God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians: Stealing and Work, and the Glory of God

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 14, 2006

Ephesians 4:28

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The Lord’s Day

May 14, 2006

Ephesians 4:28

“Stealing and Work, and the Glory of God”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. As you take your Bibles and turn with me to Ephesians
4, I want to say I’ve had a number of very encouraging conversations during the
course of this week. In fact, this study in this book, this chapter of
Ephesians, has provoked more discussion with members of the congregation than
any series I can remember in some time now. People have been deeply affected by
working through this, and I’m appreciative of that, your sharing with me your
thoughts and your input and your questions. It’s been very, very uplifting and
encouraging to me.

And today we come to yet another one of these
specific exhortations, and we may think that whereas truth-telling and anger
management are issues that are right up our alley, and that the Apostle Paul is
stepping all over our toes, we may well think in this congregation, “Well,
stealing — that’s not a problem for me. Whew! I can take a breather this week,
because Paul really isn’t going to have me in his bull’s eye.” Well, think
again, my friends, because the commandments of God are exceeding broad and very
deep, and we will find together as we study God’s word today that Paul has a
word for us even about stealing. Even if we aren’t petty thieves, Paul has a
word for us.

So before we read God’s word, let’s look to Him in
prayer and ask for His help and blessing.

Lord, this is Your word, and we know that it is
given by inspiration. Every word of it is inspired. Every word of it is
authoritative. Every word is applicable. Every word is profitable for our
reproof and correction, and training in righteousness, that we might be equipped
for every good work. So because this is Your word, work in our hearts an
understanding of it, an embrace of it. Enlighten our eyes to behold wonderful
truth in your word, and we’ll give you the praise and glory. And we ask it in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with
his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with
him who has need.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

There are several things we need to say about
this passage, just to make sure we understand what Paul is doing. The first
thing we need to say is Paul is not telling us here how to become a Christian.
He is not saying that the way to become a Christian is to stop lying and to
start telling the truth. He’s not saying that the way to become a Christian is
to gain control of our sinful anger and to govern our expression of anger in a
godly way. He’s not saying the way to become a Christian is to stop stealing and
start being an honest person. Paul is not teaching self-salvation here.

No, Paul has very clearly for four chapters
explained to us that only God can change a person’s heart; only God can make a
Christian. And you know, John and Peter and Paul and the New Testament writers
have striking ways that they illustrate to us how it is that God dramatically,
by His grace, changes human hearts. John will say becoming a Christian is
precisely like God causing you to be born again. John will speak of becoming a
Christian as “the new birth.” It’s something you can’t do. Only God can grant
that new birth.

Paul, in Romans, will speak about becoming a
Christian as a “resurrection,” God raising us from the dead with Jesus Christ.
We can’t raise ourselves from the dead; the dead can’t raise themselves; only
the power of God can raise us from the dead. It’s another way for Paul, just
like John, to stress the power of God that has to be at work in our salvation.
Or, Paul, in the passage we’re studying here and back in verse 17 and following,
will talk about becoming a Christian as God causing us to “die to the old man” —
to our old self, to the sinful self — and to be raised again to newness of life,
to be made a new creation: putting off the old self, putting on the new. That’s
something that only God can do.

And so Paul is not giving us a list of things that
we have to do in order to become a Christian. No, Paul is speaking to those
whom God has already granted the new birth, whom God has already raised again
from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ, whom God has already put off
the old nature, the old sinful self, and put on the new creation, the new self
raised to life in Christ. He’s speaking to Christians. He’s speaking to those
who have been changed from the inside out by the gracious power of God, and he’s
saying to them ‘This is how a Christian lives.’

It’s very important for us to understand that. Paul
is not giving a list of things — do this, do this, do this, and then you’ll be
saved. No, he’s saying God has changed you, God has saved you by His grace, and
this is how someone whose life has been saved by God and God’s grace lives.

The second thing we need to say as we come to
this passage is Paul is not reducing the Christian to merely a list of do’s and
This is not some school teacher with a list of 534 things that you
can’t do in his or her classroom. No. The Apostle Paul is telling us what life
is to be like in the family of God. This is so important for us to understand.
Law, in the Bible, in the first place (the commands of God in the Bible, in the
first place) is family instruction. It is how we are to live together in the
family of God.

Picture this scene:

There is a young person — 10, 11, 12 years old. That
young person comes from a foreign culture, and that young person has never been
exposed to the privileges or to the standards of life within your family. In
your mercy, you and your wife adopt this young person into your family. They
don’t know how your family operates, they don’t know what the family standards
are, the family goals are, the family attitudes, the way the family thinks. And
as they are incorporated, as this young person is incorporated into your family,
one of the things Father and Mother are concerned to do is to say, “This is how
we live in our household. These are the things we believe in our household.
These are the things we don’t do in our household. These are the things that we
do in our household.” In other words, you are inculcating in that young person
the values, the standards, the attitudes, the goals, the life of your family.
It’s a gracious thing. It’s a wonderful thing, especially if this child is being
brought from a place of underprivilege without those glorious biblical

And that’s what the Apostle Paul is doing.
Remember, he’s got a mixed congregation of Jewish believers and Gentile
believers, and those Gentile believers, unlike those Jewish believers, have not
had the privilege of being reared in homes where the word of God was read and
They don’t know how the family of God is supposed to act. The Jewish
believers had been raised on the Bible from the days of their youth, but the
Gentile believers had come out of paganism. They needed to be taught how the
family of God lives together, and that’s what Paul is doing here. And it’s no
less relevant to us today than it was to the Ephesians, because God is bringing
to Himself men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and
people and nation — and let me tell you, the culture isn’t helping us out there
learning how to live as the family of God. People don’t come to faith in Christ
having been taught by the culture how Christians live distinctively. No, the
culture is doing everything that it can to run down the standards of morality
set forth in the word of God, and so the Apostle Paul is saying here are our
standards as the family of God. This is how we live together as God’s family.

It’s so important for us to understand that. Yes,
Paul has do’s and don’ts here, but those do’s and don’ts are in the context of
grace, they’re in the context of God’s redeeming work which He has accomplished
by His own power, and they are in the context of being brought into God’s family
and being told lovingly by God: ‘This is how My children live. This is what My
children believe. This is what My children don’t do; this is what My children
do.’ It’s in this context of this beautiful work of God’s creating His own
family out of those who were once His enemies, out of those who once marched to
the beat of their own drum, headed straight to destruction. And He brings them
graciously into His family and says ‘This is how we live together.’

Now, of course, the third thing we need to say is
that Paul is saying this because it is vital to our witness to the world.

The Apostle Paul knows that the witness of the power of God in the gospel to the
world will in large measure be judged by the world on the basis of how we live
as Christians. In other words, God’s plan for showing the world the power of
grace — are you ready? — is you, living together in the church, loving
one another, caring for one another, forbearing with one another, being the
family of God together, and being different from the world. And the Apostle Paul
knows that the major objection that the world has to our proclamation of the
gospel is this: When the world looks at us and says, “You know what? Thank you
for this message about the power of grace. It’s really nice. You are no
different from me; so, why in the world should I be interested in this message
that you have?”

The Apostle Paul knows that our witness in our lives
together in the church is either an irrefutable testimony to the world that
God’s grace is at work in us, or it is a stumbling block to the proclamation of
the gospel. And so he’s saying to these Ephesian Christians ‘Look, you’ve got to
be different from the world, from the culture, from the city around you, if
you’re going to be able to bear witness to the grace of Christ.’

The fourth thing we need to say is that the
Apostle Paul is especially concerned that we live these ways, that we do these
particular things, because in them we glorify God, and through them we promote
the unity of the family, which glorifies God and bears witness to the world.

In other words, Paul is in a long section here in
which he has exhorted us to live together as Christians, and he’s getting
specific with us because he knows these things. And he could have talked about
other things, but he knows these things are absolutely vital to our really being
a family.

You know, one of the things that struck me, as I was
reviewing these six specific illustrations that he gives, is how many of them
have to do with the mouth — with our speech — and how quickly our speech can
bring either dissention and division or can promote unity in a family, or in a
body. But Paul zeroes in on these things because these things will either
detract from the unity of God’s family, or, they will contribute to the unity of
God’s family. And so for all these reasons, Paul is going through this list in
which he says don’t do this, do this; don’t do this, do this. And he’s not being
a legalist. Far from it. No, the Apostle Paul is teaching us gospel logic,
the logic of grace. When God’s grace is at work in your life, here’s how it
looks in the way we live.

So, with that, let’s look at three things
together in this passage today.
I want you to see first the negative part,
the prohibition. Here’s what Paul is saying don’t do. Then, I want you to see
his exhortation. Here’s the command; here’s the positive part: don’t do this,
but do this. Then, thirdly, I want you to see the transformation. There’s a
prohibition, there’s an exhortation, and there’s a transformation.
In other
words, there’s something that underlies our ability not to do what’s wrong and
instead to do what’s right. I want to look at those three things with you today.

I. Stop getting for yourself
by taking what is not yours (28a) [The Prohibition]

First, let’s look at the prohibition. You see
it in the very first words of verse 28: “He who steals must steal no longer.” In
other words, Paul is saying stop getting for yourself by taking what is not
yours. It’s a prohibition against getting for ourselves by taking what is not
ours. He who steals must steal no longer.

Now, probably, in this congregation in Ephesus,
there were those who had committed petty larceny before they were converted, and
they were being tempted to continue doing that even though they had been
converted to Jesus Christ. Many of them were perhaps from the slave or servant
classes in Ephesus and would have been tempted to skive off of their masters.

We see these kinds of things even in our own day. My
mother-in-law had a dear lady from the Middle East who was a very, very hard
worker, who would help her a couple of days a week, just to help keep the house
straight or to prepare for entertainment in the home, and this woman’s husband
lost his job, and lost his health insurance. Then my mother-in-law began to
notice things go missing around the house, valuable things: jewelry and money
and things. And finally she confronted this woman and the woman admitted that
she had taken this from her, and she began to explain all the difficulties at
home. And my mother-in-law said, “Look, if you had just told me about these
things I would have done everything I could to have helped you. But I can’t
trust you anymore.”

So we know this kind of petty theft that goes on
around us. We see it all the time, and perhaps we ourselves have committed this
sort of sin. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘No! Stop doing this kind of thing!
It robs glory from God and harms our witness to the gospel, and it actually
divides the body and breaks its unity.’

If you haven’t committed that kind of petty theft
lately, or have forgotten that you have, or haven’t realized that you have, let
me just tell you, friends: this command is broader than you think. It applies to
John Stott says

“ ‘Do not steal’ was the eighth commandment of Moses’ Law. It had, and still
has, a wide application…not only the stealing of other people’s money or
possessions, but also to tax evasion; to employers who take advantage of their
workers; and to employees who give poor service, or who work short time in
relation to their employers.”

No, this command is very broad. Any unlawful and
unethical acquisition of wealth and property, any defrauding of our neighbor, is
a violation of this exhortation from Paul. Any indulgence of habits that tend to
impoverish ourselves or others is a violation of God’s will. Income tax evasion
is an unlawful defrauding of our responsibility to God and government. Frivolous
uses of wealth — gambling, excessive consumer debt, negligent payment of bills —
all of these things violate this command of God.

Some of you are golf advocates, and love to play
golf and read about golf. I don’t know much about golf, but I read enough about
golf and sports in general to know the story of John Daley. Isn’t it a sad story
– the guy with incredible talent, who struggled both with alcohol and with
gambling, and has gambled away literally millions of dollars playing
$5,000-a-pull slot machines in Las Vegas? He played against Tiger Woods and lost
a playoff, and won $750,000 just a few months ago, and went to Las Vegas on a
plane as soon as the tournament was over and gambled away $1.5 million dollars.
All of that is a violation of exactly what Paul is speaking of here.

Taking advantage of those who are less fortunate
than us, unfair dealings with the poor — all of these things are a violation of
this command. It’s an exceedingly broad command. It’s even applicable to things
beyond the property and the material resources and money of other people. It
applies to our usage of what God has given to us. What do we have that God has
not given us? Every talent, every ability, belongs to God. When we do not use it
for His glory, we are robbing from Him, so the Apostle’s word isn’t just for
former petty thieves in Ephesus, it’s for folks at First Presbyterian Church,
for you and me. And he is saying to us, “He who steals must steal no longer.”

And I want to say that it’s important to realize
what this sin reveals about the human heart. Most of us in our setting, when we
commit this sin, do so because of selfishness and because of a sense of

Now, if we were in the third world somewhere where
our families were in desperate need, there might be other things that would
drive you to steal; but for us, for most of us, it’s selfishness and a sense of
entitlement. We just think that we are entitled to better our own condition at
the expense of others, because we’re selfish, we’re self-centered, and we’re

But sometimes theft is done just for the pure
malice of it.
Young people, have you ever taken something that wasn’t yours
just for the sheer fun of it? Do you know that that is the sin that God used to
show Augustine the wickedness of his heart? When he was a little boy, he tells
us, he went down to a marketplace where a man was selling fruit, and he stole
pears with his friends. And the interesting thing that Augustine tells us
is…he didn’t even like pears. He stole the pears and he threw them away. He
didn’t want to eat them. He didn’t need them. He just stole the pears because he
wanted to. The sheer malice of his own heart…and in God’s grace and in God’s
time, God showed him ‘Augustine, the fact that you would do that when you didn’t
need to (and you didn’t even want the pear!) shows you that you need the grace
of God to change your heart.’

So, my friends, if you’re struggling with any kind
of stealing, whether anyone else knows it or not, take care to note what that
teaches about your heart. It always pushes us back to our need of grace, doesn’t
it? God’s grace, to change our hearts.

There’s the prohibition: “He who steals must steal
no longer.”

II. Start doing good honest
work (28b) [The Exhortation]

But here’s the exhortation. Paul never tells
you to stop doing something without telling you to replace that ungodly behavior
with a godly behavior. Notice what he says, again in verse 28:

“But rather he must labor, performing with his
own hand what is good….”

So Paul says stop getting for yourself by taking what is
not yours: start doing good honest work. There is Paul’s positive command.
Paul’s approach to sin is never to say merely, “Stop it,” but to replace it with
a corresponding godly pattern of living. The Apostle Paul knows that when you’re
fighting temptation in one direction “stop it” does not replace that tendency to
sin with a correspond ending tendency to righteousness that really leads to
lasting change in your life, and so he always says not only “don’t do that,” but
positively, in its place, “this is the direction that you ought to be going,” so
that this becomes natural to you, not the sin. And so he says, in contrast to
taking what is not ours, to start doing good, honest, work.

Again, he’s not telling you there how to become a
Christian. No, as John Stott says, only Christ can turn a burglar into a
benefactor. Only the grace of God in Christ can change a burglar into an honest
man. But Paul is saying to Christians who have been changed by the grace of
Christ ‘Don’t live in accordance with your old habits. Don’t be like the world.’

You know, one of the real shames that we hear all
the time in the business world is ‘Boy, I sure don’t want to do business with a
Christian. Somebody puts that little fish on their advertisement in the Yellow
Pages — that’s the last person I want to deal with. Somebody makes a big noise
about being a Christian, I don’t want to deal with them, because they’re
dishonest.’ That besmirches the testimony of the grace of God, and it should not
be so.

Paul is saying ‘Christian, we must be known for our
honesty, for our doing what is right, in all our transactions regarding other
people’s persons and property, and possessions and money. We must do good honest

III. Become a philanthropist,
by giving of what you’ve earned to help those who are in need (28c) [The

But Paul doesn’t stop there. Paul doesn’t just say ‘Stop stealing;
start working.’ He tells you what is to underlie the change in that
selfish, self-centered, sense of entitlement that underlies most stealing, and
the work ethic of good honest labor in providing for your family and for
yourself. And notice how he puts it at the end of verse 28. He’s to

“…labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will
have something to share with the one who has need.”

You see, the Apostle Paul says there’s a
transformation in the Christian’s understanding of how he or she fits in this
world and what we’re here for.
The Apostle Paul is giving us the logic
underneath his command to stop stealing and to start doing honest work. He’s
telling us here that we need to stop viewing ourselves as the center of the
world; that we’re to stop viewing ourselves as entitled, and we’re to start
doing our work as a means to bless others; that God has given us our ability to
work and to return from our work not only to provide appropriately for ourselves
and our families, but so that we can provide for others. It’s not only that
we’re not to take from others what belongs to them: it is that we are to take
from what God has provided for us, for ourselves and our families, and give it
to others who are in need.

It’s a total reversal of the attitude of theft,
which sees one’s self as the center of the universe — I’m entitled to better my
condition, no matter what it means to somebody else, and therefore I can take
other people’s money or possessions. It’s an entire transformation. Now I view
myself not as entitled, but as responsible. Now I am not the center of the
world, God is the center of the world. I’m His servant giving myself for His
glory and for others’ good. Now I’m not looking to take what is not mine for my
own benefit, I’m looking to give what is mine for somebody else’s benefit. It’s
a radical transformation!

In other words, Paul is saying ‘Thief, become a
It’s a radical change! Become a philanthropist by giving of
what you’ve earned to help those who are in need. You see, the root of the sin
of stealing is that sense of entitlement, that selfishness in which we are
focused simply on what we want and need. And the gospel rejoinder to that is not
simply to say ‘Stop it. Don’t do that’; it’s to say ‘Look, when you are saved by
grace, one of the things you are saved from is this morbid focus on yourself
alone. You are set free to be able to give yourself away in service to others.’
And so the Apostle Paul says instead of that sense of entitlement, have a sense
of responsibility and privilege in how we get to bless others.

And you know the Apostle Paul himself provided
such a good example of that.
On at least two occasions, he told churches,
look, I have every right to draw my income, my living, my earning, from the work
of the gospel. And he goes out of his way to instruct the church in Ephesus, for
instance, in the Book of I Timothy, about how they are to provide for those who
work for the gospel. But he himself continued to be bi-vocational. Why?

One, he wants to show the churches that he’s not
in it for the money.
He’s not into the work of the gospel in order to enrich
himself. Two, he wants to give an example to them of the attitude they ought to
have: ‘Lord, everything that you give me, I want to use it to bless others.’ And
so, the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of using what he earns to bless

Furthermore, he’s a wonderful example about
concern for the poor.
Here he is in Ephesus, and all over Asia Minor he’s
witnessing to Gentiles as he’s bringing them to faith in Christ, and then what’s
the first thing he asks them to do? He says ‘You know what? I wouldn’t be here
preaching the gospel today if there hadn’t been brave Jewish Christians back in
Jerusalem. Well, let me tell you, they’re in hard times, and they need your
help. And I’m going to take up an offering to go back and help them. Won’t you
give?’ And he’ll ask the Thessalonians, and he’ll ask the Ephesians, and he’ll
ask people all over Macedonia: ‘Won’t you give to help those Christians in
need?’ And so he encourages them to get out of the mindset that ‘everything that
I earn is for my enjoyment,’ and to get into the mindset that ‘what I am given
is to meet the needs of myself and my family, and then to be able to give to
others.’ And the Apostle Paul is calling on the thief to become a
philanthropist. He’s showing us how we live out the gospel in this particular

Many of you have studied, perhaps, over the last
weeks, months, or years, material by Dave Ramsey or by Crown Ministries, or some
other Christian financial group that is trying to get you to look at money and
possessions and finances from a biblical position. That’s a good thing, to think
biblically about that. But let me say that it’s so much more important than
simply getting hold of consumer debt and getting your own affairs under control
so that you can retire at 57. There’s a much more radical call from the Apostle
Paul, and that is, the Lord has given you tremendous material blessings. Are you
using those material blessings for the blessing of those who are in need,
whether they’re in need for the gospel or whether they’re in material need?

And, my friends, given that we live in a
congregation and serve and work in a congregation that is among the wealthiest
congregations in the history of the world — we’re in the 99.9 percentile of
Christian churches in the history of the world — and we happen to be living,
despite all our bellyaching, in the wealthiest economy in the history of the
world right now. There’s never been an economy like this. (Now, to stand around
the water cooler, you wouldn’t know that sometimes! We’re singing the
blues…don’t have quite enough to make ends meet.) But friends, we are in the
most prosperous economy, the strongest, most powerful economy, in the history of
the world, ever, period. Nowhere else has it ever been like this. That means
that this is a huge obligation for us as a congregation. This is a real
challenge for us. Are we robbing God? Are we giving like we ought? I don’t think
we’re scratched the surface of our potential in this regard. Make this a matter
of prayer as you go before the Lord, to see if the Lord would test your heart
and see if you have become the kind of Christian who is concerned to use the
blessings of God and the privilege of serving the needs of others for the glory
of God and the unity of the body.

Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for this Your word.
We ask that You would enable us to see our sin, to see the grace of our Savior,
and to live that grace out in gospel lives of joyous service. We ask this in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

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