The Response of Righteousness
Chapter 4:1 summarizes the first three chapters of the letter and serves as a turning point to establish the context of the balance of Paul's message. In this verse he reaches back to summarize everything he has already said: he's prayed that God enables them to experience and grow in appreciation of the blessings they have in Christ, he reminds them of God's great love in saving them (the Gentiles) when they were completely separated from God, and God Himself called them and now uses them to reveal His plan to angels and men. Paul continues the chapter by saying that since these things are true and have been done on their behalf, they should live in such a way that these truths are evident to others. The obligations of this new life, this life as the church of Christ, are then explained in the balance of the letter.
In the previous chapter we looked at the first of these obligations that was to maintain the unity that Christ had established. Christ established this unity by creating and drawing to Himself the church that would become united to God through Him. Christ enabled the church to maintain this unity by providing apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to help the church mature in the knowledge of and service to Christ and one another. The basis of this unity was expressed in the seven elements that every individual member of the church shared with every other member regardless of culture or time. Each member equally shared the same: body (they were part of one church), Spirit (they received the same Holy Spirit), hope (they looked forward to heaven), Lord (they all submitted to Jesus only), faith (they taught the same doctrine), baptism (they each experienced the same immersion in water for the same reasons), Father (all called on the God of creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the One who sent Jesus). The pursuit of these elements of unity was the first obligation of the church because this is what kept it part of Christ.
17So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
- Ephesians 4:17-24
The second obligation Paul speaks of is the need to be righteous or holy. The church is holy because God is holy; the church is righteous because God is righteous. To be righteous/holy means that you conduct yourself in a particular way, you react to things in a special way.
Paul begins explaining this idea with a comparison. He says that the Christian does not act like the non-Christian. Non-Christians (pagans) walk according to what is in their minds or what they have learned. The problem is that what is in their minds is false and will not lead them to salvation - no matter how long they live. Because they lack the knowledge of the truth, their walk is characterized by several things: misunderstanding, godlessness, ignorance, hard hearts (they don't care about what is good), sensuality, impurity, and the never-ending appetite for more (greed), more evil, more things. Paul explains that these things are prevalent in their lives.
The comparison he makes is to the mind of the Christian. The one who is a member of Christ's church has his mind full of the word of God. Because he thinks this way (having been taught by the one faith) he has escaped the consequences facing the Gentile, which is corruption (death). A believer's walk, because of this knowledge, is holy, just and true. Because he has been transformed (by the one Lord, one Spirit, the one hope, etc.) his manner of walking has also been transformed. The image is one of removing an old beggar's coat that identifies you as such and putting on a prince's cloak that completely transforms how you feel about yourself and how others see and feel about you. That new covering is Christ, and what others see is not the human form of Jesus but His righteousness in the way you think, speak and act. So Paul says that the church is obliged not to live as the pagans live, but rather live like Christ would live. This new "righteous or holy" lifestyle has several recognizable features.
The Features of a Righteous Life
A proper attitude toward others
25Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not give the devil an opportunity. 28He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. 29Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. 30Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
- Ephesians 4:25-32
In this section Paul gives a list (not a complete one) of attitudes that immediately identify one who is of the household of faith. This person lives righteously; this type of life is full of sincerity (being honest with everyone about everything, because dishonesty breaks ties, destroys unity in a marriage, in a friendship and especially in the church). Paul continues his list by mentioning peacefulness; it is impossible to avoid anger, but a child of God always works towards peace as a first priority. Not letting the sun go down on your anger doesn't mean you have to get "closure" before the end of the day; this is an expression that means to not let anger go on beyond its "time." Another feature of the righteous life is a sense of responsibility; in other words, a faithful Christian is known for being a giver not a taker. Saints work to give and share with others, not simply to hoard what they have been given by God.
Finally, Paul mentions gracious speech and mercy as two other hallmarks of a righteous life. The Holy Spirit is given to us to help us grow and serve others in their efforts to grow in unity and love. When the church is involved in bitterness, anger, exasperation, strife and harsh speech against others, it frustrates the work of the Spirit (grieves). Disappointments and offenses are bound to rise up but the proper response for the church is mercy, forgiveness, kindness, always remembering that this is the way God treated the church. And so, the first recognizable feature of righteousness is the way the members treat each other in the church. Jesus said, "This is how all men will know you are my disciples, in the way you love one another." (John 13:35)
A higher quality of life - 5:1-14
In the previous paragraph Paul focused on relationships and how righteous people were to treat each other. In chapter five he will target the Christian's personal conduct and how this conduct must rise above an unbeliever's conduct if it is to be seen as righteous.
Paul summarizes the previous section by compressing everything down to one word: love. He says that if you love (by treating others with mercy, gracious speech, etc.) then you are walking like Christ. And if Christ's life was like a pleasing sacrifice to God, then your imitation of Him in your own life will also be a similar sweet offering to God. In the following verses he will show how very different a Christian's conduct is from unbelievers. Paul likens the difference between the two as the difference between light and dark.
There should not even be a suggestion that improper things are happening among you (i.e. fornication, impurity and greed). Avoid things that appear or may be interpreted as being unworthy of someone who is a saint. When saints are together they must not act like the Gentiles but rather act like saints; this is not hypocrisy. We are hypocrites if we act like the world when in reality we are saints.
He talks about three things: filthiness (indecency), silly talk (empty talk, devoid of the truth/superstition), and coarse jesting (dirty or nasty talk). Paul says that these things have no place among those who call themselves holy. These things are not of saints but of Gentiles, and you know that the Gentiles are damned. Paul warns them not to be talked into participation because it is for these very kinds of sins that God will punish the Gentiles. His point is that if they participate with them, they will also participate with them in the punishment. The Apostle calls on them to remember who they were (when pressured to participate in deeds of the flesh). They were children of God, not meant to produce darkness but light (righteousness, goodness, truth). On the contrary, he tells them to find ways to please the Lord, not how to grieve the Spirit. He encourages them to be aggressive and expose their evil and rebuke their sins that are too shameful to mention. If they are the light then they must not hide the light of truth, but rather use it to bring everything into the light! There are many different ideas here but one idea is that when you bring the deeds of darkness into the light, it is the motivation for sinners to become children of light themselves.
Verse 14 explores an early Christian poem or song expressing the power of the light of Christ on the sinner and will summarize what Paul has said in this section. He explains that righteousness is also evident from personal conduct that is in direct contrast to the world and, thus, serves as a witness to its sinfulness. The saved are special and walk differently. They walk in unity. They walk in holiness and righteousness. That righteousness is noticeable in that it is a complete transformation from the old way of life. It has certain features: it is filled with kindness, compassion, forgiveness and love towards others. It is a life lived in the light of Christ without even a suggestion of impurity in words or actions. This type of living inevitably lights up all the darkness around it thereby creating light where there was darkness. In the next chapter we will examine more features of this righteousness.