what we have now. He has sealed us, earmarked us for God’s family. He wants us to be there, and he will never disown us.
He is fiercely loyal to us, and even though we are sometimes faithless toward him, he is always faithful toward us. We are sealed for salvation, and God won’t give up on us. That’s why he cares so much about what we do and how we live – because we’ll be living with him, and with each other, for a long, long time.
Paul has now given several specific examples. In verse 31 he gives a whole basketful at once: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
Why does the Bible give us rules like this? Is it because God just wants to give us a test that he knows we can’t pass? Did he just make up these rules to make life difficult for us? No, not at all. He wants to make life easier for us, not difficult, and these are the sort of things that mess lives up. These are the sort of things that hurt people, and God says,
“Hey, wait a minute. I like those people just as much as I like you, and I don’t want you hurting them with your words of anger, or your slander, and I don’t want them to hurt you in that sort of way, either. Life in my kingdom doesn’t have any room for that sort of back-stabbing, so that’s not a very good habit to have. Get rid of it, and life will work a lot better for everyone concerned.”
Bitterness isn’t good for your health, he seems to be saying, and it’s not good for your relationships. Rage and anger are dangerous, and brawling is just plain stupid. And get rid of that bad attitude called malice. Don’t harbor bad thoughts about people and hope for bad things to happen to them. This is not what you were created for. This might be what you did in the past, but this is not the future you have been created for.
Now, after this basket of rotten fruit, Paul gives us a basket of good fruit in verse 32, with a few good things to do instead of malice and rage: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Be compassionate. Care about other people. That’s a basic rule of good relationships. That’s a basic guideline for what it means to be like God in his righteousness. Don’t view your relationships as a competition for who’s best, for who’s the most important, for who gets their way.
In this imperfect world, things don’t always go right. People don’t always treat us right, even when they are trying to. Sometimes even the best of people are going to hurt our feelings, do something that disappoints us, embarrasses us or make life more difficult for us. When that happens, the basic rule of good relationships is to forgive each other.
Just remember: You were created to be like God, and his Spirit lives in you, so let him do in you and through you the same thing that he does for you – he forgives us a lot, so we should be willing to forgive other people the things they do to us. God forgave the people who killed his Son. In Acts 7, Stephen forgave the people who were killing him. God is willing to forgive us no matter what we do to him, even when we were his enemies, and so we should be willing to forgive other people no matter what they do to us.
Is that difficult? You bet it is. But we really do need to forgive other people – for our own sake just as much as for theirs. As long as the desire for revenge eats at us, we will be captive to it. It is only when we let go of those hurts of the past, that we can be freed from a burden we were never supposed to carry.
Some of us carry great pain and an unwillingness to forgive someone who hurt us a great deal. If that’s you, that attitude isn’t helping you very much, is it? I suggest that you counsel with someone about it. That can help lift a burden off of you that is really too big to carry. Depending on the kind of pain you carry, it can take a long time to process it all. But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll complete the process.
So learn to forgive, Paul says. Learn to be like God in that respect, too. That is the sort of life that he is inviting you to enjoy for all eternity. Don’t let something that happened to you years ago keep you in its clutches. Don’t let that evil person keep a ball and chain on your life today. Learn to let go, to forgive, to pray for your enemies instead of harboring malice toward them.
Paul summarizes his teaching in chapter 5, verse 1: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
We were created to be like God, so in all these instructions, Paul is telling us to be like God is. Since we are his children, we need to act like he does. This is not something we do to earn a spot in eternity – no, Paul says that we are already in the family of God. We just need to learn what this family lives like, so we can do it, too.
The summary word for God’s life is “love,” as Paul says in verse 2: “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.”
Again, God set the example. He is not asking us to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself. God is love, the Bible says, and that pretty much describes the relationship we are supposed to have with everyone around us, and it describes the relationship we will have in eternity.
But we can’t just make up our own definition of love. Our culture talks about “making love,” but what it seems like most of the time is that they are just setting somebody up for betrayal. They use the word “love” for selfish purposes, and that is exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.
In one of John’s letters, he tells us what love is – he says, “This is how we know what love is – Jesus Christ died for us.” Love means being willing to accept a little inconvenience in order to help somebody else. It means thinking about how we can help somebody else, not how we can get what we want.
It means telling the truth, it means getting rid of anger, it means working in order to share with people who have needs, it means giving encouraging words instead of words that put other people down. It means saying sorry for what we’ve done wrong, it means forgiving when people do something wrong to us. It means being like God in righteousness and holiness. It means living like he does; it means letting him live in us.
Most of us moved to wherever we are because we thought we’d have a better life here. Now I’d like you to think about another move – a move to the kingdom of God. There is certainly a better life there, in both senses of the word better. There are better things for us, and we are better people – and the kingdom of God is a wonderful destination precisely because there are better people there, and we will be better, too. God has designed us for this very purpose, and he is not going to give up on the good things that he wants to give us. He is always faithful to his purpose.
But we do not have to wait for the future to be better people, to have a better life. The kingdom of God exists even now, in all of God’s children, in all the people the Holy Spirit lives in.
Why is that?
It’s because Jesus gave himself for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice. He has done whatever it takes for us to be in God’s good graces. He has paid the price, or whatever other metaphor you want to use, so that we can be there. We are included as part of the family; now he just asks us to act like it, to let the Holy Spirit do his transforming work in our minds, to change our desires and attitudes, to strengthen our relationships, to let love and loyalty be the story of our life rather than betrayal and bitterness.
But it does require some fundamental changes in the way people live. Paul says to put off the old rotten way of life. Most of us have already begun this process, to one degree or another. But no one has completed the process yet. We can always improve, we can always have a better life, because God offers us the best life possible – his very own life that he wants to share with us for all eternity. The perfect love that is characteristic of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is being offered to us.
How do we describe this life of divine love? One way to describe it is righteousness, truthfulness, helpfulness, and forgiveness. This is what Paul says that we, as God’s dearly loved children, need to choose. This is the life that he offers, and he hopes that we accept it not just for the distant future, but for the good it will do in our life and our relationships right now.
But it requires a change – a change from the way life used to be, and a change away from the way life still is for many people. Paul says in chapter 5, verse 3: “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.”
We should avoid even the appearance of sexual immorality. Why? Not because Paul is prudish, but because God created sex for something more important than casual entertainment and trivial relationships. Sex was designed to strengthen the exclusive relationship we call marriage, the relationship that gives children the stability and security that gives them confidence – and when sex is used outside of the context of an exclusive relationship, then it weakens its role in marriage.
A lot more could be said on that, but we don’t need to do it today. Paul is not focusing on that here – it is just one illustration out of several things we need to keep well away from. We also need to avoid impurity and greed, because these are contrary to the way God’s people should be, for the simple reason that they are contrary to the way God is.
Verse 4: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” We need to keep our language clean, and keep our jokes clean. We don’t need dirty jokes that tarnish something that God made good. What we need, Paul says, is an attitude of gratitude. Instead of having our mind in the gutter, or in the sewer, we need to set our minds on things above, on the good things that God is preparing for us.
Or maybe I should say that God is preparing us for the good things. Either way, it’s good, and it’s his gift to us, and we ought to be thankful for it, because it’s far better than what we deserve. When we remember our future, we can be really thankful about the present.
In verse 5 Paul tells us why we should avoid dirty jokes: “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.”
Now, as Paul says in other letters, we used to be like that. We used to have behavior that was contrary to the kingdom of God, but we were forgiven, we were washed, we were set apart for God’s use by his grace, and the Holy Spirit now lives in us to change us from that, into something better.
If you are greedy, Paul says, then you have an idol. If getting more stuff is more important to you than following God, then you have an idol. If immorality is stronger in your life than the desire to follow God, then you have an idol. And if you really like impurity, then you have an idol. Don’t think you can bring idolatry into the kingdom of God. It just doesn’t fit.
If you really want those corrupt desires, then you won’t even like the kingdom of God, because they won’t be there. If you are doing those things, then you are not participating in the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean that you are doomed to failure. No – Paul is just saying that we end up getting what we want. If we want greed and impurity, then that’s what we will get. If we want to be rescued from greed and impurity, then we will be rescued in the kingdom of God. If we had those things in our life before, then we don’t have to keep them. We can change for the better.
So I ask you: Do you want a better life? You can move, if you want to, deeper into the kingdom of God. Christ has already qualified you to be there, but he doesn’t force you to go. It’s not just a better life – it is the best life – the life of God, that he wants to share with you.
Author: Michael Morrison