Ephesians and the Ten Commandments
Earlier I pointed out that it would be interesting to map the structure of the middle ethical section of Ephesians relative to the ten commandments. I haven’t yet found an outline that explains the organization of every single commandment in this passage, but I do hope to show that all ten commandments are represented here.
This section of Ephesians runs from 4:17 to 6:9. It seems to have two major divisions, one from 4:17-31 and the other from 5:1-6:9. Each division begins with an introductory statement grounded in the first four commandments, then addresses human relationships out of the last six commandments. The first division focuses on those commandments that address our relations with all men, while the second division focuses on those commandments that have to do with covenantal relations with one another. In the words of Peter, we could summarize this section of Ephesians by saying, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.” (1 Pet. 2:17). This gives us an outline as follows:
Honor everyone (4:17-31)
- Put on the new self (4:17-24, mainly from the first and second commandments)
- Give no opportunity to the devil (4:25-31, mainly from the sixth commandment)
Love the brotherhood (5:1-6:9)
- Walk as children of light (5:1-20, mainly from the first and third commandments)
- Submit to one another (5:21-6:9, mainly from the seventh and fifth commandments)
Let’s see how each of the commandments is represented in this passage. Recall that each of the commandments is meant to be understood broadly, and in particular that the book of Deuteronomy gives us an inspired template for reading the commandments in this way. Note that there is significant overlap in how the commandments appear in Ephesians.
God first commands that we are to have no gods before him. In Deuteronomy 6-11, Moses applies the first commandment to a variety of issues including fearing God, teaching our children, walking in holiness and obedience, idolatry, recalling our disobedience and unworthiness, recalling God’s covenant, circumcising our hearts, and loving, serving and obeying God. This is wide-ranging, but not surprising, since the first commandment can be understood to sum up all ten commandments.
These themes appear throughout this passage in Ephesians, but most particularly in the introductory sections for each division (4:17-24, 5:1-18). The first commandment also relates to the church’s submission to Jesus in 5:23ff, and to fathers instructing children in 6:4.
While the first commandment is concerned with what James Jordan calls “covenantal idolatry,” the second commandment is concerned with “liturgical idolatry,” that we worship the one God rightly. Thus, in Deuteronomy 12-13, Israel is commanded to be iconoclastic and to worship only at God’s tabernacle and temple. This theme undergirds the introductory section 4:17-24, where our relationship with Jesus is highlighted, but not so much the second introductory section, which is more concerned with our relationship with fellow men. However, the theme does reappear in 5:22ff, as the church must rightly relate to Jesus her head.
We generally take this commandment to mean that we should not speak God’s name lightly, but the word used is to take or bear God’s name. This has much broader implications: since, as God’s people, we carry his name out into the world, we are to honor his name not only with our lips but also with our actions. We are to rightly represent him before the world in everything we say and do.
In Ephesians, I find this theme in 4:24 (“created after the likeness of God”), 4:30 (grieving the Spirit), and 5:1ff (which are concerned with imitating God and being light to the world).
The fourth commandment concerns work and Sabbath-keeping, but we have seen that it applies to corporate worship in the church. As it relates to work, this appears in Ephesians 4:28. As it relates to worship, it is relevant to singing in 5:19-20, but especially to the church’s rightly relating to her husband in 5:22ff. The church stands before Jesus for his evaluation and approval every Lord’s day.
The fifth commandment, as we have seen before, applies not only to obedience to parents, but also to our relations with anyone who has a place of honor or authority over or under us. This means that all nine verses from 6:1-9 relate to the fifth commandment.
The sixth commandment prohibits murder, but as Jesus reminds us, this commandment applies to much more than murder (Matthew 5:21ff). In Ephesians 4, verses 26-27, 29, 31-32 all apply to the sixth commandment, because they concern destructive speech.
The reason I include verse 27 here is that the devil is said to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10) and to be the “father of lies” (John 8:44). I think that verse 27 countenances not only the sixth but also the eighth and ninth commandments, in that we are to carry out the Spirit’s ministry and not the devil’s ministry.
The seventh commandment prohibits adultery, but in terms of Deuteronomy 22:9-23:14 this includes all forms of sexual immorality. Ephesians 5:3-5 is concerned with sexual immorality in general, and 5:22ff is concerned that marriage specifically be upheld and honored.
The eighth commandment forbids stealing; this is addressed in Ephesians 4:27-28.
The ninth commandment requires us to speak the truth; Ephesians 4 speaks to this in verses 25, 27, 29.
The tenth commandment forbids coveting. Interestingly, Ephesians 5:3-5 links coveting directly to idolatry (the first and second commandments). In their own way, both the first and last commandment serve as summary statements that include all of the other sins contemplated by all ten commandments.
Paul draws from all ten commandments, with a significant amount of overlap. The introductory sections in each of the two divisions draw from the first four commandments. Then, Ephesians 4:25-32 takes as its basic theme destructive speech (the sixth commandment), but it layers on top of it the third, eighth and ninth commandments, in such a way that verse 27 becomes highlighted as the point at which these all stack up. Only towards the end do we have more clearly defined sections that cover the seventh and fifth commandments, but even in these cases there are intrusions (the seventh commandment overlaps significantly with the first, second and fourth; the fifth commandment includes the first when it relates to training our children).
I’m not entirely content with the structure I’ve outlined above. It seems to capture the organization of the passage, but the only significant payoff it has yielded is identifying 4:27 as a kind of keystone for the surrounding verses. But I do hope that I’ve offered something useful in identifying all ten commandments in this passage. Please comment if you find additional connections!