“I instruct you from the Lord to no longer live as heathens. In the perverseness and emptiness of their souls, their moral understanding has become darkened and they are delusional. They are estranged from the life of God due to their willful ignorance and insensitive hearts. In their spiritual apathy they have grown callous, lost all sense of shame, and abandoned themselves to unrestrained sensuality. They are eager to engage in any form of impurity their depraved desires suggest. But this is not what Christ has taught you. This is assuming you have really heard Him and have learned from Him, for all truth is embodied in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:17-21, paraphrased)
The conduct of the Ephesian Christians is the focus of this passage. “Therefore” is a term indicating Paul is referring to a previous statement (4:1-3). He now begins a solemn exhortation “in the Lord” or as one speaking on behalf of Jesus Himself. They are no longer to “walk” (peripateo) or conduct themselves like the heathens that surround them. “Gentiles” (ethnos) is a term generally applied to all non-Jews or pagans. Because it was the center of Diana worship, the congregation was almost certainly comprised of former idolaters (Acts 19:24-29). Some historians believe Ephesus was the most promiscuous city in Asia Minor.
Paul reminds the Ephesian Believers of how they lived prior to their conversion and how they are to live now. The indwelling Holy Spirit will give them new priorities (Rom. 8:9). The apostle now commences a detailed description of the world view of unsaved persons. It is a snapshot of the tragic consequences of rejecting Christ.
“They walk in the vanity of their minds.”
This phrase paints a portrait of a morally perverted lifestyle. “Vanity” (mataioteti) means more than emptiness, for it includes idolatrous practices. “Mind” (nous) is not merely the intellect, but also the faculty for comprehending and applying spiritual truth.
“Their understanding is darkened.”
Sin dulls one’s potential for spiritual enlightenment. “Darkened” (skotizomai) is used metaphorically of a self-imposed mental depravity. Skotizomai is used in the present tense, denoting a process completed in the past that has permanent future consequences. Perpetual indulgence in sin eventually destroys a person’s ability to appreciate God’s standards of morality.
“They have alienated themselves from the life of God.”
This alienation (apallotrioo) refers to a voluntary estrangement, separation, or exclusion from the Lord and His principles. The sweet communion with God they could have enjoyed they deemed unimportant. Seven centuries before Paul was born, the prophet Isaiah warned the Israelites that “your sins have separated you from your God” (Isa. 59:2)
“All this is due to the ignorance that is in them.”
“Ignorance” (agnoian) means “to deliberately and willfully ignore.” Peter uses this same term when referring to the latter-day global apathy of the human race concerning God and His laws (II Pet. 3:5).
“Their hearts are blinded.”
“Blindness” is porosin and is better translated “hardness.” Porosin pictures a stone harder than marble or something petrified. It also infers a callousness has developed, rendering nerves incapable of feeling anything. Although the heathen do retain passion, emotion and desire, it is for things other than God. Disdain for spiritual truth is a process that takes time. No one becomes an enemy of God overnight (Phil. 3:18).
“They are past feeling.”
Hard-heartedness toward God leads to apostasy. To be “beyond feeling” (apelgekotes) is “to cease to feel pain” or “to be apathetic.” The unregenerate eventually become shameless in their sinful lifestyle.
“They have given themselves over to lasciviousness.”
The concept of “giving over” (apalgeo) means “a complete surrender; a total shameless abandon to something.” Paul here briefly refers to this condition, but fully developed it when he wrote to the Romans a few years earlier (Rom.1:4-28). “Lasciviousness” (aselgeia) is one of the sins practiced by those who eventually become spiritually calloused. It includes a flagrant disregard for moral restraints, resulting in sensuality, indecency, debauchery, lewdness, and unbridled lust. “Lasciviousness” is used to express unrepressed conduct. It also means “that which excites disgust,” for it inevitably leads to outrageous and shameless actions.
Paul refers to lasciviousness as one of “the evils that proceeds from the heart” (II Cor. 12:21). When writing to the Galatians, this sin is listed with adultery, fornication, and uncleanness (Gal. 5:19). Peter mentions aselgeia alongside the insatiable appetites of lust and drunkenness (I Pet. 4:3). Jesus ties this same sin to blasphemy and pride (Mk. 7:22). Aselgeia envisions an insolent, self-acclaimed freedom which has no regard for public opinion.
“They practice all uncleanness readily.”
The heathen are not incapable of receiving the truth about Jesus, they simply choose not to. “Uncleanness” (akatharsias) is narcissistic moral impurity. The phrase “with greediness” (en pleonexia) means “one who always desire more; covetousness.” It is the unlawful and insatiable desire to take what one has no right to possess and includes both sexual perversion and monetary gain. Those who covet have willing partners, for unsaved persons seeks to bring others down to their level (Rom. 1:32).
Knowing about Christ falls short of knowing Him personally. But Paul reminds the Ephesian Believers of their current status in Christ. As the world has become estranged from Christ, so this congregation has become estranged from the world. In contrast to the heathen Paul has just described, these Believers have repented, obeyed Christ, and abandoned their former lifestyle.
In direct opposition to the polytheism in Ephesus, all truth is embodied in Jesus Christ. “The truth is in Jesus” is a phrase reminiscent of a statement made by Christ Himself when He declared “I am the truth” (Jn. 15:6.) Pompous politicians such as Pilate can only speculate and ask, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). We obey Jesus’ command to “Learn about Me” as we allow the precious Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” (Mt. 11:29 & Jn. 14:26).
Points to Ponder
1. Paraphrase Peter’s words concerning the old life and the new in I Peter 4:3-4.
2. What does Romans 1:21 teach us about darkness?
3. When a person continually chooses to disobey God, what happens to their conscience (I Tim. 4:2 & Titus 1:15)?