Commentary on Ephesians 4:25-5:2
If one first encounters Ephesians 4:25—5:2 without considering its contextual moorings, its string of behavioral instructions can come across as an extended, alternating list enumerating the appropriate “dos” and “don’ts” Christians are called either to adopt or to avoid. While it is quite true that this text presents contrasting negative and positive behaviors, it is important to recognize that the exhortations listed here are grounded in the fundamental understanding that one’s reality (“who” a person is) empowers and is reflected in one’s conduct (“what” a person does). More specifically, a review of the “you were, but now you are” contrast in 4:17-24 helps one to grasp more fully the contrast of negative and positive behavioral appeals in 4:25—5:2.
Earlier in this letter, its audience was given an extensive, contrasting overview regarding their former reality and their current reality. Rather bluntly, they were told:
“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13).
Thus, their old reality was one of utter alienation from God, from Christ, from God’s people; a reality in which they were completely helpless and hopeless with regard to their own standing before God. In the immediate context of 4:25-5:2, this former reality is depicted as the “old self” (4:22; NRSV, NIV). In accord with the divine plan set down before creation, however, God changed their old reality through Christ’s death so that the audience now dwells in Christ (1:3-11; 2:4-10,14-22). In our text’s immediate context, this new reality is depicted as the “new self” (4:24; NRSV, NIV). Because Ephesians operates with a theological scheme in which one’s reality empowers and shapes one’s conduct, the audience has been called upon not to live (or even discern) as they once were, for example, as alienated Gentiles, but to live (and discern) as they now are, the new self which has been created according to God’s likeness (4:17-24).
The so-called “don’ts” and “dos” of 4:25-5:2, build upon and make more particular the contrasting interrelationship of how one’s reality determines and is reflected in one’s conduct. The audience is called upon to “put away falsehood” (4:25) because relating to others through deceptions and lies was part and parcel of the old self’s way of life. Similar negative behaviors reflective of the former reality which are to be discarded like old clothing include “bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice” (4:31). It is also important to note that here in Ephesians not only is one’s conduct reflective of one’s reality but one’s conduct is also communal. In that way, the negative behaviors to be shunned are not simply bad actions according to some general or abstract moral standard. Rather, they are understood to be the negative, interpersonal ways Christian neighbors are no longer to relate to one another. Hence, the foundational drumbeat of our unity in the one body of Christ established and sounded throughout 4:1-16 remains the cadence for how we live out such unity in our ongoing interrelationships with each other as members of one another (4:25).
The interpersonal scope of these behavioral instructions may help in understanding the directives and their motivations presented in 4:26-30. 4:26a concedes that being upset with another person is an aspect of living in community, but such anger is neither to be the springboard for sinful actions against others nor for smoldering, lingering attitudes toward others (verse 26b).
Such actions and attitudes only open the door for the destructive schemes of the devil (verse 27; 6:11). Similarly, theft does not just involve taking something that belongs to another. Such theft robs another the ability of using their skills to produce what can also be shared with those in need (4:28). Likewise, what we say to each other directly impacts our relationships with each other as joint members of the body of Christ. Thus in 4:29 we are being called upon to speak to each other in ways which enhance our relational bonds steeped in God’s grace rather than in ways which corrode these bonds (on the “building up” of the body and its bonds also see 2:21; 4:12,16).
Interwoven into the edifying behaviors which build up the ties that bind joint members of the body of Christ is a triune motivational base. In baptism, the Spirit first imprinted onto us the divine promise of our full, future salvation (the “sealing” with the Spirit in 4:30 recalling 1:13-14). Hence, we are being called upon not to engage in detrimental conduct which would thwart or frustrate the promised goals for which the Spirit is working (thus the exhortation “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” in verse 30). This would include avoiding the negative, interpersonal behaviors listed in verse 31 while engaging in the uplifting behaviors listed in verse 32a.
Thus, our text is calling us to be imitators of God in the mode of Christ (4:32b—5:2). Such a call to imitate God is not only unique in the New Testament, it may immediately sound an impossible ideal which we cannot possibly emulate. Actually, the acts of imitation presented here are rather concrete (both as a foundation and as action). We are to forgive each other because (and as) God first forgave us in the person and action of Christ (4:32b). We are to love each other because (and as) God first loved us in the person and action of Christ (5:1). We are to live selfless, God-pleasing lives as Christ lived selflessly to fulfill God’s salvific designs for us (5:2). Through these ways of living, our comportment stands in congruity with the grace-filled activity of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.