Ephesians Meditations No.35
Eph 4:17-19 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
We start with another ‘link-word’ – “so” i.e. because of all I’ve been saying, Paul says, about being part of this body with Christ as the head, this has consequences – you are the people of God, so live like it. That perhaps sums up what we have here today. But look at how strongly he says it: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord.” This is as strong as we’ve seen Paul in this letter. This must be very important.
So what is he telling them with such urgency? “that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” When he speaks of ‘Gentiles‘ here, it is simply shorthand for ‘unbelievers’, because in fact many of them at Ephesus were Gentiles and not Jews by birth. He has previously, you may remember, in Chapter 2, reminded them of how they used to live, and in many ways this is simply a stronger reminder of that with the exhortation that they should no longer live like that – because they are the body of Christ and are growing up into the head.
But what was it that he had against unbelievers? “the futility of their thinking.” We do really need to understand that the godless, self-centred thinking of the unbeliever is futile. Now if you have ever been a watcher of Sci-fi you will remember the cry of the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” Oh yes, we understand what ‘futile’ means. It means ‘hopeless’. The unbeliever may struggle and strive to achieve, but ultimately it is all hopeless, because you cannot have true peace without knowing God through Christ.
Now Paul describes their state even more: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” Do you see the two things there? There is a mind thing and a relational thing. First the mind thing: “they are darkened in their understanding.” I like the JBP version here – “they live blindfold in a world of illusion.” They don’t understand the truth because darkness prevails, the darkness of sin – the self-centred and godless approach to life – and because of the deception that Satan brings them. (see 2 Cor 4:4 & 1 Jn 2:11). Sin and Satan has blindfolded them and they are trusting in a lie, “I’m all right.” Second, the relational thing. Sin and Satan have separated them from God. Ask an unbeliever and they will either deny God exists or say something that suggests that He is a million miles away. Neither of these two things is now true of the Christian. Our minds have been enlightened by God and we do see the truth through Christ. We now have a close relationship with the Lord. So, is the implication, don’t live as if you are confused and away from God!
But Paul goes on to explain why they are blind and away from God: “because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” They are ignorant of the things we have been learning about in this letter and the reason they are ignorant is because they have hardened their hearts against God. The unbeliever is not passive; they actively harden themselves against God. The extreme of this is the crusading atheist but it is still true in lesser ways in all other unbelievers. If it wasn’t they would seek God until they find Him, or they would listen and hear what the Lord is saying to them, for He surely does speak to all men and women, I am convinced. This ‘hardening’ may simply be the resistance that says, “I want to rule my life and no one else can.” Thus they push God away and harden themselves to Him. (This only goes to show the marvel of the gospel that God by His Spirit can penetrate sometimes the chinks of this hardness and bring a hunger and then a conviction).
But there is an outworking of that which Paul goes on to explain: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” This spiritual hardening has a practical outworking. Hardness means a loss of spiritual sensitivity, and a loss of spiritual sensitivity means you are left with only material awareness and when that is utterly self-centred (because that’s all you are left with) then personal pleasure and getting your own way becomes the ultimate and sole focus on life. We see it in a multitude of ways, but this is a true description of the unbeliever. Watch the lives around you, or that you see in the media, and you will observe godlessness and self-centredness. No longer having any boundaries, as God is rejected by society, we thus see the exact working out of what Paul is saying in Western societies. When he speaks of ‘impurity’ and ‘continual lust for more’ you can see these exhibited in Western societies more and more obviously. All you have to do is look with enlightened eyes with God’s help.
What is the point of these verses? It is Paul saying that this godless and self-centred lifestyle is what unbelievers are stuck with. There is absolutely no room for it in the Christian life because we are joined to Christ, part of his body, and he is holy. Check it out. Make sure there is no expression of the godless, self-centred life in you if you are a believer.