My wife Hayley was talking to one her colleagues recently and he said to her, “You know what? I think you and I believe pretty much the same thing”. This guy isn’t a Christian, and he was just saying what lots of people think about Christianity. That, by and large, it’s a message of “live a good life” with a belief system that’s broadly similar to dozens of others. But Hayley tried to set him right, because God is very clear – the Christian view of the world, and the Christian way of life, is completely different to any, and every, non-Christian view. And that’s what Paul is saying to the Ephesian believers in Ephesians 4:17-24 - That the Christian and non-Christian life are totally different, and that the Christian life is radically better. So, let’s pray that God would help us see that:
Lord, help us this evening to see the non-Christian life for what it is, and to see how much better the Christian life is. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1. If you’re a Christian, stop living like those who are not (Ephesians 4.17-19)
Reading Ephesians 4:17:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, [in other words, this is what the Lord Jesus is saying to you…] that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.
So, here’s the first thing Paul says in Ephesians 4.17-19: If you’re a Christian, stop living like those who are not.
The gentile “walk” in Ephesians 4.17 means, “the way that those who aren’t Christians live”. And Paul was saying to the Ephesians, “you were Gentiles, but now you’re God’s people. Jesus is your Lord. You’re Christians. So, stop living like those who are not”. Because what characterises the non-Christian life and the Christian is completely different. And Paul spells out what the non-Christian view of life is really like. In Ephesians 4.17, he says it’s “futile” – i.e. pointless, or empty. So, he’s saying if we ignore the truth about Jesus and pour our minds into other things… well, ultimately, that’s worthless when it comes to the most important thing in life - having a relationship with God. And this is spelled out in Ephesians 4.18-19:
They [the Gentiles] 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practise every kind of impurity.
So, hard hearts are stubborn hearts, that’s the in-built desire in all of us to want to rule ourselves - hard hearts chose to ignore God - and that results in separation from God and being completely in the dark when it comes to the truth about him. And the result of all of that is Ephesians 4.19 - becoming desensitised to the shame of sin and becoming greedy to do it.
So, Paul is saying to those of us who are Christians: “Don’t go back to this… By God’s mercy, you’ve been saved from your sin by Jesus – he’s given you a new life to live with, he’s your Lord… So, if you’re a Christian, stop living like those who are not…” And one key thing to help us to do that is to be stuck in with other Christians.
Over the past couple of weeks in this chapter we’ve seen how Christians are to be united together in our shared love of the Lord Jesus. We need to help one another by making sure that we don’t slip back into the old ways of Ephesians 4.17-19. We need to walk the Christian life with those we can encourage, and those who can encourage us. And that’s particularly important at the minute, when our Covid-19 world forces us to be far more isolated than we would like. It’s easy to slip into an attitude “I’m trying to keep myself going”. But as Christians we need to be asking, “how can I help keep others going?”
So, as Ian said last week, we’ve got to be proactive; pick up the phone, send a message, join in that Zoom even when it seems unappealing. Come to church physically each week, if you can, and you’re able. And none of us should hold back on that front. Give us on the staff the headache of how we’re going to fit everyone in safely each week. Say hello to that new student at the beginning of the service (from where you’re sat, 2m away!) and make a note to have them round when times allow (not so subtle hint!) And if you’re a fresher, the headline is: settle into a church quickly and make yourself known to others – that’s the primary way for you to be encouraged, and for you to be an encourager. And it would also be great to connect with your CU too, so as a team you can work to share the gospel on campus.
The other key thing is to see the non-Christian life as the Bible does – and stand out from it. So, if you’re a new student you might feel like you’ve been plunged into a very non-Christian environment. And, despite Covid, my guess is that you’ll be all too aware of that - from dodgy conversations, to out of hand drinking parties in flats. And the temptation will be either to go along with it, or to just keep your head down and try to fit in. But if you’re a Christian then you’re not like everyone else. So, the challenge is how to live Christianly. Which means making it known you’re a Christian and making it known what that stands for. Because, as one of you said to me, there are few better things you can do for your Christian witness in the early weeks than saying the words, “I’m a Christian” and backing that up in how you live.
I got glasses for the first time a while back and I’ve been in denial. And I was in church a few ago and I convinced myself I could see the screen at the front perfectly. So, to try and prove myself right, I turned to Hayley and said, “I’m putting my glasses on. But I don’t need them”. And, guess what? I was wrong. Hayley, as it happens, was right. (That seems to happen a lot!) And I could see a lot better. But I thought I’d seen things clearly before.
Maybe you’re tempted to see the world’s behaviour as fun, or freeing, or just “part of being a student”. But Ephesians 4.17-19 help us see that often we just don’t see things clearly, even when we think we do. Ephesians 4.17-19 show us the ways of the world for what they really are. And we constantly need that reminder. The world doesn’t have it better. But even if fresher’s week for you was one full of regrets for whatever reason, you need to remember that with God every day is fresh and new, and it’s never too late to ask for his forgiveness and recommit to living for him.
Perhaps, whoever you are, you’re listening this evening and wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, or you’re not really sure what you believe. And you might find Ephesians 4.17-19 offensive. If so, that means you’ve understood these verses correctly. Because they do offend our in-built desire to rules ourselves and to justify that rule at all costs. Because what we call “enlightened” - living freely without constraints - God says is living in the dark about him and what life’s really all about. And instead of that being freeing it’s binding – because we’re controlled by our own habits and desires.
And the only way to escape is to come to Jesus as your saviour and Lord and accept that he truly freed and saved you from it on the cross. And he’s saved you for something better. And that’s what Ephesians 4.20-24 are all about.
2. If you’re a Christian, remember who you are (Ephesians 4.20-24):
But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Paul reminds the Ephesians what they had been taught: They’d heard about Jesus - his teaching, his death and his resurrection. They’d believed it as the truth. Which it is. And that meant that Jesus was the most important person and influence in their lives. He was who they wanted to live for. Because being a Christian is about having a relationship with a person. And it’s about not following an ideology or a way of life. And the Ephesians had been taught that having that relationship meant a change of allegiance from self-rule to Jesus-rule. Because if he died for our sins and rose from the dead, he has the right to tell us the right way to live.
And that involves complete renewal of the inner person. That’s what Ephesians 4.23 is about. So, they needed to put off their old way of life and start living a life modelled on God’s standards and character. It’s the image of removing utterly filthy clothes. Think a running kit after a shockingly wet and muddy cross country - so dirty it’s fit for the bin. And replacing it with sparkling white clothes head to toe. And Paul means these verses to be a challenge to keep going in that direction - to keep putting off the old and putting on the new. Because as someone once said: “the way into relationship with Jesus, is the way on”.
So, imagine as a child you were adopted by the royal family. Who you are would change. Who you belong to would change. How you live would change. So apparently, the Queen Mother used to say to Princess Elizabeth and Margaret before they went out to parties, “Now remember: royal children, royal manners”. Christians belong to God. And that massive life change means a massive change of lifestyle for the better.
So, as Christians we’ve got to see our sin as something that belongs to the past us. Something that’s not worth returning to - like that filthy running kit that’s only fit for the bin, and no longer belongs anywhere, or has any further use. And sin, Ephesians 4.22, is corrupt and deceitful. It whispers to us that it’s better. And at Uni it probably shouts at us from all directions because it will be so in our face. But the lies of sin pull us away from Jesus.
It’s easy to say “tomorrow I’ll sort that out”. As if sin is a trivial house chore that can be put off. But Paul is saying to us: “Remember who you are, and live who you are. Put off today what isn’t of God, and therefore what shouldn’t be of you”. So, what can we begin to, or recommit to trying (with God’s help) to put off today? And who can we ask to pray with us as we do that?
As well as putting off the old self, we need to put on the new self. And to do that we need to remember who we are. Because the world likes to tell us that we can define who we are in any way that we like. That’s the message of University culture isn’t it? Be yourself. Be who you want to be. But God says, we find out who we are only in him. We discover who we are by re-connecting with God through entering into a relationship with him through Jesus and finding out – Ephesians 4.24 – that we were made to be like God. And that’s massively reassuring, isn’t it? That we can have utter confidence in who we’re meant to be. That we don’t have to invent, or create something, or play up to a perceived reputation.
And so, we need to press on with the putting on! We need to know God and his character and steep ourselves in it - to fill our minds and hearts with things that will help us live in his likeness. So, as some have said, if it’s true that our minds and hearts are like sponges absorbing what’s around them, what are we hoping that they soak up?
I’ve got two simple recommendations. Firstly, we see the likeness of God most clearly in Jesus - God become man. I’ve been reading a section of Matthew’s gospel recently. And I’ve been struck afresh by the person of Jesus. The more I’ve read about him the more I’ve wanted to be like him, and the more aware I’ve become of how far away I am from that. Every page of the Bible is necessary to point us to the righteousness and holiness of God. But when we see the person of Jesus we see so clearly what clothes we need to put on. So, start by looking at him.
One way of doing that is to join one of our Christianity Explored courses that we run. They’re great opportunities for both Christians and those looking into things to discover more of the life of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. So get in touch with us at whyjesus.org.uk and we’d love to help with that.
Secondly, when we get a spare moment use some of that time to read, listen or watch things that will get us into the Bible and help us fix our eyes on God. Can I recommend Clayton TV which you’re watching from? It’s an incredible resource! Why not watch this summer’s Keswick convention, or another series of talks on there?
If you’re a student, a new year of Uni means new routines. So as one of you said to me recently, “now in my second year and I’m living with some of my best friends and we’re all at home most of the time, I’m constantly facing distractions from reading my Bible!” So, it takes self-discipline to say “this is going to be a priority to me at the beginning of this year”. And it takes proactively to come up with a plan, and way of reading the Bible that works for you, that feeds you and that is distraction free. If you’re a second or third-year student, I know that for some of you lectures and assignments don’t kick in for a while. So, make the most of this time!
Some of us, I know, are under severe pressure at the moment and we have less time than we used to. But for many of us we do have time in our hands, the like of which we may never have again. So, let’s spend some of that time working towards putting on more of the new self in the likeness of God.
So, going back to where we began, and Hayley’s conversation with her colleague. Was he right to say there’s no difference between the non-Christian life and the Christian life? No. Because Paul says here that they’re not just completely different. But it’s like the old and worthless compared to the new and priceless. It’s corruption and deceit compared to righteousness and holiness. It’s separation from God compared to a relationship with the living Jesus.
So, tonight, wherever we are, whether we know we need to decide about Jesus for the very first time, or whether we’ve been going strong in the Christian faith for years, it’s time for all of us to say “I’m going to put off the old. And I’m going to put on the new”. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, help us through the power of your Spirit, to see who we really are, or who we could be, in the Lord Jesus and to put off the old and put on the new self. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.