Paul’s Warning to Ephesian Christians: Don’t Play with Gods

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But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
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Ephesians 5:3-4 ESV)

Understanding the Word

Paul shifted gears rather quickly in 5:3–4. Why did he move from commanding us to imitate God, walking in love and Christ’s sacrifice, to then addressing “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness,” vices connected to our bodies? This seems quite odd until you remember the God folder. For unbelievers and those who followed after the gods, their gods folder was populated with corrupt gods who were rather humanlike in the worst ways. The gods were personified sources of power that reflected the breadth of humanity, including its best and more often its worst attributes. Rather than humans being made in God’s image, as affirmed by God in Genesis 1:27, the gods were made in people’s images.

Too often, the gods reflected sexual perversions; pagan cult and sacrifice did at times involve prostitution and sacred sex. The fertility and virility of one’s enterprises (business, farming, athletic contests, etc.) may depend on one’s imitating the gods in cultic practices. For example, consider father Zeus, hailed the “All-father.” He was the worst sexual predator and offender: in Greek mythology, although married to Hera, Zeus was constantly having affairs with more than sixty goddesses and human women, seducing them behind Hera’s back (often to meet her wrath) and producing dozens of offspring. Knowledge of Zeus was widespread; he was worshiped twice as much as other gods. When King Antiochus Epiphanes IV captured the Jewish temple in 168 BC, he rededicated it to Zeus Olympus and filled the temple “with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit” (2 Macc. 6:4).

This propensity for associating a god with immorality and lewd practices explains why Paul suddenly shifted to forbid sexuality, uncleanness, and greed in Ephesians 5:3. However, Paul discussed sexual immorality in many of his writings, often giving it first place in lists of vices (things to avoid). This sin involves any inappropriate sexual activity: sex before marriage, adultery, and sexual intercourse with a prostitute. Further treatment is provided in the next day’s devotion. The other two things to avoid are “all impurity or covetousness”; both are related to sexual immorality. For example, impurity is found listed with sexual immorality in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7; Galatians 5:19; and 2 Corinthians 12:21. It refers to the defilement that comes by participating in pagan cultic activities. Finally, in 5:3 covetousness, or greed, may refer to the lusting after that which does not belong to you; people sought for things by appealing to the gods. Religion was a mask for greed. These things—sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness—should not be named among believers by outsiders when identifying common Christian character and behavior; they are off-limits for believers.

But Paul was not done with vices. In 5:4 he treated vices of the mouth: filthiness, foolish talk, and coarse joking. This type of talk is contagious. Having held jobs in various settings, I have seen how pervasive and toxic such coarse, sexual joking can be; it’s easy to say nothing and laugh along with the others. Instead of such talk, believers are to partake in thanksgiving; this is the antidote to all these vices—receiving what God has given in thanks and being content.

Questions

  1. What sinful behaviors do people justify because of what is or isn’t in one’s gods/God folder?
  2. Why did Paul shift from discussing being imitators of God and loving as Christ loved to these vices in 5:3–4?
  3. How is thanksgiving the antidote to sexual immorality, greed, crude joking, and foolish talk?

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This 12-week study Dr. Fred Long takes learners through Paul’s grand vision of the Church as Christ’s body, a people called to be holy and blameless in love. As the political head of the church Body, Christ exemplifies virtue and the church aspires to grow to be like him in sacrificial love and service. Paul, as an ambassador of Christ in chains, depicts the church assembly as a holy temple filled with God, Christ, and the Spirit, and then stands firm wearing divine armor ready to withstand all evil forces and to spread the peace of the gospel of Christ to the whole world.

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Dr. Fredrick J. Long is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. His research and writings cover the areas of Biblical and Greco-Roman literature, Greek grammatical and discourse analysis and translation, and biblical commentary. He is currently writing a commentary on 2 Corinthians in the new Brill Exegetical Commentary series.

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