Paul's Laundry List of Vices
(A Look at Eph. 5:3-6)
By Jonathan Mitchell
The following is an excerpt from a presently unpublished commentary on Ephesians:
3. But all sexual vice (cultic prostitution, which involved idolatry; fornication; sexual acts contrary to custom, e.g., Mosaic Law) and uncleanness (impurity), or greed (desiring or having more than one's due; gaining and having advantage over others; an insatiable drive to acquire), let it continuously not even be named among (or: within) you folks - according as it is constantly appropriate (proper; conspicuously suitable and befitting) for set-apart people (or: holy and sacred folks) --
Once again Paul sets a dark contrast to the picture of light that he has just presented in 5:1-2. Witherington remarks:
"The basic pattern of rhetoric when it came to virtues and vices was the praise of famous persons contrasted with the denunciation of the wicked in general.... Here Christ or God in Christ is the pattern that the audience is called to emulate and imitate... while the pagan lifestyle in various of its dimensions is denounced and renounced" (ibid p 303).
Ralph P. Martin suggests:
"This astringent ethic reflects the need for the church to retain its identity in the 1st century world and by the purity of its life (as saints; see on 1:1) to give no countenance to the immoral practices which were the accepted norm of Greco-Roman society..." (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, IVP, 1967, p 1119).
"Since there was as yet no mention of these in 4:25-5:2, we can see a deliberate progression and intensification. Fornication (proneia), especially intercourse with prostitutes and adultery, was denounced in Judaism as in Christianity as a serious sin" (ibid p 217-18).
"This sharing of the sacrificial life of Christ gives the believer's life a sacredness that will stand in marked contrast to the practices of certain men" (ibid p 348).
On the term greed, Origen said:
"Greed can be taken either straightforwardly, or, as I have established [with regard to 1 Thes. 4:4- 6], in the sense of adultery" (Epistle to the Eph., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT Vol. VIII, IVP, 1999, p 183; brackets added)
Since the passage referred to by Origen closely reflects this present admonition, it will be helpful to visit 1 Thes. 4:
3. You see, this is the will (intent, purpose) of God: your state of being set apart from the common use or condition (or: sacred difference; = covenant living) - you are to continuously hold yourself from (be distant from; abstain from) all of the prostitution [note: figuratively, the worship of idols or false religions, and a break from covenant].
4. Each one of you [is] to have seen and thus learned how, know and be aware of his own equipment (gear; utensils; instruments; vessel; = means of making a living), to progressively acquire (procure for one's self) in set-apartness (or: holiness) and honor (value, worth),
5. not in a feeling of excessive desire (or: in union with an experience of full-rushing passion), just as also the nations (ethnic multitudes; non-Israelites) [do] who, having not perceived, do not know (aren't aware of; aren't acquainted with) God.
6. Thus, no one is to be continuously overstepping and have more (hold advantage) in his brother's affair (result of doing; transaction-effect; development from a matter; = cheat his fellow believers in business dealings), because [the] Lord [= Yahweh or Christ] [is] a maintainer of right (an executor of justice and equity from the Way pointed out) concerning all these people and things, just as we also told you before and certified with solemn witness throughout.
7. For God did not call us on the basis of uncleanness (or: does not invite us [to be] on [a path lived in] a soiled condition or a dirty environment), but rather within the sphere of set-apartness (or: sacred difference; = in a manner commensurate to covenant living).
We can see in vss. 4-6, quoted here, that excessive desire (vs. 5) and overstepping and have more (hold advantage) in his brother's affair (vs. 6) could be applied as a reference to adultery, among other things. Long ago, Ambrosiaster noted:
"We treat covetousness as a minor fault when in fact it is a grave matter" (Epistle to the Eph., ACCoS, ibid p 183).
The clause, "let it continuously not even be named among (or: within) you folks," suggests that the covenant communities should be completely free from the above, or following, vices, and have no such reputation in the surrounding societies.
Marius Victorinus had another insight to the verb in this statement:
"The name, the mind and the conscience of the saints demand that the tongue itself should be an agent of holiness" (Epistle to the Eph., ACCoS, ibid p 183).
Schnackenburg (ibid p 218 n 6) cites E. Haupt as interpreting this, "not once the subject of conversation" (p 199f) and E. Gaugler observing, "the danger of sexual gossip is obvious" (p 199).
4. as well as obscenity (ugliness; indecency; indecorum; shamefulness; baseness), or even stupid (moronic; foolish) speaking (talking) or coarse joking (vulgar talking; insinuation; wittiness; quickness in making repartee; making a good turn), which things it has not been proper or fitting to have come up - but rather (in preference), giving of thanks (or: conversation marked by grace, gratitude and favor in well-being).
The parenthetical expansions give adequate interpretation of these three terms which open this verse. Paul was affirming to them that these things were [were] not [being] proper or fitting to have come up within their communities. Proper behavior is giving of thanks, or,
"conversation marked by grace, gratitude and favor in well-being."
In Col. 3:8, Paul gave this admonition:
"But now, you folks as well, at once put all these things away from [you, as of clothes put off and laid away] (or: set off; = renounce or get rid of): inherent fervor (or: So at this time you yourselves in one stroke set away and get rid of all the [following]: even natural impulse, propensity, internal swelling and teeming desire; or: Yet now, you people at once lay aside all intense anger, rage and wrath), strong passion (rushing of emotions; outbursts of rage), worthlessness (poorness of quality; influence of the bad; hateful intentions), [and] from out of your mouth: blasphemy (abusive and injurious talk; slander) [and] foul-mouthed abuse (obscenity; ugly words; deformed and shameful language)."
With the last two categories, here in Col., it would seem that Marius Victorinus, above, was right on target.
5. For this you people constantly know (or: perceive), habitually recognizing by experience, that every practicer of sexual vice (or: male prostitute; paramour), or unclean (impure [in character]; morally indecent) person, or greedy one (person who is covetous: insatiably desiring advantage or more than one's due), [i.e.,] the person who exists as (or: that is; or: = which means) an idolater, is not now holding enjoyment of an inheritance (does not currently continue having use of an allotted gift from someone who has died) within the Christ's and God's reign or sphere of sovereign activity (or: in union with the kingdom of the Anointed One [= the Messiah], as well as of God; or: centered in the royal influence from the Christ, and from God; [p46: within the reign of God]).
First of all, take note that the vices mentioned here are the same ones that are listed in vs. 3, above. But the second half of the verse adds an explanation re: an idolater. The question arises, Is this latter just a category that is added to the former three, or, as my rendering adds the explanatory, [i.e.,], does this addition give definition to what Paul was meaning by the these three categories - both here and in vs. 3? Scholars differ on the text, since some MSS read: 'ho estin', while others read: 'hos estin'. My bold rendering follows Nestle-Aland's text, but my bracketed addition makes it read like MSS A, D and the majority of the later MSS. Schnackenburg is one who feels that 'hos' is the better reading. The parenthetical renderings, "that is," or, "= which means," would indicate that the term "an idolater" is defining, theologically or religiously, the spiritual significance of the terms, practicer of sexual vice, unclean person and greedy one. Prostitution and adultery were traditional Israelite metaphors for idolatry, or turning to false gods.
Another reading of the text could be, "a person who is insatiably desiring advantage or more than one's due, who is an idolater." The textual question of whether it is a personal pronoun or a relative pronoun will lead into different interpretations of what Paul is saying.
The dependent clause that presents the results for such behavior, or lifestyle, also has various interpretations. Many assume that "holding enjoyment of an inheritance within the Christ's and God's reign" determines their ultimate end. This assumption should be investigated.
Is being "in God's or Christ's kingdom/reign (etc.)" equivalent to "being saved"? Does entering His reign mean "going to heaven," as some veins of tradition teach? In Mat. 21:43 Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders in Jerusalem,
"Because of this, I am now saying to you men that God's reign (or: the kingdom of God; the influence and activity of God's sovereignty) will be progressively lifted up away from you folks, and it (or: she) will proceed being given to an ethnic multitude (or: nation; people group) consistently producing its (or: her) fruit!"
God's reign was, then, something that they presently had, but would soon lose. In Lu. 12:32 Jesus told His disciples,
"Stop fearing (or: Do not continue being wary), little flock, because it delights the Father (or: because the Father thought it good, and thus, approved) to give the rule (reign; kingship; kingdom; sovereign influence and activities) to you folks"
Here we should take note of the term 'basileias' which in these verses I have rendered: reign, rule, kingship, kingdom, sphere of sovereign influence and activities. This semantic range of meanings signify a position or place of leadership that was to be taken away from the leaders and representatives of Israel and was to be given to Christ's apprentices, who would become His body - those who would dispense the Good News of the new age and the new unified humanity (in God's economy and purposes), and would establish the covenant communities of this new creation of life in Christ through His Holy Spirit. They would grow in number and become
"the Jerusalem which is above" (Gal. 4:26)
that would birth children that would be children of the Promise. In other words, God's reign happens in people - here on earth, for,
"Consider! God's tent (the Tabernacle of God) [is] with mankind (the humans), 'and He will continue living in a tent (dwell in a Tabernacle) with them, and they will continue being (will constantly exist being) His people, and God Himself will continue being with them [some MSS add: their God]" (Rev. 21:3).
This means that God's home is here, among people. This is all about here and now. In Rom. 14:17 Paul instructs us that,
"God's kingdom (or: the reign-and-dominion which is God; the expression, influence and activity of God's sovereignty) is not (or: does not exist being) solid food and drink, but rather, eschatological deliverance into fair and equitable dealing which brings justice and right relationship in the Way pointed out (being turned in the right direction; rightwisedness; also = covenant inclusion and participation), peace (and: harmony; = shalom) and joy (or: happiness; rejoicing) within set-apart Breath-effect (or: in union with and amidst a dedicated spirit and a sacred attitude; or: in [the] Holy Spirit)."
God's kingdom is a way of life and a sphere of being. And further, Jesus informed his followers:
"You see - now consider this, and understand - God's reign (kingdom; royal rule; sovereign influence and activity) continually exists inside you folks (or: is on the inside of you people; or: = within your community)" (Lu. 17:21).
So what should we conclude from Paul's use of the word 'basileias' here in vs. 5? The verb "now holding," or "currently continue having," speaks to the present condition, situation and behavior of those that would be described by the terms in the first clause of this verse. They describe folks that have not yet been existentially born into the body of Christ - they are not presently "having use of an allotted gift." But this does not preclude future existential transformation when their class, group or order - or their season - comes and they are resurrected into the Life of Christ. (cf 1 Cor. 15:22-23)
The term "enjoyment of an inheritance," or, "an allotted gift," was the traditional means by which children received an allotted gift from their parents (in a patrilineal society, from the father) as a place to live, and as a means to live. In vs. 1, above, Paul's listeners are called beloved children, so here he picks up the family metaphor once more in this element that reaches back to Abram asking Yahweh for a son to be his heir (Gen. 15:1-6). In 1:13-14, above, he spoke of,
"the set-apart Breath-effect of The Promise (or: with the holy attitude of assurance; in the sacred essence from the promise; or: for the Holy Spirit which is the Promise) - Which is continuously a pledge and guarantee of our inheritance (or: Who remains being an earnest deposit, a security and the first installment of our portion which was acquired by lot) - [leading] unto a release into freedom (liberation from slavery or imprisonment) from that which was made to surround [us/you] (or: of the encircling acquisition; or: which is that which has been constructed as a perimeter around [us])..."
In 1 Pet. 1:3-4 we read of,
"the One bringing us to birth again.... into the midst of an incorruptible (unspoilable; imperishable; unruinable; undecayable), unstained (undefiled), and unfading (or: unwithering) inheritance (or: enjoyment of and participation in an allotted portion as a possession).... within the midst of [the, or our] atmospheres (or: in union with heavens; = in realms of spirit)."
So, in these metaphors, the inheritance comes to one who is a child that has been born into a family. And as with His reign, so with the inheritance: it is within and among us. It is an enjoyment of His Spirit. As with Abraham's heir, we are God's heirs down from, corresponding to and in the sphere of Promise (Gal. 3:29b), through our mother, the Jerusalem which is above - the free woman - in the sphere of the Spirit (Gal. 4:26, 29-31). And as Paul said in Rom. 8:17a,
"Now since children (or: Yet if ones born by natural descent), also heirs (possessors and enjoyers of an allotted inheritance; those who hold sway over the allotted portion): on the one hand, God's heirs, on the other, Christ's joint-heirs..."
Until one is a child (literally: a born one), one is not at this time enjoying an allotment in God's reign - and even then, not a full enjoyment until s/he has matured (Gal. 4:1ff).
We find statements parallel to this verse in Gal. 5:19-21 where we find Paul going into more detail and expanding the list. It will be instructive to consider these verses, so I will quote them, along with my comments from my publication, "John, Judah, Paul & ? "(Harper Brown Publishers, 2013 p 295-6):
19. Now the works (actions; deeds) of the flesh [religion] (or: = whose source and origin are the estranged human nature; or: pertaining to the flesh [system, or, nature]; or: = whose results and realm are the self in slavery to a system) [are] seen and made apparent in clear light, which are, and continue being, the works of a prostitute (or: [the] Prostitute): uncleanness (or: waste or worthless material, as of decayed flesh; a never-pruned tree; material that has not been sifted), excess (immoderation; outrageous behavior),
Now a casual reading of this and the following two verses would seem to appear as Paul pointing us to personal morality ("List of virtues and vices were a standard rhetorical device in the ancient world..." - Harvey, ibid. p 615), but I suggest that this in not the case. Each category listed here in 19 and 20 are corporate issues that the prophets laid charge to Israel in regard to their religious prostitution with the idolatries of their pagan neighbors. On the first item, recall Isa. 1:21, "How has the faithful city [i.e., Jerusalem] become a prostitute?" On the second, 'akatharsia', Barclay points out that it
"can be used for the pus of an unclean wound, for a tree that has never been pruned, for material which has never been sifted" (ibid. p 47).
This was not just about a moral issue. Also, see Ezk. 34:18 and Matt. 23:27. These were all corporate pronouncements. As to excessive behavior, see the religious behavior that Jesus addresses in Matt. 23:14-23.
I suggest that Paul is demonstrating the rhetorical skill of "the double-meaning." Taken as literal vices, they are indeed works of the estranged human nature. But as you see, the prophets used this same technique, associating the physical vice with the spiritual - the second being the main point.
20. idolatry (being a servant to or worshiping external forms or appearances, phantoms of the mind, unsubstantial or reflected images, or conveyed impressions) sorcery (employment of drugs and enchantments; magic rites; witchcraft), hostilities (enmities; alienations), strife (contentious disposition), jealousies (or: zealous emotions), stirring emotions (rushing passions; furies), factions, standings-apart (divisions), sects (religious denominations; parties with a particular opinion; the making of choices from preferences),
All of the items listed in this verse can apply to religious groups, on a spiritual level. The meanings of idolatry in the parenthetical expansion are easily and often seen is religious settings even today. Francis Frangipane has said that the basic form of witchcraft is the attempt, or the practice, of controlling others by any spirit [or attitude] that is not God. Hostilities were seen in the attitudes and actions of the scribes and Pharisees toward Jesus - as well as between the various sects of first century Judaism. Strife and factions (divisions) was seen in the Corinthian groups, as we see in 1 Cor. Paul, as Saul, had demonstrated "zealous emotions" against the Christians. The Jews killed Jesus out of jealousy (cf John 11:47-48; 12:19). As to stirring emotions, consider the Jews who had vowed to kill Paul (Acts 23:12). The term sect was seen in the Judaism of Jesus' day, and throughout the history of Christianity.
21. envies, murders, intoxications (times of being drunk), festal processions (or: excessive feastings), and things like to these [whether religious, or personal], which things I continue predicting (saying beforehand; or: = giving warning) to you folks, just as I said before, that those habitually practicing (or: performing) such [religious, or personal] things will not inherit (receive and enjoy a distributed allotment of) God's reign (kingdom; sovereign influence and activities).
Envy is often a corporate attitude and emotion. John addressed the attitude of hate, and equated it to murder (1 John 3:15). The "intoxications and festal processions" were issues involving feasts in idol temples (cf Ben Witherington III, ibid., where he addresses this issue in his commentary on 1 Cor.).
We should keep in mind the present tense in the verb "habitually practicing (repeatedly performing)." This indicates a way of life for the group ("those" - plural). All such things are antitheses of the Love that fulfills the Law (14, above) and are the opposite of "walking about (living) in the spirit and Breath-effect" (15) of the Promise. Living in things of the old creation (the flesh) precludes living in the enjoyment of the allotted inheritance - which is the new (the spirit). The term "inherit (etc.) is simply another metaphor in Paul's rhetorical arsenal. God's reign - His sovereign influence and activities - is a living relationship that is shared by the covenant community. The foregoing "laundry list," above, represents behaviors that damage and break relationships. They divert the attention away from Christ (the opposite of 2 Cor. 3:18) among people (as well as within individuals) and blind the group from seeing the manifestations of His sovereign activities within and among others. Such activities make it impossible for them to be participating (enjoying the allotment) in God's kingdom. His reign is happening now - this is not referring to some future time.
6. Let no one keep on deceiving (or: seducing) you by empty words (or: messages; reasons; thoughts; ideas), for because of these things, God's inherent fervor (natural impulse and disposition; intrinsic teeming desire and swelling passion; or: anger; indignation) is continuously coming upon [note: cf John 3:36] the sons of The Disobedience (the incompliance; or: = folks having the quality of not being convinced or being disobedient and stubborn).
As suggested above, the sons of The Disobedience can refer to the human race, and thus the Greco-Roman culture of the 1st century, and on through time to all those alive today who are not at this time "enjoyers of the allotment" of Christ and the Spirit. John spoke of this category in Jn. 3:36b,
"the person now continuing being unpersuaded by the Son (or: presently being constantly incompliant, disobedient or disbelieving to the Son; being repeatedly stubborn toward the Son) will not be catching sight of (seeing; observing; perceiving) [this] life. To the contrary, God's personal emotion and inherent fervor (teeming passion and swelling desire; mental bent and natural impulse; propensity and disposition; or: anger, wrath and indignation) is continuously remaining (is now habitually dwelling and abiding) upon him."
This phrase can also refer to those of Paul's day who were "incompliant" to the message of Jesus as Lord, and Messiah. The parenthetical paraphrase describes all who have not yet been dragged into Christ (Jn. 6:44; 14:32).
The present tense of the verb coming tells us this is not speaking of some future time or event. As Jn. 3:36b explains, this is an ongoing, present reality: the human predicament. The deceiving is an echo from Gen. 3:1ff (cf 1 Tim.2:14, where Paul uses this same word). Jacob (James) gave a pertinent insight in 1:26,
"Now if someone habitually supposes [himself] (or: thinks [himself]; presumes; or: constantly appears or seems) to be religious (occupied with rituals and ceremonies), while not habitually guiding his tongue with a bridle, but rather is repeatedly deceiving his heart, the religion (ritual; observance of a religious system) of this person is useless (futile; empty)."
The empty words could refer to such as referred to in 1 Cor. 1:17b,
"not in cleverness of word (within [the] wisdom of a message or an idea; not in skillfulness of rhetoric) - in order that the cross of the Christ (the Anointed One's execution-stake) cannot (or: would not) be made empty or void of content and purpose [by rhetoric],"
or, to Paul's quote of Isa. 29:14 in 1 Cor. 1:19,
"I will undo (untie and loose away; destroy) the wisdom and cleverness of the wise ones, and I will set aside (or: displace; invalidate) the intelligence (comprehension; understanding) of the intellectual (intelligent; comprehending) people."
Vs. 6a, here, calls to mind the situation described in Rom. 8:20,
"You see, the creation (or: that which was formed, framed and founded) was placed, arranged and aligned under subjection in the empty purposelessness (or: subordinated to vanity and by futility; made supportive to fruitless nonsense: in worthlessness, for nothingness), not voluntarily or willingly (from out of [its] being), but rather because of (through; on account of; for the sake of) the one (or: the One) placing [it] under and arranging [it] in subjection (or: in supportive alignment) - based upon an expectation (or: expectant hope),"
and Col. 2:8 gives a similar echo, expanding the idea:
"Keep watching out for and beware that someone will not be the one progressively (or: repeatedly) carrying you off captive (after stripping you of arms and seizing your goods, proceed in kidnapping you as booty or a prey) through the philosophy and empty seduction (or: a deceitful trick having no content) being handed down from and being in line with the tradition of the people (or: corresponding to the thing handed along from humans), down from (or: in line with and corresponding to) the elementary principles (or: rudimentary teachings and fundamental assumptions) of the organized System (the world of culture, religion, government, secular society or economy), and not down from Christ (or: in accord with the sphere of, and in line with, Christ; corresponding to an Anointing)."
Most likely paramount in Paul's thoughts concerning the "empty messages, thoughts, ideas or reasons" were the religious influences of Judaism, early Jewish Gnosticism, or Hellenistic philosophies and religion. Without Christ in the message, thought or idea, all words are empty.
"God's inherent fervor, natural impulse and disposition, intrinsic teeming desire and swelling passion" are fueled by His Love for and acceptance of the aggregate of mankind - the whole world (Jn. 3:16).
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