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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Ephesians 5

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-33

Chapter 5

THE IMITATION OF GOD (Ephesians 5:1-8)

5:1-8 You must become imitators of God, as well loved children imitate their father. You must live in love, as Christ loved you, and gave himself to God as a sacrifice and an offering, a sacrifice which was the odour of a sweet savour to God. Let no one even mention fornication and unclean living and insatiable desire among you--it does not befit God's consecrated people to talk about things like that. Let no one even mention shameful conduct. Let there be no foolish talking and graceless jesting among you for these things are not fitting for people like you. But rather let your talk be a gracious thanksgiving to God. You know this and you are well aware of it, that no fornicator, no unclean liver, no one who gives rein to insatiate desire--which is idolatry has any share in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words. It is because of these vices that the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience. Don't become partners with them.

Paul sets before his Christian people the highest standard in all the world; he tells them they must be imitators of God. Later Clement of Alexandria was to say daringly that the true Christian wise man practises being God. When Paul talked of imitation he was using language which the wise men of Greece could understand. Mimesis, imitation, was a main part in the training of an orator. The teachers of rhetoric declared that the learning of oratory depended on three things--theory, imitation and practice. The main part of their training was the study and the imitation of the masters who had gone before. It is as if Paul said: "If you were to train to be an orator, you would be told to imitate the masters of speech. Since you are training in life, you must imitate the Lord of all good life."

Above all the Christian must imitate the love and the forgiveness of God. Paul uses a typical Old Testament phrase, "odour of a sweet savour," which goes back to a very old idea, as old as sacrifice itself. When a sacrifice was offered on an altar, the odour of the burning meat went up to heaven and the god to whom the sacrifice was offered was supposed to feast upon that odour. A sacrifice which had the odour of a sweet savour was specially pleasing and specially acceptable to the god to whom it was offered.

Paul takes the old phrase which time had hallowed--it occurs almost fifty times in the Old Testament and uses it of the sacrifice that Jesus brought to God. The sacrifice of Jesus was well-pleasing to God.

What was that sacrifice? It was a life of perfect obedience to God and of perfect love to men, an obedience so absolute and a love so infinite that they accepted the Cross. What Paul says is: "Imitate God. And you can do so only by loving men with the same sacrificial love with which Jesus loved them and forgiving them in love as God has done."

Paul goes on to another matter. It has been said that chastity was the one new virtue which Christianity introduced into the world. It is certainly true that the ancient world regarded sexual immorality so lightly that it was no sin at all. It was the expected thing that a man should have a mistress. In places like Corinth the great temples were staffed by hundreds of priestesses who were sacred prostitutes and whose earnings went to the upkeep of the Temple.

In his speech Pro Caelio Cicero pleads: "If there is anyone who thinks that young men should be absolutely forbidden the love of courtesans, he is indeed extremely severe. I am not able to deny the principle that he states. But he is at variance not only with the licence of what our own age allows but also with the customs and concessions of our ancestors. When indeed was this not done? When did anyone ever find fault with it? When was such permission denied? When was it that that which is now lawful was not lawful?"

The Greeks said that Solon was the first person to allow the introduction of prostitutes into Athens and then the building of brothels; and with the profits of the new trade a new Temple was built to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Nothing could show the Greek point of view better than the fact that they saw nothing wrong in building a temple to the gods with the proceeds of prostitution.

When Paul set this stress on moral purity, he was erecting a standard which the ordinary heathen had never dreamed of. That is why he pleads with them so earnestly and lays down his laws of purity with such stringency. We must remember the kind of society from which these Christian converts had come and the kind of society with which they were encompassed. There is nothing in all history like the moral miracle which Christianity wrought.

JESTING ABOUT SIN (Ephesians 5:1-8 continued)

We must note two other warnings which Paul gives.

(i) He says that these shameful sins are not even to be talked about. The Persians had a rule, so Herodotus tells us, by which "it was not even allowed to speak such things as it was not allowed to do." To jest about a thing or to make it a frequent subject of conversation is to introduce it into the mind and to bring nearer the actual doing of it. Paul warns that some things are not safe even to talk or to jest about. It is a grim commentary on human nature that many a book and many a play and many a film has had success simply because it dealt with forbidden and ugly things.

(ii) He says that his converts must not allow themselves to be deceived with empty words. What does he mean? There were voices in the ancient world, even in the Christian Church, which taught men to think lightly of bodily sin.

In the ancient world there was a line of thought called Gnosticism. Gnosticism began from the contention that spirit alone is good and that matter is always evil. If that be so, it follows that only spirit is to be valued and that matter must be utterly despised. Now a man is composed of two parts; he is body and spirit. According to this point of view only his spirit matters; his body is of no importance whatsoever. Therefore, some at least of the Gnostics went on to argue, it does not matter what a man does with his body. It will make no difference if he gluts its desires. Bodily and sexual sin were of no importance because they were of the body and not of the spirit.

Christianity met such teaching with the contention that body and soul are equally important. God is the creator of both, Jesus Christ for ever sanctified human flesh by taking it upon himself, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and Christianity is concerned with the salvation of the whole man, body, soul and spirit.

(iii) That attack came from outside the Church; but an even more dangerous attack came from inside. There were those in the Church who perverted the doctrine of grace.

We hear the undertones of Paul's argument with them in Romans 6:1-23 . Their argument ran like this. "Do you say that God's grace is the greatest thing in all the world?" "Yes." "Do you say that God's grace is wide enough to cover every sin?" "Yes." "Then let us go on sinning, for God's grace can wipe out every sin. In fact the more we sin the more chances God's grace will get to operate."

Christianity met that argument by insisting that grace was not only a privilege and a gift; it was a responsibility and an obligation. It was true that God's love could and would forgive; but the very fact that God loves us lays on us the obligation to deserve that love as best we can.

The gravest disservice any man can do to a fellow man is to make him think lightly of sin. Paul pleaded with his converts not to be deceived with empty words which took the horror from the idea of sin.

THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT (Ephesians 5:9-14)

5:9-14 For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. You must behave as children of the light, for the fruit of light consists in all benevolence and righteousness and truth. You must decide what is well-pleasing to the Lord. You must take no share in the barren works of the dark. Rather you must expose them, for it is a shameful thing even to speak about the hidden things which are done in secret by such men. Whatever is exposed to the light is illuminated. And everything which is illuminated becomes light. That is why it says: "Wake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you."

Paul saw the heathen life as life in the dark; and the Christian life as life in the light. So vividly does he wish to put this that he does not say the heathen are children of the dark and the Christians children of the light; he says the heathen are dark and the Christians are light. He has certain things to say about the light which Jesus Christ brings to men.

(i) The light produces good fruit. It produces benevolence, righteousness and truth. Benevolence (agathosune, Greek #19) is a certain generosity of spirit. The Greeks themselves defined righteousness (dikaiosune, Greek #1343) as "giving to men and to God that which is their due." Truth (aletheia, Greek #225) is not in New Testament thought simply an intellectual thing to be grasped with the mind; it is moral truth, not only something to be known but something to be done. The light which Christ brings makes us useful citizens of this world; it makes us men and women who never fail in duty, human or divine; it makes us strong to do that which we know is true.

(ii) The light enables us to discriminate between that which is well-pleasing and that which is not pleasing to God. It is in the light of Christ that all motives and all actions must be tested. In the bazaars of the east the shops are often simply little covered enclosures with no windows. A man might wish to buy a piece of silk or an article of beaten brass. Before he buys it he takes it out to the street and holds it up to the sun, so that the light might reveal any flaws which happen to be in it. It is the Christian's duty to expose every action, every decision, every motive to the light of Christ.

(iii) The light exposes that which is evil. The best way to rid the world of any evil is to drag it into the light. So long as the thing is being done in secret, it goes on; but when it is taken into the light of day, it dies a natural death. The surest way to cleanse the depths of our own hearts and the practices of any society in which we happen to be involved is to expose them to the light of Christ.

(iv) Finally, Paul says: "Everything which is illuminated becomes light." What he seems to mean is that light has in itself a cleansing quality. In our own generation we know that many a disease has been conquered simply by letting the sunlight in. The light of Christ is like that. We must never think of the light of Christ as only condemnatory; it is a healing thing too.

Paul finishes this passage with a quotation in poetry. In Moffatt's translation it runs:

"Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead;

So Christ will shine upon you."

Paul introduces the quotation as if everybody knew it, but no one now knows where it came from. There are certain interesting suggestions.

Almost certainly, being in poetry, it is a fragment of an early Christian hymn. It may well have been part of a baptismal hymn. In the early Church nearly all baptisms were of adults, confessing their faith as they came out of heathenism into Christianity. Perhaps these were the lines which were sung as they arose from the water, to symbolize the passage from the dark sleep of paganism to the awakened life of the Christian way.

Again, it has been suggested that these lines are part of a hymn, which was supposed to give the summons of the archangel when the last trumpet sounded over the earth. Then would be the great awakening when men rose from the sleep of death to receive the eternal life of Christ.

These things are speculations, but it seems certain that when we read these lines, we are reading a fragment of one of the first hymns the Christian Church ever sang.

THE CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP (Ephesians 5:15-21)

5:15-21 Be very careful how you live. Do not live like unwise men, but like wise men. Use your time with all economy for these are evil days. That is the reason why you must not be senseless, but you must understand what the will of God is. Do not get drunk with wine--that is profligacy--but be filled with the Spirit. Speak to each other in psalms and hymns and songs the Spirit teaches you. Let the words and the music of your praise to God come from your heart. Give thanks for all things at all times to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be subject to one another because you reverence Christ.

Paul's general appeal finishes with an exhortation to his converts to live like wise men. The times in which they are living are evil; they must rescue as much time as they can from the evil uses of the world.

He goes on to draw a contrast between a pagan gathering and a Christian gathering. The pagan gathering is apt to be a debauch. It is significant that we still use the word symposium for a discussion of a subject by a number of people; the Greek word sumposion (Greek #4849) literally means a drinking-party. Once A. C. Welch was preaching on this text: "Be filled with the Spirit." He began with one sudden sentence: "You've got to fill a man with something." The heathen found his happiness in filling himself with wine and with worldly pleasures; the Christian found his happiness in being filled with the Spirit.

From this passage we can gather certain facts about the Christian gatherings in the early days.

(i) The early Church was a singing Church. Its characteristic was psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; it had a happiness which made men sing.

(ii) The early Church was a thankful Church. The instinct was to give thanks for all things and in all places and at all times. Chrysostom, great preacher of the Church of a later day, had the curious thought that a Christian could give thanks even for Hell, because Hell was a warning to keep him in the right way. The early Church was a thankful Church because its members were still dazzled with the wonder that God's love had stooped to save them; and it was a thankful Church because its members had such a consciousness that they were in the hands of God.

(iii) The early Church was a Church where men honoured and respected each other. Paul says that the reason for this mutual honour and respect was that they reverenced Christ. They saw each other not in the light of their professions or social standing but in the light of Christ; and therefore they saw the dignity of every man.

THE PRECIOUS BOND (Ephesians 5:22-33)

5:22-33 Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord; for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church, though there is this great difference, that Christ is the Saviour of the whole body. But, even allowing for this difference, even as the Church is subject to Christ, so wives must be subject to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for the Church, that by the washing of water he might purify her and consecrate her as she made confession of her faith, that he might make the Church to stand in his presence in all her glory, without any spot which soils, or any wrinkle which disfigures, or any such imperfection, but that she might be consecrated and blameless. So ought husbands to love their wives, to love them as they love their own bodies. He who loves his wife really loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh; rather he nourishes it and cherishes it. So Christ loves the Church because we are parts of his body. For this cause a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a symbol which is very great--I mean when it is seen as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church. However that may be, let each and every one of you love his wife as he loves himself, and let the wife reverence her husband.

No one reading this passage in the twentieth century can fully realize how great it is. Throughout the years the Christian view of marriage has come to be widely accepted. It still is recognised as the ideal by the majority even in these permissive days. Even where practice has fallen short of that ideal, it has always been in the minds and hearts of men who live in a Christian situation. Marriage is regarded as the perfect union of body, mind and spirit between a man and a woman. But things were very different when Paul wrote. In this passage Paul is setting forth an ideal which shone with a radiant purity in an immoral world.

Let us look briefly at the situation against which Paul wrote this passage.

The Jews had a low view of women. In his morning prayer there was a sentence in which a Jewish man gave thanks that God had not made him "a Gentile, a slave or a woman." In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely her husband's possession to do with as he willed.

In theory the Jew had the highest ideal of marriage. The Rabbis had their sayings. "Every Jew must surrender his life rather than commit idolatry, murder or adultery." "The very altar sheds tears when a man divorces the wife of his youth." But the fact was that by Paul's day, divorce had become tragically easy.

The law of divorce is summarized in Deuteronomy 24:1. "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house." Obviously everything turns on the interpretation of some indecency. The stricter Rabbis, headed by the famous Shammai, held that the phrase meant adultery and adultery alone, and declared that even if a wife was as mischievous as Jezebel a husband might not divorce her except for adultery. The more liberal Rabbis, headed by the equally famous Hillel, interpreted the phrase in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man might divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, if she walked in public with her head uncovered, if she talked with men in the streets, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband's parents in her husband's hearing, if she was a brawling woman, if she was troublesome or quarrelsome. A certain Rabbi Akiba interpreted the phrase if she finds no favour in his eyes to mean that a husband might divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he considered more attractive. It is easy to see which school of thought would predominate.

Two facts in Jewish law made the matter worse. First, the wife had no rights of divorce at all, unless her husband became a leper or an apostate or engaged in a disgusting trade. Broadly speaking, a husband, under Jewish law, could divorce his wife for any cause; a wife could divorce her husband for no cause. Second, the process of divorce was disastrously easy. The Mosaic law said that a man who wished a divorce had to hand his wife a bill of divorcement which said, "Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt." All a man had to do was to hand that bill of divorcement, correctly written out by a Rabbi, to his wife in the presence of two witnesses and the divorce was complete. The only other condition was that the woman's dowry must be returned.

At the time of Christ's coming the marriage bond was in peril even among the Jews, so much so that the very institution of marriage was threatened since Jewish girls were refusing to marry because their position as wife was so uncertain.

THE PRECIOUS BOND Ephesians 5:22-33 (continued)

The situation was worse in the Greek world. Prostitution was an essential part of Greek life. Demosthenes had laid it down as the accepted rule of life: "We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs." The woman of the respectable classes in Greece led a completely secluded life. She took no part in public life; she never appeared on the streets alone; she never even appeared at meals or at social occasions; she had her own apartments and none but her husband might enter into them. It was the aim that, as Xenophon had it, "she might see as little as possible, hear as little as possible and ask as little as possible."

The Greek respectable woman was brought up in such a way that companionship and fellowship in marriage was impossible. Socrates said: "Is there anyone to whom you entrust more serious matters than to your wife--and is there anyone to whom you talk less?" Verus was the imperial colleague of the great Marcus Aurelius. He was blamed by his wife for associating with other women, and his answer was that she must remember that the name of wife was a title of dignity but not of pleasure. The Greek expected his wife to run his home, to care for his legitimate children, but he found his pleasure and his companionship elsewhere.

To make matters worse, there was no legal procedure of divorce in Greece. As someone has put it, divorce was by nothing else than caprice. The one security that the wife had was that her dowry must be returned. Home and family life were near to being extinct and fidelity was completely nonexistent.

THE PRECIOUS BOND Ephesians 5:22-33 (continued)

In Rome the matter was still worse; its degeneracy was tragic. For the first five hundred years of the Roman Republic there had been not one single case of divorce. The first recorded divorce was that of Spurius Carvilius Ruga in 234 B.C. But at the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. In Rome the Romans did not commonly date their years by numbers; they called them by the names of the consuls; Seneca says that women dated the years by the names of their husbands. Martial tells of a woman who had had ten husbands; Juvenal tells of one who had had eight husbands in five years; Jerome declares it to be true that in Rome there was a woman who was married to her twenty-third husband and she herself was his twenty-first wife. We find a Roman Emperor Augustus demanding that her husband should divorce the lady Livia when she was with child that he might himself marry her. We find even Cicero, in his old age, putting away his wife Terentia that he might marry a young heiress, whose trustee he was, that he might enter into her estate in order to pay his debts.

That is not to say that there was no such thing as fidelity. Suetonius tells of a Roman lady called Mallonia who committed suicide rather than submit to the favours of Tiberius the Emperor. But it is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere was adulterous. The marriage bond was on the way to complete breakdown.

It is against this background that Paul writes. When he wrote this lovely passage he was not stating the view that every man held. He was calling men and women to a new purity and a new fellowship in the married life. It is impossible to exaggerate the cleansing effect that Christianity had on home life in the ancient world and the benefits it brought to women.

THE GROWTH OF PAUL'S THOUGHT (Ephesians 5:22-33 continued)

In this passage we find Paul's real thought on marriage. There are things which Paul wrote about marriage which puzzle us and may make us wish that he had never written them. The unfortunate thing is that it is these things which are so often quoted as Paul's view of marriage.

One of the strangest chapters is 1 Corinthians 7:1-40 . He is talking about marriage and about the relationships between men and women. The blunt truth is that Paul's teaching is that marriage is permissible merely in order to avoid something worse. "Because of the temptation to immorality," he writes, "each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband" (1 Corinthians 7:2). He allows that a widow may marry again but it would be better if she remained single (1 Corinthians 7:39-40). He would prefer the unmarried and the widows not to marry. "But if they cannot exercise self control they should marry; for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:9).

There was a reason why Paul wrote like that. It was because he hourly expected the Second Coming of Jesus. It was therefore his conviction that no one should undertake any earthly ties whatsoever, but that all should concentrate on using the short time which remained in preparing for the coming of their Lord. "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife" (1 Corinthians 7:32-33).

Between I Corinthians and Ephesians there is a space of perhaps nine years. In these nine years Paul had realized that the Second Coming was not to be so soon as he had thought, that in fact he and his people were living, not in a temporary situation, but in a more or less permanent situation. And it is in Ephesians that we find Paul's true teaching on marriage, that Christian marriage is the most precious relationship in life, whose only parallel is the relationship between Christ and the Church.

It is just possible that the Corinthians passage was coloured by Paul's personal experience. It would seem that in his days as a zealous Jew, he was a member of the Sanhedrin. When he is telling of his conduct towards the Christians, he says: "I cast my vote against them" (Acts 26:10). It would also seem that one of the qualifications for membership of the Sanhedrin was marriage, and that therefore Paul must have been a married man. He never mentions his wife. Why? It may well be that it was because she turned against him when he became a Christian. It may be that when he wrote I Corinthians Paul was speaking out of a situation in which, not only did he expect the immediate coming of Christ, but in which he had also found his own marriage one of his greatest problems and sorest heartbreaks; so that he saw marriage as a handicap for the Christian.

THE BASIS OF LOVE (Ephesians 5:22-33 continued)

Sometimes the emphasis of this passage is entirely misplaced; and it is read as if its essence was the subordination of wife to husband. The single phrase, "The husband is the head of the wife," is quoted in isolation. But the basis of the passage is not control; it is love. Paul says certain things about the love that a husband must bear his wife.

(i) It must be a sacrificial love. He must love her as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for the Church. It must never be a selfish love. Christ loved the Church, not that the Church might do things for him, but that he might do things for the Church. Chrysostom has a wonderful expansion of this passage: "Hast thou seen the measure of obedience? Hear also the measure of love. Wouldst thou that thy wife shouldst obey thee as the Church doth Christ? Have care thyself for her as Christ for the Church. And if it be needful that thou shouldst give thy life for her, or be cut to pieces a thousand times, or endure anything whatever, refuse it not.... He brought the Church to his feet by his great care, not by threats nor fear nor any such thing; so do thou conduct thyself towards thy wife."

The husband is head of the wife--true, Paul said that; but he also said that the husband must love the wife as Christ loved the Church, with a love which never exercises a tyranny of control but which is ready to make any sacrifice for her good.

(ii) It must be a purifying love. Christ cleansed and consecrated the Church by the washing of water on the day when each member of the Church took his confession of faith. It may well be that Paul has in mind a Greek custom. One of the Greek marriage customs was that before the bride was taken to her marriage she was bathed in the water of a stream sacred to some god or goddess. In Athens, for instance, the bride was bathed in the waters of the Callirhoe, which was sacred to the goddess Athene. It is of baptism that Paul is thinking. By the washing of baptism and by the confession of faith, Christ sought to make for himself a Church, cleansed and consecrated, until there was neither soiling spot nor disfiguring wrinkle upon it. Any love which drags a person down is false. Any love which coarsens instead of refining the character, which necessitates deceit, which weakens the moral fibre, is not love. Real love is the great purifier of life.

(iii) It must be a caring love. A man must love his wife as he loves his own body. Real love loves not to extract service, nor to ensure that its own physical comfort is attended to, it cherishes the one it loves. There is something far wrong when a man regards his wife, consciously or unconsciously, as simply the one who cooks his meals and washes his clothes and cleans his house and trains his children.

(iv) It is an unbreakable love. For the sake of this love a man leaves father and mother and cleaves to his wife. They become one flesh. He is as united to her as the members of the body are united to each other; and would no more think of separating from her than of tearing his own body apart. Here indeed was an ideal in an age when men and women changed partners with as little thought as they changed clothes.

(v) The whole relationship is in the Lord. In the Christian home Jesus is an ever-remembered, though an unseen, guest. In Christian marriage there are not two partners, but three--and the third is Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Ephesians 5:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/ephesians-5.html. 1956-1959.


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