Imitating the Holiness of Jesus Part I
Ephesians 4:17- 5:4
The other day I was at the city wide prayer gathering and a man came and sat beside and I knew immediately that he was a police officer. How did I know that? The clothing he wore identified him as such.
Have you ever been to a mall and tried to identify people? Have you ever wondered who they are or what they do? Most people look pretty much the same by what they wear, but sometimes you can tell things about some people. If you would be familiar with gang colors, you could identify gang members. If people from certain religious groups walked by, you could know that they identified with that religion. Would you be able to identify every Christian who came by? Probably not, which is interesting because the Bible tells us that we should be identifiable as Christians by what we wear. Of course, it isn't talking about the physical clothing we wear, but another kind of clothing.
God has done amazing things for us and if the message of change which the gospel proclaims is real, then it should be noticeable in our life. How is the change that God has made in our lives evident to the people around us? This is the theme of Ephesians 4-6 and over the next few weeks, I would like to direct our attention to this challenge. The change which God has made in our lives sets us on a path to be like Jesus and if we are followers of Jesus, we must be like Him. We must imitate Him in our holiness, our love and our submission.
I. Live in the Light 4:17-24
A. No Longer Live As You Did
I read somewhere that in the days of the early church it is possible that when people were baptized, they took off old clothes as they went into the water and put on new clothes after they came out of the water. Can you imagine how powerful such an image would be at a baptism? If people went into the waters of baptism wearing old dirty clothing, which they would then throw away after the baptism and if they changed into new clean clothes after they were baptized? That is one of the images which we find in this passage, along with a number of others, which provide us with a picture of the change that takes place when we come to Christ.
In this passage, we are told in 4:17 that we must "no longer live as the Gentiles live…" In place of such a lifestyle we are called to be followers of Christ. Ephesians 4:22 talks about the old self which we are called to put away or to take off. This is the clothing imagery, which I just mentioned. In place of the old self we are called to put on the new self. The other imagery is that of darkness and light. Ephesians 5:8 says "once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light." We are to leave the darkness and all the deeds of darkness and walk in the light.
What is true in all of these images is that there is a way of living that no longer fits with who we are. When the text tells us that we should no longer live as the Gentiles, it is not a cultural identity that is to be shed. Rather, it is a particular way of thinking and living that no longer makes sense. It is well described in this passage.
At one time our minds were empty. Not empty of everything, but empty of the life giving knowledge of God. Barth describes that emptiness this way, they are "…aiming with silly methods at a meaningless goal!" When you look around at the world you can certainly see this played out. So much of media and many other aspects of life are filled with intense, diligent and costly pursuit of things that in the end matter very little. We are no longer to pursue such emptiness.
Have you ever listened to two medical people discussing someone's health? It isn't very long before you have no idea what they are talking about. They understand concepts that are foreign to you and use language you don't understand. Your understanding is darkened about those subjects. The same is true of those who do not follow God. The text says "They are darkened in their understanding." The life of God and the truth of God is a foreign subject or perhaps even a foreign language to them.
Yet this lack of understanding is not innocent. If we haven't studied medicine, we can't be expected to understand the concepts or the language. But the darkened understanding regarding spiritual things was not because of a lack of knowledge for which we had no responsibility, but rather a lack of knowledge that was ours because of a refusal to believe in God. The text tells us that this ignorance is because of hardness of heart. Romans 1:18-23 tells us that God has shown us all that needs to be known about God, but people suppress the truth by their wickedness. So the ignorance is a culpable ignorance. We didn't know, but we were responsible for not knowing. We cannot return to such ignorance brought on by hardness of heart.
As a consequence of this rejection which makes the life of God like a foreign language there is also a moral distance which results in insensitivity to sin and abandonment to all kinds of evil. I have often wondered how people can be so evil and do such terrible things as we so often hear on the news. Wood answers this way, "They can no longer respond to moral stimuli. Their consciences are so atrophied that sin registers no stab of pain." We cannot allow our consciences to become dulled so that we sin without feeling guilty.
Before we became Christians, we were pursuing emptiness, ignorant of God because of hardness of heart and sinning without feeling guilty. We must not live in that way any more. We must not live in disobedience nor with a foggy mind about the things of God.
B. Instead, Imitate Christ
When people want to quit smoking, one of the strategies they use to overcome the addiction is something called "Replacement Therapy." In order to help overcome the craving for a cigarette, they need to replace the desire for nicotine with something else and so they use gum or nicotine patches or sprays or something like that to take away the desire.
God has given us something very good to replace the darkened understanding, foggy mindedness and hardness of heart. Jesus has come into our lives and softened our hearts. In place of freedom to sin, we have received freedom and power to follow Jesus. It isn't enough to just to repent of our sins, we must also give our lives to Jesus who helps us live in a new way. The text reminds us that in place of futility, darkness, alienation from God, ignorance and hard heartedness, we have learned Christ. Christianity is not just another religion which gives us another way of living. Christianity gives us the power of the presence of God who has created us in a new way. Ephesians 4:24 tells us that the new self was "created according to the likeness of God." We have been recreated to be like Jesus and we have learned that the new life is a life of being like Jesus. We have been taught that in Jesus we have been renewed into those who can live in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore as Christians we must imitate the holiness of Jesus. In place of the ignorance and the darkened understanding we live according to the truth that is in Jesus. A truth that includes power and righteousness and holiness. Learning Jesus is not just learning about a person, but learning to know a person.
You have heard the saying. "you are what you wear." This is true for those who are in Christ. We must not wear the old clothes, but we must wear Jesus. Why does Paul have to include this in Ephesians? The temptation to continue to live in the way they had lived must still have been a temptation for them, as it is still for us. The thinking of the world is still in our hearts. We live among people who live like that and so observe their example. Therefore, we need to be reminded not to live according to what we were but rather according to what we have been made.
II. Life in the Light 4:25- 30; 5:3-4
So what does that look like? What are the details of putting on the new clothing of Jesus?
A. Truth In Place Of Lying
One part of new living has to do with how we handle truth. In place of falsehood we are called to be people who speak truth.
Putting away falsehood is more than just not lying to one another. In fact, lying never begins with deceptive words spoken. It begins with a heart that is not true to itself. If we have an inauthentic existence, it is no wonder that we also communicate that inauthentic existence in words of deception.
Speaking truth to our neighbors is also much more than not lying to them. Speaking truth is a matter of saying what is true to our neighbors. That means that we tell the truth. It also means that we speak the truth about the world we live in. At the prayer gathering I attended the other day, a number of police officers attended. It was interesting to hear them say that what the city of Winnipeg needs is not more police officers. What the city of Winnipeg needs is hearts that have been changed by the grace of God. They were calling for us to pray for changed hearts. It was interesting to hear them speak such a truth to us. Speaking truth to our neighbor also means having the courage to tell them about Jesus and all that He can do for them.
The pattern in each of the specific details regarding living in the new way introduces a "not this but this" contrast to suggest that the new way of living must replace the old way of living. In this case truth speaking must replace falsehood. It is as we speak truth instead of falsehood that we wear the clothing of Christ.
B. Action in Place of Anger
In a similar way, in place of blowing off steam, we are called to an anger that is useful and properly managed.
In the old days when trains were pulled by steam engines, dangerous situations could arise. If the water was heated too long and too much steam built up, it could create too much pressure in the boiler. In order to prevent things from flying apart, they would release some of the steam, or "blow off steam" in order to stabilize the situation. We have come to use the imagery of blowing off steam to mean that someone just needs to get angry so they will not do worse damage. Yet on the other hand, steam is what was needed to run the engine. If the engine was operating, the steam was used for making it go forward and then the steam did not have to be released "just to blow off steam."
We must not dismiss the command to "be angry" as a concession to our humanity. It is not a grudging permission to blow off steam. This passage is calling for us to use the "steam" appropriately. There is an appropriate time for anger. When evil is allowed to go unchecked, we should be angry. When people abuse, hurt or even murder others, we should be angry. When governments are unjust and violent, we should be angry. This verse calls us to be angry and not complacent about the evil we see.
Yet there is an appropriate way to handle that anger. The new way of living is a way in which we deal appropriately with anger. If we give vent to anger according to what is normal, we live in the way of the person we used to be. The newness we have in Christ invites us to channel our anger into appropriate action. If we don't, we give Satan a place in our lives by which he can bring us down. Justified anger handled poorly gives a toe hold to Satan in our lives. If we deal with anger by using it to work for justice, for example, we prevent Satan from finding a way into our hearts and lives. So we are told to be angry, but not to sin. Jesus is our example in this. He became angry when the house of God was used inappropriately. People used it to make money and prevented others from using it for its intended use as a house of prayer. His anger was appropriate anger used to make a point. He expressed it, but he did not nurse it, or dwell on it, or make it his main thing. As the new people in Christ we are to let anger be a motivation to act righteously, helpfully and lovingly.
C. Generosity In Place of Theft
A few weeks ago we were discussing how we would set up things for Drive Through Prayer. We wanted to put up pylons so that people driving in would know how to come to us for prayer. Those involved said that the pylons they had were a little small and I suggested that I knew where to find some nice tall pylons on the side of the road by a construction site. Of course, this was clearly a joke. It is obvious to those who have followed Christ that we should not take what doesn't belong to us. But sometimes it isn't that obvious. Is it theft to make photocopies of copyrighted material? A while ago someone called to confess that they had been making copies of the sermons which I post online. I appreciated the acknowledgement that you can't just copy anything you want. I assured her that my messages did not have copy right and she was welcome to use them.
We know that we shouldn't steal, but the text adds more than just a reminder that this is inappropriate for those who have been changed by Christ. It also calls us to work with our hands, thus affirming that God has created us to work. But there is even more. The truly changed person does not work simply to build a pile of goods to be stored up. Such a person works so that they can be generous and share what they have. In other words, just as the former way of life is to be put off and replaced with the new way of living, practically that means that theft is to be replaced with generosity.
D. Grace Talk In Place of Evil Talk
What is the "evil talk" spoken of in Ephesians 4:29? From Proverbs to James the Bible repeatedly warns us to be careful how we use our words. Jesus stated a significant saying when he declared in Luke 6:45 that what comes out of our mouth arises in our heart. Since we have had our hearts changed, it is abundantly clear that we can no longer speak according to the old nature that was filled with darkness. Yet it is necessary for us to be warned to actually live according to that change. So what kind of talk is "evil talk?"
We need to be reminded not to take the name of the Lord in vain, not to engage in language that is obscene, not to joke in a way that tears another person down, not to gossip nor to criticize. Wood says, "Any kind of careless, unbecoming talk pains the Spirit, since it is incompatible with the holiness he conveys to those who belong to Christ."
In place of that evil talk, we are called to replace it with grace. Our conversation must build up and give grace to those who hear us. If we feel we have to say, "I shouldn't say this, but…" we probably shouldn't say it. Instead, we need to learn to let our conversation be guided by the thoughts, "How can I build this person up?" and "How can I bless this person?"
Some people are very good at it, all of us must learn it for it is part of the life of Jesus in us.
E. Holiness in Place of Impurity
Our first thought when it comes to being holy may be that a change is required in the area of our human sexuality. In fact, sometimes we place sexual sins at the top of the list of what must be dealt with as Christians. Paul has not put it at the top of the list, but he certainly includes it. Ephesians 5:3 says, "But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints." If we are the holy people of God, then that holiness must make itself evident in our sexual behavior. This is very difficult. God has created us as sexual beings and the drive within us is very powerful. Added to that is the constant bombardment of sexual images around us. Yet we are saints and as saints, we are called to holiness and to the imitation of Jesus in our sexuality. How do we live in that way?
It is far too simplistic to say, "do this, don't do that." God has given sexuality to us as a powerful, relational joy. If it is not handled in holiness it becomes abusive, manipulative and destructive. We must constantly be asking "How can I handle my sexuality in a way that it will be the relational joy which God intended it to be?" God has answers for that question and we need to seek Him and His word so that we can replace impurity with holiness.
F. Thanksgiving In Place of Vulgarity
One final word about replacement therapy for a Christian which I want to mention briefly is found in Ephesians 5:4 which says, "Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." Very briefly stated, sometimes it is tempting for us to talk in such a way as to impress others with our cleverness and this can easily deteriorate into obscenity and inanity.
The remedy for overcoming toilet talk is thanksgiving. When our hearts recognize that we have been given much by God, we don't need to impress others with our cleverness. When we understand the graciousness of God we will be filled with a desire to give thanks and praise to Him instead of descending into inappropriate conversation. This is not to take away fun and teasing and laughter, but it is necessary to replace vulgarity with thanksgiving if we are to imitate God.
I once helped a friend of mine clean out his pig barn. The job involved spraying the ceiling, walls and floor of the empty pig barn. There was manure everywhere. I wore a pair of coveralls and goggles and a mask. When the job was done I was covered in…well you know. I went out of the barn and straight to the garbage bin and took off my coveralls and threw them away. Then I went home and had a shower and put on clean clothes. Did that ever feel good!
God has taken away our filthy self and replaced it with a new and holy self. Let's not go back to the garbage bin and put on the dirty old clothes, but let us walk daily in the holiness of Jesus.