Some of us fear being humourless, miserable people, so we joke around a lot. It’s worse when your tendency to joke is accompanied by a sarcastic streak. This will sometimes get you into trouble, often offends people, and always reflects badly on you, particularly if you’re a Christian and you’ve recently read the end of Ephesians 4 where Paul challenges us about the way we talk. We need to be careful with our communication, both the words and the intent.
As we move into chapter 5 of Ephesians, Paul continues to challenge Christians with more guidance about how they should live a life that is pleasing to God. Let’s read the verse 1 to 10 of Ephesians 5, together.
Ephesians 5:1 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not associate with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
If we were to take out the modifying phrases in verses 1 and 2 we are left with: “be imitators of God and walk in love.” This is surely what Paul has in mind as he makes his way through the rest of the chapter. Christians could all nod their heads in agreement with the apostle’s simple instruction to imitate God and walk in love, but how many of us could describe what that would look like in our lives. Paul recognizes that we might have some difficulty with that, so he provides us with some clear instruction.
As is typical of Paul, he uses both positive and negative aspects as he sets out just what the Christian life should look like. He jumps right in with some negatives: sexual immorality, all impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking.
He doesn’t leave any room for anything that might defile the mind of the Christian. While Christians generally would be quick to avoid acts of sexual immorality, they might be willing to entertain impurity in the form of pornography, covetousness of the lustful variety, filthiness in terms of sexual fantasy, foolish talk about sexual matters and perhaps even crude jokes of a sexual nature. For Christians, Paul says, all of these things are off limits. Whether or not they affect anyone other than ourselves, we must avoid these things because they all have a contaminating effect.
Instead of filling our minds with such things, Paul says, we should focus on the good things God gives us and be thankful. You see, all of the sexual things that Paul warns about tend to be focussed on what satisfies our desires. When we are joking or talking about sex, fantasizing lustfully, or even engaged in an illicit sexual relationship, we’re not focussed on God. We aren’t being grateful for what we have, we’re sharpening our desires for what God said would trap and enslave us.
In verse 5, Paul emphasizes the importance of his message by talking about the end result of following the sinful course of action he just set before them. “You may be sure of this,” he says, “that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
People who make sex or possessions the god of their lives, exclude the true God and have no part in His Kingdom. In most human cultures, sex and stuff are the gods of most of the people. We elevate either one or both of these things to the place in our lives that belongs only to the true God.
People look to these things for a sense of identity, a feeling of significance, the sensation of well-being, the promise of transcendence, and so on. We think that if only we could have unlimited sex and money, at last, we’d be happy, fulfilled, content. Some might be offended that Paul addresses materialism and sexuality in the same sentence, but in his mind, materialism and sexual immorality are equally serious.
Some might think that materialism is nice and respectable. It isn’t disgusting like indiscriminate sexual expression. But material covetousness is the envious eagerness to possess something that belongs to another; extreme greed for material wealth; avariciousness; excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves; reprehensible acquisitiveness; insatiable desire for wealth. That puts it in the context of Paul’s thinking.
As soon as we look to anything, regardless of how socially acceptable it might be, to take the place of God in our life, we’ve missed the mark. One of the reasons that Christians can become dissatisfied with the material things they have and the sexual expression God offers within marriage, is that they have accepted the world’s perspective on these things. They look at sex and stuff as ends in themselves, as that which will satisfy them, instead of looking to their relationship with God for fulfilment and accepting these other things as blessings to enjoy along the way.
In verse 6, Paul specifically warns Christians about the hazards of being drawn into the world’s way of thinking through the empty promises it holds out. The pursuit of sex and stuff brings the wrath of God on the people who pursue them because in doing so, they ignore God and His claim on their lives. Paul counsels us to avoid association with people who have this worldly perspective on things. He knows how easily influenced we are, especially when we’re spending time with people who have a lot more than we do. We start thinking to ourselves, if he or she has that, then I should have it, too. In sexual terms it might be, if he or she has a romantic affair on the side to provide a little pleasure and satisfaction, then I should have one, too. We shouldn’t associate with the children of darkness because we are children of the light and should walk appropriately.
I think it’s only fair to mention that Paul is not preaching that Christians should isolate themselves and keep away from non-Christians entirely. His concern is that Christians would spend so much time with people in the world, that we lose our ability to reflect the light of Christ into that environment. I believe that harm has been done in those situations where Christians keep entirely to themselves and only stick their heads out of the church door to condemn those who have not come in.
Lastly, Paul challenges us to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Translators have handled this in different ways, but the idea here is that we are to “prove” what is acceptable to the Lord. Think of some big changes in your life. Perhaps you grew up in the countryside and moved to the city. Maybe you attended a fairly small high school and then enrolled in a huge university. Many of us spent a lot of our time being single, then got married.
Let’s focus on that last example for a while. After you’ve spent 20 to 30 years as a single person, you have your routine down. You know what works and what doesn’t work. You’ve figured out what you need to live and what you don’t need. You have a circle of friends that you depend on. When you get married, many of the things that were normal for you as a single have to change.
You probably need a bigger apartment for one thing. You have to accommodate to the needs and tastes of your spouse. A lot of the things that worked well for you before don’t work so well now that you have this other person sharing your life, so you have to work out what you need to do to live in the context of the new relationship.
You’ll observe other couples. You might seek some advice. Many new couples read some books about marriage. If you’re a Christian, you’ll consult the Bible and see what it says about the marriage relationship. But even with all of this knowledge, you have to get out there and live. In the process, you will “prove” what works. You try things out and see that some work for you better than others. After a few years, you will have settled into a new rhythm of life and you’ll be comfortable once again.
It is a little like this with new Christians, moving from the world’s culture into Kingdom culture. We’re children of the light. We’re walking forward in fellowship with God and with other believers, but we’re still figuring things out. We’re proving the truth of God’s word in our lives. We’re proving the value of fellowship. We’re proving, through experience, what brings us closer to the Lord and what gets in the way. But to learn these valuable lessons, we actually have to do something. We can’t just sit in a bubble and soak up information from sermons, books, music and our Christian friends.
Once again, in this passage, Paul directs our attention to the differences between the world’s culture and Kingdom culture. Only as we actually engage in living the Christian life will be able to discern just how deeply God’s standards for us affect our lives and how careful we’ll have to be to not let the world squeeze us into its mold.