The moral revolution - Ephesians 4:17 - 5:20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Did you realise that it is getting much easier to read the Bible? By that I don't simply mean that that we have so many modern translations to choose from that more or less anyone today can read it and grasp its main meaning, but rather that it is so much easier to see how it applies, how bang up to date and relevant it really is. One of the main reasons for this is that the world of the first century, which was when the NT was written, is so remarkably like our own. Let's take two examples: sex and speech. In Ephesus, one of the major cities to which Paul is writing in this letter, sex was a religion. It was here that you had the great temple dedicated to the goddess Diana. The place was massive, one of the great wonders of the world, upheld by 100 large sculptured columns. It was also a fertility cult, you worshipped through sex. Those who were 'enlightened' could do what they wanted with their bodies. It was only those who were in the spiritual dark who thought they should practice restraint. Just as in our world, so in theirs- sex sold. Now you may think that it is going a little too far to claim that anyone today would view sex as a religion. But you would be wrong. Margaret Sanger was an American who in the 1940's was one of the pioneers and leading champions of sexual freedom and one of the main driving forces behind the contraceptive pill. This is what she said: 'Through sex, mankind may attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform our world, which will light up the only path to an earthly paradise.' She also chided Christian ethics as 'the cruel morality of self-denial and sin.' You know, that could have been written in Ephesus. And our society has followed Mary Sanger all the way.
Then think about speech. Someone once said that 'a crude culture makes a coarse people'-the bad eventually drives out the good. Well, Ephesus was a crude culture. And it is only a short step from degeneration in the area of sex to a corruption in the area of speech, because what you think about eventually comes out in what you talk about, and what you talk about reinforces what you think about. And so Ephesus had crudity of language, lewdness and joking which was the stuff of the public baths as well as the street corners. And so with us. It is therefore not surprising that over the last 40 years or so that with the rise of open promiscuity there has also been a rise in verbal obscenity. Now I come from a mining background where swearing was part and parcel of the culture. But 30 years ago even here there were standards. Men, like my Dad who would use all sorts of language down the pit would not dream of using the same language in the pub with women present. That has gone. Just last week I was in town passing by Argos and a young Mum with a little girl who couldn't have been more than four years old was coming out with a stream of abuse which would make a trooper blush. She should then not be surprised and probably wouldn't even notice when her daughter uses the same swear words
Now all of this goes to show, what the Bible and commonsense repeatedly tell us, that what we believe effects the way we behave. Creed eventually issues in conduct. There is no such thing an absolute 'unbeliever' everyone believes in something. If you believe as did Mary Sanger that celibacy is bad for your health, then you will be sorely tempted to go down the road of so called sexual freedom won't you? If you believe that we make our own standards as individuals, then why not use the most obnoxious language in public, who is to say otherwise?
And as the gap between the Christian and the non-Christian world widens, then the opportunity to show what a difference being a Christian makes increases- if we are going to be consistent. And that is what Paul is at pains to show in the section we are looking at together this morning.
It is by contrasting the way the non-Christian and the Christian view things that Paul sets the scene for the radical differences in lifestyle which follow. And that Christians are to be different is not an option it is a necessity- 4: 17: 'So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.' Paul spells it out and insists on it, not as a matter of his own personal opinion but as a divinely inspired apostle, 'in the Lord.' We are, he says, not to be engaged in 'futile thinking'. And by that term Paul doesn't mean having faulty reasoning, but rather faulty viewing, what we would today call having a pagan 'mind set'. What is that? Well, it is viewing life as if God were not there- 'separated from the life of God' v18 and being ignorant ( the word from which we get our term agnostic) because of a 'hardening of the heart', that is deliberately setting ourselves up as rebels against our Maker. And far from this leading to a new moral enlightenment, it has the exact opposite effect; we become morally insensitive, driven by all sorts of sensual impulses- v 19. In effect Paul is arguing, 'Say goodbye to God and you say goodbye to reality.' Say goodbye to God's standards and say hello to misery. Instead of society becoming more tolerant it becomes more intolerable. It is one of the greatest lies that Satan has ever devised to believe that we can do what we like so long as no one gets hurt. Someone always gets hurt by sin and society as a whole inevitably becomes the loser.
But the Christian's mind set is different. Just listen to the number of references to things which involve the mind in v 20 'You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.' So becoming a Christian isn't just a subjective experience; it is a mind changing revolution. Interestingly enough, this is the only place in the NT where Paul speaks simply of 'Jesus' and not the 'Lord' Jesus or Jesus 'Christ.' And it would seem that the reason for this is that he is emphasizing the historical person of Jesus, his life and his teaching. That is why when the Gospel is explained to people it is good to use the Gospels to do so because then we come face to face with Jesus as he is and not as we simply imagine him to be-that is what Christianity Explored does. That is also why once these people were converted they were discipled in the teachings of Jesus, having their minds immersed in the Sermon on the Mount for instance. When that happens you can't be duped into thinking that Christianity is just a matter of what the world believes and behaves but with an exciting religious bit thrown in. It is a total change, like having a complete change of clothing-v 22. So you put off the old rags, and you put on a completely new set, a new self in which we are meant to become more and more like God. In fact it is a matter of going in an entirely new direction with a whole new set of habits and priorities. This comes out in the original by the term Paul uses to describe the difference. He speaks of 'walking' which is translated as 'live' in the pew Bibles. So, v 17 should read, 'You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do', 5: 1 'walk in love'; 5:8 'Walk as children of light.' Now could it be that the reason why you are finding life so difficult at the moment is because you have not really started out on this walk? You are still going in the wrong direction? You believe in Jesus but you have not put on Jesus? You may even like the idea of Jesus but have not really paid any serious attention to the teaching of Jesus. If so then today would be a good day to change that.
So let's see how this walking as children of light works itself out in the way we use three of the gifts that God has given us, noting that the greater the gift the greater the potential for good or evil: the gift of speech, the gift of sex and the gift of service.
First, the gift of speech. Now speech is an amazing gift. With it we can make people laugh or cry, declare war or peace, inform the mind or deceive it. It is one of the things which distinguish us from other animals and it is something about us which is most God-like, for we worship a God of the Word. Words have the most potent power and that is why they have to be used so carefully. I don't often watch them, but when I do flick the channel and come across a soap like 'Eastenders' why is it that there always seem to be a row, people going at each other hammer and tongs? What is more someone always seems to be deceiving someone else- 'telling porkies,' to use the rhyming slang. Well, the writers tell me that it's simply a reflection of the way people conduct themselves today. Paul would agree. But it is not to be so amongst the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. First of all, says Paul- be honest-v 25. We are not to pull the wool over people's eyes. Instead we are to speak the truth. Why? 'Because we are all members of one another'. This is more a less a quote from the OT prophet -Zechariah chapter8 which looks forward to God establishing a new community of righteousness and truth. Well, we are that new community. You can't work together properly if you can't trust each other, and truth telling is vital to the fostering of trust. Second, be calm-v26 '"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold' and again in v 31, 'Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.' It is so wrong when a Christian blows up. Sure all sorts of things might make us angry, but the problem with anger which is not dealt with is that it spills over into these other things such a slander and malice, giving the devil a perfect foothold in the church, destroying that wonderful God-given unity which we looked at last week. As the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, advised leaders 'Get mad and then get it over.' No, a Christian is not to blow up, he or she is to build up- v32, 'Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.' Tell me, who would you rather have working with you in church, someone who at the slightest provocation explodes? So you are always walking on egg shells with a person like that- it is a form of bullying of course. Or would you rather be with someone who always has an encouraging word to say, who pours oil on troubled waters? Well, says Paul, then you be that person. Thirdly, be wholesome v 29, 'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.' Also 5: 4, 'Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.' Do you know what Paul means when he says 'unwholesome talk'? It is anything which is crude, obscene, demeaning and harmful to good relationships. That joke full of sexual innuendo which is embarrassing and insensitive; that snide remark and carping criticism; the lurid description which pollutes the mind, that swear word- Christians are not to be doing any of those things and if they are they should repent forthwith. Instead they are to say things which are helpful, which will make the person who hears go away and say, 'You know, that was such a pleasant conversation. I feel so much better for that.' The Christian's speech then, is to be characterised by thanks not curses.
And so to the gift of sex -5:3, 'But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.' And v 5, 'For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.' As we have seen, illicit sex was linked with idolatry in Ephesus. And it is very difficult to see it in any other way here in Britain. It really is strange that Christians are sometimes accused of being 'anti-sex'-that is as absurd as being accused of anti-eating. Sex, like eating, is one of the most treasured gifts that God has given us. But like eating, a good thing can become a bad thing when good use is exchanged for abuse. So food is good, gluttony is wrong- to live for food, to be endlessly thinking about food, to eat and eat without restraint, whenever and whatever ,is hardly a sane recipe for a good life is it? The same goes with sex. But physically, emotionally and spiritually there is far more at stake and especially for the woman. Despite the lies of people like Margaret Sanger, so called sexual freedom becomes a terrible slavery. It is the woman and not the man who has to give most of her time to the baby unintentionally conceived. It is the woman's body, not the man's which is traumatised by the abortion (now a third of pregnancies tragically end this way in the UK). It is the woman who often feels the insecurity the most when 'living together' is taken on as an alternative to marriage, and she is often the one left to cope with her emotions in tatters when the boyfriend moves on. That is not the way God intended it to be-people. The deepest expression of a man's love for a woman and a woman's love for a man in sexual intercourse is only to take place within the security of marriage. And amongst Christians, says Paul, there should not even be a whiff of anything else going on. In fact else comes under the prohibitive term 'sexual immorality' in v3. And so things need to get sorted out if they haven't been already. And what is spiritually disastrous if we persist with a mind set which goes along with sex outside marriage, is that we forfeit eternity and come under God's wrath. That is what the text says. Sure, there will be people like Sanger, Margaret Mead, Kinsey, the FPA and others who will try and deceive us, and especially our young, with 'empty words' v 6, but we have not only God on our side but the evidence too, for we can show that God's ways are the better ways and that anything else in the long term destroys. This, I think. lies behind what Paul says in 5:8-14, 'that we are to have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose themexposed by the light becomes visible for it is the light that makes everything visible.' And then comes the quote of a verse from an early Christian hymn about waking up, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." In other words the difference of living a Christian lifestyle should act like a switching on of the light for a non-Christian, a divine wake up call. Let me give you an actual example of the way this works. A friend of mine was talking to a Christian doctor who was at a medical conference at which the question of AIDS was being discussed. He dared to stand up and say, 'I believe there is no such thing as safe sex. There are biblical standards of sex, and if we want to deal with the issue of AIDS we will only begin to deal with them when we actually follow what the Bible teaches about sex.' How do you think that was received? You guessed, he was howled down as being unloving and intolerant. But the interesting thing was this, over coffee a good number of his colleagues came up to him and whispered in his ear, 'Of course you are right. But you can't say that sort of thing nowadays.' You see, we have to courageously keep speaking the truth and living the truth until people can see the folly and the consequences of living in the dark, in the hope that some will turn to the light and experience the life transforming power of the Gospel for themselves.
But finally, Paul points us to the gift of service. In fact everything we have been looking at could be grouped under this heading, for this is what we were saved for, this is why we are brought together as a church- to serve on another. It is as practical as a former thief or layabout doing some hard graft in order to give to others in need-4:28. It's as down to earth as realising that when we come to church on a Sunday we do so with the main thought in our minds being not 'what can I get out of it' but 'what can I put into it'. We build each other up by ministering God's word to one another, and one effective way of doing this is by singing songs which are full of rich, edifying biblical truths. Sure, as Paul says in 5:19 we make music in our heart to the Lord', but at the same time we are 'speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs'. It certainly does me the world of good when I come here and people sing away and mean it, I feel built up- so please keep building me up and I will keep building you up. Is that a deal? This, by the way, is why it is so important to keep coming every week because if you are not here, we cannot benefit from your ministry and you will not benefit from ours-so let us do each other a favour in the Lord and give ourselves over to his service.
So says, Paul in 5: 15 be careful how you walk. You can be wise or unwise; understanding or foolish; drunk with wine and out of control or filled with the Spirit and clear headed-but you can't be both. You are walking in one direction or the other. Now which is it going to be? You see, as we read in v 2,Jesus died for us because he loved us and he now wants us to imitate him by living like him not just talking the talk, but, as they say, walking the walk- the walk of love.
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