Ephesians 5:1-20

Being Imitators of God

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


Harbor Street, Ephesus. 
(Courtesy focusmm.com)

As Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus, he remembers them fondly from his three years that he spent with them.  He knows that the church is well-known for their faith, and has many encouraging things to say as he opens the letter.  However, we learn quickly that the church is Ephesus is anything but perfect.  In the Revelation of John, this is the church that is described as having left their "first love" (Rev. 2).  Seeds of disunity have been sown within the fellowship as its members struggle with conflicts between their citizenship in the secular world and their citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  Paul exposed these problems in chapters two and three.  In chapter four, Paul begins providing specific instruction for correctly dealing with the conflict that arises when Christians maintain their worldly ties.  He writes about the necessity for diligent protection of church unity and, within the context of that united church, the proper expression of personal gifts as they are used to serve the needs of the Kingdom of God rather than the worldly needs of the individual.  

Ephesians 5:1-21. 

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; 

The word, "therefore" clearly declares this statement as a summary of what has been written to this point.  The difficulty in the Ephesian church, and one that is predominant in today's churches has less to do with fellowship, and more to do with followship.  Whom are you going to follow?  People are certainly a product of their culture and are immersed in it every day of their lives.  We make our decisions of what we will and will not do or say largely on the consistency they have with cultural mores.  Christians find themselves torn between two cultural lifestyles:  that one that is acceptable by this world, and that one that is acceptable by God.  Consequently, we must make frequent choices whether to follow the direction of one culture or the other.  This is a choice that every believer has had to contend with throughout the period of their life in the faith.

Joshua 24:15.  Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell...

Will we follow the gods of the land in which we dwell, or the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  The choice for the Christian is clear, but applying that choice in continual daily living is often difficult.  Living in an evil culture is like swimming in a pool.  It is a difficult task to dive in and come back out dry.  When we are immersed in water we get wet.  Likewise, the evil and ungodly world in which we live touches us on every side, making it impossible to be immersed in it and not be affected.

If we approach this choice as Paul suggests, we might find some success.  We are to follow God as dear children, as the children that He loves.  What does this mean?  Consider a proper and healthy relationship between a child and a parent.  The child demonstrates tremendous faith in the parents, accepting without question as truth everything that they say.  As a child in the family, there is a resemblance that comes from the child's desire to be like the parent.  When I look at my own son I am continually amazed at our similarities.  One needs to only to casually observe people today and we can quickly discern the models they follow.  Young people try to emulate the dress and demeanor of movie, television, and music stars.  The media, largely through television, movies, and films, have  tremendous influence on the mores of culture.  Film and television producers are often trying to push the limits of acceptable social conduct, and as they do so those limits are continually moved away from conservative, ethical, and moral values.   One cannot browse through evening television programs without being bombarded by violence, sex, and foul language, the very model of society that Christians should rise above.

If we are going to follow a model, the only appropriate model for a Christian is Jesus Christ.  The only appropriate source for moral guidance is the Holy Spirit.  As a Christian surrenders Lordship to Jesus Christ, learns God's Word, and listens to the Holy Spirit the desire to live an unholy lifestyle is diminished by the knowledge of God's grace and His desire for our appropriate behavior.    The next verses illustrate some of the type of behavior that is the fruit of a Spirit-led Christian.

Ephesians 5:2.  

And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. 

When we look at the life of Christ, we find characteristics in Him that we can seek to follow.  The word, "walk" used in the KJV is translated from a word that refers to the whole set of attitudes and actions that one demonstrates when going about their daily lives.  The first fruit of the Holy Spirit that is in evidence in the life of a Christian is love, that agape love that is unconditional, a love that is experienced and expressed from a willful choice to express it.  It is this love that Jesus demonstrated during His ministry.  It is this love that was the basis for his willingness to suffer for those to whom He came to minister and to save.  When God sees the fruits of agape love demonstrated in the lives of those who believe and trust in Him, He is pleased, as though it were a "sweet-smelling savor".  Contrast this with God's rejection of sin.  As a Holy God, He does not condone any mixture of sin, and we cannot please Him when taking part in sinful acts.  Our secular society lives outside of the influence and application of agape love, depending on the self-centered forms of phileo and eros that does not bless God.

Ephesians 5:3.

But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; 

Listed here are three areas of behavior that are not appropriate for a Christian.  Furthermore, they are the behaviors that are most common in secular society.  If a Christian is going to imitate Christ, acting in a manner that will be a "sweet-smelling savor" to God, these behaviors cannot be part of his/her lifestyle.

Ephesus was a very large city, and served as the center of worship to the goddess, Diana, or Artemis.  She was the goddess of fertility.  Not unlike today's simpler cultures, any time something, like reproduction, could not be explained by other means it was explained as the work of a god.  Pagan beliefs stated that in order to realize fertility in crops, animals, and humans, the fertility gods had to be aroused, and such arousal was accomplished through sexual activity.  Temple prostitution was considered an acceptable and necessary part of worship to Diana.  The definition for fornication comes from this practice and is used to refer to any sexual activity that is inappropriate.  God's design for sexual activity is simple:  such activity is reserved for expression solely within the relationship of marriage, where there are, essentially, no limits.  Any activity outside of that relationship is entirely inappropriate for the Christian.  This is not news to us, but was a quite radical philosophy for the ancient Ephesians, making the practice far more difficult to maintain than we might consider today.

There are behaviors that do not involve the act of fornication that still possess the attitude and desire of that sin.  Described as uncleanness  or impurity in this verse, these behaviors can include every kind of sexual indecency outside of actual sexual practice.  In this context, purity is demonstrated by the appropriate control and direction of sexual drives in accordance with God's purpose.

Probably one of the more similar modern metaphors for the unseemliness of the ancient  Ephesian culture is the content on the Internet.  The Internet is driven by its audience.  Currently anywhere from 80% to 90% of the traffic content on the internet is related to pornography, primarily through the publication of obscene pictures and videos.  It is that statistic that is so significant.  The drive for ungodly behavior in our society is no less than it was in ancient times.  Much of the internet pornography is free and open to anyone who visits the sites or takes part in the file exchanges.  An entire counter-culture has developed around the internet society where pedophiles and abusers are empowered.  Because of its easy access and the personal privacy that isolated computer access affords, Christians should be particular vigilant to avoid interacting with this segment of the secular society.  Like the rest of the world, there is much to offer that blesses God, but there is also much that is unclean.  Christians must maintain Jesus as their model, recognize that the Holy Spirit in them is engaged in every activity of their lives, and stay away from those sites that contain unclean material.

A third inappropriate behavior that is described here as covetousness refers to uncontrolled greed and lust. Within the context of this verse, it predominantly refers to the unbridled desire to engage in fornication without actually practicing it.  Such behaviors fuel any number of other sins such as engaging in pornography, treating others as sexual objects, etc.  When one engages in such lusts they become more insensitive to that which stimulates that lust, needing more and more in order to satiate the desire.  This can, and usually does, lead to action such as infidelity, pedophilia, homosexual activity, and even rape.

Ephesians 5:4.

Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. 

Uncleanness, as mentioned in the previous verse, can also be demonstrated through the things we say.  Our words define who we are among those whom we have any relationship.  The filthiness of this verse refers to manners of speech which relate to inappropriate sexual behaviors.  This manner of speech can also be described as obscenity.   Among other obvious subjects, this includes foul language, cursing, and sexual jokes.  A Christian should not be amused, but rather offended, by these words.  Consequently, as a Christian becomes more and more an imitator of Christ, it becomes more and more difficult to interact openly in this society without conflict when such words are commonplace on the streets and in the media.  We may not be as liable to engage in temple prostitution as the ancient Ephesians were, but we are certainly immersed in a world of ungodly words.

"Foolish talk" refers to crudeness, vulgarity, and gossip in speech.  Such speech is certainly an inappropriate behavior for the Christian.

The "Jesting" described here must be understood in context of the entire sentence as, "Jesting, which are not convenient.  Paul is not setting down a law that Christians should not laugh and tell jokes.  However, the jesting that the Christian takes part in must be filtered by the same morals that other Christian actions are subject to.  Jokes that are at the expense of another, that refer to sexual impurity, or in any way would not be appreciated by a person of high moral standard should not be repeated by a Christian.

A better way to speak is to stay focused on who we are as Christians and as we seek to be obedient to the Lord, Jesus Christ, we will be far more comfortable when we avoid coarse words.  When we praise God in our words, when we give thanks in our words, when we focus on God in our words, we will be empowered to maintain cleanness, wisdom, and appropriate sobriety in what we say and do.

Ephesians 5:5.

For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 

These are some tough words.  First, Paul implies that this truth is common knowledge, so again we must not take the statement out of context.  Paul lists the attributes of people who maintain a lifestyle that is characterized by the sins that have been listed in the previous verses.  These are people who visit the prostitutes, who are unclean in their attitudes, actions, and words.  These are people who are consumed by their lusts, seeking after gods other than the One God.  These are people who are lost, and do not have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  So, this statement is simple.  We know that those people who live this type of lifestyle are lost.  

What happens when Christians are involved in the same activities as these lost people?  Their sin is far more grievous than that of the lost, since such behavior is expected of a lost person.  Forgiveness for such sin requires sacrifice, the sacrifice that Jesus experienced on the Cross.  When Christians sin they are separating themselves from fellowship with God, diminishing their own spirituality, and diminishing the work of the Holy Spirit in them for God's purposes in His Kingdom.  The sinning Christian will not experience the peace that comes from a right relationship with God, and will miss out on the blessings that come from that right relationship.  However, this statement should not be taken out of context to state that if a Christian sins, then they must not be, or are no longer, a Christian.   When Christians sin, they separate themselves from God for a time.  However, Jesus died for the sins of all of those who place their trust in Him as Savior and Lord, and though they will lose much of the blessing of a Christian life, the Christian in sin will not lose their inheritance.  Even we cannot take ourselves out of Jesus' hand once we have been placed there.  (John 10:24 ff).

Ephesians 5:6.

Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.

Christians should not be swayed by the persuasive words of the people of this secular, hedonistic, and evil world.  Their words are ungodly, and consequently without power.  Yet it seems that Christians often ignore this imperative and respond quickly to the dynamics of worldly events, aligning themselves quickly behind worldly leaders, and showing respect and allegiance to them.

However, there is an even more insidious enemy that Christians are not as likely to recognize.  As Christians grow in their faith and in their knowledge of God's Word, and as they come more sensitive and under the control of the Holy Spirit, they grow more immune to the hearing of doctrinal error.  However, it is possible to fail to appropriate the power of discernment that comes with Christian maturity and allow ourselves to be swayed by the eloquence or seeming logic of the words of others.  It is not uncommon for a person of great renown in the Christian "world" to espouse radical and erroneous theology.  For example, many respected theologians reject the authority and truth of scripture and argue that only parts of it are true.  Of course, they select those parts and reject others based upon their own opinions.  Rudolf Bultmann, one of the more respected and published theologians of our contemporary age, espouses that much of the scriptures is simply myth, and in order to understand what is really stated, the myth must be removed to find out what truth lies underneath.  Though considered anathema by conservative Christian denominations, his views are embraced by the less conservative and the liberal denominations.

Unfortunately, many Christians are simply not knowledgeable nor do they care about the truth of their doctrine, and are likely to believe and follow these false-teachers.  As long as their religion makes them feel good, many Christians are satisfied to pursue their faith no longer.  Consequently, these people are subject to those who speak like they have great power, but the content of their speech is, in reality, powerless.

Ephesians 5:7.

Be not ye therefore partakers with them. 

When we observe this scripture in the KJV, there is little confusion.  As Christians we are not to participate in ungodly acts with those to whom it is the very definition of their lifestyle.  It might be possible to maintain some semblance of Godly control over our lives when we are alone or in our homes, or when we are surrounded by other Christians.  What do we do when we are immersed in relationship with people who are lost?  As we relate to the lost world, we are to imitate Christ by loving those around whom God has placed us, but refrain from taking part in any action they are engaged in that is not appropriate for a Christian.  This can be hard to do.  Often it is easier to go along with the crowd than it is to stand back because of the possible need to state the reason for our hesitation.  However, these situations are good examples of times when we are called on to give an account of our faith.  

Ephesians 5:8-11.

For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: 9(For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) 10Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. 11And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. 

Christians are to be different than the world based upon who they are, not based upon just what they do.  Note that the grammar used by Paul here is unusual.  He does not state that "You were IN darkness", nor does he state that "You were LIKE darkness."  Paul states that "You WERE darkness."  The vary nature of the lost is darkness, at enmity with God.  Christians are children of God, children of the light and the fruits of the Spirit that enlightens them includes all goodness, righteousness, and truth.  The lost claim none of these attributes.  Consequently there is a great difference between the two natures.  Rather than compromise to the godless mores of the secular culture by taking part in them, Christians should, as light, expose their falsehood.

Ephesians 5:12.

For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. 

How does a Christian demonstrate this light that Paul speaks of?  How does the Christian respond when confronted with the sins of the lost?  One might be tempted to preach to the lost about how their actions are sinful, and unless the Spirit specifically empowers one to do so, this may not be the best way.  A Christian's response must always be immersed in love, quite a contrast to the lost who are immersed in sin.  It is difficult for spiritual communication to take place between the two.  Paul does not instruct us to become engaged in conversations about the sinner's sin, describing even the conversation about it as inappropriate.  Christians expose sin by demonstrating truth.  A Christian exposes infidelity by demonstrating uncompromised fidelity, proving that it is blessed of God and a blessed way to life.  Christians expose sexual immorality by maintaining uncompromised moral integrity.  Christians are to shed light on sin, not by attacking the sinner, but by serving as a model of godly conduct, following the model of Jesus Christ.:

Ephesians 5:13-14.

But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. 14Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. 

Here Paul gives one of his many comparisons of light and darkness.  Darkness is the absence of light.  Where there is light, that which was under the cover of darkness is exposed.  The light of the Holy Spirit exposes all that is dark.  Repeating the same argument from the previous verses, Paul is emphasizing the importance of his argument.  All evil things that are exposed are exposed by the light of the Holy Spirit, and any power that exposes evil for what it is, is of that light. 

Matt. 5:14-16.  Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

This exposing light was given to all who believe.  This illumination was given, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, to each person who was lost (asleep) and was awaken from the dead (saved).  The light that is in a Christian cannot be hidden.  Neither is it appropriate that the light is kept within, but rather God intends that the light shine throughout the world where people can see the difference that having God in their lives makes.  Christians should always be prepared to give an account of their faith, but such a testimony is powerless without a lifestyle that matches it.  The combination of testimony and lifestyle provide the basis for others to see the sin in their own lives and to seek God for forgiveness.  When a person comes to this point of seeking God, it is then that a Christian, in love, can point the way.  At this point the Christian can point to God, and to their sin no longer.

Ephesians 5:15-17.

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, 16Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. 17Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. 

Living a life that honors God is not one that is based on following a set of rules.  What Paul has shown here is not a rule book, but rather a list of characteristics that describe a Christian who lives a life that is God-centered.  A fool is one who ignores the truth.  It is foolishness for a Christian to ignore what is true and follow a secular world of lies.  If Christians appropriate for themselves the wisdom that God has provided through His Holy Spirit, they can easily discern what is of the light and what is of the darkness and choose the light.

We live in an evil world at an evil time, and the time we have to experience it is short.  Our time should not be wasted in fruitless endeavors, but rather each moment should be cherished as a gift of God, enjoyed in a life that is productive, fruitful, and full of his peace and love.  To redeem means to "buy back."  Paul gives us an imperative to take back even the time we have.  We are to take it  from the evil one who would encourage us to waste it, and instead use it productively for God's glory and our own edification.

Ephesians 5:18-20.

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; 19Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; 20Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;

Just as we should not let ourselves be distracted by the evil in this world, and by so doing lose our focus on Christ, and give away the control of our lives to the evil one, we are not to become drunk on wine, but be filled with the Spirit.  This play on words holds a significant truth.  This verse is not so much about wine as it is about who is in control in our lives.  To turn this verse into a temperance sermon is to ignore the context within which it is written.  This entire passage is concerned with the model that Jesus is for the Christian; the archetype for the authority in our lives.  We are to bring ourselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not under the influence of this wicked world.  For the same reason, it is unseeming for a Christian to be under the influence of any intoxicants that cause us to lose our focus on the truth.  A drunk or drugged Christian has given away control much as a driver gives away the control of a vehicle prior to an accident.  Such behavior is inappropriate for one whose allegiance is to God.  The Holy Spirit is to be the influence in our lives, and rather than singing the inebriate bar songs and making merry in their stupor, Christians should be sharing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  The melody that is in our heart should come from our praise of God for what He has done.  It is through this praise that we find true and lasting happiness, true and lasting peace.  Even in this setting the lost can see the fruitlessness of their stupor and turn to God to find a better way.

The message of this passage of scripture is of utmost importance to the Christian.  All people tend to follow models, they define themselves by those whom they place respect and try to emulate them.  For the Christian, there is only one model because all worldly models are ungodly.  That model is Jesus Christ.  As we truly desire to follow His lead, our desires to stray in other areas dwindles.  The Holy Spirit in the heart of every believer empowers him/her to seek after that which is righteous and reject that which is not.  Then, the fruits that come from such a life will be that light that will expose the sins of others, others who are engaged in a sinful lifestyle that is not shared by the Christian.  When a person who is living in a sinful lifestyle can contrast the difference in his/her life from that of a true Spirit-led and faithful Christian, he/she is in a position to seek  the truth, and the Christian is in a position to provide it.  It is this way that the body of believers, the Church of Jesus Christ can be what God has purposed it to be, can accomplish the task that God has given it, and be a source of light and love to a lost, dying, and evil world.