Ephesians 4:22–32; Philemon 8–18comment (0)
May 22, 2008
By James R. Strange
Related Scripture: Ephesians 4:22–32
Bible Studies for Life
Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University
Unlocking Your Best Relationships
Ephesians 4:22–32; Philemon 8–18
In this passage, Paul appeals to his readers’ first experience of joining the Christian movement. The metaphors “to take off” and “to clothe yourselves” or “to put on” probably refer to the rite of baptism, in which the new believer stripped, entered the water and upon emerging was dressed in a new white garment. In the same way, rather than “abandoning” the self “to licentiousness” and “every kind of impurity” (Eph. 4:19), new believers “take off” the old self and leave it behind; then they “put on” the new self. Paul also speaks of baptism as creation: the old self was seduced and deluded by its desires (compare James 1:14), whereas the new is created “according to the likeness of God.” For Paul, the self is “like” God when it is transformed by God’s “true righteousness and holiness.”
Note the references to learning in the passage. Gentiles live “in the futility of their minds” (Eph. 4:17), and their understanding is darkened “because of their ignorance” (Eph. 4:18). But believers “learned Christ” differently (Eph. 4:20) when they entered the community. In contrast to succumbing to the seduction and delusion of their lusts, they “were taught” to exchange the old life for the new at baptism. To a certain extent, religious transformation has to be learned.
If the new, transformed self is like God, how is that likeness visible to others?
This section really ends at Ephesians 5:1–2, so that being “created according to the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:24) and the admonition “to be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1) frame the exhortation that comes in between. That encouragement brings us to the topic of today’s lesson: the transformation that Paul talks about means that believers are behaving morally when they behave like God. Paul focuses on the well-being of the community. In the community of “neighbors” (25; here the word refers to fellow believers), “true righteousness and holiness” are visible in actions that build up rather than tear down the group (29).
Note how many of the references are to ways of speaking (and note the repeated idea of putting away or taking off what is bad): “putting away falsehood,” “speak the truth,” “let no evil come out of your mouths … so that your words may give grace,” “put away from you … slander.” In that context, the admonitions “Be angry but do not sin,” “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” and “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling” probably refer to acts of speaking. Paul knows how powerful words are; after all, he uses them to proclaim Christ. His focus here is on how believers must speak to one another so that the power of speech works for the community’s benefit (compare Eph. 5:19). The goal is to build up rather than tear down. We all know of people who defend spreading gossip by claiming that they are “only telling the truth” (25), but such speech does not treat the person who is its object as a “member.” Rather it alienates and causes division.
Paul’s last word in the passage is to forgive. He knows that despite his admonitions, people still use the power of the tongue to their own benefit, hence wounding their neighbors and weakening the body of believers. Again the emphasis is on behaving as God does, for to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” is to mimic what God has already done for the believer “in Christ.”
Paul is so deferential in this letter, it is impossible to know if the slave Onesimus is a runaway or if Paul is asking Philemon to set him free. What is clear is that the two men must be reconciled as “beloved brothers” — that is, as fellow believers. Here we see a concrete example of the difficulty of carrying out Paul’s instructions in Ephesians. Forgiveness does not mean pretending no wrong has been done. Quite the reverse: it requires acting contrary to one’s pain and loss of dignity, no matter how justified they may seem.