Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 09/05/1999
"But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness or silly talk or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks."
We have seen in the last couple of weeks that both the summary and the means of walking worthily is the imitation of Christ. We have looked first at how we should be like Him: in forgiveness and in sacrificial love. Now we look at the other side of the coin: what Jesus was NOT like. He was not immoral, impure, greedy, filthy, silly, or coarse. Or, we may say, to put it all positively, we should follow Him not only in forgiveness and love, but also in moral purity and in wholesome conversation. As we have seen so often, Paul gives us three things: what to avoid, what to do, and why to do it.
The first thing we are to avoid is sexual impurity. "Immorality" is PORNEIA, from which we get our English words "pornography" and "fornication." It is a general term for sexual transgression, more inclusive than "adultery." It is reinforced by "impurity." The point is that we are to avoid any deviation from the norm, which is marital fidelity. This is pretty standard stuff.
What is interesting is the fact that Greed is listed right up there with sexual sin, as something equally serious. We are rightly very sensitive to the one, but not so much to the other. Why? If we were really like Jesus we would practice continence outside of marriage and faithfulness within, but we would also be able to be content even if we had no place to lay our head. Let me put it bluntly: the Bible is not against wealth as such, if we use it for God. But if you have made a certain standard of living or a career your god, this is just as big a problem as if you were sleeping around.
The next thing we are to avoid is what we might call Indecorous Conversation: "filthiness or silly talk or coarse jesting." Some saints with pharisaical tendencies have read this section almost as if it made a sense of humor spiritually suspect--which would be just too funny if they weren't so serious.
Nobody who reads the Bible without imposing their holier-than-thou pious filter on it could possibly conclude that God is against a sense of humor. Think of Jer. 1:11-12, for example. Jeremiah, what do you see? An almond branch. That's right, because I am watching over my word to perform it, God replies. In English, the passage simply makes no sense. But in Hebrew, it contains a pun--a rather bad pun, I might add. "Almond" is SHAQUED, and "watch" is SHOQED. What I find particularly comforting (and vindicating, by the way) about this is that the howler of a pun in question is put in the mouth, not of Jeremiah, but of Jahweh Himself. Or think of the humor of Jesus. If we would actually visualize some of his words instead of just piously intoning them, we would realize that he must frequently have had his audience rolling on the floor. Think of the Pharisees cleaning only the outside of the platter (Lk. 11:39) and then putting it back in the cupboard. Think of them straining at gnats and swallowing camels (Mt. 23:24--Gulp!). Think of the big log hanging out of the hypocrite's eye who was trying to remove the speck from his brother's (Mt. 7:5). Or think of the camel going through the eye of the needle (Mt. 19:24). As C. S. Lewis paraphrased that last parable,
All things (e.g., a camel's journey through A needle's eye) are possible, 'tis true. But picture how the camel feels, spread out In one long bloody thread from tail to snout!
I can think of some Christians who would have been ready to accuse the Lord of "silly talk" if they had been there!
So we had better examine more closely the words Paul used for unfitting speech to make sure we get what he was talking about. "Filthiness" is AISCHROTES, which refers to language that is shameful, base, or vulgar. "Silly talk" is MOROLOGIA, literally "foolish words." MOROS is the word from which we get the English "moron" and "moronic." And so "silly" is a very misleading translation. "Foolish" here does not mean light-hearted, but evil and unteachable. We must read it in context of the Old-Testament wisdom tradition. This is the fool of Ps. 53:1 who says in his heart that there is no God--i.e., no God to judge him for his wickedness! This is the fool who despises wisdom and instruction in Prvb. 1:7, who treats wickedness as a sport in 10:23, whose way is right in his own eyes in 12:15, who gets less good out of a hundred blows in 17:10 than a wise man does from a simple rebuke, who in 18:2 does not delight in understanding but only in revealing his own mind, who should not be answered according to his folly in 26:4. "Moros" words are not words that are silly in the sense of light-hearted or fun-loving, but words that are foolish, that is, wicked, unteachable, self-willed, and lacking respect for the standards of decency and honor. Finally, "coarse jesting" is EUTRAPELIA. The emphasis is not on the jesting but on its coarseness--and coarse is another very inadequate translation. I think "glib" would be closer--the kind of flippant cleverness that is not edifying because it is mere showing off.
The alternative to the kind of talk we have been describing is not seriousness or sobriety but thanksgiving! Does this seem surprising? I suppose it does if you have been influenced by the misreading of the previous words that we have been combating. But think about it again. Thanksgiving is not the opposite of talk that is funny, but it is the opposite of talk that is filthy, foolish, or too clever by half. Why? Because it communicates an attitude that is not self centered or cynical but is joyful. As Richard Baxter put it, "Many think that the Christian life is but one of vain sorrow and scrupulosity. But who can open his mouth against the joyful praises of his Maker?" The point is that our conversation should convey a grateful spirit focused on the goodness of God. The atmosphere is one of joy or even mirth. The tone is one of celebration. And all of this is just as incompatible with the talk that Paul is actually condemning as it is with the usual application that sour, joyless, and legalistic Christians make of that condemnation!
Why should we live lives of purity and have conversations seasoned with thanksgiving? Because this is proper, i.e., fitting for saints. In other words, it is part of walking worthily of our calling. You are walking very unworthily if you are lustful, greedy, or ungrateful. You are walking worthily when you are pure, generous, and joyful.
Now, this lifestyle is said to be one that is proper or fitting for Saints. How so? The popular definition of a saint is a particularly holy or pious person. But the biblical definition of a saint is someone who has been set apart from the world unto God. To be called as a saint then is to be called to be different, to be a person who walks to the beat of a different drummer. In other words, we are called to Evangelical Eccentricity, to Biblical Nonconformity, to an Appropriately Irrepressible Originality--even in the way we live and the way we talk.
In other words, we are called to be "imitators of God, as beloved children." Join with me in committing ourselves to being exactly that.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams