I had a conversation with someone recently about what identifies a Christian. He was talking about a conversation he’d had with someone about the importance of being recognizable as a Christian, but the other person was pointing to such things as clothing and other physical marks of identification. He pointed out to the person that if someone is walking down the street is it really reasonable to expect that we will be able to identify a Christian just by how they look externally? People who identify Christians in such an external way have something right. They recognize the importance of being identifiable as followers of Jesus, but what really does identify us as Christian?
If you go into a restaurant wearing a “Christian” t-shirt and treat the waitress rudely, what is going to identify you, your t-shirt or your behavior? If you have a “Christian” fish on your car and cut someone off, what is going to identify you, the decal on your car or your driving habits?
Ephesians 5:1-9 helps us answer these questions.
I. Imitate God
A. How in the World?
If you played hockey and your coach expected you to imitate Wayne Gretzky, would you think that was an achievable goal or not? If you were taking a cooking class and the intructor challenged you to cook like Iron Chef Bobby Flay, would you be encouraged or intimidated? If Juanita was your piano teacher and expected you to play like Beethoven, would you think that was fair?
The first verse commands us to imitate God, but how in the world can we do that? Hendriksen writes, “We stand in awe before His majesty. How can we imitate Him whom we cannot even fathom?” Job 11:7, 8 highlights the mystery of who God is when it says, "“Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?" When the Apostle John met Jesus on the Isle of Patmos he wrote in Revelation 1:17, "When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead." How is it possible to imitate God when He is so far above us, so much greater than we are, so awesome that we can’t even understand Him?
There is no doubt that we cannot imitate everything about God. God is the creator of the universe and we can’t imitate that. Carla was putting up a wall tattoo of the world at school and when she was done she informed me that she had made the world and she had done it in only two days. It is funny because it is so absolutely impossible for us to make the world. God is the triune God who exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a mystery far beyond our understanding. We can’t imitate Him in that. God is our redeemer and in an amazing story which began in the Garden of Eden and was completed at Golgotha, He has redeemed all who come to Him through faith in Jesus. We can’t imitate Him in that.
Nor are we called to imitate Him in these things, but as we look at the text, we see that we are called to imitate Him in one particular respect and that is in love. Ephesians 5:1, 2 we read “Be imitators of God…live a life of love.” The call to such imitation is not a suggestion, but a command.
B. It Is Possible
And it is possible to obey this command for three reasons.
1. Because We Have Been Changed
Whether it is shaving, or dressing like them or having the same mannerisms, children imitate their parents. When the text says “as dearly loved children” there is a connection made that we are called to imitate God because we are His children. It is a motivation to become like the Father who has made us His children.
But this phrase is more than motivation, it also communicates what makes it possible for us to love. The reason we are able to love is because of how we have been changed. In our natural state the Bible indicates that we are God’s enemies – Romans 5:10 speaks of the time when “we were God’s enemies.” In our fallen state, it was impossible for us to imitate God because our hearts were not inclined to obey God or listen to God. There was rebellion in our hearts. But when Jesus came into our lives everything changed. Suddenly we were changed from enemies to “dearly loved children.” Suddenly our wills were changed so that we wanted to obey God. Suddenly our hearts were changed so that we were able to follow God.
2. Because We Are Loved
A second reason why the command to love is not completely impossible is because of God’s first love for us. I John 4 reminds us that “we love because He first loved us.” This text says a similar thing when it says, “…just as Christ loved us.”
I don’t know what it’s like with you, but I often find that my response to another person depends on their actions toward me. If I sense that they are open and friendly to me, I am likely to be open and friendly to them. If it is clear to me that they like me, I find it easier to like them. I respond to being loved.
If it is natural for us to respond to love it is so important to understand just how much we are loved by God. Christ loved us so much that He was willing to leave the glories of heaven, come to this earth and die on the cross for us. His love is not a general sample, it is clear, costly and specific. He loves us and has made a great sacrifice for us.
Since we are loved like that, it is natural to expect that we will also love Him in return and love others because of the way in which we have been loved.
3. Because We Have an Example
It interests me how often actor’s children become actors, musician’s children become musicians and missionary children become missionaries. Certainly one of the reasons is that these children have observed the practice, the use of the skills and the values of these roles while at home. Missionary parents emanate the value of sharing faith and living simply and sacrificially and their children see this modeled. They live with an example of what it means to be a missionary and many of them follow the model they have lived with.
It is possible for us as children of God to obey the command to imitate God in love because we have the example of Jesus who has demonstrated what it means to love. His example of love was to offer Himself to God as a “fragrant offering and sacrifice.”
How can we imitate God? Well we can’t imitate Him in all things, but we can imitate Him in love because of what He has done in us, what He has done for us and what we have seen in Him.
II. What Does This Mean?
What does this mean practically? To love means more than just caring about others. Caring about others has specifics which go far beyond kindness. As we move to the next verses, some of these specifics are described.
A. Holiness Instead of Impurity
Ephesus was the center of worship for the cult of Diana. Diana was a fertility goddess and prostitution was a part of the worship practice of this cult. The Gentile Ephesian believers had grown up understanding and probably participating in this kind of religion.
When they became Christians they were changed and this kind of immorality was not to be a part of their life any more. Yet sometimes, as in Corinthian, they still struggled with this temptation. In 1 Corinthians 5:1 such a thing happened. There we read, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife." This individual had been swayed by the surrounding culture and the church was called to recognize that this was not appropriate and needed correction.
The context of Ephesus was in some ways not much different than ours is. In 1952 on the I Love Lucy show, Lucy was pregnant, but the word “pregnant” was not allowed in the script. In 1961 on the Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick and Laura slept in twin beds with a night stand between them. Today the book “The Bridger Generation” says that “Every four minutes during prime time network television, characters display sexual behavior or talk about sex. Yet only about 1% of the sexual references occur between a married couple.” Recently I heard about the movie “Friends with Benefits,” which presents the idea of an intimate relationship between casual friends. We live in a culture today in which the values regarding sexual practice are the polar opposite to the holiness to which we are called and so it is important to talk about these things and make the right choices about them.
Verse 6 warns that we should not be “deceived by empty words.” The temptations which come to us from our own desires are often reinforced by such arguments as that it is OK to be intimate outside of marriage if you love one another or that if we are free in Christ, it doesn’t matter what we do or that what we do with our physical body doesn’t pollute our spirit, so it is OK. These are deceptions and go contrary to God’s will and God’s will is always for the purpose of being life giving. So instead of immorality, we are called to holiness.
B. Desire for God Instead of Desire for Stuff
The text also warns Christians to be wary of greed. I have heard of a monkey trap that is used in different places in the world. It consists of a staked container with a small hole. Inside the container is a piece of food. With an empty hand the monkey is able to put his hand in the hole and grab the food, but once his hand grasps the food it makes a fist and is not able to withdraw his hand through the hole. As long as he holds on to the food, he is trapped. If he would let go of the food, freedom would come easily.
Greed is a trap because it causes us to grasp self centeredness. As long as we hold on to what we want, we are trapped. The effect is that we ignore others because we are so focused on ourselves. This self centeredness also causes us to shift our focus away from God and that is why Ephesians 5:5 identifies greed as idolatry. Whenever we desire something more than God we are trapped by greed and it becomes very difficult to love God above all else. As those who are loved by God, we are called to love God above all else. We dare not desire anything else more or we will miss so much of the blessing God has for us.
Hendriksen writes, “Self indulgence is the opposite of the self sacrifice of Christ which we are called to imitate.” So in place of the desire for stuff, we are called to desire God. So many of the songs we sing in worship express this desire. Do we mean them when we sing them? If we are to be imitators of God, we must give up greed and desire God above all.
C. Thanksgiving Instead of Obscenity
I have attended many weddings and one of the discomforts I have at some weddings is the fear of what will happen at the reception. Who will speak? What will they say? Will their words cross the line of decency? Unfortunately sometimes they do cross that line. Of course conversations which cross the line happen in other places as well and Paul challenges us regarding the way we speak. He commands that our speech should not be filled with “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.”
Why is it so important for us who imitate God to watch the way we speak? First of all because as people who are identified with a holy God, we are called to speak in a way that honor’s the holiness of our Father. Secondly, because most often such conversation is not loving conversation and love must be the guiding principle for all of our speech.
How do we know what is appropriate? Does it mean that we can’t ever say anything funny? Not at all. God has given us a funny bone and it is a blessing. However, there is appropriate humor and inappropriate. The Spirit of God will help us discern what is appropriate as will our conscience. We can also discern by asking ourselves questions which lead us to loving actions like, “Does it make others feel uncomfortable?” “Does it honor others?” “Does it honor God?” and “Does it build up or tear down?” But the text has another excellent way in which we can discern how to speak well as those who imitate God and that is by having our words filled with thanksgiving. It is interesting that thanksgiving is set opposite to obscenity. Yet if we are always speaking thankful words in light of our holy creator, our minds will not be filled with unholy thoughts. May we learn to give thanks instead of telling coarse jokes.
We can’t take these instructions casually. Already Paul has motivated us to imitate God by calling us to recognize how much we are loved. In the last part of the text he presents us with more reasons why it is so important to imitate God. The words earlier in the passage were motivators. The words in this part of the text function as warnings.
A. Incompatible to Our Inheritance
If you pull a plum off a tree, you know that it is a plum tree. The fruit is a product of what the tree is. If you pull a cob of corn off a stalk, you know that it is not a potato tree. The cob is a product of what the plant is. If immorality or greed or unwholesome talk are a part of our life, it demonstrates what is in our heart. Penner says, “As an immoral and impure person his character is opposite to God’s, and therefore incompatible with His kingdom.”
That is the meaning of verse 5. Paul wants us to be very aware that there is a strong connection between what is within us and what our lives look like. That is why he can say with such a categorical declaration that “no immoral, impure or greedy person” will have an “inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” The fruit of a heart that has been changed by God is holiness and love. If God has changed us, we will live in the way of holiness and love. If the fruit of our life is immorality or impurity or greed, that means that God has not changed us. If God has not changed us it means that we have not received the life God has given us and as a result we will not live with Him in eternity.
This is a warning, but we need to be careful how we understand the warning. It is not a warning to work harder to be better. It is rather a warning to allow God into our lives through Jesus and then to co-operate with the work the Holy Spirit wants to do in us. We also need to remember that this is not a judgment that if we have one of these things occasionally in our life, we are doomed. Rather it is a challenge to make the changes necessary as the Spirit of God works in our life.
B. Under God’s Wrath
We cannot let anyone fool us. If we live a life of immorality, impurity and greed we are in a very dangerous situation because as the text says then the wrath of God comes on us.
What that means is that God hates these things because He knows how much they destroy and continuing in them places us under God’s wrath. If they represent our life, it means that God has not come into our life and we are in danger of eternal destruction.
Therefore, Paul says, “do not be partners with them.” To be partners with those who live like this means that we want to avoid sharing in the judgment of God coming on all those who reject Him and His way. It is really an invitation to receive the gift of forgiveness in Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit who will change us.
The warning not to be partners with them may be taken by some as a warning not to ever associate with people who are under God’s wrath. Yet the Bible shows us that Jesus did associate with sinners. However, his association was not one of doing the things they did, but of associating with them in order to invite them to the life God has for them. We need to learn to follow His example of holiness and gracious involvement with lost people.
C. Live as Children of Light
The final section reminds us of the new way of living we have in Christ. In this section, Paul reminds them of what they were before they met God and that is darkness. It is interesting that he says “once you were darkness” and not “once you were in darkness.” Apart from Christ people are not only in darkness, but also contribute to the darkness.
However, he also reminds them of what they are now, which is light. Once again, we recognize that a significant change has taken place.
Because of this fundamental change we are called to shine in this dark world. Once again, we are challenged to live as imitators of God, shining the light of God into the world. The light of God shines, it is seen by others, it impacts others, and that is what we are to imitate. The instruction is very simple, “Live as children of light.”
This is the Lent season. As we prepare to remember the death and resurrection of Christ, we are invited to examine our lives. The question which comes out of this text, which will help us examine our lives is “Am I imitating God?” Am I walking in holiness, desiring God and giving thanks? Am I living in love?
How will that imitation become a part of our lives?
It begins with the determination expressed in verse 10 which says, “find out what pleases the Lord.” The direction of this command is to seek God. The fulfillment of this command is a lifestyle which will take a lifetime.
So I would like to invite us to a time of self examination as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.