If You Build It (Truthfully), They Will Come (Ephesians 4:17-5:2)

Today, in our worship, we re-lived a story from the Old Testament. On page 3, during our time of confession, we read together what God wanted from his people while they lived in the land he had given them. He wanted true justice, mercy, compassion, love for widows and orphans, refugees and the poor.

We also read that they did the opposite.

And so, as we read, God scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers.

But then, in our promise of forgiveness on page 4, we read how God promised to save his people from the countries of the east and the west and bring them back to live in Jerusalem.

And then, in our Call to Worship, we read that God gave his people two simple commands.

First, he said, “Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.” So: rebuild the temple.

Second, he said: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely.

And then God made an astonishing promise. Right there on page 1 of our worship guide; Zechariah, Chapter 8, verse 20: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come,” and they are going to insist on joining the Jewish people in worship in the temple in Jerusalem.

The people are called to build the temple, and speak the truth to one other. And the guaranteed result? People from every nation will come streaming in to worship the true God.

So: did Zechariah’s prophecy come true?

The Jewish people did rebuild the temple, and it stood for about five hundred years before the Romans destroyed it. When, during those five hundred years, did people from every nation come to join Jews in worship?

Well, there is only one point in history that we see this happening. About forty years before the Romans destroyed the temple, a new branch of the Jewish faith suddenly began. Most Jews were looking forward to a Messiah, a king who would rescue them from slavery to the Gentiles, non-Jews like the Romans. But these new Jews suddenly started saying that the Messiah had already come! They said his name was Jesus of the kampung Nazareth, and they said that he had rescued all people from slavery: not just the Jews but also the Gentiles.

And, surprise! surprise! suddenly Gentiles began joining this new branch of the Jewish faith. They came streaming in to worship the Jewish God by the thousands, and then the tens of thousands. They quickly out-numbered the Jews in that branch of the faith, making it look more and more “gentilized” instead of Jewish. And so eventually the rest of the Jewish people, who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, kicked out that branch of Judaism. They said, “You guys aren’t really Jewish anymore! You’re more Gentile than Jewish now, so go somewhere else and become a separate religion please!”

So they did. They stopped calling themselves “Jews” or “Gentiles,” and they started calling themselves “Christians”.

All this is what was happening in the background when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians. The Jewish Christians are being kicked out of their faith by the traditional Jews. They’re looking around and realizing that their churches are now about 90% Gentile, and they’re not sure how they feel about that. They are saying to Paul, “Look, a few Gentiles is okay, but this is crazy! They come in here, they don’t know God’s Word, they don’t know how to live ethical, moral lives, and now our own Jewish people are rejecting us because of them! Are you sure this is God’s plan?”

And Paul is telling them, “Yes, this is God’s plan. Zechariah’s prophecy is being fulfilled right before your eyes. You are now building the true temple — the church — and just as Zechariah predicted, ten people from ten different nations are grabbing one Christian and saying, ‘Take us with you! Teach us how to worship the true God!’”

So that is good!

But…the Jewish background Christians are right about one thing: these new Gentile background Christians don’t know God’s Word very well. They don’t know how to live ethical, moral lives.

So Paul does need to address these concerns…which he does, starting now:

[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.

Now if you remember, back in Chapter 2, Paul described how, before Christ, we were all zombies: biologically alive but spiritually dead, motivated simply by the need to feed. He told us we were slaves to Satan — which made us victims to be pitied; but he also pointed out that we liked our slavery, we volunteered for it — which made us monsters.

Here he is describing how that happens. It begins with a hardening of the heart against God and his world, which produces deliberate ignorance of God and his world, which ends by separating a person from the life of God. They become cut off from the world, completely insensitive to anything outside their own needs.

And this results in what Paul describes in verse 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.

So Paul is describing how sin starts in the heart and then works its way out to actions. And this has happened to all of us.

A baby is born selfish. That is a consequence of Adam’s decision to believe Satan’s lie. But babies are very soft in the head: they are very malleable. If you show a baby love, it will respond to you with love, despite its selfishness. And if you could show a baby perfect love for long enough, its selfish inclinations would be minimized and its good qualities maximized.

But we are not capable of showing perfect love, are we? Despite our best efforts, we hurt our children. And as soon as a child is hurt, that inborn selfishness activates, a self-protective measure. The child’s heart becomes hardened just a little bit. She is no longer quite so open to her parents. Then it happens again, or another kind of hurt happens. And over the years of our experience our hearts become progressively harder and harder. We become more and more defensive against people — and against God. We deliberately cut ourselves off from God, because our painful experiences have taught us that no one is really on my side except me.

And from there, it is easy to see why we would begin to give ourselves over to sensuality, self-indulgence, impurity, and greed. If no one is on my side except me, then that means I might as well just use the people around me to serve myself, to get ahead in life.

And now, imagine for a moment what would happen if that pattern of hurt and hardness leading to self-indulgence became normalized throughout a whole society. We would soon have a whole culture that had given itself over to sensuality and self-indulgence, impurity and greed!

Well, that is what had happened to Gentile culture two thousand years ago. That is definitely what is happening to our global culture today: self-indulgence and impurity are becoming normal. It happens to every culture, actually. And all because we cannot stop hurting one another. All because we cannot keep from hardening our hearts when we are hurt.

And Paul is saying, quite simply and clearly, “You must not live like that anymore!” If you do, you are just perpetuating the curse.

But that’s easy for Paul to say, right? Much harder to do. So the Ephesians would want to know — and so do we — “How, Paul? How do we escape from this deadly cycle of hurt and hardness?”

Here is his answer: [20] 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.

Human sin started when Adam believed Satan’s lie. Then, over the years and generations that followed, human hearts became progressively harder. And this led to more and more sensuality, self-indulgence, impurity, greed.

Breaking the cycle begins with believing Jesus’ truth. Then, over the years that follow our minds and hearts become progressively newer. And this leads to more and more righteousness, holiness.

Sin always begins with a lie, transforms the heart, and ends in destructive acts.

Salvation always begins with the truth, transforms the heart, and results in true righteousness and holiness.

So what Paul describes for us here is really a four step process. It is a bit like a series of exercises at the gym. The personal trainer tells you, “If you do these four exercises faithfully, you will see results!” So, let’s let Paul, the personal trainer, teach us these four exercises:

First: listen to the truth that is in Jesus.

Second: put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.

Third: be made new in the attitude of your minds.

Fourth: put on the new self.

Okay, now, the details:

The first exercise is listening to the truth that is in Jesus. What is this truth? Well, the first three chapters of Ephesians covers all of it, really. Listen to this: you were a zombie. But Jesus’ blood bought you, baptism adopted you, the Holy Spirit made you alive. Now you are something new, neither Jew nor Gentile, but a whole different race. You have been woven into the body of Christ, which is seated in our Father’s presence. You are part of a temple that is already revealing the wisdom of God to multi-dimensional beings throughout the universe.

So, the first exercise we do when we screw up, when we become aware of our sin, the first exercise is going back and listening again to the reality of who we really are in Christ.

The second exercise is putting off the old self. And the best way to understand this is to remember the story of Lazarus. This is a man who was dead and buried for four days, until Jesus came along and said, “Lazarus! Jom!” And Lazarus obeyed! He walked out of the tomb to join Jesus, and the writer tells us very clearly that he came out like a mummy, all wrapped up in his grave-clothes. And Jesus said at that point, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

The the sins and attitudes of the “old self” are like grave clothes, which are rotting away with us in our corruption. Like zombie clothes. And so we, just like Lazarus, when we find ourselves made alive, and we come out into the light, and we look down at what we are wearing, our very natural attitude is, “Ahhhh, get it off get it off get it off!”

In other words: we look honestly at our behaviour and we want to get rid of it! We repent of it. We turn away from it.

We begin to repent of it. Because grave clothes…get sticky. You want to get rid of them! but they’re hard to get off, and then you’ll be standing there naked, right?

That’s why we need Exercise Number Three: to be made new in the attitude of your minds. And how does this happen? Well, if you have started doing Exercises One and Two, then the process has actually already begun! Because renewing the mind results in changing the body’s actions, and changing the body’s actions results in further renewal of the mind. It is a feedback loop.

This is how it works: the personal trainer tells you how to do the exercise. You listen (and listening literally changes the wiring in your mind, modern scientists have proven this). Then you try to do the exercise (which literally changes the wiring in your brain some more). Then the personal trainer says, “No no no no, not quite right, if you do it like that you’re going to hurt yourself. Like this.” So you repent of doing it incorrectly, and you you try again. And this process of listening to what you were told, repenting of what you did wrongly, and trying again — this process renews the attitudes of our minds.

And what I have actually described actually leads right into Exercise Four: put on the new self, which has already been created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. We already have a new suit of clothes lying there, ready for us to put on. Our new, fit, beautiful gym body is already there inside every Christian, and all we have to do is go faithfully to the gym, listen faithfully to our personal trainers, remember their instructions, repent when we do the exercise wrong, and try again.

And to be clear: this is a process. It is hard to capture this nuance in English, but in the original Greek these words “putting off,” “being renewed”, and “putting on” are not one time things, they are continuous. And another thing that is hard to capture in English but is very clear in the Greek is this: we do these things…but they are also done for us. “Putting off,” “being renewed”, and “putting on” are cooperative exercises. We want to do them, but we also need help to do them, from God and from others. Which is exactly what Jesus said to Lazarus’ friends when he came out of the tomb: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Learning to peel off those sticky grave clothes, learning how to take a bath, learning how to put on our new clothes takes time. Learning how to do an exercise properly takes time. We are not going to get it right the first time. So when our trainers say, “Stop stop stop stop, no no no not like that, like this!”…we go back to step one, and begin again, together.

Our personal trainers — the apostles and prophets who speak to us through scripture and through the Holy Spirit — our personal trainers do not promise instant results. But they do promise results if we stick to the program, and if we stick to one another.

This is the Christian life, friends. It is listening, repenting, remembering, and doing in community. It is faith, repentance, and obedience in community.

Now, time for specifics: the very first thing Paul tells us to take off, the first piece of sticky grave clothes we are supposed to help each other peel away is falsehood: [25] Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor.

Why start with falsehood, Paul? Surely there are worse sins we might want to deal with first, like sex, violence, kicking cats?

Well, all human sin began with falsehood. Sin began with Satan’s lie, and it grew up into sensuality, self-indulgence, impurity, and greed.

So Paul wants to attack the root of the problem. The very first thing he wants us to do as a community is get rid of falsehood and secrecy.

And really Paul is just teaching us what the prophet Zechariah has already taught us. He actually quotes from Zechariah Chapter 8 here: “Speak truthfully to your neighbor.” He wants us to look back at Zechariah and remember what he said.

What did Zechariah say? Two simple commands: “First, build the temple. Second: tell the truth!”

Paul has just spent the first half of Chapter 4 calling us to build the New Testament temple, which is the church. Now, he spends the second half of Chapter 4 calling us to tell the truth. Paul is preaching a sermon based on Zechariah, Chapter 8! He is helping the Ephesian Christians see how that Jewish Old Testament scripture applies to their International New Testament situation.

And now I am preaching a sermon about Ephesians 4, helping us see how ancient Jewish scripture became ancient International scripture which still applies to our modern 21st Century situation. And that is very cool. It is very “meta”.


So Zechariah said, “Build the temple!”

And Paul has applying that to our New Testament situation: “We are the temple we are building, so…build the temple!”

Then Zechariah said: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement in your courts.

So now, Paul applies Zechariah to the Ephesians’ situation: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Then he quotes from Psalm 4, “‘In your anger do not sin’, and explains what that means: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, [27] and do not give the devil a foothold.

And this is where we find out that Paul is not just talking about telling the truth for its own sake, as if it is a stand-alone good deed. Paul is not saying, “When your wife asks you if she looks fat in that dress, you must tell her the truth.” That’s not quite what he’s talking about.

Paul is talking about rendering true and sound judgement in our courts. Paul is talking about what we are supposed to do when we are hurt, especially if we are hurt by a brother or sister in the faith.

In our old zombie days we would take that hurt and we would swallow it, and we would brood on it in the darkness, and our hearts would become bitter and hardened against that person, and that hardness would lead to all kinds of nasty behaviour: sensuality, self-indulgence, impurity, greed. We would be our own judge and jury; we could condemn that person in the court of our own heart.

But Paul is saying, “You are not zombies anymore. So now if someone lies to you, or hurts you, instead of letting your hearts be hardened in judgement…speak up. Do not let your anger sit there and stew in your heart: go and be reconciled. Explain to that person how what they said or did hurt you. Sort it out! If they refuse to recognize what they’ve done, don’t turn to vengeance; get help from your brothers and sisters. If you indulge in anger and bitterness and revenge, you are giving the devil a foothold in your life, and you will end up bringing division into our community!”

Next, Zechariah says do not plot evil against each other.

So Paul applies this part to the Ephesians’ situation: [28] Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Stealing is a form of plotting evil against someone else. So Paul says, “Take off the old stealing self, and put on the clean new self of useful work and generosity.”

Stealing is selfish. Ambition, pushing yourself forward ahead of other people, is selfish. That’s zombie life.

But working is generous. Working hard in order to push others ahead of you is generosity. That’s the Spirit-filled life.

Next, Zechariah says do not love to swear falsely.

So Paul applies this part to the Ephesians’ situation: [29] Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Swearing falsely means standing up in court and giving false testimony in order to condemn someone.

Unwholesome talk, for Paul, means standing up in the church community and giving false testimony about a brother or sister: tearing one another down, criticizing one another, giving people labels, like, “Oh, that guy is a liar. That lady is an addict. That person is gay.”

Paul is saying, “You are not zombies anymore. So take off that unwholesome self where you treat one another like zombies, and put on the clean new self of encouraging speech. Tell the truth about who you all are now in Christ! That guy may have a problem with lying, but he is a child of God! That lady may have a problem with addiction, but she is your sister! That person may have a problem with same-sex attraction — but that person belongs to you, and you both belong to Christ.”

And here Paul finishes his sermon on Zechariah 8: [30] And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. [31] Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. [32] Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

These last verses are Paul’s summary and application. Lying, doing secretly selfish things, talking about our brothers and sisters as if they are not also God’s children — that grieves the Holy Spirit. That produces bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, every form of malice.

But if we tell the truth about what is going on in our lives, if we work honestly and share with those in need, if we learn to see one another with the eyes of our Father, and tell the truth about what we see — then we will be kind and compassionate to one another. We will learn how to forgive each other.

Okay, then. How can we summarize all this, so we can apply it to our lives, today?

Paul has been telling us that our job, as individual Christians, is to participate in building up the New Testament temple, the church, by loving one another.

So we have been asking, “What does love look like, practically speaking?”

And Paul said, “Well, it looks like humility, gentleness, patience. Those three virtues are what we use to maintain our unity as a body!”

And then we said, “Okay…easy to say, hard to do. We’re not very humble, gentle, or patient. So: Paul, how do we learn to be like this?”

And Paul, the personal trainer, has just said, “If you practice these four exercises together, you will become more humble, more gentle, and more patient with one another.

“First, remember the truth: you are God’s children. You have the Holy Spirit. You are guaranteed results!

“Second, repent of what you were doing before. Take off the old self, which is disgusting anyway.

“Third, remember your trainers’ instructions. Be made new in the attitude of your minds.

“Fourth: follow your trainers’ instructions. Put on the new self, which is already there, created, ready for you.”

Listen, repent, remember, do. Listen, repent, remember, do. That is the Christian life. That is how we are going to learn, together, what humility, gentleness, and patience looks like in our lives and in our community.

And then, getting very specific, the first thing Paul told us to take off is self-serving falsehood. Lies lead to injustice, judgementalism, stealing, destructive and poisonous speech. Lies lead to silence and isolation and loneliness. Lies destroy community. So let us take off falsehood, and put on truth. When we have been hurt, let us not leap to judgement and anger; instead: let’s talk about it, and figure out what went wrong together. Let’s put aside our ambitions for ourselves; instead: let’s work hard so we can share with those in need. When we look at the people in our church, let’s not label them with their race, or their culture, or their sins; instead: let us tell one another, again and again, the truth: we are family. We belong together. We belong to our Father in heaven, to our Brother who died to adopt us, we belong to the Holy Spirit that lives within each one of us.

And I know that some people are going to say at this point, “Well, Paul, you don’t understand: in my culture, the truth is not a very high priority.”

You wanna know what Paul says to that? He says — very humbly and gently and patiently —  he laughs a little bit, and then he says, “Your culture?”

And then, as a good personal trainer, he sends us all back around to begin the exercise program again:

Exercise 1: listen to the truth. Your culture is not your culture anymore. You are not a Gentile anymore. You are a Christian now. Christians love the truth because Jesus is the truth. So I must insist that you no longer live as the Gentiles do!

Exercise 2: repent. Every culture on earth struggles to tell the truth. It’s just that some are better at making it seem as if they tell the truth. But that, too, is a lie. So, let’s get practical. You want to break the cycle of sin and self-indulgence and shattered relationships? This is what you must turn away from: when you are hurt, do not let that hurt harden your heart against the person who hurt you. Do not lie to your brothers and sisters by pretending everything is fine when it is not. That is injustice, for you and for them. That is divisive. Don’t do that anymore.

Instead, Exercise 3: remember your trainers’ instructions. When you are hurt, go and speak the truth, and try to be reconciled. Do not let anger build up within you. Work hard, share what you earn, build others up with your words. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

And Exercise 4: do it. And when you fail, get a couple of friends, go back around to the top, and start again.

And guess what? As we do these four exercises again and again as a community, we will become a well of living water for this city. Remember: the results are guaranteed! In the book of Zechariah the prophet, God promised the ancient Jews that if they would speak the truth to one another, one day people from every nation would come streaming in to say, “Please! Teach us what you know! Teach us how to worship the God you worship!”

The New Testament church is the fulfillment of this prophecy. So if we are concerned about evangelism, if we are concerned about widows and orphans, refugees and the poor in Malaysia, if we want CDPCKL to grow in numbers, then we must start with this: we must learn to speak the truth to one another. We must learn to live honestly with one another.

So, in conclusion: let us [1] follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children [2] and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.


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