Stumbling in the dark and standing in the light.
I have terrible night vision. Well, to be honest, I have awful vision in general. If you were to look through my eyes and see what I see — without the aid of prescription lenses — you’d shudder at the blurriness of the world around you. Without assistance, I too see men as trees walking. (Mk 8:24) But it’s even worse when all the lights are off. My eyes are terribly slow at adjusting to the dark, such that I can’t see my hand in front of my face.
It’s a remarkable fact in and of itself that God designed our eyes with the ability to adjust to the dark and still see, albeit dimly. That period, though, between turning the lights off and getting used to the dark is an eery and unsettling one. You can almost feel the shadow take over as the night sets in. But after a few minutes, your eyes have completely acclimated to the new lighting, and though it’s not perfect, you’re able to make out your surroundings, where otherwise you’d be left to stumble in the dark.
Getting used to the dark, though admittedly a biological wonder, is a terrible spiritual mantra. In fact, I allege that it’s this exact mindset that the apostle Paul was warning against in Ephesians 5, where he writes, “Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph 5:11) To a church inundated with worldly influences and surrounded by moral darkness, the reminder to differentiate themselves from the common disgrace of the day was paramount for their spiritual flourishing. Ephesus, you see, was a large commercial center and significant seaport in western Asia Minor. Accordingly, the folks who passed through Ephesus were coarse, unruly, and unregenerate. When Paul describes those things that should never be “heard of among” the saints, no doubt he’s describing those with whom the Ephesians were familiar and, perhaps, rubbed shoulders with. (Eph 5:3–5)
It is with urgency and sincerity, then, that Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians and exhorts them to disassociate themselves from those embracing the darkness. The charge is not to alienate themselves or isolate themselves but to “not become their partners.” (Eph 5:7) Instead, they ought to “live as children of light.” (Eph 5:8) Consequently, it is this dichotomy of dark versus light that the apostle emphasizes in this passage to such a high degree that we must take notice of his declaration and what it means for us today.
The fruits and directives of the Spirit.
As with other letters written by the apostle Paul, Ephesians follows a similar textual pattern, in that he begins this letter plunging headfirst into the reservoir of God’s gospel before wading in the waters of functional behavior. The first three chapters of Ephesians are very much “good news” chapters, speaking eloquently of the incomprehensible and unimaginable love of God that saves sinners. The love that rescues and redeems those who are dead in trespasses and sins, and raises them to new life in Christ. (Eph 2:1, 4–5)
This is the crux of Paul’s entire ministry. Likewise, to be sure, it’s the crux of Scripture itself. The root of the gospel message is deliverance for the delinquent and depraved. It’s salvation for all manner of sordid sinners. Still, this root is not without its fruit. The gospel of God does not leave the sinner unchanged. As Paul delineates in the second half of Ephesians, it’s the grace of God alone that takes the dead person and infuses him with life to walk. And so it is that the Christian faith is not an ivory tower religious exercise. The theology we cling to as believers isn’t academic debate fodder for the scholars and theologians. Rather, it is truth that informs and inspires an entirely new way of living, all by the grace of God.
This new life is what Paul’s aiming at in Ephesians 5. Without leaving the bedrock of God’s one-way love, Paul begins to shift the conversation from talking about the Christian’s position to talking about his practice. That is to say, where Ephesians 1–3 speaks to our spiritual wealth in Christ, Ephesians 4–6 speaks to our spiritual walk with Christ. And though it’s all the Holy Spirit’s work, the first half of Ephesians is primarily concerned with his work in us, whereas the latter half discusses his work through us.
New life of imitation.
It’s this through-work that Paul is speaking to as he begins chapter 5. His “therefore” is meant to call to mind all that’s been previously discussed in the letter, and allow that to be the foundation upon which this new conversation stands. (Eph 5:1) His appeal to the church is to be “followers of God.” (Eph 5:1 KJV) The word “followers” in the Greek, here, is better rendered “imitators.” This, I believe, is much clearer and nearer to the apostle’s original intent. It is the call of every Christian to imitate their beloved Father as “dearly loved children.” As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s a better picture of the Christian life than this.
Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player in the history of the NBA (don’t get me started on this), was infamous for sticking out his tongue during games. There are stills and clips galore that show Jordan brandishing his tongue on all manner of dribble-drives, dunks, and defensive stops. In a documentary called, Michael Jordan: Come Fly with Me, though, it’s revealed that Jordan acquired that habit from his dad. (I had this documentary on VHS as a kid and I wore it out!) As he watched his dad work on cars or work in the yard, he noticed his dad’s penchant for sticking out his tongue when fully concentrated or wholly determined with whatever task was at hand. Naturally, Jordan took to this habit and the rest is history.
In a similar way, we are called to look to and imitate our Heavenly Father. As children lovingly watch and copy their parents’ mannerisms, so ought we to copy our Father’s love, however imperfect that copy may be. “Be imitators of God . . . and walk in love,” Paul says. (Eph 5:1–2) We aren’t slaves. We’re not following the Lord unwillingly, or out of a sense of dread at the harsh crack of his whip. Rather, we are children, following him as willing, loving imitators. Our imitation of him is impulsive and instinctive. It springs out of a deep knowledge of the gospel. Spontaneous imitation of Christ happens the more we’re cognizant of his immoveable, unilateral love for us. And such is what all true holiness looks like. The righteousness of God isn’t a spurious things, it’s a spontaneous thing. It’s not something that God coerces out of us by way of force or threats. Rather, as Paul elsewhere declares, he’s compelled by “the love of Christ.”
For the love of Christ compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If one died for all, then all died. And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised. (2 Cor 5:14–15)
Imitating God in a pursuit of holiness is rooted in the reality of God’s unyielding love for you. It’s what happens when you know you can’t be unloved by the God who is Love. Likewise, this call to “be imitators” is a constant, present, continual thing. We are always to be copying Christ in the manner in which we live, notwithstanding how flawed that copy is. But how, then, are we to imitate God?
Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Perhaps the chief way we imitate God is by following him into the dark. Certainly, we are called to avoid partnering with and espousing those in the dark, but, at the same time, we are called to re-enter the dark. We are summoned to be followers and imitators of God in the world’s darkness by declaring and demonstrating to others the selfsame resurrecting love that we’ve been shown. Just as Christ entered our dark world of sin and despair, so are we called to enter the world of rebellion to showcase the peace, pardon, and absolution only found in Jesus.
Be imitators of God . . . and walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us. (Eph 5:1–2)
Our mission as “children of light” is to be the light in the darkness. We have a duty to re-enter the world from which we were pulled, to go once more into the fray and find those we can save. We’re not re-entering the darkness and relapsing into pre-redemption habits. Rather, we’re infiltrating the darkness and broadcasting God’s good news to other lost and dying souls. In this way, we function as firefighters or emergency responders, entering and re-entering a house that’s on fire. We charge headlong into the flames and call out for any survivors we might pull out. With similar urgency, we enter the darkness of this world, with hearts spilling over with grace, ready to come alongside any sin-sick straggler and show them the same grace by which we were saved.
Love and light: these ought to be the chief descriptors of those who know and follow Jesus. Our great commission is to make known the love of God in a dark and fallen world. To a world full of rejects, outcasts, and reprobates, we’re to imitate God in love, forgiveness, and kindness. (Eph 4:32) That which we were shown is what we’re to showcase. (1 Jn 3:16, 18) Such is the reason why Paul is insistent about reminding this church of the gravity of the forgiveness they’ve been granted. Because the more often we recognize the greatness of our forgiveness, the more we’ll be inspired to forgive others. Nothing makes our Father smile as much as when his children copycat his love and forgiveness, however flawed that copy is.
Walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. (Eph 5:2)
And, furthermore, we don’t have to be afraid of the dark because the Lord goes with us. God goes with you into the maw — into the mayhem of the world’s darkness. He is the Light you carry with you in the dark. (Ps 119:105) He is the Light you reflect. The light that shines in us is nothing less than the Light of the World. (Jn 9:5; Mt 5:14–16; Is 42:6) “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” (Eph 5:8)
Don’t get used to the dark.
Moreover, this solemn charge to enter the darkness is followed by an equally solemn command to never get used to the dark. “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness,” Paul warns. (Eph 5:11 KJV) And so it is that the manner in which we mimic Jesus is by not letting our light get used to the dark. Don’t let your spiritual eyes acclimate to the world’s dimness.
There’s a helpful feature built into your phone that automatically adjusts the brightness of the display based on the ambient lighting of your surroundings. This sensor reads the level of light in your environment and either raises or lowers the brightness to best fit that situation. So, if you’re outside in the sun, it increases the brightness and, conversely, if you’re in a dark room, it lowers the brightness — seeing as there’s not as much need for the screen to be as intense. I fear, though, that Christians have a similar “spiritual light sensor” functioning in their souls. We see the darkness of the world around us and lower the brightness on our witness in order to live more comfortably. But such a notion is precisely why Paul writes, “Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph 5:11)
Yes, we’ve been called into the dark but never to get acclimated to it. As close as we’re appointed to get to the world, we’re never to be like the world. The filth of mankind, Paul writes, “should not even be heard of among you.” (Eph 5:3) The grace of God that delivers us also makes us different. Where once we were in darkness, now we stand in the light of the Lord. (Eph 5:8) The “fruitless works of darkness” no longer dominate or describe us anymore. We’ve been remade by grace as God’s lights. Therefore, we are to “live as children of light.”
Paul counters the idea of cozying up to the world and getting used to the dark by ardently prompting the Ephesians to live as beacons of God’s truth. They weren’t to contaminate themselves by returning, again, to the “uncleanness” of the world. They weren’t to participate in “obscene and foolish talking or crude joking.” (Eph 5:4) The obscenities and immoralities so common in society should never be named among the saints. Rather, their entire conduct was to be such that exposes the darkness. (Eph 5:11) We expose the darkness to point to the Light of the World.
You see, where the darkness of this world is defined by lust and self-indulgence, the Christian is to be described by love and self-sacrifice. Our society is addicted to pleasure and whatever makes them feel good. And the temptation is for the church to operate ever so slightly right of where the world is. But as the culture careens deeper and deeper into darkness and debauchery, we cannot toe the line. We must stand in the light! We must stand for the truth! As God is unmoved, so are we to be unmoved. No matter how dark the world gets, we’re called to walk and stand as children of light. (Eph 5:15–16)
Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph 6:13 KJV)
The call of the Christian is to never get used to the darkness but to be a light in the darkness. And, likewise, the more we throw ourselves into the gospel, and the more the Holy Spirit works in us his fruit (Eph 5:9; Gal 5:22–23), the brighter our light will be in the world. “You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14–16) Don’t be afraid of the dark, Christian, and don’t get used to it either. Actually, it’s time to turn up the brightness.