Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Ephesians 4:17-32] When Jesus saved us, He gave us access to the power of heaven by the Holy Spirit. That should make a difference in our lives. When we see the way non-Christians live ("walk"), it should make us not want to be like that, and it should also make us want to share the hope of the gospel with them.
And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. Ephesians 4:32
[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.]
The Ministry of Silly Walks
You know that I’m a bit odd, so when I read the title of the lesson, my brain immediately went to a bizarre Monty Python sketch about “Silly Walks” (it’s a brutal satire of British bureaucracy—”the government is supposed to fund defence, social security, health, housing, education, and silly walks; but recently, they’ve been funding defence more, and so money for silly walks is tight”). And that sent me into the black hole of “walking” comedy—the famous “I’m walking here!” line from Midnight Cowboy (which I only know from its parodies); the funny people who can act like they’re walking down imaginary stairs; a funny sketch from Who’s Line Is It Anyway? In which walking becomes a “that’s easy for you to say”; and then every week on America’s Funniest Videos which includes someone walking and falling down (often while texting).
Now—I have no idea what your class will find funny, but you might enjoy opening with a question like “do you have a funny ‘walking’ memory or story?” I think of a three-legged race in which my opponent dragged his partner to the finish line, or me in middle school walking into a tree when I was being cool for a girl, or the girl who hadn’t practiced walking in high heels enough before wearing them to high school graduation. Walking is normal human behavior, and it can also be pretty funny. It’s definitely not what Paul was talking about with “walk differently”, but there’s a transition I think you can make from “walking” to “living”.
The Power Walk
I love to watch people strut; they’re so self-confident, it oozes out of them. Ask your class if they would be willing to demonstrate a “power” walk (and where they learned it). It’s so Hollywood-stereotyped that you can Google “power walk tv trope” to see all the ways they use it in media. This one actually has an easier connection with our lesson: if celebrities want their literal walk to ooze confidence, then the how much more should the way Christians live ooze Jesus. (You have to admit—that’s a smooth transition.)
This Week's Big Idea: The Psychology of Walking
I told you this was a black hole.
So, people say you can learn an awful lot about a person by observing the way they walk. On the click-bait sites, I read that a person who takes long strides is self-confident; a person who takes heavy steps is inflexible; a person who drags their feet is sad or depressed; a person with hands in pockets is insecure; a strut is show-off-ish; walking with head up means a good mood. Well, that kind of armchair psychology is bupkis. [In fact, I read an article saying that people are more likely to misinterpret a walking style unless they also factor facial expression and clothing. I also read a study in which observers made very consistent judgments about a person based on movement alone; those judgments were also consistently wrong.] But most people still do it.
Ask your class if they think there is any correlation between how a person walks and their personality. The “experts” will say that fast walkers are more outgoing. Slow walkers are more cautious. Saunterers (this is the “stroll”, not a “strut”) are more confident. People who swing their arms excessively when they walk are more aggressive. (I also read that the nervous system is always looking for ways to save energy, which is why some people walk with little extraneous movement—their bodies are being efficient.) I wonder if your class would agree with the “experts”; it does seem that many people make those kinds of evaluations.
Here’s why I actually think all of this “psychology of walking” is rooted in our psyche: the power of first impressions. Our brains are making evaluations of someone as quickly as possible (psychologists say this is about determining threat levels). Well, before you talk to someone, you’ve had a chance to evaluate their appearance and (unless they’re sitting down) their walk. Studies of college students have shown that they’re relatively accurate in guessing a general personality style (like introvert vs. extrovert) by watching how a classmate moves. Honestly, that’s not saying very much. This probably has more to do with the stereotypes of the proverbial “Type A” and “Type B” personalities. And yet, people still draw consistent conclusions about a person based on how they walk.
Here’s how I think that can be useful in this lesson: if people are making evaluations of us based solely on how we walk, how much more do they by watching the decisions we make and the way we behave! That’s what Paul is talking about here. There is a way of life that characterizes Gentiles. There is a totally different way of life that characterizes Christians. It should be as easy to distinguish a Christian from a Gentile as we think we can tell a Type A from a Type B.
Our Context in Ephesians
As we’ve noted, the shift from chapters 1-3 to 4-6 is the equivalent of “I’m a Christian now; how should I live?” It makes sense that Paul would initially focus on the church and the idea of unity. After all, where do we learn behavior and conduct if not by observing it in other people! And how can we develop a new lifestyle if we are at odds with the very people who are there to help us change our habits? But now Paul shifts his attention to the individual Christian with very practical observations that are still completely in line with being a transformed human. Your class will have no trouble understanding what Paul means; their challenge will be in doing what he says.
Part 1: The Old (Ephesians 4:17-19)
Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.
David is leading our church through a “how to write your testimony” exercise, and did a “how to share your testimony in 15 seconds” challenge. The easiest format for any testimony is (1) My life before Jesus; (2) How I came to know Jesus; (3) The difference Jesus has made in my life. (More on the back page.) The 15-second version of this is:
Before Christ After
_______________ _______________ _______________
_______________ _______________ _______________
Essentially, you choose 2 or 3 words to describe your life before Christ, 2 to 3 words to describe what happened when you met Christ, and 2 or 3 words to describe your life in Christ. It’s a brilliant exercise that I strongly encourage you to do with your class. Paul gives us some amazing words to describe their life before Christ: “futile”, “excluded”, “ignorant”, “callous”. How powerful! Did that describe you before Jesus? Our saying for “futility of thought” would be something like “spinning our wheels”. It literally means “thinking without knowledge”, a very depressing idea. “Darkened in their understanding” has survived as a saying in “dim-witted”. Wisdom was (is) considered being “enlightened”; a person without wisdom was without light. Then remind your class that Jesus said “I am the light of the world” and let them connect the dots. Being excluded hearkens to what Paul had earlier said: “without hope and without God in the world”. “Ignorant” was a very harsh word, especially since many Gentiles prided themselves on their great learning (like today). But they were ignorant of the most important knowledge in the world: coming to the One True God through Jesus Christ. “Hardness” and “callous” are related ideas—through repeated abrasion and contact, soft skin develops a callus and becomes hard. It was figuratively used of a stubborn person. What makes a person stubborn? If a Christian can be stubborn, how much more a non-Christian who already rejects the truth of God! Being callous leads a person into “promiscuity of impurity”. What do you think is the connection there? The best way I can illustrate it is the drug addict—as their bodies get desensitized to whatever dose they’ve been taking, they have to take more in quantity (or a more powerful drug) to feel the same effect. The other way I can illustrate it is the proverbial “slippery slope”; once a person has discovered they can “get away” with lying (for example), they will lie in more and more situations with impunity. It’s human nature. God created us with a God-shaped hole, and as we try to fill it with anything other than God, we will never be satisfied.
What an amazing opening section! If you’re putting this in terms of “testimony”, make sure your class (1) remembers what life was like without Christ, and (2) has sympathy for non-Christians. This should make us complain less about our lives and desire to share Jesus more.
Aside: Paul's Handy Christian Behavior Primers
Paul does the rapid-fire style lists of proper behavior for Christians multiple times in his letters. Unfortunately, that has given Paul the reputation (among those who don’t really study the Bible) of being a legalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are three lists similar to the one we are studying this week. A close parallel can be found in Colossians 3:12-17: “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Yes, there are a lot of “do’s and don’ts” in this passage, but read it closely—does it read like a law code? No! It is a picture of what a Christian life should look like. And can you imagine any Christian arguing with anything on that “list”? But let’s shift gears to a different kind of list—Romans 12:9-17: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Okay—so this list looks like it’s filled with specific commands. But is it really? Or is it yet again just filled with general guidelines whose application will look different in each Christian’s life? I personally love these lists. They give me something concrete to make decisions on. Remember that Paul was writing to first generation Christians whose former way of living gave them no help in how to be a Christian. “Do not repay evil for evil” was a foreign concept to them. But how about a list like 1 Thess 4:3-12: “For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, that each of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passions, like the Gentiles, who don’t know God. This means one must not transgress against and take advantage of a brother or sister in this manner . . . But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.” Hmm. This list looks more meddlesome. And perhaps it is (although, would you argue with any of what he said?). But remember that Paul wrote to specific churches with specific “issues”. Apparently, sexual sin and laziness were distinct problems in that church which required a clear response which led to that list of commands. Again, would any of us have a problem with what he said? Sometimes, Christians need clear applications, just like your Sunday School class members!
Part 2: The Change (Ephesians 4:20-24)
But that is not how you came to know Christ, assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
I’m telling you, this is the perfect passage to teach your class about how to write and share their testimony.
“But” is a glorious contrast for the Christian. Now, in Christ, those things are no longer true of us. (Without getting bogged down in it, point out the caveat—salvation is not just hearing and learning about Jesus; it is hearing and learning from Jesus. Salvation is a spiritual event, not a mental one!) There are a number of analogies in the Bible for salvation. Here, Paul likens it to taking off old, dirty clothes and putting on new, clean ones (perhaps remind your class of the parable of the wedding banquet [Matt 22:1-14] in which the king gave clothes to everyone who came in). Is changing a life from Gentile to Christian as easy as putting on new clothes? No, but let me say this: I think we give a lot of excuses for making it harder than it actually is. We can hold on to a former way of life (or be attracted to the way the world lives) for no good reason except our sinful desires. (Make sure your class understands that Paul is not making salvation a superficial thing! It’s just an illustration.) Ask your class about the power of clothing in their life. Maybe a time when their clothing was just filthy, and they finally got to take in off and change into something clean and comfortable. Or maybe the time they put on that wedding gown or tux for the first time. Or a special outfit for a graduation. Or the first time in uniform. Clothing can be very powerful, and so I like it for this illustration.
Point out the difference between the two ways of life. The old way of life is corrupted by deceitful desires. “Corrupted” refers to decay. A decaying tooth or a decaying floorboard—the end is the same. Decay cannot be stopped; it can only be cut out. It’s caused by deceitful desires—desires that promise fulfillment but end in a hard heart. Do you want that way of life? Or do you want a life that is being renewed. “Renewal” is essentially the opposite of decay—dead things coming back to life. You tell me: would you rather choose decay or renewal? “Spirit of your minds” simply refers to the human spirit (mind, heart, spirit, those all ultimately refer to the essence of a person) as opposed to the Holy Spirit, which does the renewing.
Using the word “created” is how Paul makes sure we don’t think of this transformation as superficial (like clothing). Yes, we can go to the store and buy a new outfit to wear. But the “new self” that Paul says we have put on has been created (by the Holy Spirit) according to God’s perfect plan. This takes us back to Adam and Eve and the sort of people God created them to be. Like them, we have the power to choose to disobey. But unlike them, we now have the Spirit of God renewing us, allowing us to rise above those failures. Our old self was corrupted. Our new self is righteous. Our old self was impure. Our new self is pure. But wait—it’s not! I know myself! I’m not pure! This is where we note that “renewal” is an ongoing process. We are continuously being renewed into the righteous, pure self that will live with God eternally. We’re not there now, but we’re being changed by the Spirit. Our actions can cause serious damage to the renewal process (like a relapse of someone in rehab), but it cannot stop it.
Part 3: The New (Ephesians 4:25-32)
Therefore, putting away lying, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the devil an opportunity. Let the thief no longer steal. Instead, he is to do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need. No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.
This final section is the key to this lesson. It’s the easiest to understand, so my recommendation is to go through each one of these “commands” individually and ask your class to deduce what they look like in their lives. I’m hoping that you will get answers like “This is not the way I’m living, but . . .” That would be awesome! That would be evidence of someone struggling with the truth. Your job as a class leader would be to follow up with them during the week and ask them specifically about that application. In private, it might be easier for them to discuss their struggle. Encourage them to a specific action step or two (maybe they have a foul mouth, or maybe they tend to have anger bursts). Even though “do’s and don’ts” aren’t what bring us to or keep us in salvation, I think that a list like this helps me evaluate where I am in my walk with Jesus. Where am I falling short? What steps can I take? Who can I ask to help keep me accountable in that struggle?
The two phrases that might cause debate: (1) “don’t give the devil an opportunity”. This does not mean that the devil has power over Christians. In fact, it means the opposite. All the devil can do is exploit the sin that we have chosen to harbor in ourselves. Paul associates that power most closely with anger/unforgiveness. Of all our sinful tendencies, bottled-up anger seems to lead to the most damaging outbursts. (Note: many Christians have falsely interpreted this to mean that we should “let our anger out” or “vent”. Wrong! That doesn’t help at all! The solution to anger is forgiveness and love!) (2) “Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit”. This is a scary phrase that some have taken to mean that you can lose your salvation. I’m really not sure where they get that. My kids grieve me sometimes, just as I grieved my parents. That didn’t change my relationship with them; it just means that there was grief involved. Should the Holy Spirit be happy with us when we sin? Of course not. Paul specifically puts this phrase in the context of our words toward other people. Our words matter. We need to take them very seriously, just as God does. Send your class to James 3:1-12 for a great summary of God’s view of our words.
So here’s your summary: we are supposed to live noticeably different from non-Christians. Do we? Paul gives us a list of behaviors that can help make that clear. Do they characterize us? We’re all going to be falling short in one or more of those areas. What do we need to do this week to make a change in our lives? How do we get more in tune with the Holy Spirit so that He can change us from within?
Aside: About Crafting Your Testimony
David has made a lot of great re-sources available as a part of his “This Is My Story” class on Sunday nights. Here are some of the tips:
Part 1: My Life Before Jesus
What about my life might relate to the unbelievers I know? What did my life revolve around? Where did I look for happiness and security? How did those things let me down?
Part 2: How I Came to Jesus
When was the first time I heard the gospel? How did I react to the gospel at first? When did my attitude start to change? Why did I make the decision to follow Jesus?
[Note: at this point in your testimony, you want to have something like a marked New Testament available to show a few key verses that explain the plan of salvation—what God did for us in Jesus, and how we’re supposed to respond (believe and repent).]
Part 3: My Life with Jesus
How is my life different? What about my attitudes and desires has changed? What motivates me now? How does knowing Jesus help me get through my failures and bad days? What is God doing in my life today?
Always pray for God to help you re-member those key parts of your story. Write your testimony down, but write it as you would say it conversationally. Don’t try to impress anyone; just be natural and real. Definitely don’t make anything up! Try to keep your testimony to three minutes or less. Practice saying your testimony out loud, and then practice saying it to people you know. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. How you say it might change over time, and that’s okay.