When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus he did not just write to them about a doctrine they should believe but about the life they should live. For the most part these people were from a pagan, Gentile background. Within their cultural, formative past they had absorbed the philosophies and mores prevalent in their social and cultural environment. We all do this to a greater or lesser degree. This is why it is necessary for us to be warned of the danger of loving the world and living as those in the world as Paul warned the Ephesian Christians.
Paul had described the mental and moral state of the Gentile city and region and the effect it had had upon these people in particular. He said of those people in general …
Ephesians 4:18-19 “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Not a very flattering picture, is it? They were going through life without an understanding of what life was all about and how it should be lived. What is more, they really didn’t care – their hearts were hardened against truth and right. They were callous – hardened, inured in sin – given over to sensuality, doing those things relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite. Whatever felt good is what these people were doing. The apostle said that they were “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” All of this was because they were ignorant of God.
Knowledge of God has a restraining, moderating effect on the behavior of human beings. Oh, I know there are atheists who live moral lives. There are people who do not believe in God who still love their families and love their fellow man, but as a rule, considering the humanity as a whole, faith in God is the only thing that makes a marked difference between a moral, right-living population and a people who live in the manner Paul describes as characterizing the Gentile people of Ephesus and the Roman Empire.
When one turns to Christ there is by virtue of the fact that one believes in him a demand made for a radical change in one’s life. It is not the driving of command, but the drawing power of love. This is what Paul is arguing when he contrasts the description of the pagan life with that expected and inevitably produced by knowing Christ.
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!” (Ephesians 4:20). What was going to make a difference in the lives of these people was that they had “learned Christ.” He intensified that appeal with the reminder that their transformation from the old man to the new creature would happen, “assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, (vs. 21). Notice that Paul doesn’t say that they had been taught a doctrine, or had learned a doctrine Jesus taught. The focus of this statement is upon Jesus who is, himself, “the truth” as he said of himself (John 14:6).
In the process of becoming what that knowledge produces they would have to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,” (v. 22). In contrast to the Gentile’s darkness of understanding (Ephesians 4:18-19), Jesus is the “light of men” (John 1:4, 9). He is the perfect representation of God’s nature – the nature we were created to possess (Genesis 1:26). Thus, a knowledge of Christ is essential to the kind of life we are made for. We were not made for a life of sensuality and immorality. We were made to live as we were created and, indeed, recreated.
In order to accomplish this transformation from the old, Gentile, sensual kind of life these people first had to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (vs. 23). They had to acquire a new way of thinking. No effort toward a change of life can ever be successful without a change of the thought processes. Paul emphasized this same idea in Romans 12:1-2 where he urges Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” which is, as he says, their “spiritual worship,” being “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The ultimate end of this is that they “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
This is what comes from knowing Christ. He shows us the image of the Father and we, as a result of “beholding,” seeing, perceiving, understanding him, are transformed into the same image.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18).
What does that image look like? What will we “look like” when we are transformed into the image of Christ? Going back to the 4th chapter of Ephesians, Paul gives one thing after another that will characterize us as we are being transformed into his image. The first thing he lists is in the little matter of truthfulness. He says …
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).
The people of God constitute a new humanity. Human beings were made to live in community or in relationship with other human beings. There are numerous levels of community, each of which involves different people, but community cannot exist without trust and mutual helpfulness. When people lie to one another that trust and communality cannot exist. We not only destroy community by lying, we injure ourselves also.
As the apostle continues he lists a number of other things essential for this process of transformation. The Christian is to change …
… from uncontrolled anger to self-control (4:26, 27); from stealing to useful labor (4:28); from harmful to helpful speech (4:29, 30); from bitterness to love (4:31–5:2); and from unrestrained sexual desires to a thankful acknowledgment of God’s good gifts (5:3–5). In each case, Paul offers a reason for the change from old to new. (Reformation Study Bible; BibleGateway.com).
The practical outcome of all this – and the further instructions the apostle gives to these believers – what God is looking for from us is this …
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Christians are to be imitators of God. Albert Barnes in his commentary on Ephesians said of this verse; “The idea is not that they were to be the friends of God, or numbered among his followers, but that they were to imitate him in the particular thing under consideration.” The idea is that as children who are loved by their father imitate him, so we are to imitate God who loves us. The things we are to imitate him in are the things mentioned in the last verse of the 4th chapter …
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (4:32).
What a dramatic change this is when people who had lived for themselves and for the momentary thrill of a fleeting sensation are transformed into people who walk in love in the manner in which Christ loved us. His “love offering,” Paul said, was a fragrant sacrifice to God. What is it when we, with the same kind of love, offer ourselves in service to our brothers and sisters in the Lord and to all around us who have need of our love?
Need I ask which lifestyle would be the most satisfactory? Which would be the most beneficial to the world around us? Which would have the longest lasting effect?
How have you learned Christ? If your knowledge is not leading to the end of progressive transformation into the very image of Christ then perhaps you had better reevaluate what you have learned!