But among you, as is proper among the saints, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or crude joking, which are out of character, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Ephesians 5:3-5 BSB)
The topic of this section of Ephesians is walking as God’s people, or how we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. There must be a loyalty in our hearts to Christ and there must also be a break in our hearts with the world. John wrote: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
We are faced with a choice and we will choose based on whom we identify with the most. If we identify with the world, if that is who we consider ourselves to be – members of this earthly society – then we will follow its dictates and live accordingly. If we identify with Christ, however, then we will follow Him and live out our faith. One of these is winning our heart’s affections every day. Either we will become more and more worldly or we will become more and more godly.
What is different in a Christian?
The victories in our Christian lives come by the hand of God, and when we place our faith in Christ we receive a new nature: “The new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). We also receive the Holy Spirit: “Having heard and believed the word of truth—the gospel of your salvation—you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13).
The new self desires to follow Christ and to obey Him in all things. The new self identifies with God and with His eternal family. The new self will never be satisfied with what the world offers. It seeks the purity of the life from God and will only find itself truly nurtured by God’s truth and by the fellowship with His Spirit and with God’s people.
But the old sinful nature is still within us, and will be until we leave this world. And the old sinful nature, or the flesh, longs after the world. This is the Christian’s battle, to reject the voice and the influence of the old nature. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). We are often encouraged in scripture to lay aside the old world of the dead flesh and to live in the light of God.
The identity with the world
Yet we must work in the world, and live in the world, and associate with this world’s people. As long as we are on this earth we will have some identity with this world. Christ told the story of the Good Samaritan who was a “neighbour” to an injured person and stopped to help him (Luke 10:25-37). The Jews and the Samaritans did not trust one another, and the beliefs of the Samaritans were a mixture of Jewish beliefs and Canaanite paganism (2 Kings 17:34-35). But “good Jews” out of fear and busy-ness failed to help the injured man, and the Samaritan stopped and cared for him.
Jesus’s point was that just as help might could to us from surprising people, so we should offer grace and kindness to all people. We have an obligation to help others, whether they are Christians or not. We should be responsible citizens and share the compassion of God with the lost world.
But we cannot love what they love.
Identifying with an unbelieving world
Paul mentioned typical ways that the world identified with one another: in sexual immorality; in crude joking and bad language; in complaining (contrasts with thanksgiving); and in greed. In the first century Mediterranean cities, brothels were common, as was temple prostitution in Ephesus, and a visit to one or both was a means of “male bonding.” One could make friends there, and be considered “a regular guy” by others. You did those things to fit in.
And the joking and bad language, well that continues to this day. Sometimes in our world we imagine this to be “authentic speech” and the niceties of polite speech somewhat hypocritical or pretence — appearing to be what you are truly not.
And the greed, this was just another means of male-bonding, that they would make business plans in brothels or through coarse joking, or in the midst of complaining and swearing, and it the dominant idea that drove those bargains were greed, not a sense of responsibility. These were the type of evil men spoken of in Proverbs:
They say, “Come along, let us lie in wait for blood, let us ambush the innocent without cause, let us swallow them alive like Sheol, and whole like those descending into the Pit. We will find all manner of precious goods; we will fill our houses with plunder. Throw in your lot with us, let us all have one purse”– my son, do not walk the road with them or set foot upon their path. For their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed blood… So they will eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. For the waywardness of the simple will slay them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. But whoever listens to me will dwell in safety, secure from the fear of evil. (Proverbs 1:10-33)
Christians are to live responsible, in faith in God that He sees and will reward the faithful. Earlier in Ephesians Paul said:
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing good with his own hands, that he may have something to share with the one in need. (Eph. 4:28)
Remember that Paul himself was a business man engaged in a tent-making enterprise. He knew that greed could drive a business venture, or service to humanity and a fair profit could drive it. If the atmosphere in which partnerships and business plans were hatched was ungodly, then greed would dominate. But if a Christian atmosphere predominated, then considerations of responsibility, service to society, and fairness in business practices could dominate the formation of responsible plans.
What was not said?
For the Christian, these types of worldly associations were simply wrong. The Christian must identify with Christ and not with the world. Returning to John’s words:
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:16-17)
The world and its desires is passing away. It is dying every day. Any enterprise built on lust, greed, selfishness, and has no concern about doing what is right cannot last forever.
But what other ways do we seek to identify with the world? Paul did not here mention them all. He merely mentioned a few and laid down the principle. What would we add to this list? What ways do people tend to seek to identify with the world?
Gossip would be one way, and it is certainly covered in this section to some degree. He speaks about thanksgiving being expressed rather than complaining, and gossip is just another way of complaining. We may look on the bad or look on the good in life – and this applies to the lives of others.
Alcohol and drugs are also ways that people might associate with the world.
Godless and worldly entertainment. What a Christian chooses to let into his mind influences him. Not all sports, writings, or works of arts are necessarily off-limits for a Christian, but we should use godly discretion.
Some sporting events.
False religions, philosophies, and ideologies.
We could add many more, but whenever the crowd goes one way the Christian should ordinarily go the opposite way.
Our Positive Faith
These things are the opposite of love. Loving others as Christ loved us, receiving and sharing His love with other believers, these things thrill our hearts and excite our minds.
Though the passage above is warning of negative things, the larger passage focuses on positive things of God. We find oneness in Christ when we associate with people who love the Lord and His Word. There is a spiritual thrill that is unmatched by the world when we get together with other Christians in spiritual fellowship.
This passage encourages believers to speak good things to one another, lifting each other up.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 5:19-20)