Ephesians Chapter 5: The Behaviour of the Bride of Christ
Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, railing and malice are displaced by the response to the affection of God. In their place, following the pattern of God’s forgiveness of us in Christ, come kindness, tenderness and mutual reconciliation (4:31). The fifth chapter repeats in a way some of the counsel given in the fourth, advising the abandonment of all fleshly uncleanness (5:3) and evil speaking (5:4). But it goes further in the direction of exhortation than we have so far gone and perhaps, if we may put it so, caters for a less responsive class of mind. If a man is spiritually really alert, the mere counsel to “remember” may stir up his mind to all that is needed to ensure his moral rectitude in God’s sight. If he is prepared for good advice, the counsel of “meekness” may tell him all he wants to keep him on the direct way. The mere advice to leave Gentile habits alone would be enough to tell us what we should do if the desire to cause God no grief were strong within us.
But if not, we must be warned of consequences. In this exposition the warnings have from time to time been anticipated, but here they emerge, for a moment, with all necessary severity before the Epistle resumes its more serene progress: “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man who is an idolater hath any inheritance in the Kingdom of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words; for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience: (5:5-6). There is a double warning. These vices exclude from the Kingdom of God, indeed, and are enumerated among the things cast outside the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:15). But it is no use blinding us as to where they are cast. The wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience and whereas they who sin without law shall perish without law, thou who sin under the law shall be judged by the Law in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:12-16). Therefore, those who knowingly - and our present discussion concerns them - who knowingly abandon themselves to the fundamental denial of their calling, are excluded from the New Jerusalem only to find their destiny in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8)
At the same time, we should be on our guard against a falsehood here. There have been those who say that these sins, as such, inevitably exclude from the Kingdom of God: these sins - adultery and blasphemy for example – are sometimes set out as the unforgiveable sin in themselves and people guilty of the most notorious of the Seven Deadly Sins have sometimes been heard to include themselves in the ranks of the unforgivable. This is assuredly not the case. As to blaspheme, indeed Paul says of himself that he was a blasphemer, who obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly and in unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13). And as to the other vices, although he himself says that such shall not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), he makes it quite plain that true repentance covers the case and provides restorations (v. 11). Otherwise the woman of John 8 would never have been forgiven, neither can we justifiably say that such a thing is altogether unforgivable after baptism, for the incestuous man of Corinth was to be withdrawn from partly for his own sake, “that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:15), and was to be restored upon repentance (2 Corinthians 2:1). But a very difficult problem in practical behaviour is here created. It is possible that the early churches adopted a more severe line such misbehaviour as the only way to keep it in check, and that these offences survive in recollection as unforgivable sins on that account. Modern entertainments have to a large extent obliterated that impression and we have in any case to adopt a different standpoint. The wrongness of such actions cannot be overemphasised. The Lord’s forgiveness in the face of bitter repentance must not be weakened. The important matter is to guard against hypocrisy. The Lord’s forgiveness is limitless, for the penitent, but only “he that confesseth and forsaketh shall have mercy”.
But the warning passes, and the apostle have resumed his counsel. These sins are punishable in this way: avoid them therefore. Ye are children of light: avoid the unprofitable works of darkness (5:11). Let the guiding principle be the doing of that which is right in the sight of the Lord; giving Him pleasure (5:10). This comes in fitting contrast to an earlier remark about causing Him pain (4:30). We rarely think of God as having “feelings”, even when we talk of His love, but it is self-evident that love rewarded is satisfied, while love spurned is saddened. That which is “well-pleasing” to God is not only that which He approves of, but that which gives Him pleasure. And it was for His pleasure that all things were created (Revelation 4:11).
In our earlier chapters we have found much in common between the thought of this Epistle, and that of the Gospel of John. It is possibly of no significance that tradition credits Ephesus as being the place where the Gospel was composed, and yet the resemblances are striking. Perhaps this is nowhere more so than in the passage about light and darkness in which we are involved:
- Ye were once darkness, but now are light in the Lord (5:8);
- walk as children of light;
- for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth (5:9);
- have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (5:11);
- but all things when they are reproved are made manifest by the light, for whatsoever doth make manifest is light (5:13).
The last of these selections has a flavour, too, of the words of the Gospel of Luke, that “Whatsoever ye have spoken in the darkness shall be heard in the light” (Luke 12:3), and it is a needful reminder that the things, which we can conceal from our fellows, cannot be hidden from God. We must choose whether they are brought to light in the days of our probation, with whatever temporary shame that may be supposed to be accompanied, and so confessed and forgiven, or whether they shall remain hidden until the day when the secrets of the heart are revealed, and there declared to our shame, and perhaps to our eternal discomfiture. But the contrast between light and darkness is characteristic of John’s writings, in which it would be profitable to turn up and examine 1:5; 3:19-21; 11:10; 12:35 in the Gospel; and 1:5 and 2:8 in the First Letter. Perhaps the closest of all these is John 3:19-21, where the effect of the light in reproving the evil works of darkness is outlined, together with the opposition which the world feels towards any such exposure.
The light reproves the deeds of evil, and glorifies the deed of truth. The darkness hated the Son of Light because he testified of its dark deeds, and the apostle does not spare the saints the same responsibility. To compromise with the works of darkness is to him unthinkable, and fellowship with them is impossible. The only thing, which can possibly be lawfully done, is to reprove the works of darkness, as a testimony to clear the souls of the witness, and as a possible hope of saving some out of their condition. When we examine what is lawful for a son of light, we might well bear this consideration in mind. It is not whether we can satisfy ourselves that no commandment exists against the deeds we want to share with those around us, but whether we can be happy that we are providing the opportunity which is needed for those in darkness to repent when they sec the light of the world which it is our privilege to reflect.
It is not easy to trace the scriptural allusions from which the supporting quotation is drawn (5:14). Paul does not, of course, say that it is drawn from the Old Testament, although the thought behind it is found, perhaps, in those passages listed in the R.V. references: Isaiah 52:1; 60:1 and Malachi 4:2. The only important matter, however, is that God says it: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon thee”. This is the first call to alertness in this letter, but it seems to show that this, too, was a possible fault existing in the churches to which it was written. Sleep is a common figure of the real death of the saints in the New Testament, but it is occasionally, also, a figure of spiritual sloth, particularly in 1 Corinthians 11:30. But we have already arrived at the significance of “death”, and the example of Sardis previously cited has shown that spiritual death can happen again, to those who once came to life in Christ, if they turn aside from the diligent watchfulness which they have been called to observe. To dead Sardis, the call was to be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, or its time as a lightstand would be short. And to Ephesus the call is the same. They are to walk circumspectly (5:15), which is the same as to be watchful; and they are to redeem the time (5:16), which is the same as being aware that the period of their opportunities is short. “Redeeming the time” is interpreted as “buying up their opportunities”, which are rare and precious, and the lesson of this must strike us with uncomfortable force.
Even our time, it seems, is not our own, and why should it be thought that it is? Killing time, when we have the powers to do otherwise, is sinful; marking time when we might be marching is purposeless, and wasting time is spendthrift. We have not enough of it to waste, and the Lord has much to ask of us in service, and much to offer us in present reward. Is not the finest counsel which we could ask to be found in the first Psalm of Moses: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom? (Psalms 90:12) And are not the counsels to remember our Creator in the days of youth - where they are applicable - the wisest counsels, which could be offered to any of us? We seem to be living in an age and in circumstances when our youth are invited to remember almost everything else when they are taught from the earliest days of adolescence to remember their bodies, their sports and the fact that they had better be looking out for a wife or husband and the sooner they get into practice the better. And we have the difficult responsibility of seeking to point out that it is better at all times to “seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness”, and that in His wisdom “all these things shall be added to you”.
“Be ye not foolish” (5:17) reminds us clearly of the Ten Virgins, and warns us of the folly of those who were satisfied with the small starting supply of the Spirit’s power which they started with in their baptismal days, and made no effort to secure more for their journey to the bridegroom while there was still opportunity. Perhaps this significance of the oil in their lamps was in the Apostle’s mind when he wrote, for he counsels against the false enthusiasms which come from drunkenness (5:18), and advises diligence to secure the Spirit’s supplies while there is yet opportunity: ‘‘Be not drunk with wine, but be ye filled with the Spirit”.
This filling with the Spirit, this invitation to God to continue and extend His dominion in their hearts, produces the glad result that the cacophony of saxophones and motor horns and commercials yields place to the Spirit’s own melodies, and psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sung unto the Lord in thanksgiving in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (5:19-21). Now very few of the songs which are sung around us throughout the day are spiritual songs; there are not so many of them which are even decently neutral: and the apostle’s words do not seem to allow that it is right to indulge in them. Sometimes words are used which fall under out former condemnation. Sometimes the name of God is used in mock prayers so frivolously that a spiritual mind must feel sick before the sentiments expressed, more particularly when they are used in situations, which are the opposite of worshipful. Sometimes that solemn word “Hallelujah” is bandied about shamelessly as an expression of riotous self-satisfaction. While it is difficult to be in any way critical of singing music which is good in its won sphere, with words which are beautiful and comely, even though its topic is not always strictly that o praise, it would be impossible to couple the apostle’s counsel with liberty in the type of singing we have earlier mentioned.
But if singing of certain types of song is unseemly, there is a manner of singing psalms and hymns and. spiritual songs, which is scarcely less so. As I see it, a hymn is an act of worship from the moment of its announcement to the moment when it is concluded. The only fitting manner in which to make melody to the Lord would be to refrain from the discords, which arise from trying to do something else at the same time. When the words of hymns are announced, we should surely be listening and not talking (about anything at all) to our neighbours; and when others are singing, we should surely be singing with them, or at least listening intently to their words. God will hear melody, even if our voices are not very tuneful, provided that our hearts are attuned to Him: and that the melody should be inward in our hearts, and our minds full of thankfulness, is Paul’s particular wish. He is concerned, not merely that we should make certain kinds of noises, but that we shall make them as a common expression of gladness and gratitude.
The topic of mutual subjection is a difficult one, especially when it concerns relations between brethren on the one hand, and sisters on the other. But difficulty is no excuse for ignoring the subject, and it is at this point that our Letter compels us to face it. The counsel is first quite general: “subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ” (5:21). This is the duty of all without distinction of sex: there should be no self-assertion on the part of any man or any woman. Recognising that we all are subject to our Lord, there should he no attempt on our part to usurp His authority by doing the ruling on our own account. In the most responsible positions we are but servants, doing for the mutual benefit the will of Him who is the head; and whatever arrangements are deemed best, either by the mind of the Spirit or the prayerful will of the church, are arrangements in which the disciples look upon themselves not as ‘‘lording it over God’s heritage, but as being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
But the particular case of wives and husbands is not so easy for an emancipated generation to receive, and we must confess a very sincere understanding of the difficulties of those (particularly the women in our midst) who find themselves in any way obliged to accept a position, which their worldly counterparts would reject with contempt. Nevertheless, the case for proper gradation of authority was never more beautifully or convincingly expressed than here:
- Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord (5:22);
- for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church (5:23),
- therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (5:24).
- Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ Ioved the Church (5:25);
- Even so ought husbands to love their wives as their own bodies (5:28);
- for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church (5:29),
- for we are members of His body.
- I speak concerning Christ and the church, nevertheless let every one in particular love his wife as himself, and the wife see that she reverence her husband (5:32-33).
Skilfully, but with all possible sincerity, Paul takes our resentment from us. Marriage, he says, is not a thing in itself. For the people of God it is a living type of Christ and the church. The husband acts the part of Christ, and the wife acts the part of the bride of Christ. The family ought to be constructed in such a way that those looking on it can see in it the pattern of the Kingdom of God. They should be able to behold a man who guides wisely and provokes nothing but affection by his rulership. They should be able to see a woman who responds loyally, and receives nothing but appreciation and honour in return. They should be able to turn with relief from their suffragettes and unattainable catchcalls of equality, and incompatibilities and divorces, and see an arrangement which works perfectly well, in which no one lords it over another but each knows his and her place in the plan, and in which above all the love of God in Christ for His church is displayed in all that occurs.
This was perhaps the intention of Holy Matrimony (by which I mean the marriage of saints) from the beginning. It is perhaps the fundamental reason behind the Lord’s stressing that in marriage it is God that hath joined together (Matthew 19:6), and therefore no breach should be considered. It is for this, perhaps, that when things do go wrong, so much forgiveness and mutual reconciliation is called for, so that the pattern can be preserved, the forgiveness of God for the most serious of offences made known and understood, and the ultimate acceptance of both parties as members of the subject, but radiantly happy Bride of Christ, made sure.