In Ephesians 4:25-5:2, the apostle Paul says this:
“Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have [something] to give to him that hath need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear. And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, [by] whom ye were sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and [slander], be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.
Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell.”
In these two paragraphs, Paul is continuing his long series of exhortations for the Ephesian Christians, in which he’s calling them to “walk worthy of the calling with which [they’ve] been called”. He’s particularly focusing on their behavior toward one another, as the church context is the area of life that needs the greatest attention in terms of living, since from this interaction, all other realms of life will be affected.
Let’s back up and get a general overview of this letter. In the first half, Paul was explaining in detail the great truths of the Christian faith, and specifically telling the Ephesians who they were in Christ. Then, beginning with chapter 4, he began his practical application of these truths.
In his application, Paul began with a general call for a way of life that is consistent with the calling of the Christian at his salvation. However, he immediately narrowed this call down to the unity of the church. After this, he explained what this unity was, and then gave a general overview of how this unity is to be maintained.
Immediately before the two paragraphs we’re considering, Paul got into the extremely detailed and practical implications of his call for the unity of the Ephesians, and the goal of the church on earth. This involved him commanding the Ephesians to no longer live like the unbelievers around them, but to remember the radical change in their nature that happened at their salvation.
Now, in the first paragraph we looked at, Paul is applying the truth that the Ephesians are no longer the people they once were, but are new, godly, people in Christ. The general idea of these exhortations is that the Ephesians are to take off, like clothing, how they used to live, and to live in a way that is appropriate for their new godly nature.
However, in this article, I want to focus on the second paragraph. In this paragraph, Paul commands the Ephesians to do two general things:
- Be Imitators of God as Beloved Children
- Be Imitators of Christ as Beloved Brethren
Let’s look at this paragraph again:
“Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell.”
First, notice the word “therefore”. Why is it there? To tell us that this first command logically follows from what came before it. And what came before it? In general, Paul commanded the Ephesians in the first paragraph to stop committing certain sins, and to start living like new creations in Christ. However, there’s an even more specific connection, since this is the way that Paul concludes that paragraph:
“. . . and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you.”
You see the connection? Paul just commanded the Ephesians to do something in the same way that God did something to them. Now, he’s going to say that, because they are to stop living like the old person, and start living like the new person; and since they have to do what God did in order to do that, they need to be imitators of God.
So, that’s the first command:
“Be ye . . . imitators of God, as beloved children . . .”
Now, what does Paul mean when he commands the Ephesians to be imitators of God? First, notice that he didn’t say “imitate God”. He’s not calling them to merely do what God does, but to be like God. What does he mean by this? Well, obviously, he doesn’t mean that they are to be what only God can be. They are not to be divine in any way, or manifest any of the divine attributes. Rather, they are to imitate the moral character of God. And what is God’s moral character? He is holy, righteous, and good.
In fact, Paul has recently told the Ephesians about God’s moral character in verse 24 of this chapter:
“. . . put on the new man, that [according to the likeness of] God hath been created in RIGHTEOUSNESS and HOLINESS of truth.”
So, what are righteousness and holiness? Righteousness, when applied to people, means doing what is right, and doing what is right means keeping Christ’s commandments, and living like He did. The apostle John teaches this in 1 John 3:2b-7:
“We know that, if he shall be manifested [Christ], we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither knoweth him. My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, EVEN AS HE IS RIGHTEOUS . . .”
Holiness, on the other hand literally means “separateness”. And from what is God separate? He is separate from the world that He created, and from sin. Those are the two main things that believers were created to be separate from — the present evil world, with its lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — and the sin that those lusts lead to.
So, these are the two main ways that believers are to imitate God in — true righteousness and holiness.
After giving the Ephesians this command, he gives them the reason and way to do this — “as beloved children”. What does this mean? First, it obviously means that God loves them. They’re aren’t just His children, but they are His beloved children. The first reason they are to imitate Him is because He loves them, and they ought to want to be like the One who loves them the most. Second, they are His children. This means that they bear His likeness, so it is only right and natural that they should imitate Him.
The second command that Paul gives the Ephesians is to imitate Christ as beloved brethren:
“. . . and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell.”
So, how are they to imitate Christ? By walking in love. When Paul uses the word “walk”, he’s referring to their daily conduct — their everyday life. It refers to the general manner in which they live — the direction of their lives. They are to “walk in love”, which means to “walk by loving”. The highest motivation of their daily lives is to be love for the triune God, and love for people. They are to live lives of true love.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. They need an example of how to do this. They are to walk in love “even as Christ also loved [them]”.
And how did He love them? Well, first, we must notice that He love them. Paul gives us the significance of this in Romans 5:10a:
“. . . while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son . . .” (NIV)
So, first, Christ loved them when they were His enemies.
But how exactly did He love them? Paul tells us:
” . . . and gave himself up for us . . .”
What does this mean? To begin, Christ gave something. This isn’t a love that takes from people, but that gives. Second, He gave Himself. He gave the best possible thing that He could have given — His own life. Finally, He gave Himself for Paul and the Ephesians.
Now, does this mean that He gave Himself up in order to get His people, or that He gave Himself up in the place of His people — in their stead? The rest of the verse tells us:
“. . . and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God . . .”
First, Christ gave Himself up for Paul and the Ephesians as “a sacrifice to God”. In other words, He was a sacrifice — like the sacrifices of the Old Testament. And what was the purpose of those sacrifices? To atone, or to make up for, people’s sins. That’s what Christ did when He sacrificed Himself — He gave Himself up for our sins. To put it another way, He died in His people’s place.
Sin is crime against God, and since He is just, He must deal out punishment upon someone for sins. When Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross, He took the punishment that our sins earned. That’s what Paul means when he says that Christ “gave himself up for us”.
However, He didn’t just give Himself up as a sacrifice to God, but as “an offering” to God. This refers to His very willingness and determination to be executed on a cross, and to be forsaken by God for our sins. Since Paul is alluding to the offerings of the Old Testament, he’s implying that Christ gave Himself up as an act of worship and love for God. This offering was given to God, not to believers.
Finally, the main purpose of Christ’s self-sacrifice was “for an odor of a sweet smell”. Again, Paul’s alluding to the Old Testament offerings and sacrifices. When the worshiper had slaughtered the animal, it was then burnt, and the smoke metaphorically rose up to God. This smoke symbolized that the act of worship was now being recognized by God, since the Old Testament many times says that God “smelled the sweet-smelling aroma”. The fact that it was a “sweet smell” means that it was pleasing to God, and He accepted it, and counted it as a sacrifice that atoned for someone’s sin.
In the case of Christ’s sacrifice, His death was like “an odor of a sweet smell” that pleased God, and satisfied His wrath and justice against His people’s sins. As a result, He could now forgive them, and adopt them into His family.
Now, we need to go back to why Paul has been telling the Ephesians all these things about how Christ loved them and God. These are the ways in which they are to “walk in love”:
- by loving everyone — even their enemies
- by giving themselves up for the spiritual and eternal good of others
- by offering and sacrificing themselves to God
- by doing all these things in order to please God
So, are you being an imitator of your righteous and holy God?
Are you acting like a beloved child of God?
Are you living your daily life by loving people out of love for God?
Are you loving people like Christ loved you?
Are you giving yourself up for the true good of others?
Are you offering and sacrificing yourself for God?
Are you sacrificing yourself for God to please Him?
If you’re doing these things, then
“Follow God’s example . . . as [a] dearly loved [child] and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved [you] and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 5:1-2 (NIV)
If you aren’t being an imitator of God by being righteous and holy, then you can’t be one of His children. If you aren’t walking in love like Christ did, then you don’t truly believe that Christ loved you by giving Himself up for you, an offering and sacrifice to God. If that’s you, then read this good news:
God sent His divine Son to earth to become a man, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross to be punished by Him for our crimes against Him, to rise physically from the dead, and to ascend into heaven, where He is now the King of the universe. He’s now commanding you to change your mind and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection as the only grounds of His forgiveness, because He’s going to soon send Jesus again to judge His enemies with righteousness, and cast them into eternal hell. If you don’t change your mind and trust in Jesus, He will judge you and sentence you to eternal punishment for your sins against Him. Please be reconciled to God by repenting and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. He promises to forgive you and to give you eternal life if you do so.