Put Off, Be Made New, Put On
by Jack Wald | January 17th, 2016

Ephesians 4:17-24

What makes a novel written fifty or one hundred years ago interesting to read today? Certainly it is important that the writing is good, but there are lots of well-written books that are dated and boring to read. I am certainly not going to exhaust this question in an introduction to a sermon, but one quality that makes a book written fifty, one hundred, or five hundred years ago interesting to read today is if the characters in the book are true to human nature.

When we read a book and the characters remind us of people we know today, this is a book that lasts. This is because although technology and circumstances change over time, human nature does not.

The Bible was written over a period of 1,500 years, 2,000 to 3,500 years ago, and yet when we read the stories in the Bible, they resonate with us. Eve and Adam push off the responsibility for their actions and blame someone else. Isn’t this what we see happening all the time? The jealousy of Cain and Abel, and Joseph and his brothers is fresh to us. There are some huge cultural differences that make some of the stories very strange to us and difficult to understand, but most of the stories speak to us because they could be our stories. When Jesus is talking with someone, I can see myself in that story. We can see where we fit in with them.

In the text today from Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in the region of Ephesus, we see Paul’s challenge to resist the popular culture and keep on following Jesus. This challenge is as much a challenge for us in the year 2016 as it was for the followers of Jesus in the 1st century.

In the opening of chapter four Paul exhorts us to live a life worthy of the calling we have received, and then makes a call for unity in the church as this second part of his letter focuses on the application of the spiritual truths of the first three chapters. In using the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit, we will avoid being deceived by false teachers out to profit from us. This takes us to today’s text.
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

In this first part of today’s text, Paul calls us not to live as the Gentiles do. What is Paul talking about? How were the Gentiles living? In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he provides a description of the Gentile culture in which he lived. When we read this, it resonates because the culture in which we live has so much in common with Paul’s world.
Romans 1:18–32
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

This is the Gentile lifestyle that Paul speaks against in Ephesians 4. Paul is writing about the behavior of the Gentile world two thousand years ago and yet, because of the consistency of our human nature, it also reflects the lifestyle of our current world.

This is not a politically correct passage of Scripture. How are we to deal with this text? Can we dismiss it as Paul’s opinion? Can we say that this was Paul speaking out of his culture and time and not really applicable to our modern time?

Notice that Paul does not say, “So I tell you that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Paul writes: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Paul uses two verbs to show how important and urgent his message is. “I tell you,” and “I insist on it in the Lord.”

When Paul wrote about marriage to the Corinthians he made a distinction between his own thinking and what came to him from the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:10–13)
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.

Here in Ephesians 4 Paul makes very clear that what he is about to say comes from the Lord. “I tell you and I insist on it in the Lord.” This is a message that needs to be given utmost attention because it comes with divine authority.

This is not a politically correct passage of Scripture and if you are reading through the Bible and don’t like what Paul has to say here, you cannot just dismiss it – unless you decide not to accept Paul’s authority as an apostle chosen by Jesus to bring the Gospel to the Gentile world. However politically incorrect this passage is, it is Paul’s application of spiritual truth. “I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord.”

The people Paul is writing to are living in the Gentile world Paul described in Romans and although they have been brought from that world to a new understanding of how to live as followers of Christ, they are still in that world and influenced by it.

A modern view of Paul’s writing might be that this is two thousand years old and we have progressed in our understanding since that time. But I argue that we are not more intelligent than those who lived in Paul’s time and just as there are brilliant minds and cultural trendsetters in our world who dismiss Paul’s writing, there were also brilliant minds and cultural trendsetters in Paul’s world who dismissed what Paul preached and wrote. There was a philosophical argument defending the lifestyle of the Gentile world just as there is intelligent argument against the restrictive view of Biblical morality.  In Paul’s world, just as in our world, popular culture not only practiced the immorality that Paul describes in Romans, they approved of those who practice immorality.

What was Paul’s critique of the thinking of those who defended the Gentile lifestyle he condemned? First, he called their thinking futile. Second, he said they were darkened in their understanding. Third, they were separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. I want to talk about these three and then the consequences of their faulty thinking.

First, futility of their thinking.

Paul challenges these people, in his world and in our world, saying that their thinking was so distorted that it was marked by futility.

Futility is not only the futility of idol-worship (What sense does it make, writes Isaiah, to cut down a tree, carve an object, and then worship it?), it is also the emptiness of human attempts to bring lasting satisfaction. Because Gentile thinking cuts itself off from a true relationship with God, Gentile thinking suffers from the consequences of having lost touch with reality and is left fumbling with empty hope.

If you are on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, any philosophy that does not deal with the reality that the ship is sinking and that there is a way to be rescued is empty and meaningless. Someone could decide that waving colorful banners on the deck of the ship is the best thing to do. Someone could decide that eating a seven-course meal is the best thing to do. The fact that help is available is ignored. But the ship will sink, and unless those on the ship find the way to be rescued, the ship and all its occupants will slip beneath the surface of the sea, and all will die.

Paul writes from the perspective of someone who was sinking beneath the sea when he was rescued on the road to Damascus and he knows who reached out to save him and he knows what we have to do to be saved. This is why Paul “tells us” and “insists on it.” To cut yourself off from God, not believing there is a God or recreating God to make him user friendly, is futile thinking.

Second, Paul says they are darkened in their understanding. They look at life but cannot see into the depths of the shadows because they do not have light to see into those shadows.

When my grandchildren were here over Christmas, there was a constant search for marbles and other objects that were missing. I carried a small flashlight with me because I was continually being asked to help look under froshes and other furniture to try to find what was missing.

Jesus is the light of the world and helps us to see into the shadows of life so we can find the truth we are looking for. Without the light of Jesus, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, truth remains hidden in the shadows.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14,
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (died in 1109) said, “I believe that I may understand,” which was based on a sermon of Augustine from the third century which was based on this passage from 1 Corinthians.

We need the light in order to find truth.

Third, Paul tells us that those who are separated from the life of God have themselves to blame.
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.

It is the phrase, “in them” that puts the responsibility on them for rejecting the truth of God that is evident. This is what we read in Romans 1:20
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Ignorance is a failure to be grateful and obedient and their ignorance is due to the hardening of their hearts. This is a willful stubbornness, a deliberate rejection of the truth of God that is available to them in their own thought and conscience.

As a child I knew when I was doing something that was wrong. As adults, we know when we are doing something that is not right. But we tell ourselves we want something and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

I was also resistant to the revelation of God to me. There were several significant experiences in my life when I could have turned to Jesus and begun following him, but I resisted. For multiple reasons we resist the revelation of God to us. We are willfully stubborn.

What are the consequences for faulty thinking, darkened understanding, and hardening of hearts? Paul writes,
Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

We lose sensitivity. We give ourselves over to sensuality. We indulge in every kind of impurity. We are full of greed.

As we make choice after choice to pursue what we want, even when we know it is not right, we lose sensitivity. This word refers to skin that has become calloused and no longer feels pain.

When I was a child I ran around barefoot most of the summer and by the end of the summer I could run over rocks without feeling any pain. But if I try to do that after wearing socks and shoes for several months, my feet are sensitive and walking over gravel is painful.

As we move through life thinking first and foremost of ourselves, doing what we want when we want it, we become calloused to our conscience and we lose the capacity to feel shame or embarrassment for our actions. We may feel a bit of guilt the first time but then it becomes easier and easier until we no longer feel any restraint. We lose self-control. Because of our lack of moral feeling and discernment, there are no restraints to jumping into all kinds of degrading activities.

We walk barefoot over our slavery to sensuality, indulging in every kind of impurity, and are filled with greed.

The word sensuality is also translated as debauchery. This is a vice that throws off all restraint and flaunts itself, unawed by shame or fear, without regard for self-respect, for the rights and feelings of others, or for public decency. This is a rejection of all Biblical moral values and a determination to do whatever I want, regardless of who it affects or offends.

Impurity is riotous and excessive living. Paul is talking here about sexual behavior but it is not limited to that. Paul writes, “every kind of impurity.” Luxurious living, excessive materialism, gluttony, over indulging our senses, seeking to satisfy every desire we have.

The third in this trio is the phrase, “full of greed.” No matter how much I have, no matter how much I experience, there is a continual lust for more. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said: (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

There is an insatiable desire to participate in more and more forms of immorality.

This is the world Paul lived in. This is the world from which the followers of Jesus in the region of Ephesus came. This is the world that has never died and inflicts itself on generation after generation. This is our world.

We, in the 21st century, have the same struggles as the followers of Jesus did in the 1st century. What is his solution to this mess? Paul continues:
That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

After reading verses 17-19, these verses feel to me like a cool glass of water. They are refreshing. They tell me that life does not have to be lived this way.

The hearers of Paul’s letter in the region of Ephesus had learned another way to live. There were two stages in this learning. First, they heard about Christ. Paul came to Ephesus and went to the synagogue to preach the good news of Jesus. When opposition arose, Paul went out into the streets and preached to the Gentiles. This was Paul’s practice in the cities he visited and as he preached, people discovered that the good news of Jesus was good news for them.

Gentiles heard about Jesus and then they were taught in him. Paul taught in Ephesus for three years.

Annie and I had the treat of visiting the ruins of Ephesus and walking on the streets Paul walked on. Paul made a brief visit and then returned to Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10)
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

We know that Paul had great success in his teaching and preaching because the silversmiths in Ephesus, who made their living from making silver shrines to Artemis, were losing business and organized an attempt to have Paul arrested. Demetrius called the silversmiths together and told them. (Acts 19:25-26)
“You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.

There was ongoing instruction to help new followers of Jesus to reconsider the values they had been taught. There are often immediate changes when someone turns to Jesus, but there are also life-long changes that are the result of life-long patterns of learning from the Scriptures, from teachers and preachers, from books and videos, about how we can be increasingly transformed into the men and women God intends us to be.

Who God intends us to be stands in opposition to the Gentile lifestyle Paul has talked about. The truth of Jesus stands in opposition to the culture of the world that puts self at the center.

Paul goes on to tell us the process by which we hear the gospel and are transformed by it to be like Jesus.
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Paul tells us to put off, be renewed, and put on.

put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;

In Colossians 3:5–10 Paul talks about this process.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Put off all the behaviors that are in opposition to the life Jesus calls us to.

When some people are with a pastor, they try to be on their best behavior. They don’t want the pastor to know how they really live. This is really not helpful. Who we are with a pastor should be the same as we are when we are with anyone else. That is authentic living.

But it can be helpful to picture yourself with Jesus and ask yourself if your behavior would make him pleased or distressed? The things we do that distress Jesus are the things we have to put off.

Paul writes in Romans 12:1
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

As has been pointed out, the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.

This is the ongoing battle for followers of Jesus. We have been saved, but we are also being saved. These are the first two stages of our salvation. This second stage, becoming holy, is a struggle because our sinful human nature does not give up easily and every day rises up to fight for control.

We put off our old self and work to be renewed.
Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;

Let me return to Romans 12
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

When we become followers of Jesus our world view changes and this takes time to happen. We have been raised with certain values. Our culture has taught us certain values. Now, as followers of Jesus, we have to evaluate the values we were raised with and taught by our culture and determine if they stand in opposition to our new world view with Jesus at the center.

In following Jesus we have to pay attention to the heart because this is where the teaching of Jesus always goes. The Sermon on the Mount is understood only if we take it to the heart level. But there is also an emphasis in Scripture on the renewal of our minds. If we fail to do this, we will be stuck in old patterns, established before our life with Jesus began.

In my first five years in Rabat I visited Noreen, an elderly Scottish lady, who could no longer read. I read to her each week and my relationship with her is one of my best memories. She was an amazingly intelligent woman who had worked with British intelligence during WWII and then was one of the first women to work at the United Nations when it was founded in 1945, just after WWII ended.

At the age of 84 she came to church with a friend, Edwina, and realized this is what she had been looking for all her life. I arrived in Rabat when she was 86 and as we talked and prayed each week, I learned a lot about her. Her values were the values of the UN which has replaced the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the trinity of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. This is also the trinity of much of the mainstream Protestant church.

Noreen had a long-standing relationship with two Moroccan men she had taken under her wing when she headed the UN office in Morocco. As we prayed week after week, she could not bring herself to pray for them to surrender to Jesus because this violated the culture of the UN which says that each person should find their own religion and no religion should try to impose itself or influence the religion of another person.

One of the things that amazed me about Noreen, and there were many amazing things, was that even at her advanced age, she was growing in her experience of the love of Jesus. She wore out a set of cassette tapes listening to the Bible and I bought her CDs which she listened to every day, for hour after hour.

She experienced what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

And then there came the day when she told me she wanted to pray that her Moroccan “brothers” would discover what she had discovered – that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life. As Noreen grew in her relationship with Jesus, her mind became transformed.

It is important that we learn what the Bible says about Jesus and that we reflect about how this changes the way we are used to thinking about life. We have to examine our childhood, our culture, and be open to the transformation of our mind as we become more like Jesus.

put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

We put off our old self, are made new in the attitude of our minds, and then we put on the new self.

Repentance is not just turning away from bad behavior. Repentance is not just saying “I’m sorry,” and moving on. Repentance is turning from what is wrong and turning to what is right. Repentance is replacing bad behavior with good behavior. We will see this next week as we continue in Ephesians 4. We put off and put on.

Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

In this process of putting off, being renewed, and putting on, we are not at war with the culture of the world that opposes the life God calls us to. We are not to be strident. We are not to be combative. We are not to be judgmental. We are not to feel superior. We are not to be proud. We are not to be defensive.

We are to be humble, grateful for what God has done and is doing for us, and we are to be loving. We are to put down the sword and pick up the love of Jesus that values every person, even those who oppose us.

We are moving through this life that we will one day set down. We are being prepared for the day when we will leave this earth and arrive in our eternal home. This is why Paul says so strongly, “I tell you and I insist on it in the Lord.”

Where do you stand today? Do you stand with Jesus and his church? Allow the Holy Spirit to shine light into the dark shadows of this world and of your life so truth can be found and your life can be transformed and become more like Jesus.