For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.
–Ephesians 5:8, RSV
Welp, we did it! We finished Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and it definitely ended on a more positive note than that of Ecclesiastes. Ephesians has proven to be inspiring, instructive, and enlightening thus far and I hope you will experience more of that as we walk through these final chapters.
Beginning with Chapter 5, we find a superb extension from chapter 4 that sums up Paul’s central point about Christian life and relationship. After exhorting Christians to live lives of humility and forgiveness in 4:32, he says to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (5:1-2). This is a fundamental teaching that should give us pause. So often, we view Christ and God as beings that are beyond us, and in one sense, this is correct. However, the whole purpose of Christ’s coming was to teach us the way we are to walk in relationship with God, and imitating God in the Flesh is the primary call of the Christian person. We can’t just treat Christ as a “far and away” hero that we categorize as entirely separate from ourselves. Instead, we should look to him as an example and do our best to walk in his footsteps as “children of light” (5:8).
With that in mind, we come to one of the most controversial sections of Ecclesiastes, namely, the “Household Codes” of 5:21-6:9. It is here that we had to have a (passionate) discussion about the context of Scripture. Paul writes from a time when patriarchy (the inherent leadership and superiority of free males in society) was the accepted norm. As such, any familial advice he gives is going to fit within that particular framework. Unfortunately, this has led to immediate dismissal as an instructive text on the part of those who are offended by the Bible’s inherent (by our standards) sexism. However, if we take a closer look, we can see how Paul was at once a man of his time, while also (inspired by the Spirit of God) someone who saw beyond it.
The section begins (in most scholarly translations) with an essential instruction to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). This alone should give us pause, because Paul doesn’t only instruct the women, as you might expect. Instead, he instructs all believers to submit to each other, and THEN he details what that should look like. He does tell wives to submit to their husbands, but then, he does something that is unexpected in patriarchy by instructing the men on how to love their wives. They must do so selflessly, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). If such instruction were to be taken seriously (and I believe it is), it is not nearly as one-sided as we may have been led to think in recent times, and no matter what time period we live in, putting others before the self is something we desperately need more of.
Chapter 6 continues our culture shock by giving us a view into the ancient practice of slavery, instructing slaves to serve their masters “as servants of Christ,” chaffing against our understandable modern sensibility regarding the scars of Trans-Atlantic slavery. While the two forms of slavery differ significantly, it is still alarming to see (at best) a clear lack of rebuke regarding the ownership of persons. However, again, Paul does something interesting, instructing masters to “forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (6:9). That is a loaded statement that was definitely not typical of the time.
All in all, while our sensibilities are definitely challenged by the world as presented in Ephesians (Scripture as a whole, really), we still see the Spirit of God at working to change the world into something that better resembles the kingdom of God. Further, we see God’s invitation to live life in a way that imitates and shares his love, helping to establish this kingdom.
My encouragement to you is to remember the call that is extended to you in Christ. This call is not just one to believe in our heads, but to live in our bodies as we go about our daily doings. Just as God transforms implements of war into spiritual sources of edification in 6:10-17, let us accept God’s invitation to transform our mundane, pain-filled, and hope-deprived world into a nation of peace, rooted in love. We do this as our Lord did: one person, one interaction at a time. Let’s get started!
Peace be with you!