Ephesians 4:17-32

Living a Holy Life

       American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright © 2011, J.W.  Carter.      Scripture quotes from KJV

Curetes Street, Ephesus. 
(Courtesy focusmm.com)

As we study Paul's letter to the Ephesians, we may find in many ways an image of our own selves.  It is a church that is trying to be holy in an unholy culture.  When the members of the Ephesian church would step outside of the doors of their meeting places, they would re-enter the sin-filled Greek society that celebrated godless self-indulgence and despised piety.  Their immersion in the same evil world of their upbringing created significant conflict in the church members.  Their hedonistic Greek upbringing was hard to shake off, and in an attempt to be accepted by both cultures, many Ephesian Christians compromised their faith by playing acceptable parts in both the Christian and Greek communities.

Paul wanted the Ephesian church to have a full understanding of what God's gospel of grace had done for them and to respond to that knowledge by obedience to God, resulting in a lifestyle that is consistent with the expressions of the Holy Spirit within them.

Many Christians today would agree that, if they take an honest look at their own life, they understand well the plight of the Ephesian church members.  Like them, the Christian church today is immersed in a godless self-indulgent culture that despises the self-sacrificing lifestyle of the faithful Christian.  Consequently, in order to be accepted by both cultures, many Christians fit into the secular society so well that their peers would be surprised to find out that they are faithful members of a Christian church.  It is not so much that today's church is serving God "under cover", but rather, the service of God is becoming more and more confined to the interior of the Christian community, and less and less expressed outside of it.

How can Christians demonstrate such an unholy lifestyle as a temple of the Holy Spirit?  Do we tune out the convicting groans of the Holy Spirit when we choose to ignore His truth?  Many of us are successful, then, of living in both worlds by compromising each one.  As Christians we do not fully engage ourselves in the godless secular culture.  As a member of the secular society, we bring so much of the world into our faith that our obedience to God is not where we know it should be.  We are convicted by the Holy Spirit to leave the old sinful lifestyle behind, but we choose not to give up totally the ways of this world.  What are we to do?

Ephesians 4:17. 

This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 

When Paul states, "and testify in the Lord," he is placing an insistent emphasis on what he is about to say.  What is so important that Paul would fashion his statement this way?  We see that Paul admonishes the Ephesian Christians to make a decision now.  He states that they would "henseforth," or "from this point on" lead a different lifestyle than that of the Greek culture within which they lived.  This statement implies immediate forgiveness for the transgressions of their past, as is fully consistent with the truth of the Gospel.  When we have sinned, God if faithful to forgive our sins when we confess them to Him and repent.  To repent means to personally take part in the process of forgiveness by turning away from the sin that has been forgiven.  When we seek forgiveness and refuse to repent, we are shaking our defiant fist at God, and will continue in the frustration of our apostasy.  Paul does not spend even a moment discussing this truth, as he assumes that they know the basics of the faith as he had taught them.  

Paul gives one description of the Gentile culture when he refers to the "vanity of their mind."  When we listen to the voices of this secular world, we will be told that the Christian faith is bad, and the secular humanism of our culture is good.  We should not be surprised that this is the identical philosophy that was prominent in ancient Greece, the most influential culture that Ephesus experienced at the time of this writing.  "Vanity" refers to the fruitlessness and powerlessness of an attitude or action.  The very pagan world that accuses the faithful of ignorance and intolerance are making such accusations from an intellectually vain foundation.  Though they consider themselves wise, they are truly the fools who are most to be pitied for, in their vehement rejection of Christ, there is no hope of their salvation.  Their arguments carry absolutely no authority for the Christian, yet we listen to their arguments and feel wounded.  This battle for the mind is not one that we will win, because the truth is on only one side of the conflict.  The mind of the world is in spiritual decay, not one that is appropriate for the Christian.  Christians are called to take on the "mind of Christ."

Ephesians 4:18.  

Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: 

Why is this pagan world so adamantly against the Christian message?  We often find that the politically active secularists are very accepting of almost all religions except Christianity.  The media has few controls against debasing Christ, the church, Christians, and Christian leaders, yet is extremely sensitive and tolerant of most other religious groups.  Paul states that the Gentiles' understanding of spiritual matters is "darkened."  Things of God sound like foolishness to those who lack the Holy Spirit to give them those things the full context of God's purpose.  It is a miracle that any person can be saved.  Yet, somehow, each Christian has heard the truth and surrendered to the Spirit of God so that the fullness of the truth could be heard, and responded to.  Paul clearly states that these Gentiles who are demonstrating such an unholy lifestyle simply do not understand the truth that will make them free.

What is the basis of the rejection of the Holy Spirit by this lost world?  Paul states that it is ignorance that is caused by the blindness of their heart.  A heart that is set against God is not one that will be open to His gentle call.  This ignorance leaves the lost person unable to discern between true right and wrong, between that which is wrought of God, and that which is wrought of the devil.  In fact, the lack of discernment is so complete that many who are lost hold no fear of Satan, and even invite Him into their lives so they can appropriate the sensuous rewards of licentious behavior.

That blindness is like a callous that they have allowed to form over their hearts, and just like a callous on our skin leaves it insensitive to touch, the calloused heart leaves the lost person insensitive to God's touch.  The only hope for the lost is to hear the truth in a way that can reach through that callousness.  This is most often effected by the open and honest sharing of God's love by a caring Christian.

Ephesians 4:19.

Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. 

There is a danger that is inherent in a heart that is calloused to God's touch.  Those who are insensitive to God have given themselves over to the wickedness of their self-indulgent, sinful nature.  The attitude of the mind and heart shapes the character of the individual and forms the basis for a person's chosen lifestyle.  A godless mind and heart will inspire only a godless lifestyle, one that accepts unholy behavior as not just acceptable, but preferred.  As a consequence, the fall down the slippery slope from the "lasciviousness" .of amoral and obscene conduct to works of uncleanness, or moral impurity.  The continual need for sensual stimulation leads one to an unending lust for more.  The pagan lifestyle is herein described as calloused against God and consequently and endlessly immoral.  It is a behavior that is inappropriate for the Christian.  

The danger for the Christian is not so much the potential of sudden immersion in such a behavior pattern, but rather the potential for gradual acceptance of it.  Often referred to as the "slippery slope," Christians start accepting one little behavior after another until a point is reached where the Christian can no longer be distinguished from the pagan.  The solution to the slippery slope is to set a standard of Godly behavior beyond which one chooses not to pass.  We see an example of this when Daniel chose not to defile himself with pagan food (Daniel 1:8) and by so doing set a pattern of behavior that would not allow a compromise of the small transgressions that would lead to greater ones later.

Ephesians 20-22.

But ye have not so learned Christ; 21If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 

Just like Christians today, the Ephesian Christians knew better than to succumb to the secular lifestyle of their worldly culture.  Christ taught the repentance from sins, not the immersion in them.  Jesus taught a standard of the highest morality to a people who had repented from the lowest.  The Christians had heard the truth, possibly from Paul's initial teachings, from other apostles and disciples, and from one another.  

Paul made a lot of use of the "put off" and "put on" metaphors that are similar in usage to the deliberate changing of clothing.  Its use in period writings is so common as to imply that the changing of cloths was an idiomatic way of referring to the changing of identities.

Putting off the old man is a choice that is inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit, a choice to leave behind the moral and spiritual vacuum that was the pre-Christian life.  Christians are called to put off the deceitful "old man," the man of sinful choices, the man that is separated from God, and to put on a lifestyle of righteousness.  

Ephesians 4:23.

And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; 

Those in this secular world that criticize the mind of the faith consider themselves "enlightened."  This statement is far from the truth.  The renewing "in the spirit of your mind" that comes from faith in God is the true enlightenment.  When a person turns their heart and life over to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit comes into the life of that person to comfort and guide.  That guidance of the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to be able to discern the truths of God's Word, and by so doing, enable its truths to be fully understood for the first time.  This enlightenment of the mind is an infinitely more dynamic than the "enlightenment" that comes from agreement with the secular humanistic polytheistic and atheistic philosophies.  It is interesting to note that the "enlightenment" that is offered by these secular agencies is defined entirely differently by the varied constituencies that promote it.  The enlightenment that comes from God is simple, true, and consistently applied in the life of every believer.  Where the secular society argues that there is no real truth, God's word is truth.  Where the "enlightened" of this world demand that there is no eternal hope, God's word is hope.  

Romans 12:2.  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

The vanity of this world's "enlightenment" leads only to futility and death.  When one is enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit, one is lead to peace, comfort, truth, and life.  Is this really such a difficult choice?  If so, again, why do we, as Christians aspire to be so much like the world?


Ephesians 4:24.

And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. 

Christians are to put on a new man, a man that is fashioned after the image of Christ.  Again, this follows the putting-off of the old, sinful, pre-Christian way of life in the same way that one sheds one set of clothing for another, and by so doing changes identities.

Coll. 3:10.  And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:

When one comes to Christ the transforming work described in Romans 12:2 results in a new person, a person who is not freed from the acts and consequences of sin, but is no longer condemned by them.  Coming to Christ is the beginning of a journey that results in a maturing understanding of God and His Word when that transformation is true.  The transformed believer seeks God, and through that seeking, is empowered to turn away from the old desires in that journey.  The believer chooses to leave behind the old man because the desires of a transformed person change.  God calls the Christian to a lifestyle of righteousness and holiness.  Righteousness may never be fully attained in action, but is fully realized in the security of salvation and the freedom from condemnation that faith in God insures.  However, A Christian's life does start to take on an attribute of righteousness when the desires of the old man are replaced with the desires of the new.  God's purpose in the life of the believer can become realized, and the result can be a person who is truly separated out from this wicked world for God's good use.  

That is holiness.  Holiness is not an attitude of piety.  Holiness is not putting on an image of godliness.  Holiness is simply the state of being set apart for God's purpose.  One can be holy while immersed in the dirt and grime of ministry in a ghetto.  One can be holy while engaged in secular employment in the workplace through an active and deliberate ministry of salt and light.  One can be holy while seated in a liquor bar ministering to the spirit of a lost soul in his own place of comfort.  One is holy when one is set apart for God's purpose and is engaged in it.  It is for this purpose that Christians have been saved and placed in so many various places in this world.

Ephesians 4:25.

Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. 

One of the inviolable characteristics of the new man, the Man of Christ, is an uncompromised integrity.  Just as Christians know the truth, their lives should be characterized by it.  To do so involves taking the principles of the change to the new man into deliberate practice.  The word for "lying" or "falsehood" is a reference to any of a various number of forms of deceit.  Just as there is no deceit in Christ (Isaiah 53:9) none should be found in the life of a Christian.  A Christian should not maintain a hidden agenda, but rather should be known for openness and honesty.  Christians are to "speak every man truth with his neighbor (Zech. 8:16)" because we are all one body.  Note that the previous chapter of this epistle was dedicated largely to instruction on church unity.  

Ephesians 4:26.

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: 

In the next few verses of Scripture Paul gives some clear instruction that can assist a Christian in identifying some areas of their lives that exhibit ungodliness and changing that behavior, by choice, to one that is more appropriate.  The Christian can make some willful decisions to set some boundaries across which he/she will no longer go.  Those boundaries can be set close to one's heart, and far from the sin that would be realized when those boundaries are crossed.

The first refers to our response to anger.  Anger is an emotion, and God has created us as emotional people.  Emotions serve us to good purposes when they are appropriately controlled and expressed.  The emotion of fear keeps us safe.  The emotion of compassion helps us serve.  The emotion of anger can focus our response to injustice.  Like any other action that we demonstrate, any emotion can be used for good or evil.  Here Paul sets a boundary, stating that when we experience the emotion of anger, we should bring it under control so that we do not give into it, and by so doing, rationalize the commitment of sin.  What are some examples of a sinful response to anger?  Certainly, if a Christian experiences anger and responds by injuring another, that response was ungodly.  Paul gives us some help in dealing with this potentially violent emotion.  The first is an imperative to choose not to sin when feelings of anger arise.  The second, is to bring those feelings under control quickly.  The admonition to resolve anger before the sun goes down has, over the ages, been taken literally and saved many relationships.  Whether or not we take Paul's admonition to synchronize the calming of our wrath with the setting of the sun, it is clear that this is one emotion that must be dealt with and brought under control quickly.  Unbridled anger can lead to a multitude of sins.

Ephesians 4:27.

Neither give place to the devil. 

This is another boundary setter.  Paul admonishes us to give no ground to the devil at all.  It is probably safe to say that most Christians live lives that are characterized by compromising with the devil.  We choose some attitudes and actions that are godly, and rationalize some argument to defend those that are not.  The Flip Wilson cliché, "The Devil made me do it," is not axiomatic for the Christian.  It is a lie of Satan.  Satan is powerless against the Holy Spirit, yet we allow Satan to slip into our lives when we quench the Holy Spirit.  Christians will, for reasons of pride or self-will, choose to ignore the Holy Spirit and engage in ungodly attitudes and actions, and by so doing, open the door to Satan, giving him lordship over that part of our lives.  The border that Paul suggests is to draw the line in the sand between ourselves and Satan at a position that is pretty close to home.  If we identify those things in our lives that we are engaged in that are not suitable for the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can make the willful decision now that those things reside on the other side of the line, and choose not to cross that line again.  The closer and closer that line gets to the center of our hearts, the less ground that Satan will have to stand on, and the more peace we will realize in our lives.

Ephesians 4:28

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. 

Next, Paul moves on to the act of stealing as he sets a boundary.  Apparently, prior to coming to Christ, people in the culture of Ephesian Hellenism were known for stealing.  Of course, stealing is an inappropriate behavior for a Christian, and most Christians will probably testify that they are not engaged in the act of stealing.  (Note that the next imperative is on the subject of lying!)  Employers today lose millions upon millions of dollars to losses of office supplies.  I was once hired by a major manufacturer to help track their tooling (drills, broaches, etc) because they were losing six million dollars in tools each year.  When I started working on the project the rumor alone saved the company $10,000 in the first month.  People will argue that taking a paper clip or pen from the office is not stealing.  So, office workers have well-stocked desks in their homes, machinists have well-stocked shops in their garages, etc.  

Actually, the imperative offered by Paul here goes beyond the simple act of theft, and visits the principle of responsibility for one's own welfare.   The stealing who which Paul refers here is that type that was used to avoid having to achieve a living by working.  If one steals the food they need, they do not have to work for it, and a cycle begins.  When the person, then, has no job, they argue they are forced to steal.  The admonition here is simple:  a righteous lifestyle is characterized by a responsibility to one's self and to those around him/her.  Rather than participation in theft, a very inappropriate act for a Christian, one should be willing to work and provide an earning that will support one's self and dependents.  Furthermore, there will always be those people who cannot work and need help from those who can.  A responsible use of the resources that are gained through employment is the distribution of some of that income to those who cannot earn it.  

For a Christian, the boundary is simple.  Theft is characterized by the taking of anything, material or othewise, without regard to its value, that belongs to another.  This prohibition would include the theft of something as small as a paperclip.  By setting the boundary so close to home, one is protected from the temptation of stealing greater things.

Ephesians 4:29

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. 

This is probably one of the most difficult of transgressions to control, for speech is like toothpaste.  It comes out of the tube with the littlest of pressure, and once out of the tube, it is very difficult to put back in.  People are known best by the words they use, and when those words, even if very few, are out of character, the character of the speaker is brought into question.  Many years back I was actively engaged in a ministry to my own church staff.  As their "coach" I coaxed them out of the church building and onto the golf course or tennis court in order to help them balance an extremely tough lifestyle with some badly needed exercise and relaxation.  On one such event, when approaching the net on the tennis court my pastor told me a dirty joke.  I was astonished and disappointed.  I was astonished that he would find such a crude story to be entertaining, and disappointed in that he thought I would also.  From that day forward our relationship was never the same.  Unfortunately I was too young in my faith at that time to address the issue with my pastor and express to him my concern.  Instead, I lost my confidence and trust in the pastor, and was later unsurprised when other, far more significant, sins were revealed in his life.  He set his boundaries too far away, giving Satan a foothold that ultimately cost him his ministry.

Words are powerful.  When the result of such words causes a breech of trust, that trust is very difficult to reestablish.  So, Paul sets another boundary, and one that is again quite close to home.  Paul admonishes that a Christian should never say anything that is corrupt.  There are many places in scripture where writers admonish readers to place controls on what they say because of the devastating power of words that are so easily loosed.  If we take this imperative literally and reorganize it's clauses we can come up with the imperative that "If what you have to say does not edify and minister grace to the hearers, then keep your words to yourself."  The old man in us wants to express our emotions by stating our opinions without regard to the hurt they cause others.  Before a word is said, particularly when those words involve relationships with others, those words should be considered within the context of this boundary.  Again, it is a boundary that is close to home, and if honored, much hurt can be avoided, and one more foothold of Satan will be thwarted.

Ephesians 4:30

And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.

We see an example in Isaiah 63:10 where the people "rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.  What does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit?  Or stated another way, what is it that we do that causes the Holy Spirit to grieve?  It is safe to say that, since the Christian serves as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is then with us everywhere we go, God's Holy Spirit is a participant in everything that we say and do.  When the Holy Spirit is empowered in our lives, we are given the opportunity to express the fruits of that indwelling.  However, when we quench His power and seize it for ourselves by the willful commitment of sin, we cause the Holy Spirit to participate in that sin with us.  When we commit willful sin, the Spirit grieves.  Consequently, this is one of the most significant boundaries of all:  do no commit willful sin.  This is particularly true when we see the Holy Spirit at work and move to quench it.  Christians may bear testimony to seeing such events in their experience within their church.  Jesus said that it is better for someone to have a millstone placed around their neck and be cast into the sea than to be the cause of someone to lose faith  (Matt. 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).

Ephesians 4:31-32

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: 32And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. . 

Here Paul summarizes his statements to this point.  As Christians, we should be characterized by our separation from this wicked world, separated out for God's purpose, and by so being, characterized by holiness.  When we are exhibiting a lifestyle of holiness we will not be known for our bitterness, wrath, anger, fighting, and unseemly words, but rather we will be known by our kindness, tenderheartedness, and unlimited forgiveness and patience with one another, for that is the image of Christ to which Christians have been called.

If you are a Christian, it might be profitable at this time to examine in your own life those areas where you have given Satan a foothold.  What are those areas in your life where you do not demonstrate the uncompromised life of righteousness.  When you find some areas where you have set the boundaries too far into Satan's turf, confess that to God, seek his forgiveness, and repent by drawing that boundary back closer to home and leaving it there.