Ephesians 5:1-20: The previous chapter ends by encouraging the Ephesian Christians to forgive as God has forgiven. This chapter begins with the more general admonition – “Be imitators of God.” Another way of saying this is to say, “Live in love as Christ loved us.” Christ’s love was demonstrated in the way he gave himself for others, even in death. The language of Temple worship is invoked as one way to think about Christ’s death. It is love that is central, not sacrifice.
Love has many opposites – sexual immorality and greed among them. Don’t allow love to turn into lust, setting off a downhill slide into sexual promiscuity, filthy practices or bullying greed (The Message). Why has the church usually been more ready to talk about misuse of sexuality than about greed? Both work against love – sexuality that does not take seriously the other but only looks after its own satisfaction, greed that makes one’s focus only one’s self forgetting about others. Greed can be seen as a form of idolatry, putting things in the place of God. Even certain kinds of talk work against love, but that should come as no surprise. These that work against love are not a part of “the kingdom of Christ and of God.” This author equates these terms, the less frequent one being “the kingdom of Christ.”
The author again draws a distinction between the life lived before and the life lived now in the light of God’s love. These people are light and they should live as light. The Christian live can often be thought of as becoming who we really are. To live as people of light is to do all that is “good and right and true.” The writer continues to play with the image of light and darkness as before-and-after contrast – before being Christian and after being Christian. These are not abstract categories, defining all who are not Christian as living in darkness. The writer has Christians in mind, people who came from some place else in their lives, mostly the worship of Greek or Roman gods. That the worship of such gods is no longer practiced probably says something about the limitations of the spirituality inspired by these religions. In many cases it was a spirituality that perpetuated the injustices of the Roman empire. The Ephesians are encouraged to live in the light, to live as if all they do is done in the bright light of day. With daylight comes waking up, another metaphor for the Christian spiritual life. Part of verse 14 is considered a fragment from an early Christian hymn.
More general advice follows – live as wise people. Continue to seek out the purposes of God. Avoid drunkenness – instead of wine, be filled with the Spirit. Drunkenness was a part of certain religious rituals celebrating some of the Greek and Roman gods. Other kinds of unwise behavior often followed. Instead, Christian life is a Spirit-filled one and there is to be joy in that, gratitude and joy.
Ephesians 5:21-33: The writer of Ephesians has been trying to delineate how Christians should live: as people created in Christ for a way of life characterized by good works (2:10), as people of a new humanity (2:15), as Spirit-empowered people who have Christ dwelling in their hearts (3:16-17), as those being rooted and grounded in love (3:17). He is trying to describe what it means to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1), to “be imitators of God,” and to “live in love” (5:1). He has talked about being loving and supportive and forgiving. He has talked about avoiding misguided sexual expression and greed, and about using words wisely and lovingly. So far, so good. We would probably agree with what has been said. Now the author draws out what he sees as important for family life, and here we struggle with the language. The person’s essential insight is sound, that how we live in relationship with those in our most intimate relations is also to be an expression of living in love. We may disagree with some of the specifics of that. We might argue that, in our context, some of what he suggests would not represent living in love. It will help us read this passage more intelligently if we know more about its historical context.
In the New Testament, Colossians 3:18-4:1 records the first household code, which is a roster of duties for members of a Greco-Roman household. Aristotle’s Politics argues that the domination of males over females ensures a properly functioning household and ultimately an efficient state. The literary form, which lists subordinate members before dominant members and a command followed by a motive for obedience, occurs in Stoic sources. The household codes and the vice and virtue lists were borrowed by early Christian writers from these sources. The relative freedom afforded Christian women and slaves represented a threat to the larger culture and began to be limited by church leadership at the end of the first century CE. The household code in Ephesians has been misused…. The writer’s intent is not to universalize Greco-Roman household management. The passage teaches that all Christians are under Christ’s lordship and are to “submit” to one another for Christ’s sake. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).
Verse 21 states the basic principle for living in love, for imitating God – be subject to one another in Christ. “In the Christian community there is a mutual serving of one another that takes precedence over all social structures” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Message: Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another. Again, this is the basic point and the writer looks for models around him to spell this out. We can criticize the specifics he offers on the basis of his own basic principle. He used models from the surrounding culture which don’t seem as relevant anymore. We might find better models for living in love and being courteously reverent toward each other. While the language of wives being subject to their husbands is not very helpful to us, we should notice that this is paired with the instruction for husbands to love their lives as Christ loved the church. That love was understood as a love leading to a death for the good of the other. The passage, as limiting as it is, also raises the status of marriage within the church. God’s relationship with humankind in Christ and marriage share in a similar kind of love.
Ephesians 6:1-9: The household code continues as the writer extends his meditation on what living in love may mean in the relationship between children and parents and between slaves and masters. Children are to obey their parents. On the other hand, fathers are to be careful in not provoking their children to anger. Instead they are charged with guiding them in the Christian way of life.
The next section about slavery is disturbing and it should be. The author does not question the institution of slavery, but asks slaves to work well for their masters. On the other hand, masters are to treat slave with respect, a radically novel idea for the time.
Again, as the writer tries to figure out what it means to be imitators of God and live in love, we can criticize some of the specifics while admiring the effort to bring all of life’s relationships into the orbit of living the faith.
Ephesians 6:10-20: The writer moves from his specific examples of how to live in love in one’s household relationship back to more general principles of Christian living. He encourages his readers to be strong in the power of God, noting that the struggles of life are against cosmic powers. “Individual sins and crimes and entrenched systemic social evils are the expressions of an even deeper evil” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Recall our discussion of the language of the Powers in Galatians 4 and 6. Evil seems to take on a life of its own, sometimes. For instance, we justify our mistreatment of a racial group by concocting an ideology of racial inferiority. That takes on a life of its own and becomes woven into an understanding of the world, an unhealthy filter that warps our perception of the world. Such perceptions can become “just the way things are.” A person might, without thinking, say, for example, that someone who gets the upper hand in a negotiation has “jewed” the other person, reinforcing a horrible stereotype without even thinking about it. We struggle against such forces in our battle for good.
In that struggle we are invited to “take up the whole armor of God.” While military imagery can be uncomfortable, it is not meant to support militarism. It reminds us that our spiritual struggles can be real struggles. Our “weapons” are distinctly nonviolent – truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. (The Message) The “word of God” is portrayed as a sword. “The word of God is not identified as the Bible, but as in 1:13 and 6:15, the Christian gospel in and through which God speaks” (People’s New Testament Commentary)
In the midst of the struggles of faith, pray and keep alert. The writer asks for prayers for his ministry.
Ephesians 6:21-24: The ending fits with other letters of Paul except there are no personal greetings, which seems odd for the amount of time Paul spent in Ephesus. Tychicus was a coworker of Paul, and represents the next generation of Pauline Christianity. If this letter was not written by Paul, it was written within the school of Pauline Christianity. Peace, love and grace are offered in the faith.