Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:18a “Having the understanding darkened,. . .”
Paul here continues his psychological profile of unbelievers. Any who enjoy psychology will find the Apostle’s evaluation fascinating. This is masterly, God-inspired, psychoanalysis. Its indisputable accuracy makes it terribly frightening. Verse 18 “is a great nocturne, it is a picture struck out of a cloud, it is a statue hewn out of sevenfold midnight” (Parker).
“Having the understanding darkened” presents the tragedy, the pathos, of lostness. However brilliant, scholarly, or learned a lost person may be, he or she can not apprehend spiritual truths. The unsaved are unable to get a firm grip on what truly matters. H. G. Wells devoted his life to intellectual pursuits, but along the way rejected the Bible. When his life was coming to a close, he did not know where he stood, had no grasp of life’s meaning, and was at an absolute loss to understand the purpose of his own existence. His last book was entitled Mind at the End of its Tether. The brilliant German poet and philosopher Goethe spent a lifetime thinking, analyzing, and discussing, but rejected the living God. At the end he recognized he stood in darkness. His dying words were, “More light!”
Unbelievers see “no beauty in Divine things, no preciousness in Divine promises, no excellence in the Divine image” (Pulpit Commentary). Holiness means nothing to them. Just this week, Ruth and I went to see a movie which depicted virginity as a terrible thing, something to be ashamed of.
Unbelievers often take pride in their intellect–for some, it is a worse insult to be called an ignoramus than to be called a sinner–but their ability to reason, which they suppose to be a trustworthy guide, is itself in darkness. They not only dwell in darkness, darkness dwells in them, in their understanding. They fail to comprehend the things which need to be understood.
Eph. 4:18b “. . .being alienated from the life of God. . .”
The lost “walk” wrong because they order their steps by “vanity” of mind and by a darkened understanding. This “vanity” and darkness result from “being alienated from the life of God,” a life He lives in His people.
God originally planned to reside in every human being. He meant for all of us to find ultimate joy and fulfillment through the communicating of His own life into our spirits. The Fall in Eden altered everything. This life of God which was meant for all is now available only to those who are born again, who receive a new birth generated from above. What was intended to be ours by nature can now be ours solely by choice.
When an unbeliever becomes a believer, spiritual vitality flows to him or her directly from God. This new life, imparted from God and implanted in the individual, is able to grow spiritually. Only this God-life transplanted from Heaven can mature in holiness, in love, in spirituality, in true knowledge. Only the life of God can aspire unto, and relate to, the God of life.
This is why unbelievers cannot understand the things of God, or develop in spiritual matters. Where the God-life should be, the lost have only a huge vacuum. “Being alienated from the life of God,” they have nothing in them to enlighten, to instruct, to grow. When the God-life is not there, there is nothing to work with. Unbelievers have no God-light in the mind because they have no God-life in the heart. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 C 2:14).
The lost alienate themselves from the only true purpose of human life–fellowship with God. Imagine a tree taking its roots from the soil and placing itself on granite. The thought is ludicrous, but no more absurd than a person who chooses to live uprooted from God. No one was meant to live without the life of God. Those who do, leave themselves in a grave, a death-state, in isolation indeed, and a desolated orphanage (Parker).
Eph. 4:18c “. . .through the ignorance that is in them, . . .”
The unsaved are “alienated from the life of God” because they refuse to know the God of life. The only way to have “the life of God” is to have a working acquaintance with God Himself. Paul is reminding us Christianity is, at its essence, intimate familiarity, vital communion, a personal one-on-one relationship between a human being and God. The Apostle is also reminding us the lost have only themselves to blame for their lostness.
Their “ignorance” of God is seated “in them,” in their own self-consciousness. Blame can be transferred to nothing external, including God, Satan, other people, or circumstances. Each is responsible for his or her own life before God. The problem resides in the individual’s own nature.
Unbelievers are ignorant of God because they, in their own heart of hearts, choose to be. Lostness is not an accident. Unbelievers refuse to know God (RM 1:28). They could find God if they sought Him. If they desired the living, holy God, He would make a way for them to receive Him. Joshua (JS 2) thought he was sending two spies into Jericho for military reasons. Not true! God already knew how to take the city. The spies were sent to find one of the elect, Rahab the harlot, who had heard of the living God, and who wanted to cast her lot with Him and His people. Cornelius (AC 10) thirsted after the living God, who plowed through deep-seated prejudices in Peter to bring salvation to the Roman soldier.
Lost people lack the desire, not the faculty, to know God. The very One whom believers cherish and receive, unbelievers dread and reject. James Boice rightly concludes, “We are not on the same team as the world. We do not have the same goals or tasks or loyalties.”
Eph. 4:18d “. . .because of the blindness of their heart:. . .”
Lost people cannot live right because they make decisions with minds clouded in vanity and darkness. This mental failure is traceable to their not having the life of God, an alienation caused by their refusal to know God Himself, and by “the blindness of their heart.”
Again, Paul is not talking about something accidental. His reference is to a “blindness” which is conscious and willful, an aggressive suppression of the truth. Paul nowhere excuses unbelief. It is a criminal act.
The word “blindness” actually means “hardening,” and literally refers to the process whereby a callus becomes, layer by layer, something hard. The term was applied to blindness because sight is often lost as the result of a process, as when a cataract grows, hardens, and finally covers an eye.
The lost do not know God “because of the blindness of their heart.” This rejection of Him is extremely dangerous. It is more than a momentary choice, it is more than a passing decision. Wilful rejection of God is a process which becomes harder and harder to undo. It is a choice which reinforces itself and entrenches itself ever deeper within one’s heart.
Each wrong decision makes it harder to make a right decision. God continues to call from the shore, but the lost ones float ever farther into stormy waters. Jesus calls them to “walk” with Him, but they continue to stumble farther and farther from God until they are oblivious to any desire for God. Losing all proper spiritual perspective, they eventually bring themselves under the curse voiced by Isaiah (5:20), “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”
Isaiah’s next verse (5:21) also applies to people trapped in “the blindness of their heart.” “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” Spiritual blindness is far worse than physical blindness, for anyone who is physically blind knows it and admits it. However, the spiritually blind can reach the point they are blind to their own blindness (JN 9:40-41). They can go so far into darkness that they no longer even recognize light. They do not know they are away from the light, or if in their heart of hearts they do know it, they refuse to admit it.
The latter tragedy is becoming all too common in our culture. Blinding and hardening are rampant. John MacArthur has accurately portrayed our dilemma. “According to an ancient Greek story, a Spartan youth stole a fox but then inadvertently came upon the man from whom he had stolen it. To keep his theft from being discovered, the boy stuck the fox inside his clothes and stood without moving a muscle while the frightened fox tore out his vital organs. Even at the cost of his own painful death he would not own up to his wrong. Our wicked society is so determined not to be discovered for what it is that it stands unflinching as its very life and vitality is ripped apart by the sins and corruption it holds so dear. It has become callous both to the reality and to the consequences of sin, and will endure any agony rather than admit that its way of “living” is the way of death.”
The blinding of a heart can be stopped by a look toward the light of the world. The hardening of a heart can be softened by a touch from the gentle nail-scarred hand. People need Jesus.