Back in 1977, Watchman Nee wrote a commentary on Ephesians titled Sit, Walk, Stand.1 The title of the commentary reflects a summary out the outline of the letter.
In chapters 1–3, we are told that we are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, and therefore what is true of Him is true of us (1:20; 2:6). As we understand this we then get up, as it were, and practically exercise who we are in Christ. That is, we begin to walk as new creatures in Christ. This is largely the theme of chapters 4–5 (see 4:1, 17; 5:1, 2, 8, 15).
But as we begin to exercise our spiritual legs, it is not long before we find that we have a fight on our hands. And the last thing that we want is to get knocked out. We are determined to stand. This is a central issue in the final chapter of this epistle (6:11, 13, 14).
In this study, we explore further what it means to walk as a Christian. Quite simply, we are to walk like God’s children; we are to walk in love. We are to walk in love through a world walking in lust.
I would argue that the entire chapter is about true love versus counterfeit lust. Clearly, the first 17 verses address sinful lusts and our need to walk contrary to this. And then, in vv. 18–21, Paul addresses proper and loving relationships as expressed in the gathering of the local church. Then, from 5:22 to 6:4, Paul addresses what true, godly and biblical love looks like in the home. In 6:5–9, he brings this theme to a close by revealing how we are to walk in love in the workplace.
In coming studies, we will unpack these verses with a view to helping us to truly walk in love. But here, we will focus on Paul’s opening admonition to walk this way. And in what way does he exhort us to walk? He gives three things, basically, that our walk is to look like. First, he tells us that our walk is to be an imitation (vv. 1–2). Second, he exhorts us that our walk requires a repudiation (vv. 3–4). Third, he informs us that our walk arises from our identification (vv. 5–7).
It is clear from the content of these verses that Paul is addressing a prevalent and perverse problem in the Ephesian culture: sexually sensual, lustful living. This is the kind of lives that many of them lived before they were translated to sit with Christ in His kingdom. Paul reminds the Ephesian church of its obligations.
The Way It Was and the Way It Is
Salmond informs us that
the moral life of the Graeco-Roman world had sunk so low that, while protests against the prevailing corruption were never entirely wanting, fornication had long come to be regarded as a matter of moral indifference, and was indulged in without shame or scruple not only by the mass, but by philosophers and men of distinction who in other respects led exemplary lives.2
That sounds rather like 21st-century Johannesburg! Ephesus, Corinth, and Johannesburg were and are all filled with idolatry and sexual immorality. The two always go together.
Pagan living, both then and now, is sensual living. “Sex sells,” we are told. Billboards testify to this reality. But as Francis Foulkes so aptly says,
Neither Law nor Prophets in the Old Testament, nor Gospels nor Letters in the New Testament, allow people to regard lightly the sins that break the bonds of marriage, destroy the sanctity of the family, and cause children to be brought to birth without parents to be responsible for their nurture and training.3
Paul well knew the temptations that they were facing. And he also knew that they would need doctrinal and practical help in overcoming this. So he pens this part of the epistle.
Our Walk is to Be an Imitation
The apostle informs us that the Christian walk is to be an imitation: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (vv. 1–2).
The word “therefore” is important. It connects the previous paragraph with this one.
These opening words function like a hinge, connecting what has gone immediately before with what now follows. It is a hinge of love. We are to be like God in lovingly granting forgiveness (4:31–32), and we are to be like God in lovingly avoiding fornication (5:3ff).
The word “followers” is a translation of the Greek word mimatas. The word means to mimic or to imitate. The word is translated “imitate” at least twice in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1).
The Christian is called to walk like God. The Thessalonians were positive examples of this, for they “became followers of us and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
We are to be “followers of that which is good” (1 Peter 3:13). We are to follow God, as other God-followers have done (see Hebrews 6:12).
The motivation supplied is revealed in the words “as dear children”—literally, as “beloved children.” God’s love for us is what motivates us to look to Him and to live like Him. Like Father, like son.
We are to forgive like God forgives precisely because we are to love like God loves. We who have been loved by God are to love like God. (Matthew 18:21–35).
We need to evaluate ourselves by what God’s Word tells us. This is vital for our spiritual and relational health.
Paul goes on to tell us exactly what we are to imitate: “Walk in love, as Christ also loved us.” Our lives are to be characterised by the kind of love that God’s Son shows to us. “Given the unbelievable privilege and grace of being his ‘beloved,’ they are to respond in showing ‘self-forgetting kindness.’”4
Interesting: We who are God’s sons are to walk like God’s Son. And how is that? “In love.” Our lives are to be permeated with love.
But, what does this look like? Paul fleshes it out with the words, “who has given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
Whatever else is meant by this very rich statement, it certainly includes the concept of love sacrificing, of love giving up something for another.
The word translated “given” is used in 4:19 to speak of the Gentiles’ former life in which they “gave themselves over to lewdness.” That kind of self-centred, lustful self-gratification is completely antithetical to the Saviour’s selfless giving up of Himself for the benefit of others—for the benefit of you and me. “The heathen … give themselves up to licentiousness; we, like Christ, are to give ourselves up to love.”5 And Christ’s love is self-forgetful, sacrificial, and sin-bearing love.
Christ giving up of Himself for us speaks of the love of propitiation—that is, the love of atoning sacrifice. And this kind of loving action on the part of Jesus was a beautiful fragrance in the nostrils of God. (See this language in Leviticus where it has special sacrificial, reconciling significance.)
We can conclude from this that the life that imitates God is the life of lovingly giving up our rights to benefit others. To put it another way, rather than using others for our own self-gratification, we are to serve others for their wellbeing.
Bryan Chapell is exactly right: “Imitating God means imitating his Son, and that means doing whatever is required to make our lives a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”6
In the immediate context, it means giving up our right for justice and therefore forgiving one another. This smells sweet to God. In what follows, we are to be a lovely fragrance to God by lovingly treating others rather lustfully using them.
Our Walk Requires a Repudiation
Second, the Christian walk requires a repudiation: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (vv. 3–4)
The proposition “but” serves as an emphatic contrast with what has just been said. As Stott comments, “Paul turns from ‘self-sacrifice … to its very opposite, self-indulgence,’ from genuine ‘love’ to that perversion of it called ‘lust.’”7
As a good under-shepherd, Paul often addressed the flock as a naysayer. He knew that it was important to concretely lay down not only dos but also don’ts. This is what we have in vv. 3–5.
Having exhorted the church to imitate God by imitating God’s Son, he now tells them the practical implications of this. He contrasts the life of love with its antithesis: a life of lust.
Love and lust are mutually exclusive. These believers needed to learn this. Many in our day need to learn this as well. Indeed, many Christians in our day need to learn this!
We are inundated, virtually on every corner, with sensual lust. Fast food restaurants use inappropriate innuendo and even pornographic images to sell chicken and hamburgers. At the mall recently, I asked my wife, “What’s with all the mannequins in underwear in the store windows?” She reminded me that they are promotions in association with Valentine’s Day. I seriously doubt that the advertisers only had heterosexual married couples in mind!
Pornographic books and movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels (which should be more appropriately called Even Filthier Shades of Grey) have become blockbusters. And to highlight just how reprobate our society has become, this film, like its predecessor, is being launched on Valentine’s Day.
None of this sensual entertainment has anything to do with biblical love. Rather, it is all about self-gratifying lust. It is the mark, not of love, but of self-centred hatred of God and man.
The pornography industry is responsible for more heartache, destroyed marriages, rape and child abuse than perhaps any other factor. The typical emblems that we see at this time of the year are probably more apropos than might first register with us: an arrow into the heart. Sensual lust destroys hearts and lives. Christians are to have nothing to do with this. We are to repudiate it.
We Are to Repudiate Immorality and Replace It with Purity
“Fornication” refers to sexual intercourse outside of heterosexual marriage. The original term was often used in connection with prostitution. The word’s root is that from which we derive the word “pornography.”
For some reason, the concept of pornography is treated as an uglier evil than is sexual intercourse between those who are not married. It could prove helpful for us to call “living together apart from marriage” what God labels it: pornographic. In contrast to being an appealing aroma, when the Christian lives enslaved to sensuality, a stench rises in the nostrils of God. And it rises in the judgement of a watching world as well.
“All uncleanness” speaks of moral impurity and covers any and all forms of lustful living. It is used in Romans 1:24 to describe a reprobate society, one where people can no longer make sound judgements about moral issues—including judgements about sexual orientation.
Recently, Grace Bible Church in Soweto was front and centre of the ongoing raging debate about sexual orientation. A guest preacher condemned the sin of homosexuality. Some church members were offended and they went to the media. A host of self-appointed social engineers are now pontificating about how churches who preach against homosexuality are guilty of hate-speech. This is disturbing, but not surprising.
I am well aware that many have, in the name of Christ, been hateful towards those who are ensnared in the sin of homosexuality. Such a disposition is inexcusable and worthy of contempt. However, this does not change the fact that God identifies homosexual acts as being sinful and under His just condemnation. And it is loving for us to say so.
What I find most disturbing about this debacle however is not the attacks by the world on the church. This is to be expected (see Ephesians 6). Rather, what is most disturbing is that at least some of the leadership of the church has aligned with the world in affirming homosexuality as a biblically legitimate lifestyle and therefore they affirm church members in this. They should simply read, among other passages, Ephesians 5:1–7.
Let me be clear: Homosexual actions are sinful. They are not “fitting.” I dare not be crude, but the question of whether or not homosexuality is God-blessed can be easily answered by a simple study of anatomy. Physiologically, not to mention morally, such behaviour does not “fit” the way God has created men and women to be.
But—and we need to hear and to heed this—homosexuality, like drunkenness, anger, racism, thieving, lying, and any other sin—is a sin that can be forgiven. The church is called to affirm people as people, but because we love people, we will not affirm their sinful behaviour. They need deliverance. And we need to do all we can to rescue them.
We can never be more loving than God, and He says that sexual sin, including homosexual sin, is to be condemned and repented of.
Again, the contrast here is between godly, constructive love and ungodly, destructive lust. Let us reach out to rescue them.
I remember some years ago reading a story about an Alaskan Airlines flight attendant who, during one particular flight, noticed a young girl travelling with an older man. The girl looked scared and dishevelled, while the man was well-groomed and distinguished. The flight attendant instinctively felt that something was wrong, and so she went to the bathroom and left a message on the mirror with her number, telling the girl to let her know if she needed help. She then got the girl’s attention and indicated to her to go to the bathroom. The girl saw the message and alerted the flight attendant that she indeed needed help. The flight attendant in turn alerted the pilot, who contacted the police, who were waiting when the flight landed. The man was arrested for sex trafficking, and the girl was rescued. That is a wonderful illustration of how biblical love reaches out to rescue those ensnared in a world of lust.
Paul next mentions “covetousness,” which is a word that we normally associate with avarice or greed. It is sometimes used in the context of being greedy for material things such as money, but here I believe the context demands that it be interpreted as greed for sensuality.
This usage is not unheard of. Indeed, when God revealed the tenth commandment He said, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Exodus 20:17). Kent Hughes helpfully observes, “‘Covetousness’ is sexually freighted in this context. It means greed for someone else’s body. Marcus Barth renders it as ‘insatiability.’”8
Covetousness is not merely about silver; it is about sex as too.
As I just typed the word “sex” while preparing, I misspelled it by adding a “t.” My spell checker did not pick up “sext” as a spelling error, because our culture is so greedy about sex that “set” is actually a word in our common vocabulary. Apparently, there are even sex robots being developed. There is a problem, folks. God’s good gift of sexual desire, to be satisfied in the heterosexual marriage bed, has for many become an unbridled sinful disorder. The concept of “sexual addiction” reveals the covetous, insatiable nature of sensual lust. Mick Jagger may have been crude, but at least he was honest, when he confessed that he could “get no satisfaction.”
Paul connects “covetousness” with “idolatry” (v. 5; Colossians 3:5). And here it is used in the context of sexual immorality. The principle should not be overlooked: Covetousness “is conceived of as idolatry … because it makes a god of what it seeks to possess.”9 Our culture is “given over to” such sexual idolatry and, like Paul, our spirits should be troubled (Acts 17:16).
Christian, our desires are to be for God and for godliness as prescribed by Him. Our desires are to be to love as God loves, to love others, not to use others (see 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8). Rather than defrauding others, we are to serve others. Be done with immorality.
The Christian is to live a life of such sexual purity that sexual immorality is “not even named among” us. We are to live lives of such loving purity that it could never be said of us that we are guilty of sexual sin. The reason is clear, sexual immorality is not “fitting for saints.”
Paul’s point is that purity is proper. There is a propriety of purity that is to characterise the Christian. May it never be “named” of us that we are sexually immoral. After all, we are holy ones—saints. We have been set apart from such a godless lifestyle by God Himself. We therefore need to beware that, in the words of Kevin DeYoung, there are not holes in our holiness. We are the bride of Christ. Let us be a pure one.
We Are to Repudiate Vulgarity and Replace It with Gratitude
Not only are we to repudiate loveless because lust-fuelled sensual acts, we are also to repudiate the loveless because lust-fuelled sensual speech.
“Filthiness” speaks of obscenities or foul talk. It speaks of “all that is shameless, all that would make a morally sensitive person ashamed must be excluded.”10
“Foolish talking” means silly, moronic or stupid talk. It could be translated “buffoonery.” It is the kind of talk that makes light of that which is holy. For instance, stupid talk minimises God’s beautiful design for sexuality—speaking about sexual matters unnecessarily or inappropriately.
“Coarse jesting” (“crude joking” in the ESV) means vulgar wit. It would include sexual innuendo. Hughes is spot on: “Humor that flirts with the boundaries of what is proper can easily degenerate.”11 Don’t become comfortable with that which is corrupt. The consequences will be detrimental.
Paul’s point is that none of this is “fitting” for a saint. None of this looks good on one known to be a Christian. None of this kind of talk is proper for “dear children” of God. None of this displays the love of God. None of this is compatible with a life lived in the shadow of the cross. None of this is self-sacrificing for the good of another nor for the glory of God.
As we have seen in recent studies, when we put away bad things, we are also to put on good and better things. So it is here.
We are to put off worthless speech as we put on worthwhile speech. Rather than dragging God’s gift of sexuality through the sewerage of the sinful world system, we are to exalt it by an attitude of thanksgiving for His gifts and for His rules for these gifts.
Chapell asks, and then answers, “Why is thanksgiving the proper substitute for impurity? Because it is the replacement of idol worship with worship of God.”12
A Healthy View of Sex
The Christian should be grateful for God’s good gift of sex. And because we appreciate it as having come from the hand of a good God, we are to obey His rules for how we are to enjoy the gift.
The reason why Christians should dislike and avoid vulgarity is not because we have a warped view of sex, and are either ashamed or afraid of it, but because we have a high and holy view of it as being in its right place God’s good gift, which we do not want to see cheapened. All God’s gifts, including sex, are subjects for thanksgiving, rather than for joking. To joke about them is bound to degrade them; to thank God for them is the way to preserve their worth as the blessings of a loving Creator.13
When you think about it, one reason for the tragic abuse of sex in our day is precisely because of a lack of appreciation for how God has designed it. Our ingratitude for God’s rules leads to defiance of them. The result is the same as the original sin: death, destruction and disorder. And, I might add, disease.
The Christian, however, is grateful and trusts that God knows what is best for us. Therefore, we thank Him for the fences and for the protection that He gives us.
I remember once reading the account of a teenager who told his grandfather that his school had distributed free condoms to encourage students to engage in safe sex. “What did people use in your day for safe sex?” asked the boy. The wise grandfather answered, “We wore a wedding ring.”
God’s rules for His gift of sex are good for us. Be thankful.
Let me add a practical word: A gratitude attitude will go a long way towards delivering us from unwholesome speech.
Imagine that you are at the water cooler at work, or at the lunch table, or in the locker room at school, and the talk becomes unclean. How can you combat this? How can you show the love of Christ? Say something that expresses gratitude for God. This will change the subject almost immediately! “I am grateful that God saved me from dehumanising women.” “I am grateful that perhaps one day God will give me a wife (or a husband) with whom I can then enjoy sexual pleasures.” “I am grateful that by God’s grace I now know that there is more to life than sexual pursuits.” “I am grateful that what God has done for me, he can do for you as well.” It may not make you popular but it will help you to maintain your purity.
Our Walk Arises from Our Identification
Finally, the Christian walk arises from Christian identification: “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (vv. 5–7).
Living in a sex-obsessed world is not easy. It never has been. The Ephesian believers knew this. Believers throughout history have experienced this. And our day is no different. We face the same onslaughts. But don’t despair, because God’s people throughout church history have been empowered by God to live a life of sexual purity. They have been empowered by God to replace self-centred lust with sacrificial love. And a powerful motivation is our identification. Our walk of love arises from our identity in Christ. This is powerful enough to overcome the lusts of this world. Bryan Chapell pastorally helps us with the observation that, when it comes to overcoming the lusts of the world, “we are to imitate God because we are his children. Nothing else will do any more; nothing else will satisfy.”14 We are back where we began.
These verses certainly point us to the fear of the Lord. As Stott summarises, “the immoral or impure person envisaged here is one who has given himself up without shame or penitence to this way of life…. Such people, whose lust has become an idolatrous obsession, will have no share in the perfect kingdom of God.”15 Simply put, they are not Christian. Let that sink in. This is serious. This is sobering. The fear of God is a wonderful means towards our moral purity. It is a wonderful motivation to help us to order our lives, morally and otherwise, according to God’s standard. It truly is a means towards us living free from the bondage of sin.
However, Paul is persuaded that his readers are not under God’s wrath. He is contrasting them with “the sons of disobedience.” That is, Paul is reminding them that they are in Christ and therefore they are to live like those who have been delivered from condemnation.
Paul is not saying that one who commits sexual sin is not a Christian. In fact, Paul is not even saying that the person who often falls into sins of immorality is not a Christian. He seems to be saying that the person who is so in love with his sexual sin that it has become his god (“idolater”) is in danger of not being in God’s kingdom. Such an individual is not a Christian.
The person who loves his sin more than he loves his Saviour is not a Christian. He is still in the kingdom of darkness and needs yet to be delivered to the kingdom of God’s dear Son.
Paul is probably saying, “You need to know this” rather than, “You already know this.” “It is an appeal to their consciousness of the incompatibility of such sins with the inheritance of the Kingdom of God.”16 We need to know this as well. Do you?
Paul has previously mentioned the “inheritance” of Christians (1:11, 14, 18). Those who have been born again are heirs of God because they are His children (5:1). But the heir of God looks different than those who are not. Those who belong to God love God and so they are grieved when they sin against Him (4:30). When they commit sexual sin they are deeply grieved. They turn from their idolatrous sin to serve the living and true God.
Thankfully, the true Christian takes God’s words seriously and so the fear of the Lord drives them back to Him. They then experience His love (5:1) and this motivates them to imitate Him and to repudiate any and all that is unlike Him.
But further, because they belong to God, they refuse to listen to the lies of those who pronounce words devoid of truth (“empty words”). Austen is precisely correct: “The empty words of the sons of disobedience … are a threat to the church.”17 And God’s children will be alert to this and will refuse to heed them. We will reject “all the propagandists of permissiveness.”18
We know that such a lifestyle deserves, and will experience God’s “wrath.” But thank God, we are different; we have escaped it.
Are you enslaved to and by sexual sin? How would you characterise your speech and your actions? What would your cell phone and computer and movie collection reveal? Do you believe in God’s wrath? You must! And you must flee it by fleeing to Christ.
Have you fled to Him? Then you are no longer a “son of disobedience.” You have been both transferred and transformed (1 Corinthians 6:9–11). By God’s grace, be motivated to live like a son of God—like of a son of obedience.
Motivation to Separation
It is clear that the world in which we live is saturated in sensuality. Lust is a driving force. So, how does the Christian live as a Christian in such an immoral cultural milieu?
Paul tells us that, in addition to turning away from the empty, vacuous words affirming us to live like we want (v. 6), we must also separate from sinful partnerships.
Now we need to be careful here. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul makes it clear that if a so-called Christian refuses to repent of sexual sin, he is to be excluded from the fellowship of the church. But he also makes it clear that we are not to isolate ourselves from all immoral people. In fact he says that, barring our death, this is impossible (1 Corinthians 5:9–10). Jesus made it clear that His disciples are to live in this world (John 17:15).
What Paul is exhorting here is that we refuse to be partners in sin with those driven by lust. We are to beware our associations and to avoid those who will bring us down.
In other words, you may have no choice over whom you work with. But you do have a choice when it comes to what you do with them after work. You may have no choice over whom you go to school with but you do have a choice with whom you fraternise with. Avoid a fraternity with those whose lives are characterised by the lusts of this world. You may think that you are strong. But it is usually those who are the ones who most readily fall.
There is much more that can be said, but let me close with two things.
First, rather than partnering with those who are dominated by lust, partner and pattern your life with and after those who are persisting in the imitation of God. You and I need help to overcome the lusts of this world.
The Lord has provided this in several ways, not the least being the body of Christ. Get connected with the body and get disconnected from those imitating the god of this world.
Second, live in the shadow of the cross of Christ. In essence, this is the theme of this passage.
Christian, if you are guilty of sexual sin, then remember the gospel. Come to Christ for forgiveness. Ephesians 4:32–5:2 could not be any clearer that God forgives sinners.
Christian, forgive your brother or sister in Christ who is guilty of sexual sin. Love them with the love of God. Though you may not be guilty of the lust of sexual sin, neither are you to be guilty of the sinful lust for revenge.
Perhaps you not a Christian. Then become one. Repent of your sin as you turn away from your idols and trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, the one who gave Himself as an offering and sacrifice to God on behalf of sinners—sinners like me; sinners like you.
- Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1977). ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:352. ↩
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 149. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 144. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 191. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 238. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 191. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 154. ↩
- A. Skevington Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 11:68. ↩
- Foulkes, Ephesians, 147. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 156. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 239. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 193. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 249. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 197. ↩
- Salmond, The Epistles to the Ephesians, 3:353. ↩
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 178. ↩
- Wood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 11:69. ↩