What we were is not what we are. That is Paul’s consistent message to those who are “in Christ.” What were we before we came to know Christ? Well, we were just like everyone else who does not know Christ. That may catch some of you off guard at first glance because we live in a world of such amazing diversity. There are people who are infinitely wealthy and dirt poor. There are people who have more degrees than a thermometer and there are folks who can’t even read the signs on the side of the road. There are folks who have a “good” heart and those whose waywardness and evil intent defy human logic and reason. There are artists and thinkers and there are ditch diggers and bottle washers. There are hardened atheists and then there are folks who are deeply religious. There are 7 billion people walking on planet earth and yet Paul tells us that there is a commonality that ties all people together at birth. In God’s assessment people are not Jews and Gentiles, wealthy or poor, aristocrats or paupers, but all people are alienated from God from the womb. The Apostle Paul wrote to the folks in Colosse and made this statement.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation– (Colossians 1:21-22 NIV)
Born alienated from God, but reconciled by God. What an amazing turn of events! And how did it come about? Paul makes it clear to us doesn’t he? He writes, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight…” Look what God has done! Block out every other thought, remove every distraction, and think about what God has done for you and me through the death and resurrection of His glorious Son. He has brought us who were far away into His arms of grace and mercy and reconciled us to Himself through His Son.
I want you to understand just how dire our situation was before God intervened in our lives. It wasn’t that we were caught daydreaming and lost our focus. It wasn’t that we got lazy and now simply need to get serious and turn things around. It wasn’t that we had messed up, but have the opportunity to get back on track. God’s Word makes it very clear that we were spiritually dead with no hope of ever regaining a pulse. Paul writes,
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1-5 NIV)
Paul says, “all of us lived among them at one time…” That is where we were. That is what we were. But for those who are “in Christ,” you are no longer there. A new day has dawned. A new life has begun. Now, it’s time to live it. In our Scripture for today we find Paul urging the followers of Jesus in Ephesus to do just that…live the new life they have been given and no longer live like they used to live. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today.
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. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. (Ephesians 4:17-19 NIV)
It’s interesting that Paul insists that the brothers and sisters in Christ, in Ephesus, “no longer live as the Gentiles do.” The people Paul was writing to were Gentiles. Remember, every person who is not a Jew is a Gentile. Ephesus was one of the most prominent commercial centers in the Roman Empire with a population of about 250,000 in Paul’s day. The city had been founded in about 2000 B.C. by the Hittites, but about 1000 years later the Greeks came onto the scene. The city was located on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of the Cayster River and it was one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world. Today, the harbor is all filled up and the city is about six miles from the ocean.
Ephesus was also a great cultural and religious center. The beautiful library of Celsus, a library that was dedicated to Celsus, the proconsul of Asia, held more than 15,000 scrolls. The Temple of Artemis, sometimes called the Temple of Diana, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple ever built. Last week we talked about the beauty and splendor of the Pantheon in Rome, but the Temple of Artemis was four times as large as the Pantheon. It had 127 beautiful columns, many of them ornately carved. Inside of the Temple of Artemis were beautiful works of art as well as a worship center. The fourth century BC Greek engineer and mathematician, Philon, was stunned when he saw the Temple of Artemis in 225 B.C. He wrote,
I have seen the walls and Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mighty work of the high Pyramids and the tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade.
Evidently the Temple of Artemis was a spectacular sight, but appearances can oftentimes be deceiving. What went on inside the building was vile and repugnant by even secular standards. The fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that Ephesus was “the darkness of vileness. The morals were lower than animals and the inhabitants of Ephesus were fit only to be drowned.” He said that the reason he could never smile or laugh was because he lived amidst such terrible uncleanness. Back in Greece, Artemis was worshipped as “the goddess of the hunt,” but in Ephesus she was worshipped as the goddess of fertility and was often pictured as a woman with eggs draped from her shoulders to her waist or having many breasts, symbols of fertility. John MacArthur writes,
The temple of Artemis was the center of much of the wickedness. Like those in most pagan religions, its rituals and practices were but extensions of man’s vilest and most perverted sins. Male and female roles were interchanged, and orgiastic sex, homosexuality, and every other sexual perversion were common. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians. pg. 166)
This was the culture that those who were part of the church in Ephesus grew up in, this was the norm for the vast majority of the people who called Ephesus home, but Paul said, “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do…” The situation that confronted the followers of Jesus in Ephesus is really not that much different than the situation that confronts those of us who are followers of Jesus living in Oklahoma City today. We live in a society where the normative way of life is far different than the lifestyle God calls us to live. What is the problem? What is it that makes God’s way so much different than society’s way? Is the difference simply that some are more moral than others? Not at all. There are some non-believers who are very “moral” people based on their own definition of morality. The difference is in the way we think. The person who does not know Jesus as Lord and Savior of their life “thinks” according to their own perspective. They determine what is “right” and what is “wrong,” they are passionate about what matters most to them, and what they do, they do because they have determined that that is the best course for them to take. The followers of Jesus on the other hand are to be guided by a totally different voice than their own. James Montgomery Boice writes,
Christians are to live holy lives, not just because morality is good in itself (though it is) or because it promotes happiness or success or anything else (though it does), but because of what God has done. Because of what we believe about God’s actions toward us through Jesus Christ we should live as God wants and requires us to live. (Boice, James Montgomery. Ephesians. pg. 153)
It is what God has done in our lives that moves us, inspires us, and drives us to respond to all of life through the question, “What would God have me to do in this situation?” In our Scripture for today, Paul says that all of us, before we come to know Jesus and experience the transformation that only He can bring, are plagued by some inescapable ailments: 1) The futility of our thinking. 2) Darkened understanding. 3) Separated from the life of God. 4) Hardness of our hearts. Paul says that the hardness of our hearts leads to a darkened understanding and a life separated from God.
Those who are not followers of Jesus think that this is an absurd idea. They think that the followers of Jesus are the one whose minds are all messed up. They think that we are the ones who are out of step with the modern-day world. It reminds me of the short story written by H. G. Wells called, “The Country of the Blind.” H. G. Wells was a fan of Jesus, but he was an antagonist of Christianity and a staunch atheist. Yet, in his short story, he vividly describes the problem we are talking about where the abnormal is accepted as the norm. Let me tell you the story.
There was a tribe of people living in a large valley who had suffered a plague that left them all blind. The blindness was passed from generation to generation. For centuries the people had lived in utter darkness, unable to see, completely blind. All memories of ever having seen anything had long passed so that the people believed that not having sight was the way that all people lived.
The people of the tribe lived in a large valley that was surrounded by mountains so they were cut off from all other people. One day, an adventurous member of the tribe tried to find his way over a high pass in the mountains. He lost his step and tumbled down the side of the mountain until he finally fell unconscious on the valley floor. Some of the other members of the tribe stumbled upon him when they heard all of the noise. When they found the man and revived him, they were amazed to hear him talking about sight and colors. They thought, “He must have hit his head!” because he was talking about things that obviously didn’t exist such as blue skies and colorful flowers. What on earth is “blue?‟ What is a “color?” As he talked about his eyes, his vision, and what he could see, the people concluded that he was obviously out of his mind. He was delusional and the people learned to put up with his continual babblings. He was treated as the village idiot.
As months passed, the man who could see was enamored by the beauty of the chief’s daughter and asked for her hand in marriage. The request was denied. How could the chief allow his daughter to marry the village idiot? When the man who could see would speak to the chief’s daughter about her beauty it just confused her. What was “beautiful?” The man’s kindness and affection impressed the chief’s daughter to the point where she felt a sincere love for him. She spoke to her father and it was decided that she could marry the man as long as he was willing to have his eyes gouged out. The people felt that it was the man’s eyes that were the source of his problem. Gouging out his eyes would restore him to his right mind. Unbelievably, the man agreed to have his eyes gouged out and forever lose his sight. When the day approached for the surgery on his eyes and he lay on the operating table, the man came to his senses, jumped up, ran out, climbed the mountain and disappeared.
What an amazing story, written by a man who was an atheist, and yet what he has written is such a powerful description of the reality of the world we live in. When sin entered the world a plague of world-wide proportions fell on all of humanity. The whole human race fell into a deep valley and was left spiritually blind. We have been left spiritually blind and rather than seeking healing we have decided that this is the norm. Those who claim to “see” are out of their mind. Those who speak of the glorious colors of grace and the majestic hues of His mercy are deemed to be strange or ill.
I want to urge you to keep your eyes wide open. Refuse to give in to the pressure of society to fit in and to live life according to the ways of the world. What we see taking place before our eyes each and every day is not the norm, it is the sickness caused by sin deeply rooted in the human heart. Let’s take a look at the problems Paul points out for us.
Thinking That is Futile
God made it clear in Isaiah’s day that His ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8) One area where this is so apparent is in the area of intelligence or intellect. In our day we place a higher value on someone’s opinion if they have a degree from some institution of higher learning. The more degrees a person possesses the more we value what they have to say. There is nothing wrong with gaining an education. I don’t know of a church that encourages their young people to pursue an education more than this church, but gaining a college degree doesn’t have anything to do with gaining godly wisdom.
When Paul says that the Gentiles, or unbelievers, live “in the futility of their thinking,” he has something very specific in mind. The Greek word, “ματαιότης” (mataiotes) means, “what is devoid of truth and appropriateness, perverseness, depravity, or emptiness.” John MacArthur writes,
The life of an unbeliever is bound up in thinking and acting in an arena of ultimate trivia. He consumes himself in the pursuit of goals that are purely selfish, in the accumulation of that which is temporary, and in looking for satisfaction in that which is intrinsically deceptive and disappointing. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians. pg. 168.)
This is the life that we use to live, but we are not to live like that any longer now that we are in Christ. Paul told the people in Corinth that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. Then he points out to them,
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. (1 Corinthians 1:26 NIV)
Paul urges the brothers and sisters in Ephesus not to live like the Gentiles any longer because there is that perpetual temptation. They were surrounded by the Ephesian lifestyle just as we are surrounded by the American way of life. We need to be reminded of the new life we have been given and called to live. We need one another to encourage us and walk with us as we seek to live the life that God has called us to live or we will most certainly fall back into our old way of life. Paul wrote to the folks in Rome and urged them,
2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)
Hardness of our Hearts
There is an undeniable metamorphosis that takes place in the human heart when we hear the Good News of what God has done on our behalf and yet we turn away, we reject God’s truth. With each turning away our hearts grow more and more hard. The King James Version of the Bible translates the word, “πώρωσις” (porosis) as “blindness,” but the word literally means, “the covering with a callus, dulled perception,” or “stubbornness.” Paul’s intent is to show us what happens when we reject God, when we reject what God has to say. The same idea is set forth in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome when he writes,
20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:20-21 NIV)
God has made Himself known. Through His creation, though we are spiritually blind, we are able to see, able to comprehend that this world didn’t get here on its own. We didn’t get here on our own. We are able to see God’s eternal power and His divine nature. God’s creation does not fully reveal all truth, but it reveals enough to point us to God. When we see God’s invisible qualities on display and we turn away unfazed then the calcification of our hearts begin.
Along with the hardening of the heart comes the darkening of our understanding. Paul paints a very vivid but dreary reality for us. The more we turn away the harder our hearts grow and the more the lights become dim. Jesus said,
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19 NIV)
The Light has come, but… The Light has come, but we, like the characters in H. G. Wells short story have grown so accustomed to the darkness that we now prefer it. Did you notice something very telling in Jesus’ words? Jesus said, “…but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” We want what we want not what God wants. The late Mortimer Adler was a professor of philosophy, an educator, writer, and an atheist until he was converted at 81 years of age. Professor Adler said that he rejected religion because it “would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for. … The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person.” (Mortimer J. Adler, Philosophy at Large (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 316 as quoted in James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 85.)
That really is at the heart of the hardened heart isn’t it? We just don’t want to give up what we treasure in our hearts. In Paul’s letters to the believers in Colosse, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, Philippi, and Galatia he urges the followers of Jesus to walk worthy of their calling, to live out their new life in Christ, to no longer live like they use to live. Paul knows that this world glitters with so many things that look so attractive, but he also knows that it is all fool’s gold. Paul says that those whose thinking is futile, whose hearts have become hardened, and whose understanding has become darkened will continually seek more from this world and what it has to offer. He writes,
19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. (Ephesians 4:19 NIV)
More, more, more! This world can’t satisfy, but left to our own devices we will continually seek more from this empty world and its ways. Our fullness is in Christ. Our fulfillment is found only in Christ. Our satisfaction is seated in Christ and our relationship with Him alone. Malcolm Muggeridge was an outstanding journalist who converted to Christ while in his 60’s. He wrote an amazing piece offering his perspective on 20th century world history and the preeminence of Christ. He wrote this piece in the 1970s.
We look back upon history, and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counterrevolutions, wealth accumulated and wealth disbursed. Shakespeare has written of the rise and fall of great ones, that ebb and flow with the moon. I look back upon my own fellow countrymen (Great Britain), once upon a time dominating a quarter of the world, most of them convinced, in the words of what is still a popular song, that ‘the God who made them mighty, shall make them mightier yet.’ I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian (Hitler) announce to the world the establishment of a Reich that would last a thousand years. I have seen an Italian clown (Mussolini) say he was going to stop and restart the calendar with his own ascension to power. I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin (Stalin), acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as being wiser than Solomon, more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Ashoka. I have seen America wealthier and, in terms of military weaponry, more powerful than the rest of the world put together–so that had the American people so desired, they could have outdone a Caesar, or an Alexander in the range and scale of their conquests. All in one lifetime, all in one lifetime, all gone! Gone with the wind! England, now part of a tiny island off the coast of Europe, threatened with dismemberment and even bankruptcy. Hitler and Mussolini dead, remembered only in infamy. Stalin a forbidden name in the regime he helped found and dominate for some three decades. America haunted by fears of running out of those precious fluids that keeps their motorways roaring, and the smog settling, with troubled memories of a disastrous campaign in Vietnam, and the victories of the Don Quixote’s of the media as they charged the windmills of Watergate. All in one lifetime, all in one lifetime, all gone! Gone with the wind! Behind the debris of these solemn supermen, and self-styled imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of One: because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone, mankind may still have peace–the person of Jesus Christ. I present him as the way, the truth, and the life. Do you know Him?”
God has acted on our behalf so that we might come to know this One, so that we might be transformed by the life of this One, so that we might bear witness to this One, and so that we might experience the fullness that this One alone can bring. Let us turn away from the life we knew before this One came into our hearts. Let us never go back to living like we did before this One rescued us from the darkness, opened our eyes, and gave us a new heart. Do you know Him? If not, then won’t you come to know Him this very day?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
June 10, 2012