Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Our passage contains a lot of moral advice that can be found in many places in the ancient world.
In that sense, there is nothing “original” in this text. However, the wealth of moral instruction does not mean the Bible is simply “moralizing” its readers. The key difference lay in the motivation for the morality. Most commentators agree that Paul’s framework for his ethical instruction is baptism.
Interwoven throughout the letter to the Ephesians are many references to death and life (2:1, 5), putting away the old self (4:22, 25) and being marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit (1:13, 4:30). In other words, instead of simply being exhorted to do good works, the community is continually reminded that it has been engrafted into the body of Christ and that its hope is grounded in Christ’s present and future redemption. The result is a life lived in love, rooted and grounded in the love of Christ (5:2). Our discussion of this text focuses on common misunderstandings of Paul’s words.
In some highly sentimental versions of the Christian faith it is thought that any type of anger is a sin. Paul surprises us here by recognizing that anger has its place. He also says that it has its limits. Even those with a superficial knowledge of the Bible recognize that this is a book acquainted with anger. The prophets (Amos for example!) can hardly contain their outrage at the way the people of Israel have violated God’s covenant.
Jesus was upset when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers or when he encountered almost any form of self-righteous arrogance. And Paul himself was furious with church in Galatians as it fell back into seeing the law as a way to please God (Galatians 3:1-3). Indeed, God may be slow to anger but this does not mean God is never angry. God gets upset when his people turn to idolatry. As one of my professors put it, love is always outraged at betrayal.
And yet we must be careful. Paul warns the Ephesians not to “let the sun go down on your anger” (4:26). He recognizes that anger can quickly become obsessive. Instead of being upset over a thoughtless word or deed, we have a tendency to make it “personal” in a hurry. We nurse a grudge and cook up schemes for revenge. Once we have slipped into this realm we have opened the door for the devil (4:27). The well-being of the community then becomes secondary and our main purpose is simply to get even. Thus Paul reminds us of the need to let forgiveness have the last word (4:32).
Grieving the Spirit
Paul also says in our text that we must not “grieve” the Holy Spirit. What is meant by this unusual phrase? Paul says in Ephesians that the Spirit has “sealed” us in the promises of Christ (1:13, 4:30), given us access to the Father (2:18), and provided us with the inner power to sustain the life of faith (3:16-17). This is an impressive list of gifts. Perhaps Paul’s use of the word “grieve” can be understood in the context of the human tendency to slip into behavior that undermines our community in Christ (4:31). For example, parents have a hard time conceiving of a situation where they would stop loving their children.
We can all cite examples of mothers and fathers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help a prodigal son or daughter. These parents have indeed been “grieved” or disappointed by the actions of their loved ones — but they rarely break off the relationship completely. Even in the most dire of cases there is still a flicker of hope for reconciliation and restoration. So it is with God. The “seal” or bond of the Spirit is inviolable.
God’s deep and unfathomable commitment to his people should not be questioned. The inheritance is assured (1:11). Seen in this light, Paul’s warning not to grieve the Spirit is an acknowledgement of our ability to deeply disappoint God by our “bitterness”, “slander” and “malice” (4:31). Our selfishness not only destroys community; it also dishonors the Father who has gone to such great lengths to adopt us as his children (1:5-8).
This section concludes with the ultimate exhortation: be imitators of God (5:1)! Here is where there is a true break with the typical virtue-vice lists of the ancient world. A standard has now been set that transcends all human morality. It could also lead to despair if not handled carefully. This might be a good opportunity for preachers and teachers to review the meaning of agape love as forms of this word appear three times in 5:1-2.
Our culture’s interpretation of love might be said to be at war with the biblical understanding of agape. Commercials and conventional usage suggest that love is largely a romantic feeling produced by the right combination of clothes, physical conditioning, smile and make-up. In other words, love is dependent upon being lovable.
This is the exact opposite of agape love which reaches out and extends itself to the most unlovable. As Martin Luther once said, it is characteristic of God’s love that it does not find its object but it creates it. The point may seem subtle but Luther is saying we cannot make ourselves worthy of God, though we often try to do this. Rather, our relationship to God is based on nothing other than God’s decision to love us in Christ. Or as Paul stresses, agape is rooted in Christ’s act of giving himself for us (5:2).
Paul highlights the effects of this love as well. We now inherit the status of “beloved children” (5:1). Our task then is to take this love to the neighbor or “live in love” (5:2) as Paul says. Perfect imitation of this love is not possible. God’s word of forgiveness will always be relevant (4:32). But the love of Christ dwells in our hearts as well (3:17). And that makes a big difference as we make our way into the world.