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Asbury Bible Commentary – 4. Moral standards for members of the new community (4:17–5:20)
4. Moral standards for members of the new community (4:17–5:20)
4. Moral standards for members of the new community (4:17-5:20)

Paul now spells out what it means to “walk worthy of the calling” (4:1) by citing some examples. Obviously, believers must no longer follow gentile patterns of living that are the result of the failure to acknowledge God (Ro 1:21). Vv. 18-19 summarize Romans 1:21-32, in which Paul pointed out the logical consequences of turning away from God.

Paul has shown earlier that Gentiles were outside the covenant and thus aliens to the promise. Here he focuses on their wickedness that, because of the hardening of their hearts, separates them from the life of God and leaves them spiritually dead. “Having lost all sensitivity” means “having lost the fear of consequences.” The Bible teaches that God often uses the consequences of sin as judgment, letting men and women reap what they sow. Those who live wickedly have brought themselves under both the judgment and the control of sin's consequences.

So Paul reminds these believers of the preaching and teaching to which they responded. They were taught the truth that is in Jesus, who embodied what he taught. Apostolic preaching included the admonition to follow Jesus' ethical teachings and example. Converts were told to put aside the vices of their former lives, to accept the transformation of their attitudes (Ro 12:2), and to take on Christlike character. The natural image derived from Adam has been superseded by the restored divine image. Therefore, Paul calls upon them to be in practice what they are in principle, to be righteous and holy in deed as well as by declaration. The power of sin over the believer was destroyed when the “old man” was crucified (cf. Ro 13:14). The old nature is inherited by birth; the new nature is imparted in new birth. The Adamic nature, though conquered, must be set aside; the new nature, though imparted, must be appropriated.

What does that mean? Paul now gives examples of how the new lifestyle works out in practice (4:25-5:7). Falsehood, characteristic of the Devil (Jn 8:44), must be replaced by truth, characteristic of God (cf. Col 3:9). The allusion is to Zec 8:16. No body can function harmoniously if its members do not interact sincerely and openly with one another. In addition, anger must be checked. Quoting the opening clause of Ps 4:4, Paul reminds believers that they must not let anger run out of control. He interprets Jesus (Mt 5:22) to mean that anger itself is not sin, but because anger is the first step to murder, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Anger can be controlled. One must not let the sun go down while one is still angry, for in doing so one gives the Devil (diabolos, “the adversary”) a foothold from which he can tempt one to sin.

Moreover, stealing must cease. Some scholars believe that this admonition is addressed especially to Christian slaves who did not consider it inappropriate to steal from their masters. The admonition is applicable to all, however. One who earns a living through gainful employment becomes no longer a taker but a giver. Also, unwholesome talk must be renounced, replaced by wholesome, uplifting conversation, helpful for building others up and beneficial to those who listen. Harmful talk grieves the Spirit because it divides the church, whereas helpful words assist the Spirit to maintain the unity of the body until the day of redemption, when the sons of God shall be revealed (Ro 8:19). In short, they must abandon every practice that threatens the church's unity and, thereby, grieves the Spirit. Believers are to be kind and compassionate as Christ was, and forgiving (Lk 6:35-36), always remembering that in Christ God forgave them.

As children imitate their fathers, so they must imitate God, who is love (1Jn 4:8) and has dearly loved them (cf. 1Jn 4:9-11). Like Jesus, they must live a life of sacrificial love. Thus Paul understood love to be the supreme evidence of the believer's relatedness to God. In that sense 5:1-2 is a positive statement of Christian behavior, the “royal law” (Jas 2:8), the “fulfillment of the whole law” (Gal 5:14), the “law within” (Jer 31:33). These verses both summarize 4:17-32 and, by contrast, anticipate 5:3-5. Both the apostle and John Wesley saw love as the characteristic of God's holy people. To both, any form of impurity, including greed, was out of place, not appropriate to the Christian's walk. Although wanting to stress the positive call to holiness, Paul here simply reminds his readers that worldly behavior has no place in the kingdom of God.

Finally, they must guard against being deceived with empty words. Purveyors of vain words have brought God's wrath on humankind ever since the serpent misrepresented the truth of God to Eve. Therefore, partnership or cooperation with those deceivers who make false claims is denounced. On the basis of later Gnostic writings, we know that there were those who distinguished between actions in the body and aspirations of the soul. They taught that one could be spiritual in spite of actions deemed immoral, because the realm of the spirit and the realm of the body are distinct. Paul considered such teaching empty words, and so he urges believers to reject this or any deceptive heresy that poses as enlightenment. Those who cooperate with heretics share the judgment such unenlightened nonsense deserves.

Children of light have been rescued “from the dominion of darkness” (Col 1:13), not by having received special spiritual knowledge granted to a few, but by having been brought into the kingdom of the Son. Now delivered, they must live as children of light, practicing goodness, righteousness, and truth, in order to learn what pleases the Lord or, perhaps, to discover God's pleasure for them as his children. They must totally abandon the immoral deeds of darkness permitted by deceivers. Instead, as the Lord himself, they should turn the light of God's truth upon the secret deeds practiced by false teachers and be quick to point them out for what they are: sins against God (see Jn 3:20). Even as light expelled darkness at Creation, so the light of the Gospel expels moral darkness.

The second part of v. 14 appears to be a ritualistic hymn, possibly used in early Christian baptisms. Paul uses it here to remind the believers that they have risen from the sleep of spiritual death and that, as a result, the light of Christ has shone upon them. What are the implications of that light having shone upon them? They must be very careful how they live as reflectors of that light, not as unwise but as wise. In the hostile environment of western Asia Minor, where slanderous rumors of Christian behavior circulate, Paul urges prudence, perhaps reflecting the words of Jesus in Mt 10:16, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

If Paul's readers are to seize every opportunity to give a true witness, they will need to understand what the Lord's will is. That will is not discovered by consuming wine to excess as the mysteries, particularly the cult of Dionysius, taught. In fact, drunkenness “makes it impossible to exercise the prudent recognition and exploitation of fleeting opportunity” (Bruce, Ephesians, 110). To be filled with the Spirit one does not overindulge in wine. Instead, one lets the Holy Spirit rule the heart. A person so filled is a living testimony to friends and neighbors. Such a person, furthermore, has no difficulty making music in the heart and knows no barrier to thanking God the Father for everything. Filled with the Spirit, the believer gives an undistorted reflection of the light.