Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

After the rich theological discussion of Ephesians 1-3, Paul turns in Ephesians 4-6 to an extended series of moral exhortations.

French Country Bread
"French Country Bread" image by Juan Calderón via Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

August 12, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

After the rich theological discussion of Ephesians 1-3, Paul turns in Ephesians 4-6 to an extended series of moral exhortations.

The guiding principle is given in the opening words of the section, where the author urges the audience “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). This point about unity is then elaborated artfully in the following verses: “one body and one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). This language of unity builds on the theological ideas of the first three chapters, where the primary point is that God has brought together all people through Christ.

Jews and Gentiles together now form “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). God’s unified people are the church, which consists of Jews and Gentiles together as God’s temple, the place where God dwells (Ephesians 2:19-22). As Ephesians 4 moves forward with its moral exhortations, this emphasis on unity provides the framework for the individual instructions that are given.

Another key principle for the second half of Ephesians is that, since the Gentile audience has been brought by God’s grace into this new body, they must act in accordance with their new status rather than with their old ways prior to Christ. Ephesians 4:17 puts it bluntly: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.” Immediately before our passage the audience is told “to put away your former way of life…and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22, 24).

Having been brought into God’s people entails a transformation of identity and character, and with this transformation comes changed moral behavior. Our passage gives mostly very specific moral instructions. What makes the passage rich and not merely pedantic is that these instructions are grounded in the earlier theological ideas.

Our passage begins with a command to put away falsehood and to “speak the truth to our neighbors” (verse 25). It sounds like such an easy command, something we might think only children should need to be told. But note the reason that is then provided for it — “for we are members of one another.” Since the community members form one body (from Ephesians 4:4, quoted above), lying to one another simply makes no sense. It is a similar idea as in the better-known statement from later in Ephesians, “He who loves his wife loves himself” (5:28). The unity of the church is the basis for moral behavior.

Similar rationales are given for the instructions in Ephesians 4:28-29. In verse 28, thieves are told to give up stealing and instead to “labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Note that the prohibition of stealing is based not on the notion of respecting others’ property but solely on the motive of helping others in the community. Verse 29 likewise prohibits “evil talk” and enjoins speaking “what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Both moral action and moral speech are to be guided by the principle of doing what strengthens the community.

The instructions in the following verses, however, are given quite different rationales, and at first glance it may seem as if Paul has moved on from talking about the community to different things altogether. Verse 30 instructs the audience to “not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Is offending God now the rationale, rather than building up the community? In fact, this is a false dichotomy. The Spirit is described in Ephesians as the mark of the community, as that which bonds the community together.

The language here in verse 30 echoes that of Ephesians 1:13 in referring to the Spirit as the “seal,” for example the mark of the community that is a pledge of God’s positive judgment on “the day of redemption.” In Ephesians 2:18 we are told that it is through the Spirit that both Jews and Gentiles have access to God, and in Ephesians 4:3 we saw that maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is one of the fundamental goals of the letter’s moral exhortation. Hence not grieving the Spirit goes hand in hand with building up the community; the Spirit is what makes the church God’s temple, God’s dwelling place.

Ephesians 4:31 enjoins getting rid of all kinds of destructive attitudes and speech, and verse 32 provides their replacement: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” Then comes the real kicker — the rationale that forgiveness is to be done “as God in Christ has forgiven you.” The final two verses of the passage build on this, urging the community to be “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1) and to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2). The idea of imitating God both builds on Old Testament traditions — a key Levitical command is “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2) — and on the earlier language of Ephesians, where God’s plan is said to be to “gather up all things in him” (Ephesians 1:10) and Christians are said “to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:29).

If the church is to be the dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22), and both Christ and the Spirit are said to be in us (Ephesians 3:16-17), and we are “created in Christ Jesus” Ephesians (2:10) and “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24), then the moral exhortations to imitate God and to live in love as Christ did both follow naturally. Imitating God and loving as Christ did are high standards! These commands may be ambitious challenges for us, but they also remind us of the amazing possibilities for those who have been re-created in Christ and brought into the church, the very dwelling place of God.