Commentary on Ephesians 5:8-14
This past winter I attempted to establish a new early morning running regiment. On the app, it looked like a great plan. However, at 5:30 a.m. the darkness outside was not very inviting. Though there are certainly activities more suited to the dark—like stargazing and sleeping!—let’s face it, running is more of a bright daylight activity. In Ephesians 5:8-14, the Apostle Paul similarly associates the Christian life as a pursuit better represented in terms of light rather than darkness.
To begin, Paul echoes Jesus’ “you are the light of the world” metaphor (Matthew 5:14) when he states emphatically: “now in the Lord you are light” (Ephesians 5:8). Like light and darkness cannot exist at the same time and place, Paul indicates the status of the believer has changed and a new nature opposite the old accords to their new identity. Literally, they “were darkness” but now “are light” (verse 8). Thus, based on their transference from the kingdom of darkness to the one of light, Paul commands them saying: “Live as children of light” (verse 8).
As running is an activity better suited for bright surroundings, so Christians are called to exhibit behavior that corresponds to the kingdom which they now represent. As children’s conduct could reflect poorly on their parents, so believers are exhorted to embody the light that has brought them from death to life. When we think of all the good activities one can do in life and the bad or evil deeds one might participate in, a general principle of living in the light rather than in the dark can be established. Job 24:13-17 explains how rebels of the light operate at night to kill, steal, and commit adultery when the darkness disguises them. In short, sinners are depicted as “friends with the terrors of deep darkness” (verse 17).
Another example of a treacherous act done in the dark is Jesus’ trial by night before the Sanhedrin. According to both Mark 14:53-65 and Matthew 26:57-68, Jesus was brought to trial after his arrest, following a time of prayer at night in the garden of Gethsemane. Fabricated charges were brought against him, and false witnesses testified, twisting Jesus’ words, unable to find fault with him (Mark 14:55). In the darkness of night, the Sanhedrin conducted an illegal trial and came to the decision that the Light who had brought life to the world (John 1:4-5, 9) was deserving of capital punishment! Such is the gravity of the biblical connection of sinful acts done in the darkness, and thus the significance of Paul admonishing the Ephesian church to live in the light.
As an alternative to living in the dark, Paul advises them to seek “the fruit of the light [which] is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). This is reminiscent of Paul’s instructions to the Galatians 5:16-25 where he contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the Spirit, which are at war with each other. In a nutshell, Paul desires that believers should be modeling the type of Christian behavior that is worthy of placing in the light for all to see. In juxtaposition to the fruit of the Light, Paul doubles down by commanding his readers not to participate “in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). The idea conveyed is that whereas the fruit of Light is virtuous and a source of life-giving goodness, the works of darkness are futile, sterile, and completely unprofitable for those participating in them and those who are the objects of evil deeds.
Rather than partaking in the deeds associated with darkness, Paul calls believers to expose the shameful secret activities of those who oppose the light (Ephesians 5:11-13). In other words, as children of the Light, followers of Jesus are called not only to live exemplary lives worthy of being put publicly on display, but also, they are charged with the task of uncovering evils and injustices present in this world. In fact, the apostle Paul seems to indicate that by virtue of their presence in the world as bearers of the Light.
Interestingly, Andrew T. Lincoln translates Ephesians 5:13 like this: “But everything exposed becomes illumined by the light, for everything that becomes illumined is light.”1 What Lincoln envisions through his commentary on this verse is both the negative and positive elements of being confronted and illumined by the Light, and especially the aspect of Christian witness, which is at the heart of being the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). On the one hand, believers have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the one of light (Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 2:9). On the other hand, as citizens of the kingdom of light, they carry the Light wherever they go, and become the catalysts for bringing others out of the darkness and into the Light.
Fittingly, this passage ends with an exhortation that appears to be a testimonial piece of worship: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). A double meaning seems to be intended by the exclamation. First, it serves as a reminder of having been awakened into the light of salvation. Second, it’s an exhortation to reawaken with new passion and rise to the baptismal call. In other words, it’s time for those who have been raised from the dead to arise to their call to be the light of the world. The mission is not to change the world through our own efforts or wisdom. But rather, believers reflect the light of the gospel into a dark world by allowing Christ, who is the Light, to shine on us! May this Lenten season lead us to a place of humility and self-denial where we desire nothing more than for the light of Christ to shine through us for a dying world.
- Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, WBC (Dallas: Word books, 1990), 330.