Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2
A traditional part of the baptismal liturgy is the renouncing of all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises.
As we enter into the new life in Christ, we enter into a new community and a new culture with a particular way of living with one another. Though this text does not place these instructions in an explicitly baptismal context, it is that new life as God’s people in Christ that this text describes and urges upon us. This is, in more detail, what the author meant in the earlier instruction to “put away the former way of life” (see Ephesians 4:22). The new life means, first of all (verse 25), relinquishing what is false, and a commitment to speak the truth to one another (see 4:15).
It may not be a coincidence that this call to speak truth is followed by a call not to let anger become the occasion for sin (Exodus 4:26). The church ought to be the place where the truth can be spoken: the difficult truths about our world and about ourselves, and the gracious truth about the God who has redeemed us. We are, however, rather skilled in using a self-justifying excuse of “speaking the truth” as a cover for our efforts to manipulate, retaliate, and tear down others. All such behavior is simply a lie masquerading as the truth.
There are times when not being angry would be sin. There should be anger against all the effects of injustice and oppression, both inside and outside the church. At other times, our anger is simply our last desperate attempt to defend ourselves against the new world that God is calling forth and against God’s servants who are urging us into that new kingdom. Even though some anger might be justified, we should not read verse 26 as an excuse to feel angry, and certainly not as an excuse to feed and nurture such anger. Indeed, we are to put away all anger (verse 31), which seems to contradict the imperative to “be angry” in verse 26. The tension suggests that the force of verse 26 may be something closer to “when you are angry, do not sin.” We are called to speak the truth, but not to let whatever anger we experience linger and fester, because we belong to one another. We may not be able to avoid anger, and indeed there may be times when anger is not only understandable but also appropriate. However, we also ought to recognize that anger is always disruptive and can quickly become corrosive to the community that God is calling forth.
Rather than taking from others (which would certainly have a negative effect on the honesty and truth with which we are called to deal with one another), the members of the church are called to work so that they are able to pass something along to the poor. In verse 28 the NRSV talks about working “honestly,” but that may be a rather pale reflection of what the text is getting at. More precisely, the text speaks about doing “the good.” This is not a call to keep your head down and just pay attention to your own “honest work.” Rather, it is a call to pay open-eyed attention to the needs of those around us, so that we can discern the good thing that our neighbors need and then do it. Thus both in our actions (verse 28) and in our words (verse 29), our lives become conduits for the grace of God to others. In this passage, it is especially our words that receive attention. Our words to one another matter. The words to be avoided in verse 29 are not simply “evil” (NRSV), but rotten, decaying, and corrosive. In verse 31, the vices to avoid are particularly those things that are expressed in destructive speech. All these things that would tear down relationships have no place in the church, and they are contrary to the Spirit’s intent, not only because they impede our ability to engage in the mission to which God has called us, but because they are a failure to reflect Christ himself, who is the foundation of this new life.
In a remarkable move, the author calls us to nothing less than a life of imitating God (Ephesians 5:1). Such a call may seem absurd; to think that we could “imitate God” might be the height of arrogance. However, this call to imitation is founded on the love of Christ for us. Jesus himself is the footsteps of God through this world, not simply giving us an example to follow by our own determination, but cutting the path for us and then pulling us along. We imitate by grace, not as those who are goaded and threatened into stepping in only the right places, but as those who are loved into walking this path.
It may be significant that the imperative in Ephesians 5:1 indicates that this imitation is an ongoing process. We might translate it as “Keep on becoming imitators of God … ” It calls to mind the words of Martin Luther:
This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.1
Undergirding all of the exhortations in this Ephesians’ pericope are the supporting and motivating claims about God’s forgiveness (4:32), Christ’s self-sacrifice (5:2), and the Spirit’s sealing (4:30). It is the Triune God who is at work to shape the church into a people who actually inhabit the new reality described in 4:25-5:2.
1 “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, transl. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works, Volume 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 24.