Looking Closer at Ephesians 4:17-5:14

We have stated previously that there are two parts to Eph 4:17-5:14. First of all, this section of Ephesians is but one of several rhetorical sections in a larger compositional structure. This section is the second portion of the exhortatio. We have seen that there is a strong conceptual link between this part of the exhortatio and the second portion of the narratio (Eph 2:11-22). Second, we have seen how the two parts of Eph 4:17-5:14 are interrelated, so that we can say that they are two parts of the same section. The first part is Eph 4:17-32, while the second is Eph 5:1-14. We will now take a closer look at this section and determine if this understanding is valid and appropriate.

The exhortatio is structured around the use of oun (“therefore”) plus peripateô (“to walk”). This walk language helps us to see the various sections of the exhortatio. We first see it in Eph 4:1 of the exhortatio. We see it again in Eph 4:17, and then again in Eph 5:2. We see it one more time in Eph 5:15. Based purely on this construction alone, we would want to argue that the exhortatio is comprised with four sections, not three. As I pointed out already, the second and third rhetorical units (Eph 4:17-32 and Eph 5:1-14) bear remarkable ties. As a result, the second and third rhetorical units actually constitute the second section of the exhortatio. But what are these two rhetorical units attempting to communicate?

As a whole, the second section of the exhortatio is concerned with the new person. This concern parallels the main concept of Eph 2:11-22, the corroborating counterpart to Eph 4:17-5:14, which is also focused on the new person. However, the two rhetorical units that make up Eph 4:17-5:14 are talking about slightly different things. The first section could be summed up with these words: “do not walk as the Gentiles walk.” The second section could be summed up in this way: “imitate God, i.e., walk in love.” The new person is one that walks not as the Gentiles do but imitates God by walking in love.

We know that these two units are linked together. Both sections share the same concern for particular vices and virtues, especially akatharias (“uncleanness,” 4:19 and 5:3), pleonexia (“greediness,” 4:19 and 5:3), dikaiosynê (“righteousness,” 4:24 and 5:9), and alêtheias (“truthfulness,” 4:24 and 5:9). In addition to sharing the same vocabulary, these two sections share the same concern, the life of the new person.

The first unit talks about not walking as the Gentiles walk. Verses 17-19 describe how the Gentiles live. Then verses 20-21 contrast that with the “Christ learning.” Verse 22 explicitly exhorts the audience to put away the old person. Verses 23-24 explicitly exhort the audience to put on the new person. Then verses 25-32 provide examples of what it means to put on the new person. Following these examples, the second unit comes in as though it is a summation of the previous unit with emphasis on the preceding examples.

We could understand the relationship of the second unit to the first in this way: “Do not walk as the Gentiles walk, but instead, put on the new person, which involves . . .; basically, you need to imitate God, which means you need to walk in love.” In this sense, Eph 5:1-2 provide a summary for 4:17-32, especially vv. 25-32. Imitating God means more than simply walking in love. It means reflecting God. Therefore, there are some distinctions that ought to be evident between the old and new persons or between the members of the body of Christ and the Gentiles. Herein is the same conceptual concern as the first unit, which is, “Put away the old and put on the new person.” Verses 3-7 describe the distinctions and provide little support. Verses 8-14 provide the fundamental support for maintaining such distinctions. The distinctions are to be made because those who are part of the body of Christ have been transformed from darkness to light, and their lives ought to reflect said transformation.

Therefore, what we see are two units that are linked together by similar concepts and vocabulary, and yet they are still separate sections. The first section is primarily concerned with not walking as the Gentiles, whereas the second section is more concerned with imitating God, which means reflecting him, the light. It is valid and appropriate to describe Eph 4:17-5:14 as one section comprised of two units. As one large section, it describes the life of the new person. As two individual units, they have distinct flavors for understanding the life of the new person. While the first is focused on not reflecting the Gentiles, the second is focused on reflecting God; they share the same concept, but each unit approaches the concept with slightly different nuances. In other words, the two units are saying the same thing but in different ways.

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