Children of Love and Light: Ephesians 5.1-14

I started the recent study here of Ephesians 4.25-5.2 by saying that crossing from the first half of Ephesians 4 to the rest of chapters 4-5 feels like dropping from heaven to earth. In place of grand spiritual theology calling us to the fullest heights of the human experience, we have lists commandments and prohibitions. This is particularly true of today’s passage, which uses harsh and shaming language to describe the behaviours the author does not think are acceptable among Christians. Our difficult task today is how to make this passage speak meaningfully, without either minimizing its message or perpetuating some of the bad fruit such language can easily produce. But I trust that today we will be able to do just this, particularly by ensuring this series of prohibitions and injunctions is interpreted in the context of what Paul has been saying in the book thus far.

First, here’s the text itself:

(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. (5.3) But as for sexual greed and any other kind of unclean behavior or excess — let that not even be named among you, as befits saints. Likewise, nasty or silly talk, and biting humour are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. (5) For know this: everyone who misuses their sexuality, or who engages in unclean behavior, or who is greedy is an idolater and has no share in the Kingdom of Christ and of God. (6) Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words, for it is because of such things that God’s wrath is coming upon the children of faithlessness. (7) So then, do not join in with them; (8) for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord: So walk as children of light — (9) for the fruit of the light is in anything that is good, just, and true — (10) discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. (11) Again, don’t take part in darkness’ unfruitful works, but rather expose them, (12) for the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention; (13) but everything exposed by the light will shine out, (14) for everything that shines is light, as it says: “Wake, sleeper, and rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

I’ve repeated 5.1-2, the exhortation to imitate God’s love which ended the last section, because it serves as a bridge between the two sections of the text. It fits just as well as a capstone on the section on building up the body as it does as a context-setting introduction for this section. Here the application of Paul’s theology of the transformation of the human person and community is expressed in a series of injunctions about sexuality, general immorality, excess, and ways of speaking. Echoing a common Biblical theme, the text urges readers to avoid behaviours they are only interested in doing in secret, because God is light and light reveals what is hidden in darkness.

Today’s post will be guided by the following questions:

  • Is there anything in the structure of the argument that can help us understand the key point Paul is trying to make with this list of instructions?
  • How do the rules Paul provides here connect to the theme of the imitation of Christ with which the passage starts?
  • How might Paul’s comfort with the popular understandings of vice and virtue of his day impact our reading of this text?
  • What does the shift to the metaphor of darkness and light contribute to the argument?
  • How should we interpret the injunctions against not joining or sharing with those who continue to live in sin?

Structural Considerations

As already noted 5.1-2 functions as a bridge between this text and the preceding section, such that neither feels complete without them. Today’s text is also connected to earlier portions of the letter through the repeated command to ‘walk’ (the Semitic expression meaning ‘live or go about one’s business’) in 5.2 and 5.8, which we also saw in 2.2, 2.10, 4.1, and 4.17. This means that this section is just one piece of a lengthy argument and so we cannot interpret the moral code in this section without thinking of the book’s entire argument structure. To remind ourselves:

  • 2.2: The readers are reminded that they ‘once walked’ according to the ways of this world, but are now ‘in Christ’
  • 2.10: God created us ‘for good works’, that we might ‘walk in them’
  • 4.1: The overarching exhortation to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the calling’ of Christ (cf. 2.10)
  • 4.17: The exhortation to stop ‘walking as the Gentiles walk’ (cf. 2.2)

And now here:

  • 5.2: The exhortation to ‘walk in love’
  • 5.8: The exhortation to ‘walk as children of the light’

So, throughout Ephesians there is a consistent perspective of living one’s faith out in a way that looks very differently from the way of life readers had before their conversion. The overarching command to walk in a manner worthy of Christ’s calling is explained in today’s section through the metaphors of walking in love and walking as light.

A second structural consideration is noted by Clinton E. Arnold,* who helpfully identifies a chiastic structure to verses 7-11. We’ll look more at this chiasmus below, but for now it will suffice to note that it marks these verses as a distinct unit and effectively breaks 5.1-14 in to three parts:

  • 5.1-6: Love vs. Lust
  • 5.7-11: Children of Light
  • 5.12-14: Light Exposing What is Hidden

Breaking down the text in this way, we start to see the shape of what Paul is doing. Instead of being simply a list of rules, we have a commentary on imitating God through ‘walking’ in love, walking in (or as) light, and light revealing what is hidden in darkness.

The Moral Code and the Imitation of Christ

5.1-6 focuses on the imitation of God’s love, and the avoidance of behaviours the author believes run counter to that love. These include sexual immorality (porneia, which in Hellenistic Jewish texts is a broad category that Paul here leaves undefined), general immorality (‘unclean behaviour’), and excess (pleonexia). Both of these last terms were also used in 4.19. We’ll look more at the importance of excess below, but for now let’s look at how these things might connect to the imitation of Christ’s love commanded in 5.1-2. As we’ve seen love is always focused outside of the self and the care and building up of others. By contrast, the vices listed here are self-focused, all about the gratification of immediate desires and passing whims. Such self-centered devotion to immediate gratification is the opposite of God’s love revealed in the humble, self-transcending way of Jesus. Likewise, the injunction against various forms of unhelpful speech is probably best understood in this context: Love builds up; it is concerned with providing others with what they need. Nasty, foolish, and sarcastically witty talk does not help to create the holy community we are called to cultivate. And this is especially true of false teaching, which Paul also warns against in this section; remember that as far as Jesus is concerned, true teaching is that which produces good fruit in people’s lives; it therefore fits the theme of edifying love; and by avoiding bad teaching, we avoid its bad fruit.

The Moral Code in light of Hellenistic and Roman Thought

In my most recent post, I explored how the ways Paul talks about sin in Ephesians connect with contemporary Jewish and pagan philosophical thought. There we saw that Paul was conversant with and happy to perpetuate the common way people in the first century thought about vice and virtue: that vice, or sin, is caused by a loss of control over one’s natural drives and appetites, leading to excess.

Understanding Paul’s comfort with the common language and understanding of moral philosophy of his time provides helpful context for his moral and ethical teaching here.

While certainly not limited to any one school of thought, imitation (5.1) was a common theme in ancient moral discourse. For example, as reported by the third-century historian Diogenes Laertius, a statue of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, bore an inscription that he “afford[ed] to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching” (7.11). Here, Paul insists that the faithful imitate God, as revealed in the man Jesus.

But we start to see the real benefit of understanding how Paul fits in with contemporary moral thought in 5.3. Here, we have sexual immorality (porneia) and ‘unclean’ behavior overtly linked with excess (pleonexia), just as ‘unclean’ acts and a lack of restraint (aselgeia) were in 4.19. In a sense, ‘sin’ can be defined by excess: sin is succumbing to the urge for more in any area of life.

The connection of excess with sexual immorality deserves particular comment here. There is no question that our culture — conservative and liberal alike — is obsessed with sex. It’s almost impossible for English speakers to talk about sin or vice because sexuality tends to bleed into all of our vocabulary. But, sexual vice was not conceived of as a separate, and certainly not as a ‘worse’, category of vice in the ancient world, early Christianity included. Like everything else, it was understood to be about a lack of restraint and excess in the exercise of a natural capacity and drive. So, for example, if we look at the thought of Stoic writer Dio Chrysostom, who was a younger contemporary of Paul, we find him writing about same-sex sexual encounters along precisely this line: “The man whose appetite is insatiate in [sex with women] … will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love … and will turn his assault against the male quarters” (Discourses 7). (As it happens, this is almost precisely Paul’s explanation for this phenomenon in Romans 1.24-27. This doesn’t in and of itself speak to the accuracy of Paul’s thought, one way or the other; it’s simply to demonstrate that Paul us working within the same general understanding of moral philosophy that was common in his time.) This whole line of argumentation is part of why I don’t think it’s helpful for us to try to define what ‘counts’ as sexual immorality and what is ‘okay’. We already saw in 4.17-19 that Paul is less concerned with specific ‘sins’ than he is with ‘sin’ as a disposition of the mind and heart oriented away from God. And here once again, we see sin, sexual sin included, as a kind of loss of control leading to excess. The problem with trying to define what ‘counts’ is that no matter how we define it, it’s going to be arbitrary and still subject to the principles of sin Paul talks about. Even taking the most conservative approach, say, that only vaginal intercourse within marriage for the purpose of reproduction is allowed, that could still be subject to the same loss of control and excess as anything else. It seems to me that while we absolutely need to be careful about sex, because that drive is so strong and so liable to the kind of excess Paul is talking about, the questions we should be asking are not about ‘what’ or ‘how’ but about ‘who’ and especially ‘why’.

Moving on, understanding sin or vice in terms of excess is also helpful in understanding the comment in 5.4 about needing to avoid “nasty or silly talk and biting humour.” What I’ve translated as ‘biting humour’ is eutrapelia (‘wit’), which in both Jewish and pagan thought, was generally understood to be a virtue to be cultivated, rather than a vice to be avoided. But, like any virtue, it can be twisted and become problematic if taken too far. And it would seem that’s what Paul is getting at here, especially when combined with ‘nastiness’ and ‘foolish talk’.

We’ve already seen how 5.4-5 connects sin, understood as a lack of control over one’s natural appetites, with idolatry, in agreement with contemporary Jewish thought. Abandoning oneself to the pursuit of the passions means that they have displaced God at the centre of one’s life and is therefore idolatrous.

Finally, 5.10 also participates in common ethical thought, when it urges readers to discern (dokimazontes, ‘test out, experiment, examine the fitness of’) the proper course of action. In Greek thought, this discernment was the primary function of the nous (‘mind’, ‘understanding’, ‘organ of perception’), the faculty which Paul has earlier said is in normal human life ‘ineffective’ or ‘empty’, but is ‘renewed’ by the Holy Spirit (4.23), restoring it to its full capacity and effectiveness. Paul spent a good portion of the first half Ephesians talking about the spiritual power Christians have been given: Here, this power is demonstrated in the form of the Holy Spirit short-circuiting the faulty settings on which the human mind operates and, essentially, resetting it to its original settings. And this is where Paul’s thought distinguishes itself from contemporary thought and puts a decidedly Christian stamp on things. Philosophy was about how to manage life with a distorted nous; Paul claims his Gospel restores it and heals it.

Darkness and Light

Ultimately, Paul isn’t that interested in sin. (That’s why I think he’s so content to traffic in the ways people of his time talked about vice; it wasn’t really his concern, so he felt no need to think too much about it or develop an intentionally ‘Christian’ perspective.) What really interests him, and what should interest us, is holiness, the ‘new life’ in Christ. Here this new life is described as light, as contrasted with the darkness, a theme that dominates 5.7-14.

Once again, Paul returns to the idea of ‘two spheres’, using simplified language of dichotomies to emphasize the contrast between the life his readers lived before they came to faith in (faithfulness to) Jesus, and the life they are called to live now. He’s already done this with death and life (2.1-10), foreigners and citizens (2.11-19), and ‘old’ and ‘new’ life (4.17-24). Here, darkness, with its connotations of not only immorality but also secrecy, is contrasted with light, not just understood as goodness, but also as revelatory.

The way Paul introduces this contrast, however, is a bit startling. He doesn’t tell them to “walk in light” or call them “enlightened”; he tells them they are light. Light has come to define them. This is a striking way of speaking, but also has strong connections to the life and teaching of Jesus, particularly as reported by John. In 1 John 1.5, it says that “God is Light.” In his Gospel, John calls Jesus the “Light that shines in darkness” (1.4-8, echoing Isaiah 9.2) and has Jesus call himself “the Light of the world,” who will be present with those who follow him (John 8.12). In a wonderful biblical example of the participatory theology that holds that “we become by grace all that Christ is by nature,” Matthew’s Gospel likewise calls Jesus’ followers “the light of the world” (5.14). So Paul is not going ‘off-script’ by calling his readers “light” here. But it is definitely a striking departure from how he’s been speaking so far in this letter.

The fruit of living the life of light is here defined in terms of goodness, justice, and truth, and an ability to properly discern what is pleasing to God. But beyond this sort of virtue ethics, Paul also associates light here with its revelatory properties. The faithful are to “expose” what happens in the darkness, just as light always reveals what the dark hides and makes everything it shines upon bright. The theme is summarized at the end of today’s text with what is almost certainly an early Christian baptismal hymn: “Wake, sleeper, and rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Once again we have that same participation theology: Christ is light and shines on us who are ‘in him’ and then we in turn shine light on the world.

Christian Separatism?

The section from 5.7-11, which we’ve already seen constitutes a distinct poetic and rhetorical unit within the text, contains two instructions that have been used to justify various forms of Christian separatism, including both withdrawal from the world and the shunning of those perceived to be ‘sinners’.

What should we make of this?

First, let’s look at the verses in question within the chiastic structure:

A (7) So then, do not join in with them;
     B (8) for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord:
          C So walk as children of light —
     B’ (9) for the fruit of the light is in anything that is good, just, and true — (10) discerning what is
pleasing to the Lord.
A’ (11) Again, don’t take part in darkness’ unfruitful works, but rather expose them…

As a reminder, chiasmus is a poetic structure that puts the most important material at the center, with the rest of the material deployed in a symmetrical fashion before and after. Here, then, the most important thing in this section for Paul is the injunction to walk, or live, as ‘children of the light’. By extension, this means that the injunctions about ‘not sharing’, which are on the outside of the chiasmus are less important. They are not the main point of the passage, nor are they on equal footing with the central statement; they are means to the end of walking as light.

The question of Christian separation comes into even greater focus if we understand the whole section as stemming from the command to imitate God, as specifically revealed in Christ’s love (5.1-2). Far from avoiding ‘sinners’, Jesus delighted in not only talking to them but also sharing hospitality with them. His refusal to avoid those considered ‘unclean’ was one of the major sources of conflict between Jesus as the religious authorities. In light of this, it would be bizarre to interpret these verse here as Paul telling us to imitate Christ but then in the next thought urge us to take the exact opposite approach as Christ took. But, while Jesus happily kept company with ‘tax collectors and sinners’, he did not copy their behaviour. And I think that’s the best — the most faithful — way of applying these verses today. There may indeed be times when we may need to avoid certain people in order to avoid their behaviour, but if we really want to follow Jesus’ example — and in so doing, obey Paul’s command here — that should not be our first or even second strategy at managing the situation.

Summary and Assessment

At first glance, Ephesians 5.1-14 comes across as legalistic and judgmental. But, as I hope today’s study has shown, the focus is not on the specific sins Paul wants Christians to avoid, but on the positive virtues and images he wants his readers to embody, specifically love and light, in imitation of Christ. This is important because Christianity has often fallen — and continues to fall — into a legalism that does not resemble Jesus’ teaching and way of life at all. The Gospel certainly expects an inner transformation that results in outward changes, but it is not about behaviour control. Rather than think about specific sins, we would do well to think as Paul does — and as Jesus does — and reflect on sin primarily as a disposition of the heart, the insensitivity of our ability to perceive the world as it really is in God’s eyes. For those of us who are ‘in Christ’, the focus should be on living the new life that is marked by love, which turns us away from ourselves and towards the world and its needs, and light, which reveals what is hidden by the darkness — most especially the darkness within us.

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