If you do not at times feel like a hypocrite then you are probably not taking the Word of God seriously.
A pastor friend recently wrote to me, “I am looking forward to preaching again this coming week—Mark 7—oh how I so often feel a hypocrite, so much so that I daren’t read your book on the subject! Oh, that the Lord would change my heart still more so that my love for Him would dominate everything.” His words were a good indication that he is not, in fact, a hypocrite!
As we take the Word of God seriously, we will oftentimes come across passages that reveal the wickedness of our hearts as exposed in our words and in our works; the revelation of our depravity by our actions and by our attitudes. Ephesians 4:29–32 is such a passage. In fact, in studying this passage, and in preparing this message, I have often prayed Psalm 31:9: “Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am in trouble.” In fact, I am sometimes in deep trouble.
As we study the remaining verses of Ephesians perhaps you will feel as though you are in deep trouble. If so, may you also find relief as you experience the kindness of the Lord in forgiving you in Christ.
As we come to our final study of this passage, let me remind us of the overarching theme.
Paul is exhorting the church, the community of faith, to walk in a manner that is worthy of her identity, worthy of Christ (v. 1). He wants her to mind who she is and to therefore mind her manners. He exhorts her to do this together. She is to grow up together in Christ (vv. 13–16). And this will require each member to become useful for this joint project (vv. 11–12).
Useless or Useful?
However, rather than becoming useful, sometimes church members can become effectively useless. They fail to contribute to the overall health of the body, even though they may faithfully attend, faithfully give and faithfully involve themselves in ministries. What makes them effectively useless, and in fact destructive to the Body, is a disposition of bitterness. Paul addresses this in these closing verses.
In v. 31, Paul identifies the spirit of the useless church member: those with a spirit of bitter and angry unforgiveness. In v. 32, Paul identifies the spirit of the useful church member: those with a spirit of kind and tenderhearted forgiveness.
May God use these verses to make all of us useful members of a useful community.
There are two headings to this study: (1) Stop being bitter (v. 31), and (2) start being kind (v. 32).
Stop Being Bitter
In v. 31, Paul urges the Ephesians to stop being bitter: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” This verse reveals the useless way to live.
The Problem of Bitterness
Obviously, bitterness of spirit and of speech was a problem in the church at Ephesus. Otherwise, why would Paul mention this?
Even in the best of churches this problem exist, to different degrees. Is it a problem with you?
Specifically, what is it that we are to put away? What exactly are we to lift up and carry away, as we would the rubbish? Paul mentions several things.
First, Paul instructs them to put away “bitterness.” The word speaks of that which is acrid or poisonous. Metaphorically, it refers to a sour spirit or sour speech. It can refer to bitter gall and therefore to extreme wickedness or bitter hatred. Simon the sorcerer was “poisoned by bitterness and bound in iniquity” (Acts 8:23). Romans 3:14 speaks of those “whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Hebrews 12:15 warns that, even in the church, a “root of bitterness” may well “spring up.”
The reference here in Hebrews clearly refers contextually to the sin of unbelief
We can make an important observation: bitterness cannot co-exist with belief; rather, bitterness reveals a heart of unbelief.
Bitterness is manifested in “the resentful spirit which refuses reconciliation.”1 The bitter person, with a sour spirit, “sees the faults and the blemishes but never seems to see the good.”2 The bitter person harbours wrongs and keeps score of wrongs done.
MacArthur summarises well: “‘Bitterness’ … reflects a smoldering resentment, a brooding grudge-filled attitude. It is the spirit of irritability that keeps a person in perpetual animosity, making him sour and venomous.”3
We are commanded to put away this spirit. But along with getting rid of this, we also need to get rid of the associated evils.
Second, we must put away “wrath.” The word speaks of passion, fierceness or indignation. It means to be incensed, and describes anger boiling up and then subsiding again.
The religious lost in Jesus’ day were “filled with wrath” and tried to kill Him (Luke 4:28) because of their unbelief. The Ephesians knew what it was to experience wrath, for when Paul first preached Christ in Ephesus, “they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19:28).
The word translated “anger” speaks of an excitement of the mind, a violent passion, or indignation. The word is a akin to “wrath,” but it signifies something a bit different. “The distinction is that [‘wrath’] is fury, the more passionate and passing sentiment, the burst of anger, and [‘anger’] the settled disposition.”4
This word is usually used in the context of God’s anger. This may be precisely the point: Our bitterness erupts because we are confused about who is God.
This is sometimes a problem in the very place where we would not expect it to be: in the church. Paul urged men to pray, “lifting up holy hands without wrath or doubting” (1 Timothy 2:8). James shows that Christians are sometimes confused about who is God: “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (James 4:11–12). Earlier, he warned that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19–20). If God has delivered us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10), what makes us think that we have the prerogative to dispense wrath in the meantime?
Fourth, the Ephesians must put away “clamour.” This word speaks of an outcry. It is sometimes used of grief, and sometimes in the context of tumult (Acts 23:9). Here, it is used to indicate an angry lifting of the voice—angry yelling. It is “the loud self-assertion of the angry man, who will make every one hear his grievance.”5
Bitterness will eventually erupt. It will come to the surface, and often when it does, many will hear it. We are not to raise our voices in anger towards one another. Mind your manners!
Fifth, we must be done with “evil speaking.” The Greek word is blasphemeo, from which we get our English word “blasphemy.” It does not refer here to blasphemous, irreverent language towards God, but rather to slanderous words against a person. It refers to speech that injures the reputation of another. It is a form of bearing false witness against another.
There is a sense in which to blaspheme another person is to blaspheme God. After all, since humans are made in the image of God, there is a sense in which this is an attack upon God. In other words, we should be very careful about both how we speak about and what our speech does to those who are God’s creations. Our words can be murderous (see James 3:8–10).
We can therefore argue that to call yourself a Christian while blaspheming another is not only a violation of the ninth commandment, but a violation of the third too. We can go further, and say that to speak evil of another—and perhaps this especially applies to our speaking evil of another Christian—is in effect to make us guilty of violating all the commandments (James 2:8–12).
The sixth thing that Paul mentions here (“malice”) is, in some ways, the heart of the matter. As Wood puts it, “The poisonous source of all these regrettable assertions of the ‘old self’ is named as ‘malice’ (‘bad feeling’).”6 The word refers to that which is evil, bad, or wicked. Acts 8:22 translates the word as “wickedness.” Paul speaks in Romans 1:29 of “being filled with … maliciousness” as one mark of reprobation. Malice is a characteristic of the unbeliever. Paul told Titus that, before conversion, “we were living in malice and envy” (Titus 3:3).
Fundamentally, the word refers to having ill will toward another. It refers to a disposition and desire to injure another. This is at the heart of bitterness; at a minimum, it shares the same space. The bitter person will become a malicious person. Ill will follows ill feeling. A sickened spirit will produce a sickened desire. For proof of that assertion, look no further than Judas Iscariot!
When we come to Christ, we are to be “laying aside all malice” as we instead “desire the sincere milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:1–2). There is an expected change in desire (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:8). “In malice,” wrote Paul elsewhere, we should “be children” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
The People and the Place of Bitterness
As strange as it may sound, the people to which this exhortation is given are Christians, and the place in which it is exercised is the church. Don’t miss this: There are plenty of opportunities to be offended when you are a member of a local church—yes, even when you are a member of a healthy local church.
Whenever you gather a group of sinners—even sanctified sinners—offences are bound to occur. In fact, this is especially true in a group of sanctified sinners, because our great expectations are often met with grievous realities. Great expectations are often met with great disappointments.
The Symptoms of Bitterness
How do you recognise and “diagnose” bitterness? There are a few tell-tale signs.
One is the mouth. Bitterness is the result of evil thinking, which produces evil speaking. Jesus said “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). Again, “Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
The countenance is another tell-tale sign of bitterness. Those who are bitter often look bitter. This is frequently accompanied by the aroma of an off-putting attitude. Rarely is a kind word spoken about or to another. Everything that the bitter person touches and tastes is left with a bitter aroma.
The Consequences of Bitterness
Bitterness undercuts everything that Paul has written in this chapter. Simply put, where bitterness abounds, disunity will eventually occur. Bitterness will result in a peaceless, rather than a peaceful, community. It will result in an immature church. A bitter church will be harsh and unloving. Bitterness creates an air of phoniness, where people feel too vulnerable to be transparent.
In short, a church where bitterness reigns will live contrary to its calling and character of being a new creation. It will look like the old man rather than the new man. It will not look like the church, and therefore will not be properly equipped. In effect, it will be a useless church.
The Pathology of Bitterness
How does bitterness come about? What produces bitterness? As we survey the biblical evidence, we can say several things.
Those who are bitter forget God when they face difficulty. David prayed to the Lord, “Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation’” (Psalm 35:5). When we face difficulties thinking that God is surprised, forgetting that He has indeed ordained our trials, we will be tempted to grow bitter toward him and others.
We grow bitter when we maximise what should be minimised and minimise what should be maximised. For example, when we maximise self and minimise God’s sovereignty, the result is bitterness. The same can be said when we maximise self and minimise others; when we maximise offences done to use and minimise our offences toward others; when we maximise wrongs done to use and minimise grace bestowed upon us; when we maximise the temporal and the present and minimise the eternal and the future; when we maximise our sufferings and minimise our development; when we maximise our desires and minimise God’s desires; when we maximise our good and minimise our glory; and when we maximise our kingdom and minimise God’s kingdom. In short, bitterness results when we maximise our grief and minimise the gospel.
So it often is. What we love—usually ourselves—can make us angry and tyrannical. Over time, we build our walls, and behind them we grow and cultivate a harvest of bitterness away from the eyes of others—at least until those walls come crumbling down and our malice is there for all to see.
Practical Remedies for Bitterness
Before we move on to v. 32, we can perhaps say a word or two about practically combatting bitterness.
First, be aware of the problem. It is obvious that some struggle with bitterness more than others, but we should all at least be aware of the very real temptation toward bitterness.
Second, be accountable to others. The importance of healthy body life cannot be overestimated in this regard. Ask your brothers and sisters to hold you accountable and to warn you when they see the root of bitterness springing in you. Be alert to the temptation, and therefore avoid evil influences. Stay away from those who are characterised by evil speaking.
Third, be active to overcome. Work hard at it. Evil speaking is far easier than righteous speaking. We need therefore to work hard at developing righteous habits. This, in fact, is the underlying emphasis of this entire passage. The habits of the old man are to be replaced with the prescribed habits of the new man.
If we will overcome bitterness then we must stop minding the injuries, stop mouthing the injuries, and stop mouthing more injuries. To do so means, as the next verse reveals, that we must continually mind the gospel.
Start Being Kind
In v. 32, Paul reveals the useful (because Christian) way to live: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Here, he shifts attention “from natural vices to supernatural virtues.”7
“And be kind” clearly introduces a contrast—but it is a commanded contrast. While commanding us to stop being bitter (that is, unkind), we are called upon to start being kind. But we are to not only to behave kindly; no, we are, literally, to become kind.
The Greek is in the present tense, and so we can translate it, “Keep on becoming kind toward one another.” This requires a change of mind (see v. 23). As Foulkes observes, “The eradication of evil words and actions depends ultimately on the purification of the thought life.”5 They are being told to “abandon one mental condition and make their way, beginning there and then, into its opposite.”9 And so are we.
Of course, this is difficult! The command implies effort, determination and practice. But before exploring this, what does Paul mean by “kind”?
The word connotes being good to people. It speaks in Romans2:4 of “the goodness of God.” It can also be translated as “gracious” (1 Peter 2:3). It carries the idea of being virtuous and even pleasant. It also connotes being fit for use and of being “easy” on people. This is well illustrated with reference to Jesus. In Matthew 11:28–30, He said that we are to come to Him and take His yoke upon us, because “My yoke is easy and My burden light.” “Easy” translates the same word as “kind” in our present text.
The picture is one of showing concern and care for God’s people. Though there will be burdens, and though following Jesus will confront us with difficulties, nevertheless He will make our way as easy as possible. He will be firm and demanding, but He will at the same time be kind about it. This, in fact, will make it easier for us to follow Him. This is how we are to treat one another. Are you making life easier or harder for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Are you useful to your yoke-fellow?
To be kind is to treat people in such a way that you are appropriately useful to them. You help them; your company with them builds them up rather than tears them down. To be kind is to be the exact opposite of v. 31. That is, rather than having a disposition and actions that make us effectively useless in building up the Body, we have a disposition which helpfully engages with others in the building up the Body.
Kindness, pleasantness, goodness, virtuousness and graciousness are always better than meanness, unpleasantness, hardness, smallness and ungraciousness. The former virtues are characteristic of the useful way to live, while the latter vices make one useless.
The Stomach of the Matter
But, how do we become like this? How do we become kind? In other words, what will help us to be more useful to one another?
First, we must become “tender-hearted.” This is a rich word, whose root refers to the bowels. In the ancient world, the bowels were metaphoric of one’s emotions and therefore one’s sympathies and compassions. This is reflected in the older translations of the Bible, where we read words such as “bowels of compassion” (or mercy) (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:12; Philippians 1:8; 2:1; 1 John 3:17 in the KJV).
It has been noted that this term “was used by Hippocrates to describe the healthy function of the intestines.”10 When someone’s stomach is sour, their entire disposition often follows suit. They may become very self-focused with little regard for others. So it is in our relationships.
If we can’t “stomach” others, we will give little thought to others. However, the Christian, the one who has put off the old man, will be characterised as a compassionate and sympathetic person; a pitiful person.
We can summarise that the useful church member is the person who is concerned for and feels for others. Peter addresses the same thing when he writes, “Love as brothers, be tender-hearted” (1 Peter 3:8).
Walking in their Skin
Kind treatment of others flows from putting ourselves in their shoes; it flows from identifying with their circumstances. It looks like the incarnation.
The writer to the Hebrews was glad to report to his readers that Jesus sympathises with their struggles. He sympathises with ours (2:14–18; 4:14–16). It was this same truth that Paul urged as motivation for the Philippian believers to be kind and compassionate towards one another (Phil 2:1–5ff). Jesus walked, not merely in our shoes, but in our skin. He is therefore sympathetic and eternally useful. We are to do the same.
When someone loses their temper with you, consider that there may be a lot of things contributing to this that in fact has little to do with you. When someone offends you by perhaps excluding you, consider some very real limitations that contribute to this. Perhaps you were not invited to a wedding reception. Consider the very real limitations that families often face when defining wedding guests, and don’t allow yourself to take undue offence.
When you feel slighted by the church in your affliction, consider limited resources and other responsibilities of those who shepherd you. When someone slanders you, consider the bigger picture of what may have contributed to their being so tempted. When offensive terms and tones are communicated, consider that person’s own history. Consider where they have come from or what they are going through. Consider their fears. Be very careful about “convicting” someone based on circumstantial evidence.
I do not intend to minimise the awfulness of sin. In other words, the call to be tender-hearted is not synonymous with the call to be soft-headed! Sin needs to be confronted. In fact, if it is not confronted, then we may find ourselves tempted to bitterness.
However, I am saying that we should minimise the offence as we open our hearts for the next step: forgiveness.
Forgiveness, the Ultimate Usefulness
As we are “tender-hearted,” we are to be committed to “forgiving one another.” The root of the word translated “forgiving” is charis or grace. The word “forgive” means “to grant as a favour or as a kindness.” We can say that it means “to give freely.” We are called to be gracious.
When others sin against us we have two possible responses: unforgiving bitterness or forgiving kindness. The first response is useless while the latter is perhaps the most useful thing that we can do. Christians are called to be useful in many ways, but perhaps the most useful thing that we can do is to be forgiving. This is what Christians do! And this is what the community of Christians—the church—is to do. As Alford said long ago, to forgive is “doing as a body for yourselves that which God did once for you all.”11
Behaving Like God
Think of it like this: When we forgive, we behave like God. We forgive others “even as God” forgave us in Christ. What a glorious truth!
Earlier, we saw that when we mull over an injustice, and when we become consumed with justice for ourselves, we fall into the sin of usurping God’s prerogative. If we think that we are God, then we will become most unlike Him.
However, to the degree that we forgive others, we are actually behaving like God. Jesus taught this as well: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:35).
People all around—including many Christians—are burdened down with the weight of guilt. In fact, a thinking Christian knows the sense of shame and guilt for their own sin. The thinking Christian knows that he falls short of the standard, which is Jesus Christ. And we especially feel this when we sin against another Christian. Until we experience forgiveness, a sense of discouragement, failure and even a hopeless uselessness may prevail.
But when forgiveness is sought and granted, one discovers a sense of usefulness again. We are never more “godlike” than when we are mercifully forgiving.
Demonstrating Our Own Forgiveness
When we forgive others, we demonstrate that we ourselves have been forgiven. Jesus made it clear that if we do not forgiven, we are denying that we have been forgiven (Matthew 6:14–15). Paul, by implication, repeats that truth here when he says, “as God in Christ forgave you.”
We can put it like Paul puts it: Those who are forgiven become people who forgive. And forgiveness is the ultimate display of kindness. As Lloyd-Jones observes, “The only people who will carry out this exhortation of the Apostle are those who know that God has forgiven them.”12 Do you know this forgiveness?
This provides the ultimate motivation to put away useless anger and to put on useful forgiveness. Since God has forgiven us, we are compelled, by renewed hearts, to forgive one another. If we do not, then we are guilty of maximising our conflict and our troubles while minimising Christ’s cross. We are guilty of maximising our injustice while minimising man’s injustice towards Christ.
The Cross as the Cure
If any person in history had grounds for being bitter, it was Jesus of Nazareth. But He was everything but bitter. And because of this, no person in history has ever been more useful than Him.
Peter puts it clearly,
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:21–25)
It should be noted that Jesus’ turning the other cheek, His refusal to avenge Himself, was in no way a forfeiture of justice. Rather it was a righteous demurring of justice to the rightful Judge.
John tells us that, if we say that belong to Christ, we are under obligation to “walk as He walked” (1 John 2:6). So, let’s do it!
But how? How did Jesus overcome bitterness? By trusting the Judge of all the earth; by trusting His heavenly Father. Jesus knew that the Father was in control. He rested in the sovereign plan and providence of God. This is the reason that He could pray, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” And the same is to be true of us.
As we grow to trust our heavenly Father, we can respond to the most serious offences with the spirit of Job: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Or like Joseph, who said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Or like Paul: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
You see, Jesus knew that that the cross was the Father’s will for Him. And He knew that the Father’s will is always best. Jesus knew that much fruit would come from this human injustice. Jesus suffered offences fruitfully because He had a long view perspective. It was for this reason that we read of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
We need the same kind of perspective. In fact, to the degree that we have and practice this, we too will sit down with Him and rule alongside of Him (see Revelation 3:21).
We are too often ruled by others and by circumstances rather than rising above the offences. We are without excuse. Rather, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, we too are to joyfully embrace our cross, despising the shame. Only then will we be truly useful—able to serve wholeheartedly; growing in winsomeness (cf. Proverbs 11:30; Colossians 4:5–6); exhibiting joy that is contagious and encouraging; displaying a mind set on things above rather than being like everyone else; sacrificially giving of ourselves rather than isolating ourselves; being fruitful members of the flock rather than frustratingly fruitless ones.
But none of this will come about apart from the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only those who have returned to the shepherd and bishop of their souls will be truly empowered to selflessly stop being bitter and to selflessly start being kind. This requires the new birth. It requires a new nature—that of a sheep rather than that of a goat.
So, have you been forgiven? If not, then experience forgiveness today. All the ugliness of this passage was shouldered by Jesus Christ when He went to the cross. All its guilt was laid upon Him to free you of it. Jesus experienced bitterness and gall at the cross for those who deserved it.
If you confess your sin and your need for a Saviour, and if you confess Jesus as Lord, then you will be forgiven. Ask and it will be given. How do I know? Because the grave is empty. Jesus really did carry away the guilt and the sin of all who will trust Him. So be forgiven and start a life of forgiving today.
The cross is the ultimate cure for the disease of bitterness. God in Christ forgave us; God forgave us because of what Christ did for us. He was tender-hearted and He kindly forgives us. Oh, how useful a Saviour we have! We need to reflect upon His usefulness, continually, to one another.
It’s Not Easy
I realise that the subject of forgiveness is a big one, with many tentacles. Yes, sometimes it can be a bit complicated. For instance, what do you do when a Christian offends you and yet will not seek forgiveness? What if the offence is an ongoing one? How do we usefully respond to this? Does forgiveness mean immediate restoration of close relational fellowship?
But fundamentally, forgiveness is a very basic matter in the Christian life. We have been forgiven by God in Christ and we are to forgive one another. The community of faith is a forgiving community, and is therefore the most useful community on the planet. Let’s never be useless but rather, because of the gospel, let us be useful—always.
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 143. ↩
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17–5:17 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982), 280. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 190. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:348. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 143. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:66. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 190. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 143. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 3:349. ↩
- Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 11:66. ↩
- Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 vols. (Peabody: Hendrickson, n.d), 2:397. ↩
- Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light, 288. ↩