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. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:17-19 NIV)
We may find these verses quite harsh, let’s be honest; how many of your non-Christian friends would you describe as indulging “in every impurity” or “full of greed”? Most of my non-churchy friends throughout the years have been quite nice, quite normal, respectable and friendly Canadians. The difficulty with reading verses like these is that we sometimes have trouble getting our minds out of our culture and into the setting in which they were first written.
Back in Paul’s day there was good reason why Jews and Gentiles would never hang out together and would remain quite separate. They were worlds apart! The Jew would look down upon the Gentile as an immoral sinner, while the Gentile would look down upon the Jew as a stuck-up Bible carrying prude (except for the few would find their righteousness attractive). While we may worry about a downhill slide of morals in our day, the morality of the typical Canadian is quite commendable when compared to the typical Gentile of New Testament times. They really were indulging in every kind of impurity and really were full of greed. Perhaps from watching too many movies, we have an incorrect tendency to think of ancient cultures of being quite like our own.
Paul, therefore, is calling Gentile converts to stick out like sore thumbs in being very different from the society all around them at that time. Indeed in becoming Christ followers they will be taking on some good Jewish theology, recognizing one God, the sanctity of life, and the value of work for example. But in fact the Christian in following Jesus should be taking their righteousness a step further than the Jew: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NIV). Becoming a Christian would cause a Gentile person in that time and place to be very different indeed, and in so many ways.
So why do we not tend to see the same big differences between Christians and non-Christians in Canada today? First, we Canadians still enjoy the influence of Christianity on our society. So when a non-believer in Canada says something like “I am a good moral person” what they often do not realize is that their appeal is to a standard set by a more solid Christian past. Your typical twenty-first century Canadian, churchgoing or not, looks like a saint compared to your typical first century Ephesian and this is a result of the Christian influence on what is, and is not, considered good in society. Second, if the apostles were around today, they would likely have much to say to the Canadian Christian about our passion, or lack thereof. It may be a time for a change of clothes: “and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 NIV). And so what Paul has to say to the first century Ephesian in the rest of our passage, he has to say to us.
We do well then, to hear Paul’s call to imitate the kindness of God in a way that affects our honesty, handling of anger, goods & money, speech, and offence.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “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. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:25-5:2 NIV)
And we do well to hear Paul’s call to no longer follow society’s lead, but rather God’s, and therefore become leaders of society in matters of sexuality, speech, morals, drink, and worship:
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. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person 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. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:3-20 NIV)
Becoming a Christian required a clean break from the living and thinking of the surrounding society for any Gentile in Paul’s day. While it is sometimes easy enough for us as Christians to blend in with the comparatively more moral society around us, perhaps we need a clean break more than we know. Jesus makes a huge difference; may we learn to be different!