“With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do,
for they are hopelessly confused.” Ephesians 4:17 (NLT)
We must, we are told, be who we are. We must identify ourselves by some designation that most closely aligns with our inner sense of self, and then be true to that identity in the way we live. We must “find our truth.”
Who are we? How do we identify ourselves? What kind of thinking, speaking, behaving is consistent with that identity? The answers to these questions make up for us what we call “truth.”
The problem is that if we get our identity wrong at the beginning, the path we follow will be the wrong one too.
Ephesians 4 blows up the categories of identity that are so common among us. Here, the apostle Paul brings disruption to our “find your truth” thinking.
Writing to Gentiles who live in the first-century city of Ephesus, Paul tells them to no longer live like Gentiles. He says Gentiles are confused and live in all kinds of sexual and relational confusion. They give expression to this confusion by “practicing every kind of impurity.”
But they are Gentiles, so how can Paul tell them not to live like Gentiles? How is it not a violation of their personhood to tell them not to live like what they are?
Judging by our current way of thinking, the problem in Ephesians 4 is not with the Gentiles who are only being true to their “identity.” The problem is with Paul, who dares to tell them not to give expression to who they see themselves to be at the core of their being. The problem is that Paul is leading them to a form of internal damage to their sense of self by telling them not to do what they feel they must do.
Here’s the disruption of the gospel. “Gentile” is not the true identity of these Gentiles. People may be called Gentiles in the sense that they are not Jewish, and therefore represent the nations of the world. Though nationality and ethnicity are realities, they are not fundamental identities.
People are also called Gentiles in the sense that they were at one time outside of the promises of God and therefore living in spiritual darkness. But the Gentiles to whom Paul is writing have entered into the new life of Jesus Christ through repentance of sin and faith in him. They are now identified with the death and life of Jesus. Now they are “in Christ.” The old person they were has died with Jesus on the cross and they are now raised from the grave with him as new selves. Jesus defines the new life they now live in his word given through the apostles and prophets.
The gospel says Jesus restores us to our true selves as God intended us to be. Through faith in Jesus we join him in death to sin and newness of life. Our identity is summed up in these two words: “in Christ.” Gentile; confused, darkened, ignorant, alienated, callous, sensual, greedy, angry, foul mouthed, bitter, slandering, crude, and covetous (Ephesians 4:18-5:4) is not who we are. We fight these and other sins that still want to rise up from within and express themselves without, but they do not define who we are at the core of our being. Denying these sins and driving a stake through their heart, will not kill us nor violate our personhood. Sin is not our identity; we are “in Christ.”
Ephesians 4:21 says, “Truth is in Jesus.” This is what that means: Jesus defines who we are as new people in him, and shows us how to live up to that new and fundamental identity.
This weekend, read Ephesians 4:17-5:4 as you prepare to worship with us on Sunday.