Back in the late summer and fall, we explored together the fourth chapter of Ephesians, a chapter rich with teaching about the church and the individual Christian life. Let’s review briefly. The first three chapters of Ephesians form one glorious doxology extolling the riches we have received in Christ Jesus. Chapter 4 addresses the question of “How shall we then live?”
(1-6) We are to walk in a manner worthy of such a calling, i.e., in humility and gentleness, with patience and forbearing with one another in love. We are to be eager to maintain unity, a unity founded on seven pillars of truth, namely that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.
(7-16) We also have been given grace to exercise the bountiful gifts given to us by Christ. Equipped by the teaching of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers, we are to be engaged in ministry so that we build up the body of Christ until we attain unity of the faith and of knowledge of Christ, maturing and becoming like him. We are to grow out of being children in faith, where we give in to false teachings. Instead, by speaking the truth in love we grow up into Christ, our Head, connected to one another and, again, building up one another in love.
(17-24) As Christians we are to be distinctly different from our former way of life as unbelievers. Without the God of Scripture to be their authority, unbelievers will live darkened lives that give way to their passions. That is not the way we learned Christ. In him we learned to put off the old self, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to put on the new self that makes us to be more and more like him.
(25-32) What is such a life like? It is marked by speaking truth, by self-control, by honest labor, and by building up others. It is marked by being grace givers, which includes being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving even as God in Christ forgave us. It is on that last note that chapter 5 continues the instruction about Christian living.
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.
“Therefore be imitators of God.” “Be imitators of God” is a daunting command, though it is not original with Paul. Peter said the same thing in his first epistle: “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Peter, as he indicates, is repeating what earlier scriptures have said, namely in Leviticus.
The message of Leviticus could be stated this way. “I, the Lord God, brought my people out of Egypt to set them apart as my special people. As such, they are to be distinctive. I will give them laws affecting every area of life that will set them apart in such a way that they display my holy character. The world will know me as the Lord God and my holiness through observing the way my people live. I am holy; therefore, my people are to be holy.”
Peter is giving that same message to his readers. In 1:14-15 he writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” See what he is saying? You are different now. You are the children of your heavenly Father. Therefore, your conduct must conform to him, not to the world to which you once belonged.
Can you think of another scripture passage that records Jesus saying the same thing? In Matthew 5:48, in the midst of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus makes the same point about how behavior distinguishes God’s people from the world. Here is the context:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).
See his message? What will distinguish the “sons of your Father who is in heaven” from the worldly Gentiles will be this higher standard of love. And such behavior is what will display the nature of God the Father. So, whether it is a call to be holy (as in 1 Peter) or to love one’s enemies (as in Matthew), the standard in either case is God for those who are to be identified as belonging to God.
For our passage in Ephesians, the call has to do with our treatment of one another within the family of God. The verse before 5:1 reads: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Then Paul adds, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” It is forgiveness, specifically how we forgive one another that will display the heart of God and distinguish us as being his children, of being chips off the old block.
Speaking of which, the next verse takes us to the chip off the old block, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
That phrase, “walk in love,” harks back to the start of the instruction on Christian living in 4:1. Paul writes, I “urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” This Christian living is a calling, a call out of walking “in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked,” (2:2) and a call into walking in the new self, “created after the likeness of God” (4:24).
Believers, then, are to walk in love with Christ as their model, specifically how “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” This is terminology for his death. The love that moved Christ to die for us is the love that is to move us in our relations with one another.
We took time in the previous sermon to unpack the phrase in 4:32, “as God in Christ forgave you.” Let’s do the same here for “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
“Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8 explains who we were when Christ died for us: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We were “weak”; we were “ungodly”; we were “sinners”; we were, as verse 10 in the same chapter will say, “enemies.” It is in that condition, in that relationship to Christ, that he died for us. From whom then would we withhold our love because we deem that person undeserving?
“Christ died for us.” Consider who Christ is. Paul tells the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:15-17).
Our Maker, the glorious Son of God, died for us. Who then are we that we may be excused from loving?
And then “Christ died for us and gave himself up for us.” Christ did not wish us well. He did not come alongside us and help us help ourselves. He suffered, but beyond that, he died. His death was not an accident that occurred when he made risks, nor was it the consequence of wicked men getting the best of him. His death was a giving up of himself. We speak of God the Father giving his Son, and so he did. But the Son was a willing gift. He was not pushed against his will; indeed, as he explains, his Father had entrusted him with the keys.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father (John 10:17-18).
How then may we place limits on what our love will cause us to do?
The final phrase puts Christ’s death into perspective: “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” People do die for the good of other people. They die heroically – drowning to save someone else from drowning; literally taking the bullet meant for another. It is not merely that Christ performed a costly, heroic act that makes his death significant. It is what that death accomplished as an offering and sacrifice to God.
Christ demonstrated his love for us, yes; but of more consequence to us, he accomplished the atonement of our sins. He was able to make this atonement because his death was, to render a more literal translation, “an offering and sacrifice to God, a fragrant (or pleasing) aroma.” To understand this better, consider a couple of passages from the Old Testament that also speak of such a sacrifice.
You know the story of Noah, how God had him build an ark so that he might preserve life from the flood of judgment. When the flood abated, and Noah and his family came out of the ark with the animals, Noah’s first act was as follows: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man’” (Genesis 8:20-21).
The lesson is not that Noah had a great secret family recipe for adding spices, that in turn gave God a delightful sensation smelling it, who then forgot how angry he had been and refrained from further harsh judgments. Rather, it is that Noah offered up a sacrifice intended to make atonement for sin, and God was pleased with it. He regarded such a sacrifice as a “pleasing aroma.”
Years go by. Abraham has fathered a nation by the promises of God. They go into Egypt and are delivered by God from slavery. They are brought into the wilderness where God forms them into his covenant nation. He sets up a system of sacrifices to make atonement for the sins of the people, and a priesthood to administer the sacrifices. Exodus 29 records how the priests are to be set apart (that is, to be made holy for their service). As part of their consecration, Moses is told by God to do the following:
Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 16and you shall kill the ram and shall take its blood and throw it against the sides of the altar. 17Then you shall cut the ram into pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its pieces and its head, 18and burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the LORD. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD (15-18).
Further down, Moses is instructed: “They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration” (35). Again, the point is that the offering is acceptable to God, and he receives it as making atonement for sin.
This is the case with the “offering and sacrifice” offered up by Christ, namely, his body and blood. His sacrificed offered up was received by God as a “pleasing aroma.” In other words, God received it as making atonement for sin. Indeed, it is the only sacrifice that truly did accomplish that end, as the writer to Hebrews makes clear:
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10:11-14).
How do we apply all this to ourselves? Even if we bear sacrificial love for our enemies, we cannot by that love make atonement for the sins of others. But what we can do by our love is to point others to Christ who has made that atonement. That is the purpose for which our behavior is to be distinctive, why it must go beyond the moral code of the world.
Our distinctive walk is to point our neighbors to a holy God and to a merciful God. It is to show that God will not tolerate impurity, and that God will forgive the vilest offender and make the costliest sacrifice to atone for sins of the offender.
So, how are you doing? Do some personal grading in your primary setting – maybe it is at school, or at work, or where you live. Your life is on display by your neighbors who are outside the gospel. How do they regard you?
They might like you precisely because you fit in so well with them. You are nice to be around. You treat them fairly and don’t act above them. Indeed, you are not above laughing at the course joke, even saying a profane word yourself. You grumble with the others about the teachers or the supervisors or other authorities and service providers. And when you complain about being wronged, they are sympathetic to you. They agree with you about how underappreciated you are and how your spouse or your parents should be more understanding. They see things the way you see them and act the way you do. They don’t think you are bad. In fact, they think you are real. You are good enough without being too good.
You walk the walk that they walk. Maybe you are a little nicer, probably more religious, but they don’t see your morals conflicting with theirs. You not only don’t present the gospel but reinforce their belief that God approves of anyone who is being nice enough like you.
Or maybe they reluctantly like you. You don’t seem to fit in. You seem a bit haughty because you don’t join in with their vulgarity and gossip. You seem prudish, even worse, puritanical. Just being around you they feel a vague sense of guiltiness. And yet, oddly enough, you are among the few they can trust with their secrets. You don’t laugh at their dreams that they fail to live up to. You don’t hold grudges, and because they never hear you talking behind someone’s back, they trust you not to do so on them. And even though they know you don’t approve of their lifestyle, yet you are the one they know will be there for them when in need because already you have shown sacrificial love.
And though you have remained single, or though you have been in a difficult marriage, or though you have suffered from crisis after crisis, it is evident that you love your God above all others, and that you take more delight in obeying him than you do in following your impulses. There is a peace about you that…well, where does it come from? Who is this God you serve? What is it that Jesus Christ supposedly did for you? What is this walk that is so distinctive, so compelling?
Our neighbors are watching. They look at us and determine if the gospel is distinctive, not by how smoothly everything goes in our lives, but how we respond to the same troubles and conflicts that they face. Is a Christian married couple more forgiving than a nonChristian couple? Does a Christian single handle loneliness differently from a nonChristian single? Does a Christian handle being laid off from work differently or being unjustly treated? Do Christian students react differently to the pressures of making the grade? And does a church deal with disagreements differently from, say, a political party? Does it make a difference when you regard yourself as a beloved child of God?
Remember, that is what we are – verse 1. We are to be imitators of God because we are his beloved children. For by the love of Jesus Christ, by his “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” he has accomplished our atonement and our adoption as children of God. And we have not been adopted begrudgingly. We are not disfavored children. We are beloved children.
Can you understand that? Can you believe that? Because it is to the degree that you understand your status before God that you are able to walk the walk called of you. Christ died for you in love. God sent his Son to you in love.
Remember the passage from Romans 5 that I read to you about how bad you were when Christ died for you? You were weak, ungodly, sinners, even enemies of God. The reason Paul wrote those words was to make the point that if God would show so much love then, when we were his enemies, what do you think he shows us now that we are reconciled, now that we belong to him. He says it best in the verse before the passage: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
How much our hearts feel the love at any one time will vary. Many times I wonder how God could possibly love precisely because I claim to follow him and do such a poor job of it. But the truth remains: God’s love has been poured into our hearts. God, our Father, loves us because in truth we have been made his beloved children through Christ’s fragrant offering and sacrifice. Ponder that truth. Don’t downplay your sin. Don’t try to make yourself better than you are. But as you look honestly at your sin, look all the more intently at the love of God your Father and the work of Jesus Christ, your Brother. It is then that you will find your steps walking in love as Christ loved you.
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