Practical Conduct - Part 1: 4. 17-32
John Heading, Aberystwyth
The daily life of a believer is not independent of the doctrine that he holds nor of the service that takes place in the local assembly. The conduct of a Christian should be quite distinct from that of an unbeliever. So in the present section Paul takes note of the conduct of an unconverted Gentile under the designation "the old man", and then of the conduct of a believer designated by "the new man".
By the word "therefore", v. 17, Paul implies that the doctrine of the one body, and the fact of gifts having been given by the ascended Lord, must have a deep effect on believers. Paul writes in his capacity as "apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher" (for he served in all these activities of assembly service), and as testifying "in the Lord" he implies the divine authority behind his practical exhortations. Their walk was to be quite distinct from that of "other Gentiles", or better, from "the rest, Gentiles". No doubt he is thinking particularly of the Gentiles in Ephesus. These have already been described in 2. 2-3, 11-12, the description being dark and unsavoury. No doubt there were exceptions, such as Cornelius who, although unconverted, displayed traits of character that God would recognize, Acts 10. 2, 4, 22. Strictly, the Ephesian believers were no longer Gentiles as viewed from the divine point of view; see 1 Cor. 10. 32 where "the church of God" is distinct from both Jew and Gentile. As such they should be "spiritual" and not "natural", though if, in failure, they walked as men, then they were "carnal", 3. 1-4. One difference was that the Gentiles walked "in the vanity of their mind", namely with a mind empty of spiritual things, while the Ephesians should "be filled with all the fulness of Christ", Eph. 3. 19.
The description of Gentile sin in 4. 18-19 recalls a more detailed description in Romans 1. 18-32, written by Paul about five years earlier. Their understanding was darkened, and "their foolish heart was darkened", v. 21, with no light dwelling within. For their knowledge of the invisible things of God had been changed into the visible objects of idolatry. They were alienated from the life of God because "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge", v. 28. So idolatry circulated around all the heathen, and the people of Ephesus were entirely taken up with "Diana of the Ephesians". In early times, much about God had been known, v. 19, but afterwards there was nothing but ignorance, because the heart was hard, refusing to accept any truth, whether creatorial or redemptive in Christ. They had no conscience about the wrongfulness of sin, so were "past feeling". Here Paul exposes just a few sins, Eph. 4. 19, though in Romans 1. 26-32 he expounds the matter at greater length. Once in such a state, men give "themselves over" to a continued life of sin, since there would be a desperate longing for more. For "lasciviousness ... greediness" grow in those who commence in that direction, as drug addiction and the vice of drink exert strangleholds on those who commence to slide along that downward pathway. These sins that Paul describes characterized the nations around Israel in the O.T., and this accounts for the frequent divine judgments that fell upon them.
In verse 20, Paul uses a negative to assert how we have learned Christ. This learning of Christ negates the sinful life described in the previous verses. The apostle refers to learning that took place at conversion. This is not just a verbal confession of faith, but a conversion of conduct that has been openly declared by the symbolism of baptism. From conversion onwards, the fact of having learned is demonstrated by conduct to be the opposite to that of the Gentiles in their unbelief.
"If, v. 21, is not the "if" of doubt and uncertainty, but the "if of argument. In other words, in verse 21 Paul expresses positively what he has written negatively in verse 20. The Ephesians had heard Christ - not directly of course, but through the teaching of Paul, as for example in Acts 20. 35 where he quoted the words of the Lord Jesus to the Ephesian elders. "Ye ... have been taught by him" should read "m him" r.v., namely, "as the truth is in Jesus". The teaching embraced all truth associated with the Lord's work and Person. Such truth alters one's life and conduct.
"That ye put off, v. 22, refers to a past act, and not to a present exhortation. (Though it may still be needed as a present exhortation, as the following verses show.) In the case of the Ephesians, what they had put off at conversion is shown in Acts 19. 18-19: they confessed and showed their past deeds; their curious arts and books dealing with idolatry were burned-books to the value of 50,000 pieces of silver went up in smoke as they put off the former manner of idolatrous life of the old man. They no longer bought silver shrines with which to carry on idolatry in their homes. For all religious and moral corruption of preconversion years must be put away at conversion, since such corruption leads to death in the unsaved. For this is the character of the "old man", Col. 3. 9. In Romans 6. 6, the old man is seen as crucified with Christ, so that the body of sin should be destroyed; baptism is the open expression of this, showing that only the new man will henceforth be manifested.
Yet there is an onward progression in the practical achievement of these aims. For their is a constant renewing. The "spirit of your mind", v. 23, contrasts with "the vanity of their mind", v. 17. For "the new man" was put on (a past act) at conversion. The apostle did not conceive of any intermediate state between putting off the old man and putting on the new. Moreover, the new man in verse 24 is not an improvement or a reformation of the old man-that is impossible. Rather, the new man is a new creation in Christ according to God's will. The new man has completely new characteristics; Paul selects just two here, namely "righteousness and true holiness". No unconverted man can attain to this, even if he is morally upright. There may be a veneer of holiness, but as in the case of the Pharisees, this was spurious; God can discern whether holiness is genuine, and this is described as "true holiness".
Paul then comes to the practical side of God's work that should now be experienced in the present, vv. 25-32. It is surprising that he should have to mention some of these things, but evidently there was a need for it, even in a spiritual church like that of the Ephesians; without doubt there is a similar need today. Thus the apostle mentions "lying". Strictly, verse 25 reads as "having put away lying", j.n.d. (but not r.v-). Lying is one of the deceits of the old man, v. 22, and in the unconverted leads to the lake of fire, Rev. 21. 8. We note that lying was one of the first sins in the early church in Jerusalem, for Ananias had not lied to men but to the Holy Spirit, Acts 5. 3, 4, and later lying occurred in Ephesus by false apostles, Rev. 2. 2. It is possible to lie against the truth by engaging in bitter envy and strife, and this permits a fountain to give forth sweet and bitter water almost at the same time. Rather, in the body of Christ consisting of His members, there must be mutual truth between all members, showing a spiritual respect the one for the others.
Again, v. 26, anger can quickly become unrighteous anger, leading to sin and an unforgiving spirit. Anger should not be self-motivated, and should not last longer than a day. Anger in the flesh stands up for self; anger in the spirit stands up for God. In all these aspects of conduct, there is failure when place is given to Satan. Anything of a fleshly nature can allow a loophole through which Satan can gain an advantage. In Acts 5. 3, Satan gained an advantage over Ananias as a result of the plan to retain part of the money. In Galatians 2. 12-18, Satan gained an advantage over Peter, when he returned to his earlier tradition of separating himself from Gentiles.
Paul next deals with the subject of stealing; the apostle draws a contrast between working for others on the one hand and stealing for self on the other. Certainly we are not under law, but this gives no licence for breaking the commandment "Thou shalt not steal". It appears that sometimes there was an attitude of slackness about daily employment, with the result that there might be recourse to stealing in order to have the means by which to live. "The thing which is good" refers to the nature of the employment; for example, the craft of the silversmiths and the workmen who dealt with the fabric of the temple of Diana in Ephesus were occupations quite unsuitable for the members of the Ephesian church. Today, employment connected with the entertainment industry, and any aspect of the drink or gambling trades are quite unsuitable for sanctified believers. Quoting his own case, Paul had spoken to the Ephesian elders about the fact that his hands had ministered to his necessities, and to them that were with him. The Ephesians had to support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, "It is more blessed to give than to receive", Acts 20. 34-35. Another example is found in 1 Timothy 5. 16. Previously in Thessalonica, some had given up working, thinking that the coming of Christ was so near as to render unnecessary everyday employment. Rather, they had to work with their hands, 1 Thess. 4. 11, for "if any would not work, neither should he eat", 2 Thess. 3. 10-13.
Paul then deals with the subject of speech, Eph. 4. 29. Preconversion speech of a corrupt kind is abandoned, although a believer may sometimes have to endure listening to it, as in Lot's case, who saw and heard the unlawful deeds of the wicked, 2 Pet. 2. 8. Believers must beware of this danger, for "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity", James 3. 6; Prov. 16. 27. Rather, speech is for edifying, ministering grace to the hearers. Such an exercise before the Lord would avoid every idle word. This shows that edifying is not the province only of teachers in assembly meetings! All our deeds and words react upon others, and have some kind of formative effect upon them. Hence, how careful we should be in our speech before young believers; they may be stumbled through worldly talk, instead of being edified through spiritual discussion.
Grieving the Holy Spirit of God, in the context, is in relation to conduct and speech. In other words, there is a divine sensitivity when the believer's state does not correspond with his standing in Christ. Thus the Spirit was grieved through the corrupt speech of Ananias, Acts 5.3. Grieving the Spirit should be contrasted with "Quench not the Spirit", 1 Thess. 5. 19; to quench the Spirit in the context refers to failure in the giving of thanks and service, so that He cannot operate through the believer. Because believers are sealed unto their resurrection day, they are a divine possession, so the Spirit has the divine right to use them as He pleases. (Note: the Lord Jesus was grieved in Mark 3.5, and God was grieved in Hebrews 3. 10.)
In verse 31, Paul again introduces contrasts with the conduct that is compatible with the indwelling pre-sense of the Holy Spirit. He details more works of the flesh, as in Galatians 5. 19-21. To demonstrate his point, the apostle refers to the example of Christ, v. 32; 5. 2. To illustrate just one word in verse 31, we observe that the word "clamour" means "outcry", such as takes place when dissatisfied unsanctified men get together for a public demonstration. This took place in Jerusalem when a mob cried out against Paul, Acts 22. 23, and also in Ephesus when the whole city was "filled with confusion" and uproar, fomented by the craftsmen, 19. 29. Believers can have no part in such riotous complaints.
By contrast, believers are "kind .... tenderhearted". Kindness, variously translated in the A.V., is used of God, Titus 3. 4; Luke 6. 35; Rom. 2. 4; Eph. 2. 7; of the Lord, I Pet. 2. 3; and of love, 1 Cor. 13. 4. "Tenderhearted", translated "pitiful" in 1 Peter 3. 8, suggests "of good hearted-ness", a going out of the heart in many ways to fellowbelievers. Finally, our manifestation of forgiveness follows that of God towards us. This word is not the usual word for forgive; it really means "freely give", but is used of forgiveness in Luke 7.42, 43; 2 Cor. 2. 7, 10. In Matthew 6. 12, 15; 18. 25, the order is: men are forgiven if they first forgive others - this being the order prior to the cross of the Lord Jesus. But after His cross and sacrifice, the order is reversed: we forgive because we have first been forgiven. Those who repeat interminably the so-called "Lord's prayer" appear to have no appreciation of this difference, since it touches upon the subject of salvation, either by works or by divine grace.