Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:31 Introduction
Paul loved lists. Never content merely to generalize about sins, he particularized, thereby leaving no doubt as to his meaning. Learn from Paul. “It is not enough to confess sin in general, we must confess particular sins. It is rather a dangerous thing to confess sin in general. We bring these things home to ourselves by confessing them in particular” (Lloyd-Jones). As we study verse 31, particularize. Carefully consider these six evils one by one. With honest scrutiny, see if any dwells in our hearts.
Eph. 4:31a “Let all bitterness,. . .”
By saying “all,” Paul leaves no room for compromise. Not only must all six of these tenants be removed; every vestige of each one must be eradicated. Paul attacks “all” these evils ruthlessly. Every trace must go. None of these six traits should ever be true of a believer in any sense. Let not the most minute particle lurk even in the most remote corner of our heart.
As we contemplate these six evils, let’s consider ourselves as landlords who need to expel six undesirable tenants before they cause us serious trouble. The first resident we need to evict is “bitterness,” which Aristotle defined as “the resentful spirit which refuses reconciliation.” “Bitterness,” the opposite of sweetness, is an inner sourness, an acid within, a slow-moving cancer of the soul which gnaws at the very vitals of inner comfort, contentment, and tranquility. The world’s most miserable human beings are bitter people. They make themselves and everyone around them miserable.
“Bitterness” is resentment internalized and smoldering. It can result from a refusal to forgive a personal wrong done to us by another, or from certain events we fail to put in proper perspective. Maybe no particular person hurt us directly; there is no one to forgive, but we were hurt and never classified the event as “from a Father’s hand.” Family trouble, church trouble, work trouble, money trouble–try to view these from God’s perspective, and trust He foresaw a purpose for good in each of them. We can not forget them, but do need to work through them in prayer, talk through them with friends, and come to peace about them in our minds. When we fail to do this, and choose instead to brood over bad events, never speak of them, withdraw into our shells, and harbor ill feelings, inner frustration eventually becomes “bitterness” against God Himself. Our grievances may be genuine, but as we internalize them, they make us angry at life in general. Once this happens, we are angry against God, for He rules in the affairs of men. We may not consciously realize it, and may deny it, but it is nevertheless true. The bottom line of “bitterness” is anger against God.
Eph. 4:31b “. . .and wrath,. . .”
The second tenant we must evict is “wrath,” outbursts of temper. “Bitterness” inevitably expresses itself. What is not dealt with in private ultimately manifests itself in public. It eventually becomes a hidden force impelling outbursts of “wrath,” the loss of control, flying off the handle.
“Wrath” is an outlet given to dark hostilities within, a flash of fury, a violent outbreak of emotion, resentment boiling over. Doors are slammed, cats are kicked, fists are clenched and rammed into walls or people, faces become flush, veins pop out on the neck. In personal relationships, these outbursts of rage can in moments destroy camaraderie developed over years. Such outrageous activity should never be part of a Christian’s behavior.
Temper fits are learned behavior, a habit developed through years of practice. Adults with this ailment were not disciplined properly as children when they displayed this form of behavior, or worse, they may have learned the practice from imitating their parents. Parents, when your children throw a temper fit, do not turn and look the other way. Be good and kind to your children. End this behavior pattern before it becomes their habit.
Eph. 4:31c “. . .and anger,. . .”
The third tenant we must remove is “anger,” the ongoing, settled disposition of inner irritability and brooding, as opposed to “wrath,” which is the flaring up of passion. “Anger” is a deep seated desire to retaliate, internal stewing and smoldering, keeping the coals stoked. With proper motives and responses, “anger” is okay (4:26), but here it is forbidden for it is being viewed in the context of selfish sentiments.
Eph. 4:31d “. . .and clamor,. . .”
The fourth tenant we need to evict is “clamor,” irate shouting, the loud self-assertion of an angry person who wants everyone to know his or her grievances. An angry person is ever in danger of exploding into loud speech. Anger hates to stay quiet, and often vents itself through the mouth with blaring words and noisy disputes. Another learned behavior, “clamor” is anger sharpened and yelling at its object, shouting down opponents, noisy disputes, screaming matches at home, words boisterous and out of control.
Shouting is a red flag that things are getting out of control. When the voice goes up, let the argument go down. Stop the discussion a moment. Take time to think and pray.
Brothers and sisters, leave off yelling. Anger does not motivate. Take it out of our voices. Traffic control officers do not raise their voices. They do not have to raise their voices because they speak from the premise of authority. Their words are substantiated by facts. When people start shouting, they have run out of valid arguments to support their position.
Self-control, logic, and reasoning are the hallmarks of mature interaction. Youth, do you want to be respected and treated as adults? Do not shout. Talk. Parents, do you want to be respected and treated as adults? Do not shout. Talk. We could all save much heartbreak in the world if we simply lowered our voices.
Eph. 4:31e “. . .and evil speaking,. . .”
The fifth unwelcome boarder in our lives is “evil speaking,” harmful talking. The words are not necessarily loud, but nevertheless mean. “Evil speaking” entails “a tongue sharp as an arrow, keen as a razor” (Hendriksen). The person who stoops to this level, like the one who clamors, lost the argument, and had nothing more worthwhile to say.
“Evil speaking” includes threatening words, abusive talk, slander, defamation of character, stinging words which needle others, biting sarcasm, running down others, the cool deliberate saying of things which hurt others. In a previous church, we had an individual who negatively joked about his listeners, and we often could not be sure he was kidding. He is one reason I decided to restrict my efforts to be humorous at the expense of others.
Eph. 4:31f “. . .be put away from you,. . .”
Remember, Paul is writing to Christians. Just because we are saved does not mean these terrible tenants are automatically driven from the heart. Even after conversion, we are still subject to these things.
Paul is calling on us to make a decisive, once for all, total rejection of these things. Put them out, bolt the door, never open it to them again. Even with this level of resolve on our part, they will still slip in through cracks and crevices. We will continue to fall into these things from time to time through carelessness and weakness, but we can once and for all decide to hate them, to be done with them, to war against them till death.
We should be ashamed of all these things. They are rags of the old man and disgraceful to Christians. Can we say we have deemed this behavior in our own lives as totally unchristlike, or do we dabble in it, going from fit to fit trying to analyze the merit or demerit of each one in and of itself?
Eph. 4:31g “. . .with all malice:”
The sixth tenant we need to evict is “malice,” the desire to see others hurt. Grudge-filled, “malice” wishes evil on others, takes delight in their harm, rejoices in anticipated calamities, plots and plans mischief against others. This is an especially bad disposition because it is very enjoyable.
In fact, flesh and blood tends to relish all six of these residents, which makes them hard to evict, but we must remove them, for they are troublemakers, “a nucleus of agitators who could ruin a community” (Powell). These are six horrible sins which destroy relationships, break fellowship, weaken churches, and mar our Christian witness before the world.
One more important note on verse 31–of these six tenants, three are inner dispositions (bitterness, anger, malice), three are outward acts (wrath, clamor, evil speaking). We often downplay the interior and emphasize the exterior, but err grievously when we deal only with outward manifestations and fail to work on inner causes. The inner three spawn the outer three.
The inner three explain why we fly off the handle over seemingly little things. Our text reveals why small things trigger a fit of rage. The problem is not the vexing drip of the immediate problem, but that our cup of bitterness, anger, and malice is already full. The little new drop merely makes our cup spill over. Thus, “all”–inner three and outer three–must go.
Eph. 4:32a “And. . .”
This conjunction vitally connects our present verse with the one before. As Paul has previously done several times in this fourth chapter, he again encourages us to displace negatives (4:31) with positives (4:32).
To do well in Christian living, it is not enough to discard weapons of the old warfare. We fill the resulting void with positives. We leave behind a wrong state of being to press ahead to things immeasurably better. We abandon old traits and grasp their opposites.
The virtues in verse 32, if cultivated, can drive out the vices of verse 31. Outwardly, we displace wrath, clamor, and evil speaking with kindness. Inside, we substitute tender-heartedness for bitterness, anger, and malice.
Eph. 4:32b “. . .be ye kind one to another,. . .”
“Kind” translates “chrestos,” which means benevolent, gracious, helpful. Kindness, the opposite of wrath, clamor, and evil speaking (4:31), is love in action, grace at work. Christianity is not satisfied with passive virtue. For example, when smitten, we must turn the other cheek (MT 5:39), but this is not enough. Our duty also includes performing kind deeds. God Himself has set the example. He is kind (EP 2:7), even to “the unthankful and to the evil” (LK 6:35).
A kind person is one who in word and deed actively seeks ways to ease the pain of others. In word, a kind person uses speech which lifts up others. There is a place for constructive criticism, but we need not go out of our way looking for things to criticize. Such opportunities will come in abundant supply on their own without our searching them out. We should devote ourselves to seeking things to praise. Be a walking benediction.
In deed, a kind person is one who has learned the secret of looking outward, not inward. In an impersonal, harsh world, kindness is “a refreshing rain falling upon the parched soil of human hearts. . .an oasis in a desert, a hospital near a battlefield” (Powell). Believers, hasten to be kind.
W. A. Criswell considers verse 32 “the sweetest verse in the Bible.” In his sermon on this text, he marvelously tells how Jesus exemplified kindness in every phase of life. One example involved the leper who came seeking healing (MT 8:1-4) immediately after the Sermon on the Mount. Lepers by law had to cup a hand over their mouths and cry aloud, “Unclean! Unclean!” Wherever they walked, crowds parted as people drew back in horror. Lepers always had a huge empty circle around them. This explains why the leper could walk right up to Jesus though He was surrounded by a crowd. The throngs drew back, “but the Lord did not move. The Saviour stood right there where He was in the center of that icy, chilling, ever-present, empty circle” (Criswell). Jesus had said some beautiful, loving things in His Sermon on the Mount, but now it was time to embody His words with true kindness. “And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him.” This kind touch in and of itself was half the cure the leper needed.
On another occasion (MT 19:13-15), mothers tried to bring their children to Jesus for Him to “put his hands on them, and pray.” Children cannot help us climb a corporate ladder, help us get elected to positions of influence, or improve our popularity ratings. The disciples, believing Jesus had more important things to do, “rebuked” the mothers, scolded them for trying to bother the Master. The Lord, though, understanding what it means to “be ye kind,” said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me.” Then He, the ruler of the Universe, stopped in the midst of His busy schedule, took children in His arms, and blessed them.
Another day (MT 14:15-21), a crowd of 5,000 men plus women and children had stayed near Jesus all day long. The disciples, knowing a bit of what kindness was about, suggested Jesus should encourage the people to go to town and buy food for themselves. Jesus lifted them to a higher plane of kindness, and said, “They need not depart; give ye them to eat.”
Blind Bartimeus (MK 10:46-52) cried aloud, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” The people around him, trying to be kind to Jesus, and to avoid an embarrassing situation, told Bartimeus to hush, but the Lord “commanded him to be called.” Bartimeus was healed and “followed Jesus in the way.” Folks always like to be around kind people.
Jesus’ was a kindness which operated at home, also. Even on the cross, He was not concerned about His own welfare to the forgetting of others. He made sure His mother was cared for. Years ago I heard the children of a fine Christian deacon say, “Our dad is kinder to everyone else at church than he is to us.” May it never be! Every Christian grace should incubate and flower in the home. What we appear to be at church let us actually be at home. “Be ye kind” to your own flesh and blood.
Seek not only to end wrath, clamor, and evil speaking (4:31) in our dealings with others. Displace these traits by pressing upward to an even higher level. In word and in deed, “be ye kind one to another.”
Eph. 4:32c “. . .tender-hearted,. . .”
Paul uses a hyphen here to connect two words which “together make up a beautiful little poem” (Parker). “Tender-hearted,” the opposite of bitterness, anger, and malice (4:31), refers to sweetness and softness within. Outward acts of kindness will not last long without a heart of sympathy and love prompting them. We can fake kindness for a while, and sometimes force it out of ourselves grudgingly, but when we love, we must be kind.
The decision to love as a Christian ought to love is the decision to let ourself be hurt. A tender heart is a soft heart, sensitive to the hurts of others. Tender hearts hurt when other hearts do. An iron heart beholds without any concern whatsoever the hurts of others. There is suffering everywhere we look, but we can choose not to see it, and not to be moved by it. A tender heart, though, cannot do this. It allows itself to be affected by what happens to others. It is as concerned about the feelings of others as it is with its own feelings. A tender heart sympathizes with the distresses of others as if they were its own. It looks at an individual who is grieving and makes the effort to share the pain, to take some of the ache away with us to help relieve the over-burdened one.
Criswell tells of how young Frank Rutherford was an intense preacher of the Gospel. The truths of God burned in his soul whenever he preached, but his people gave him little encouragement. One day, after he had preached his heart out, he made his way to the foyer. No one spoke to him. Finally, the janitor came by and exited, his only words being, “It is raining outside.” The pastor walked to his little apartment without an umbrella and became drenched in the rain. Something died inside him that night which could never be resurrected. “He lost his heart and his ability to minister. He left the ministry” (Criswell). Why didn’t someone say a word of encouragement that night? No tender hearts were present. A tender heart knows that even by a word it might hurt or help another.
It takes so little to make us sad.
Just a slighting word, a doubtful sneer,
Just a scornful smile on some lips held dear
And our footsteps lag though the goal seem near,
And we lose the joy and hope we had.
It takes so little to make us sad.
It takes so little to make us glad.
Just a cheering clasp of some friendly hand.
Just a word from one who could understand.
And we finish the task we so long had planned.
We lose the fear and doubt we had.
It takes so little to make us glad. (Criswell)
A tender heart is capable of very deep feeling, and determines not to hurt others, even to the most minute detail. The “tender-hearted” have “feeling so sensitive as to be utterly unable to hurt another” (Parker).
We may be tempted to say this is fairy tale existence, it cannot be done. In our own strength, this is true, but in God’s strength, it is possible. I remind us that this command to be “tender-hearted” was originally addressed to people who at one time “walked according to the course of this world” (2:2), a life characterized as being “past feeling” (4:19). Jesus can change people! The Ephesian Christians had at one time been callused, and partook of the cruel harshness which characterized and dominated the Roman world. Paul, who had seen them come out of that meanness and hardness, urges them to continue their movement in the opposite direction.
If the Ephesian Christians could make progress in this area in the midst of their ruthless culture, we can do the same today. Even the hardest of hearts should be tenderized on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, many Christians do the very reverse of this. Blows of life are internalized and nursed, resulting in a heart which gets harder as life goes on.
If true Christian living requires anything, it requires a tender heart. The eradication of bitterness, anger, and malice (4:31) depends on our rising to a spiritual height where they cannot survive. Aspire to the continual tenderizing of one’s innermost heart. Having a tender heart is the secret to present success in Christian living. Maintaining a tender heart must be our never ending aspiration for the future. Kindly keep the heart tender.
Eph. 4:32d “. . .forgiving. . .”
With one word, Paul brings us face to face with the ultimate test of kindness and tender-heartedness. Most people are congenial and soft as long as they are properly treated. Even the Scribes and Pharisees were kind and tender-hearted when all went well for them. Friendliness and congeniality are often too much like an echo, returning exactly what they receive, and nothing more. We find it much harder to be kind and tender in the aggravating experiences of life. When crossed or offended by someone, when we need to be “forgiving,” Christian living tests its own mettle.
This is the sticking point for many a believer. Kindness has often tripped, and soft hearts have hardened, over a wrong done to us by others which led to a grievance being long nursed within us. This is tragic. The depth of our commitment should not be determined by the actions of others. Do not let the ingratitude and harshness of others defile our spirituality.
As Christians, we represent our Lord and thus have to forgive, for forgiveness personifies the essence of all we know about the Divine. The Father showed it in sending His Son to die for our sins. The Spirit shows it by applying Christ’s blood to our individual lives. The Son showed it in His earthly life, even to the end. Soldiers beat Him, mocked Him, jeered Him, and gambled over His garment, but in His dying hour, He prayed with failing breath, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
No trait is more essential among Christians than forgiveness. It is useless to give an offering unless we remember first to forgive others. “Unless you have forgiven others you read your own death-warrant when you repeat the Lord’s Prayer” (Spurgeon). Christians must be “forgiving.”
Eph. 4:32e “. . .one another,. . .”
“One another” denotes activity which goes back and forth–I forgive you, you forgive me, we forgive them, they forgive us. What we give today we may need tomorrow. Be not harsh toward the imperfections of others. We have our own faults aplenty. A forgiving spirit is easier to cultivate when we remain mindful of our own shortcomings. The more we focus on our own weaknesses, the less time we have to stew over the flaws of others.
Each believer has many opportunities to obey the command to forgive. A church consists of sinners saved by grace, not angels. Many Christians need to accept this fact and become less sensitive about their own feelings. We need to take the chip off our shoulder, and be as backward to take offense as to give it. Remember, people are creatures of emotion, beset by temper and infirmities. We all have a pride-filled old man within.
Grievances are going to be committed, offenses will be given. Each of us will be affronted from time to time. Be sensible. Expect to have interpersonal conflicts. John, the beloved disciple himself, had trouble with Demetrius (3 JN 9). Paul was opposed by Alexander the coppersmith (2 TM 4:14). Jesus met opposition everywhere.
Christians, of all peoples, should be realistic about this matter. Our own Scriptures teach us not to glibly think there is nothing wrong with people. Our faith is not naive. Our theology should make it easier for us to forgive people because we understand human nature. We realize people are sinners, weak and frail, with a sin nature inside.
Eph. 4:32f “. . .even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
We are not at liberty to delineate how far we will go in our forgiveness of others. The criterion is predetermined, measured by the actions of God. The divine example sets the standard for human imitation. To forgive properly, one must rightly understand forgiveness as defined and demonstrated in the behavior of God. We are to forgive “as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” The words “for Christ’s sake” are literally “in Christ,” denoting the sphere in which God has forgiven us. We are to forgive others “as God” has forgiven us in Christ. Forgiven ones should forgive. The only reason Christians exist is because they are the people whom God has forgiven. We who live due to forgiveness must surely be willing to forgive.
Christians are by definition a people forgiven and forgiving: forgiven by God, forgiving “as God.” Be ever mindful of how God forgave us.
God forgave us without retaining a grudge. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (PS 103:12). God casts all His people’s sins “into the depths of the sea” (MC 7:19). Hezekiah confessed, “Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back” (IS 38:17). God said, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins” (IS 44:22). “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (HB 8:12). Our sins are gone. God shows no vestige of displeasure. Consequences abide, and we must someday give an account at the Judgment Seat of Christ, but our ongoing relationship with God here on earth can be as absolutely flawless as if the sin were never committed.
God forgave us eagerly and spontaneously. With absolute cheer, He enjoys forgiving us. He gladly puts the ring and best robe on the returning prodigal. If affronted, spontaneously pray, “How can I initiate reconciliation?” And when the chance comes, “do not dwarf the opportunity, but enlarge it, and when thou dost forgive, have so much forgiveness left that thou couldst do it seven times again, and then seventy times seven; for thou drawest thy forgiveness from the fountain of the cross” (Parker).
God forgave us freely. We did not earn forgiveness by sacrifice or good works. It came by grace. The one who wronged us may not deserve our forgiveness. We did not deserve God’s. The forgiveness we enjoy was unmerited, and since we cannot forgive God in return, we express our appreciation to Him by forgiving others who do not deserve our forgiveness.
God forgave us at great cost to Himself. Look at the cross. Has our forgiveness of others ever cost us that much. Have we ever been out any money or time or pain to forgive another? True forgiveness is often very painful. We do not play make believe, fantasize, nor dream the offense was not as painful as it really was. We deal with reality, face pain head on, and choose to absorb the hurt into our hearts, even as Christ absorbed into His own body the pain of our sins. “Forgiveness is realizing to the full the wrong they have done, and then forgiving them” (Lloyd-Jones).
God forgave us fully and generously. His Son died to cover all sins, the worst without exception. He did not pick and choose, forgiving us for some sins, while leaving others uncovered. The blood of Christ does not wash away one sin at a time. Jesus forgives a repentant sinner completely. Have we decided some offenses done against us were extra heinous? Have we determined we will forgive certain wrongs, but not others?
The one who begins to grasp the huge amount of mercy which was needed to pay his own huge debt, says, “I cannot refuse to forgive, whatever the offense.” When a person comes to understand the enormity of his own cancelled sin debt, the ability to forgive others becomes as natural as opening a hand. Any Christian who cannot forgive fully and generously has not begun to grasp the amount of forgiveness he or she received from God. No one could ever wrong us as much as we wronged God. All the abuses we endure are nothing compared to what we have done against God.
God forgave us before He was asked. Technically, our sins are forgiven when we repent and ask for forgiveness, but we are fully aware His forgiveness was seeking us before we sought it. New believers think we find God, but mature saints know God finds us. God’s forgiveness of us took wing before we were born, and began to fly our way long before we turned to receive it. Has someone hurt us, and not yet apologized? Have we forgiven them already, even before they ask our forgiveness? When they speak to us, can we honestly say the incident is already a thing of the past?
In interpersonal relationships, the believer should always have all accounts up to date. Others may hold a grudge against us, but we must refuse to sink to their level. With people, we should be bold as a lion, no hesitation in our handshake, no fear of looking anyone in the eye, no need to avoid a certain hallway or store for fear of seeing a particular person.
We are to forgive others “as God” forgave us in Christ. My immediate reaction to this challenge is desperation and hopelessness. I cannot do this. We all stand condemned before this challenge. Granted, some people by temperament and personality tend to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving, but to forgive “as God” forgives in Christ is another matter all together. Everything is thereby lifted to a higher plane. Adherence to this standard requires an absolute miracle, which is exactly what God provides. Every command of Scripture is a promise by God to supply the power needed to obey it. He has commanded us to do this, and will empower us to do it.
We must follow God’s example. By the power of His Spirit, we can. Others have done it. Archbishop Cranmer was of such a forgiving spirit that it became a common proverb, be unkind to Cranmer and he will be your friend as long as he lives. A ruthless tyrant, having a Christian beaten almost to death, taunted his victim, “What great matter did Christ ever do for you?” The Christian cried in pain, “Even this, that I can forgive you, though you use me so cruelly.” There is a beauty in such behavior that the world cannot resist, and that the Church cannot thrive without.
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (JN 13:35). By this shall all men know ye love one another, if ye forgive “one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
Eph. 5:1a “Be ye therefore followers of God,. . .”
When we forgive others as God forgave us in Christ (4:32), we thereby act the way we are supposed to act, as the followers of God’s example which His children ought to be. The King James Version uses “followers” here in the sense of following the example of another. The Greek word is “mimetai,” from which we derive “mimic.” The word refers to copyists, imitators.
Paul’s command to be “imitators of God” is the biggest challenge which can be made, “the highest standard in all the world” (Barclay). Clement of Alexandria later daringly said a Christian practices being God.
The word “mimetai” was a popular word in Paul’s day. He took this fashionable secular word, baptized it, and used it for godly causes. Imitation was a concept the ancients understood. Their whole philosophy of life was built around the concept of imitating great heroes who had lived before.
Plutarch, renowned Greek writer, wrote biographies of many famous Greeks and Romans to rouse people to greatness through imitation. Pliny said, “It is great folly not to propose always the best pattern.” Seneca desired the instructive examples of good men, “Let them always be before my eyes, let them be a second rule by which I may correct my life and manners. Let me not lose this help, which God hath granted me, of imitation.”
Imitation was a guiding factor in every area of ancient life. Warriors prepared themselves for battle by studying heroic soldiers of old. Alexander always carried with him a copy of the Iliad in a box studded with jewels.
The Greeks, masters of public speaking, taught that the learning of oratory depended on theory, imitation, and practice. They studied and copied masters who had gone before. To master oratory, they said, imitate the masters of oratory. To master life, Paul says, imitate the Master of life.
By using this “power word” from his culture, Paul sent out a clarion call to practical duty. He expects action from us. When we praise and magnify God, sing unto Him, and meditate upon Him, we have not fulfilled our duty. Worship entails imitation in addition to contemplation and admiration. Corporate worship services are worship begun. We depart places of worship to continue our worship through obedience and conformity to His example. We must on weekdays copy Him whom we focus on each Sunday.
Eph. 5:1b “. . .as dear children;. . .”
This is why we should imitate God. Believers are offspring of God, and children should be like their parents. “Like father, like son” and “like mother, like daughter” are two familiar proverbs. Children imitate their parents for at least four reasons: heredity, environment, duty, and desire.
Children imitate parents due to heredity. Chromosomes and genes transmit certain DNA traits. I have Grandpa Hill’s height, Grandpa Marshall’s temperament and body-build, Grandma Marshall’s hands, Grandma Hill’s eyes. People often say my son looks like me. These things are as they should be. Children share similarities with ancestors due to heredity.
This is true of believers, also. We are children of God, not merely by metaphor or figure of speech, but in fact by adoption and regeneration. As our parents’ genes gave us physical life, God’s seed gave us spiritual life. God implants in believers His life, His nature. Thus we have a propensity to do things He would do, and to act in ways He would act. By giving us His nature, God starts us on the road to imitating Him. We should respond by letting His nature do what it does best, and wants to do–to be like Him.
Children imitate parents due to environment. Children imitate naturally by observation, by watching their parents’ example. Infants see mouths moving, vocal sounds being produced, and thus try to talk. Babies see legs being stood on, and try to walk. Children observe cause and effect, and practice on light-switches. When I baptize, I lean the candidate back on my left hand, as my ambidextrous dad always did. One day a dear saint told me I was baptizing “backwards.” The advice came too late, the habit was already established. Children learn from their parents by example.
This is true of believers, also. The new nature we receive by spiritual heredity is given to conform us to the example of Jesus. Believers are saved with this purpose in mind. We were predestined “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (RM 8:29). There is no doubt about which example we should imitate. We are to reproduce the moral character of God as revealed in the earthly life of Jesus. God sent us an incarnate prototype, and gives us a written Word to let us never forget that one perfect life. Jesus gives a clear map, a true compass. We know where we are headed.
Children imitate parents due to duty. A family’s honor depends on the children. Being Pastor Marshall’s son put extra responsibility on me. A child represents a family, and realizes people judge the whole by the one.
This is true of believers, also. We belong to the royal family of heaven. People watch us and judge God by our behavior. We who carry God’s name must imitate His character. A cowardly soldier named Alexander was once brought before the tribunal of Alexander the Great. The infuriated leader commanded, “Change your ways or change your name.” Believer, be like Christ or be not called Christian. Imitate God or give up the name.
Children imitate parents due to desire. In our text, “as dear children” is literally, “as children beloved (agapeta).” Love responds to love. We tend to grow more like those whom we admire. In choosing our heroes, we often choose our own future behavior, and in the early years, a special bond develops which makes a child want to be like the parent.
This is true of believers, also. Loved by God, we respond to His love. We imitate God “as children beloved,” not as slaves dreading the crack of a whip. “Holiness must be spontaneous, or it is spurious” (Spurgeon).
When we come to grips with how dear we are to Him, when we grasp the love, we are overwhelmed, our hearts melt and all rebellion is conquered. The very hairs of our head are all numbered. God knows us all by name. He cares about what is happening in our daily lives. As I realize this, and grow in my understanding of it, the strongest desire of my life will become to show my love for Him, and to please Him in all I do.
Concentrate more on His vast love for us. His relationship with us is not mechanical. He watches us with the same intensity as when we watch our children take their first steps, speak their first words, and leave for school the first time. The Father loves His children. In the story of the Prodigal Son, we are told how glad the Father was when the son returned, but nothing is written about the Father’s reaction to his son’s departure. Some things are too sad to describe. God loves us profoundly.
We need to sense the love. A mother whose daughter chose a profligate life and ran away from home conceived a unique plan to find the prodigal and woo her home. The mom had copies of her own picture enlarged and posted on walls in the part of town she thought her daughter was staying. The pictures, without name, had written beneath them, “I love you always.” Crowds tried to guess the pictures’ meaning, but no one had a clue until finally a young lady passed by, saw one of the pictures, and understood. The message was for her. Her mother loved her, forgave her, wanted her. Those words transformed her. She immediately left her sin and went home to her mother. Fully knowing the love changed the life.
R. A. Torrey succeeded D. L. Moody, but as a young man was a bitter atheist. As he left home one day, renouncing family and God, his mother made one request, “R. A., in your darkest hour, call upon your mother’s God, and you will get light.” Later, in a hotel room, with pistol in hand ready to end what he called “this farce called life,” he remembered her words, and cried out, “Oh God of my mother, if there is such a God, give me light, and I will follow it wherever it leads.” In moments he had light, and decided to go home to Mom. As he headed down the lane to his house, his mother saw him, and came to meet him. He started to tell her he had become a believer, but she interrupted him, saying, “R. A., I already know.” Remembering a mother’s love, and experiencing God’s love, changed the life.
When we discern God’s love, and view Him as wonderful and noble, as the greatest person we know, we will be constrained to be like Him. He will be our ideal, and we will find ourselves craving to imitate Him.
Christians should imitate God due to spiritual heredity, environment, duty, and desire, but even all these in themselves are not enough to enable us to achieve our objective. We cannot be like God in our own strength. The imitation of God is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit whom God sends to indwell us. The Spirit cultivates the seed of God planted within us. The Spirit inspires us to study the life of Jesus, and enables us to reproduce His acts. The Spirit gives the inner sense of duty and desire.
Never forget, we believers are “children.” However much we grow in the Lord, we ever remain “children.” This, of course, confronts us with a paradox. We all know the goal of Christian living is to grow into a mature spiritual adult. In many ways we are to develop, but in other ways, we need to retain a child-like spirit, and cultivate “the child-heart” (Parker).
Certain qualities of a child we should never outgrow. A child is tender, obedient, trusting, willing to be dependent. Children are lowly in heart, and have no room for spiritual pride. A child is teachable, and assumes he or she will continue to grow. Childhood is a time of purity.
Growing up does not automatically make us better in every area of life. True maturity involves changing the things which need to be changed, but retaining and improving those traits which are good. However much a believer matures, we should retain an attitude of conscious weakness, and a spirit of humble dependence for grace from God to help us.
Eph. 5:2a “And walk in love,. . .”
“Walk” refers to one’s lifestyle, the habitual, ongoing actions of everyday living. The word is important in Ephesians. In the book’s first section, chapters 1-3, we are told to walk in “good works” (2:10). The second section (4:1-6:9), which deals primarily with our “walk,” tells us to walk worthy of our calling (4:1), walk different from the lost (4:17), “walk in love” (5:2), “walk as children of light” (5:8), and “walk circumspectly” (5:15). A believer’s “walk,” one’s everyday lifestyle, is vital. Behavior matters to God.
To “walk in love” means to conduct one’s daily activities with love as our unceasing, omnipresent motive. Every Christian should be conspicuous for love. It should be the prominent feature in our everyday conduct.
Our lives should be spent in a fog of love. We ought to drink in love from Heaven, as plants drink in sunshine, and then radiate love forth from our eyes, face, and hands. Love should be an atmosphere we carry with us.
Daily put on love like clothing. Dressed in love, each morning go forth to meet the world. Let love be the deciding factor in all our choices, the appointed path in which our feet walk every moment. Do not seek to perform one, two, or three acts of kindness a day, but instead desire to have love as the all encompassing fervor of our lives. “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 C 16:14, NASB).
Strive to excel in love. The love we show is one part of our lives we will never regret. When we come to die, we will rue our harsh words and unkind deeds, but will never regret the times we chose to “walk in love.”
Eph. 5:2b “. . .as Christ also hath loved us,. . .”
People often speak of love as the summon bonum, the ultimate good, and make other rules and laws subservient to this wonderful thing called love. Live by love, some say, and all else will take care of itself. In my college days this was the “in vogue” way of determining personal conduct. Decisions were made by considering the question, “what would love do?”
On the surface, this system known as “Situation Ethics” sounds well and good, and looks attractive, but the whole process breaks down when love is wrongly defined. Not just any definition of love will suffice. All kinds of silly and sickly sentiments, plus countless irrational and sinful deeds, have been justified by being described as based on love. This is preposterous. Depraved humanity is not at liberty to define Biblical terms with our own definitions and in our own ways. God knows us too well to let us define for ourselves the exact meaning of His sacred terms.
The Bible never leaves us with a vague and general notion of what love is. Love is defined by God’s law and demonstrated by Jesus’ life. God’s Word is the parameter within which love operates, and Jesus’ life is the pattern for a loving lifestyle. Christ’s own self-sacrificing love for us is our example. Biblical love is neither romanticism, a pleasant emotion, nor a good feeling, but the giving of one’s self for another’s well-being. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 J 3:16).
Holding to the proper definition of love is critical, for what a person believes determines the way one behaves. The rest of our text helps us define love by naming several key characteristics of Christ’s love for us.
Eph. 5:2c “. . .and hath given himself for us. . .”
Paul tugs at our heartstrings by stating in a very few words the Benefactor, the benefit, and the beneficiaries. Jesus gave up not only things, but also His own self, for us. All Christ was as God, all He became as man, He completely yielded for us. With Jesus there was no holding back, no reservation. His was a complete self-surrender in our behalf.
In eternity past, Jesus made a choice which overruled all succeeding choices and decided the course of His own fate. Long before the cross, He chose to let His destiny be determined by the needs of others. He decided His life would be dictated, even to the point of dying, by the hurts of others.
Jesus on the cross was not a victim of circumstances. His crucifixion was not a passive submission, but an active, deliberate choice based on a decision made way back in the eons of time from which He never wavered.
The devil tempted Jesus (LK 4), and tried to deter Him, but the Savior had already decided He was not His own. His essence belonged to us. He had long before already chosen whose path He would follow.
The key passage in the book of Luke, the verse on which the whole Gospel hinges, is 9:51b, “He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Danger and death awaited Him, but His face was set, for He had already decided long ago to give not of Himself, but Himself, for us.
Jesus said He “must” (MT 16:21) go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed. The Son of Man “must” (JN 3:14) be lifted up. Why “must” these things happen? No one can force God to do anything. No being has power to coerce omnipotence. He obviously “must” do certain things now because He Himself had chosen long before to do them. Jesus said, “No man taketh it (His life) from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (JN 10:18). Jesus had the power, the right as well as the ability, to control His own destiny. No outside pressure was brought to bear on Christ which He could not have successfully resisted. With entire concurrence of His self-predetermined will, He gave.
To love as Jesus loved is to choose to give not of or from self, but to give self. It is to decide even before a day begins to “walk in love” that day. We do not wait until an opportunity to show love presents itself and then decide whether or not we want to be bothered or have the time to love. Our decision to love was made in the past, we no longer control our actions, our day was turned over to God’s providence to create opportunities for us to show love, we chose to live today based on the hurts of others. To love as Christ loved, to give self, entails the choice to be no longer in control, but rather to be ruled by needs placed in our paths by providence.
Have we given self? Do we rock along, driven by circumstances, deciding in each individual situation whether or not to love, or do we choose to love, and make all other choices in light of that supreme choice?
Eph. 5:2d “. . .an offering. . .”
“Offering” and “sacrifice” are synonyms whose meanings often overlap. They cannot always be precisely distinguished, but each does have its own unique nuances. “Offering,” the more general word, could be used of anything presented to God, including temple sacrifices, the giving of alms, or giving gifts to the poor. “An offering” is any voluntary, outward giving or helping which springs from true inner dedication and absolute surrender.
Not long after D.L. Moody became a Christian, he heard Henry Varley say, “It remains to be seen what God will do with a man who gives himself up wholly to Him.” Moody said to himself, “Well, I will be that man,” and the rest of Moody’s story is an epic of spiritual success. He lived a life of love, seeking to pour out his life for God and others as “an offering.”
We regularly see gifted and brilliant people who do well in Christian work, but one thing remains between them and being used mightily–full and unreserved surrender of themselves to God and others as “an offering.”
Eph. 5:2e “. . .and a sacrifice. . .”
“Sacrifice” was a more specific term, usually involving the death of a victim, and essentially always carrying the idea of loss to the giver. We cannot be a propitiation as Jesus was, but we can practice self-sacrificing love, a love which results in personal loss, for the good of others.
To love as “a sacrifice” means to help or to give until we feel a keen sense of loss. Years ago in one of my pastorates we had a month in which our people gave more tithes and offerings than they had ever given in any month before in the church’s history. Wanting to encourage my people and thank them for their generosity, I asked the Wednesday night crowd how many had consciously given up something they had wanted in order to give so much to the church. Since it was a record offering, I thought many hands would go up. To my shock, with over 200 people in attendance, only two or three hands went up. I was so taken aback by it that I impulsively said, “Then why do we not give this much to our church every month?”
Are we giving to the point of sacrifice, of conscious loss? Under the Old Covenant, David said he would not give to God “that which doth cost me nothing” (2 SM 24:24). We who have seen the example of Christ should be even more eager to give sacrificially. Christian love is always costly.
Ultimately, the choice to give self as an offering and a sacrifice is the choice to die, not always physically, but spiritually, to selfishness. It is to rise each morning and to say with Paul, “I die daily,” and since we are dead, our desires, our needs, our wants, are no longer primary. When we die spiritually, self becomes a small part of the whole picture. Each person we meet becomes our property in the sense of being one for whom we are responsible to care for. We are under obligation to care for their affairs, to be concerned with their hurts. In Christ we are no longer free in our daily lives to be a little world of one. We are to be a vortex, a whirlpool of love drawing everyone nearby into our web of love. We are thus not one over others, or one apart from others, but one welded to others through love.
Eph. 5:2f “. . .to God for a sweet-smelling savor.”
To love as Christ loved entails giving self as an offering and a sacrifice. We should begin each day by yielding ourselves to be directed by God’s sovereignty, to wholly dedicate ourselves to expressing love to each hurting individual we meet, to be willing to give even to the point of personal loss. When we love as Christ loved, we find consolation in knowing that God reacts to our deeds of love the same way He reacted to Christ’s.
Jesus’ sacrifice for others resulted in heaven being filled with “a fragrant aroma” (NASB). This metaphor, which expresses acceptability before God, is used some forty-four times in the Old Testament in the context of the sacrificial system. Sweet-smelling perfumes were often sprinkled on temple sacrifices. This served a practical purpose by helping to counteract the offensive smell of the bloody service, and also symbolized a spiritual truth. The burning of spices or incense, so fragrant to our own senses, was figuratively applied to God as being pleased with sacrifices offered to Him.
To God, the most pleasing sacrifice ever was Jesus’ death on the cross for us. Christ’s love profoundly satisfied the Father. When Jesus cried, “It is finished” (JN 19:30), the Father replied, “Yes, it is. I require no more.”
Christ’s death was infinitely more satisfying to God than all other Old Testament sacrifices combined, because in the cross the Father for the first time saw a human being carry obedience to the ultimate limit, to the nth degree. It was a long time in coming. Six times during the creation, “God saw that it was good.” At the end of the sixth day, “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (GN 1:31). The seventh day He rested. All was well. Then everything fell apart. Chaos exploded.
God had been terribly dishonored by the first man and all his descendants, but finally, at Calvary, the Father saw one who walked in absolute holiness. For the first time, there was one person to whom the glory of God and the good of others meant more than anything else. This was truly a new thing, a descendant of Adam who cared more about the will of God and the welfare of others than about any self-centered desires.
At Calvary a far greater love and self-sacrifice was shown than had ever been displayed. Heaven had never seen “love so measureless, so reckless of cost, for those who were naturally unworthy of it” (F.B. Meyer). God saw a faith that never gave way, a patience which never failed, a courage that never flinched, a love that never wavered, a zeal that never waned.
The lesson of our text is straightforward. God was pleased with Christ’s self-sacrifice, and will delight in ours, too. Jesus pleased the Father most when He gave Himself for others. We most gladden the Father when we do likewise, giving self for others. He will enjoy watching His children walk sacrificially. His “Father-heart will swell with love” (Lloyd-Jones).
This is vital to know, for pleasing God is to be our main ambition. Self-sacrifice is appreciated by our Heavenly Father. Our deeds never go unnoticed by Him. He sees us, and is blessed. Sacrificial self-giving lifts a fragrant aroma to God. We cannot love as perfectly as Christ did, nor can we be a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, but we can be growing daily in our love, thereby ever becoming more like Him.
An acorn is not an oak tree, but contains in itself what is necessary to begin and continue the process of becoming a monarch of the trees. Jesus is the mighty oak, but we acorns have the Holy Spirit within us to begin and continue our growth toward the likeness of the oak. Through His power, we can have the “holy perfume” (Calvin) of Jesus spread over us. The Philippians sent a gift to Paul in prison. He gratefully called it “an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God” (PH 4:18).
Let me add another observation. The holy perfume of Jesus is so strong that it can fill not only Heaven, but also Earth, with its aroma. Paul said the Lord “everywhere uses us to reveal and spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge of himself” (2 C 2:14, NEB). When we prepare ourselves to face the day, we are careful about personal hygiene, the last touch often being to put on perfume or cologne. We recognize the winsome power of a pleasing aroma. The way we smell really does matter. What is true of the physical is also true of the spiritual. Even as we make our bodies smell good, we should ponder whether or not our lives smell good.
As Mary poured costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, “the house was filled with the odor of the ointment” (JN 12:3). Sixty years later, John remembered the odor. He never forgot the pleasing fragrance which saturated the room. Even so our deeds of sacrificial love spray Jesus’ fragrance in every direction, filling heaven and earth with stimulating, unforgettable aroma.