11. Putting on Clean Clothes (Ephesians 4:17-32)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (31:51)

Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery," by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Larger image.
"17So 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. 18They 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. 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
20You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold. 28He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
29Do 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. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:17-32)

 

We may think of the twenty-first century as secular and hard, proclaiming evil as good and deriding good as evil. And it is. In America we've observed a religious and moral decline from which we had been protected by powerful national revivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the good and righteousness that those movements had worked into our national character has dissipated now.

But Paul's day was even worse. His era wasn't "post-Christian" but "pre-Christian," and sin abounded in the great cities of the Greco-Roman culture of the day. Paul calls the Christians of Ephesus to take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. What follows in 4:17 through 6:9 is a call to righteousness in all areas of life: speech (5:25-32), sexual mores (5:3-7), use of intoxicants (5:18), family relationships (5:21-6:4), and employer-employee relationships (6:9).

Just previous to this passage, Paul painted an exalted picture of the church as Christ's Body which is upbuilding itself in love (4:1-16). Now he spells out some of the implications of being a part of this community of believers. Vs. 17 begins with the word "so" or "therefore," indicating a transition.1

Darkness of the Secular Mind (4:17-19)

"17So 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. 18They 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. 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more." (4:17-19)

Paul analyzes the moral temper of his day. The secular people in the first century are:

Futile in their minds. The Greek word mataiotēs means "state of being without use or value, emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness."2 Big thoughts and lots to say, but in the end empty, vain, fruitless.

Darkened3 in their understanding. Recently I watched a documentary about Albert Einstein and other brilliant physicists of the last century. Einstein could see what no one else could see because he was able to question every presupposition afresh. Some of the presuppositions about the nature of physical matter were wrong, or at least inadequate, so without reexamination, he would not have been able to grasp the truth. Unbelievers are darkened in their understanding because they selectively exclude the light about Jesus. They presuppose that Christianity is wrong. They won't hear of it. They reject it. And consequently they are darkened inside.

Separated from God's life. This selective rejection has shut them off from God's life. "Separated" (NIV) or "alienated" is apallotrioō, "estrange, alienate."4 How very tragic! God's life is all around us, pulsing through the creation. But to miss out on the ultimate reality of the universe because of selective deafness is terribly sad.

Ignorant. The unbelievers just don't know about God. They suffer from "ignorance, unawareness, lack of discernment."5 But it's not as if they've never heard.

Hardened in their hearts. The reason for their ignorance of God, says Paul, is because they have hardened their hearts. The word is pōrōsis, "state or condition of complete lack of understanding, dullness, insensibility, obstinacy."6 Sometimes people complain about God hardening Pharaoh's heart. Pharaoh was doing pretty well hardening his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34), but God gave him over fully to a hardened heart, and hardened it still more (9:12; 10:20, 27; see Romans 1:24, 26, 28).

Given to sexual immorality. The Greek word aselgeia is variously translated "sensuality" (NIV, NASB), "licentiousness" (RSV), and "lasciviousness" (KJV). Aselgeia refers to "lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable, self-abandonment."7 It is sexual depravity, utterly outrageous behavior, "with a continual lust for more" (NIV). With the constant portrayal of sex outside of marriage in novels, television and films, this kind of sexual behavior has become widely accepted and acceptable. Unfortunately, sexually loose behavior has become part of our young people's courtship rituals.

Paul paints a dark picture of the unbeliever because he wants his readers to clearly see the contrast between darkness and light, between hell-bent behavior and holiness.

Q1. (Ephesians 4:17-19) Using Ephesians 4:17-19 as a basis, how would you describe (in your own words), the secular, non-Christian mindset of our age? Why are we tempted to conform to its values?
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Our New, Holy Self (4:20-24)

"20You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." (4:20-24)

This kind of behavior and empty living has nothing to do with Christ, and what you've been taught about him, says Paul. You've been taught to put off the old, corrupt self, and to put on the new holy and righteous self.

Paul uses the analogy of taking off dirty clothing and putting on clean clothing. We see this kind of language elsewhere in his writings, too (Romans 13:12-14; Colossians 3:10, 14). Is it just a matter of taking off something external? No.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." (Galatians 6:15)

We don't become Christians by reforming our ways. God works a basic change inside by his Holy Spirit. Jesus called it being "born again" (John 3:1-8).

When I'm hot and sweaty and filthy, nothing feels better than a nice hot shower. I can luxuriate in the steamy shower and I come out smelling clean. But I would be stupid to put back on my dirty underwear and pants. When I'm clean I want to put on clean clothes, it's only natural. This is Paul's point. You've been "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:25), so "put on the new self."

One of our chief problems as Christians is that we rush back to what is familiar, what we're used to. It's so easy to look like and act like unbelievers all over again. Don't admire unbelievers, Paul is saying. They live in darkness and emptiness, and have given over their lives to unbridled sexuality. Don't admire and emulate them. Take off that kind of behavior like you would dirty clothing.

That "old self"8 has been "corrupted by its deceitful desires" (4:22). I hear echoes here of the Garden of Eden, of Eve's and Adam's desire for something tasty and daring, something which will give them a god-like high (Genesis 3). And all it did was to bring them death, first spiritual and then physical. "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed," writes James (1:14).

The answer to "deceitful desires" is the work that God is doing in us, making you "new in the attitude9 of your minds" (4:23). He gradually changes our desires, and with that change come new habits and living patterns. We are to cooperate with what God is doing -- "put on"10 (NIV, KJV) or "clothe yourselves" (NRSV) with the new self. We are to refuse to clothe ourselves with the old dirty clothes any longer, but instead, clothe ourselves with the new self.

We are to "put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteous and holiness" (vs. 24). You mean we are created11 to be like God? Yes. That's what the new nature, the new self, is.

Truth, Anger, and Theft (4:25-28)

"25Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold. 28He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need." (4:25-28)

We've just seen the big picture, the ideal. Now Paul starts to spell out some of the nitty-gritty implications with another "therefore" in verse 25.

Speaking Truthfully (4:25)

The first change is in our speaking. If God is truth, then we must leave our clever white lies -- Paul calls it falsehood -- and, instead, speak truthfully. As we discussed in the previous chapter in this study, we don't have to be cruel in our truth-telling. Instead, "speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him" (4:15). If God is the ultimate truth, and we are "created to be like God" (4:24), then we too must speak like our Father, and put away forever the double-speak of our former father, the father of lies (John 8:44). The reason for speaking truth within the Christian community is plain: "for we are all members of one body" (4:25).

Controlling Anger (4:26-27)

"'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." (Ephesians 4:26-27)

Anger (orgizō12) is next to shrivel under the awesome light of God's examination. Paul quotes Psalm 4:4, "In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent."

Paul recognizes that anger itself is not sin. Anger can be a natural reaction to injustice, the emotion that God gives us so we will not passively allow injustice to have its way forever. But we must be very careful of anger.

  1. Selfishness. Anger can spring from selfishness as well as injustice. We must observe our motives carefully, so that we don't justify "righteous anger," when it has much more to do with self than with righteousness.
  2. Control. Anger impels us to overflow our inhibitions and take action. It is a powerful emotion designed to overcome our passivity. But without careful self-control our anger can become abusive, violent, and sinful. "In your anger do not sin," says Paul (4:26). Anger can cause us to say and do things that hurt the people we love and that we regret later.
  3. Bitterness. Anger can turn into a deep-seated bitterness if we don't deal with it. "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry," advises the Apostle (4:26b). If we practiced this advice diligently, we would cut the workload of a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists -- and pastors, for that matter. A lot of our psychological stresses and abnormalities have resulted from buried anger, rather than anger which was openly dealt with and resolved quickly.
  4. Foothold for Satan. Anger can "give the devil a foothold" (4:27). We know how that works. When we're angry, our inhibitions are less, and many times we speak our mind without the normal barriers which keep a civil tongue in our mouth. Once we've said some of those angry, nasty, bitter, hurtful things, we can't recall them.

For a long time I wasn't really aware when I was becoming angry. I had decided that I wasn't angry. Period. But refusing to recognize the symptoms of anger kept me from the protection I needed from seeing the warning signs and being careful. It's way too easy to "give the devil a foothold" when we don't own up to our anger, and begin to control it. Anger itself isn't sin, but if not checked, it soon results in sin.

"A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control." (Proverbs 29:11)
"Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control." (Proverbs 25:28)

God is known throughout the Bible as "slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6). We need to stop making excuses for our temper tantrums and become like our Father.

Q2. (Ephesians 4:26-27). Why did God give us the emotion of anger, do you think? How can anger be dangerous? How can we keep from sinning when we are angry? Is anger itself sin?
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Theft (4:28)

"He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need." (Ephesians 4:28)

For the Christian, stealing,13 too, must go. Many people today are used to taking things so long as they think they can get away with it. Shoplifting is rampant. People steal pencils and supplies from their offices, copies from the company copy machine, and time from their workday -- and think nothing of it. When the boss is watching we are scrupulous, but when he is elsewhere, we steal with impunity. Our culture is beginning to smirk at dishonesty as something smart. Getting away with it is mark of our cleverness.

But God's Holy Spirit doesn't let us get away with this for long. First, Jesus reminds us to treat others as we, ourselves, would like to be treated. Stealing isn't wrong just because it defrauds someone else. It is wrong because it avoids "work, doing something useful with his own hands" (4:28b). Work is not a necessary evil, it is good. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. Jesus supported his family as a carpenter until being about his Father's work captured his full-time attention. We may look down on people who are taking advantage of the welfare system, but if we steal, we are no better.

A third reason for not stealing is that stealing is the opposite of giving. A person who is a "taker" is seldom a "giver," and our God is the ultimate Giver. The former thief is admonished to do honest work "that he may have something to share with those in need" (4:28c).

Blithering, Blathering, Bitterness, and Brawling (4:29-32)

"29Do 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. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (4:29-32)

It is interesting to note how much of the "new self" has to do with our altered speech patterns. James, of course, talks a good deal about the evil done by the tongue (James 3:1-12). "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless" (James 1:26).

Ephesians 4:29 contains a lot of truth in a few words. "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths," he says first. The word "unwholesome" (NIV, NASB), "evil" (NRSV), "corrupt" (KJV), is Greek sapros. The basic meaning is "spoiled, rotten," used literally of spoiled fish, decayed trees, rotten fruits, and stones that are unsound or crumbling. Figuratively, it means "bad, evil, unwholesome to the extent of being harmful."14

Just what is coming out of our mouths? In the latter part of verse 29, Paul gives three guidelines for judging our words:

  1. Is it helpful for building others up? Does it edify? Does it enlighten? Does it encourage?
  2. Is it according to the hearer's needs? Or only our need to vent our frustrations? Does he really need this? Does she really need this? Some things need to be said, however hard. But many of the things we say could just as well be left unsaid.
  3. Is it beneficial to the hearer? If love is our mainstay, then benefiting others is our way of life.

Our speech can destroy or heal, it can rip apart or it can build up. And our words lie at the very heart of our Christian religion, according to James.

Paul identifies in particular, "all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice." Slander (blasphēmia) is "speech that denigrates or defames, reviling, denigration, disrespect, slander."15 I've caught myself telling stories about people that were intended to lower them in the eyes of others. Shame! That is slander. Paul is speaking directly to me -- and you.

Q3. (Ephesians 4:29-32) What kind of "unwholesome talk" is common among us Christians? What three guidelines does Paul give us to measure the value of what we say? What is slander? How common is it among Christians? How can we prevent it?
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Grieving the Holy Spirit of God (4:30)

"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." (4:30)

Our words can "grieve the Holy Spirit of God." Lupeō means "to cause severe mental or emotional distress, vex, irritate, offend, insult."16 We are indwelt by the Spirit, but our words can insult the Spirit; we can offend Him by our words. We see this phrase to "grieve the Holy Spirit" in Isaiah:

"Yet they rebelled
and grieved17 his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them." (Isaiah 63:10)

We may have trained ourselves not to offend minorities with insensitive statements. We may be politically correct, but are we zealous to be spiritually correct? When we seek to blend in and please unbelievers, we may be offending and grieving our very best Friend. Our words can cause deep pain to others -- and to the One who loves us deeply -- God himself.

Have you ever met an angry man? An angry woman? They're short with us. They're on a short fuse, and can easily explode into "bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" (4:31). Some people brawl with their fists; others brawl with their mouths. Slander is saying degrading things about another person to lessen people's opinion of them. How often we judge people out loud. "I would say it to their face," we may comment, but we seldom do. Instead, we slander them hoping to gain a bit of superiority by so doing.

Christians can't afford to keep their smoldering anger, their bubbling bitterness, for it will destroy them, their testimony, and those around them. What can we do? Confess our anger and bitterness to God and plead with him to take it from us. Repent of our "righteous anger" and call it what it is: sin. While there is such a thing as righteous anger, most of the time, "man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:20).

Can God remove our anger? Certainly. He may not remove it overnight, since we didn't develop it overnight. Part of it is a habit and a learned behavior. The Spirit will help us unlearn it if we will become humble before God and be willing to be humbled. Part of dispensing with inbred anger is gained by practicing what is in the next verse.

Kind, Compassionate, Forgiving (4:32)

The final verse of our passage calls on us to:

"Be kind18 and compassionate19 to one another, forgiving20 each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (4:32)

Instead of a self-centered attitude that the world revolves around you, Paul commands kindness and compassion towards each other. We don't return evil for evil, but instead good. And these actions aren't just for someone else's benefit. The real cure for our own bitterness and pent-up anger is forgiveness.

Sometimes we withhold forgiveness because we don't think that the person deserves forgiveness. While we are probably correct in our assessment, it shows that we don't understand forgiveness. Forgiveness, like grace, is neither earned nor deserved. It is granted freely, unilaterally, by the giver, with no thought to the worth of the one receiving it. Years ago, as a pastor I found myself explaining again and again what forgiveness was not, since it is so commonly misunderstood. Finally I wrote it down in an article, "Don't Pay the Price of Counterfeit Forgiveness" (Moody Monthly, October 1985, http://www.wilsonweb.com/archive/maturity/forgive.htm), where forgiveness is explained more fully. Paul reminds us that we are to forgive "just as in Christ God forgave you" (4:32b).

Q4. (Ephesians 4:32) Why is it so difficult to forgive those who hurt us? According to Ephesians 4:32, who is our example of forgiveness? What heart attitudes toward people are evidence of a forgiving spirit, according to verse 32a?
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Disciple Lessons from Ephesians, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All the lessons are now available as an e-book or printed book for your convenience.

The key to putting on the new self, is following Jesus, emulating him, making him our new Role Model. The clever unbelievers were once our role models, but no more. "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ," Paul reminds us, "and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof" (Romans 13:14, KJV).

We are part of Christ's body, part of the church, a new creation, a new self. We've taken an invigorating shower. Let's make sure we put on clean clothes.

Prayer

Father, we so much want to walk in your cleanness. Forgive us for our sins. Change our ways so that they bless you rather than grieve your Spirit. Help us to put on, as clean clothes, "the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." Grant it for us, we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Key Verses

"... Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." (Ephesians 4:24)

"'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." (Ephesians 4:26-27)

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)

References

  1. The word is Greek oun, which is "inferential, denoting that what it introduces is the result of or an inference from what precedes, 'so, therefore, consequently, accordingly, then" (BDAG 736).
  2. Mataiotēs, BDAG 621.
  3. Skotizō, "to become dark, be darkened," then "to be/become inwardly darkened" (BDAG 932).
  4. Apallotrioō, BDAG 96.
  5. Agnoia, generally, "lack of information about something." Specifically, "lack of information that may result in reprehensible conduct, ignorance, unawareness, lack of discernment" (BDAG 13). Our word "agnostic" comes from agnoia.
  6. Pōrōsis, BDAG 900.
  7. Aselgeia, BDAG 141. "Impurity" (NIV, NRSV) and "uncleanness" is akatharsia, literally, "any substance that is filthy or dirty," figuratively, "a state of moral corruption, immorality, vileness, especially of sexual sins" (BDAG 34). "Lust" (NIV) or "greediness" (NRSV) suggests the fervor of this self-abandonment -- pleonexia, "the state of desiring to have more than one's due, greediness, insatiableness, avarice, covetousness" (BDAG 824).
  8. "Old self" (NIV, NRSV) and "old man" (KJV) is two words palaios, "old" and anthrōpos, "a person of either sex, with focus on participation in the human race, a human being" (BDAG 81-82).
  9. "Attitude" (NIV) or "spirit" (KJV, NRSV) is pneuma, "spirit." The word has a number of meanings, including as the Holy Spirit. Here it refers to "a part of the human personality, spirit" ... "spiritual state, state of mind, disposition" (here as well as Galatians 6:1; 1 Peter 3:4; 1 Corinthians 4:21) (BDAG 832-836, 3.c.).
  10. Enduō means first "the act of putting on," specifically clothing. In the middle voice it has a reflexive idea, "clothe oneself, put on, wear." Metaphorically, it is used very often of the taking on of characteristics, virtues, intentions, etc. (BDAG 333-334, 2.b.). The same word is used of the Holy Spirit, "until ye be endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:49, KJV).
  11. Ktizō, "to bring something into existence, create," used here and in Colossians 3:20 of the new birth (BDAG 572).
  12. Orgizō is the verb form of orgē, which can have two connotations: (1) "a state of relatively strong displeasure, with focus on the emotional aspect, anger", and (2) "strong indignation directed at wrongdoing, with focus on retribution, wrath" (BDAG 720-721). Our passage reflects the first definition.
  13. Stealing is the Greek verb kleptō, from which we get our English word "kleptomaniac."
  14. Sapros, BDAG 913.
  15. Blasphēmia, BDAG 178.
  16. Lupeō, BDAG 604.
  17. ĎAsab refers to both physical pain as well as emotional sorrow, "grieve, displease, vex, wrest" (Ronald B. Allen, Ďasab, TWOT #1666).
  18. Chrēstos, here pertains to being morally good and benevolent, "kind, loving, benevolent" (BDAG 1090, 3.b.α).
  19. Eusplangchnos, pertaining to having tender feelings for someone, "tenderhearted, compassionate" (BDAG 413).
  20. Charizomai, which appears twice in verse 32, comes from the same root as charis, "grace." The main idea is "to give freely as a favor, give graciously." Related to money, it means "to cancel a sum of money that is owed." Here, it denotes, "to show oneself gracious by forgiving wrongdoing, forgive, pardon" (BDAG 1078).

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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