As we’ve seen the past couple weeks, the first twenty-four verses of Ephesians 4 offer a glimpse at just how grand Paul’s vision for the Christian life is: It is nothing less than growing into the fullness of Jesus Christ, who is the perfect exemplar of human life. The possibility of such a life is open to us through God’s generosity, mercy, and love, which reached its fullest manifestation in the life and death of Jesus. Living in this way is such a contrast to the normal ways of the world that Paul can call it a “new” life entirely. This is as big and lofty as Christian spirituality gets. It’s no surprise then that, following these heights, the next section of Ephesians, which covers the rest of chapters 4.25-6.9, feels like a fall from grace. In them, Paul provides a list of commandments and prohibitions for how this ‘new’ life should be lived. Conversations about morality and standards of behaviour in community are always going to be less exciting than those about the grandeur of our salvation in Christ. But they are no less important for it. Ultimately, it’s not that there is a different theology at play here, but a practical application of that theology — something we will have to keep in mind as we read the next few sections of the letter
This contrast is on full display in the passage we’ll be studying today, Ephesians 4.25-5.2:
(25) So then, setting aside the lie, each of you, speak the truth to your neighbour, for we are each other’s limbs. (26) Grow angry but do not sin; may the sun not set on your anger, (27) lest you provide an opportunity for the Deceiver. (28) Thieves must no longer steal, but work hard, doing good with their own hands, so that they will have something to give to those in need. (29) Let no rotten talk leave your mouth, but only that which is good and useful for building other up, so that you might give grace to those who hear. (30) And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the Day of Redemption. (31) Bitterness, voluble temper, anger, screaming and slander — may all this be far from you, with every kind of evil. (32) Be good and useful to each other, compassionate, and gracious to one another, just as God was gracious to you in Christ.
(5.1) So then, be imitators of God, like the beloved children you are, (2) and walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and handed himself over on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God — a pleasing fragrance indeed.
Once again, the text calls back to the previous section: “So then” — in light of what’s been said about the unity among believers, the diversity of gifts for the building up of the body, and the new life (‘in Christ,’ empowered by the Holy Spirit, and in the likeness of God). Then Paul lists practical applications that show what this new life looks like: The life in Christ looks like truth-telling, like earning an honest living instead of stealing from others, like generously supporting those in need, like speaking words that build up others and the community instead of undermining them, and like working for each other’s advantage, without bitterness, tantrums, anger, yelling, or name-calling. We may indeed grow angry, Paul writes, but that is not an excuse to sin; we must keep faith with one another even when we’re upset.
But, despite appearances, this is not really a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’; it is a fleshing out of the way of Jesus, which is nothing less than the way of love. We are called to imitate God, just as children mimic their parents; since God is love, this will mean that we live in love, just as Jesus — who is the full and perfect revelation of God’s character — lived in love.
Today I’d like to look quickly at two questions:
- How does this list of moral instructions fit in the logic of the argument of the letter?
- How does the sacrificial imagery Paul uses at the start of chapter 5 connect to the theme?
Instructions for Building up the Body
Since the end of chapter 2, Paul has been playing with two dominant images, which he often mixes. By seeing how they are deployed here in 4.25-5.2, we can get a better sense of how this section fits into the larger argument.
First, there is the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ, which he first introduced in 1.23 and returned to in 2.16-19 (Christ unites Jews and Gentiles “in one body”), 3.6 (we are “members of the same body”), and especially in 4.12-16, where he states that the purpose of leadership is “for the building up of the body,” and that each part contributes its own energies to the wellbeing of the whole. This metaphor recurs at the start of today’s passage, where Paul justifies the injunction to speak the truth and avoid lies by saying “we are each other’s limbs” (often translated, ‘we are members of one another’). Without overtly using the body image, the same concern can be seen throughout the passage; stealing, for example, takes from one part of the body, hindering it from doing its job, and any body part with extra should distribute it to those parts who need it. And the image in 4.31 of people being at each other’s throats is hardly befitting the proper working of a healthy body; imagine if the left leg and right leg were working at cross purposes! 4.32 paints a far better picture of a well-functioning body, urging the different parts to be “useful” to each other (see below), compassionate, and gracious towards one another.
As a side note, most English translations have ‘forgive’ where I have ‘be gracious’; while forgiveness is certainly part of what’s in mind in mind, the Greek text has a form of charizomai, which is not the normal word for forgiving (aphiemi), and conveys a much broader sense than forgiveness: it is urging readers to respond to God’s openhearted disposition towards them (which we call ‘grace’, charis) by having that same disposition towards others.
The second major metaphor Ephesians has been using is of construction. Paul introduced this in 2.19-22, where Jews and Gentiles are described as being like stones knit and fashioned together into the Temple, the ‘house of God’. The image is hinted at in 3.17 (where Christ is said to “make a home” in their hearts), and recurs substantially in 4.12-16, where it occurs alongside the body metaphor to explain the purpose of leadership. We see it again in today’s passage in 4.29, where the faithful are urged to speak only what will “build up” the community.
So these two metaphors help to connect Paul’s argument here with the theology of the previous sections. But what is today’s text adding to the argument? I think the answer lies in the idea of ‘usefulness’, which appears three times in this text, though in ways hidden by the requirements of English translation.
The first place we see it is in the injunction against theft in 4.28, where the faithful are urged to give charitably “to one having need [chreia].” In the next verse, they are told to say “something good and useful as there is need [chreia],” which is then expanded as being about “giving grace to those who hear.” Finally, in 4.32, they are commanded to “be good and useful [chrestoi] to each other.” While not a particularly rare word root, it is striking that we have it three times in five verses here (and nowhere else in the book), and once in each of the three themes of the code, which we might classify as right action, right speech, and right disposition. In all of these, the proper, loving, conduct is understood in terms of providing what is lacking. To return to the two metaphors, we might think of the blood vessels providing oxygen to the rest of the body or the intestines providing nutrients other body parts need, or of a thick wall bearing the load so a room can be larger, or roof tiles keeping the insides of a house dry. There is a purpose for everything and that purpose is oriented towards the proper functioning of the rest of the system.
I’m reminded in this section of the famous words of Civil Rights activist Angela Davis “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” We might think of what Paul is saying here in the same terms: “In a sinful society, it is not enough not to be sinful, we must be anti-sinful.” Yes, we should avoid lies and slander, theft and fighting, but avoiding sins is not the point; the point is to create a community, and indeed world, that promotes the opposite qualities: truth and encouragement, generosity and cooperation. That is what is in mind.
Christ’s Sacrifice of Love
Today’s text ends with a sudden shift to sacrificial imagery. The faithful are commanded to imitate God by living (that ‘walking’ word again) in love. The example given of this love is Christ’s death, described as a sacrifice. This shift is striking, but not entirely surprising. The New Testament commonly connects love and sacrifice. Perhaps the passage most reminiscent of 5.1-2 is John 15.14, where Jesus himself says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the ethic Paul has in mind here.
The first connection between love and sacrifice in the text is that Jesus “handed himself over [paredoken] on our behalf.” This a common word, but it isn’t necessary here; I think Paul used it intentionally to call back to 4.19, where it says the Gentiles “have handed themselves [paredokan] over to a life without restraint, leading to all sorts of ‘unclean’ actions in their quest for ‘more’.” There’s a sense in Paul’s understanding that we consent to the life we live. We have a life that is ours but we have to direct it somewhere. The way of the world is to give ourselves over to the fleeting appetites of the body that confuse desire and need that always want ‘more’. Christ’s example, by contrast, is to give ourselves to and for others, ‘for the life of the world’ (John 6.33). This idea of consent is reinforced here by referring to Jesus’ sacrifice as an “offering.” Voluntarily giving over one’s life for the life of the world — that is “a pleasing fragrance” (using Old Testament sacrificial language) to God indeed.
(For a fuller exploration of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system and how the New Testament applies it to Jesus’ death, see my post, “A Survey of How the Bible Talks about Sacrifice.”)
Summary and Assessment
The argument of Ephesians 4.25-5.2 is that the Christian life is, we might say, about ‘body building.’ But the point is not for one or two body parts to grow strong at the expense of others (to grow huge bulky arms or chests, for example), but so that the whole body might be healthy, strong, and integrated. And this is a perfect image of love in community. So, at least in this part of the Ephesians morality code, we have an exposition of what it means to live Christ’s way of love. Love does not mislead, love does not take what is not one’s to have, love does not lash out in anger or tear down with words that ridicule and shame. Rather, love speaks and acts authentically, love cares about what is true, love gives generously, and love builds others up. This love is about an orientation to self-sacrifice, about giving oneself over for the good of others rather than one’s own desire for ‘more’.The ‘self’ part is important here; it is not an image of one person being sacrificed for the sake of others, but of a voluntary movement of humility and service.
Both the language of morality codes and of self-sacrifice is controversial today. All too often, Christianity has been reduced to lists of dos and don’ts and become ‘purity culture’, defined by externals rather than genuine transformation from the inside-out. Such ‘Christianity’ is no Christianity at all, for that is the opposite of Christ’s own teaching and example. We will have to look at this issue more closely in the following posts, but for now let’s simply remind ourselves of Ephesians’ own attitude as expressed in 4.17-19: Paul is less concerned there with particular sins than about the disposition of the heart from which sinful acts flow. We would do well to keep this in mind.
Likewise, the language of self-sacrifice is also controversial today, for, like so much of the language in Ephesians, it has often been abused, being unequally applied so that some groups — women, peasants, slaves, people of colour — have been commanded to humility and service of those in positions of power. In order to ensure that the example of Christ is not misused to reinforce inequitable structures that do not reflect God’s justice, we must insist in our understanding, preaching and teaching that this example be applied equally to everyone. The whole image depends on the idea that Christ’s service represents God’s own orientation of humility. It is an image of the powerful serving the weak and empowering them (us) for their (our) own service of others. In a sense, we could argue that proper Christian self-sacrifice is not a rejection of the self — for Christ always knew and understood his identity and value — but a transcendence of the self. Again, this is a theme to which this study of Ephesians will return, so I’ll leave that here for now.
One of my dad’s favorite expressions when I was growing up was “when the rubber meets the road…” You can understand physics all you want, you can make sure your tires have the right pressure and that your car is perfectly maintained, but the truth will come out only when the car leaves the garage and hits the road. Likewise, it’s far easier to have glorious theologies and powerful spiritualities of transformation than it is to actually live those out — especially in community. This is the point we’re at in Ephesians. We’ve talked a lot about some of the biggest ideas human religion and spirituality have ever come up with. But those ideas need to be lived if they are going to have any meaning or power. The text we’ve studied today, with its focus on behaviours that strengthen community life, is just the beginning of how Ephesians understands this.
(For more information, please see the bibliography for the series.)