A few Wednesday nights ago, I asked the youth a question that they had a difficult time answering. I asked them, “Who are you?” I have asked this question to a number of people over the years, and the responses are pretty amusing. “I am Ben.” Great, what does that tell me about you other than the fact that your parents named you Ben? “I am a boy.” Ok, so is half the class. “Who are you?” Eventually, my goal is to drill down in their thinking so that they recognize the characteristics that make them who they are - their identity.
When it comes to our identity, Scripture has much to say, because who we are affects what we do. Paul Tripp and Tim Lane recognize that there seems to be a formula that is true for you and me. The formula is this: I am _______, therefore I can _________. To illustrate this point, think of Superman. He is able to repel bullets with his skin, therefore he can save people from hostage situations and not be hurt. He is super-fast, therefore he can save the person standing in front of the oncoming car without being hit.
We, the non-superheroes, also think this way. How many men this morning woke up, stepped up to the closet and had to actually think about what they were going to wear? “Hmm, will it be a suit or a dress today?” No! We don’t think like that! This is how it goes: “I am a man, therefore I don’t wear dresses.” We don’t even have to consider it, do we? I am, therefore I can. Another example may occur if you consistently make bad grades, and it may look like this: I am a bad student, therefore I cannot make good grades no matter how hard I try - so I won’t try.
This “I am, therefore I can” way of thinking and living not only affects superheroes and men’s dressing habits and students who make bad grades, but it clearly affects the Christian life. Read with me as we examine Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, beginning in 4:17, and observe how Paul seeks to form our identity.
We see Paul laying out before us that the way we think of ourselves fully influences the way we act. What the apostle does here is lay out two different paths of how we may think about ourselves, along with the way of life that comes out of these paths.
First, Paul tells the Ephesians not to walk like the world does. Specifically, he tells these Gentile believers not to walk, or live, like the rest of the Gentiles around them. Consider where these Christians were living - Ephesus. It was a place of much idolatry, where sexual perversion was rampant, and where temptation to sin was all around. Think of what it would be like to live in a culture that thrived on sin, in all its forms. And you, a follower of the holy Messiah, are having to make decisions at every moment as to how you will live in this city as a redeemed person. Does it sound all that different from today? Not much, so listen closely as Paul begins.
Paul jumps back into his exhortation that he began in vs. 1 to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” Beginning in vs. 17, Paul explains more fully what he meant. He bases these following statements not in his own authority as an apostle of Christ (which would have been sufficient authority), but he goes further, saying “This I say and I bear witness in the Lord.” He says that these words have Christ as their root.
What do Paul and Christ, say? That these Gentile believers are to no longer live like they used to. They are to no longer walk as the world does, as Paul and the other NT authors often refer to the manner of living of non-Christ-followers. There is a definite break with the world’s way of living when one follows Christ. You are not only called to live differently, you are in fact already different, which we will examine in the last part of this passage.
But before Paul explains positively how we are to live, he first negatively explains how we are not to live. Paul uses much of the identity language here - I am ________, therefore I can ________. So, how does being of the world influence how you live?
First, he says the Gentiles are constantly walking in the “futility of their mind.” Futility means “emptiness.” In this case, the Gentiles are empty in their minds. This doesn’t mean that they were stupid, having no understanding of what was around them. But it does mean that they didn’t understand things rightly and fully. Why, you might ask?
Paul explains in vs. 18 his basis for saying that the world outside of Christ has futile minds. How are their minds futile? He says, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” From where does the futile mind come? If you trace the language that Paul uses through these verses, you will see that the ultimate cause of their futile mind is their hardness of heart. It works like this: Their hearts are hard, which causes them to be ignorant of the truth, because though they see clearly who God is through His creation and how He acts, they choose not to believe the truth - they harden their hearts; this ignorance causes them to have darkened minds, because though they have the natural ability to know God, their darkened minds lead them to have no knowledge of the truth about Him; this darkness of their hearts and minds lead them to being alienated from the life coming from God, because though God gives life abundantly, they don’t have a category for living for someone other than themselves. This self-induced/sin-induced alienation, as we will see in the next verse, leads to losing all feeling and awareness of sin, and thus jumping headlong into all kinds of sin.
Sound familiar? This closely parallels Romans 1:18-32. But here in Ephesians, though it is written by the same author as Romans, we see a different take on this free fall into sin. Romans looks at this process of futility and sin as being God’s judgment. When you live a life identified by sin, you are bearing God’s judgment already. Here in Ephesians, Paul looks at a different aspect - that we, ourselves, lead the way into sin. It is because of our hardened hearts that we ultimately sin. Both passages are true. God does judge us by giving us over to our sin; but we also choose to follow the sinful path because of the futility of our minds. We are darkened to truth. We do not understand what we are doing. We are foolish. Does this describe you?
It starts with the hardness of our hearts. They are petrified. They refuse to allow light in. Consider this, if you do not believe in God or follow after Christ, why is it that you do not believe. Or, if you say you believe, why do you live in an opposing way to how Christ has called us to live? Is it because you cannot understand what God has said in His word? No. His commandments are easy to understand. It is not our inability to understand the Law that keeps us from observing it, no more than it was Adam and Eve’s inability to understand the simple command, “do not eat from this tree,” that caused them to sin.
We often think that our ignorance will be an excuse before the Lord; but here in Ephesians 4:18, we see that our ignorance isn’t excusable, because our ignorance is self-sought. We see the truth, and we harden our hearts against it. Much like the men in the synagogue in Mark 3:5-6, when having just observed Jesus heal a man with a withered hand, they, rather than glorifying God because of the work of Jesus, instead began to plot to kill Him. The problem was not their knowledge - they saw Jesus heal a man before their very eyes! The empirical evidence was there. A person without a hard heart would have seen and believed and followed. They could not plead ignorance. Instead of ignorance being the cause of their unbelief, Jesus points to their hard hearts - “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their harness of heart...”
Maybe you’ve experienced this, unbeliever. Maybe even today you’ve heard the truth from God’s Word, Christ publicly portrayed as crucified, and instead of agreeing with the truth, you stubbornly found an excuse to excuse yourself from His demands. Do understand that your unwillingness to believe is both a result of your sinful, petrified heart, as well as a judgment from God. If you keep on in this way, you will find that you have no desire even to know God, because you will have lost all feeling, as we will see in the next verse.
We see, then, that a hardened heart leads to ignorance, and ignorance leads to a darkened mind that cannot see truth for what it is, and is in fact repulsed by it. And this darkened heart is spoken of by Paul as being related to a “separation from the life of God.” Now this “life of God” is both a characteristic of God, and a gift from God. The life of God is what we see in His characteristics of eternality and being. God has always had life, and this life was given to Adam at creation. We see in Genesis 3 how it is that the life of God interacts with sin, as spelled out by Paul here in our passage. God told Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die. The life of God was taken from Adam the moment he ate of the fruit. No longer was he gaining life from God. He would now eventually die. And what’s more, there is no spiritual life coming from an ongoing, holy relationship between God and man. Once there was communion. Now there is separation, alienation.
Paul goes on to say that the result of the process that began with the hardening of our hearts is that we give ourselves over to sin. We see the direct result of our darkened minds and our separation from God is that we “have lost all feeling.” Some translations use the word callous here, and that is a good depiction. If you’ve ever played guitar for very long, you know what a callous is. God has made your finger tips to be very sensitive to touch, so that as you go through your day, you can feel what is around you, if it is dangerous or not. Is it hot? Is it sharp? Your finger tips can tell you. But, when you play guitar, pressing into sharp mettle strings will cut tiny grooves into your fingertips, and it hurts! But, if you keep playing, soon you will find that it no longer hurts. And, instead of soft, smooth fingertips, you now have thick, calloused fingertips. You can now cut them on the strings, and there is no pain, because you have extra layers of padding that keeps the pain from getting to your nerves.
Now, if you take that kind of deadening and see it from a spiritual direction, you see the problem. No longer does the Law have its helpful and hurtful effect on your heart. Instead of being a school master that teaches us God’s will and pushes us to Christ, we no longer feel the pain of its discipline. We ignore the Law written on our consciences, so instead of being driven to Christ, we run full speed away from Him and to sin. No longer do we have fear. No longer do we see this God who is holy and all powerful and thus fear doing what He has told us not to do. In fact, we revel in NOT doing what He has commanded us. This is what happens when you loose feeling in your hearts.
Paul says that the result of losing all feeling is that we give ourselves over to sensuality, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Maybe you’ve experienced this in your sin. You fall into a particular sin, and your heart is pierced by your conscience. You know you were wrong, and you repent. But the next time you are given the opportunity, the punishment seems less frightening (due to your hardening heart and your darkening mind), and you are more inclined to do it. And this cycle increases in intensity until you get to the point that you now are full on sinning without a care as to the result. You’ve become reckless in your sin. In context, we see this is especially true of sexual sin. Remember that this is Ephesus Paul is writing to. The temple prostitutes were rampant here. Sexual sin was all around. And Paul says that the Gentiles here “gave themselves to the sensuality” that was presented to them, and even were “greedy for impure practices.”
If this was true in 1st century Ephesus, how much more must we be careful today. How are you guarding yourself from losing feeling in your heart? What are you doing to check the stubbornness of your heart and the light in your mind? Do see that Paul is telling Christians NOT to live like the world? It is a temptation. Sin is there waiting for you to be greedy for it.
What will keep you from greed for every kind of impurity? What can you do to stop the futility of your worldly mind from going down the sinful path?
Paul tells us that this worldly way of living, this worldly identity, is not allowable for the believer, and he does this by reminding the Christians at Ephesus what it means to find their identity in Jesus - to be a Christ follower.
As a Christian, you no longer have the world as a your model. Adam is no longer your head. Satan is no longer your father. You have been bought with a price, and you are not your own. You belong to Christ. You are heirs with Him and you are the inheritance of God. Paul has been teaching us these truths all through Ephesians. He puts much emphasis on the work of Christ in not only positionally sanctifying, but also actually sanctifying believers. And now, Paul examines what it is that is different between the world and believers.
1. He says that a big difference is that we have “learned Christ.” Notice he does not say we learned about Christ. We actually learned Christ - Jesus is the subject of what we learned. Paul is referring to the knowledge that was given to the believers in the past that informed them of who Christ is and what He did for them. We see, then, that if we are to be separate from the world, we must be learning Christ. We must know Him intimately. As strong and as wildly as the world is greedy after impure things, we must be greedy for Christ. We must never be satisfied with our current experience of Him.
2. We also see that Christ is the teacher of what we learned - “you heard Him.” Now, Paul is not saying that Jesus supernaturally appeared to the Ephesian believers, but that through the teachings of Paul and the other apostles and teachers, they actually heard Christ speaking. We, too, hear Jesus speaking every time we read His Word or gather to hear the Scriptures taught. It is not simply an earthly experiment in communications - it is a divine communion between Christ and His bride.
3. Paul says that not only is Christ the subject and teacher, but He is also the atmosphere in which we are taught - “you were taught in Him, just as the truth is in Jesus.” The opposite of a darkened mind is an enlightened mind, one that has been invaded by the truth of Jesus. If we come to know Jesus, it is only because He has taken up residence in our hearts and minds, and through the fellowship that we have with Him, we learn Him, from Him, in Him. No longer are we worldly - ignorant and darkened in our minds - Christ has become our identity!
If we are to fight the downward spiral of sin, we must know Christ. His life is our goal. His character is our identity. He is the good news of the Gospel.
But there are consequences of knowing Christ. If one has learned Christ from Christ in Christ, then there are natural repercussions, and in fact Paul says that these repercussions are part of “learning Christ” - to put away the old man, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man.
We are told that when we first “learned Christ,” we learned to “put away the old man.” This word for “put away” is a past, complete action. Like taking off your filthy clothes, Paul tells us that we disposed of our old, sin-ridden identities. This speaks of everyone of us who believe. We cannot keep around the sinful parts that we find comforting - our link with the past. When your heart was softened by the Lord, your ignorance gave way to knowledge, and your darkened mind was enlightened, and you were brought into communion once again with the life of God, you “put away the old man.” It became what Paul calls here “your former way of life.” Paul says that life was corrupt according to the desires of deceit. So, while Paul is spelling out what happened in the past, there is also a commanding force to what he is saying. We have been taught in the truth of Jesus, so the desire of deceit has no more place in us. Because we “learned Christ,” we are not to be fooled by the lying allure of sin any longer. We see what it is and know what it does. We must continue to put away the sin that characterizes the old man.
Another result of learning Christ from Christ in Christ is the renewal of the spirit of your mind. The word for “be renewed” is in the present tense. It is something that we are to constantly and continually be doing. While this is a passive verb, something that happens to us, Paul is encouraging us to “be renewed.” What does he mean?
How many of us have had good intentions to spend time in the Word. We set our alarms to wake up, and if we would have gotten up, we would have enjoyed the fellowship with our Creator through the Holy Spirit in the spirit of our minds. But, we falter. We fail. We do not do what we want to do. According to Paul here, renewing us is the work of God, yet our presence was needed for this continual renewal to take place. He is urging us to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and give ourselves to be renewed. We do this as we spend time in the Word, reading it, meditating on it, applying it; we do this in prayer; we do this as we gather together as the Body. When we do these things, the spirit of our minds are renewed, and we continually find our identity in the Lord.
A final repercussion of learning Christ was that we “put on the new man” - like “putting off the old man,” another past, complete verb. This is another way that we “learned Christ.” I think that probably, of all of these repercussions of learning Christ, we forget this one the most. We see the need for being renewed in our minds, and we see the need for putting off the old man; but by taking off the old man, does that mean that we’ve put on the new? Not necessarily. This topic is where Paul is going to spend much time in the next couple of chapters in Ephesians. We are to put away falsehood, and put on the new man by speaking the truth with our neighbor (vs. 25). We are no longer to steal, and to put on the new man by working (vs. 28). We are not to have corrupting talk, but, putting on the new man, we are only to speak that which builds up others (vs. 29).
How often have you stopped being angry over something, but forgot to put on love? How much do we cease coveting others’ belongings, but forget to put on contentment in the Lord? How many times have you not said the negative thing that you were thinking, but not gone further and used the opportunity to build up someone with your words? This is how we put on the new man! In the passage we read at the beginning of the service, Paul tells us in Colossians 3:10-14, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator....Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” This is what Christ did as the new man! And this work that He began doing in us when we first believed is recreating us in His image, “in true righteousness and holiness.” For that is our goal: to glorify Christ by being holy and blameless before Him (Eph. 1:4), and this we do when we put on the Christ that we have learned and find our identity in Him.
So, where do you find your identity? Is it with the world? The old man that is corrupt with the desire of deceit? Does holiness and righteousness even come into mind as you walk through your life? Or do you find your identity in Christ? Have you learned Him? Are you putting away the old man and putting on the new man, created in the likeness of God? Does the thought, “What would Christ do in this instance,” ever cross your mind?
Where do you find your identity? Paul here urges us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we’ve been called, and not to walk as the world does. Which path are you on? Are you having the spirit of your mind renewed? If not, do recognize what that says about the condition of your heart and mind - you are blind to the fact that you are ignorant of the truth. Take Paul’s encouragement, then, and go learn from Christ. Hear Him. Be taught in Him. Be recreated in His likeness. Then your identity will be sure, and you will experience the life of God.
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