(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
To the modern Christian, imitating God is unthinkable. He is too holy, too different, too other to be imitated! You see, when we think of God, we think of God’s authority and power, his omniscience and omnipresence. How on earth could we imitate that? Therefore, we ignore this verse, the theme sentence of chapter 5.
But Paul immediately explains himself. He’s not asking us to imitate God’s omniscience. He wants us to imitate God’s character, as revealed in Jesus. And we do this by walking in love.
And we walk in love by giving ourselves up for the church — becoming sacrifices to God.
We should immediately notice the parallel with —
(Eph 5:25-28 ESV) 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Paul’s command to husbands regarding their wives is also Paul’s command to all Christians regarding all other Christians. It’s just an application of the broader principle. We see the necessity of a husband making sacrifices for his wife, but we often fail to see the same necessity in church life. Rather, we bring our secular, paganized attitudes into the church, making selfish demands and expecting to be treated as consumers are treated in a store — given choices and the right to make whatever choices suits us. We demand a smorgasbord of programs and ministries, and feel entitled to the services of the church for the low price of attendance and a very modest contribution.
But the price of membership is that we must be like God, and that means being like Jesus, and that means a sacrifice to God. Maybe all church membership meetings should begin with a reminder of this very point.
This takes us back to an earlier thought: we become like whom we worship. If we worship an imperious, arbitrary god who makes demands just to test our love, we become the same way. If we worship the true God who sacrificed himself for us, we become like him. You can discover who are god/God is by looking at how we behave toward each other.
(Eph 5:3-5 ESV) 3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Notice that Paul warns against —
* Crude joking
* Foolish talk
* Filthiness (indecency)
* Sexual immorality
We tend to emphasize the ban on sexual immorality in our thinking and preaching, but Paul understands that sexual immorality arises from other, easier, lower threshhold sins. It comes from wanting something that’s not yours, from flirting, from speaking of sex as a matter of humor and lightness, rather than as the deeply spiritual thing that it is.
The TV is filled with comedies built on one sexual joke after another, all leading toward an attitude that sex is lighthearted fun, when in fact its profoundly religious. Indeed, the uniting of a husband and wife in marriage and the marriage bed is a step toward Eden, toward the unity of male and female in the Garden with God. It’s a celebration of a gift from God, enjoyed in a unity that’s most like the unity of Christ and his church.
The mistake the Victorians made was to treat sex as dirty and shameful. The mistake modern culture makes is to treat it as trivial. It is neither. The fact that married couples have and enjoy sex is no secret and no cause for shame. But neither is sexual casual and the basis of juvenile humor. Both attitudes are sin.
It’s not merely that we shouldn’t make dirty jokes at church. It’s that we should hold sex as a reverent act, done to honor God and celebrate his blessings on our marriages. Just as Paul said, instead of these sins, we should engage in thanksgiving — for our husbands and wives and the delights we receive from each other by the power of God.
Children of light
(Eph 5:6-12 ESV) 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 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. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.
“Sons of disobedience” is in contrast with “be imitators of God, as beloved children” from 5:1. Children imitate their parents, growing up striving to be just like them (sometimes, despite our best efforts not to be like our parents!) We are to be “children of light” who wish to please our Father.
Paul is surely here referring to the pagan practices of First Century Rome. For example, the typical Grecian city had many banquets and feasts at which prostitutes would be provided for after-dinner sex, after a time of drunkenness and gluttony. These weren’t backroom, hidden events. This is how the citizenry celebrated the arrival of a visiting dignitary.
The Greeks allowed husbands to freely engage in adultery, with Plutarch declaring that husbands show respect for their wives by engaging in licentious sex with other women to avoid exposing their wives to such things!
In many Greek cities, tradesmen had to join a guild to be allowed to practice their craft, and these guilds had a patron god or goddess, honored through banquets — which would involve drunkenness, gluttony, and prostitution. The social pressure to participate was surely very great.
As a result, sexual immorality was not only built into the social fabric of society, it was practiced in honor of pagan gods. No wonder Paul was so concerned! And we see why Paul told us “do not become partners with them.” It would be all but impossible to be in business with a pagan and not participate in idolatry. Indeed, every profession and trade had a patron deity who must be honored.
(Eph 5:13-14 ESV) 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
It is, of course, impossible to read “Awake, O sleeper” and not recall Bach’s interpretation —
Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past;
The Bridegroom comes, awake;
Your lamps with gladness take;
Alleluia! / And for His marriage feast prepare
For ye must go and meet Him there.
(Translated from the German.) The quotation appears to be from an early Christian hymn, otherwise lost to history, but perhaps inspired by Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-13). (And what better defense of instrumental music in worship?)
As Paul interprets the text, Christ is the light, and Christ awakens the dead and makes the hidden visible. We cannot see truly what the world is like except through the light of Jesus. It’s only through the gospel of Christ that we can distinguish light from dark, the truth from the lie.
Making the best use of the time
(Eph 5:15-17 ESV) 15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
The days are evil; therefore, understand the Lord’s will. Notice the urgency. Time is limited and how we use our time matters. Paul is not speaking so much of time management as the urgency of using what time we have for the right purposes.
“Walk” is a persistent metaphor in Ephesians —
(Eph 2:1-2 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–
(Eph 2:10 ESV) 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
(Eph 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
(Eph 4:17 ESV) 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.
(Eph 5:2 ESV) 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(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 5:15-16 ESV) 15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
We are to give up the walking in trespasses and sins, as the Gentiles do, as unwise, and instead walk in good works, worthy of God’s call, in love, sacrificially, living for the good and right and true, as wise. In short, Paul calls us to a radically different way of life. We have to see secular, pagan life as what it is, in the light of the truth revealed in Jesus, and instead live selflessly, sacrificially, and submissively.
We Westerners are blind to the radical nature of the call, because selfish, self-centered living is at the core of our culture. Our economic theory is based on the assumption that people will make economic decisions in their self-interest only. Our political system is based on the assumption that people will vote in their self-interest only. Our court system is based on the assumption that each side should advocate for its self-interest only.
And as a result, we find feeling, thinking, and acting selfishly to be entirely normal, even commendable. And our churches kowtow to this attitude by marketing themselves to the self-interest of prospective members.
But Paul calls us to evaluate the world in light of the gospel, and the gospel is about self-sacrifice by God, through Jesus, and the call of God for us to be like Jesus. We don’t really know how to do this, but this is the key to it all. From a pastoral perspective, the principle is simple enough: never, ever let the members get their way when they are behaving selfishly. Worldliness cannot win in the church through politics.