Sunday 6 May 2012

Loving like Jesus (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Don’t lie. Don’t get angry. Stop stealing.

These instructions are practical. They are commendable. And if we are honest, they are predictable. You expect to hear these instructions - from your mum at home. From your teacher in school. From the preacher in church. Tell the truth. Share with those in need. No one would be surprised to hear these words coming from the bible (or from the Qur’an for the matter.) They teach us what it means to be decent, to be good. To be loving.

Look again, not simply at the instructions, but at the reasons behind each instruction.

And do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:27
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. Ephesians 4:30
Forgive one another, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

We might dismiss these arguments as irrelevant. They merely spiritualise and complicate what are essentially practical issues of common decency. All this talk about the devil, about grieving the Holy Spirit. What really matters is that we get along with one another, not impose religious rules on one another. If anything, these rules expose Christians as the hypocrites they really are. Their own scriptures teach them to be holy, but the truth is, they are just as bad as the rest of us, or so the reasoning goes.

Today we begin a series entitled, “Loving like Jesus.” It is what Paul tells us to do in Chapter 5 and verse 2.

And live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:2

This verse is important because the bible teaches us that we cannot love like Jesus until we are loved in Jesus. That is important. You cannot love, you cannot forgive, you cannot serve one another simply by following Jesus as your example. You must follow him as your Lord and Saviour having been loved in him, forgiven in him and served in him. And all throughout our passage today, Paul punctuates this long list of ethical do’s and don’ts with the same lesson: You can’t do this. Not on your own strength. But only by receiving his.

In a sense then, Paul goes through the list, expecting it to be obvious to his listeners. Of course you should be loving. Of course you should tell the truth. He assumes that we know these demands yet what he does not assume is that we can actually meet them, only those who have been “made new in the spirit of their minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Neither is Paul pointing the finger at non-believers saying, “Look at those pagans, with all their debauchery and licentiousness, no wonder they are headed for destruction.” No, he writes to Christians living in the city of Ephesus, who used to do these very things, saying, Here’s the reason why you don’t have to anymore. The reason is Jesus. He changes you and he empowers you to put off your old self as slaves to sin, and to put on your new self as sons and daughters of God.

So what Paul does is he goes down this practical list of four points - lies, anger, stealing and swearing - and at each point, he shows us how Jesus makes all the difference by transforming us on the inside to deal with our sin and by empowering us on the outside to relate with one another in love.

Lies and truth

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:25

The thing to notice about this point on lying, and actually together with all the other three points, is that Paul deals with the individual within the greater context of the community. He zooms in on each person - each one of you needs to be on board on this - Put off lying and speak the truth, but then pans out to apply this principle to the whole church. There is both personal responsibility (Each of you) and corporate accountability (We are all).

Meaning: Paul is saying much more than, Be honest. Don’t lie. He is actually saying that you owe the truth to your neighbour. Scholars tells us that at this point, Paul is using language from the Old Testament, specifically quoting the prophet Zechariah:

“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbour, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the LORD.
Zechariah 8:16-17

Zechariah’s uses legal language depicting a scene in a law court with God as the supreme judge. Lying is like giving false testimony. Withholding the truth is like withholding evidence. “I hate all this,” God says. Taking a closer look at the context behind this Old Testament prophecy, we find God is addressing the exiles, that is the people of Israel who have been kicked out of their country, saying to them, One day, I’m bringing you back home. One day you will return to Jerusalem, “the City of Truth” (Zechariah 8:3). God will gather everyone who has been scattered across the nations to this one city, gathering them into his kingdom as the true people of God. For Paul to quote this Old Testament prophecy, what he is saying is this: That day has come. God has redeemed his people in Jesus Christ. In other words, the prophecy of Zechariah is fulfilled in the New Testament church, in Christians living in community with one another. When you speak truth in love to one another (see Ephesians 4:15) you are displaying that reality, that you truly are the people of God, belonging to Jesus, belonging to one another. “We are all members of one another,” Paul says.

What is interesting about this statement is how it implies that falsehood and lying have the ultimate effect of alienating ourselves from one another. It separates us from God (whom we’ve seen in Zechariah 8:3, hates lying). It introduces fractures into the community of believers. Right after the fall, when Adam and Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the first thing they did was to cover themselves up with fig-leaves and hide themselves from God. They took in the lies of the serpent and the result was alienation from God and from one another. When we try to rationalise our lying by saying that we are protecting our hearers from the truth, all we do is alienate ourselves even further from those we love. Lying only ever results in discord, distrust and disappointment.

Unity within a community of believers is built on truth, specifically, the truth of the gospel. It is honesty before God, that we are sinners before him deserving wrath and condemnation, yet receiving mercy and love through Jesus. It is honesty before one another, that we are members of one body and fellow-partakers in the promise of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:6), therefore unable to boast of our unrighteousness but constantly dependant upon his. When we speak the truth of the gospel to one another, we are but beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.

Anger management

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and give the devil a foothold.
Ephesians 4:26-27

Next, Paul deals with anger. The interesting thing is, he doesn’t say, Don’t be angry. Rather, he says, Be angry but don’t sin. He says, Be angry but don’t be angry for too long.

I find this very helpful. When you’re dealing with a friend who is really angry, telling him or her to stop feeling angry rarely ever works. (If anything, it just ticks them off even more!) What works is helping your friend deal with their anger, helping them resolve their anger. At times, you might even be able to say, “You anger is justified.” This verse recognises that there is a place for anger in our lives as Christians. When faced with oppression, injustice and sin, we should be angry because God is angry when he sees things in our lives. Our anger is often tainted with self-interest, of course, but nonetheless, anger isn’t entirely an unhealthy emotion to have. Instead, anger can flow out of a person’s love and concern. The more you love someone the more you are hurt by that person’s sin, the more you are upset by that person’s sinfulness.

Paul says, “In your anger, do not sin.” Your anger might be justified, but your actions may not be. The key is to deal with it quickly. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, meaning, don’t hold on to your anger. Whenever I see this verse, I think of that rather cheesy song by Elton John, which he performed with George Michael.

I took a chance and changed your way of life
but you misread my meaning when I met you
closed the door and left me blinded by the light
don't let the sun go down on me

As sentimental as the lyrics might be (especially the chorus which a couple of my good friends used to love belting out at karaoke, screaming “Don’t let the sun go down on me nowwww” at the top of their voices), these words do express insight on how we deal with our anger: by shutting people out of our lives. That’s not a healthy way to deal with our anger. Whenever our frustration is directed at a brother or sister in Christ, the bible is always moving us towards reconciliation, not isolation nor separation.

More seriously, Paul warns us that unresolved anger is precisely what the devil wants. “Do not give the devil a foothold.” What gets you worked up, again and again? Or what’s your pet peeve? For some, it isn’t the gravity of a situation that gets them all riled up, it’s the familiarity “I can’t believe that guy’s done it... again!” When talking about sin, some preachers come back to the same illustration again and again leaving you wondering, “Has this guy actually dealt with that issue? Why is he so hung up over something that happened years and years ago?” I have to watch myself, my words whenever I’m speaking from God’s word, not to use it as a springboard for my own agenda. It is helpful when I get feedback because I might be blind to my own unresolved issues (like when a brother were to say to me, “Hey, I wonder if you went a little overboard on that last point today?”) Why not give your close friends the permission to call you out in the same way? It is a healthy thing to do. If your friend is a real friend, it is a loving thing to do.

A little later on, Paul will say, “Get rid of all anger.” But here, his point is rather different. He is saying to us, “Don’t hold on to your anger.” Some of us need to hear that. We hold on to that frustration, to that indignation, feeding it day by day, letting it consume our insides, when we should instead surrender that anger to Jesus. Bring it to the cross. After all, that is where God dealt with his anger upon our sin, and his anger was fully justified. Why are you still holding on to yours?

The word “foothold” simply means “space”. When we give the devil a foothold through our unresolved anger, Paul is saying, we give the devil real-estate here in the church. It would be like a the Pentagon renting out office space to Al-Qaeda. The damage isn’t restricted just to that small cubicle, it destroys the integrity of the whole area, it compromises the safety of everyone connected to that area. In the same way, the devil uses the space you let him in through your unresolved anger, to break down the unity in the body in the Christ. It’s not just you he is after, it is all those you are connected to, all who care about you, all who love you, who are ultimately hurt through your anger. Deal with your anger, especially those old familiar ones. Bring it to Jesus. Leave it at the cross.


He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work (hard), doing something useful (or good) with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

If we were Paul, we would say, “He who has been stealing...must go to jail!” The reason Paul uses theft as his next example, isn’t simply because there were crooks in this church - there may have been, but that isn’t the main point. Paul’s main point is transformation. Notice that so far, Paul identifies a problematic behaviour within the church and he doesn’t simply say, “Stop that!” No, to the one who has been lying he says, “Tell the truth.” To the one who is holding on his or her anger, he says, “Deal with it today.” That is, for every negative instruction, there is positive encouragement - “Do this instead.” Paul’s focus is radical transformation from the inside-out and that comes only through the transforming work of the gospel.

So, he talks to the thief and says to him, “You used to steal. Now you must serve.” The gospel gives us a new direction in life. The thief who used to steal with his hands is now commanded to work with his hands. The one who previously took advantage of others to benefit himself must now labour sacrificially, using his own resources, to benefit others within the community - to serve “those in need”. It isn’t simply a call to be productive, it is a new purpose in life. The selfish individual now lives to serve and bless others.

It is one thing for the twenty-something jobless teenager who used to live off mum and dad, staying home to play World of Warcraft all day in his pyjamas, to get out into the world and find a job. I mean, we would call that progress. Many of us would call that an improvement. (Some parents would call that a miracle.) It is quite another to find that same person doing everything he can to serve his parents, spending his pay not on himself but generously taking them out to a fancy dinner and using his Bank Holiday weekends to fix the broken washing machine. This is the kind of transformation Paul is talking about. It comes from a radically changed life. The thief used to live his life headed in one direction to benefit himself, he is now lives to serve others at personal cost to himself.

The words that Paul uses is “work hard”. That means more than “Get a job”. He is saying to us, “Put your back into it.” I know that there are faithful Christians who are out of work, living at home because times are tough and jobs are scarce. Yet they are being useful and helping out at home, in church, in the neighbourhood. I want to say that all that counts. It’s not the job that defines the transformation, it’s the purpose for doing that job. After all, you could argue that stealing is a profession in itself - but one that takes advantage of others instead of benefiting others. No, the point is to be other-person-centred: working hard at your job, using the resources at your disposal, being sacrificial in terms of your time and energy, not with the ultimately aim of advancing your career and maximising your comfort, but with a desire to display God’s glory and to seek the good of his people. The bible word for this is “repentance”. Repentance means a total change in life direction to serve God instead of ourselves. Paul says the thief repents from stealing by serving. He repents from selfishness by being sacrificial.

Now don’t forget that Paul is talking about thieves. Criminals. And he is saying that even a criminal can be transformed by the gospel to extent that he is now serving his brothers and sisters in the church. Would you employ ex-convict? Would you let him serve in church ministry? Paul pushes the implications of the gospel even further with the next example where the ex-offender is not simply changed in his ways, he is building others up with his words.

Swearing and speaking grace

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful (or good) for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit (or give grace) those who listen.
Ephesians 4:29

Previously, we encountered this expression of “building others up” in verse 12. There it was used of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Here it is used to describe the one who used to speak “unwholesome” words. Literally, the word means “smelly”. This guy has a foul mouth. It is describing bad language, swearing and cursing. Paul says it isn’t enough for us to stop ourselves from using bad language in the church, he says we must speak in such a way as to “build others up”.

I was talking to H this week about his attachment to a school here in Cambridge as part of his undergraduate course on Education. Something he said to me reminded me of what makes a good teacher. Sometimes you meet a teacher and you ask them, “What do you teach?” They might answer, “Biology,” or “Chemistry,” or “History.” The moment they say that, you know, that’s a bad teacher! You see, a good teacher teaches students. “I teach ten-year olds.” That’s a good teacher. “I teach X, Y and Z every week at Sunday School about Jesus.” That’s a faithful teacher. When I asked Howai the same question, he talked about the kids in his class. He talked about what they did every day and the challenges they faced. That’s the mark of a good teacher. He is always thinking about his students. A good teacher doesn’t consume himself with getting the syllabus done, getting those papers marked - as necessary and as important as these tasks are. No, a good teacher is always thinking of his students, where they are at, how he can help them, what they need to get out of his class in order to grow and to mature in their thinking.

Paul says the same thing to us. When we open our mouths, we ought to be thinking about the people who are listening to our words. We are building them up “according to their needs”. We are saying only what will “benefit those who listen”. It is other-people-centredness, that’s what it is. Again, the phrase “building one another up” was previously used by Paul to describe pastors and teachers of the bible. It means to speak the gospel, to tell others about Jesus. It makes all the difference that we evangelise with a concern for the people we are speaking to, with a sincere desire for their good. And the amazing thing is, Paul says even the guy who used to have a foul-mouth can do this. The problem is not manners and the solution is not lessons in cultural etiquette. This change comes only through gospel transformation. It results in a heart that longs to speak Jesus into the lives of others.

If you are a Sunday School teacher, this is tremendous encouragement. The gospel can transform the most difficult kid, the noisiest kid. Haribo and Veggietales can only do so much. What they need and what will help is the gospel. If you are a bible study leader, the same is true of your youth group and the young adults in your fellowship. Love them, serve them and tell them the gospel. And when things get tough, the bible says, remind them that their ultimate accountability is not to a standard of behaviour, but to God himself.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you have been sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

This verse is a warning not to take our salvation for granted. God puts his Holy Spirit in us as a seal, Paul says, and that seal is a mark of authenticity and protection. If you are a Christian, God assures you of your salvation in Christ. If you are a Christian, God protects you until the day of Christ, “the day of redemption”. But don’t take your assurance and your salvation for granted, Paul says. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, which on surface sounds like we are breaking God’s heart when we sin, or use bad language in this context. These words come from Isaiah Chapter 3, where we read of God “redeeming” his people, who then rebel against him by “grieving his Holy Spirit”.

In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

Yet they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them.
Isaiah 63:9-10

When we swear or use bad language, the common excuse is, “Everyone does it.” Or we say, “It doesn’t mean a thing.” The bible says our words actually do. Isaiah’s prophecy looks back to God’s salvation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, after which he says, “they rebelled.” Now the way the Israelites rebelled against God was not by mounting an army and attacking God head-on. All they did was complain. All they did was to turn their backs against God and say that life was better back in Egypt as slaves. All they did was blame God for the severe weather conditions and quality of food and drink. They took God for granted and his salvation for granted. “So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.” This is serious stuff.

If you are a Sunday School teacher, your job is not to babysit the kids and keep them out of the way of the adults as they worship God in the sanctuary. Your job is to tell them the truth about God in Jesus Christ. If you are a bible study leader, your job is not to organise barbeques, outings and ice-breaker games. Your job is to tell them the truth about God in Jesus Christ. Because in the end, you are accountable to him for your life and they are accountable to him for theirs - in terms of our behaviour, our actions, our thoughts and even our words. You are telling them that our lives have eternal value in God’s eyes. And of course, some will roll their eyes at you when you say this. Some will behave even worse because you said this to them. But know that God is always sovereign and gracious; some will listen and some will change. When they do, you will know for sure that God was responsible for that change.

You are loved

Get rid (or Take off) of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:31-32

Today we mark our fifteenth anniversary as the Chinese Church here in Cambridge. At a celebration like this, we want to look back on the years and be nostalgic. We want to remind each other about the good old times, to recall the milestones, to have someone regale us with amusing anecdotes from the past. It is good to learn thankfulness and glorify God for his goodness. The bible reminds us that this is a safeguard against bitterness and hardness of heart. And yet, here is our passage today, written by the apostle Paul, addressing a Christians in love and saying to them, “Get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice,” by which his emphasis is not on how good this church is and how far they have come, but on how gracious God has been to them in Jesus Christ. “In Christ God forgave you.”

The true mark of growth in any relationship - in a friendship, in a marriage, in a church - is the ability to look back on the years and not just skim over the difficult bits, and not to dwell over them in worry and guilt either, but to be thankful and joyful even in the difficult times. If we could do that today as a church, that would display real growth. If we learn to do this every day as a church, that would display true maturity.

Paul says to us, “Forgive one another” - present tense. This is an ongoing reality. Every day that passes until Jesus returns, you and I will continue to forgive one another, to be compassionate towards one another, to be kind towards one another - every single day, because every day that we do this, God is reminding us, “I have forgiven you.” That is the beauty of the Christian life. Fifteen years pass by, that’s fifteen years worth of forgiveness and love and kindness and reconciliation. If God were to bless us with another year, what should be expect? More people coming to our church, more events in the calendar? Those might happen, but those are not the expectation we find in the bible. No, what we can expect from God is more grace, more forgiveness, more kindness, more love and more compassion in Jesus, through whom God says to us every day, “I have forgiven you.”

Friends, this is what the bible means by love. It’s not touchy-feely, airy-fairy love. It is heart-wrenching, sin-repenting, pride-humbling, anger-resolving, self-sacrificing, truth-speaking, Jesus-trusting love. The question is: Do you love like this? Or better yet: Have you been loved like this? Paul wants us to be able to say, “Yes! God loves me, Jesus loves me, without any doubt whatsoever.”

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

You cannot love like Jesus until you are loved in Jesus. The question at the end of the day is not: How have you loved one another? The real question is: Do you even know this kind of all-encompassing love? Do you know what it means to be loved? They are two different issues altogether: showing love and being loved. What is worrying is how easily we get the two mixed up. One of the most tragic things in life is to try and earn another person’s love, to pour your life into being lovable, yet to never actually know what it means to be loved.

I remember a student I once knew who was the most gifted and promising amongst all his classmates. He did well in every subject. All the teachers praised him for being well-behaved and hard-working. One day he just dropped out of school. He just disappeared.

So when he called me one day to arrange to meet up, I jumped at the chance to find out what had happened. We had coffee in town and I asked him how he was but he evaded all my questions. He said he had something important to show me, a “golden opportunity”. Finally we went to this swish office building, up to the top floor, where he tried to get me to sign up for a pyramid scheme.

I often think back to that incident and wonder what happened to this young, promising student and wonder if all this boy ever heard in his life was how good and smart and brilliant he was and if that perhaps was our fault as his teachers and friends. Don’t get me wrong, he was never proud or boastful, at least not in his outward behaviour. He was gentle and quietly confident. As teachers, we kept praising him for his loveliness but in hindsight what he really needed to know was that was loved. I knew that at home, he was expected to be the responsible one, to earn money, to make his family proud. All he knew was the approval of having done well, of being good. Eventually it just got to a point where he felt school was holding him back from being all that he could be - a successful entrepreneur, a respected businessman. So he left, seeking to find his approval elsewhere.

The bible assures that in Jesus, we are loved as sons and daughters, not because of our loveliness. If anything, it is in spite of our brokenness and sin. “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” It is describing the cross as the source of assurance of God’s love, and friends, the cross is about as unlovely a scene as it gets. Jesus’ tortured body, covered in blood and sweat, hanging from a wooden frame, surrounded by a mob screaming insults and abuse at him. Yet Paul says this was a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice to God. Paul says we look at the cross and we see there God saying to us, “You are loved.” Jesus takes all our anger, all our pride, all our sin, all our slander, all our bitterness, all our shame on himself. And he covers us with all his righteousness, all his holiness, all his loveliness, all his humility, all his acceptance. All of his love.

Paul wants Jesus’ love to be obvious to us. Look to the cross, he says to us. But he also wants Jesus’ love to be obvious in us: in our walk and in our lives. And that’s the real purpose for the list of do’s and don’t we have in today’s passage. Through our conduct, our actions; through our kindness and forgiveness to one another, the world will look upon us and see - not how good these Christians are, not how lovely the church can be - but how loved these men and women truly are in Jesus Christ.

“By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus Christ
John 13:35

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

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