[Note: This sermon was originally preached over 15 years ago. Much of my theology has changed in that time, and I would no longer preach this text in the same way today. But I am posting this sermon here for … historical purposes. Today, the approach of this sermon would be much more loving, gracious, and kind.]
The church in first century Ephesus was surrounded by rank paganism and immorality. Ephesus, a leading commercial and cultural city of the Roman empire, was the site of the pagan temple of Artemis, or Diana. This temple is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
But the presence of this temple caused Ephesus to be a leading city in debauchery and sexual immorality. Some historians list it as the most licentious city of Asia Minor. The temple of Artemis was the center of much wickedness. Like those in most pagan religions, its rituals and practices were just extensions of man’s vilest and most perverted sins. Male and female roles were interchanged. Orgies, child molestation, bestiality, and every other form of sexual perversion were common.
Artemis was a sex goddess. She was served by thousands of temple prostitutes, eunuchs, singers, dancers, priests, and priestesses.
A quarter mile-wide perimeter around the temple served as an asylum for criminals, who were safe from being arrested and punished as long as they remained within the temple confines. Obviously, the presence of hundreds of hardened criminals added still further to the corruption.
The fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, even though he was not a Christian, referred to Ephesus as “the darkness of vileness. The morals were lower than animals and the inhabitants of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned.” That was the city of Ephesus. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah.
And lest we think our culture is any different, all we have to do is turn on the nightly news or open the daily paper to see that we are all living in downtown Sodom and Gomorrah. It is simply God’s patience and long-suffering that has withheld His wrath upon us.
While we wait for Christ’s return when He sets everything straight, we must try to walk the fine line of being in this world, but not of it. We cannot escape Sodom and Gomorrah. Go where you will in this world, you cannot escape. We can be taken from it, either through death or the rapture, but while we wait for one of those two events to happen, we need to learn to live upright and Godly lives in this wicked world.
Ephesians 4:17-19 contains the first part of Paul’s instructions on how to achieve this. These verses begin to tell us how to Walk in Purity. The Ephesians culture was just like our, and if they could walk in purity, so can we. Instructions for walking in purity are found in 4:17-32. Verses 17-19 tell us where to begin.
Ephesians 4:17. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk,
Paul, with that word, therefore, is providing instructions on purity based on what he has just said about unity. And remember, we looked in great detail at God’s Blueprints for Church Growth and how we are all to be ministers to each other using the spiritual gifts God has given.
Now Paul is going to show us that purity of life is vitally important if unity and church growth is going to happen. These are not just Paul’s instructions. These are not just the commands from some narrow-minded preacher of days gone by. Paul says here in Ephesians 4:17 that what is about to say are God’s commands as well, as indicated by that phrase and testify in the Lord.
The verb walk characterizes the second half of Ephesians. This verb refers to our manner of life, our conduct, the way we behave, the way we think. Rather than telling us right away how we should walk, which is what he’ll do in Ephesians 4:20 and following, Paul begins by telling us how we should no longer walk.
The phrase no longer implies a couple of things. It implies that we once used to walk in the way he is about to describe, and it implies that even though we are Christians, it is still possible for us to continue to walk in the way he is about to describe. When you became a Christian, things should change.
But they don’t change automatically or easily. No longer living the way we used to is hard work. Changing old habits and old ways of thinking. In this world, in these bodies, it takes a lot of effort to come out from among them and be separate.
Paul is talking here to Gentile Christians in Ephesus, and so he says no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk. This is a fine translation, but if we wanted to be a bit closer to the original Greek, we could translate this as “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk.” And when we hear that, we get a bit confused, right? Isn’t Paul writing to Gentiles? Weren’t the Christians in Ephesus Gentile Christians? Yes they were. But there is something curious about the way Christians began to refer to themselves around this time. Jews divided all humanity into two races – Jews and Gentiles.
When both Jews and Gentiles started becoming Christians, these Christians began to think of themselves as a “third race” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32). So now, rather than there being just two races, there were three. The Jews, the Gentiles and the Church. As members of the church, Paul calls them to no longer walk as they used to.
The rest of this passage gives three descriptive phrases for how they used to walk. The opposite of these three explain how to walk in purity. These descriptions includes the three aspects which sum up all of life – knowing, being and doing. What we know, who we are, and what we do.
- Knowing (Ephesians 4:17a)
Paul begins, as always at the root source of everything – what we know. He says in the last part of verse 17, in the futility of their mind.
Saying that their thinking was futile may have come as quite a shock to the average reader in Paul’s day. “The Greco-Roman society considered the mind to be the best, noblest, and most worthwhile part of the human being – they even considered it to be divine. And with geniuses like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to boast of, they took great pride in their intellectual enlightenment.”
So Paul’s statement here in verse 17 about the futile mind would have shocked most people in his day. Saying that we have a worthless mind would get the same reaction today, right? I mean look around! Look how much we’ve accomplished! All the cures for diseases we have. How far we’ve come in our understanding of the human body, and of this world, and of the universe, and the nature of molecular structures!
How can Paul say that we have a worthless mind? Paul doesn’t mean that our mind is unable to accomplish great things and come up with great ideas. What he means is that it is aiming at a meaningless goal with silly methods.
So what if we can send a man to the moon, and find a cure for cancer, and clone a human being? So what? How will all of that help you when you die without God? All of our accomplishments and achievements are worthless then. Pointless. Meaningless. Futile.
Humans have great minds – it is one of the greatest things God gave us. But for the most part, we have put it to use on meaningless tasks. That is what Paul means here. A mind that has no thought for God and the everlasting is a worthless and futile mind.
And I fear that although we are Christians, we have fallen into this same trap. Paul begins his instructions on how to walk in purity by telling us to no longer think with a futile mind. To no longer spend our brain energy on worthless things – things that have no value for eternity. But I fear, that all too often, this is all we think about.
“We give ourselves to trivialities and diversions. Our minds are given to sports, movies and sitcoms to avoid thought. Our self-centeredness alienates us from God. We do not acknowledge our need of God, do not have time for Him, and if we think about Him at all, our thought is juvenile.”
Our primary [teachers] today are popular singers, actors, and talk-show hosts, and they have led us to ruin. Most of what is offered in movies and on TV is a waste of time. We are offered insipid humor, bizarre talk-shows, and endless [stimulation of the senses]. Little is instructive in a positive way.
And if anything, it’s worse on our youth.
Most people going to movies are between the ages of 12-24, an important time when they are being shaped morally and spiritually. Yet they are presented with far too much sex, promiscuity, and violence…
One person has said, “‘Hollywood is a sewer with service from the Ritz-Carlton.’ He is correct. Forty years ago – when movies were relatively innocent – Christians debated whether they should attend them. Now when they are largely objectionable, we are no longer asking the question.”
We don’t even think for ourselves anymore. We just blindly accept whatever is coming down the pipe, over the airwaves, or though our cables. Our society is so ignorant, it is even unaware of its own ignorance.
And Christians are the worst of all. We think education is for the pastors and the professors and the teachers. But by simple definition, every Christian is called to be a disciple, and “disciple” means “learner.” What have you learned this week about God?
People say that church doesn’t “do it” for them anymore, but that is because they have stopped learning. “Without learning, growth stops and worship shrivels.” Mark Noll, a wonderful and insightful writer, has said that “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
We think we’re thinking. We think we’re discerning. But most of us are committing the greatest of all sins.
There is one sin which is the greatest of all in its negative effect on our lives and the lives of those people we interact with. We run around condemning every sin under the sun except this greatest of all sins. Do you know what the greatest of all sins is? Maybe you’re thinking it is the unpardonable sin – the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. No, that’s not it.
The greatest sin is when we disobey the greatest commandment. And what is the greatest commandment? To love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and…with all your mind. We condemn racism, abortion, and a host of other horrible, terrible sins…but we blindly avoid condemning the greatest sin which every single Christian – including myself – is guilty of: To love God with all my heart, soul and mind.
Paul puts the mind first because that is where the battle is won or lost. Walking in purity is impossible if you have a futile mind. In Romans 12:1-2 tells us to walk in purity and tells us how. He says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…” How? “…by the renewing of your mind.”
Walking in purity begins with your mind. It begins with what you know. Then, based on what you know, walking in purity comes from who you are. This is your being.
- Being (Ephesians 4:18-19a)
Paul uses three phrases to describe a non-Christian as they are in the core of their being. First, they have had their understanding darkened. From the Greek, “being darkened in their understanding” is probably a better translation. It shows that this is their continual way of living. And again, here’s the emphasis on knowledge again, when he says it is their understanding that is darkened.
Second, they are being alienated from the life of God. Obviously, they don’t know or care about God or what He wants, and so they live as they please. The next part of verse 18 tells us why they are this way. They are alienated because of the ignorance that is in them, and because of the blindness of their heart. They are willfully determined to stay in their sin. And notice that the ignorance is in them, and the blindness is of their heart.
This is something they have chosen. They were not forced to be ignorance or blind. Yes, Satan blinds their mind and God hardens hearts, but always in Scripture, this is ONLY after a person has chosen on their own to willfully ignore and disobey the truth that is plainly set before their eyes. That’s what Romans 1 says. They have rejected the truth, and so as a result God has given them over to their lusts.
The term used here for blindness has various uses. It is the Greek word porosis, and comes from the word poros which means “stone”, generally an especially hard stone, like marble, or when something soft becomes hard, like wood becoming petrified. It was also used medically to refer to types of hard growth in the body – like a callous, or an overgrowth that covers fractured bones. When used in reference to the eyes, it means blindness – like when a cataract grows and causes blindness.
So when all of this is understood, we see that this blindness or hardness of the heart is something that was grown into. As people ignore and rebel against the truth that is given to them, they become hardened and blinded to further truth.
It is a sad and vicious cycle leading further into sin. Thirdly and finally, they are past feeling. They are without feeling. Their conscience has been seared (1 Tim. 4:2). They have been in sin so long their conscience has become numb. Furthermore, they would rather sin themselves to death than admit that they are wrong.
According to an ancient Greek story, a Spartan youth stole a fox but then came upon the man from whom he had stolen it. To keep his theft from being discovered, the boy stuck the fox inside his clothes and stood without moving a muscle while the frightened fox tore out his vital organs. Even at the cost of his own painful death he would not own up to his wrong.
Our wicked society is so determined not to be discovered for what it is that it stands unflinching as its very life and vitality is ripped apart by the sins and corruption it holds so dear.
It has become callous, has lost all feeling, both to the reality and to the consequences of sin, and will endure any agony rather than admit that its way of “living” is the way of death. We’ve looked at knowing and being. What they know. Who they are.
III. Doing (Ephesians 4:19b)
What they know determines who they are, and together, these decide what they do. The rest of verse 19 gives us the description. They have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
Lewdness can also be translated as sensuality. It means to be given to the senses. It comes from the Greek word aselgeia. A man given to aselgeia does not care how much he shocks public opinion so long as he can gratify his desires. He loses all decency and shame. He is like a drug user, who first uses the drug in secret, but later, after addiction sets in, openly begs and pleads for the drug. He doesn’t care who sees him, as long as he gets what he wants. That’s lewdness. A person so addicted to sin, he or she will do anything for more of it.
Next, Paul says to work all uncleanness. The word translated “to work” can also mean “practice, or business.” In other words, their business is uncleanness. And that’s true of many of today’s businesses, isn’t it? “Pornography, prostitution, X-rated films, [and] suggestive TV programs…form…the largest industry in our country. The vast majority of it is open, unashamed, and legally protected.
An article in Forbes magazine (Sept. 18, 1978, pp. 81-92) entitled “The X-rated Economy” began by stating the obvious—pornography is no longer an illegal business. The market for pornography is not confined to perverts or other emotional cripples.
To the contrary, the largest part of the market is middle class people. In an increasingly permissive society those who enjoy pornography are free to revel in it. The surprising revelation was that, according to one official estimate, the nation’s pornographers do more than four billion dollars worth of business a year—more than the combined incomes of the often supportive movie and music industries!”
Other estimates place the total pornographic business—including a large segment of the [growing] home video market—at three times that much.
And finally, in Ephesians 4:19, they do all of this with all Greediness. This is the Greek word pleonexia. It is used of people who are willing to step on and sacrifice their neighbor or their best friend to get whatever it is they want. It is the irresistible desire to obtain what we have no right to possess. It might reveal itself in theft, or back-stabbing behavior.
Yes, having a depraved mind has led to a depraved being, which in turn, leads to depraved living so that their very business practices are in the trade of sin. We’ve painted a rather bleak picture today, haven’t we?
Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they should no longer walk in these ways. I don’t know whether they were obedient or not, but I do know that many of us, although we are Christians, still walk in these ways.
But these things should not be. We need to leave these things behind. Paul’s desire, and God’s command here is that we should no longer live this way. I don’t know what your particular struggle is…you know what it is…we all have struggles unique to ourselves…but if it is your desire to obey, let me tell you how.
Jesus tells a story in Luke 11 about an evil spirit being removed from its house. And after it wanders around for a while, it decides to go back to the person from which it came. And when it arrives, if it finds the house empty, it decides to “move back in” and take with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself so that their position is stronger than before. And in this way the situation of that poor person is worse than before as well.
While the story does not refer to a Christian’s experience because a Christian cannot be possessed by demons or evil spirits, the principle of the story does still apply to us. When we became Christians we came to it with all sorts of wrong behaviors and false ideas. These are natural because they are of our natural man. But if we want to gain victory over them, we not only need to remove them from our lives, but replace them with something else. Something from the new man.
Think of the Christian life as your house. Some people I have known over the years have a room in their house where they store all their extra stuff. I had a friend when I was growing up who was part of a wealthy family. One odd thing about this family is that nobody ever did any laundry. The house itself was kept very clean and orderly. The windows were always clean, the floor was always swept, and the dishes where always washed. But nobody ever did the laundry.
So you ask, what did they do with it? Well, they threw it into their garage. That’s right. They had a double car garage and at the time I saw it, they had a pile of dirty laundry that covered the entire floor and went almost to the ceiling. As they wore their clothes and they got dirty, everybody would just throw their clothes out into the garage. And when they ran out of clothes, they would go buy more.
And when their garage got full, they would hire someone to come take it all away and clean out their garage. But then, they start all over throwing laundry into that room, and it never gets better. Now, if they then moved their cars into the garage, they wouldn’t be able to throw their laundry in there anymore, and they would have to start doing the laundry, or giving it away or something.
Do you see what I mean? Your life is a house. And if you have a room full of dirty laundry, the first thing to do is clean out that room. Then, you need to move something Godly into it, like prayer, or Bible reading, or listening to sermons, or fasting, or attending church, or teaching, or evangelizing.
These things will remodel your life. But again, it takes time and effort, and as we have seen today, this kind of remodeling begins with a renewal of your mind. We’ve seen today that sinful behavior stems from a sinful mind – a sinful way of thinking. So, if you really want to change your behavior, you need to cut it off at its source by changing your mind.
 MacArthur, 4:17-19.
 Snodgrass, 229. Keener, 548.
 Swindoll, 123.
 Snodgrass, quoting Barth, 230.
 Snodgrass, 239.
 Ibid, 242-243.
 Ibid, 243.
 Ibid, 244.
Quoted by Snodgrass, 245.
 Swindoll, 124.
 MacArthur, 4:19
 Barclay, 153.
 MacArthur, 4:19
Hi Jeremy- I don’t know how or where this will post or notify you, but I read through your sermon on Ephesians 4:17-19. At some point in time, you added a note at the top with a disclaimer of sorts indicating that you’d now preach this topic differently. As I read through, I can certainly see things that are “sharp,” but I don’t see anything that’s condemning or out-of-bounds, so I’m curious what exactly you’d change? Is it because of the current “climate” we’re in regarding these issues? Is it because you’ve changed your views on this subject?
I have to preach on these verses later in August, and I want to do it well. On the one hand, there’s simply no getting around the historical context and what Paul was living in/around (John as well when he writes from Ephesus later in life). So, I want to be clear and firm on what the Bible says and extra-biblical sources that confirm what that environment was like. But, I also want to handle it with grace and not condemn folks. I like how you broke this down, and it seems like a good mix of both grace and truth. So again, I’m just curious what you’d change and why? Feel free to delete this comment and contact me directly. Thanks for your time!