Ephesians 4:17 “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.”
By calling these people “Gentiles,” Paul was not just referring to their nationality or ethnicity. Most of the Ephesian Christians were Gentiles by race, too. Paul was alluding to their false religious background. This is why their way of life was wrong.
The basis for their problem can be found in “the futility of their thinking.” Living the wrong way never starts with the things people do. It goes back to the way they think and believe. The Gentile way was “futile.” It was empty, worthless, and backwards. The prophet Isaiah condemned a similar way of thinking when he said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” Though he wrote 2700 years ago, the prophet could have been describing much of 21st Century American culture.
Everything is backwards here. Those things which are truly valuable are eternal and spiritual: faith and forgiveness, God and heaven, worship and prayer. The unbeliever values these things least of all. What he regards most important, what he gives the highest place, are things which are merely material, only earthly. Jesus says of food, and drink, and clothes, “The pagans run after all these things.” Even more, what the unbelieving often value most of all are those things which aren’t even necessary for earthly life: merely pleasure, merely recreation, merely luxury. These may have some small legitimate place in life, but in the long run obtaining them is only meaningless, vanity, a chasing after the wind, as the writer of Ecclesiastes would say. Thinking which enthrones earthly pleasure and ignores God is futile.
So much for how the “Gentiles” think. What does this have to do with us? We don’t have to live under the same cloud of darkness as the rest of the world. That is not because we are so smart. It is because God has been so gracious. We have been taught “in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). We know that we are more than talented animals, beings that can taste, touch, hear, smell, and see. We are more than consumers of what life has to offer, and we do not belong to ourselves.
We are responsible, moral humans, beings a loving God created for himself. Though we have rebelled against him with our sin, no less than the unbelieving Gentiles, God paid an awful price to cancel sin’s guilt and purchase us for himself again. God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, sacrificed his life in place of ours. He took our worldly perversions on himself. He made his perfect life of love our own. He did this so that he might present us to his Father without any sin, pure and holy. He did this to set us free from the darkness and power of sin in our lives.
Nothing gives a clearer view of what is fake and what is real, what is important and what doesn’t matter, what is helpful and what is harmful, what is right and what is wrong, than knowing Jesus Christ by faith. Only when God so corrects our vision can we see the world as it really is. And only when God so changes our hearts do we begin to want from life what is truly good: the grace of God and a holy life that serves my neighbor in love. This is how our gracious God replaces empty thinking with a heart and life that are full.