‘Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is’ (Ephesians 5.17)
Paul is not messing around when he speaks to the Ephesians. They are to know that ‘the days are evil’; in other words, time is short. Once they realize that, there is only one appropriate response: Figure out what really matters.
That’s why Paul says, ‘Understand what the will of the Lord is.’ Because, really, there’s not a lot of time to mess around with things that don’t matter.
But can we talk about ‘the will of the Lord’ for a minute? Because typically in North American evangelical contexts, we refer to ‘the will of God’ like it’s some existential, mystical path for our lives that we need to discover. It’s behind door number three… or two… whichever I choose, I just hope I get to ‘live in God’s will.’
We think it has something to do with what job we take, where we buy a house, whom we marry; this determines if we’re ‘in God’s will.’ Sometimes we talk about it like it’s a secret for unlocking the good life where there is nothing but ease and blessing, as if it’s some kind of fortune-cookie sweet-spot with the Divine.
But do you know what Paul is getting at by the phrase ‘the will of the Lord’ here? He’s talked about it earlier in the letter. In the working of his plan to forgive sinners, through the redemption of Christ, he has made ‘known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth‘ (Ephesians 1:9-10).
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. 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. (Ephesians 5:3-6 ESV)
This past Sunday I had the privilege of opening up Ephesians 5.1-21 at Grace Fellowship Church. In the verses above, Paul warns the Ephesians that they ought not to joke about sexual sins.
Why would he do that? Does God not have a sense of humour? Are we just supposed to be a bunch of prudes with out-dated morals?
I suggest that from the text, there are at least three reasons why you should not be making or laughing at sexually immoral jokes.
1. You cannot repent of something you find funny
The essence and grounds of repentance is hatred of sin. How can you hate it if you’re laughing at it?
Crude joking can be active or passive. That is, jokes can be something you speak or something you hear. You pick this up in the TV shows and movies that you watch, and the conversations you engage in at your workplace.
We cannot find sin both humorous and repulsive at the same time; either we laugh at it or run from it, but we cannot do both. How can you be serious about walking away from these sins if you’re laughing at them?
Optimism: “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”
Was the Apostle Paul an optimist? For a guy who taught a lot about the depravity of the human heart, Paul sure seemed to take a pretty rosey view of life sometimes, didn’t he?
A ‘Church-is-Half-Full’ Kind of View?
Here’s a case in point: The church in Corinth. They were divided and dividing still, they valued fancy speech over sound doctrine, they had cases of publicly known immorality that were not being addressed, they were suing each other, they were leaving betrothed women unprovided for, fighting over food sacrificed to idols, arguing over whose spiritual gifts made them the most spiritually mature, leading chaotic worship services, and considering denying the resurrection. Seriously. And you thought your church was bad!
But think about how Paul addresses them:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift… (1 Cor 1.4-6)
That sure sounds like a very optimistic, ‘glass-half-full’ kind of view of the church, doesn’t it? Is he just flattering them?
The furthest thing from being an optimist who chooses to ‘look on the more favorable side of events’ or a double-tongued flatterer who dabbles in deceit, Paul is speaking the truth boldly. He has something greater than optimism when it comes to the Corinthian church — as messed up as it is. Paul has hope. God-grounded, gospel-believing hope.
One news headline caught my attention today. This is what it said:
Junction neighbourhood bully gets more jail time for harassment
The headline caught my attention not because it’s the biggest news story of the day, but because I have friends and family who live and work in this area, so it was a matter of concern for me. The story is relatively mundane (hey, it’s life in the Junction!), but one line in particular startled me.
When speaking of the ‘neighbourhood bully’ who has been forced by the courts to move, one man offered this profound theological insight:
“The law can’t force a person to love thy neighbour,” John Ritchie said. “But the law can stop the conduct and this behaviour.”
Wow! Unless this man is a pastor, theologian, or mature believer, I think he probably spoke better than he knew. This is biblical truth.
I was really challenged in my study this week by this quote from Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, comparing the ending of Luke with the ending of Acts. I want to pause and think about what understanding this more would change in my life.
Or compare the endings of Luke and Acts. The Gospel ends with a long and detailed focus on Jesus’ passion and death. In fact, Lk 9:51 introduces the theme of Jesus journeying toward Jerusalem and the cross earlier than does any other Gospel. Acts, too, slows down its narrative substantially to focus on Paul’s final, fateful journey to Jerusalem and the sufferings and imprisonments that await him there, in Caesarea and in Rome. Luke may or may not have written his account after Paul’s eventual death, but he certainly sees parallels in the closing stages of the lives of both Jesus and Paul. These kinds of similarities between Luke and Acts suggest that Luke saw the life of a faithful disciple as often imitating that of Christ, both in its spiritual power and in the necessity of suffering. What was true for Paul should therefore be true for us. Unfortunately, we rarely find the combination of the themes “power” and “suffering” in contemporary Christianity; those who successfully emphasize the one usually tend to play down the other.
I pray that I would become more of that type of disciple: expecting power, enduring suffering, and reflecting Christ in all.
Recovering a Pauline Practice
One of the things we try to build into the rhythm of church life at Grace Fellowship Church is something called ‘Identifying Evidences of Grace.’ By that we mean the practice of deliberately seeking proof of God’s grace at work in those around us and then speaking it to each other.
A practice like this is helpful for so many reasons. But like all things, a practice like this can quickly become rote. It’s easy to forget why we do it, or think we do it just because it’s a good habit, or tradition or something. Some people have even objected at times that this discipline might be forced and unnatural, or drawing too much attention to the person, or even mere flattery, which is never healthy.
Recently, however, I’ve been reading through Paul’s epistles and I’ve been reminded again and again that this practice of identifying evidences of grace is actually something that is biblical. It is something worth defining by the word itself.
Here are a few things I’ve noticed about evidences of grace in Paul’s letters so far:
1. Gifts and Character, Not Personality
Biblical evidences of grace are not, ‘Your smile is so pretty!’ or ‘I love the décor of your home!’ Rather, it is clearly pointing out how believing the gospel has changed someone’s speech, or deepened their knowledge, or enabled them to receive powerful spiritual gifts (1 Cor 1.4-8).
2. Grounded in Truth, Not Flattery
In 1 Thessalonians 2.5, Paul writes, ‘We never came to you with words of flattery.’ What’s so significant about that is that he had just identified evidences of God’s grace in their church (1 Thess 1.2-10). This means that when we’re speaking about God’s grace acting upon and in another person, we’re doing it to build up God, not butter up people.
When I was planning my reading list for the summer I decided that I wanted to focus my Bible-reading-energy on the epistles of Paul for a couple months. I had the thought that it would be fun to read through his epistles chronologically to see how his thoughts and themes and concerns develop over time in different contexts.
So I did a little work to compile a timeline of the apostle Paul’s writings (see below). Since I had done the work anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to share it here.