This evening we’re picking up where Jon left off last week. So we’re looking at the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5.3-14. Last week Jon spoke about ‘conduct unbecoming a Christian’ – and this continues that theme. So I’ve called this ‘Live Differently!’ Before we go any further, let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a God of grace and truth. Speak to us, we pray, by your Spirit through your word. And teach us to hear, believe and obey. In Jesus name and for his sake. Amen.
In what way, then, should we live differently? The apostle’s particular focus in this part of his letter is on what we might call sexual culture. The sexual culture amongst disciples of Christ must be radically different from that in the wider non-Christian world. He has in view, of course, the pagan culture of his day. But it might as well have been the 21st Century culture of our own nation. Our culture flaunts sex in our faces. From the media we get a barrage of messages: virginity is a vice; faithful marriage is boring; sex is just a recreational activity with no more emotional side effects than eating a Haagen Daas ice cream; you must put yourself and your own needs first. And so the river of lies flows on. If we’re not standing on firm ground, then it’s all too easy to be dragged along in the torrent until we’re swept over the waterfall and we painfully discover where it all leads us.
But if we’re following Christ then we are on firm ground, and we’re called to live differently. We need to understand our passage, Ephesians 5.3-14, in the context of what Paul has been saying earlier. So in Ephesians 4.1 he says:
I therefore, [that is, in the light of the glory of God and all that he has done for us in Christ]… a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…
And then the apostle contrasts that redeemed way of life with conduct unbecoming the children of God. Put off the old self, put on the new. Live differently. Live like Christ. So Paul says, just before our passage, in Ephesians 5.1-2:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
What, then, is this different way of life going to look like, not least in relation to the sexual culture among us as believers? Well let’s take a look at Ephesians 5.3-14 under three headings – What not to do; Why not to do it; and How not to do it. What, why, and how.
1. What not to do
Take a look at Ephesians 5.3-4:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
What a radical contrast that is to so much of the culture around us – and not least in our universities. A while ago (and pre-Covid, of course) the Times carried an article by a recent woman graduate. It was called ‘Sex on Campus’ and described how (I quote):
Dating at University has gone the way of the landline, replaced by hooking up – sex without relationships.
One student speaks of herself and her peers as ‘drunk on liberty.’ The writer quoted two graduates from Newcastle University. One said, ‘Casual relationships are definitely the flavour of the decade.’ Another described the promiscuity of her circle of friends, and then added, ‘We aren’t doing anything bad.’ The writer did recognise, thankfully, that there are those who avoid this kind of culture, which she described as ‘the thrill-seeking of a generation of adrenalin junkies.’ ‘Maybe…’, she goes on:
we’re a generation strangled by our own independence…Maybe we’re just turned on by the idea of a successful career more than we’re turned on by the idea of a partner. Call us selfish, reckless, stupid…it’s up to us to decide whether we want hook-up culture to define our twenties…
And yet in a different article she also wrote that:
The pressure to succeed at school, university and beyond is making young men and women miserable, ill — and suicidal…
Have you noticed how so much drama from soap operas to novels is a reflection of the profound pain and conflict caused by ignoring God’s instructions? God knows what he’s talking about when he tells us what not to do. So – Ephesians 5.3 again:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.
And ‘saints’ just means ordinary believers. Total purity must be the standard by which we live, in thought, word and deed. So what’s the implication of that for our sexual relationships? God’s standard of total purity is clear in the Bible and basically very simple: sex is for marriage between a man and a woman for life. It is not for any other relationship.
Why does Jesus establish that as the rule for our sexual lives? He does it because he loves us. He knows what works for us, because he made us. Breaking that rule leaves a trail of destruction and used, discarded, damaged and hurting people in its wake – whatever the glamorised lies of popular culture would have us believe. Jesus wants us whole, not in pieces. He wants us healthy not hurting. Burning coal in the fireplace warms the whole room. But throw that same coal into someone’s lap and it’s deadly. Water running between river banks is life-giving. But when the river bursts its banks it can destroy family homes.
Now let me say right away that if you’re already regretting past patterns of behaviour, you can find forgiveness, and a fresh start, through faith in Jesus, whose death on the cross for us cleanses us from all sin when we put our trust in him. More on that later. But, first, let’s be clear on what not to do. We mustn’t even think about engaging in sexual immorality – let alone put such thought into word or action.
2. Why not to do it
Here are Ephesians 5.5-7:
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them
So here’s the apostle Paul being characteristically sharp and direct – like the surgeon’s scalpel. Why not build our lives on sexual immorality and impurity? Because there is no place for those who do in the eternal kingdom of Jesus. Instead there is just the prospect of facing the coming judgement of God. And don’t be fooled by all those who scoff at such talk. They’re the ones who’ve been fooled. The danger is real. And if our eyes are open to seeing them, the warning signs are there.
Julian Barnes in his prize-winning novel ‘The Sense of An Ending’ explores the way that things done thoughtlessly in young adulthood – indeed during student years – can lie dormant even for decades and then blow up in the faces of those who have done them. That’s what happens to the main character. He reflects on his experience in these words:
My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been… Why had I reacted [in that way]? Hurt pride, pre-exam stress, isolation? Excuses, all of them. And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.
It’s a bleak portrayal of life lived with no knowledge of Christ and the hope that he brings. Because it’s right that we can do nothing to save ourselves from the guilt and remorse of our past sin when it catches up with us in this life – nor can we save ourselves from the day of reckoning that lies beyond death, when we’ll have to give account. But God can save us. That’s why our only hope is to turn to him and trust him.
Thank God, Jesus laid his life down and died to pay the price of our sin – the price that we deserve to pay, the price of eternal death. Jesus died to rescue us, as the Bible says, ‘from the wrath to come’. And in the light of that, as Paul says at the end of Ephesians 5.4:
…instead [of immorality and impurity] let there be thanksgiving.
And out of thankfulness for that gift of forgiveness and true freedom, we are to live differently. But how? So:
3. How not to do it
How, then, can we live pure lives in an impure world? Look on to Ephesians 5.8-10:
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
Christ breaks that pattern of self-centred sin in our lives. He brings us out of darkness into the light. The task for the believer is to ignore the old self – however loudly it screams at us for attention – and to think of Jesus, to act on his will, and to live to please him. We need to remember that being tempted is not sinful. Giving in is. Will we all sin? Yes. And forgiveness is available from God when we turn away from our sin, and start walking as children of light, living for all that is ‘good and right and true’, loving Christ above everything, and wanting to please him.
So we must understand that the Christian life is bound to be counter-cultural. Pleasing Christ is our supreme concern. So we will live differently. That’s what marks us out as followers of Jesus. Or it should. We won’t greedily try to possess and use each other. We’ll love each other, as Jesus loved us. So the apostle continues – Ephesians 5.11-14:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Our sin needs to be brought into the light of Christ. It needs to be exposed in order that it can be dealt with.
Christians do need to make clear what’s going on in our society and the dire consequences of sin, not least of sexual immorality. But we need to begin with ourselves. Sexual sin hides in the darkness. While it is hidden it can survive. But it doesn’t like the light. Jesus died to liberate us from the guilt and power of sin and there’s nothing that’s so bad or so shameful that it’s beyond the reach of his grace and forgiveness. Sin does have lasting consequences. We have to face that. But guilt before God is not one of them where there is a change of heart and mind.
If you are being eaten away by guilt, then the way to freedom and forgiveness is to expose your sin to the light of Christ. Name it to yourself. Don’t rationalise it or excuse yourself. That’s the place to begin – bring it out into the open in your own mind. Then talk honestly to Christ about it. There are of course no surprises for him. He knows it all anyway. Confess it. Tell him about your change of heart and your desire now to please him. Accept his forgiveness. And start living differently.
And you might find it helpful to take a further step. It isn’t wise or necessary to broadcast our sins far and wide. But maybe you’d find it helpful to find someone you trust, someone who understands God’s grace to sinners, someone who can keep a confidence – and to tell them about it and pray with them. The knowledge that you’re loved by someone who knows the worst about you can be a powerful help to grasping the reality of God’s grace and forgiving love towards us. So don’t sleepwalk in the darkness. Walk in the light, wide awake. And ‘Christ will shine on you’. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, please teach us to imitate you in the power of your Spirit. Help us to live pure lives – even as you are pure and holy. Forgive us our sins. We praise you that your beloved Son gave his life to set us free from sin and death. So help us to live to please you, as your redeemed and forgiven children. Help us to love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Teach us, we pray, to live differently – for the good of all, for the spread of your kingdom, and for the glory of your name. Amen.