“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 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, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:30–32, NASB95)
These instructions were written to believers dealing with other believers. Knowing that these were written to believers, we are to be continually reminded that we have both individually and corporately been sealed by the Holy Spirit of God. This is not something that we did, and it is not in our power to destroy it. But we sure can make it muddy. God brought us together and this togetherness is to endure until we enter His presence. We are to do nothing in our lives to cause Him grief as we relate to one another. Verse 29 may be viewed as an individual directive, but it is certainly to be worked out in a collective framework. These words speak to how we are individually to respond to who we are in Christ as members of His body, the church, and then collectively as we practice them and encourage one another to do likewise.
The stark contrast of a church that causes those outside the church to recognize us as Christ’s disciples and the church that does not is really found in our love for one another. Jesus set the example for His disciples and He gave them the directive of love, telling them what an example it would have on the watching world. This is what we read in John 13:34-35. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35, NASB95) This is Christ’s way for the body to function as one united by the Spirit. It is a difficult thing to be in or around a group of believers who for one reason or another do not evidence this oneness of love toward one another, and who maybe even have given a bad taste to those watching from the outside. One of the common excuses given for not accepting Christ is a past hurt someone experienced from a supposed Christian or their cold or harsh treatment received at a church. We all stumble, but our stumbling is never to become an excuse for walking on a lower road than the one established by God. As we think about the hurt we may have seen or experienced in the church, imagine how much more intently God is grieved when His believers contend with one another or when one of His beloved children strays. Paul tells us to consider God and what He has done in us through His Spirit as we work to preserve the oneness we have in Christ.
Going back to the first 4 verses of this chapter, we are instructed, “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;” (Ephesians 4:1–4, NASB95) In light of this and consistent with the instruction given in verses 22-24, Paul writes, “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, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
The “put off” is bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander. These things represent both attitudes of the heart and mind and actions of the mouth and hands. Our bitter hearts, our vengeful thoughts and our anger lead to unrest and talk. This talk leads to putting others down through speaking badly of them or slandering them which then leads to malice which is synonymous with wickedness or malicious and wicked acts. It is a horrible spiral that hurts the body. It is one that is important enough that in his letter to the Philippians, Paul singled out two women and called upon the church to help them to put their differences to rest (See Philippians 4:2-9).
Instead of these things we are to put on kindness, tender-hearts, and forgiveness. “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” It is very easy to respond in unkind ways when you are treated unkindly. It is easy to become hard-hearted towards others when they treat you callously or without thoughts toward your own feelings. And it is easy to nurse the hurt when it has been dished out so unkindly or harsh. As Christians we are to preserve the unity that we have in Christ and respond in ways that don’t make sense to the world.
We are to be kind to others even when they are not kind with us. This does not mean that we also don’t at some time seek to correct them or let them know how their words or actions came across, but that may be a discussion for another day. We are to respond with kindness. In a largely parallel “put on” passage in Colossians we read, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” (Colossians 3:12–14, NASB95)
We are to be tender-hearted even when we have been treated with not so tender a heart. What this means is that we continue to keep our hearts soft toward God and that we continue to rely on Him to go before us in all situations. This does not mean that we don’t deal with the situations at hand, but even in dealing with them that we reign in and put off those ways that might have marked us before and put on the ways that God has called us to respond now. Having a tender heart reflects faith. The Greek word from which it comes has to do with having bowels that are well or in good shape. It reflects an inner compassionate strength that comes from God and His Spirit working in us. We may have to walk through tough situations with other people, but this does not mean that we have to allow our hearts to become hardened in the process.
And the last “put on” in this passage is forgiving each other. Paul put the cap stone on this by adding that we are to do this, “just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” This one is pretty hard to get around. There is nothing greater than God’s forgiveness of us. Our perfect God sent His Son to lay down His life for us so that we might have the forgiveness of sins and to take it back up again so that we might have the assurance or proof of eternal life. He forgave every single sin we have and ever will commit knowing fully what they were before we were ever born. We tend to worry about the “what if’s” of forgiveness, thinking about how many times something may have happened previously or how it might happen again. Every single one of us has sinned repeatedly against God, and He calls us to forgive in the same way that He forgave us through His Son.
In Ephesians 5 we have the contrast to living in such a way that grieves His Spirit. We read, “…walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8–10, NASB95)