Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Ephesians 4:25-32 ESV
The conclusion of chapter four is a direct continuation of last week’s text. After describing the futility of mind and hardness of heart within the Gentiles, the apostle exhorted us to no longer walk as they do; instead, we are put off our old selves, be renewed in our minds, and put on our new selves. Our present text applies those general exhortation into specific examples of how we are both to live and not live. Indeed, Paul has structured the commands around the theme of putting off and putting on, so throughout the section, he provides first how we are not to live and then how are to live rightly.
Although the number of explicit commands within Ephesians have been rather sparse thus far, a significant turn occurs here. Within these eight verses, Paul gives eleven commands for us to follow. The nature of this sermon, therefore, must be one of application since the apostle is providing specific actions that he expects us to obey in Christ.
TRUTH, NOT FALSEHOOD // VERSE 25
The first set of commands warn us to speak truth rather than falsehood. Indeed, notice that the opening phrase therefore, having put away falsehood stands as a kind of summary of our previous passage. The Gentiles ultimately walk in futility because they embrace falsehood rather than the truth. As we cited from Romans 1:25, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” Their life is one gigantic falsehood, a self-imagined fantasyland where God is not God.
“But that is not the way you learned Christ… as the truth is in Jesus” (4:20-21). As recipients of the truth of Christ, we must each speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Obviously, this command to speak the truth must be rather important for Paul to repeat it twice within the same chapter. Yet this is not a new command for God’s people. Zechariah, who prophesied at the same time as Haggai, spoke these words to the rebuilding people of Judah:
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the LORD.Zechariah 8:16–17
God’s people are to be known as speakers of the truth. Paul’s clarification that we are to speak the truth to one another, as members of the same body, does not give license for us to speak lies to nonbelievers. Instead, the apostle is leaning into the reality that how we treat one another is one of our greatest witnesses to the watching world of the love and truthfulness of Christ. A loving community grounded upon absolute truth is our open-handed offer to a world grasping for meaning in all the futility. For the sake of one another and a watching world, we must not only avoid lying to one another; we must speak gloriously real truth of God to each other.
This is why I emphasize in our new members class that knowing Scripture personally has direct implications on your ability to love your fellow members within the church. If you are not personally saturated in the truth of God’s Word, how can you speak it to one another? “For out the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Fill your heart to the brim with God’s Word, and you will naturally find yourself speaking the truth to your fellow members.
ANGER, NOT SIN // VERSES 26-27
The four commands given in these two verses all center around how we are to treat our anger. The first two orders are a direct quotation of Psalm 4:4, “Be angry, and do not sin.” The second set guide us in how to specifically keep our anger from leading us into sin. Merkle offers potent commentary here:
The first command, “be angry,” has caused considerable debate, because some have difficulty accepting the idea that Paul is commanding Christians to be angry when just a few verses later he will declare, “Let all…anger… be put away from you” (v. 31). Consequently, some translate this verse as a conditional statement: “If you are angry, do not sin.” Although such an interpretation is possible, it is better to treat the phrase as a normal command that Christians are exhorted to keep… Paul does not mean that Christians should be characterized by anger, but that they should appropriately express anger on certain occasions. That all anger is not sinful is demonstrated by the life of Jesus, who at times was angry (Mark 3:5) and yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15).
As when Jesus beheld the flagrant defiling of the temple for personal gain, there is a righteous anger to have in the face of sin and evil. Indeed, wrath is an attribute of God that we often prefer to overlook as much as possible. Yet we are not God, whose anger is altogether good, righteous, and loving. Even our anger of explicit sin can very easily lead to further sin. Therefore, Paul gives us one command to be anger and three commands of warning against the dangers of anger.
Recent events have given us a societal display of these verses. A few weeks ago, millions of people around the world watched (via video) as a man named George Floyd died while a police officer knelt on his neck and he cried out that he could not breathe. The footage was traumatic to view, and anger at the quite avoidable series of events is justified. However, in the riots (and many deaths within those riots, at least 25 according to Wikipedia) that ensued because of Floyd’s death, we have witnessed the great harm of unbridled anger. We are not seeing again the peaceful protests grounded in biblical ethics which triumphed over segregation; instead, we are witnessing a burn-everything-to-the-ground anger that is threatening to reinstitute a new form of segregation. We are witnessing a vivid example of what easily begins as justified anger can quickly become an opportunity for the devil. Yet the futility of rejecting the God who is Justice can only result in a never-ending cycle of sin in response to sin.
Again, “but that is not the way you learned Christ.” We should be angry at injustice and sin, but we stake our faith in a Savior who is soon returning to judge both the living and the dead. We also believe in the gospel of peace that is far mightier than any “revolution” conceived by man. Indeed, Chrysostom shows us how the gospel alone can teach us how not to let the sun go now on our anger:
One hour, or two or three is enough for you. But do not let the sun go down and leave you both as enemies. It was God’s goodness that did not leave us in anger. He did not let us part in enmity. He shed his light upon those of us who were sinners. So when evening is coming on, be reconciled. Quell the evil impulses while they are fresh. For if night overtakes you, the next day will not be enough time to extinguish the further evil which has been increasing overnight.
God does not hold onto His anger at our sin; instead, His justified wrath was placed fully upon Christ at the cross. We too must fix our eyes upon the cross, remembering that soon “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Be angry, therefore, over the brokenness of the world, but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not let your anger be an opportunity for the devil. Cast your anger upon the God of perfect justice.
WORK, NOT THEFT // VERSE 28
Paul now addresses the topic of theft and work. The negative command is for the thief no longer to steal, while the positive is to do honest work that creates something to share with others. This is a remarkably simple display of the radical reversal of the gospel in the life of a Christian. A thief steals because he only has regard for himself, not for anyone else. He thinks nothing (or at least little) of the person from whom he takes. He only thinks about what he desires. The beauty of the gospel enlivens the heart and turns the thief away from stealing. Yet the gospel does not leave his hands idle; instead, we are urged to work. And we work that we might be able to give. The gospel moves us from taking to giving as we follow Him who did not even spare His own Son to save us.
While most of us will likely read this verse without much thought since we are not prone to overt theft, I would encourage everyone to read slowly Thomas Watson’s treatment of the Eighth Commandment (which I summarized very briefly in my sermon on the same commandment). In that chapter, he discusses the often-subtle ways that we steal from God, from others, and from ourselves. The reality is that, while few of us wrestle with actual kleptomania, we are all lured into more disguised forms of theft.
Particularly, let us address again our time in God’s Word. Reading and meditating upon the Scriptures is not strong suggestion being offered; they are commands to be obeyed. Joshua 1:8 tells us that the “Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” Likewise, Paul told the Colossians to “let the word of Christ dwell in your richly” (3:16). Time in the Word does not always yield immediate fruit or joy, and it is often a challenging work to engage in. Yet to neglect this labor is theft from the LORD. It robs Him of our time and energy that we owe to Him. Furthermore, as we noted above, when our time has been spent in the Word, we will have the Word upon our lips, ready to share with others who need its healing balm. Therefore, no longer steal from the LORD and from your brothers and sisters by neglecting the Scriptures; rather, devote yourself to them with honest labor, being prepared to share with those in need.
GRACE, NOT CORRUPTION // VERSES 29-30
Paul again turns specifically to our speech, commanding us to avoid all corrupting talk but instead to speak whatever is good for building one another up with grace. The use of the word corrupting is particularly telling here. Jesus used this same word to describe both fruit and fish within the Gospels.
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.Matthew 7:17–20
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Synonyms of this word include putrid, rotten, and spoiled. Think moldy fruit or rotten fish. Paul uses this word pointedly to call our attention to the fact that our speech can easily be just as corrosive. We can speak in such a way that brings rot or in a way that brings grace. Proverbs 18:21 gives a similar statement: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” This principle has unfortunately been highjacked by the Word of Faith movement into meaning that our words have the power to shape reality, and, therefore, to speak about sickness or poverty is a lack of faith. An oncologist, however, does not speak corruption by identifying the tumor that threatens a person’s life. In fact, by pointing to the disease, the doctor is actually attempting to bring grace by treating the ailment. Likewise, a loving rebuke may be the most painful words to hear yet may in fact be a deep act of grace.
Speaking graciously for the good of building others up is, therefore, not a form of flattery. After all, flattery is one of the most subtle forms of corrupting speech. For speech that truly gives grace rather than corruption, we again lean upon the command to speak the truth in love. Truthful words spoken with a genuine compassion for the other person’s good will always build up in the long run rather than corrupt.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Any of the negative actions described in this section can be said to grieve the Holy Spirit yet notice that it is particularly tied to this command. By the Holy Spirit, we have been sealed for redemption and guaranteed our inheritance in the Lord. Furthermore, the Spirit is dwelling within us and renewing us daily. He enables us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. He empowers us to no longer walk as the Gentiles do. He is our Comforter, the source of our strength to conform to the image of Christ. He applies the grace of Christ to us. Therefore, to speak in a corrupting manner is to place ourselves directly against the work of the Holy Spirit. Such speech is a grief and a sorrow to Him.
Brothers and sisters, we should also ask ourselves this highly important question: What is my chief motive for killing my sin? The Scriptures certainly provide us with an abundance of motives, and the fact that sinning is spiritual suicide is not the least of which. However, the chief motivation for killing our sin should be to avoid casting sorrow upon our Comforter. How wrong that we should cause grief to the One who speaks peace and love to our souls!
BE KIND, NOT BITTER // VERSES 31-32
Finally, the apostle concludes our section and chapter with a series of slightly more generalized commands regarding how we are to treat one another. Like the previous commands, these again form a negative/positive parallel. Verse 31 gives us the negative actions that we must avoid: Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Verse 32 is the opposite, positive response: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. The inverse of bitterness and wrath is forgiveness, of anger, clamor, and slander is kindness, and of malice is tenderheartedness.
These negative descriptions are antithetical to the Spirit-led character that should mark believers, as we see in the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). The fact that bitterness leads the bunch indicates that these are qualities that must be nourished to the point of becoming habitual. They are vices in the true sense of the word; they are anti-virtues. Yet while bitterness grows resentment against someone else, forgiveness enables us to love them sincerely and truly instead.
We should also note that being tenderhearted is quite different from being thin-skinned. Possessing a tender heart should not make us prone to being offended; rather, it means being compassionate toward others and ready to overlook offenses. The Holy Spirit, after all, is tenderhearted toward us, though it often causes Him grief.
Furthermore, notice that the call to be tenderhearted is the opposite of the hardness of heart that marks the Gentiles. Again, mark the tragedy of selfish pursuit of pleasure. Living for the next rush of dopamine only results in an unfeeling heart. Being tenderhearted, however, leaves us open to experience the deepest of joys. Unfortunately, tender is a fitting word to use because many of the greatest joys in this life are mingled with a kind of sorrow. The belonging and completeness that I feel when holding my wife’s hand is punctuated by the reminder that we most likely will one day be separated from one another by death, unless Christ returns before then. The joy of watching my daughter grow is sprinkled with sorrow that I cannot make a moment last more than just a moment. In many ways, I believe that the pain of our world’s brokenness, by the Lord’s grace, actually serves to highlight the radiance of joy that flows from our Lord. The flippancy of a hard heart created through worldly pleasures hides from the sorrow but also forsakes real joy.
Notice finally that our kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness toward one another derives from how Christ has forgiven us. Although we despised Him, rejected Him, and refused to esteem Him (Isaiah 53:3), Jesus remains our Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for us. Christ is the supreme example of kindness, of tenderness, and of forgiveness. He has forgiven us of far greater sins than anyone will ever be able to commit against us. He is ever tender and compassionate toward His people, even when we repeatedly turn away from Him and back to our sin. He is kind and pleasant to us. In Matthew 11:30, He said that His “yoke is easy”, which happens to be the same word used in verse 32 for kind. He is easy and good to His people.
He is also the perfect giver of grace, overcoming the corruption of our sins. He is not like the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy”; instead, He came to give us life in abundance (John 10:10). In His righteous anger against our sins, He took them upon Himself and paid our debt entirely. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and He has united us together in Himself. Brothers and sisters, putting off the old self and putting on the new self begins by setting our gaze steadfastly upon Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Our obedience to these commands is only possible in Him and through Him.
 Benjamin Merkle, ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians-Philemon, 83.