Bible Study of Ephesians
The Reconciliation and Consummation of All Things through Christ
Week Eight: Out with the Old, In with the New (Ephesians 4:17-32)
Since members of the body of Christ are to live together in unity and build one another up in the faith (4:1-16), Paul begins this week’s section with another “therefore” and adds a word of caution (4:17). Having already presented the weighty task of preserving the unity of Christ’s body, Paul gives an equally serious charge, “This I say...and testify in the Lord…”, and he warns the Ephesians not to “walk” (Grk. peripateo, “live; conduct themselves”) in the corrupt ways of their former mindset and lifestyle (cf. Eph. 2:1-3, 11-12).
Building off of last week’s passage that focuses on unity, Paul now presents a contrast of lifestyles: [negatively] one that corrupts and destroys unity and fellowship, and [positively] one that maintains unity and enriches our fellowship with God and others in the body. Paul calls it a contrast between “the old man” and “the new man” (4:22-23; cf. Eph. 2:15).
Thus, the overarching focus this week is on the old way of living vs. the new way of living and the specific thoughts, words, and deeds that characterize unbelievers in contrast to believers. All those who are being renewed according to the likeness of God, in Christ, must leave their old ways behind and learn to live like their eternal Teacher and Instructor (the Head of the body – Eph. 4:15).
Here is a preview of the main ideas in this week's passage (4:17-32):
1. Old Way: Believers are no longer to think and act like unbelievers (4:17-19)
2. New Way: Believers are to be renewed and live according to Jesus’ example (4:20-24)
3. Application: Specifics on how unity is maintained as the new way replaces the old (4:25-32)
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling [calloused], have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness [impurity] with greediness.”
The biggest threat to unity in the body is corruption and defection from within the body itself. There may be a thousand different external dangers that cause people to lose sleep at night, but Paul's main concern is that a brother or sister might relapse into their former ways. And so, in this opening section of 4:17-19, Paul paints a picture of the inner workings of “the old man,” the sin nature which is being corrupted according to “deceitful lusts” (cf. 4:22). Needless to say, it’s not a pretty picture...
When Paul says don’t “walk” as the Gentiles walk, he is referring to the mind-set, or a way of life, of an unbeliever.* Notice the emphasis on the mind/heart in this short preview of the old nature: “futility of their mind” + “understanding darkened” + “ignorance that is in them” + “blind...past feeling” (i.e. hardened) “heart.” Thus, Paul describes a vicious, downward spiral inside the mind/heart of a non-believer—one who is spiritually dead; i.e. separated [alienated] from “the life of God” (4:18; cf. Eph. 2:1, 5, 12).**
*The Greek word peripateo ("walk") is used several times throughout Ephesians referring to one's conduct, worldview, or way of life (see Eph. 2:2, 10; 4:17; 5:2, 8, 15).
**Jesus confirms what Paul says about "the old man" and makes it abundantly clear to His disciples that sin starts in the heart, "For from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, lewdness, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness" (Mark 7:21, HCSB).
Therefore, the one who is not in Christ and separated from the life of God (cf. Jn. 1:4; 11:25; 14:6) cannot escape this death trap unless he or she believes the truth (cf. Eph. 4:21). And because sin affects every part of the soul—the intellect, perceptions, affections, desires, and judgments—believers in Christ may also be in danger of falling back into this death spiral (hence, the need for continual correction and truth-speaking in love to our brothers and sisters – Eph. 4:14-15; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).*
*Though a believer could potentially harden their heart again and fall back into an "old man" mindset, their eternal security is based on God's grace, the finished work of Christ, and the sealing of the Spirit (Eph. 1:7, 13-14; 2:8-9; 4:30). Nevertheless, all believers must contend with their old, corrupt nature (e.g. 1 Cor. 3:1-3; Gal. 5:16-17).
The “ignorance” and “futility of mind” that Paul speaks of here refers to, “...a willful and rebellious refusal to know God…[t]o know God means to be in a close personal relationship with him. Knowledge has to do with an obedient and grateful response of the whole person, not simply intellectual assent” (Kuruvilla, 137).
Paul’s brief “soul-scan” of the sin nature in 4:17-19 is a distilled version of what he covers in Romans 1:18-32. In the passage in Romans, God’s wrath is revealed against those who suppress the truth as He gives them over to their degrading thoughts and actions. Conversely, in Eph. 4:19, those who have blind and calloused hearts give themselves over to “lewdness” and the practice of all kinds of impurity with a desire for more and more [i.e. “greediness”]. Thus, the tension of God’s sovereign choice and man’s free will is in view; however, Paul’s point in this first section is to make it clear that believers in Christ should have no part of their former mindset that leads to a futile, purposeless, and eternally worthless existence.*
*The Greek word mataio ("futility, emptiness") in Eph. 4:17 is also found in Rom. 1:21 and coupled with a heart/understanding that is "darkened" (cf. Eph. 4:18, skotizo, "darkness/darkened"). O'Brien in his commentary adds, "Darkness in Ephesians is frequently used of unbelievers and connected with demonic beings: 2:3, 11-12; 5:8, 11; 6:12. Perhaps the passive perfect participles in 4:18, 'having been darkened' and 'having been excluded,' indicate some demonic influence (321). So, not only do we have God giving people over to sin, and people giving themselves over to sin, there is yet another force to be reckoned with—i.e. dark minds who are under the influence of dark spirits (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 9:20).
But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”
In verse 4:20, the word order in the Greek text creates a sharp contrast to the preceding passage; it is written literally: But you [plural], not this way did you learn Christ. Therefore, a tell-tale sign of a false teacher or prophet is one who is morally corrupt, often seen in the form of sexual immorality and an insatiable appetite for material gain (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1-3, 18; 1 Tim. 6:3-10).
Not so with Jesus and those who truly know Him. Jesus,* the only perfect man, who now indwells His followers is also the only true way to live (because He is Life!). When Paul says, “...you have heard Him...have been taught by Him…,” he is not saying that all believers encounter Jesus in the same way the first apostles did (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-8). What he is saying, however, is that through the apostles’ message [i.e. the gospel], a person can have an encounter with the risen Lord and “learn Christ” after believing the truth.
*Ephesians 4:21 is the only place in the entire letter where "Jesus" is written without the titles "Lord" and "Christ." Perhaps Paul wants his readers to recall the life and teachings of Jesus as revealed in the Four Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
Notice that Paul doesn’t say that we learn about Christ, or learn of Christ—in the Greek text, Christ is the direct object of our learning. Furthermore, we don’t just know facts about Him, we “learn Him” because we know Him personally (by means of a developing relationship; see Eph. 3:17-19). In this Master-to-disciple relationship (Matt. 16:24; Lk. 9:23), the old way that leads to deceit, corruption, and eventual death is replaced by the new way taught by Jesus, leading us to renewal into God’s likeness: the way of life that is characterized by true righteousness and pure, holy living (4:22-24).
Therefore, Paul wants believers to grow in their discernment and be able to identify corrupt ideas and values in their culture. At the same time, he wants them take comfort and realize that they are currently being renewed inwardly (i.e. “the spirit of your mind” - 4:23).* The “taking off” (old man) and “putting on” (new man) language is in reference to an internal transformation that has already taken place inside the believer (Eph. 1:13; 2:4-5).
*This is the only place in Ephesians where "spirit" [Grk. pneuma] refers to the human spirit and not the Holy Spirit. For more passages on the believer's ongoing process of inner renewal despite outward corruption, see 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16-18; Titus 3:5.
The verbs translated “to take off/lay aside” (4:22) and “to put on” (4:24) are both in the past tense, whereas the verb translated “to be renewed”* (4:23) is in the present tense. This is an important detail, because the believer isn’t the one who “takes off” the old man or “puts on” the new man. The new creation, a work done by God, is a present reality with ongoing results (cf. Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). What an encouragement, then, for believers who must live in a thoroughly deceived and morally decadent culture to know that they are being renewed progressively according to God’s likeness.
*The Greek verb ananeousthai ("to be renewed") is called a "divine passive," which means God is doing the renewing.
The stark difference between the old man and the new man is made explicit in the Greek text of 4:22 and 4:24. There is a word-for-word parallel between these two verses that contrasts the old creation and the new creation. Here is a chart that highlights what Paul is conveying in the Greek text:
|Adapted from Kuruvilla, 141|
As you can see, the direct contrast shown in the chart above underscores the fact that there is no middle ground—no middle man. It’s a battle between the old vs. the new nature. One is being corrupted by deceptive desires, and the other is being created anew according to God’s holy and righteous character.
And now, in the final section for this week’s study, Paul will show believers what life in community looks like for those who are being created and renewed into the image of God and His Son.
Therefore, putting away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place [opportunity] to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but [only] what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
To help us see what Paul is doing in this passage more clearly, let’s frame what he says into a question-and-answer format. In 4:25-32 there are three main questions being answered as Paul addresses five significant threats to unity in the body. It goes something like this:
Now that my old nature is a thing of the past, and now that I am a new creation in Christ being renewed into the likeness of God (cf. 4:23-24):
(1) What do I not do, or stop doing?
(2) What do I do instead of this old, evil habit?
(3) Why should I adopt this new habit?
A. On the issue of lying (4:25)
1. Don’t lie; stop lying
2. Speak the truth*
3. Because we are members of one another
B. On the issue of uncontrollable anger (4:26-27)**
1. Don’t allow your anger to cause you to sin
2. Keep short accounts, resolve disputes quickly
3. Because Satan wants to control you again
C. On the issue of cheating/stealing (4:28)
1. Don’t steal, rob, or cheat others
2. Seek work (if you are able), build with your own hands
3. So that you may have something to give/share with others
D. On the issue of cursing/rotten language (4:29-30a)
1. Don’t speak carelessly
2. Use your words to build up, meet needs, and impart grace
3. So that you may delight the Spirit, not grieve Him***
E. On the issue of bitterness/when you are offended by your brother (4:30b-32)****
1. Don’t be bitter/self-consumed, allowing anger to turn into explosive rage
2. Be kind/compassionate by forgiving your brother
3. Because your Father is also kind, compassionate, and forgave you in Christ, and the Spirit keeps
you secure until the “day of redemption”*****
*See the nearby passage: Eph. 4:15; also Mk. 12:31; Rom. 13:9-10.
**Wiersbe provides some helpful insight, "It is difficult for us to practice holy anger or righteous indignation because our emotions are tainted by sin, and we do not have the same knowledge that God has in all matters. God sees everything clearly and knows everything completely, and we do not" (41).
***Citing O'Brien, Kuruvilla writes, "The Spirit, who is the divine agent of reconciliation and unity in the body (2:18, 22; 4:3-4), is especially grieved when unwholesome speech is uttered by members against one another.' Disunity distresses the Holy Spirit of God" (146). Compare Eph. 4:30 with Isa. 63:9-10.
****See also Matt. 5:21-26; 18:15-20; Heb. 12:14-15; Jam. 1:19-20
*****We don't have to fear that God will hold us accountable for our sins—our debt has been paid—and we are now free to cancel others' debts against us (cf. Lk. 11:4). Moreover, the Spirit has been given to us as a guarantee that we are and will forever be forgiven and free (cf. Eph. 1:13-14). In other words, you are secure in His love, so go and show love to others by letting go of grudges and offenses!
Application to the Body of Christ:
Summary of 4:17-32:
“Believers, no longer living recklessly, are being divinely renewed into the likeness of God which is revealed progressively as they maintain unity and engage in activities that build up one another” (Kuruvilla, 147).
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” What a terrifying thought! And yet, that is precisely the dark mindset of those separated from God, who are being corrupted by the deceitful desires of their own calloused hearts (cf. Jer. 17:9).
For believers in the body of Christ, it’s a different story altogether. After entering into a covenant relationship with Jesus, believers are to shun “the old man” and follow “the new man.” Instead of being corrupted, believers are to be renewed according to likeness of their Father and His Son—a lifestyle characterized by “true righteousness and holiness” (4:20-24).
The “good works” that God prepared beforehand for each and every believer (2:10) are spelled out more clearly in 4:25-32. Though not an exhaustive list, Paul gives us a good start on how to apply God’s word and thus preserve unity in the body. And since the Church is God’s primary vehicle of revelation during this age, and since the unseen powers are watching God’s wisdom at work every day (3:10), then it is imperative that believers get along with one another and thereby slam the door shut on the devil with his plan to divide and conquer (4:27; cf. 6:12).
Brothers and sisters, we have all “learned Christ,” but there is more to learn and we are still in the classroom. He is our Teacher, Daily Lesson, and Textbook—all in One! So beware of Christ-less philosophies, worldviews, and human traditions (cf. Col. 2:8). And don’t forget that you are following the Living One, the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ:
“I can learn about Sir Winston Churchill because I own many of his books and can secure books about his life. But I can never learn him because he is dead. Jesus Christ is alive! Therefore, I can ‘learn Christ’ through a personal fellowship with Him” (Wiersbe, 40).