Old and New: Ephesians 4.17-24

There’s an ancient and ongoing debate — in religion, philosophy, and culture — about the possibility of personal change. Is real change possible? Or are we always going to be more-or-less the same and any apparent changes merely superficial? Paul is squarely on the side believing that change and even genuine transformation is possible. In fact, he believes the transformation that occurs when one comes to faith in Jesus is so great that he considers it to be a new life altogether. This idea, like similar biblical dichotomies between two paths, two kingdoms, or two spheres of influence, allows for easy contrasts; it is therefore a helpful teaching image. And yet, it also has a way of oversimplifying the lived reality of things. We see both the beauty and potential ugliness of this rhetorical device on full display in the passage we’ll be studying today, Ephesians 4.17-24.

Here is the text:

(4.17) Therefore, I tell you this — it is my witness in the Lord: That you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the ineffectiveness of their minds, (18) with their intellect in darkness, apart from the life of God, through ignorance that is in them because of the hardness of their hearts. (19) In their numbness, they have handed themselves over to a life without restraint, leading to all sorts of ‘unclean’ actions in their quest for ‘more’. (20) This is not how you learned Christ! (21) Surely you heard about him and have been taught in him, as truth is in Jesus: (22) to set aside the person you once where in your old way of life, ruined by its deceitful appetites; but instead (23) to be renewed of mind in the Spirit (24) and to clothe yourself with the new person, created like God for justice and the holiness of truth.

The contrast Paul is making here is clear: He expects that his Gentile Christian readers — the very group for whose rights and inclusion into the Church he has been advocating throughout his ministry — will no longer think and act according to the normal pattern of their society. It’s as simple, he says, as taking off one uniform and putting on a new one. Put on the ‘new person’, and live a new life. From identity, he argues, flows behaviour.

But questions abound here, questions that will guide today’s study:

  • What are the contrasts Paul develops here between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ life?
  • Does this fully represent his feelings about Gentile culture?
  • What does this section add to the book’s argument?

Old and New Life

The type of contrast between the old and new life Paul is making here is one of the main rhetorical devices he uses in Ephesians. Chapter 2 trafficked heavily in this sort of rhetoric, contrasting his readers’ former state as being “dead in transgressions” (2.1) and as foreigners to God’s people (2.11-12 and 19), and their new state as being “brought back to life” (2.5) and full members of God’s people (2.13, 19). Here in chapter 4, Paul uses a few images to contrast what he calls “the old person” and the new. (As it happens, he will return to this device in 5.8, where he calls the former state “darkness” and the new state “light.”)

I don’t want to go into too much detail here (for reasons that will be made clear below), but according to Paul’s argument, the old, Gentile, life is marked by:

  • an inability to properly understand the world (the nous, the discerning or understanding faculty is mataios, ‘ineffective, purposeless’)
  • an inability to think and plan well and reach the potential of those capacities (the dianoia, the capacity to develop and act on purpose, is darkened)
  • alienation from God (cf. chapter 2)
  • an ignorance born not from a lack of information but from their refusal to investigate. Their hearts were hard to God and to truth.
  • numbness or insensitivity to the world around them
  • unrestrained actions, which end up being sinful (’unclean’) because they are motivated by the impulse to ‘more-ness’ (pleonexia)
  • destruction by deceitful appetites (epithymias tes apates, ‘appetites of trickery’)

As Klyne Snodgrass rightly points out, “Paul’s primary concern is not with a list of specific sins, but with a distortion and disorientation of the mind.”* And, “Sins are not the cause of the problem, but the result…” It is a state Martin Luther famously called homo incurvatus — “the human turned in on itself,” for whom the subjective and narrow world of the body’s drives, impulses, and appetites has taken charge. And since, even from a physiological point of view, the law of ‘hedonic adaptation’ (in which our bodies get used to certain amounts of pleasure, meaning we have to get more and more stimulus in order to experience the same pleasure rush) means that this state locks us in a never-ending cycle of ‘more’: more food, more things, more security, more sex, more money, more power, more highs, more privilege. As far as Paul is concerned, this is what human life looks like left to our own devices, apart from God. And if we look at the world around us, inside the Church as surely as outside of it, it’s hard to argue with his main point, even if we may not entirely like the extreme language he uses to describe it.

This old life is contrasted with the new life, ‘in Christ’. Just as he used common Jewish stereotypes of Gentile life in the previous section, here too he uses ‘boilerplate’ material, though here the material is decidedly Christian (and perhaps Pauline) in origin. The similarities among Ephesians 4.22-24, Colossians 3.9-11, Romans 6.3,6 and 13.14, 1 Corinthians 12.13, and Galatians 3.26-28 are so strong that it is generally assumed these texts adapt a prayer from an early baptismal liturgy. The markers of the new life stand in stark relief from the old: Rather than being left to our own devices, we are instructed by the example and teachings of Jesus. Rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by our passing whims and appetites, our understanding (nous) is renewed, allowing us to properly see the world, including those appetites, as it is, through God’s eyes and our deepest and best selves. To again quote Snodgrass: “Conversion is a renunciation of a self-centered identity in favor of a Christ-defined identity.”In so doing, the likeness of God is recreated within us, allowing us to live just and holy lives, grounded in truth and reality instead of our own narrow and distorted perspectives. This changes our relationship to our desires, allowing us to discern which should be followed and how.

Like the Gentiles?

Paul introduces his assessment of the ‘old life’ by equating it with Gentile life. This way of speaking about entire groups of people does not sit well in our public discourse today, increasingly concerned as we are with not engaging in stereotypes and allowing individuals and communities to define themselves, rather than being defined by the outside, by the standards of those who generally have far more power than they do. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza explains this concern well in terms of ‘othering’:

“Otherness” is what is alien and divergent from what is supposedly “given”: norm, identity, self. The characterization of the Gentiles as unclean, lascivious, and ignorant, or characterized by vanity of mind, is a dangerous case of “othering.”Where such “othering” language occurs within Scripture it needs to carry the warning label: “Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival!”

Some might argue that this concern is nothing but a capitulation to “political correctness,” but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. It comes down to different perspectives on how we handle Scripture. To some it’s as simple as “it says what it says and what it says is true,” end of story. But considering we have two thousand years of Christian history to look back on and are able to see the very real dangers of certain ways of reading Scripture, that line of thinking seems irresponsible to me. As I point out time and time again, Jesus himself said that the “The tree is judged by its fruit” — True teaching is discerned by the quality of its impacts on the world. So, it is a profoundly Christian act to insist that we have responsibility for how our understanding of Scripture impacts others. This isn’t about challenging the authority of Scripture, but about challenging our interpretation and application of it and ensuring as much as possible that these live up to Christ’s standards.

In light of this, it seems important to ask if the assessment presented here is how Paul really feels about Gentile culture. A few things are important to consider:

  1. Paul is writing to a predominantly Gentile audience, all of whom have had an experience of conversion that leads him to think that they will agree with his assessment of the world at large.
  2. Paul devoted his life to the inclusion of the Gentiles within the community of faith — without having to be assimilated into Jewish culture and lifestyles — so we cannot say he has any sort of essential contempt for them as people.
  3. What we translate as ‘Gentile’ is, in Greek, “the nations.” It is not really referring to a specific group, but, really, to humanity writ large: living ‘like the Gentiles’ is the default setting for all of us, no matter who we are, or what our culture of origin may be.
  4. Related to this, the call to live not like other nations is foundational to Jewish, and therefore Christian, sacred history. As the story goes, one people was chosen out of all the nations of the world, to bear unique witness to God’s ways. Paul’s commands here follow that ancient line of thought, but are actually more inclusive, since they also apply to non-Jews who are welcomed into the holy community through their faithfulness to Jesus.
  5. In contrast to the stereotypes here, Paul takes a more positive approach to Gentile cultures elsewhere. In Acts 17.22-31, for example, Paul praises a group of Athenians for their piety and religious humility and quotes a poem that, while of uncertain origin, represents the sensibilities of Stoicism (a philosophical school that would later have a tremendous impact on Christian thought). Similarly, in Romans 2.14-15, Paul writes positively about Gentiles doing what the Law requires without having read it. So despite what Paul writes here, he does not actually think that life outside the community faith is total ignorance and futility.
  6. As we will see in a future post, Paul was comfortable with Gentile philosophical understandings of how vice and virtue worked. While there is no evidence to suggest he belonged to any one school or another, it is clear he had at least ingested and was happy to perpetuate their ideas that had become mainstream.
  7. This description of Gentile life here is not unique and in fact seems to draw from a standard trope of Jewish literature of the time, found elsewhere in Wisdom 12-15, the Dead Sea Scroll manuscript known as 1QS 3-4, and Romans 1.18-32. This appears then to be ‘boilerplate’ material, standard language used and re-used in certain contexts for certain purposes (such as contracts, legal documents, copyright notices, etc.). In the ancient world as today, it is common for such language to be used to develop rhetorical foils. The very familiarity of the language is part of what makes it effective in developing the desired contrast.

With all this in mind it seems best to understand Paul’s stereotyping of the ‘Gentile lifestyle’, so to speak, as a rhetorical device rather than a full and complete expression of his opinion of Gentile culture. His point is not to spark or perpetuate hatred of Gentiles, but to heighten the contrast between the dominant way society works (every society, including ours!) and the life in Christ. And in writing as he does, Paul is essentially admitting that this ‘old’ way of life is still alive and well in the ‘new’ lives of his readers. It is not a question of us-and-them but one of us-and-us. (For more on this important topic, see the assessment section of the post on Ephesians 2.1-10.)

Summary and Assessment

To help understand the contributions of Ephesians 4.17-24, it’s helpful to see how this text fits into Ephesians as a whole. We’ve already seen how the old/new contrast returns to the ‘formerly’/’but now…’ contrasts of chapter 2. There, the focus was on how Gentile Christians were able to enter as full members of the body politic of Israel. Here, these same Christians are encouraged to ensure they have broken from those easy and well-worn ways they were used to and are instead drawing their identity and values from Jesus.

This common identity in Christ is the source of the unity to which they were exhorted in 4.1-6 and to which their diverse gifts are to contribute in 4.7-16. As they live out this new way of being in community, their lives will look less and less like those of the culture around them and more and more like Christ’s own way of being. This contrast sets up the rest of the book. Several of the commentators go so far as to call Ephesians 4.25-6.20 a commentary and expansion on 4.17-24.

As long as we understand Paul’s discussion in this section as a rhetorical device designed to heighten the contrast he intends between the old and new ways of life, rather than as derogatory comments about those outside of the community of faith, it doesn’t require much comment. What is really important is not the old life, which we’re called to leave behind anyway, but the new: that life that is defined by learning and living out the way of Jesus in all things.

8 thoughts on “Old and New: Ephesians 4.17-24

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