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Imitate God, Not the World (Ephesians 5:1-14)

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Commentary on Ephesians 5:1-14] If we are Christians, we are to imitate God in Christ, particularly by loving all people. Contrary to what some say today, this does not mean to participate with them in their debauchery but instead to reveal sinful actions as sinful. This is for our own protection and also in hopes of bringing people to Christ. We cannot tolerate what God considers a sin.

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Guilty Pleasures

There are two kinds of guilty pleasures: the funny, cute, silly pleasure that’s kind of embarrassing but not really guilty; and the this-is-straight-up-sin pleasure. For obvious reasons, you would want to keep it to the silly/funny “guilty pleasures” as an icebreaker. (And that’s how you would phrase it: “Our culture considers a guilty pleasure something that you enjoy that most people would not admit to.”) Does anyone in your class have a “guilty pleasure” they would admit to?

I very carefully googled the idea (teachable moment: the phrase “guilty pleasure” is absolutely going to bring up inappropriate sites, so the way around that is to add a modifier like “guilty pleasure food” “guilty pleasure music”; I then scan the domain name and the first few lines of the page in the Google results and decide if the page is reasonably safe to click). Here are some common “guilty pleasures” in our country. Music: Barry Manilow, the Bee Gees, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, Wilson Philips, Mambo Number 5, Livin’ la Vida Loca, Never Gonna Give You Up. Food: Taco Bell, gummy worms, fried butter, cheese whiz, cosmic brownies, Totino’s pizza rolls, Cheetos, Lunchables, fruit snacks. TV Shows: The Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Saved by the Bell, I Dream of Jeannie, Duck Tales, Looney Tunes, The Muppet Show, SpongeBob, Baywatch.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road on this icebreaker: how do you know when your “innocent” guilty pleasure is actually a problem? Frankly, it depends. For example, if you watch Baywatch because you like to ogle David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, then that’s lust and it’s a problem. But if you don’t pay attention to that and actually enjoy the show, then it might be fine. Same thing with a song like Mambo Number 5; it’s got a very catchy beat, but if you actually listen to the lyrics, it’s pretty creepy. We are influenced and desensitized in subtle ways by the music we listen to, so we need to be very aware of the message a song preaches. It’s a little different with food. Is there anything wrong with enjoying a Toaster Strudel? I hope not! But there’s definitely something wrong with eating an entire box of them; the lack of control is itself the sin. (I haven’t thought about it very hard, but liking Wilson Philips or The Wonder Years might indeed just be innocent. And that would make it a “safe” guilty pleasure.)

But Paul wants us to be very careful with our “guilty pleasures”. If we think of it as a way to “vicariously” enjoy someone else’s sin, Paul has another think coming to us.

This Week's Big Idea: The Real and Destructive Power of Secret Sin

In our passage, Paul is going to tell us not even to talk about the things sinful people do in secret. One of the biggest ways we misunderstand this is with respect to movies and music, but I’ll save that for a sidebar. Rather, I just want to make sure that we have the data to explain why Paul is right.

Paul mentions sexual immorality and impurity twice in this passage, so an obvious place to start is pornography. We’ve talked about this before; you shouldn’t need anyone to tell you that our culture is obsessed with sex (specifically sex outside of biblical marriage). As many as 3/4s of men and women have consumed sexually explicit content in the last year. It’s easy to find on the internet, and now it’s commonly found in mainstream movies and prime time tv shows. (Goodness, a movie came out last year called Book Club, which was about a ladies’ book club that read Fifty Shades of Gray and all of the shenanigans that ensued; which, I guess, ended well? They’re making a sequel. But more on that idea in a sidebar.) But let me give you the twist: according to multiple reputable sources, more than 50% of pastors and church leaders struggle with pornography. The counselors who work with them usually have this to say: pastors know that what they’re doing is wrong, but they’re too embarrassed to talk about it, and they are unable to overcome on their own, and so they simply continue to struggle in silence. (And if anyone in your class gets sanctimonious about no tolerance for pastor-sins, ask them if they struggle with any kind of sin. Pastors are human, too, except they get put on a pedestal, and Satan is specifically targeting them to knock them off.)

And that’s the problem with “secret sin”. Paul says in our passage that the way to deal with such sin is the expose it to the light. You can read in testimonies the great relief that church leaders felt when they finally “got caught”. In some cases, it cost them their ministry, but they were finally able to confess their sin openly. But that first step--that first confession—is terrifying because of the unknowns (which Satan is able to exploit): will I be forgiven? is there a future for me? can I ever face my family?

And that’s why Paul says what he says: if a behavior is so shameful that people are secretive about it, don’t even think about doing it. In fact, don't think about it at all! Don’t entertain it in your mind! Or else the same trap that sprung on those people may ensnare you too. Unless...your purpose in talking about it is to expose it as sin. But here’s the great problem in our present culture: most “shameful, secret sins” are no longer secret. They’re advertised. They’re celebrated. Sexual deviancy, overindulgence, disrespect, those things are paraded in front of us all the time so it’s really hard to keep our mind off of them. And as you probably know from conversation, there are quite a few self-professing Christians around us who are starting to believe that maybe those sins aren’t really that bad. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to guard us from!

But lest you think that this is all about sexual sin, the website ibelieve gave a list of 8 sins that they’re afraid Christians are generally tolerating: selfishness, extreme patriotism (which I think they mean jingoism), fear, pride, gluttony, gossip, hatred, judgmentalism. (Fine print: the author only gave anecdotal evidence for this, but you could ask your class if you think this author is correct.) The more we think about these in secret without exposing them to the light of Christ, the more likely we are to fall into them ourselves. So it’s not just sexual sin—any sinful behavior that we secretly enjoy watching other people do (like gossip on Gossip Girl or crass humor on any number of animated shows) is what Paul is warning us about. Unless (and I repeat this because there is an “unless”) the purpose for which we are thinking about and talking about these secret sins is to help ourselves and other Christians understand what is going on and recognize them as sinful. We cannot escape the sin that we are exposed to in the media, but we can use that exposure to help ourselves deal with it and confront it in the Christians around us.

Our Context in Ephesians

As you can probably guess, Paul is going to step on toes this week. Actually, he’s just going to get a herd of elephants and ride them all over our toes. Maybe even teach them to Boot Scootin’ Boogie on our toes. (And yes, line dancing is one of my guilty pleasures.) Just like Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount that following Him isn’t about following the commandments (“you have heard . . . But I say . . .”), Paul is going to let us know that imitating God isn’t as simple as the quick list we talked about last week. As helpful as that list is, is just scratches the surface of what it means to be a child of God. Rather, it gets into what we allow ourselves to think. I think we can summarize this step in Paul’s argument thus: We might think that we can keep sinful behavior secret from other people, but we cannot keep it secret from God. Therefore, we should let God’s Word shine a light into the darkness in our own hearts even as we then shine it into the darkness in the world around us. This passage is both humbling and freeing. Why freeing? Because we know that God will always forgive our sin when we confess and repent.

Part 1: Imitate (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.

“Therefore” is a great word to look up in the Bible, and I give you a little to that end below in the Focus. The first question to ask is this: “In what way are we to imitate God?” Obviously, there are a lot of things God can do that we can’t do! Well, follow the verse—the word “and” is explanatory; the primary way we imitate God is by “walking in love”. If you look at the two other verses where we are given this kind of command (“be holy as I am holy” and “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”), you’ll see a similar context. In 1 Peter 1, imitating God by being holy means being self-controlled and avoiding the evil behaviors of the world. In Matthew 5, imitating God by being perfect means loving your enemies just as your love your friends (which is against the pattern of the world). Basically, this is what the Bible says: when we make a choice, our thought process can be mostly influenced by the world around us, or it can be mostly influenced by God and His Word. The area that Paul (and Jesus and Peter) focuses on the most is how we treat other people. Sexual immorality and greed are not victimless crimes; they are rooted in how we view others—as objects to be manipulated, or as priceless treasures created in the image of God. To imitate God, we must view all people as creations to be loved, just as Jesus chose to view us. Why else would Jesus have been willing to suffer and die for us?

It’s important that Paul chose to use the language of the Jewish sacrificial system. The burnt offering was called a pleasing aroma to the Lord (Lev 1:9) as was the grain offering (2:2), the fellowship offering (3:5), and the sin offering (4:31). What exactly was pleasing about it to God? If you read those chapters carefully, what pleases God is the humble and willing participation in the process. The sacrifices are made of something very valuable to the worshiper; usually the attitude of repentance is a big part of it; and there is always the submission to the commands given by God. This is confirmed in Psalm 51, where David realizes that God actually wants a humble and contrite heart much more than a physical sacrifice. With just that phrase, Paul is telling us that imitating God demands that we be humbly submissive to His pattern for living, that we not hold back our best from Him, and that we be willing to sacrifice whatever necessary for the good of the people around us.

I would take your class back to the great list of do’s and don’ts we talked about last week. Did they think about them? Did they measure their lives against them? We can imitate God if we aren’t doing the very basic things of watching our mouths, putting away anger, and being kind and forgiving to one another.

More about "Therefore"

Here’s a fascinating exercise (that will take you an hour or so): look up every instance of the word “therefore” in the New Testament. I had not done this before, and I was amazed at how many times it is used the way Paul uses it here: “we have established x truth; therefore we should do y behavior”. A very parallel one is Matthew 5:48, “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, or the equally great Matthew 7:12, “Therefore do for others as you would have them do for you”. But let me move on to Paul’s writings. One of my favorites is Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God”. There’s the apropos Romans 6:12, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies”. Perhaps the strongest parallel is Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, in view of God’s mercies, … be a living sacrifice … do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” 1 Cor 4:16 might sound familiar: “Therefore, I urge you to imitate me [as I imitate Jesus]”. Or 2 Cor 4:16, “Therefore, we do not give up; though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed.” Or 2 Cor 5:17, “Therefore, is anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away and the new has come”.

Obviously, I could keep going. Paul uses “therefore” 100 times in his letters. It’s a strong driver for all of his arguments. David is fond of saying, “When you see a ‘therefore’, check what it’s there for.” In each of these instances, you’ll see a powerful truth explained, and the therefore marks the conclusion and application. And when you read all of them together, you have an airtight case why every follower of Jesus should have the absolute highest moral standards, the very best records of behavior, and the utmost control of heart and mind. (Thank goodness for grace, right?) Nevertheless, that is the path and goal each of us should have.

Part 2: Isolate (Ephesians 5:3-7)

But sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints. Obscene and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable, but rather giving thanks. For know and recognize this: Every sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners.

These are very heavy verses, and we haven’t even gotten to the toughest ones! Paul repeats the emphasis on sexual immorality and greed. Those must have been a big problem in Ephesus. And frankly, they’re a big problem today! And your class must be able to answer the question “Why are sexual immorality and greed totally unacceptable for a Christian?” (If they can’t, scold them.) But Paul goes on: obscene, foolish, and crude language are also unacceptable for Christians. He isn’t just talking about vulgarities/obscenities. He’s also talking about describing indecent behavior (like in gossip). He’s talking about off-color jokes. He’s talking about zingers and putdowns. He’s talking about sexist or racist remarks. Foolish talk is senseless or meaningless talk (usually associated with drunkenness). [Now—our culture has gone all-in on sarcasm and silliness, which I love. But for my part I try only to use such talk around people who understand it. Using sarcasm around someone who will take it the wrong way is part of the speech Paul tells us to avoid.] Why can we not speak that way? Because our mouths are supposed to be filled with thanksgiving and praise to God!

Paul then takes it up a notch—such people don’t have an inheritance in the kingdom (which we must interpret to mean that they aren’t actually saved). Whoa! What happened to forgiveness and the sacrifice of Christ?! Well, note the change in sentence structure. Whereas in 5:3 where Paul told us not to do acts of sexual immorality, impurity and greed, here he now talks about a sexually immoral, impure, or greedy person. In other words, it’s not about the act, it’s about the lifestyle. A person who is characterized by this behavior, essentially, cannot be a Christian. Why? Because if we have put off the old man and put on the new man (who is powered by the Holy Spirit), we cannot live such a life. The Holy Spirit will not allow it. It does not mean that we won’t sin, but it does mean that we won’t be okay with our sin.

An aside on the word “struggle”. In my “Big Idea”, I mentioned the number of pastors who have admitted to struggling with pornography. It’s a great word, and it helps us to understand what a life now controlled by the Holy Spirit looks like. We sin, but it grieves us. We realize that we need to overcome that sin, and we enlist the Spirit to help. However. I’ve noticed a trend in which some people will say “I’m struggling with such-and-such” as a spiritual way to say “get off my back”. They’re not really struggling with anything; they just don’t want you to bother them. If a Christian is truly struggling with a sin, then they are right in line with what Paul is saying in these verses about Christians. If they’re lying about that struggle, then they are who Paul is calling an idolater, and watch out!

We all know that people don’t like to be told that their behavior is wrong, or that they need to change. We would rather have people tell us that we’re just fine the way we are; we can go right on ahead with whatever vice or bad habit and not worry about it. I’m okay; you’re okay; God loves everybody just the way they are. God wouldn’t send anyone to hell! Clearly, people thought that way in Ephesus, too! That’s why Paul goes out of his way to say that God in fact will punish sin. “Don’t let anyone deceive you.” The religion called “Universalism” banks on that utopian idea that God is all love and no wrath. That entire attitude gets God half-wrong. God does indeed love everybody, but not “just the way they are”. God is both loving and just, and our sin demands a just response. But in Jesus, God can see us through Him and thus forgive us, because Jesus has paid the just price of our sin. But if we are truly “in Jesus”, then there will be proof in the form of our desire to follow Jesus and imitate God. If we choose to live in open rebellion to what God has told us in His Word, then that is a worrying sign that we are not in Jesus. Can we go through really bad stretches? Of course. We’re human. That’s why we can’t judge anyone’s salvation. But eventually there will be some kind of prodigal return.

Aside: Is It Wrong to Enjoy Movies that Promote Sin?

In researching for this handout, I read an article by a pastor justifying why he enjoyed horror movies. While most of his logic was a biblical stretch, I realized that there are different kinds of horror movies. There are movies that focus on the psychological experience of fear and the traumas that accompany it, and there are movies that glorify violence and gore and torture and other awful things. Let me just put this out there: movies that focus on gratuitous sex and violence should not be watched by Christians. That is definitely what Paul was talking about in this passage. I once had a college student try to justify watching the Saw franchise. Her rationale made me physically ill because it was essentially about enjoying watching people die in horrible ways. Let’s not do that.

But what about every other movie which seems to glorify sin? Like Guardians of the Galaxy, which is essentially about pirates. Or Shawshank Redemption, which is about convicted felons. Or Titanic, which is about every sin known to mankind. At that point, I think it becomes about our perspective. First, we must acknowledge that we cannot watch a realistic show about real people and have it not involve sin. Second, what is our tolerance for things like foul language and lewd characters? I prefer to watch the edited-for-tv version of a lot of movies; that’s just where I am in life. Third, and most importantly, how aware am I of the content of the movies I watch? I’ve made this point a few times: we should not talk/think about the sins people commit in secret unless our purpose is to expose them as sinful. Do you think your kids’ friends aren’t watching these movies and talking about them? You’d better believe they are! Help your kids by talking through the movies they watch from a biblical perspective. And not just “killing people is wrong”, but why characters did what they did and the consequences. If a movie is filled with stereotypes, it’s probably not worth analyzing. But if it has characters of depth, perhaps it will give you a window into the lives of people you know who need Jesus.

Summary answer: it depends on why you’re watching the movie. Don’t watch to secretly enjoy the sins they’re committing.

Part 3: Illuminate (Ephesians 5:8-14)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light consists of all goodness, righteousness, and truth—testing what is pleasing to the Lord. Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what is done by them in secret. Everything exposed by the light is made visible, for what makes everything visible is light. Therefore it is said: Get up, sleeper, and rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

See the back for a little more on light/darkness. But there should be no arguing with Paul’s logic. If we are indeed “in the light” (as Jesus is in the light), we should live like it. At the parallel point in his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses “fruit of the Spirit”, but here he uses “fruit of the light”. (You can tie dark and light to worship practices in Ephesus, but they were also elsewhere, so we don’t know for sure why Paul goes with “light” here except that he has really been pounding the difference between light and dark.) They didn’t just use to walk in darkness; they were darkness. They don’t walk in light now, they are light. Paul picked three characteristics that exemplify “light”: goodness (also kindness—the opposite of “evil”); righteousness (also just—the opposite of “sinful”); truth (also honesty—the opposite of falsehood). “Light” allows us to “see” what we’re doing, which means we can measure it by God’s standards. Have you ever tried to do something in the dark? You generally mess it up. (You can do an exercise to this end if you don’t have windows in your room; have someone stack something with the light on, and then turn the light off and have them try again.)

The image of darkness is very powerful in human culture. Ask your class what they associate with darkness. Probably things like “unknown”, “scary”, “threatening”, “hide”, “vulnerable”. The short of it is that people think they can “get away” with things in the dark that they would never attempt in the light. Light is therefore safety for us, and it is always for the best for everyone (even if getting caught is unpleasant). This means two things for us: (1) we are to live morally upright lives in our corrupt world (“shine in the darkness”); and (2) we are to speak out against the evil works of the world. As we’ve said many times, speaking out against a behavior (like homosexual activity) is considered hate speech, which makes Paul’s command dangerous. BUT if we have done everything else Paul has told us to do—speak truthfully, don’t say unwholesome things, be kind and compassionate, walk in love, be good and righteous and true—then we can be clear in our conscience and the world, and most importantly we are right before God. I’ve talked a lot about the difference between enjoying the sinful things people do and wanting to expose them for what they are (particularly for the purpose of teaching your kids right from wrong).

And here’s the kicker: eventually, God’s light will shine on everything. (Jesus: “There is nothing hidden that will not be made known” Matt 10:26.) We can falsely think that we can join in these wrong deeds and be protected by secrecy. Or we can let God’s light reveal to us our own sin and ask Him to cleanse us of it. Paul’s quote at the end is mysterious (we don’t know exactly where it comes from), but the truth is clear: we were once dead in our sins (sleepers), but when we believed (spiritually changed from death to life), Christ shines His light of truth on us so we can rightly measure our lives by God’s perfect standard (test what is pleasing to the Lord). And that’s what’s so great about Jesus: He brings us to life, and then His light helps to purify us. And that’s why we say that God does love all people, but He doesn’t love them “just the way they are” in the sense that He doesn’t want to shine His light on them and make them true and complete followers of Jesus.

Aside: Light vs. Dark. For Paul, this image is personal. When he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, it was as a blinding light, and after that meeting Paul was literally blind. Both God the Father and Jesus use the difference between spiritual light and spiritual blindness to describe the Jews (where blindness is the same as walking in darkness; see Matt 4:16, 6:23, 10:27, 15:30). The point is that this is a very strong image—there is no gray area between “light” and “dark”; even dim light is still light. It’s a blessing to have light and sight; we must not take it for granted.

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