“Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”” (Ephesians 5:11–14, NASB95)
Sin thrives in darkness where it is hidden from view of those who might speak against its wrong. But it is not that simple. Not all sin happens in the dark, but in full view of others who keep their mouths shut and ignore the sin in the name of tolerance or indifference. This generalized acceptance then creates an environment for continued and even growing sin. In the world we expect this because those apart from Christ are shrouded in spiritual darkness. But in the church this is not to be the case. As believers in Christ, Paul repeatedly pleaded and even commanded us not to live as if we were still in that same darkness. We have been made children of Light and we are now the Light in the Lord. This is what we read in the verses just before these, and here we are again told not to participate in any way, shape or fashion in those “unfruitful deeds of darkness.” That is the directive given to each of us.
Not only are we not to participate in them, but we are also told to do something which many are reluctant to do. Paul tells us that we are even to expose them. This word “expose” has the meaning of reproving, rebuking, convincing, calling to account and exposing in the light. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we read, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV) The word “reproof” here originates from the same word that is used in Ephesians 5:11. The word of God, which has been breathed out by God’s Spirit, is profitable (beneficial and useful) not just for teaching, but teaching for change. We read that the Word is given for reproof and correction or for exposing the deeds of darkness and giving a new direction according to the Light.
As brothers and sisters in Christ we are to engage with one another by exhorting and encouraging one another in our walk according to who we are in Christ. This is the instruction in Philippians 4 when the church is encouraged to help two women who once had served side-by-side but had somehow gotten sideways with each other. This instruction comes always with the primary consideration that we are to look introspectively at ourselves first as opposed to looking judgmentally to others. This is what we read in Matthew 7:1-5 where Jesus enjoined His hearers to be responsive to the sin in their own life and then as a result see clear enough to help others also. This would have been in stark contrast to the Pharisees who were so openly self-righteous and judgmental. There is a huge difference between finger-wagging and encouraging one another in corrective growth.
From the things that Paul encouraged his readers not to participate in, I can imagine, based upon the cults around them and from the mention of what they were not to do, that there was some legitimate indication that those very things might have been happening to some degree among the Ephesian believers. Paul told them to stop it. Those sorts of things aren’t even to be talked about let alone accepted and even practiced. Some might say that just because something isn’t specifically condemned or re-condemned in the New Testament that is has been somehow now acceptable. Consider for a moment that maybe included in what Paul said is that some of these things have not been expressed in detail because they are so obviously detestable that they needed no further discussion.
This is not who they were, and as such it is not how they were supposed to live. Even today in our world when Christians ignore practices among themselves in the name of “not judging” we see that the church in a general sense loses the priority of Light living. Just as Paul was writing to the Ephesians, so are we today to engage in Light living because as believers in Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World, our identity has been changed such that we are children of Light. As such, no binders or winking is allowed.
Paul went on to write that these things become obvious when they are exposed to the light, and then everything that is seen is viewed in the full brightness of light. This means that sin can be seen as sin, and righteous living can be seen as righteous living. There is no ignoring or hiding any more.
Adding that not everyone who heard this letter read was necessarily a believer, there likely many among them who were attracted for one reason or another and were checking things out, but who had made no decision. Paul gives these people an exhortation and an invitation to respond, saying, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” These words are reflective of the words of Isiah where he pleads with Jerusalem to awaken from its awaken from its drunken stupor and to look to the light which has come (Isaiah 51:17; 52:1; 60:1). "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1, ESV) Those unbelievers hearing this had been told of the Light who is Christ, and Paul told them to wake up to the truth. Even today as we speak to others in our churches not everyone will be a believer in Christ. For those who are we are to encourage them to walk according to who they are, and for those who aren’t we are to encourage them to respond to the truth which they have heard and the light which is being shined on their heart.
Beyond the church walls, we also are the salt of the world. Our Christianity is not a uniform to be put on and off. We are to be continually putting on our new identity and putting off that which is of old. This is the instruction in the previous chapter (Ephesians 4:22-24), and where appropriate we are to wake up to this truth and respond to it accordingly in the entirety of our lives and in our interactions with others in the body of Christ.