The Power of Words
A Sermon to be delivered on October 4, 2015 at Christ Redeemer Church in Newark, OH
Introduction and Background
When I sat down at the wire-framed outdoor table at Panera, it had been a long day already. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon, and constant phone calls had my ear throbbing.
The email from one of my best friends the day before saying that he’d like to get together this evening, had come as a bit of a surprise. He said he’d like to share something that had been on his heart.
A heart to heart? With another dude? “Something must be wrong”, I thought to myself.
The last time I had received such an email, my buddy had uncomfortably approached me about some sin in my life – some things that I hadn’t thought much at all about, but that had been nagging at him for weeks, if not months.
Was this going to be another such encounter? “No way!” I thought, searching my mind a little here and there between meetings and calls. I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong…wonder what this is all about…
But sure enough, the awkward meeting was not long underway before I learned that some of my words had offended. And there was no way around it – I had blown it.
As it turns out, I had used words that offended my friend.
If you have ever been so fortunate as to have had one of these lovely conversations, then you know two things about them. First, they are very uncomfortable. This isn’t a carnival cruise – its more like one of those miserable “free” cruises you win on the radio – you often get more than you bargain for, and its extremely uncomfortable!
Second, you know that they are moments of great learning and growth. They take a lot of courage for your friends, and they are orchestrated by God for your good. This is life in the New Covenant community. Life in the midst of the church, surrounded by people who care enough about you to kindly, but firmly say, “hey, we need to talk.”
The Key Point: Words are powerful, they can transform lives, heal broken hearts, topple great nations, and they are prized by our King. They are so because they reflect the character of God formed in us. They reflect our hearts.
This passage has many dimensions to it, but I especially want to focus on words this morning.
So let us begin where Paul begins to get an idea of the context for his exhortations.
In every Christian right doctrine, right knowledge of Jesus and His Word, is the foundation for their speech. From right knowledge flow right actions, soft hearts, and truthful words.
The Context – The Transformed Mind
Back up with me, and read from Ephesians 4 beginning in verse 17 where Paul is going to remind the Ephesian church of “how they learned Christ” – that is to say, who they are in Christ.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24 ESV)
John Stott argues that the “putting off” and “putting on” of this passage isn’t in the imperative, that is to say, it isn’t a direct command. Rather it’s a reminder of the truth that’s already been accomplished by Jesus in their lives.
Paul is not telling them something new. He is appealing to a truth they ought to know already – if indeed they have “learned Christ” – and he knows they have.
He is reminding them that as new creations in Christ, they must act in a way that reflects their new life. They must not clamp back on the shackles Jesus has paid a great price to break them free of.
As Stott reminds us, “Being a Christian involves radical change.” Once that radical change has taken place in our lives, we cannot, we must not live outside of that reality.
Therefore, Paul is reminding them of the gospel. And so it is that right doctrine leads to right behavior.
With that in mind, he begins to exhort them.
As we read these verses, notice that there is both a negative exhortation and a positive instruction. Put on/Put off. It is not good enough not to say or do something; one must replace the chains and filth of previous speech with the grace and beauty of speech that marks the new life in Christ.
Put off Falsehood
4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Earlier in the chapter Paul says:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
This earlier instruction flowed from an explanation that their elders served the purpose of building up the church. They are a “gift” to the church because they are speaking the words of God’s truth to the congregation.
This reminds us of the importance of a good pastor/elder!
But Paul extends his instruction to the entire congregation because we have all been joined to Jesus through adoption. We have become fellow heirs and sons in His royal family.
Falsehood ought not to mark the people of God because it is lies that serve as the foundation for the enemies kingdom.
John MacArthur notes that every other world religion is built upon Satan’s lies. The world fell into darkness through belief in lies. The Son of God was crucified because men believed lies. Jesus’ own apostle Peter denied Him speaking lies and cuss words.
In J.R.R. Tolkein’s great writing, the enemy emanating from the land of Mordor is said to speak in “black speech” – a term coined to convey the filth of evil.
Falsehood is the province of the enemy, and no Christian ought to dabble in the black speech of Satan.
Falsehood breaks fellowship. This is like the hand stabbing the leg “behind its back” (so to speak)! It affects the whole body. It is like aiding and abetting the enemy; allowing him to use us to hurt other members of our Lord’s glorious army.
James reminds us:
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:7-10)
And so Paul continues…
Put off Corrupt Speech/Put on Grace
4:29-30 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Let me first state what Paul is not saying. He is not saying that we not speak boldly against injustice or against evil. And sometimes those types of words seem to have a destructive appearance, not an edifying one. However, speaking words of truth from a spirit of love, speaking truth in the face of injustice and evil and villainy, while it may scandalize the listener, will later build up those who are wise, and have a purging affect on those who are true believers in the long term.
To give a secular example – Ronald Reagan did not temper his words at the Brandenburg Gate. Though his senior advisers (Powell/Baker) didn’t want that line use, saying it was “unpresidential” and didn’t fit the occasion, Reagan disagreed. At the crucial moment, he spoke truth, and that truth led to the end of the cold war.
To give a spiritual example – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms did not temper his words or take back what he had written in his books. Even though it caused great division and scandal in the church in the short term, in the long term Martin Luther helped bring the church out of darkness and into the light of the truth of God’s word.
What Paul is saying is this: you are new creations in Christ. Do not let your words resemble a polluted, mangled, and fallen creation. Do not let your words signal corruption and sin.
Corruption is closely associated with the Fall, and that old body of sin which you have left behind. Corrupt speech ought not to characterize those whom Christ is re-creating in His image.
Words that edify are not always easy words to hear, but they ought always to be gracious words. Our Lord was said to be “full of grace and truth”, and though he had hard saying and rebukes for the people, yet His words always fit the occasion.
“Fitting the occasion” has to do with discernment. Later on Paul goes on to state, “…try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
May we have discernment as He did, using words that are a balm of healing as well as a sword of truth.
And the motive for our words is to please the Lord and not grieve the Spirit.
You are to remember what Christ has done for you – particularly in giving the gift of the Spirit who has “Sealed” you for the day of redemption, when Christ comes back.
This is like Paul stating, “your great Savior and Friend has given you the help and safety of the Spirit, and you ought to remember that speaking to others in corruption also hurts your friend Jesus and His Spirit.”
It is a beautiful gospel truth that woven into Paul’s exhortation there is a reminder that they have been “Sealed” until Christ’s return. That is to say, nothing they can do or say will now separate them from their Lord.
And Paul’s choice of “redemption” is not accidental. It is a reminder that while they strive against “corruption” which still inhabits their flesh, they know that one day their mouths will be “redeemed” – God’s re-creation will be complete.
Put off Slander/Put on Kindness
4:31-32 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Here is the perfect example of the put on/put off. He says to put away anger and clamor and slander and malice, but to put on kindness and tenderheartedness.
Slander is the maligning of another person’s character – often behind their backs. It is the destroying of a reputation. Basically, it is the passing of judgment on another often in order to show oneself in a superior light.
Again, there is a difference between speaking truth, and maliciously tearing down another person. Often we say things behind someone’s back that we’d never speak to their face. These things ought not to be (James 3:10).
Speaking a rebuke in the spirit of love is done from a desire to edify, and done to someone’s face.
What is the remedy? Gospel kindness.
You can forgive, you can stop slandering, you can conquer bitterness BECAUSE God has done a great thing in Christ.
This is not simply a reminder of the example of Jesus as a pattern to follow. It is a command to replace Spirit-empowered kindness with flesh-corrupted slander.
You have been empowered by the Spirit to live in the likeness of His pattern.
Therefore, not only does the example of Jesus humble and focus our minds, but the Spirit gives us the desires we need to be kind, to speak truthfully, to withhold slander, and the maligning of others.
This is what it means to live as a new creation – this is what new covenant life in Jesus is all about.
Conclusion – To what end are we living?
5:1-2 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Let me conclude with these two verses because they are a beautiful reminder of who we are in Christ, and to what end we are aiming.
Too often we Christians abuse our freedom in Christ. I believe this is the case because we forget the cost of our loose words, and the power they contain for good.
No one here wakes up on Saturday morning having to make the trek to the temple. You don’t have to spend several hours hauling or herding an animal to its destination, only to watch the animal butchered, the blood pouring out in sacrifice. You don’t have to spend your afternoons staring at the blood trickling down over the alter; a reminder of why you would be there in the first place – sin. You sinned.
Yet we do have a sacrifice – and a bloody one at that.
Too often our thoughts are not meditating upon the cross in a meaningful and personal way. Too often we forget that profane word, that unkind gesture, that crude joke, that unloving action, all cost Christ a painful trip to the cross.
So Paul wants us to remember the gospel – not in order to enslave us to moralism, but to remind us that we have been bought with a price, and that price was far too high for us to be uncaring in action, cold in heart, and loose with our words.
So in these final two verses the apostle says that we are to “imitate God” in order to be a “Fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
There are two main things we need to take away here…
- You have been adopted into the family of Jesus, and are joined to Him spiritually as a bride is joined to the bridegroom. Therefore your identity is to be found in Him. We are to be imitators of Him as “beloved children.” You have put off the old man and put on the new. Brothers and sisters, let us walk that way this week – in the power of the Spirit, let us strive toward holiness with our mouths. Lifting each other up. Saying things that mark us as Christians. Not saying other things that would cause our Father grief.
- The aim of our speech is to bring glory to God. If we cannot say for certain that our words would be a pleasing aroma to Jesus, then we ought to reconsider their content.
Ultimately, there is life and death in our words – there’s a great deal at stake, as Paul reminds us elsewhere:
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,  to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
No one is sufficient for them because we cannot fully understand the privilege of being a child of the King and representing Him here on earth.
Not only is it our privilege, but bringing glory to God is the highest reason for our very existence. For as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Jonathan Edwards sums up:
In God, the love of what is fit and decent, cannot be a distinct thing from the love of Himself, because the love of God is that wherein all holiness primarily and chiefly consists, and God’s own holiness must primarily consist in the love of Himself. And if God’s holiness consists in love to Himself, then it will imply an approbation of the esteem and love of Him in others. For a being that loves himself, necessarily loves love to himself. If holiness in God consists chiefly in love to himself, holiness in the creature must chiefly consist in love to Him. And if God loves holiness in Himself, he must love it in the creature (pg. 173 the end for which God made the world).
Our words reflect the very image of God being renewed in us, and therefore the character of God being formed in us is shown forth in our words. Because God regards His own character as the most pleasing and worthwhile thing in the universe, He loves to see this character reflected back to Himself and shown to a watching world as a testament to His own greatness.
May the Lord bless the rays of His character that shine forth from your mouths, and may you look at your words more carefully – for what they really are – powerful tools in the Redeemers hand, reflections of His attributes and the work He has done within you, for the edification of the church and the glory of God.