April 24, 2016
The Holy Spirit wants to transform our daily words and works.
I. Lies and truth (Ephesians 4:25)
II. Theft and Generosity (Ephesians 4:28)
III. Dissing and Blessing (Ephesians 4:29-30)
IV. Anger and Kindness (Ephesians 4:26, 31-32)
Last week we ended with Paul’s simple formula for progress in the Christian life: put off, be renewed, put on. Much of the rest of the letter follows this pattern, especially the verses we’ll look at today, Ephesians 4:25-32. We’ll see in this section a series of contrasts between the old man we put off and the new man we put on in Christ. And always implied, if not always explicit, is a process of renewal, that it is the Spirit of God who is at work in us to transform us into the image of Christ, to transform us at the level of our daily works and words.
When I think of illustrating contrasts, of people whose lives changed in Christ, one that pops into my mind is actually a fictional character, Father Columba, Father Peregrine, the abbot of St Alcuin’s in Northern England, in the 14th century. He is the central character of Penelope Wilcock’s book The Hawk and the Dove. The very title is a contrast, a beautiful image of transformation in Christ, because the Hawk and the Dove are the same person.
The narrator, Melissa, describes it this way: “His name in religion, the name his abbot had bestowed on him when he took his first vows, was 'Columba'. It is Latin for dove. But he had been named 'Peregrine' by his mother, because even as a baby it had been evident he was going to inherit his father's proud, fierce, hawkish face, and he did. The brothers of Abbot Peregrine's monastery found the incongruity of the name 'Columba' amusing. They called him 'Peregrine', his baptismal name. They thought it fitted better. Melissa saw both in him, the hawk and the dove. He was fierce and intimidating at times, it was true, but there was also a tenderness and a quality of mercy to him, that he had learned in the bitter school of suffering. 'Columba' had been a good choice, after all.”
By God’s grace, this contrast can grow up in all of our lives, in practice, as we see the sin that needs to be put off and cry out to God for renewal, and embrace and put on the contrasting virtue that belongs to Jesus. We’re going to see four of these contrasts in Ephesians 4:25-32. The first is the contrast between lies and truth, Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.
Paul said in verse 22 that you were to put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life. Now he gets specific. One of things we are to have put off as a decisive act, is lying. We are now to speak the truth. The contrast couldn’t be simpler or clearer. But the parallel exhortation in Colossians is even more explicitly ‘put off, put on.’ 3:9-10 "Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self."
Paul regarded lying as a dominant characteristic of the old life. His message is that there is no place for lying in the life of a believer, or in the Church. It was an important message for that day. The Greek and Semitic cultures of the day embraced lying and even admired it But the same seems true today. In the New Hampshire primary only one third of the voters rated honesty and trust as key factors for a political candidate. And of the one third that did, 92percent voted against Hillary Clinton, which says something of the public’s perception of her. Yet she may have the nomination of the Democrat party wrapped up.
Politicians lie. We accept that. What we don’t recognize is the ease with which most of us lie. I’m not a compulsive liar, but the kind of lie where I describe events and circumstances so as to support my behavior or gain sympathy, I know I do that. In fact, I laugh at myself, because sometimes I find myself rehearsing what I’ll say to Gail or someone to explain something, but as I project this conversation in my mind I find over and over that the right thing to say to make the relationship go well. Is the truth. I think that’s what Paul is saying.
But we’re surrounded by lies. We expect them. They desensitize us to the importance of the truth. If you use Pantene shampoo, your hair will swoosh like Selena Gomez. If you stay thirsty for the certain brand of beer you could become the most interesting man in the world. If you buy a whopper it’ll look like this. In business it is expected that you will lie about the performance of a product or the financial health of a company, that you will slant the results of a poll and dis your opponents. And as this filters down, many people lie without even knowing they are doing so.
There are, of course, also members of the Body of Christ who consciously lie - and do great harm to the reputation of Jesus, or at least of Christianity. This is why lying is to be put off. Paul actually ignores the fact that it is a sin against God, and emphasizes only that it is a sin against Christ’s Body, of which we are all member. False messages among the members, render the Body dysfunctional, like a disease that destroys the nerves, disrupting communication and action. John Mackay said: “A lie is a stab into the very vitals of the Body of Christ. This is so because a lie is a sable shaft from the kingdom of darkness... There is no place in the Christian ethic for the well-intentioned lie. In the moral behavior which Christ inspires, the end never justifies the means.”
The second topic Paul takes up is anger, verses 26-27, but since he returns to that subject in verses 31-32, I want to skip it for now and return to it at the end of the message. So the next one we’ll look at is theft and generosity, verse 28: Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
“I’m not a liar or a thief,” you might say. “I may have other problems, but not those.” When I thought about the word thief I thought about Ray Comfort’s method of evangelism, in which he goes through the ten commandments, starting with “Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen something?” And the amazing thing is that most people will readily admit to this. In the famous ‘Seal Beach’ video, Comfort says “Have you ever told a lie,” and the young man says “Well, at sometimes most every human does.” “So you broke that one. What are you called if you tell a lie?” “A liar.” “Have you ever stolen.” “No, sir, I haven’t.” “Even something really small. Be honest before God.” “Well, I guess a little stuff, I mean like a piece of gum or something.” “A piece of gum. So what does that make you.” “Uh, a stealer I guess.” “A thief.”
People freely admit these things, like this woman Kirk Cameron talked to: “How many lies do you think you’ve told in your whole life.” “A million.” “Alright. What do you call someone who tells lies?” “A liar.” “Have you ever stolen anything?” “I suppose so, yes.” “OK. And so what does that make someone who steals something?” “A thief.”
If you and I were asked those questions, even as believers, I suspect we would have to admit the same things. Paul says, put off this thievery, large or small, and instead work hard, work with your own hands. Why? So that you may have something to share with those in need. The English preacher Rowland Hill astounded the mourners at his favorite employee's funeral when he told a story he’d kept secret for thirty years: his first meeting with the man had been when the man attempted to hold Dr. Hill up. Hill had argued with him, offering the highwayman an honest job if he would visit him later. And this the robber did, becoming a devout Christian and devoted worker! This man lived the standard Paul calls us to. Don’t keep on stealing, but instead work hard to help others.
So the question is not so much what have you put off, but what have you put on? You may not steal things, but do you work hard so that you’ll have something to give away. I fear not many of us don’t. Some of us just don’t work hard. We’ll let others take care of us and never rise to the level of really working, especially working hard at things we find discouraging or boring. More of us, on the other hand, may work hard, but it’s for our own benefit, and maybe that of our family, but we don’t work hard so that we’ll have something to give away. I know some people who work hard and never give away a dime, never put a dollar in the offering even as an act of worship, never find a way to help a guy on the street or a family in need. Praise God though, that many do. They give generously, and so represent Jesus well to a watching world.
This is a radical attitude. “I’m working hard for the specific purpose of being able to give generously. And it’s a huge blessing to the church and to God’s work in the world when we put on this attitude. As Paul said about the Macedonians: “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will.”
The third pair of contrasts in our Ephesians text is between dissing and blessing. Verses 29 and 30 Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
For some of you no definition of dissing is necessary. For others this may be a new word. Merriam Webster knows it. Dis, verb: to treat someone with disrespect; to be rude to someone; to criticize something in a way that shows disrespect. The Oxford dictionary gives examples like “I don’t like her dissing my friends,” “a campaign of forum postings and emails dissing the company,” “at first, she won't speak to him, mad that he dissed her in front of their captain.”
So Paul is saying, “don’t dis people.” Kent Hughes says it this way “Unwholesome talk" literally means ‘rotten, putrid or filthy.’ This includes obscene language, but the emphasis is on decay-spreading conversation which runs others down and delights in their weaknesses.” When we do this we are like the girl in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story whose father fed her poisons a bit at a time. She remained unaffected, but her whole being was so full of poison that her breath would wither flowers and kill insects and animals. There are Christians who unwittingly become like this. To them wicked witticisms, disrespect, subtle jabs and cutting compliments. come as naturally as breathing.
Instead, we are to say only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may give grace to those who hear. We are to converse in such a way that our words become a vehicle and demonstration of the grace of God. It’s a great contrast. Dissing cuts people down with rotten talk. Grace says what is helpful and builds others up. And I think the key phrase is ‘according to their needs.’ As we recognize, with God’s help, the true needs of a person’s heart will we be able to put in the word of support that strengthens them.
I think this is, first, a matter of prayer. “Lord, give me insight into the real needs that are being expressed here, and help me be able to say the right word, or often, ask the right question to bring together that need and your wisdom.” I often talk about the tongue’s prayer, and I continue to pray it most every day, especially when I’m meeting with people one on one, though I should do it more in casual conversation. The tongue prays first, ‘should I say anything,’ second ‘what should I say,’ and third ‘how should I say it.’ And as God answers these prayers, which I believe he does, we build people up.
In verse 30 Paul connects this, and probably all these things with what Kent Hughes calls ‘the smile of the Holy Spirit.’ Prior to the put-off stage, our attitudes and behavior grieve God the Holy Spirit. That’s an amazing thought, for several reasons. First, it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a real person, just like God the Father, just like Jesus the Son. He feels emotion, grief and joy.
In fact, second, our relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Son is through God the Holy Spirit who lives within us. Paul says that it is in him that we are sealed for the day of redemption. And in the areas of his interest, gifts, fruit, mediation, conviction of sin, behavior, etc., it is right and good for us to address the Spirit directly, crying out for his help in our prayers, his comfort in our troubles, his power in our lives and circumstances. And the Spirit who empowers us is grieved when we stay on the wrong side of ‘put-off,’ never allow him to renew our minds and never reach the practical stage of put-on.
And maybe the most significant contrast is the one we skipped, anger and kindness, Ephesians 4:26-27 and 31-32. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and give no opportunity to the devil. . . . 31Let all bitterness and rage and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.
“Be angry and do not sin.” In other words, do not let your anger degenerate into sinful anger. This presumes that there is a category of anger, commonly called righteous anger, that does not involve sinning. And I believe there is. Jesus was able to be angry without sinning. But the idea of righteous anger is really easy to abuse, as Paul seems to imply. My own experience, confirmed by many I have talked to, is that righteous anger almost always deteriorates into sinful anger, usually quickly. This has happened, for example, if any revenge, any bitterness or slander or even selfishness has crept into your anger. And I’m afraid, if you were able to examine yourself in that moment of anger, you would find one or more or all these sinful attitudes close at hand. For example, I think any time you have to try to justify your anger it’s already sinful.
Paul goes on to counsel us to deal with our anger quickly: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with your anger the same day. We commonly apply this verse to marriages and families and other close relationships, where prolonging anger of any kind can be painfully harmful. But I think we need to also apply this to our relationship with God. So we don’t just stay up and deal with our anger so that we bear no ill will against the one we’re sleeping next to, we stay up and deal with our own hearts because anger can turn quickly to bitterness, malice and self-hated. Maybe most important of all, anger builds walls of pride and self between us and God, which grieves him deeply.
And this gives the devil a foothold. As Hughes says, “Anger held or nursed becomes highly personal. It swells into hatred and, as Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount, we become guilty of murder at the heart level. Even anger that was at first righteous becomes, as the Puritan Thomas Boston said, "evil in itself, and dishonorable to God; being the vomit of a proud heart and unmeekened spirit."
In the devil’s wicked economy, you then become the victim of your own anger. As Frederick Buechner said: “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontation still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
You are gnawing on your own soul. A life filled with anger or a church full of angry people is painful to the Holy Spirit. He will not work, indeed cannot, for he abides by his laws. D. L. Moody tells of a series of meetings he and Ira Sankey held in a small town: “For a week it seemed we were beating the air; there was no power in the meetings. At last, one day, I said that maybe there was someone cultivating an unforgiving spirit. The chairman of our committee, who was sitting next to me, got up and left the meeting. Later he came to me with tears and said: "I thank God you ever came here." He had had trouble with someone for about six months, but had just hunted up this man and asked him to forgive him. That night the inquiry room was thronged.” We must deal with our anger for the sake of our own souls and the life of the Church.
But in these first two verses there is no contrast. We are commanded to put off anger, but we are not, in verses 26-27, told what to put on. That’s why I have paired them with verses 30-31 “Let all bitterness and rage and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” We are to put away from ourselves, to put off, and to have nothing more to do with every trace of these behaviors, the attitudes that grow from sinful anger.
"Bitterness" is the opposite not only of sweetness, but of kindness, as we’ll see. It is the spite that harbors resentment and keeps a score of wrongs. The Greek word originally meant sharp, like an arrow; then sharp or pungent to the taste, and then venomous. The word bitterness, therefore, in its figurative sense, means what is corroding, anything which acts on the mind as poison does on the body, or on the minds of others, as venom does on their bodies. As Hodge says “The venom of the serpent lies harmless in his fang; but all evil feelings are poison to the subject of them, as well as venom to their object. The command, therefore, to lay aside all bitterness, is a command to lay aside everything which corrodes our own minds or wounds the feelings of others.”
“Rage,” from a Greek root that means ‘to burn’ is what flows from bitterness in an outburst of uncontrolled passion and frustration. It is the mind igniting into anger. This is the same word used to describe the wrath of God in verse 6 and the anger of men in the verses we just studied. But here there is no hint of righteous anger. This is an unjustifiable, undefendable human emotion. I want to plead with you friends from the pulpit this morning, as I have plead with myself and with many others in private: do not justify your anger with any if’s and’s or but’s. Just assume that your anger is never justified, no matter how provoked, not even if it seems to be effective in making others do your will.
Anger manifests itself, according to Paul, in noise, in clamor, in shouting, in brawling, in wrangling – the word has been translated in many ways, but you know exactly what it means. It is the overflow of your anger into verbal or even physical violence. It is slander or abuse. In fact the last word is translated ‘abuse,’ though verbal abuse is what is chiefly in mind. But this, along with any deep seated malice fueled by the anger is to be put away, put off.
And what is to be put on, with the Spirit’s renewing help? Verse 32 pictures the contrast we are to strive for: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” "Be," one commentator says, is really “become,” for Paul realizes that his readers have not yet attained the full measure of perfection found in Christ.”
But become kind, which is the opposite of bitterness, displaying a sweet, generous disposition. This is a fruit of the Spirit, a common New Testament command. I’ve started a study of the commands of the New Testament. My theory is that we don’t take seriously enough these simple character and heart commands. I think they are really the key to the godly Christian life. We don’t take them seriously, don’t obsess over how to apply them, don’t mourn when we fail to live them out. We don’t hold up the virtues of kindness and compassion and these other things, yet these are precisely the virtues of Christlikeness.
The second word is ‘compassionate,’ the word that really means ‘moved in our guts.’ To the Greeks our emotions were located in our gut, in our liver, kidneys, etc. One commentator quoted Hippocrates, who used the word to describe the healthy function of the intestines. But the Jews added the idea of tenderness and this is always present in the New Testament, especially of Jesus.
In contrast to bitterness and malice Paul places mutual forgiveness, a mark of true Christian fellowship and one of the most common heart commands of the New Testament. Paul sets forth the strongest possible motive for forgiveness: Christians are to forgive one another because all of them have already been forgiven by God in Christ, a truth hammered home in Jesus’ own parable of the unmerciful servant. Our forgiveness of others is to be like God's forgiveness of us. It must flow from ungrudging love.
So Paul has expanded the foundational sequence of put-off, be renewed, put-on by a series of contrasts: lies and truth, theft and generosity, dissing and blessing, and finally anger and forgiving kindness. This is a radical transformation, a metamorphosis of character brought about by the Holy Spirit.
As I was writing I was reminded over and over of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. A caterpillar is unable to do so many things that a butterfly can, especially fly, but also reproduce and simply look beautiful. A caterpillar is a little ugly, voracious and earthbound. But then comes the transformation as it is renewed into something it never was. Protected by the chrysalis, it dissolves into a sticky organic goo, then reforms, transformed into a creature of color and life and flight. That’s what Paul is calling for, a radical rejection of the earthbound and the ugly and the sinfully voracious people we once were, and complete reformation of our very hearts by the Holy Spirit. Then, transformation, into people who give God glory as he leads us into truth and generosity and the building up of one another, into kindness, compassion and forgiveness.