We all have limits as to what we will and will not wear. Even if we are not fashion conscious, there are boundaries we will not cross. For that matter, there are dress habits we will not give up. Battles are fought in homes over what we will and will not wear.
Back in Ephesians 4:20-24, the Apostle Paul presented a dress code for Christians. We are to put off the old self, which belongs to our former manner of life, and we are to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Beginning in 4:25, he then brings off the dress rack, examples of such dress. We are to put off falsehood and put on speaking the truth. We are to put off uncontrolled anger and put on self-control. We are to put off stealing and put on honest labor. We are to put off corrupting talk and put on talk that builds others up. In each case, Paul adds mind renewal thoughts to help in our understanding of why we are to make these changes. He picks back up the series in our passage. I am going to take verse 4 first, only because verses 3 and 5 flow so well together.
4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
In 4:29, Paul already spoke of corrupting talk. Here he is breaking down such talk into different categories. “Filthiness” is obscenity, profanity. James Boice identifies “foolish talk” with the “one who makes light of high standards of behavior, thinking that it is somehow funny or sophisticated to tear down anything that is high or praiseworthy or ennobling.” “Crude joking” is similar to foolish talk, only the emphasis is on vulgarity.
The mind renewal thought is that such things “are out of place.” Out of place with what? With being saints, as noted in verse 3. What does being a saint mean? James Boice explains:
"Every Christian is a saint, and every saint is a Christian. Moreover, every true Christian is in some sense separated from the world. It does not mean that we are taken out of the world. That is not the way God operates. But it does mean that we are removed from it in the sense of not really belonging to the world any longer. If we are truly Christ’s, we have a new nature, a new set of loyalties, and a new agenda. We belong to a different kingdom."
The old ways of talking and behaving don’t fit anymore, or at least they should not. What then should characterize our speech and behavior? What is the new dress for us to put on? Thanksgiving. “Let there be thanksgiving.”
That is an interesting contrast set up. One would think that coarse speech would be contrasted with modest speech. “Instead let your speech be modest” or, what Paul said earlier in 4:29: “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.”
Why thanksgiving? Let’s think about the “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” and “crude joking.” Such behavior and talk comes from the mind that is cynical, that delights in seeing and supposedly exposing the seamier side of life. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (4:8). To the crude mind, such things do not exist. There is nothing of true value to give thanks for. Everything is a joke, so that even God the Maker becomes a joke as his name is turned into a swear word.
The thankful mind, on the other hand, turns the ordinary into treasure. And the thankful mind that is consciously giving thanks to God, glorifies God the Maker. Do you understand this matter of putting on new dress? The Christian life – the life of the saint – cannot be reduced to what we put off, what we no longer do. It is to be identified more by what we put on, what we do for the glory of God. And so, it is not enough to control our tongue; rather, we need to use our tongue positively in thanksgiving and building up.
Let’s back up now to verse 3 and consider it with verse 5.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 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.
Paul presents a trio of behavior common in the old self. “Sexual immorality” comes from the Greek word porneia. You can easily recognize where we get the term “pornography.” Older versions translate the word as “fornication,” which I think more clearly explains the meaning of the word in Scripture, which is any sexual act outside the institution of marriage – marriage between a man and a woman.
Paul’s use of this word is illustrated in 1 Corinthians 7:1-3:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
The temptation that Paul is addressing is the simple one of a man and woman having relations outside marriage. Later on in the same chapter, Paul will advise men who are engaged and yet have been thinking that they should refrain from getting married. He tells them, “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin” (36). In both instances, the morality of the sexual act hinges on whether it is between a married man and woman.
“Impurity” takes the matter further, or more accurately, to a lower level. It is speaking of the sexual act, not simply as being outside marriage but in a degraded form, which, by the way, can take place in a marriage as well as outside. Impurity covers the acts that treat sex as a joke, as a business, as entertainment, as nothing more than a physical function. It carries with it no boundaries, and it uses sex for any and every purpose.
“Covetousness” in this context is the same as what Paul already spoke of in 4:19: “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” The same Greek term is used for “greedy” as for “covetousness” here. This fits in with the tenth commandment which forbids coveting, among other things, a neighbor’s wife. Again we are taken to a lower level – from sexual practices outside marriage to all manner of degrading practices to finally becoming so obsessed that sexual indulgence becomes an alternate religion, a way of life, an idol to be worshipped.
Paul’s point, though, is not that if you start with level one you will descend to level three, but that none of the levels are acceptable: everyone who fits into one or more of these categories “has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” He uses even stronger language in verse 6: “for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Clearly, Paul does not find sexual immorality to be funny, if only because of the stakes involved.
It is the first line in verse 6 that gives a little insight into what may be going on: Let no one deceive you with empty words. The trouble with the sins of sexual immorality and of the crude behavior lies not simply with believers giving in to the weakness of the flesh and following natural desire. It goes further in that they are giving in to the mindset of the world that rationalizes and even endorses such behavior.
You might recognize the kind of Greek dominated society in which they lived. The prevailing philosophy regarding sexual behavior was that most variations of behavior were acceptable and merely the following of a natural inclination, especially for men. Men and women did not marry for love. They married for social and financial advancement and security. It would not be expected, then, of husbands to be bound to one woman other than for her to bear his children.
It is easy enough then to know what the neighbors of the Christians would be saying to them. “Don’t be prudish. You are a good person, but don’t get carried away with suppressing what is natural. All your neighbors, including very good and kind people enjoy this. It doesn’t make you a worse person. Indeed, to restrain yourself will only make you repressed. Enjoy what God has given you. Enjoy the beauty of the body. Enjoy whatever feelings you have. You will actually enjoy life more.”
Paul identifies such reasoning as deceit with empty words. Do you know where the term “deceive” first appears? Genesis 3:13. When God asked Eve what she had done, she explained, “The serpent deceived me.” How did he deceive her? By speaking words that were appealing yet empty. The same thing is happening to some Ephesian Christians.
What then are the believers to do in response to those who entice (another way to translate the term) them with empty words that actually sound quite reasonable and inviting? In verse 7 he writes, “Therefore do not associate with them.” I don’t know why the ESV uses the term “associate.” There is only one other appearance of the word in the Bible and it is in 3:6, where Paul speaks of Gentiles (i.e. nonJews) as being “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and (here is the word) partakers of the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Even then, “partakers” does not carry the full meaning of the Greek term. What needs to be added is “co-partakers.” For those of you who love Latin and Greek roots, the Greek word is summetoxos. The prefix “sum” means “joint” or “co-.” Paul is saying in verse 7, don’t be joint partakers in the sinful practices of your neighbors. Don’t sit around and enjoy the degrading jokes; don’t join in with their sexual immorality. Don’t be like them.
Let’s recap. Paul has continued giving examples of what we are to put off from our old self and old ways, what we are to put on as part of our new self, and what we are to consider as we renew our minds. In our passage, we are to put off coarse speech and joking. Such speech is out of keeping with being saints. Instead, we are to put on thanksgiving. Secondly, we are to put off all forms of sexual immorality. Such behavior is not proper with being saints, and, indeed, may we should even question if we belong to God’s kingdom if we choose to pursue such living.
What are we to put on? Verses 1 and 2 could speak to that – be imitators of God and walk in love as Christ loved us. Surely such love contrasts the sexual immorality and coarse joking that degrade love. Or the putting on could be seen in the verse we will consider next week – “walk as children of light.”
This is a sobering passage. The tone is severe. Sexual immorality, which is immersed in our society, must not even be named among us. The crude and cynical joking that seems funny to us is out of place. Those who practice such things have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Indeed, because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Is this applicable to us “beloved children,” who are saved by grace through faith? Are we really being told to have nothing to do with our nonChristian neighbors, almost all of whom hold to or practice what is at variance with Scripture?
We want to be careful. It is easy for us to go in two out of balance directions here. There is one way of thinking that quickly wants to assure us that, yes, we are saved by grace through faith. Therefore, do not get hung up on a passage like this. It is a guide to what we ought to be like, but don’t worry if you do not live up to the standard. No one can. God loves you just the same.
But I find it too hard to read a passage like this and not feel uncomfortable. I am being warned about my salvation. My inheritance is being questioned. The wrath of God, not the love of God, is being held over my head. I feel it because it seems at times that my neighbors, who seem pretty nice, are getting along just fine with their views and lifestyles. They are not mean spirited. They are actually nice to me, and some of the jokes, well, when a good comedian says them they are pretty funny.
But the jokes are not so funny after reading a text like this. And however reasonable the morals of my neighbors may seem, I don’t feel very comfortable with these views in light of such Scripture. I feel unclean. These “lifestyle” activities seem out of place. It doesn’t seem right to just shrug off such warnings as nothing for me to worry about.
Romans 2:4-5 says, “…do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
We are to look to God’s grace alone for our salvation, but we are not to presume upon such grace as though it matters not how we live and for whom we live. Grace – God’s kindness – is intended to lead us to repentance, not excuse us from having to repent. If your life is not fitting in with what is presented here about sexual immorality and coarse living, repent.
But the other perspective that overreacts is the one that holds up such a text as the message of the Scriptures, as though the message of the gospel is that we are to be as morally upright as possible in order to be accepted by God. Jesus said that he came to save sinners, not the righteous. He said that in response to the religious leaders who were puffed up over their supposed moral righteousness. Whatever sins they may have been guilty of, coarse speech and sexual immoral lifestyles were not their transgressions. Even so, Jesus harshest words were reserved for them, not for the more public sinners.
Consider the passage I just read from Romans. Paul was speaking to people who were supposedly living moral lives. His point was that, however morally righteous they might seem, nevertheless they were guilty of the same sins as the notorious sinners. NonChristians get this. They see self-righteous Christians filled with pride over our moral code when all along our hubris and prejudice and even meanness is obvious to everyone.
We are all guilty. We all stand in judgment, whether we flaunt our immorality or keep it under wraps of a moral veneer. All are under sin; no one is justified by keeping the moral law, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And our only hope is in Jesus Christ, who alone lived the perfectly moral life and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Don’t let your moral living hide the state of your soul.
And if you have turned to Christ for salvation; if you are striving to live a moral life as an obedient child of God, all the more do not let yourself be fooled by your outward restraints. Do not fool yourself by measuring yourself against your Christian or nonChristian neighbor. You don’t know what is going on in your neighbor. You don’t know that under the circumstances, he might be credited with more moral courage and restraint than you possess. You only have one standard by which to measure yourself and that is the holy and merciful life of Jesus Christ.
To the unbeliever, especially to the person who may be dallying with Christianity: You are drawn somewhat to religion. You like the music, the rituals of worship. You even like some of the moral aspects of the faith. You feel something good here. Church is a good place to raise a family and have support. And Jesus is appealing to you. The same Jesus said to count the cost of following him. This is not a pretend religion to play because it makes you feel religious. Nor is it a religion of convenience like the New Age stuff that allows you to feel spiritual as you live life your own way. It is about following the Son of God who himself walked the path of the cross.
If you are interested in Jesus; if you are considering identifying yourself with being a believer of him, then you must understand that such a life means being a follower of Christ and living by the rules that he and the Scriptures lay down, not by what you deem right. Some of these rules you may like, such as the call to worship him. Some may make you feel ennobled, such as the call to love your neighbor sacrificially. But be assured that there will be some rules that you do not like, either because for now you don’t understand them or because they will make you a pariah to your neighbors. As the Apostle Paul taught, who certainly experienced what he said, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). So if you choose him (and I hope you do), know that you choose to follow a Master who will demand full allegiance.
How we choose to live comes down to this – what will we do with Jesus? Will we live for him? Will we live because of what he has done for us on the cross? Will we live through him, seeking from him and the Holy Spirit the strength to do his will? Will we live knowing that we need him always?
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