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Children of light (Ephesians 5:8–9)

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Not long ago, I walked into a small café in Sydney. While I was ordering, I saw a newspaper sitting at the counter. There was one prominent lead story on the front page. The story was about brothels in Sydney: there was a government investigation going on into them. The newspaper headline, in gigantic letters, very clearly indicated its moral outrage at brothels, for “exploiting women”. But as soon as I’d read that headline, my eyes moved upwards to a prominent picture at the top of the front page. It was a picture of a woman in a bikini, obviously designed to be provocative, advertising another story on page 10 of the newspaper. Do you see the irony? There was a picture of a woman’s body being used to sell newspapers, so that people could pay money to buy the newspaper and share in the newspaper’s moral outrage against exploiting women’s bodies for money!

This is the world we live in. It’s a world where money and sex, sex and money, rule the day. And yet, at the very same time, it’s a world full of righteous moral outrage against injustice and exploitation. Crazily, so often the ones doing the exploiting are the loudest in their denunciations. The truth or logic or consistency of what’s being said doesn’t matter. Rather, the person who shouts the loudest wins in the moral outrage game, and that’s that. Of course, it’s much worse than hypocritical newspaper headlines, isn’t it? Behind the headlines and the outrage and the denunciations is real pain, hurt, and evil; often hidden, yet always there.

How do we as Christians react to this evil? There are various options. For example, we can join in on the outrage and denounce everybody around us. Or we can react in fear and withdraw from the world, hiding from the horribleness of it. Or we can react by just trying to be like everyone else: by assimilating and adapting so far that we are no different from the world. What does the Bible have to say about our life in this world? In a previous post, I wrote about what Paul says in Ephesians 5:7: “Do not become partners with them”. We shouldn’t become partners with a world under God’s judgment. That is, we shouldn’t just become like the world in this regard. That’s vital to hear. But if we just stop there, we might think that the Christian attitude to the world is all about avoidance and withdrawal. After all, isn’t that the safest way to avoid partnership with the world? We might think that way. Yet that’s not where God’s word takes us. Rather, it takes us to a very different place. The answer to the question about how to react to the evil in the world isn’t about hiding. Instead, it has to do with a powerful image: the image of light. Paul says:

For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light: the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.

Ephesians 5:8–9

Once darkness, now light

Paul says, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Our world is so often a dark place. It’s full of evil, and often doesn’t even know it or care to admit it. People want to be optimistic about human nature. Yet that optimism so often turns out to be a vain hope, flying in the face of the facts. When we honestly face the facts about our world and even our own lives, we can see that there’s so much darkness. There is envy, jealousy, hatred, exploitation, greed, broken relationships, lust, drunkenness, pain, abuse, and worse. That is darkness. But in Jesus Christ, says Paul, we are light. How are we light? It’s not because we are good in ourselves. In fact, tragically, so often the darkness in the world is in our own lives as well. Yet, Paul says, we are light. Why? Because, as he says earlier in his letter, we have been forgiven through the blood of Christ. We have been raised with Christ and so given security now and hope for the future. This, says Paul, means that we have been changed by God from darkness into light. Notice that Paul doesn’t just say that we have changed locations. He doesn’t say we’ve moved from being in darkness to being in light, as he says in Colossians (see Colossians 1:12–13). Rather, here in Ephesians, he’s focusing on something different. Here, Paul’s focus is on who we are, in Christ. This is a change of identity. We were once darkness, but now we are light.

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If you are in Christ, is that how you see yourself?

Walk as children of light

You are light in the Lord. So, Paul says, “walk as children of light”. The word “children” reminds us of verses 1–2, where Paul spoke about us as “dearly loved children” for whom Christ died. Because we are God’s dearly loved children, we are also children of light. That means we should live in the world as children of light. If this is who we are, then this is how we must walk, day by day. It’s not easy. It can be a long and slow process. It involves identifying the darkness in our lives, and confessing it, and dealing with it. But it’s something that we can do, and something that we must do. God has changed us from darkness to light, and that means we have the strength to live as children of light.

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The fruit of the light

What does it look like to walk as children of light? Paul spells out what light produces in our lives: “the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Firstly, light produces what is “good”. At the most fundamental level, living God’s way is good. This isn’t an arbitrary set of rules we have to live by because somebody made them up. It is “right”. It is in line with God’s standards in creation, as revealed in God’s word to us. It is also “true”. In Ephesians, the fundamental “truth” is the truth of the gospel: the truth that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. But this “truth” is not just a set of bare facts to memorise. It’s a truth that is lived. In chapter 4, Paul talks about “speaking the truth in love”. Here, what is good and right and true all come together.

Light, not darkness

Do you believe that is who you are in Christ? Do you believe that you were once darkness, but now you are light? Often, we hear the opposite story. It’s a common story: the story about Western Civilisation, in two ages. First, there were the Dark Ages. They were the ages of ignorance and religion. Then, the Enlightenment happened. The Enlightenment was the time where people were freed from their ignorance, and escaped from the concept of God and the restrictions of society. This story of civilisation, we’re told, must also be the story of our own lives. We must all remove the dark restrictions and oppression of living God’s way or society’s way, to the light of freedom, living our own way. That’s the world’s story: darkness to enlightenment.

Is it a true story? Has it worked? Does it work?

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It’s the story that created things like the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which among other things, told men that they were free and enlightened, and should be allowed to do whatever they wanted sexually. And now we have a whole #MeToo movement that rightly points out the effects of that attitude that was once called “enlightened”. In our modern enlightened world, somehow—and we don’t know exactly how—there is escalating depression and anxiety and even suicide, especially among young people. The world’s enlightened and very clever technology has created the dark web, with unprecedented child pornography and sexual slavery, hidden yet still very real. Yes, there is great good in our world. But there is also great darkness in our world. The story of the Enlightenment, from darkness to light, is not a story that tells the truth.

The true story according to Paul is in fact the opposite of the world’s story. If you are in Christ, then once you were darkness, but now you are light.     That doesn’t mean that you are superior to others. The darkness of sin is still there in your life, and you need to work to put it to death. And yet, in Christ, your very identity has changed to something far, far better. And it is better. It is good, and right, and true. Even in the midst of your own sin and pain, in Christ, you are light. Do you believe that? If you do, what are you to do? This is what so much of the rest of Ephesians is about. It’s what I’ve been writing about in this series, especially in the most recent posts from Ephesians 4–5. You might want to look back over some of them. But for the moment, it’s worth taking a step back and reflecting on the bigger question: you were once darkness, but you are now light in the Lord. Do you believe it? Because if you do believe it, it gives you the strength, and the reason, and the hope, to continue to live and walk as children of light.

Lift Your Eyes

For reflection

“You were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”. How might this statement change the way you think about living the Christian life?

What areas of life do you find it most challenging to walk as a child of the light? Bring them to God in prayer.

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.