Sexual Healing for a Complicated World (Ephesians 5:3-21)

So, in the Old Testament, when God brought the Jewish people back to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon, he gave them two simple instructions: build the temple, and live truthful lives with one another. And God promised that, one day, people from all nations would come streaming into that temple to worship alongside the Jewish people.

As we have been learning, the New Testament Christian church is that temple of God, a temple made of people, not stones. The church is the temple we are supposed to be building. The church is the temple that all nations are streaming into to worship.

And of course we had to ask, “How do we build a temple that’s made of people?”

Paul’s answer was, “By loving one another just as Christ loves you!”

Which led to the next question, “What does ‘loving one another’ look like?”

And Paul said, “It looks like humility, gentleness, and patience.”

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

So then Paul gave us four exercises to practice together. First, remember the truth that is in Jesus. Second, put off your old self. Third, be made new in the attitude of your minds. Fourth, put on the new self.

In other words: Rest in the truth, remembering who you really are in Christ. Then, Repent: recognize what you are doing wrong. Then, Recalibrate your mind, listening closely to your trainers’ instructions. Then, Do.

And we learned that if we apply these exercises to every issue that turns up in our lives — especially relationship issues — we will see results. We will become more humble, gentle, and patient.

Then, Paul, as a good personal trainer, gave us a chance to apply these exercises to one particular issue: living truthful lives with one another.

Exercise 1. Rest in the truth: Jesus has rescued us from our previous lying cultures. We are Christians now. Christians love the truth because Jesus is the truth.

Exercise 2. Repent: when you are hurt, do not turn to lies, anger, and division.

Exercise 3. Recalibrate: when you are hurt, go and speak honestly and be reconciled if at all possible. Be kind and compassionate, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

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

And as we do these things, we will learn how to live truthful lives, humble, gentle, patient lives. And people from all nations, when they see this, will come streaming in to worship and be transformed themselves.

And that is where we left off last week. We went home, showered, got a massage for the sore muscles. And now, here we are back at God’s gym, ready for Paul our personal trainer to go through another set of exercises with us.

And he is ready! Trust me, he is ready. He has a whole new topic lined up for the Ephesians. Last week’s exercises were about how to deal with perverted truth. This week he’ll be teaching the Ephesian Christians how to deal with perverted sex — and we will be working out alongside them.

So let’s get started!

[3] But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. [4] Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

And right here, at the beginning, we find that Paul has given us our program for today. The elements are here for all four exercises:

First, Rest in the truth, remembering who you are in Christ. Here he says we are God’s holy people. What does that mean? He’ll get back to that later, so hold on.

Second, Repent, recognize what we are doing wrong. Here he mentions sexual immorality, impurity, greed — these are the actions and attitudes he wants us to put off.

So we had better define what he means by these words, right? so we can know what we are repenting of. 

Okay, then. So when Paul says “sexual immorality” and “any kind of impurity”, he is using Greek words that cover every kind of sexual activity outside of marriage: promiscuity, homosexuality, paedophilia, prostitution, incest…you name it, it’s covered. And that’s pretty much what we would expect Paul to say.

But then he puts “greed” on the list. Which seems strange, until we realize he is not talking about being greedy for money, he’s talking about being greedy for more immorality and impurity.

So this is where we realize that Paul is describing someone who is ruled by their desire for sex. And just in case we miss this point, he makes it very clear in the next verse. [5] For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

A person who is ruled by sexual desire is a person who worships sex — they have made sex into an idol. And if a person is actively worshiping an idol…then that means their identity is linked to that idol. Which means that their identity does not come from being part of God’s family. And if a person refuses to be counted as part of God’s family, how can they receive the inheritance that belongs only to God’s children?

All that makes perfect sense, right?

It’s also really scary. Because we are all guilty of sexual sin. If you’re anything like me, you read this verse and think, “Well, I’m immoral! I’m impure! I’m sexually greedy! I know what goes on in my heart! What do I do now?

I know: let’s do this: let’s go back through the exercises Paul has given us.

Exercise 1: Rest in the truth, remember what is really real. I just told myself that I am sexually immoral, impure, and greedy. But that is actually not true. Yes, it is true that sexual immorality, impurity, and greed are an ever-present threat to my life. But who does Jesus say I am? Holy and blameless in his sight. Chosen. Adopted. Baptised. Sealed. Included. A living stone in the wall of God’s cosmic temple.

Then I Repent, Recalibrate, and Do.

And so, do you see how this works, and why this curse does not apply to us who are in Christ? A person whose identity comes from sex is rejecting the truth that their identity actually comes from being a child of God. So, if we ever come to a place where it seems that sexual obsession is beginning to take over our lives, the first step we need to take is to get a couple of friends, go back to the first exercise, and refresh our memory of who Jesus says we are.

If you do these things you will never fall. Yes, you will sin. But if you do these exercises in community, you will begin to sin less, you will learn humility, gentleness, and patience, you will learn what true love looks like. The results are guaranteed for all who enter into their identity as God’s child.

So, to be very clear: this curse falls upon those who refuse to look to Christ for their identity. It falls upon those who look at their sexual sins and say, “That is not a sin!” This is why Christians in America fought so hard against the movement to legalize homosexual marriage. Legalizing homosexual marriage is a way of saying, “Homosexual acts are not a sin.” But Paul says, right here in verse 6: Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. [7] Therefore, Paul says, do not be partners with them.

Christians in America did not resist homosexual marriage because they hate homosexuals. Quite the opposite. Scripture tells us — and history tells us — that when whole societies normalize sexual sin it quickly results in lies (fake news), division (have you been on the internet lately?), and the oppression of the helpless, especially women and children (have you noticed that the numbers of single mothers are going up and up? When a society tells men that they can do whatever they want sexually, they tend not to stay married. They become polygamists. And a polygamous society is a society that oppresses women).

It is out of love for the sinner and for society that Christians resist redefining sin. It is out of love for Christ and for Christ’s community that Christians cannot be partners with people or organizations who want to redefine sin: because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient — and obviously we do not want that!

And we should notice that here, again, Paul emphasizes how important words are. Which is central to Exercise 3: Recalibrate. Last week Paul showed us that sin always begins in the heart and in the mind before it becomes action. So if we want to change our actions, we need to start with our minds. How do minds get changed? Through words. Paul wants us to put off our pre-Christian actions and attitudes toward sex, so he tells us to change how we talk about sex.

Specifically, he tells us to put off obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking. What do these words mean?

Well, “obscenity” doesn’t really mean “bad language”, four-letter words, though they are related. Obscenity here means talking about shameful, disgusting things. Paul knows that regularly talking about shameful, disgusting things eventually normalizes those things. So he says, “Don’t talk about these things as if they are normal.”

“Foolish talk” basically means “goofing around”. But before we conclude that Christians are all supposed to be stiff and solemn all the time, remember that Paul is talking about sex in particular here. Getting rid of foolish talk means that we don’t talk lightly or foolishly about sex, as if it is no big deal.

And “coarse joking” means more than just dirty jokes. The Greek word has overtones of sarcastic wit, tearing people down. And again, we have to remember that the context here is about sex. Paul is not saying that Christians cannot be witty or even sarcastic; but he is saying that talking sarcastically or destructively about sex is something we should get rid of.

Basically, Paul is saying that, as a community, we need to stop devaluing sex with our words. We need to stop talking about perversion as if it is no big deal, as if sex is some kind of joke, or something to tear people down about.

But he doesn’t stop there, does he! Take off the old self, the old way of talking about sex, and put on…thanksgiving.

Isn’t that funny? The cure for sinful sexual actions, attitudes, and speech is thanksgiving. Not generic thanksgiving: remember the context. Paul is telling us to be thankful for sex. Good sex. Healthy sex.

Strange, right? But this does make sense if you think about it for a while. Because what is the engine that drives sexual greed? What is the engine that drives all greed? Discontent.

Our modern age has become sex-obsessed because we have been taught to be discontent with the idea of sex with just one person. We have been taught to be discontent with faithfulness to others. We have been taught to be faithful to only one person: me. That is what the obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking of our society is designed to do: make us unhappy with faithful sexuality.

And the cure for this, according to Paul, is not silence! It is not enough for our Christian community to simply avoid bad talk about sex. We are supposed to have good talk about sex, thankful talk about sex.

Which leads us to Exercise 4: we Do what Paul has told us to. We take off the old self — old sexual words, old sexual attitudes, old sexual actions — and we put on new words of thankfulness and content, which will lead to new attitudes, which will lead to new actions.

[8] For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.

Here he is bringing us back to Exercises 1 and 2: Rest in the truth. Repent of who you were. We were zombies. We were darkness itself. It made sense for us to act that way before. But now we are light in the Lord. Our community — this living temple — has become a source of light shining in the darkness, just as, in the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem glowed from within because of God’s presence there.

Therefore, live as children of light [9] (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) [10] and find out what pleases the Lord.

And here we find Exercises 3 and 4: Recalibrate and Do. Earlier Paul mentioned that we are God’s holy people. Here he says we are children of light. What do these things mean? This is where he tells us: living as children of light means producing fruit. What fruit? Goodness, righteousness, and truth, and finding out what pleases the Lord.

What do those words mean?

“Goodness”, for many Christians today, seems to mean wearing the right clothes, saying the right words, listening to the right music, being a “good” Christian. But those are actually cultural things. The Greek word for goodness actually has more to do with generosity and kindness. For Paul, a “good” Christian is a person with a generous, contented spirit — the opposite of sexually greedy, the opposite of selfish.

“Righteousness”, in our day, often means being religious or something like that. But the biblical idea of righteousness is a person who judges fairly, who can be trusted to do what is right for someone else.

“Truth” has to do with authenticity, honesty. A person who lives in the truth is a person who practices Exercise #1 a lot, a person who keeps turning back to Christ and the church to find their identity.

And what does it mean to find out what pleases the Lord? It means that, as we grow in true goodness, righteousness, and truth, as we keep cycling through our exercise program, we pay close attention to what God’s Word says, and we pay close attention to the real world results of our actions. We act, and we evaluate. Some situations are right or wrong, black and white, very obviously unloving and so forbidden in scripture. But many situations require wisdom, and experience, and careful application of scripture in order to figure out what might be the most loving and godly thing to do.

In a way, this is what Paul is doing here, in his letter to the Ephesians. A lot of the Jewish Old Testament scriptures do not apply directly to the Ephesians non-Jewish situation. So Paul, as an apostle of Christ, is reinterpreting Old Testament morality and adjusting it for the Ephesians’ place and time. He is teaching them how to find out what pleases the Lord.

But whatever we do, Paul says, [11] Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

Paul has already told us we are not supposed to be in partnership with those who want to redefine sin with empty words. Here he adds that we definitely should not be participating in those redefined sins. He says we should take off the fruitless deeds of darkness, and what should we do instead?

Expose them — the deeds, by the way, not necessarily the people.

But how are we supposed to expose these deeds? Are we supposed to talk about them? Well…no. Paul has already warned us not to talk lightly or casually about sexual sin in our community. And here he says, [12] It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.

Okaaaay…then how are we supposed to expose these deeds if we’re not supposed to talk about them? Well, we bring them into the light: [13] But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Okay…but that still doesn’t really tell us how to bring these things into the light. It tells us what the light does: the light reveals the truth. Someone wants to use empty words to say, “This activity is not actually a sin,” but when that activity is brought into the light its fruitlessness is revealed.

But how do we do that, Paul? How do we expose these things to the light so their truth can be revealed, without talking about them?

Ohhhhhh, wait a minute. We are the light. Our church, our gathered community, is a part of that shining cosmic temple, packed full of God’s presence. We are the light.

Which means that, simply by existing as a community in this city, and producing the fruit of the light — goodness, righteousness, truth, finding out what pleases the Lord — by producing this fruit we are exposing Kuala Lumpur to the light. Our community is supposed to be a living demonstration of what happens when people practice healthy sexuality. Healthy sexuality produces healthier marriages, healthier children — mentally, emotionally, and physically — better bosses and better employees (and by the way all this is being confirmed by science). And the more we produce these fruits of the light the more we show, by contrast, just how empty and fruitless sexual immorality is. People can say, “This is not a sin! This makes me happy!” but the fruit, the fruit, the end result always reveals the truth.

We are light in the Lord. Our community is a light designed to expose the truth. And [14] This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Paul is quoting something here, but he is not quoting scripture. It sounds a bit like Isaiah, Chapter 60, which was our call to worship today. But many scholars believe that he is quoting from a popular Ephesian worship song — a song that the church would sing to a person who was being baptised.

But while we don’t know for sure what Paul is quoting from, his point is clear: everything that is illuminated becomes a light. By living in the light of the truth — by being the light of the truth! — we are calling on the living dead all around us to wake up! Wake up! Let Christ shine on you! Let him expose the truth about the sin in your life, and let him heal you.

So what is Paul’s conclusion? [15] Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, [16] making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

It’s a corrupt world out there, full of captives, people who live in a prison of fruitless sexuality, and they have been taught to pretend that their prison is not a prison, that their slavery is not really slavery.

Our job is to live lives that show them what true freedom really looks like.

[17] Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. [18] Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery — sexual sin.

Getting drunk, getting high, becoming a slave to chemical substances, does make it easier for a person to become a slave to other appetites as well, especially sexual appetites. But I have to point out that Paul is not really talking about individuals here. It is bad for individuals to be getting drunk or high. But Paul is speaking collectively here. He is telling the Ephesian church not to have drinking parties during worship.

Which, for us, is kind of a, “…ya think?” kind of instruction. But in that culture Paul needed to make this clear because pagan worship in pagan temples at that time often involved heavy drinking, together, which would then turn into…sexual debauchery.

So Paul is reminding the Ephesians, “Understand what the Lord’s will is: that is not how Jesus wants to be worshiped!

Instead,” Paul says, be filled with the Spirit.”

This is what Christian worship is supposed to look like: [19] speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, [20] always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [21] Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Pagan worship seems to promise community. Getting wasted together until you lose all your inhibitions — that feels like community. Having sex with whoever you want whenever you want — that looks like community. But it’s not. It leads always to division, isolation, and loneliness.

If you doubt me, consider again how many single mothers there are in Malaysia right now, how many marriages have been shattered because of sexual sin.

But Christian worship produces true community, because we are all filled by the same Holy Spirit.

And what does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Does it mean speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or visions or something? Well, that’s not how Paul describes it here.

Here, being filled with the Spirit means speaking the truth beautifully to one another (remember how important words are to changing our minds?). Being filled with the Spirit in this passage means joyfully giving thanks to God the Father for everything. Being filled with the Spirit in this passage means submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, not pushing ourselves forward, not demanding that our own desires be fulfilled, but instead doing what is best for someone else.

And we have to notice here that Paul has finished where he began: in verse 4, he told us that our resistance against sexual immorality in our lives, in our Christian community, begins with thanksgiving. And here, in verse 20, he tells us that our resistance against the sexual immorality of our world begins with thanksgiving.

So, to recap:

Paul is saying that, because we are God’s holy people, because we are the temple of light, the church filled with the shining Spirit of God, we should not indulge in sexual immorality of any kind. And the way we accomplish this is by talking about sexuality in a thankful way. That will transform the way we think, as a community, about sexuality, which will transform the way we act, as a community. And this is important because our healthy sexuality as a community is a light that shines in contrast to the sexual darkness all around us.

That sounds great.

But before we just accept this and apply it to our extremely complicated sexually diverse situation, we should ask: does it work? This was written two thousand years ago, so there ought to be evidence of whether this is an effective strategy or not.

So: does it work? Can it work in a situation as complicated as ours?


The Roman empire of Paul’s time, two thousand years ago, was every bit as complicated, sexually, as our age. We are used to thinking that our late modern societies are the most advanced, the most liberal, the most free-thinking societies ever, but we have not caught up to the Romans yet. We are catching up to them very quickly, but…Roman sexuality during Paul’s day was still more liberal than anything we have achieved yet.

And into that darkness appeared this strange new group of people called Christians. And these people were odd! They told the truth in an empire that ran on lies. They were generous and kind. They refused to recognize racial differences: they didn’t care what race their children married, as long as they married Christians. But, after they got married, each Christian man was expected to be sexually faithful to his wife. And that last thing? — get this! — that idea of monogamy was considered perverse by ordinary pagan Romans. Roman scientists thought it was unnatural. Their attitude was, “We don’t care who or what you have sex with, just have a lot of it!” You were not supposed to have sex with another man’s property without permission, but besides that? Anything goes! — except monogamy. That’s weird.

But four hundred years later the Roman empire became, officially, a Christian empire. Sociologists estimate that by that point 60% of the population was Christian. Now, how did they do it? How did they turn 60% of the empire away from scientifically supported promiscuity to monogamy?

By living as children of light. By teaching their children to live as children of light. And it’s a little funny actually, because the pagans really started whining about it. We still have the letters they wrote to each other, complaining about how good and faithful and honest the Christians were and how bad it was making them look. Christian husbands were more faithful than pagan husbands. So Christian wives were happier than pagan wives. The Christians of those centuries proved, through the faithfulness and fruitfulness of their lives, that sexual immorality is a dead tree. It produces nothing but division, loneliness, and death.

So: yes, Paul’s system works. It worked then —

— and it will have to work today. Friends, this is really the only option we have left. Actually, its the only option we’ve ever had, but that’s just becoming more and more obvious.

Our modern world believes that monogamy is unnatural. And I think we are all aware that those who insist that healthy sexuality is between one man and one woman bound together in covenant — well, increasingly that is considered perverse. Bigoted. Hateful.

So what are we to do, as a Christian community?

Shall we compromise? Shall we redefine sin? Some Christians are doing that. But Paul has already told us, “Let no one deceive you with empty words!”

Shall we just disappear from the global conversation? Shall we just hide ourselves away in our own Christian cultural world? Some Christians think we should do that. But Paul has told us to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness. How can we do that if we are hidden away somewhere?

No. Paul’s system is our only option. We must stop speaking lightly about sexuality. We must start giving thanks for it, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Ashley and I spent about an hour this week looking for a song or a hymn of thanksgiving for sex that we could sing together here. Would you believe there is not a single one? So we’re going to have to close with “Give Thanks” instead. Sorry. Although, in October we are going to begin a series on the Song of Solomon, which is a series of songs all about sex. You’re welcome.

So we are called to talk more honestly and thankfully about sexuality. That thanksgiving is going to Recalibrate the way think about sex. That recalibration is going to change the way we Do…it. And that is going to transform our community still more. And as we live faithfully with one another as husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, our light is going to shine out ever more brightly against the darkness, exposing the fruitlessness of immorality, and drawing people in to Rest, Repent, Recalibrate, and Do.

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise. How we live with one another matters! Our family relationships are the primary evidence that the world looks at when they are trying to decide if Christianity is true or not. And that is why, in the very next verses, Paul digs into the details of Christian marriage, Christian parenting, and Christian employment.

But we’ve gone far enough for one day. You’ll have to come back next week for that…

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