Ephesians 5:1-17 is filled with commands. In fact, depending on how one counts, there are twelve or fourteen of them! The first half of this chapter could, therefore, seem like a call to Christian legalism, but the main command that hangs over them all both removes this possibility and reverses it in a most stunning way.
Specifically, Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). In other words, the call of Ephesians 5:1-17 is this: learn to be like your Father because you are deeply loved by your Father.
To Imitate is to Behold, Adore, and Follow
The Greek word here for “imitators” is the one from which we get our word “mimic,” and it means to watch someone closely and then do what they do. It means to follow someone else’s example. Twice in 1 Corinthians Paul uses this same word to say, in essence, “I am your father in the faith, so watch my manner of life closely and do what I do.” And twice in 1 Thessalonians Paul uses this same word to commend the Thessalonians for imitating him and Christ and other bodies of believers in that they suffered for the sake of the gospel with much joy and thereby became examples to others (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14).
So again, to imitate someone is simply to watch what they do and then to do what they do. But here’s the thing: generally speaking, we only imitate people we adore. We only seek to be like people we look up to and admire. The reason people spend billions of dollars on certain kinds of clothing and shoes and cars and plastic surgery is because they adore famous people and want to be like them. They want to do what they do and say what they say and wear what they wear and drive what they drive and vacation where they vacation and, if at all possible, live where they live. And the main reason their hearts have come to adore these people so much is because they’ve spent so much time beholding them—watching them, gazing upon them, studying them, reading about them, talking about them. We imitate those we adore, and we adore those we behold.
In addition to this basic dynamic of imitation, Paul adds another significant element to the mix, namely, love. My earthly father had tremendous affection for me and I, in turn, had a great desire to be like him. I was his sixth child and fourth son and for a number of reasons he believed that I was going to grow up to be a man of God, which is odd because he wasn’t a Christian! Be that as it may, he had high hopes for me and thus invested his heart and time in me so that I have countless memories of going for walks with him, playing sports with him, playing musical instruments and singing with him, and even working at our family’s restaurant with him. He was far from perfect, but my daddy spent a lot of time with me and he loved me with all of his heart. Therefore, as a beloved child, I longed to be like him. I folded my clothes like him. I held a baseball bat like him. I dribbled a basketball like him. I told stupid jokes like him, in fact, I still tell stupid jokes like him! I sought to show love like him. You name the subject, and I tried to do it like my daddy did it because I beheld, adored, and loved him so much.
I can’t help but think that this is the kind of thing Paul has in mind when he invites us to be imitators of God specifically because we are his “beloved children.” In a relational context where God has tremendous affection for us in Christ, and where we have growing admiration and affection for him, we should seek to do everything just like our Father does it. If he tells the truth, we should tell the truth. If he’s slow to anger and steadfast in love, then we should be slow to anger and steadfast in love. If he never steals but rather is generous and giving, then we should refrain from stealing and be generous instead. If he uses his words to be gracious and upbuilding, then we should use our words in this way as well. Whatever our Father does, that we will also seek to do because we are dearly loved by him and therefore we greatly admire him, we love to behold him, and we long to be like him.
The several commands of Ephesians 5:1-17, then, are the opposite of legalism. They’re a call to love. And to think that the God who created and sustains the universe would want to be in a relationship like this with us, well, that’s simply stunning.
Walking as Children of Light
With this in mind, Paul begins his list of practical commands with a strong admonition against engaging in or even talking about sexual immorality (5:3-6). And while Paul has many reasons for saying what he says, the primary one is this: sexual immorality and all that’s involved with it is not the heart of our Father, and thus to engage in it is a kind of idolatry. It’s a way of following another god if you will.
Since this is so, we are not to be partners with those who engage in such things and thus invite the wrath of God upon themselves (5:7). In other words, we are not to join with anyone who’s making a life of imitating anyone other than our Father.
And lest we’ve already forgotten the logic that’s guiding this whole section of Ephesians, Paul reminds us in verse 8 that we’re to avoid such as these “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” At one time you were dead in your sins and utterly cut off from God, without even a flicker of hope in the world. But now in Christ, everything has changed and you have been transformed from enemies of the state into the very children of God. And since he is light, you are light in him.
Therefore, “Walk as children of light” (5:8). In other words, be like your Father. Make a life of imitating the one who so profoundly loves you in Christ, and who has lavished on you every spiritual blessing in Christ (1:3). So again, the call to avoid those who are engaged in works of darkness is neither a call to legalism nor judgmentalism, rather, it’s a call to love.
This is why Paul continues by encouraging us to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:9). He wants us to look to the Lord, admire the Lord, be captivated by the Lord, and long with all of our hearts to be like the Lord. He wants us to long to please our Father, not as those who fear his rejection, but as those who know that they are dearly loved in Christ.
Doesn’t it just make sense, then, for Paul to say, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things they do in secret” (5:11-12)? And again, the call here is not to be holier-than-thou and spend our lives seeking to expose the error and darkness in others. Rather, the call here is to be like our Father and flee from everything that’s not like our Father and to seek to persuade others to come into the light that is our Father. This is not a call to legalism or judgmentalism but to love.
Indeed, when we do seek to flee from darkness and expose it by the power and grace of Christ, look what happens: “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (5:13-14). So the aim and hope of fleeing from darkness and exposing it is that it would be transformed into the light that lights our lives. Our aim is to imitate our Father in being an evangelist of light, which is tantamount to being an agent of God’s grace in the world.
Paul concludes, then, by saying, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:15-17). In other words, understand the mind and heart and joy of your Father, and seek to think and feel and act like him. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1).
Our Motives Determine the Nature of our Fruit
You may have noticed that I skipped over Paul’s parenthetical comment in verse 9. “For the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” I chose to save my comments on these words until the end of this blog entry because I thought it important for us to understand the nature of the fruit Paul has in mind. The fruit born of legalism is death. It’s another form of darkness. It’s self-righteousness cloaked in the garb of Christian theology and ethics.
But the fruit born of the love of the Father for his children is life and light. And this is the kind of fruit Paul, and more so our Father longs for us to bear. The details of our pursuit of holiness matter but the motive behind it matters much more. Therefore, Beloved, “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). Walk as children of light, for your Father is light.