New, Now Ditch the Old! (An exegeis of Ephesians 4:17-5:2)
To be a follower of Christ is to do more than make an internal decision to believe. The writers of the New Testament consistently implore new believers to put off certain behaviors and put on the character of Christ. The inward decision to be a follower of Christ should be apparent by our outward behaviors. Becoming a follower of Christ is a deliberate decision to no longer be what we once were, and to purposely pursue Christ. In this section of Ephesians, the author urges the audience to put off the life they once lived and put on a new life. It provides the imagery of taking off dirty, spoiled rags and putting on new clothes and then takes it another step in saying to get rid of those dirty rags: do not keep them any longer. The author encourages the reader by not only telling them what not to do, but provides clear guidelines of what they should do instead. Ephesians is a very actionable letter full of direct application and it is these actionable steps that makes it cross-cultural and timeless.
The author of the letter of Ephesians has come under debate in the last century. Many consider it to be written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome (Snodgrass, 1996, p. 23-24), and disregard the various contestations as irrelevant. William MacDonald, in the Believer’s Bible commentary, defends that there are several external and internal evidences to support Paul as the writer of Ephesians (1989, p. 1903): it has an early and continuous stream of witnesses, twice the author states he is Paul, and the tone of the letter fits Paul’s other letters. It is also likely that Paul would have written to the church in Ephesus as Acts testifies that the church was dear to Paul as he had spent almost three years with them teaching (Acts 19:10). (Bates, 2017)
The audience for the letter of Ephesians was most likely aimed at a geographic area centralizing around the city of Ephesus (Snodgrass, p. 21). During this time, Christians gathered in home churches throughout cities and regions rather than in large congregations as we see in present day. Letters “provided a way for early Christian leaders to express their views and minister from a distance” (Duvall & Hays, 2012, p. 253). The letters were intended to be passed around and read aloud by many. The famous Silk Road, a great trade route, ended at the port of Ephesus making the city central to trade. The temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, was in Ephesus as well (Bucknell, n.d.). With Ephesus being a central location of trade and culture for the region, it was a prime area to infuse with the gospel so that believers could readily spread the message of salvation across the world rapidly. When sharing a religion that claims to be different than all others, it is vital that one’s testimony show that you are indeed different, and that is the implication of the letter: be different.
Looking just before and just after this section of scripture we can see a gradual progression of specificity. Immediately prior, the author is speaking broadly of principles in the unity of the body of believers, in this section of scripture the author begins to be more specific in the behaviors of believers while still speaking generally to all believers. Just after this section of scripture, the author specifically emphasizes the behaviors of individual groups of believers such as husbands, wives, children, and slaves. It is a smooth progression that pulls the audience in and connects them individually with each other. One body; many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Using the literary technique referred to as inclusio, the author bookends this section of scripture with the same command: be like God! In Ephesians 4:17, the author implores his readers to “no longer live as the Gentiles do” (NIV) and in Ephesians 5:2 he follows his pattern of offering the alternative by saying “live a life of love.” Everything in between these two verses is a pattern of don’t do this, do this instead.
The author opens this section of scripture by focusing on the way gentiles think. He uses strong, emotional words such as futility, darkened, separated, ignorance, hardening, and lost to convey the thought that this manner of thinking leads down a dark path that you do not want to travel. It is a path that Christians should be continuously grateful for being off. The author compares the thoughts of the unbeliever to that of the believer in verse 23 “to be made new in the attitude of your minds” and then proceeds to give examples of behaviors that are influenced by our minds. This concept of inside first, outside second is reinforced throughout scripture. Luke 6:45 states that “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
The use of the word however in verse 20 causes a shift in the tone and initiates the onslaught of do’s and do not’s that follows. The author shifts from painting a dark picture of the unbeliever, and instead takes on a brighter tone for the believer using words like surely, taught, created, true righteousness and holiness. With his tone and word choice, he encourages the believer and reminds them that they are better than this. They are not pigs in the mud, but rather clean individuals walking a sure path.
An interesting note, in verses 23 and 24 the author uses the word new twice, but the word new is used in two slightly different ways. In verse 23 the word new is from the Greek word neos, which gives the impression of beginning again or renewing. When paired with the action verb made, it exemplifies the idea of starting all over again with a clean slate, which is what happens when we become Christians. In verse 24 the word new is from the Greek word kainos and is use throughout scripture to imply that it’s object of reference is something that was previously unknown (Kohlenberger, 2015). The new self in Ephesians 4:24 is not something the believer had previously.
The verbs in this passage, after the initial comparison of the unbeliever and the believer, are all present tense. Speak, give, share, or rid are all actions that the author tells the audience to do – now! As a present-day reader, these verbs make the letter feel less historical, more current, and we can connect with both the audience and the author.
Klyne Snodgrass, in his commentary on Ephesians, summarizes this section of scripture as the seven motivators (1996, p. 248-249). “We are all members of one body” (vs. 25), “do not give the devil a foothold” (vs. 27), “have something to share with those in need” (vs. 28) and use speech that is beneficial for all (vs. 29) all focus on the body of Christ and community. The three motivators at the end “urges Christians to treat others the way God has treated them” (Snodgrass, p. 249): “as God in Christ forgave you” (vs. 32), “as children of God” (5:1), and “as Christ loved us” (5:2). The central motivator found in Ephesians 4:30, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” serves as the motivator for all the commands.
The Greek word interpreted grieve is lypeo and is understood to mean to cause sorrow. The author is imploring believers to do what is right, to change our thinking and therefor our behavior, because to do otherwise is to make the Holy Spirit sad. Just as disobedient children cause a parent to be disappointed or sad, so do we make the Holy Spirit sad and grieved when we choose not to do what is right in the eyes of God. Children naturally want to make their parents proud, and do not like seeing disappointment on their parents’ faces. With God as our father, we should long to see Him be proud of us too.
As far as lists go, the author of Ephesians gives to short impressive ones at the end of the fourth chapter. First a list of things to get rid of: bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice. He follows with a shorter list to replace those behaviors with: kind, compassionate, forgiving, and loving. The first list, the things to remove, all demonstrate a lack of control and a focus on the self; whereas, the second list, the things to exemplify, all demonstrate self-control and a focus on others. When living in community, to be part of the community and for the community to thrive, each individual needs to focus more on others than on themselves. This is one of the key differences between believers and unbelievers; our focus on others and how to give rather than receive.
In chapter five verse one we are admonished to “be imitators of God” or in a more recent translation “follow God’s example”. The difference between the use of the verb imitate and the verb follow is small, if you know which definition of the word follow one is using. In the English language, the word follow is used many ways, while the word imitate is used less frequently and therefor has a narrower understanding. To imitate is generally understood to mean to copy; whereas, the word follow often means to walk behind or walk in the way of someone or something. The translators paired the word example with follow to offer clarity, but the use of the word imitator is more concise. Either way, the author intends that we, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit within us, work towards being more like God. As God is, so should we be.
Personal application and community application of the principles presented in this section of scripture are very straightforward. The bridge to cross to get from there to here is very short. As Christians we need to speak truth to one another, not just in our Christian communities but with all man. God gave us all emotions for the benefit of His glory, any emotion can cause us to sin but none more so than anger. We can be angry, but what we do with that anger is what makes it sin or not. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and is exemplified when we become angry but do not sin in that anger. We are all to be helpful to others. When we lend a helping hand it is a moment of sharing Christ in our actions. Whether this be a person on the side of the road with a flat tire, a person short a bit at the check-out line, or lending a helping hand to a neighbor by helping them mow their yard or wash windows, we have many opportunities every day to lend a helping hand and show Christ in our actions by putting another’s needs before our own.
We can do all that Paul commands of us because we have Christ within us. If we choose to allow the Holy Spirit to work within us, we will not grieve the Holy Spirit and we will be Christlike in all that we do. From the inside out, Christ changes us. Get rid of the old and embrace the new, this kind of change really is much better.
Bates, J.R. (2017). Ancient times New York City. Unpublished manuscript, Colorado Christian University.
Bucknell, P.J. (n.d.). A survey of the book of Ephesians. Retrieved from http://www.foundationsforfreedom.net/References/NT/Pauline/Ephesians/Ephesians0/Ephesians0_Survey.html
Duvall, J.S. & Hays, J.D. (2018). Grasping God’s word: a hands-on approach to reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Kohlenberger III, J. R. (2015). The NIV exhaustive Bible concordance. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
MacDonald, W. (1989). Believer’s Bible commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Snodgrass, K. (1996). The NIV application commentary: Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.