A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:3-4. f). Don’t joke about sex, but rather give thanks for it.
Paul turns from ‘self-sacrifice…to its very opposite, self-indulgence’, from genuine ‘love’ to that perversion of it called ‘lust’. The Greek words for * fornication (porneia)* and *impurity (akatharsia)* together cover every kind of sexual sin, in other words all sexual intercourse outside its God-ordained context of a loving marriage. To them Paul adds *covetousness*, surely because they are an especially degrading form of it, namely the coveting of somebody else’s body for selfish gratification. The tenth commandment had specifically prohibited coveting a neighbour’s wife, and earlier in this letter Paul has written of the ‘greed’ involved in unclean practices (4:19; see also 1 Cor.5:10-11; 6:9-10 and Col.3:5 for other passages in which the apostle associates covetousness with immorality). So all forms of sexual immorality, he writes, *must not even be named among you*. We are not only to avoid their indulgence, but also to avoid thinking and talking about them, so completely are they to be banished from the Christian community. This was a high and holy standard to demand, for immorality was rife in Asia. And since the Greek goddess Artemis, ‘Diana of the Ephesians’, was regarded as a fertility goddess, sexual orgies were regularly associated with her worship.
Verse 4 goes beyond immorality to vulgarity. For *filthiness* means obscenity, and both *silly talk* and *levity* are probably an allusion to coarse jesting, which is the cheapest form of wit. All three refer to a dirty mind expressing itself in dirty conversation. But these things *are not fitting. Instead*, Paul says *let there bethanksgiving*. The contrast is striking and beautiful. In itself thanksgiving is not an obvious substitute for vulgarity, since the latter is essentially self-centred, and the former God-centred. But perhaps this is the point that Paul is making: ‘Whereas sexual impurity and covetousness both express self-centred acquisitiveness, thanksgiving is the exact opposite, and so the antidote required; it is the recognition of God’s generosity’. It seems to me probable, however, that Paul is setting vulgarity and thanksgiving even more plainly in opposition to each other, namely as alternative pagan and Christian attitudes to sex. Of course Christians have a bad reputation for being negative towards sex. Dr. Michel Fourcault, since 1970 Professor of the History of Thought Systems at the College de France, is apparently writing a *History of Sexuality* in six volumes. Explaining his work in *Le Monde* in January 1977 he spoke of ‘Christianity’s most intolerably burdensome legacy, sex as sin’. And it is true that some of our Victorian forefathers came close to this identification.
But the reason why Christians should dislike and avoid vulgarity is not because we have a warped view of sex, and are either ashamed or afraid of it, but because we have a high and holy view of it as being in its right place God’s good gift, which we do not want to see cheapened. All God’s gifts, including sex, are subjects for thanksgiving, rather than for joking. To joke about them is bound to degrade them; to thank God for them is the way to preserve their worth as the blessing of a loving Creator.