Message: A Prayer Fulfilled | Scripture: Ephesians 4:31-5:2 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: Crown Him With Many Crowns, Amazing Grace, I Surrender All, Only a Holy God
- Section 1 – Viciousness Disposed
- Define the natural man.
- Define the spiritual man.
- What part of Scripture does Pastor Stephen relate Paul’s ethical requirements in Ephesians to in the New Testament?
- Do you see a similarity between the passages Pastor Stephen compares Paul’s ethic to? Why/why not?
- What happens to the natural man when he does not get his own way? What kind of system does he work off to justify his feeling this way?
- In Ephesians 4:31, certain dispositions are listed, how do these dispositions relate to each other? Are they all disconnected like a random list, or does Paul order them for a certain purpose?
- What does it mean to be poor in spirit, and why is this disposition one that only the spiritual man can possess? What has been done, in the first place, to the spiritual man for him to become poor in spirit?
- Section 2 – Forgiveness Exposed
- Because we are poor in spirit, what does it mean to mourn?
- Because we are mournful about the poverty of our spirit, what does it mean to be meek?
- Why is being meek/kind/tender-hearted/forgiving the hardest thing to do as Christians? What is our tendency when put in situations where we can choose to be kind/tender-hearted/forgiving?
- What happens to our hearts when we honestly assess ourselves? How does it orient us in the way that we treat others? How does it orient us in the way that we hope others treat us?
- When we’re not treated in the way that we hope, what, as Christians, should our reaction be according to both Christ and Paul?
- Why can we react this way?
- If we are worthless, why does God save us? How often do you think upon this truth in your own life as you go about your day? How often do you let it change and transform you?
- What has been exposed for us upon the cross? What are we called to do because of what has been accomplished for us there?
- Section 3 – Deliverance Imposed
- Explain why Ephesians 5:1 is the pinnacle of the book of Ephesians (hint: what does it mean to be the pinnacle of something both going upwards and downwards).
- How many times is the command of Ephesians 5:1 said elsewhere in the NT? Why is said here according to Pastor Stephen (hint: (1) he’s making a reactionary statement, and (2) he’s making a theological statement)?
- What determines how we act? What determines how God acts?
- Can we ever act separate from who we are? Why/why not?
- According to Paul here, what does it mean to walk in love?
- Why is Christ’s death so significance to us both theologically and practically (not that the two can really be separated)? What is the significance that Christ did this for us willingly/voluntarily?
- Do we ever minimize this significance? Do we ever get bored of telling us this truth? If yes, why do you think that is? If yes, how can you, this week, jolt yourself out of your own lethargy/complacency in applying this truth to your life?
- Based on what this passage teaches us, is following Paul’s ethic/Christ’s law an imposition upon us? Why/why not? Do we ever feel it is an imposition? Why/why not?
- How do we, in our lives, take advantage or misunderstanding grace?
- How do we live like we have no obligations in our life (which flow from grace)?
- How do we live like we get to keep our salvation while living life on our own terms?
- How, through this sermon, has Christ challenged you in your own life today?
Did you know that in law, the defence of ignorance is not a defence? Whether or not you know that a law is being enforced, you’re bound by its contents. Now, of course, there are some exceptions, but generally, you can’t say you didn’t know. And the reason why one cannot plead ignorance is rooted in religion and philosophy. Modern notions of law have adapted their statutes from the belief that inside each of us is a basic understanding of right and wrong. Some call it right reason or the natural law or just, plain common sense. To act contrary to this common sense results not only in legal punishment, but it also brings about guilt and shame. It is this internal understanding of the law and the consequences of choosing what is wrong over what is right that binds every human being. The law, as we have it in written form, is always enforceable because we all know what it is in ourselves.
What Paul in his ethical, legal requirements has told us so far in Ephesians 4:25-30 seems to be very similar to what we ought to know by common sense. In fact, outside of more “spiritual” imperatives, they all sound like things we ought to expect from every natural person. Tell the truth, resolve your anger, don’t let it fester, don’t steal, do good work with your hands, share with those in need, don’t speak evil to others, speak good and help others become better people. It seems like the natural man is able to understand these commands just as well, if not better, at times, than the spiritual man, and both types of men know it innately. So, why does Paul feel the need to write these commands down for us? Why make them explicit? Is he just being condescending? Isn’t he assuming that we’re dumber than we look?
Well, of course, we all know that Paul doesn’t assume our stupidity, and we know that he’s not being condescending, but, still, why does he give us these ethical commands. Why give us an ethic at all if we already have the gospel? Paul actually answers this question for us today in our text. So, let’s read together Ephesians 4:31-5:2. TWoL.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
Why does Paul give us these ethical requirements? It’s not because he wants us to be more like an idealized natural man. We’re not trying to become better versions of ourselves. No, he’s talking to the new, spiritual man. He’s talking to the new creature, and he’s telling them that these ethical requirements are given so that we might imitate God. This is our proposition this morning. The spiritual man—the man or woman of God is a man or woman who looks like God, and particularly, a man or woman who looks like the God displayed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he gives us three reasons why we are to Be Imitators of the God of the Gospel:
- Our Viciousness has been Disposed of;
- Our Forgiveness has been Exposed; and,
- Our Deliverance has been Imposed.
These three reasons form the backdrop of our entire passage today, and they uphold the message that Paul wants to give to the Ephesians as the newly defined people of God. They are to be like God. So, let’s look now at these three reasons beginning with
1) Viciousness Disposed
I’m actually borrowing this distinction of natural man and spiritual man from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones who wrote a number of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, which became a book entitled, Studies on the Sermon on the Mount. And in it, he describes the two types of men like this, “None of these descriptions [referring to the Beatitudes in Matt 5] refers to what we may call a natural tendency. Each one of them is wholly a disposition which is produced by grace alone and the operation of the Holy Spirit upon us . . . No, we are not concerned about natural dispositions or what is purely physical and animal, or what appears to simulate the Christian character . . . The truth is that the Christian and non-Christian belong to two entirely different realms . . . No man naturally conforms to the descriptions here given in the Beatitudes, and we must be very careful to draw a sharp distinction between the spiritual qualities that [the Beatitudes] describe and [natural] ones which appear to be like them.”
Why am I reading you this quote? The reason is because Dr. Jones’ starting place for the beatitudes is also our starting place for Paul’s ethic. Just as the Beatitudes are meant to describe the spiritual man who has been brought to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, so too does Paul’s imperatives concern those who have received the new birth that comes in Jesus. Where Jesus starts the beatitudes with blessed are the poor in spirit, Paul starts with putting aside the old man. Both Christ and the Apostle start with sin because that’s the first thing that each of us have to deal with when confronted by a Holy God.
The reborn man who is truly poor in spirit, writes Dr. Jones, “shrinks from the thought of greatness and honour, and thinks such things are incredible. He looks at [his own] estate as so lowly and unworthy and so desperate of judgment in his own sinfulness and foulness, that there is nothing left for him to do or to give in himself.” He has nothing. He is nothing.
In the same way, the man who puts off the old self is the man who, in his sin, sees himself as nothing. There is no worthiness in his old life. There is nothing of his past worth saving. He is wholly desperate. He is utterly poor and comes before God with nothing in his hands. This is where Paul starts us off in Ephesians 4:31. He reminds us of the old man. He tells us to put off all forms of anger—all that unrighteous conceit—because we have no warrant for it! There is no righteousness behind the anger we have as the old man. Why? Because we look kindly upon our own sin, and we become bitter with the sins of others. Another word for bitterness is resentment. What is bitterness and resentment? It’s the belief that you deserve something that you missed out on or that was taken away from you. In this context, the bitterness that Paul has in mind is when someone sins against you, and you’re deprived of something that you think you deserve.
See the natural man works off a system of merit. He may pretend to be understanding for a time, but that understanding is just another form of conceit. He inevitably uses it to lord it over others, and when someone who he claims to love wrongs him, what is his reaction? It is bitterness. The truly spiritual man. The truly poor in spirit is not a man who is bitter because no matter what happens to him, he sees that he has nothing, that he deserves nothing, and that he is nothing. He dispenses with all his own rights, and he is satisfied with his life. But the old man, the natural man, cannot comprehend this. No, he is filled with bitterness.
Isn’t this what we see today? Bitterness is what characterizes our world’s jealousy. I’m going to focus on me first because I will not miss out on what I deserve. I will make much of myself. I will get my “metime,” because I deserve what I want. I’m living; therefore, I deserve the greatest life. “I” this. “Me” that. And when it’s not about “I” and “me,” I make it about me by becoming bitter and resentful.
Paul progresses his command in verse 31 by saying that when we let bitterness get the better of us, we turn that bitterness into wrath and anger. These words for wrathful and angry, they are common, and they mean roughly the same thing—they can both mean that that bitterness has turned from resentment into outbursts of anger or an internal seething. We all know people of both dispositions: those who lash out and those who suffer in silence. Both are rooted in a sense of entitlement and a desire to control our lives on our terms.
Then, as we give way to our anger and wrath, we shout, or another word for it here is we brawl. There’s a clashing and quarreling. We are not only privately angry and wrathful, now, we get involved with the person that our bitterness, anger, and wrath are directed against. We lose all restraint over our passions. And it bubbles over until you say that unretractable thing. We all know the movie where the argument gets to the point of no return, and one person says something that they can’t take back. Whether or not what was said is true, it is something that shouldn’t have been said in the first place because it’s meant to condemn and not to edify. It’s meant to harm and not heal. This is what Paul calls slander. Bitterness leads to anger and wrath, which leads to yelling and quarreling, which leads to slander, broken relationships, and irreparable damage.
Now, slander is abusive speech, defamatory language, or intentional disrespect. You see, the natural man—the one who has not received the Spirit is one who thinks that he has every right in the world to defend himself and to put others down when they’ve wronged him. What’s worse is that he willing to do this, even if it means losing whoever it is that he’s angry at, because “I” am more important than “you.” But the spiritual man, the kind of person who Paul is writing to, is the man who lays down his rights and practices the law of Christ and the ethic of Paul willingly because he is nothing, and in nothingness, we practice restraint when we’re wronged, we live orderly, non-chaotic lives as those saved from the chaos of our own sin, we identify as those who do not belong to ourselves but belong to God, we show propriety as those set apart for the house of the King, we display holiness because we have the Holy Spirit. We live as imitators of God for he is the one who took what was once worthless and made it worthy in his Son.
Paul is telling us that the old, angry man who yells and reviles his brothers and sisters—that man is to be removed along with all of his malice. The word malice here is better stated as his vicious attitude or his ill-will or his mean-spirited disposition. In other words, what is removed is not just the outworking of our anger—it’s not just the bitterness all the way to slander, but we’re to cut off the very source of our anger. We put off the old disposition of the hardened heart. The vicious disposition of our heart is disposed of. It is to be no more.
Why is the spiritual man set apart from the natural man? Why can the spiritual man imitate God? Why does Paul give us these commands? The first reason and answer to all these questions is because that old man, that old heart, has been cast off, it is being cast off, and it will continually be cast off until Christ calls us home. We imitate God by turning away from the natural man and by turning to our new, spiritual man, and the way we do this is by having our forgiveness exposed.
2) Forgiveness Exposed
Look at verse 32: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” I ask you, what is the disposition of the spiritual man who is poor in spirit? They mourn because they have no rights and have no hope of salvation. What is the disposition of the spiritual man who mourns the poverty of his sinful spirit? He is gentle and meek toward others because their sad state gives them no reason to be harsh. Isn’t this exactly what Paul says here in Ephesians? Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount as he proclaimed his law, now Paul is doing the same! There is no difference between Christ’s law and Paul’s ethical requirements. Those who are poor in spirit, those who are mournful over their sinfulness, how do they live? They live as those who are kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving, even when others from our own house sin against us.
Perhaps, you sit here in your seats, and you think okay. I get it. As spiritually alive people, we’re to be kind, tender-hearted, forgiving, I can do that. But like meekness in the beatitudes, this command is the hardest to practice. It’s the test and measure of a true Christian because we might say to ourselves that we’re poor in spirit. I’m sinful, I admit it. Then, we might say to ourselves that we mourn our sin because we can’t save ourselves. This is true. But when someone else condemns me for my sin other than myself, when they point the finger at me, when I’m humiliated, our natural, old-man, gut reaction isn’t kindness, tender-heartedness, or forgiveness. No, it’s resentment or bitterness. It’s wrath and anger. It’s shouting and yelling. It’s blasphemy and slander.
This is what sets Paul’s ethic, the law of Christ apart from the natural man. It’s not what the sinful world expects. It’s definitely not what they’re able to accomplish on their own. There’s a framework here that underlies the ethic that comes from another world. The difference, then, between the natural man and spiritual man is Christ.
This is what I mean: the spiritual man sees that true meekness, gentleness, kindness, tender-heartedness, forgiveness comes from an honest assessment of ourselves. And when we look at ourselves honestly and humbly, as our sin deserves, we are sobered and humbled by the fact that I have no basis of righteousness over others. I cannot treat them in any way worse than how I deserve to be treated. In fact, I want to treat them better because that’s how I hope I might be treated. I don’t want to be treated as my sins deserve.
The kindness, the tender-heartedness, the forgiveness that Paul has in mind here comes from the spiritual man who has no need to make his or her rights known, they have no pressure to push their agenda, they are even keeled in character, they are not conceited in themselves. They are mild, quiet in spirit, patient, even long-suffering in persecution. They are those characterized by showing grace to one another.
And why can they be like this? Because they have a meek, kind, tender-hearted, forgiving God who sent Christ to lay down his own life for those who were bitter against him, who hated him in anger and wrath, who yelled and swore at him, who uttered every conceivable blasphemy against him. And in their hate, they hung God’s Christ upon a tree. The spiritual man, the man who is able to follow the law of Christ and the ethical requirements of Paul, is the person whose viciousness has been disposed of by a Christ who has exposed our forgiveness upon the cross. The cross exposes our sin by exposing his forgiveness for us, and it crushes any notion that we might save ourselves. By exposing our forgiveness, by cleansing our sin from us, we’re given every opportunity and freedom to turn our eyes off of ourselves and be like the one who has forgiven us.
This is the lot of the spiritual man. He is exposed for what he is—nothing and worthless. But God sees his worth not as a sinner but as a creature created in his image and saved by grace. Why then can we live as those who imitate God? Why then has Paul given us this ethic too impossible for the natural man to fulfill? Because our viciousness has been disposed of by our exposure to God’s forgiveness through Jesus. Thus, we are obligated to be like God. We are obligated to image him not because of the law. No, we image him because of his grace. We live as those who can forgive when others sin against us because no sin that we commit against one another is as great as the sins we’ve committed against our holy God. What’s more is that no act of grace given towards one another will ever compare to the grace that we’ve received from him. So, we live as those exposed to the forgiveness of God, as those saved by grace and called to righteousness. We live as those who imitate him.
3) Deliverance Imposed
Here we reach the pinnacle of all of chapter 4’s message summarized in one verse: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” This is everything that Paul’s been working toward in this letter, and it’s also the main take away for everything that comes after it. Be imitators of God, as beloved children.
Did you know that the only place in all of the New Testament that tells us to imitate God himself is here in Ephesians 5:1? One of the reasons why is the context to those whom Paul is writing. The Ephesians are surrounded by the Greek philosophical tradition, and Jewish philosophers influenced by Greece had two beliefs. They believed in God, and they believed in philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Plato. Now, for those of you who don’t know too much about Plato, he believed that there were two worlds. There was the world of material—the imperfect world, and the world of forms—the perfect world of ideas. To help you understand what this means, in the world of forms, there might be the idea of a perfect chair, and so, in the material world, we construct chairs that depict its ideal. However, nothing in the material world is perfect because it exists conceptually without the deformities of the wood we use or the imperfection of our carving or the natural decay of the materials. For Jewish philosophers, they believed that God belonged in the world of forms. To them, he is the highest and greatest good—the ideal behind all other ideals.
So, commentators argue that the reason why Paul writes this command to imitate God only to the Ephesians is to appeal to this Jewish philosophical tradition. Be like the highest ideal—strive after the highest and greatest good. Furthermore, he’s not only an ideal, but he is real, and he has redeemed the material, sinful world broken in Jesus. What Paul is doing here is reconciling the wrong thinking of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentile philosophy to show them what they were missing. It’s not that there is a separate world of forms and material. It’s not that ideas are perfect and physical things are imperfect. It’s that God alone is perfect, and Christ alone has come to save the imperfect. Christ is the means by which we are reconciled not only to the highest good but the highest good has come to us in the flesh to take on our worst sin. He is not some fanciful idea too distant for us to grasp. No, he is imminent and physical. He is not sinful in his body. No, he is perfect. And he has come to save us. This is why we are to imitate God, because, through Christ, we can—the transcendent has been brought near. The perfect has been given to the imperfect. We can actually be like him because we know what he’s like in Jesus.
But I believe there’s more to it than appealing to philosophy. When we look at the book of Ephesians as a whole, it’s not just a book about God’s extraordinary work to save us from sin by grace, but also about how he has reconciled us to each other as one people under one Christ as one house. He has united us. Thus, I think, simply, that Paul calls us to imitate God because God is one. He is one God in three persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In him is true unity displayed not only in the creation of all that exists but in the salvation of our very souls. The Father sent the Son, the Son died on a cross, and the Spirit effected the blood of the sacrifice upon our hearts. His unity in both being and action is the very basis that drives our unity as Christians. We image God not only because we are created to image him but because he is the greatest thing to image. In him is no variation or shadow due to change, and this is why we can trust him and display him in all that we do. He has always been and will always be one God, and in him, we can be one people.
What’s more is that we aren’t to imitate him in any way we want. No, we imitate him as beloved children. The use of “as” here is a preposition that communicates comparison. So, we can read this in the following way, “Therefore, be imitators of God like beloved children.” It’s not just that we are beloved children who abide in the household of God (Eph 2:18), we’re also to act like beloved children. What we are determines how we act, just like what God is determines how he acts. There is no mistaking it, we are beloved children of God. But it’s not enough for us to acknowledge who we are with words; we’ve got to act and fill the part! We imitate God like we are his beloved children.
Whenever I bring up my father to people and talk about how much I admire him, he always says that I’m exaggerating. What’s more is that whenever people tell him how much they appreciate what he’s done as a parent, he’s always quick to say that he’s done nothing. And part of me understands why he does this. I understand we do not choose our children. God is the one who calls those whom he has elected. I also understand, having watched him my whole life, that he is not perfect. My dad has made many mistakes, and I acknowledge those willingly and effortlessly. But like I said, I’ve watched him every day of his life, I’ve watched him give of himself every day for his family and for his church. I’ve seen him display his Christ. They say imitation is the best flattery, but really, it’s more than that. When we imitate, we are saying something profound about the person we’re imitating and ourselves. The example we choose to imitate is that thing that we value most in the world. In other words, our imitation tells the one who sets the example that we love them. I love my father and I love my God, and I learned how to love my God by imitating the love shown for me by my own earthly father. When we are loved, it affects us. When we are loved by someone we want to love, it transforms us. I am loved by my dad, and I love to imitate him. So too, we are loved by God, so we ought to love to imitate him.
And how do we do this? Paul tells us in verse 2. Imitate God as beloved children by loving others like Christ loved us and delivered himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. We imitate by loving each other as Christ loved us. By loving each other as Christ delivered himself up for us willingly. I feel like I’ve emphasized this gospel too much for you in bland ways the past couple of weeks because whenever I get to this part where I tell you what the gospel is, I see some of your eyes glaze over, and I get it. You’ve heard the message before but stop to think with me about what this means for us.
I recently watched a movie called Just Mercy, and there’s this one character in the movie who was a war veteran having served in Vietnam suffering from PTSD. And one night he built a bomb in a state of confusion and frenzy not knowing where he was. He took this bomb and placed it among innocent people, and it exploded and killed them. Now, what this man did was terrible, but he wasn’t in control of his mind. He didn’t know what was going on, and, if his trial were today, he would have been found innocent of motive. But, in this case, he was sentenced to death. So, we fast forward to the day of his execution, and it’s a long drawn out process. He has a final touching conversation with his best friends in the cells next to him. They tell him that they’re with him until the end. His head and eyebrows are shaved. The whole scene is filled with a focus on the last moments of this man’s life. Then, when it comes time for him to die, the focus of the camera shifts. Instead of showing the brutality of the execution and the pain on this man’s face when he’s electrocuted, they zoom in on the main character, the lawyer of the man being executed, and all the sound in the room fades away. All you’re given in that moment is the reaction of this man as he watches his innocent client be put to death. Now, you don’t hear when it happens. You don’t hear screams. You don’t hear the command by the prison guard to turn on the electricity. But you know the very second that it happens because the lawyer’s face goes from confusion to shock to unbearable sorrow.
Perhaps, I have told you the gospel too many times in plain ways where we’ve become numb to what it means for an innocent man to die for our sins, but let me put it to you in a way that is meant to stick. Death is unnatural. It is horrific. It is sorrowful, and it shakes us to our core because it is a terrible and shocking event in every person’s life. The thing is Jesus did this one shocking thing that God was not supposed to do. And he did it willingly. Paul tells us that he delivered himself up for us. It was a voluntary action. It’s one thing to look at ourselves, to be acquainted once again with what it means to die, how terrible it is, and to acknowledge that we deserve it. We deserve it completely. But it is another thing to know who our Jesus is and to acknowledge that of all the things he deserved, death upon a cross was not one of them. And yet, there he hung condemned for my sin so that now, when I look upon him, my face does not go from confusion to shock to unbearable sorrow. No, it goes from confusion to shock to unspeakable joy.
If we might speak of imposition. If we might speak of hardship when it comes to following the law, and why Paul gives us this impossible ethic, let us not look at ourselves and the difficulty that comes with being Christian because when our difficulty, it means we’ve forgotten our Jesus. It means we’ve forgotten that the only thing he’s imposed upon us is our deliverance. It is only when we look upon Christ that we see that his ethical requirements are no imposition upon us whatsoever.
No, there upon that cross, the love of God is displayed in its fullness, and when we look upon it, when we think about what’s been done, we understand what it means to live as one people under one Christ as one household. By looking upon and understanding that cross, we fulfill the apostle’s prayer in Ephesians 3 17-19 when he prays “that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” What Christ imposes upon us in his deliverance is not obligation, it’s the fullness of God in his love for us. With this knowledge, how could we live like we used to? Who are we to live our lives as those who are devoid of his love? We are nothing. We are worthless. In our natural, old man, we stand judged and condemned. But God is everything, and he has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ who stood judged and condemned in our place. And by his grace, we will love him in displaying his character to one another all the days of our lives because he alone is worthy of it as the holy God of the gospel.