Who does God say you are? 5: Ephesians 4:17–5:2
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on . It is preceded by a reading of Ephesians 4:17–5:2 from the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised.
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Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 4:17–5:2 NRSVA
This is the word of the Lord.
A few years ago, when I was a teenager, I was given a T-shirt. This is it. If you remember the 1990s, I think it was one of those T-shirts that would change colour with body heat. Anyway, for a long time, this was my favourite T-shirt. Partly because I thought it was cool, partly because it was a present, I think, from my best mate, so it made me feel great when I wore it. It was a cool thing back at the time when cool was cool. Here it is 20 years on, 20 plus years on, I still own it, but it lives at the back of the drawer. It might only come out when I’m doing some gardening or some painting, or some rough, dirty job, where it won’t matter if I spill paint on it. This T-shirt has been demoted in its position.
You can see that it’s age- worn, if you came and looked at it, you can-- Well, you can see it that it’s all scrunched up. It’s no longer ironed. It’s occasionally worn, and then only for times when it doesn’t really matter if it gets spoiled. This T-shirt has seen better days. I much prefer other T-shirts now, and I have learned that other items of clothing can supersede my once cherished T-shirt. I wonder whether this T-shirt stands a lot for what Paul speaks about here in Ephesians chapter four. “This,” he says, “Is what you once were but, since Jesus, you have been fresh and clean.” It’s not just that the T-shirt has been through the wash, the T-shirt has been replaced, upgraded, and replenished for something better.
As followers of Jesus, Paul is saying, there needs to be a turnaround in their behaviour. Because once they have recognized the significance of the resurrection of Jesus as Messiah, so their attitudes towards themselves and to one another, also has to alter. This insistence is not just because Paul thinks that it’s a better way, although arguably, obviously, living with Jesus and for Jesus is, but he writes because he knows the church in Ephesus. He spent three years there previously, and he knows what a struggle it can be to be a faithful follower of Jesus, and for a raft of reasons for the Ephesians. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city, having had a quarter of million people, or a third of a million people living there.
The great Temple of Artemis, otherwise known as Diana, was so big that it had the reputation of being one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.
That, as well as other temples of other various Greek goddesses, made it a place of vice and prostitution, so being on the edge of a river, also on the coast of Western Turkey, across the sea, to the Mediterranean-- From the Mediterranean, made this a very successful city to be. All of this made Ephesus rich and diverse. It was made more so by the Romans when they made it the fourth largest city. Indeed, it seems from Paul’s letter, that there were problems in the community of faith, perhaps partly because people were attracted by this promiscuous activity in the city. Partly because there may have been divisions in the church. Partly because there were arguments in the church about whether people had to become Jews before they had to become Christians. Certainly, because there were relationship issues, which were not becoming towards a Christian way of life. It seems that Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus to remind them of their newness in Christ Jesus.
It seems that he is hoping to repair relationships by pointing out that each member of the congregation has his own responsibilities to one another, to keep the unity of the Spirit by the bond of peace. It seems to me that Paul was writing to a church that he knew, that he loved, reminding them of some basic Christian doctrines of kindness, good conduct, and all that came with making a clean break from former lives. Our series on how God sees us takes a different gear today. We have been reminded over the recent weeks of how the death and resurrection of Jesus informs how God sees us. We looked at the importance last week of how good it is to have a loving Father God in our lives. We considered how it is that we are blessed by having a visible form of salvation in the life and work of Jesus Christ, and this underpinned stuff about our faith.
As we begin to draw our series to a close over the next few weeks, we begin to look at how one thing might actually mean something else, so today we look at how something old can become something new. Just like this favourite old T-shirt of mine was once my pride to wear, is now just become almost obsolete. Just good enough for painting in and just good enough for the gardening. Just like that old T-shirt, it needs replacing with something new. Perhaps for ourselves, there is a reminder that Jesus is in the process of making us new. That he delights in taking the old rags and producing something brand new, quite new from them. Paul writes to the congregation in Ephesus, firstly to remind them that they are holy. That’s what it says in the introduction in Ephesians chapter one, “To God’s holy people in Ephesus.” Straight off there’s that reminder that they are to be different. Set apart. In the same sentence, he calls them faithful in Christ Jesus, so twice right at the beginning of this letter. There is a focus on reminding the listeners and the readers to his letter, who they exactly are. They are holy, they are different. They are faithful followers of Christ. He knows the social situation in which the church is set. He knows how hard life can be with the equivalent of bright lights and temptations of the world, so his letter continues that they are blessed with every spiritual blessing. He talks about how Jesus had brought them at a price and he explains about the riches of God’s grace that he has lavished upon them. We looked at the word “lavish” last week, though the translation this time means to have an abundance of one degree of excess to another degree of excess. Paul reminds the readers and the listeners of his letter that God’s grace is so extravagant, and those riches of forgiveness of sin and restoration of relationship are ours.
Right from the off, Paul is keen to stress the importance of the newness of life in Christ. His faithfulness, his holiness, which as children of God, we now inherit, and we are expected to live by. He compares the sorts of behaviours that the Gentiles take part in. Every kind of impurity, as the NIV puts it, to those of the believers who have chosen the way of Jesus, so there seems an expectation that their standards be different. Holy and set apart. Everyone had learned about Jesus in one way or another. Everyone had been taught about him, and somehow their moral life meant to change. Not only was Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, but he had another way of living, and this was as a new creation. The old creation seems to be a very long list here in Ephesians chapter four. Darkened understanding, licentiousness, greedy practice of every kind of impurity, being deluded and corrupt, lustful, angry, bitter, thieving, unwholesome talk, bitterness, rough wranglings, slander, malice. Reminds me of when I worked in a school. [laughter] That was just some of the teachers. Also, when I was thinking about some of the young people that would swear towards one another. I would ask them not to say those words because they hurt my ears. That’s what I said, “You’re hurting my ears.” They will just be so unhelpful, and harsh, and unforgiving at times. Although, those words that I would hear in school were probably worse for those words that were received by the person they were aimed at. They would’ve gone deeper. Those hurtful tones, those hurtful words and actions will have become internalized so that after awhile, perhaps some of those young people might believe those untrue, rude, unhelpful lies. Those lies might then become weapons to keep themselves from believing in themselves. As an onlooker, I could see the hope draining from those lives because of how words and actions on one another harms somebody else’s soul.
As Paul writes here, sometimes just a word in season, perhaps a little challenge to not say things or perform such actions without thinking needed addressing. This, Paul explains, is the old way of living, but no longer. A new hopeful and transformed way of life is required. Although Paul does not often seem to teach Christian beliefs or doctrine, here, he does. He seems strong on reminding the faithful that even though he is no longer with them, they should behave appropriately. They have taken off the old T-shirt and have been given something new.
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, there’s a similar teaching about old and new. A reminder to the faithful in Corinth that if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come. This is the gift of God, who has restored us and brought us into a healthy relationship with him.
In a different context, Jesus Himself taught about the facts that his kingdom was something new. He used the analogy of old wine in new wineskins. They would burst the container if old wine was put in a new wineskin. In doing this, he suggested that new wine and new wineskins were needed. The old has gone, the new has come. All the old stuff Paul is saying has to go.
Romans 12 begins this way, too. Following the theological depth of Romans chapters 1 to 11, Paul gets onto the, ‘So what?’ He gets onto the practical issue of faith where he addresses the Romans similarly. He says, “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The message of Jesus and the message of Paul converge at times. Yes, Paul says it’s about Christ crucified, but in its daily outworking. It matters because of the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat one another. That’s the ‘so what’s in the Bible in short, how we treat one another, how we treat ourselves. The renewing and transformation which Paul talks about in Romans 12 is precisely the new self which he is teaching to the Ephesians.
Transformation is precisely what Jesus was getting at when he was preaching the good news at the Kingdom of God. It’s a new way. Not a new place, but a new way here and now of being, of treating ourselves, and one another. It’s nothing really to do with the following of rules and regulations because that’s what people had been doing for centuries. The new wineskins cannot hold old wine. It needs to be a whole new way of thinking. The old law has come in its fulfilment in Jesus, the Messiah.
Paul goes a step further to say that the law is at an end. Well, that means for you and for me is that any guilt of religious legalism should not be entertained. All of the, “I should’ve done that, I must’ve done that, I could’ve done that.” is done away with. A few years ago, I was working with a vicar in the Isle of Sheppey. Just in conversation, I think I said something like, “I should’ve done whatever that should’ve done was.” Almost immediately, she retorted, “Well, who said you had to? Who said you must? Who said you should have to?”
For me, it was one of those moments where I thought, “Yea, maybe she’s got a point.” Why do I beat myself up over the things that I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done? Because we all have tapes in our heads that tell us what we should do or must do, but just because we should do them or must do them, just because our heads tell us, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to.
I know I’ve said it before in this series, but it’s worth repeating. How we see ourselves is not the same as how God sees us. If only I could grasp a little much more of how God loves me and cares about me, perhaps my mental health or the way I see myself or the way I see or treat other people or even myself might be just a smidge more in line with the way that God sees me, as his precious created and beloved child.
All of this, all of this means that I am free to take part in the more positive words that Paul teaches and reminds us of here in Ephesians chapter four. As people who have put on a new life, let us then receive and act upon the opposite of that negative list. Let’s look at the way of Jesus which includes different and new behaviours of the new self such that we become the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness, that we speak truth, that we do not let the sun go down on our anger, that we are honest with what we give. When we speak, our words build up and not cast down. That people who hear our gracious words may believe them. That the way that we say things may be tender-hearted. What a beautiful word that is. Right at the end of this list comes the compassionate and hard act of forgiveness.
Just to add to the cream on the cake of new life, Paul reminds us to be imitators of God as beloved children and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. Gracious, kind, tender-hearted, forgiving and loving. These are the marks of the cross. These are our sacrificial acts of love to one another and back to God. God sees us through the lens of Jesus, the one who begged those who crucified Him to forgive them. The one who blessed children and came to heal the sick and the outcast and the browbeaten. The one who came to serve and not to be served. God sees us as he sees his son, as true children of God. This is the life that we now live. Let’s live this life of love knowing that we no longer live under a curse of sin or religious legalism. Put on the new life, the life that Jesus shares with you, and in you by His Holy Spirit. Maybe for me, it’s time to throw away this old T-shirt, because there’s no need to return to it now.
Shall we pray?
Lord God, we thank you that we have seen and noticed that there is a changing from one to another, from the old to the new. Father God, I pray that you would help each one of us to remain convicted and convinced in our life and our actions, that we are new creations, that the old has gone and that the new has come. Would you please help us to be assured of our newness in Christ as we walk out this life? In Jesus’ name, I pray. A men.
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Scripture quotations marked NRSVA on this page and in the audio are fro the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.