Friday 27 November 2015

Practical holiness (Ephesians 5)

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.
Ephesians 5:1

Back in college, a couple of my classmates were big fans of Andy Lau, a famous Hong Kong actor and singer. Andy was the dashing pop-idol - wavy black hair, sharply dressed and always posing on a motorbike.

One day, Andy Lau changed his image. On the cover of his latest album, Andy sported a crew-cut hairstyle (ala Keanu Reeves from “Speed”) and wore a white singlet. I knew this because all of a sudden my two friends started to copy Andy’s look. They cut their hair short like Andy. They wore white singlets and shorts like Andy (which made them look more like kopitiam uncles than Hong Kong superstars). And they even referred to themselves as “Andy”. One was Andy Number One and the other was Andy Number Two. For my two friends in school, imitating Andy Lau meant looking like Andy and acting like Andy.

What does it mean for us as Christians to imitate God? The opening verse in our passage today calls us to “be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” (Ephesians 5:1) What is it about God that we are meant to imitate?

In a word, it’s holiness.

Ephesians 1:4 - For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless before him.

Ephesians 4:24 - Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

To be holy is to be distinct. To be different from everything else. In this sense, holiness is God’s unique brand. His trademark, if you like. Only God is holy because only God is God. Yet whenever we meet that word “holy” in Ephesians, it is always talking about us. Christians are called to live a holy life.

Chapter 5 unpacks what this looks like in three ways - in relation to God, to the world and to one another. Our holiness is shaped by our relationship with God (verses 3 to 7). Our holiness affects our relationship to the world (verses 8 to 16). Our holiness transforms our relationships with one another (verses 18 to 20).

1. God

Firstly, holiness is shaped by our relationship with a holy God. Paul gets straight to the point by talking about sex and money.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Ephesians 5:3-4

Sexual sin, selfish greed and sinful speech are inconsistent (“improper”, verse 3) with God’s holy people. Are you unfaithful in your marriage? Are you obsessed with money? Do you swear at the office? So obvious are these questions that they’re cliche. These are obvious sins. And yet when a scandal breaks out - a pastor runs away with his secretary, an elder embezzles church money, when spiteful words are spoken at the AGM - we are shocked. We say, “How could this have happened?”

In Ephesians however, Paul is not addressing a scandal in the church (unlike Corinth, for example). Furthermore, these so-called obvious sins reveal something hidden in our hearts. We are dissatisfied with God. We are looking to something other than God to give us meaning and happiness. Such a person, according to verse 5, is an idolater.

For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person - such a person is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 5:5-6

The great danger Paul warns against is deception. Verse 5: “For of this you can be sure.” Verse 6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words.” It is the dangerous lie that God will not judge our sin. It is the lie that God does not care about holiness.

Not because God will not forgive sin and not because Christians will not sin - a couple of verses on, Paul reminds us that we were once darkness (verse 8) and well acquainted with the shameful acts of darkness (verses 11) - but because such lifestyles are the mark of those who do not know God. They are literally, “sons of disobedience” (verse 6), not children of their Heavenly Father. In other words, you are fooling yourselves if you are someone who continually indulges yourself in sin but still call yourself a Christian. You’re not. That’s a much more sober warning against sin than hell and judgement. Sin deceives you into thinking you are OK with God when in reality you are living your life as an enemy of God. Most translations have verse 7 has, “Do not be partners with them,” when it literally says, “Do not have fellowship with them.” Such individuals are not members of the same family.

Holiness is shaped by our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. It is God’s brand stamped upon our lives to mark us out as his children.

2. The world

Secondly, holiness affects our relationship with the world.

For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:8-10

I remember visiting a church where a big smiley guy welcomed me and told me he had recently become a Christian. “How did that happen?” I asked. “Oh, I used to be a violent man. In fact, I used to be racist and beat up people like you... but then someone told me about Jesus!” He laughed and I laughed (nervously).

All of us have done things we wish we could forget. But an amazing thing happens when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, we know that we have been completely forgiven of all our sins - past, present and future. The guy I met who was so honest with his past knew the power of such forgiveness. Having the weight of guilt and judgement lifted off your shoulders does something amazing. It allows you to look back at the life you used to live and say, “That’s not me any more.”

Ephesians reminds us that we were once darkness but now we’ve become light in the Lord. It describes a radical transformation - a conversion -  that takes place in the life of every believer who trusts in Jesus Christ. From death to life. From darkness to light.

It is this same transformation that God wants us to effect - or expose - in the world we live in.

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.
Ephesians 5:11-14

On the one hand, believers are to dissociate themselves from the fruitless deeds of darkness (This clarifies the earlier statement in verse 7 about not having fellowship or partnership with them. It means we are not to copy their behaviour nor be conformed to the world). On the other hand, we are called to “expose” their actions. To expose does not mean to gossip or condemn from a safe distance. It means to rebuke and redeem -  in the same way that the gospel confronts us with our sin and points us to our Saviour who died for our sin.

This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14

When I was a teenager, I would sleep in late on Saturdays. My mum would send my sis (who was still in primary school at the time) to wake me up and every time she did, I would get upset. Once I even gave her a karate-chop (which sent her crying back to my mum who gave me a stern and well-deserved tongue-lashing!)

The gospel is a wake-up call - an alarm bell - stirring us from slumber. I was reading Jonah a couple of days ago where Jonah was fast asleep at the bottom of the ship as the storm is raging outside and the captain says to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!” (Jonah 1:6, ESV) Also in Isaiah Chapter 60, the people of God are called to “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” Jonah was asleep, oblivious to danger. Israel was stuck in darkness and despair. In both situations, the call was to wake-up to God and to face-up to life.

Not everyone will thank you for this (Some might even respond with a karate-chop as I did with my sister). In John’s gospel, we read that “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:20) John continues, “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” Why? “So that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:21) This person wants God to get the credit for the change. “God did this, not me.” It is humility - and not perfection - that characterises this radical change in the Christian.

In summary, Christians are called to relate to the world the same way that God relates to us in Jesus Christ. Not simply by bringing about social justice (though Paul does say that “the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth,” in verse 9). But ultimately by speaking the gospel. “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (verse 13). “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (verse 14). It’s talking about the redeeming power of the gospel to change darkness into light. To speak into situations of death and awaken life.

This feeds directly into the following words of wisdom:

Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
Ephesians 5:15-16

Wisdom is equated with urgency. The kind of urgency you see in a student revising for an exam the next morning or a doctor resuscitating a patient who’s had a stroke. The wise person does not waste time - he makes the most of his time - because he knows that the days are “evil”. We meet this expression again in Chapter 6, where Paul talks about the “day of evil” - a day of spiritual testing. But here, he says that there is an element of testing every single day of our lives. Make the most of every day, of every moment. And expect opposition especially if you are doing God’s will.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5:17

Look back at verse 10 and Paul says the same thing, “Find out what pleases the Lord.” Most of us are thinking about God’s will for my career, my marriage, my life goals. But Ephesians uses God’s “pleasure and will” as a shorthand for the gospel.

He predestined us… through Jesus Christ… according to his pleasure and will.
Ephesians 1:5

He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.
Ephesians 1:9

We were chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
Ephesians 1:11

God’s pleasure and will is for all things to be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is shorthand for the gospel. And Christians are called to be wise in living out the gospel and speaking out the gospel. Why? Because there will come a time when the opportunity to do so will pass. Remember what Jesus once said:

Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you make become sons of light.
John 12:35-36

We relate to the world the way God has related to us. Through the gospel, God confronts our sin and points us to a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who died for our sin, so that could be forgiven.

3. One another

Finally, holiness transforms our relationships with one another.

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reference for Christ.
Ephesians 5:19-21

Speak, sing and submit. Three commands for God’s people. Three marks of God’s indwelling Spirit (verse 18, “Be filled with the Spirit”). Think about it. We expect him to say, “Love,” or, “Serve one another.” Isn’t it strange that Paul tells us to sing to one another and to submit to one another?

I recently met an enthusiastic Christian who asked me, “What do you think God’s will is for your life?” I said, “I think God wants me to learn what it means to be holy.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Wrong!” and proceeded to talk about God’s love and goodness. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered that reaction. God’s holiness and God’s love can seem contradictory. And yet passages like 1 Thessalonians 4 state quite clearly (in response to my friend’s question), “It is God’s will that you should be holy,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) before moving on to talk about God’s love. In fact, Paul says, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to talk to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9)

What we find in the closing verses of Chapter 5 is a distinctive love. We are called to speak to one another about God’s love and we are called to serve one another in submission to God’s Son.

The first is an overflow of praise. “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.” It makes sense to express our love for Jesus in song but God wants our love to overflow to others. “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” There is an instructive quality about our praise. Elsewhere in Colossians, Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) The songs we sing in church are meant to function the same way the sermon does: To encourage one another to live for Christ. As such, the songs we sing are not meant to be mere expressions of emotive love (“I love you, I love you so much it hurts”) but like the preaching of God’s word, a call to respond to God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ (“How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure.”)

The second is a sign of submission. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” There ought to be a sense of awe - and perhaps even fear, which the word reverence translates - when we approach a holy God. We tend to equate love with being casual and easygoing. But the love we see in Ephesians describes a kind of carefulness when it comes to relationships amongst God’s people. We hold ourselves to account. We submit to one another’s authority. We treat “older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).

This is a holy, distinctive love. Even when describing the ultimate example of love in the cross of Jesus Christ, Ephesians 5:2 connects the dots between Christ’s love and God’s holiness. “Live a life of love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The Old Testament priests offered up sacrifices for the sins of the people so they could approach God. Jesus Christ offered himself on the cross in order to make us acceptable before God.

I think the most crushing thing you could ever experience is to have someone you love say, “I do not love you anymore.” When children reject their parents or parents abandon their children; when husbands leave their wives or wives walk out on their husbands; when once close friends turn into bitter enemies. You are left feeling crushed, betrayed, unloved. Friends, God’s love for you is not based on your loveliness. It is not even based on your holiness. But Christ’s death made us holy, acceptable, loved - in a way that is permanent and pervasive. He loves us because he loves us. Not because of anything we could ever do but because of everything that he has already done.

And the point of all this is to say: Let this distinctive love shape your relationships with one another. Speaking in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs means letting God’s word be the final word in your conversations. It means encouraging one another and reminding one another about who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus. Submitting to one another in reverence to Christ means Christ is Lord in over your marriage, Christ is Lord over your family, Christ is Lord over your relationship even with the person you can’t get along with, perhaps especially so. It means treasuring purity, respect and accountability in the way we love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Holiness shapes our relationships with one another in God’s family.


Ephesians Chapter 5 is about practical godliness - imitating God in his holiness. And everything in here is practical. Avoid sexual immorality and greed. Watch your speech. Expose wrongdoing. Submit to one another.

But I hope we have seen that holiness is first and foremost relational. (1) It is shaped by our relationship with God. Because he is holy, we are called to live holy lives. (2) It affects the way we relate to the world. When we encounter darkness, we remember that we were once darkness but through the gospel, were changed to live in the light of Christ’s salvation and God’s love. Therefore, we are called to speak the same gospel into situations of darkness and pray for God to bring about that same transformative change. (3) Finally, holiness shapes our relationships with one another - in purity, in respect and in distinctive love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holiness is God’s trademark stamped across our lives identifying us as his people. In this sense, Ephesians Chapter 5 is not a manual on how to become holy. You can’t. If you try, you will fail, and worse, end up hating God all the more for imposing such restrictive rules on your life.

Rather, at each turn, Ephesians reminds us as Christians to, “Be who you are.” You are holy to God, therefore, live a holy life for God. You are loved by God, therefore love as Jesus has loved you. At each turn, Ephesians reminds us our true identity in Christ and says, “Be who you already are.” Holy. Loved. Children of your heavenly Father.

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.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Unnatural thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:3-5)

Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday that makes sense. In the UK, the equivalent would be our church harvest festivals in autumn. If you are Chinese, think of Mid-Autumn Festival (or Mooncake Day) - it’s that big a deal here in the US; for some a bigger deal than Christmas! Families gather for dinner, usually turkey. They watch (American) football. All the shops are closed (but they get up early the next morning to buy flat screen TV’s on what is called Black Friday).

The first Thanksgiving, I’m informed by Wikipedia - and I confess, a recent episode of Big Bang Theory - was celebrated four centuries ago by the Pilgrims who were the first Christians arriving in America after a long and difficult journey in 1620. 45 out of the original 102 travellers died by winter but with the help of 91 local Indians, the Pilgrims planted a crop and harvested a bounty the very next year. So thankful and so surprised were the Pilgrims that they celebrated the very first Thanksgiving in 1621 - not with turkey, but with eel and lobster.

Thanksgiving makes sense. If you have been blessed; if the year has been good - celebrating and remember the good times with thanksgiving makes sense. But thanksgiving makes sense even if you haven’t been blessed, even if you can’t think of anything to be thankful for this year. Why? Because you still wish you did. All of us wish we had something to celebrate. All of us wish we had something to be thankful for.

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Ephesians 5:3-4

I call this unnatural thanksgiving. Paul talks about sexual immorality, impurity, greed (verse 3). Paul warns against obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking (verse 4). And then he says, the opposite to all this sinful behaviour is... thanksgiving.

We don’t expect him to say that. We expect Paul to say holiness. We expect him to write goodness or purity or obedience. But, no. Paul says the alternative to sexual misconduct; the opposite of self-centred spending and sinful speech is none other than thanksgiving.

Thankfully, Paul helps us out by qualifying what he means in the very next verse.

No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Ephesians 5:5

Paul describes the immoral, impure and greedy person (notice, these are the same three attributes outlined in verse 3) as an idolater. That is, these actions are symptoms of something deeper. An idolater is someone who goes to the temple. It’s someone who has a statue of Kuan Yin in their hallway with joss-sticks laid out before the altar. Now, I should qualify that Paul is not saying that people who worship idols are sexually deviant, money-grubbing individuals. That’s not his point at all. However, what Paul is doing is making a profound comparison between the person who turns to sex, to money and to status for satisfaction with the person who bows down before a false god. Paul is saying they are both doing the same thing. They are worshipping something other than God as God. Or, as he puts it in verse 5, “Such a person is an idolater.”

Sin is not breaking some arbitrary rule in the bible. Neither is sin first and foremost an action that harms another human being. Hence, the common excuse, “I’m not hurting anyone. Why is this wrong?” Rather, Paul is saying that sexual sin, selfish gain and sinful speech are symptoms but not the disease. The disease is a heart that rejects God. The disease is a heart that refuses to acknowledge God as God.

Conversely, thanksgiving is the mark of a person who has a relationship with God. Sandwiching these verses are two reminders to Christians that we are God’s children. In verse 1, we are urged to follow God’s example as dearly loved children. And in verse 5, we are to called walk as children of light. That is important because the thanksgiving that is being described here is not the overflow of touchy-feeliness that comes from receiving a promotion, passing your exams or even winning the lottery. Neither is it the tradition of going round the table and saying something you are thankful for. Why? Because the motivation behind the thanksgiving of verse 4 is not what you are thankful for but who you are thankful to.

How is thanksgiving the alternative - or even an antidote - to sin? Thanksgiving takes us out of ourselves and focuses our identity and fulfilment on God. Sin, on the other hand, draws us back into ourselves. Martin Luther defined sin as curving into itself.

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them ...or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts.

Yes, as Christians, we do have much to thank God for - not least the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ (verse 2), the inheritance we’ve received in God’s kingdom (verse 5), our deliverance from judgment (verse 6), our transformation from darkness to light (verse 8) and the indwelling of God’s own Holy Spirit within us (verse 18).

And yet, when Paul comes back to the call to thanksgiving in verse 20, he mentions none of these things. Instead, he says:

Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:20

Literally, Christians are called to giving thanks continually “at all times for all things”. Not just in the good times when good things happen. Paul is not describing the circumstances of thanksgiving but the character of the thanksgiver (if there is such a word). Christians are able to give thanks in every and any situation. Why? Because we know God as our Father. We know who we are thankful to, not simply what we are thankful for.

In this sense, the bible is describing the character of the thanksgiver, not the circumstances of our thanksgiving. Here, Paul defines thanksgiving as the basis of true worship over against idolatry (as he does elsewhere in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”) Unexpectedly, thanksgiving within the context of Ephesians 5 is even to be equated with holiness (what is “proper” for God’s holy people, in verse 3), in that it is so distinctive for God’s people to be thankful in their daily speech.

But most amazing and most important of all, thanksgiving reveals those who are truly known by God and those who are truly loved by God.

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

Our unnaturally thanksgiving is a response to an unnatural God who loved us while we were still sinners, who gave himself up for us while we were still enemies. We are loved - and that by God - as dearly loved children.