(Eph 4:25 ESV) 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
I’d like to suggest an unorthodox understanding of this passage. It is, of course, absolutely true that we should speak truthfully and not lie, but I think Paul’s thought here takes us in a different direction.
Paul teaches us to put away “falsehood.” The Greek is actually “the lie” (definite article, singular noun). Paul uses “lie” to refer to the claims of pagan gods —
(Rom 1:25 ESV) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
(2Th 2:11-12 ESV) 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The “lie” is the false claim of paganism about the nature of the world. “Truth” is the truth about Jesus, the gospel —
(Eph 1:13 ESV) In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
(Eph 4:20-22 ESV) 0 But that is not the way you learned Christ! — 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,
(Eph 4:24 ESV) 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
(Eph 5:7-10 ESV) 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
(Eph 6:14-15 ESV) 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
“Truth” is not all true statements. “Truth” is the truth found only in Jesus, the true way of salvation and the true way of living. Therefore, Paul is commanding us to speak “truth” — the truth about Jesus — to each other.
Paul is urging to speak in gospel terms to each other, rather than in pagan terms. Our speech reflects our values, and our values must be truth values. We therefore speak about what’s important to God, because having been transformed into God’s likeness, what’s important to him is important to us. Therefore, selfishness, materialism, greed, pride, and such are banned from our speech — especially our internal conversations. We are often at our most worldly when speaking to fellow church members!
(Our elders meetings should therefore be meetings where the gospel of truth is discussed and applied to church leadership, not where we argue over which constituency gets its way this time.)
He is speaking about fellow Christians, as we declares we are “all members of each other” — that is, members of the same body (5:30). “Member” is from the Greek word for a body part, not someone who joined an organization. We are all part of each other’s body!
Therefore, we must care about each other as we care for ourselves. Worldly speech, reflecting pagan values, harms the body and is therefore unloving. Speech that’s driven by the gospel, however, builds up the body.
And so … what is the modern equivalent of “the lie”? What are the false gods of 21st Century America?
(Eph 4:26-27 NIV) 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.
Paul quotes from a Psalm —
(Psa 4:1-8 ESV) Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
The thought of the Psalm is that even though we find ourselves humiliated by men who seek after lies, we should not let our anger turn to sin. Rather, we should sleep peacefully, knowing that God will put joy in our hearts. And this is Paul’s point.
The usual interpretation — which is a good one! — is to resolve your conflicts quickly, especially in marriage. Amen! But the Psalm Paul quotes is actually speaking of letting go of the conflict and giving it up to God. You see, yes, we absolutely must try to resolve interpersonal conflicts, especially within the church (which is the context). But sometimes those conflicts can’t be easily resolved. Sometimes the other person won’t change, won’t apologize, or won’t accept our apology.
That doesn’t mean there are no grounds for anger. Anger is not a sin — so long as it doesn’t become an occasion for sin. But we can’t hold on to the anger. Rather, we must find the joy that God gives and learn to lie down and sleep in peace.
(Eph 4:28 ESV) Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
Now, we know it’s wrong to steal. But in Western society, we’d tell a thief to work to “support himself.” We are all about self-reliance. But Paul tells the thief to give up stealing so he can “have something to share”!
The goal, you see, isn’t self-sufficiency. That’s American. The goal is to be like God, and God gives to others.
(Eph 4:29 ESV) Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
“Corrupting” is always used in the Bible of rotten fruit. There are some things that are nasty by nature, but others that are supposed to be good but sometimes go rotten. And this is kind of rottenness Paul is referring to. Our speech should be good fruit — sweet, nutritious, and refreshing — not putrid and rotting.
“Grace” is, of course, grace — but Paul’s use forces us to remember what grace really means: undeserved generosity. To “give grace” is to be generous. We speak with grace when we speak generously, being kinder and more thoughtful than the hearer deserves.
I’m not good at this, but I know some people with the gift for speaking grace. Some of my fellow elders are much, much better at this than me. They have the empathy to know what the other person needs to hear and the grace to say it and say it well. I’m working on it.
And, of course, how gracious we will be to each other depends on how gracious we believe “grace” is.
Grieving the Spirit
(Eph 4:30 ESV) And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
To “grieve” is to give grief, that is, to make that person sorrowful at a loss. The Spirit is a person, and the Spirit loves us. Therefore, when we do things contrary to what’s best for us and the Kingdom, the Spirit mourns.
Of course, Paul’s instructions are all about how the church can be the Kingdom — how we can live as redeemed people who are, individually and as a community, like God. How we speak, how we manage our anger, how we express Christian values is a very large part of how the church participates in “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And when we refuse to do our part, there are tears shed in heaven.
(Eph 4:31-32) Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Paul summarizes how we can avoid grieving the Spirit — we have to have the right kind of hearts. He addresses our emotional state, because sin is driven by having the wrong emotional make up. If we’re filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, we’re going to sin. But if we learn to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, we won’t.
Now, the key to the passage, I think, is in the phrase: “as God in Christ forgave you.” And for many Christians, this is a huge stumbling block. If you grew up in 20th Century Church of Christ theology, you believe that you likely aren’t entirely forgiven. Indeed, you’ve been taught that forgiveness only comes when you realize your sin, repent, confess, make restitution, and ask for forgiveness. Anything short of that checklist, and you remain damned in your sins. And who has ever met that standard as to every single sin in his life?
And so, if that’s how reluctant God is to forgive us, how likely are to forgive others? You see, we become like who we worship. If we worship a god who is reluctant to forgive, insisting on strict adherence to a long list of requirements, then we’ll be unforgiving, hard, mean-spirited people. But if we worship the true God, the God who seeks out sinners, giving himself in the cross to forgive — a God who would die to forgive — then we’ll be the same.