For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 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.” (Ephesians 5:8-14)
Change Plus a Challenge
There are two ways we can view this passage. On the one hand, Paul describes a change in us. Our transformation is a reoccurring theme throughout this letter. We were once children of disobedience walking in darkness, but God has changed us into his beloved children who walk in love and good works.
On the other hand, Paul issues a challenge here. He doesn’t want us to fall into the trap of fatalism where we think, Que sera, sera. What will be, will be. The temptation of anyone who understands the sovereign will of God in salvation is to scoff at the very notion of personal responsibility.
We need to remember that the lines of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility always run parallel. From our initial conversion through our ongoing sanctification, the Bible always places the burden on us. You must turn to Christ for salvation. You must become obedient to his commandments. It is only in hindsight that we learn it was God’s sovereign providence compelling us all along. “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13).
We see both aspects here in Ephesians 5. First, Paul alludes to our change as a result of God’s sovereign work. He says, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). Then, he continues by issuing a challenge: “Walk as children of light.” While God has already transformed you into a child of light, you are still personally responsible for walking as a child of light.
From Darkness To Light
The analogy to light and darkness should be very familiar to us. The Bible uses it over and over again to show the stark contrast between truth and falsehood, between good and evil. There is both intellectual and moral light and darkness. Intellectual light represents knowing and believing the truth. Moral light represents thinking and acting righteously.
When Isaiah warned the people of his day, he said, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isa 5:20). The difference between light and darkness will never be ambiguous. Only a blind person can’t distinguish light from darkness, which is why 2 Corinthians says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2Co 4:4).
Paul, however, is not writing to blind people. He is speaking to those who “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in [Christ]” (Eph 1:13). He is encouraging those who were so convinced by the preaching of the gospel that they—you’ll remember this story from the book of Acts—set fire to $6-million worth of Satanic literature. Luke says:
Those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:19-20)
Can you imagine watching that scene unfold? It would be like preaching the gospel at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Though everyone is drinking heavily and doing whatever moves them with no inhibitions at all, they suddenly stop, throwing their beads and beer bottles into a fire. They’re cut to the heart, repent on the spot, and ask the preacher, “We believe what you’re saying. What should we do now?”
Luke says, “About that time there arose no little disturbance” (Ac 19:23). Christianity had turned the city of Ephesus upside down. The silversmiths who produced pagan idols and nicknacks were concerned. One man by the name of Demetrius said, “There is danger … that this trade of ours may come into disrepute” (Ac 19:27). If enough people refused to participate in their false religion, then they wouldn’t sell enough idols to stay in business. The silversmiths were enraged, and the entire city was filled with confusion, resulting in a riot.
Light Came Into the World
What was happening in Ephesus? It was very similar to when Jesus began his public ministry in Israel. John describes it this way:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)
Just the other day, I was talking with someone about those verses in John 1. If you continue reading John’s Gospel, you’ll notice that Jesus walks through Israel as though he’s dividing the Red Sea. Most of the people rejected him. By the end of his ministry, they have not only denied him as Lord and Savior, but they’ve also become so distressed by his presence that they want to kill him. Meanwhile, the handful of people who believe in him are willing to give up everything for him. The people are divided between those who hate him and those who love him.
John calls Jesus the true light. Jesus also uses this analogy when he says of himself:
“The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21)
Have you ever watched that old show from the Eighties, Highway To Heaven with Michael Landon? If you want to learn correct doctrine concerning angels, then I can’t recommend it. If you want to watch a family-friendly show about people helping people, then I highly recommend it.
I saw one episode where this boy had hideous scars on his face, so he was afraid to let anyone see him. He grew his hair long to cover part of his face. He stayed inside of his home most of the time. When he would go for a walk, he would do it at night or stay in the woods where there was little chance of him running into someone else. In short, he was ashamed of his scars, so he preferred the darkness and avoided the light.
The same was true for Israel regarding their sins. The righteousness of Jesus exposed the wickedness of those around him. He was a bright light shining in a dark world, so most of the people ran from him. They hated him because he revealed their scars. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn 3:20).
The Children of Light
The same thing happened in Ephesus as God was bringing his people into the light. The Lord was subduing Satan and his demons. Luke says, “The name of the Lord Jesus was extolled” (Ac 19:17). Suddenly, people were enthusiastically praising him. Worse yet for those still walking in darkness, the new believers were throwing their old sins into the fire to be burned once and for all. Instantly, the city was divided into light and darkness.
If you think it’s uncomfortable being a Christian in a sinful world, imagine how it feels to be a sinner as light begins to appear all around you, exposing your works as evil. When one’s heart is hard, enjoying the pleasures of the flesh without restraint, the light of Christ is unpleasant, to say the least.
What we learn from both Jesus and the Christians in Ephesus is that the difference between saints and sinners or believers and unbelievers should be as evident as the difference between light and darkness. No one would ever confuse light with darkness or darkness with light. No one should ever confuse Christians with the rest of the world.
In John’s first epistle, which he wrote from Ephesus, he says:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
What does Paul say? “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Be different. Stand out from the crowd. You shouldn’t fit in with everyone else. If you do, take this commandment to heart. Remember that you cannot have fellowship with God who is light if you are walking in darkness (i.e., falsehood and immorality). In fact, you can’t have fellowship with other believers either. We must walk as children of light.
The Light of the World
To be clear, this passage does not mean that we hide from the world. Some believers think it is best for us to completely remove ourselves from society. We’re supposed to be distinct, they think, so what better way to accomplish that than to build a wall between us and the world. After all, Ephesians says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.” Yes, but what does the latter part of the verse say? “Instead expose them” (Eph 5:11). How can our light expose the works of darkness if we never go near the darkness?
Put a bookmark at Ephesians 5 and turn with me to Matthew 5 for a moment. As I read part of this chapter, I want you to see these words as a description of the child of light. Then, Jesus will provide us with some practical instruction.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:2-12)
This passage is a description of Jesus’ disciples, not a list of commandments. He’s not telling us to be meek, for instance; he’s telling us that we are meek. That point becomes a bit more obvious when we come to the end of the list. He’s not commanding us to be persecuted or reviled; he’s merely explaining that his disciples will be persecuted, but that’s okay. Your reward is in heaven.
Then, comes the imperatives:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
Let’s focus on that second analogy. Christians are the light of the world, but if we hide our light, it’s useless. We’re useless. The command here is, “let your light shine before others.” You are the light, but you have to stop hiding. Let the world see your good works. Expose them to your mourning, meekness, hungering after righteousness, mercy, peace, and so on. Let them see it so that it might do what God intends which is convert people. “So that they may … give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Will the light always convert people? No, but it will glorify God regardless. God is glorified when his people repent, and he’s glorified when sin is exposed for what it is. No matter the effect our light has on the world, we can’t be effective unless we are a light of the world. In John 17, Jesus offered this prayer for his disciples: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (Jn 17:15).
We should not hide behind the walls of the church (or Wade and Jaclyn’s living room as the case may be).
Engaging the World Around Us
Oak Grove (Reformed) Baptist Church in Angier has a sign on display as you’re pulling out of the drive. It says, “You are now entering the mission field.” That’s a helpful reminder.
It’s a shame that we so often reduce the totality of our discipleship to these few hours we spend together once or twice a week. The vast majority of discipleship happens out there Monday through Saturday, and we need to be intentional about it.
Let me be the first to admit that I’m guilty. One pastor praised me the other day for blanketing the Twitterverse with the gospel. That’s great, and social media has its place, but I’m not in the real-life community as I should be. I haven’t volunteered to mentor the countless kids at Danae’s school who come from broken homes and may have no one else to guide them. I haven’t helped the homeless man with mental disabilities who sits all day at the McDonald’s not two miles from my house. I haven’t visited the elderly in the local nursing homes whose own family stopped coming years ago. I’m guilty, and I bet some of you are too.
I looked up the census records for Angier and discovered that the demographic majority is made up of middle-class families in their thirties. They are relatively young and reasonably comfortable with their finances. I know we’re not in Angier right now, but that’s where some of us live, and I’m using it as an example.
With a population of roughly 5,000 people, Angier has more than thirty churches. That’s approximately 75 Christians for every 160 people. Let’s simplify the equation and say there are 15 Christians for every 32 people. If a single person in the town of Angier goes without hearing the gospel, the church has failed miserably. If a single person in need goes with someone attempting to help him or her, the church has failed. I have failed. We have failed.
We should ask ourselves, why do we fail? Is it because we’re so wrapped up in the bubble we’ve built here on Sunday mornings that we’re not even thinking about the world around us? I know that that’s most often my excuse. I’m the pastor. I’m supposed to lock myself away in isolation to study. We all know the Word of God is the core of our worship. If I’m always out there serving the community and being a light of the world, then where does leave my ministry? It leaves it right where it’s supposed to be.
I can’t speak for you, but I’m tired of making excuses for myself. I’m tired of justifying why I keep the light of Christ hidden under a basket. There’s no excuse or justification. Furthermore, I have no right to stand here and tell you what to do week after week when I’m barely doing it myself. So, as you think about these things, please know that I’m thinking about them too.
What Pleases the Lord?
Paul says, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:9-10). Good refers to moral excellence. Paul uses this word elsewhere to say, “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1Th 5:15). Right is the same as righteousness. True means honesty, reliability, and integrity.
In case you’re not sure whether your actions currently qualify as good, right, and true, then try your best to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. You may not know just yet. You’ll have to learn it. Read the Bible, listen to pastors and teachers, watch the examples of others, but don’t stop there. If you stop there, you’ll never be a light of the world. Week after week, you’ll sit comfortably at home, at work, in Bible study groups, or in worship on Sunday, but you’ll never “go therefore and make disciples” (Mt 28:19). At some point, you have to learn by doing.
In the past, I’ve held different kinds of jobs. Many of them were technical enough that someone had to thoroughly train me. In the case of web development, I had to spend months and months learning code before I could build a website. But the job I have now at the funeral home is different. It didn’t require a lot of technical training. For most of it, I have to apply common sense and a few guiding principles to a vast array of scenarios. Every situation is a little different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. I can’t memorize a few rules and apply them in every case.
You’ll find the same is true when you’re engaging the world around us. The Bible doesn’t give us a black-and-white formula. It teaches us everything we need to know, but we still have to figure out some things as we go.
My point is, start walking as children of light. Set aside the excuses. Stop trying to convince yourself that you don’t know what to do. How long have you been reading the Bible? How many sermons have you heard? How many Bible studies have you attended? I suspect that you already have a pretty good idea of what pleases the Lord. Am I right?
Exposed By the Light
When you get out into the world, I want you to be careful. Paul cautions us, saying, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph 5:11). Don’t participate in the carnality and wickedness you’ll likely see. Paul tells the Corinthians:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
You shouldn’t be in fellowship with them. You shouldn’t give anyone the appearance that you are one of them. You shouldn’t even be with them while they are engaged in these sinful behaviors. But as we know from the example of Christ, we do need to reach these people.
Paul says, “Expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph 5:11-14). We don’t ignore or hide from evil; we confront it. We are in the world interacting with the world to convince people by word or example what is good, right, and true.
Notice that I said we expose evil by word or example. Keep in mind that words don’t mean anything unless we show people an example of Christian behavior. Also, our behavior will only go so far. There are times when we have to speak, telling others about Christ. There may be times when it is best for us to openly address someone’s sin. Again, the Bible doesn’t give us a black-and-white formula. You’ll have to use wisdom and discernment in each case.
Christ Will Shine On You
Always remember what it is we are trying to achieve. Paul shows us by quoting Isaiah 60:1 (not verbatim): “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). Some historians believe Paul was quoting an early Christian hymn which is why it doesn’t entirely match Isaiah. Regardless, that’s an invitation to come to Christ. It’s also a summons to repent.
Wait a minute, someone says. A dead man can’t voluntarily rise from the dead. He’s dead. God must bring him to life. Have you forgotten what I said earlier about the parallel lines of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? First, the Bible says, “Wake from the dead.” Then, it says, “God raised you from the dead.” One message is for the unbeliever. The other is for the believer.
Some people get excited to read that our goal is to expose the wickedness of the world. I’ve met more than a few Christians who seem to thrive on rebuking others, but they’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to accomplish. Listen to what Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians 5: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? … God judges those outside” (1Co 5:12-13). If all we do is say, “You’re a sinner,” we have not done what this passage teaches.
Both our words and actions should point people to Christ. The challenge here is lead people to experience the same change which God accomplished in us. Whether we are speaking to a drunkard or feeding the hungry, conversion to Christ is our goal. We don’t want to leave people in a state of condemnation or indifference. By God’s grace, we can watch them step out of darkness into the light of Christ.
Our message to them is simple: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).