1. Ephesians 4:17-24 

Adapting to a New Culture

Ephesians 4:17-24

Some of the best lessons we can learn are only available as we try to learn a second language as an adult and adapt to another culture in which the way of doing things is profoundly different. There is so much to get used to and so much to accept as “just the way they do it here.”

One simple challenge is word order. If you want to describe a house that is large and red and made of bricks, in some languages you would say “the big, red, brick house.” But in others people would look at you strangely if you expressed yourself that way because the normal word order for them would be “house, brick, red, big.”

Then there is the matter of grammar. People learning a second language soon come to understand that there is a big difference between “correct grammar” as taught in the classroom and “street grammar” as spoken by people going about their daily lives.

And speaking of what is correct, some words in one place are perfectly acceptable. You could use them in front of children or your grandmother and no one would be upset, but the very same word used in another place could be seen as very rude and inappropriate. If you used it there, people would get a very bad impression of you.

The same is true of gestures. Every culture has little signs and signals. In some, you point with your index finger. In others, you point with your chin. In some, you beckon to someone to come to you with your palm up, in others with the palm down. The difference in acceptability can be surprising, sometimes unsettling.

But this is just getting us started. When we move into the complex area of morals, the newcomer to a culture can be overwhelmed. In one place “lying” is uttering any statement that is contrary to fact. In others, statements contrary to fact are socially acceptable unless you are saying something that would harm someone. Only then would the “lie” be considered a “lie,” that is, morally wrong.

It’s the same with “stealing.” In some cultures taking anything at all that doesn’t actually belong to you is considered morally wrong. In other cultures, stealing from big corporations or the government is quite acceptable, though they do draw the line if an individual is being harmed. So one might steal from his employer without a twinge of conscience, yet never even consider stealing from his co-worker, because that would be seen as wrong.

So why am I telling you all this? What could it possibly have to do with the Bible and particularly our study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians? Well, today we’ll see that there are important cultural differences between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. When new Christians, like the ones Paul was writing to, first come into God’s kingdom, they can be confused because what is acceptable in one culture is not acceptable in the other. Let’s read the passage we’re considering today.

Ephesians 4:17 “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Paul starts off this section by immediately instructing his readers to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” But wait a minute! They were Gentiles. How was Paul expecting them to act? The apostle knew that besides having a few positive features and some morally neutral ones, all cultures have some really evil ones. But because these are so common, only the outsiders can easily recognize them. As we move forward in the passage, Paul explains that these new Christians were to submit themselves to God and the culture of His kingdom, not to the culture of the world around them. In a sense all Christians are bi-cultural. We are part of the society into which we are born with all of its traditions, expectations, values and ways of thinking and doing and we are part of the Kingdom of God which is quite different, often the reverse.

Paul was concerned about 1st Century Ephesians because they were futile in their intellectual pursuits. That’s a pretty strong charge, but Paul feels free to make it because they had excluded the revelation of God from their understanding of reality. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

Paul’s first readers had grown up in a culture which was either ignorant of, or in opposition to, God. The account of Paul’s adventures in Ephesus recorded in Acts 19, shows us that the Ephesians were super religious and superstitious. They were totally devoted to the worship of the goddess Diana. As Christians, the new believers would have to change the way they behaved in relation to the religious traditions around them.

To make sure that there was no question about what Paul’s concerns for his readers were, he mentions four specific characteristics of Ephesian culture.

1) He says that their understanding was darkened through demonic and ungodly cultural influences. As we’ve seen in earlier studies, Satan doesn’t demand that people worship him instead of God. He really doesn’t care very much about what or who they worship as long as it is not God. So the fanatical worship of the goddess Diana by the Ephesians suited Satan just fine and through his dark influence, he kept them fixated on this idol which closed their minds to investigating Paul’s preaching about Jesus.

2) They were alienated from the life of God because of their hardness of heart. Hard hearts separate people from each other and from God. Within a family, when one person hardens his or her heart, the other hearts are often broken. When a husband won’t listen to the entreaties of his wife about her loneliness, her struggles, her unhappiness, nothing can change, nothing can get better. It was like this between the Ephesians and God. They had hardened their hearts against Him and refused to hear of His love for them.

3) They were callous in their pursuit of sensual pleasure. This simply means that their consciences were seared. They didn’t respond with either empathy or restraint as they sought pleasure and entertainment. In Roman culture life was cheap and any sexual variation imaginable was available, especially to those with power and money. Gladiators fought wild beasts and each other to the death. The British Broadcasting Corporation recently reported on a gladiator graveyard found near the ruins of ancient Ephesus where thousands of bones showing signs of injury were found. The Ephesians loved blood-sport.

4) They had an unquenchable lust for more. The culture in which these 1st Century new believers found themselves was deeply dissatisfied. Everything had to be bigger and better. Whatever they had, they wanted more – more pleasure, more entertainment, more violent spectacles, more sexual liberty, more devotion to Diana, more wealth and so on.

Paul wanted the new believers in Ephesus to know that their standards of behaviour would be very different from those around them now that they had turned to the living God. So he encouraged them to do three things.

Firstly, they were to “put off the old self.” By that Paul meant they should abandon the aspects of their old way of life which were in conflict with God’s standards.

Secondly, they were to be intellectually renewed by the truth of God. Before, they walked in intellectual darkness because they refused to receive the truth of God. Now they needed to turn to Him to renew their minds with His truth.

Finally, they were to “put on the new self” which Paul says is righteous and holy. This is simply the opposite of “putting off the old self. They were to embrace both the conscious and unconscious aspects of their new life in Christ. On one hand they would have to do all they could to be more and more like Him. On the other hand, they had to recognize that they could not be what they needed to be without the work of the Holy Spirit so they would have to cooperate with Him to achieve the goal of spiritual maturity.

For all that the world’s great cultures feel they have made great strides forward in terms of tolerance, they are still not very open to people who are seriously counter-cultural. People who want to really live in a way that is pleasing to God will find themselves not fitting in very well to the values and behaviours of those around them. It takes both intentionality and effort on our part to truly live as Christians.

Now for a little homework. Take a long hard look at your culture and your life. Try to identify some “world culture” behaviour which you’ve never gotten rid of, but would like to and make a start today. It might have to do with the way you treat other people, or some matter of self-discipline. You are the only one who can do this exercise for yourself.

Then, after you’ve done that, identify some “kingdom culture” behaviour which you would like to cultivate. If you’re stuck, look at the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Ask God to make you more like Jesus and then consciously cooperate with the Holy Spirit.