Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Smell of Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-7)

"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:1–2)

The sins that Paul combats in Ephesians 5:1-7 are formidable: lust and greed. Paul writes with some stridency about these because he wants to protect the Christian community, the building that is rising to the glory of God, from these corrupting influences that can rot the church from the inside. God commands purity. That is nothing new. But knowing the command does not always lead to honoring it. So Paul comes after our heart through our nose. He says we need to...

...SAVOR OUR IDENTITY (Eph. 5:1–2)

The apostle tells the Ephesians to “be imitators of God.” He reminds God’s people that they are “dearly loved children.” In the knowledge of that love provided by Christ’s blood rather than their performance, power for obedience springs. Such power will be needed because of the nature of the command that immediately follows.

In savoring their new identity the Ephesians are reminded that they are to live not only as children of God, but also to live as the Child of God. In a world full of people caught up in sinful practices and attitudes, living like Jesus for the sake of others will involve both the giving of ourselves and the dying of self. Why is this a comfort? Because it allows me to confess that there is nothing unusual or odd in me when the purity and integrity to which God calls me also hurt me. In fact, without the pain of giving and sacrifice there could be no fragrant offering to God. What enables us to bear and offer this pain is savoring our identity as children of God, and remembering that we are called to live as the Child of God who offered and sacrificed himself for us.

...SAVOR OUR PURITY (Eph. 5:3–4)

Purity is a struggle, so Paul continues his instructions by telling us how to experience the purity our heart desires. We can experience purity only by denying ourselves impurity. This means that we must deal radically with sins we are tempted to excuse such as immorality and greed. For such the apostle urges a starvation diet. We must confess what is not right for our heart, and give it no place in our life. We may need to seek the counsel of a confidential mentor or group of friends to develop accountability and honest assessment of habits. And if we are with Christian brothers and sisters whose movie, music, and television habits have been unexamined, we may need to stir up the love and courage to question whether the Bible or the culture is guiding their lives. We should be willing to be thought odd for the sake of Christ, for if we cannot stand for our convictions among Christians, then it is unlikely that we can be a witness in the world.

The apostle continues to describe our sin-starvation diet by commanding us not to indulge greed (Eph. 5:3, 5). This is the second category of sin that Paul forbids in this passage. They seem an unlikely duo: lust and greed. Why link them? Some explain that in New Testament usage the word for greed here may be laden with sexual connotation, as in being greedy for another person’s body or beauty. That dimension of greed is certainly included in this text. But the separate listing of the sin of greed seems to indicate that Paul’s reach may also be broader, as though he wants us to recognize the commonalities of sexual lust and material greed. In essence, both are the consequence of concluding that what God provides is not enough. 

Believers wrestle with the idolatry of greed when they envy a person who has a nicer car and apartment; a pastor may wrestle with similar idolatry when he sees the more luxurious lives of laypersons in his church, or other ministers in larger or more affluent churches. Greed of all kinds—sexual and material—is a destructive force of great power. A telltale sign of such idolatry is growing discontent with God’s provision for our lives. When we borrow, spend, or pout for more than we have, often we are bowing to the idol of greed. And by listing greed in the list of sins we must starve, Paul urges contentment with God’s provision.

Throughout this portion of Ephesians, the apostle confronts sin with its substitute. Christians are exhorted not to lie but to tell the truth (Eph. 4:25), not to steal but to work (Eph. 4:28), not to express bitterness but rather kindness (Eph. 4:31–32). That pattern now continues as Paul exhorts believers not to speak what is filthy, foolish, or coarse, but rather to offer thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4).

Why is thanksgiving the proper substitute for impurity? Because it is the replacement of idol worship with worship of God. Simply seeing sin’s deceptive nature will not in itself create the praise that Paul wants to substitute for idolatry. In order for Paul to elicit the thanksgiving that he believes will provide spiritual power for the Ephesians, he must also make clear the nature of God’s provision. To do so, Paul calls sin idolatry (Eph. 5:5), and he calls the people saints (Eph. 5:3). 

Paul is not talking to those who have perfect lives. If the Ephesians were perfect, there would be no reason to write to them of their idolatries of lust and greed. Yet Paul addresses these people, among whom great sin must be present, as holy ones. They are not holy by their actions, but by God’s forgiveness in Christ—the root concept motivating all imperatives in this passage. Praise to God—not simply lip service or religious ritual but profound gratitude and love for what Christ has done—fills the heart that knows God’s love. And the heart that is filled with a responsive love for God has no place for idolatry. When we fully understand the love that makes us holy, then we live as God has already reckoned us to be.

Paul teaches us to provide power over sin by proclaiming the holy status of those who are in Christ Jesus. When I know that I am not made for sin, that I am a fundamentally different creature in Christ Jesus—still sinful but reckoned holy so that no sin will satisfy me or have ultimate power over me—then I am filled with thanksgiving. And because God inhabits the praise of his people, when we are filled with his praise, we are filled with his power.


Though we gain strength for the Christian life by savoring our purity and savoring our identity, we ultimately must face the dangers of sin. If we do not recognize the danger, then we are not prepared to live the holy lives God desires. 

The requirements to heed the warning against sin and to expose the darkness in which it thrives, put every Christian in the so-called Puritan dilemma of needing to be “in the world but not of it.” Seeking to engage, rebuke, and redeem our culture remains a battle of conscience and responsibility. The battle will test us until Christ returns. But we cannot achieve any measure of victory in the battle if we simply abandon biblical instruction.

Paul cautions instead that there can be no true morality without piety, no real witness without purity, no significant revival of the soul when there is regular compromise of the heart. Paul has said to these Ephesians already that they are a temple of God (Eph. 2:21), and now he says that they are his children, his holy ones (Eph. 5:1, 3). This is the knowledge that is to fill them with praise and make out of place the impurities and idolatries of the world. They are no longer made in such a way that these things of the world can bring satisfaction; these things will, in fact, bring greater pain. These same dynamics will occur in our lives, so Paul seeks to overwhelm us with the savor of our identity, the blessings of purity, and the warnings of grace. We are to imitate God because we are his children. Nothing else will do any more; nothing else will satisfy. Paul tells us that as an odor of a sweet savor to God, we should be what we are. We are his children and we are saints. 

So we should live that way!