How disciplined are you in your speech patterns? This week I would like to examine one of my favorite passages from the book of Ephesians that deals with God’s expectations of the believer’s speech patterns. This is really good stuff!
One’s mastery over his tongue is extremely important in public office. Let us open up Ephesians 4:29 this week and learn what God has to say to us in this regard.
Read on, my friend!
Beginning in Ephesians chapter four, the apostle Paul lists various characteristics of Christian behavior. Five of these characteristics appear in Ephesians 4:25–32. Paul specifically instructs the church at Ephesus that believers should no longer be captive to their old sinful nature now that they are indwelled by God the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, their actions should no longer be characterized by deeds of the flesh, such as (1) lying, vs. 25; (2) anger, vs. 26; (3) stealing, vs. 28; (4) unwholesome speech, vs. 29 (our passage for this week), and (5) unforgiveness, vs. 32.
My prayer is that your speech will be guided by the truths of the passage we are about to study. One’s speech is a huge matter related not only to one’s personal character and witness, but also to the purity of the corporate testimony of the body of Christ in your district and the capital community. And, while we do not expect non-Christians to manifest what this week’s study teaches, if you name the name of Christ in the capital, this instruction should most definitely characterize you in an ever-increasing way. Ephesians 4:29 states:
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
Today’s passage contains four practical applications regarding how believers should use their tongue. They are:
II. CEASING YOUR SPEECH: UNWHOLESOMENESS
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth…”
The New Testament (NT) word for unwholesome, (sapros) was commonly used by Greeks of that day to describe rotten fruits and vegetables. According to the direct command of this passage, “Let no” means that all rotten words should be far, far from the mouths of regenerate individuals. Those who are truly saved will to some degree be characterized by speech becoming of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Philippians 4:8 states the basic virtues that every believer should utilize to reprogram their thought life in order to achieve wholesome speech:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
The disciplined thinking commanded by and illustrated in this passage will most certainly affect one’s speech patterns. Having said that, every believer to some degree will continue to struggle with unwholesome speech until they are glorified (that is to say they go home to be with the Lord).1 James 3:6–8 informs us of the reality of this lifelong battle with our fallen nature and tongue:
It is a fire…. “No one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.”
Accordingly, every believer needs to memorize and meditate on Philippians 4:8 so that the Holy Spirit can immediately bring to mind the truths of this passage when tempted, so as to speak no unwholesome word. Proverbs 22:11 is an excellent, concise summation (and memorization verse) of this relationship: the relationship between disciplined thinking, ensuing speech, and increased outward effectiveness. Notice each in the following:
“He who loves purity of heart and whose speech is gracious, the king is his friend.”
Unwholesome or rotten speech includes such things as off-color jokes, profanity, vulgarity, sexually suggestive double entendre, coarseness, etc. Note what Paul says in this regard in Colossians 3:8 and Ephesians 5:4 respectively:
“Put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”
“And there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”
As you can see, all combined, the list of descriptors as to what is characterized by God as sinful speech is quite large. Explaining each of those words is a Bible study in itself. So why is one’s speech pattern so important to God? It follows that if believers are called be His emissaries, that proper representation via holy living as manifested by and through pure speech is in order! It is a proper behavioral depiction of one’s high calling and assignment: Representatives of God in the capital! Note 1 Peter 2:9 in this regard:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Every public servant who names the name of Christ need be characterized by noble, wholesome speech in contrast to the fruits of unwholesomeness as previously seen. Here are some of the benefits of a wholesome vocabulary as listed in the book of Proverbs:
“There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (12:18)
“Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment.” (12:19)
“A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit.” (15:4)
“The wise in heart will be called understanding, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” (16:21)
“Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than he who is perverse in speech and is a fool.” (19:1)
“He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.” (21:23)
“By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone.” (25:15)
“A lying tongue hates those it crushes, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (26:28)
“He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue.” (28:23)
“She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (31:26)
In summary of this first point, in the place of unwholesome words, what must proceed from your mouth are speech patterns akin to a fine wine or cheese, that is to say A-G-E-D and seasoned enunciations: words and thoughts that are Appropriate, Gracious, Edifying, and Delicate. May such speech patterns be true of both you and me. Note how this acronym summarizes the gist of what follows from this passage (although in a different order): Paul defines for us what the fine flavors of AGED words taste like:
III. THE CONSTRUCTION OF YOUR SPEECH: EDIFICATION
“but only such a word as is good for edification…”
A. EDIFYING SPEECH DEFINED
When you or I speak words correctly and truthfully, they have a profound, lasting effect. Continually ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say Christ-honoring, biblically-mature speech?” Ecclesiastes 12:10–11 states that a wise man’s words are like “well driven nails.” That is such an excellent word picture because the Greek word for edification (oikodome) means, “to build up, as in building a home.” Accordingly, the believer’s speech patterns should be aimed at carefully constructing Christian maturity in others. This is what words are good for. Hebrews 10:24 states, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…” Such words that further define what it means to be edifying are: encouragement, instruction, and even correction. That’s right, to correct is to edify. AGED, sage speech includes the correction of others when necessary. Proverbs 9:8 states, “Reprove a wise man and he will love you.” Romans 15:2 states more generally, “Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.” In summary of this point, one of the leading commentators on Ephesians, O’Brien, says it well, “Having put on the ‘new man’, we will want to develop new standards of conversation so that our words will be a blessing…”2 The following are additional insights regarding edifying speech.
B. EDIFYING SPEECH MUST BE OTHERS-CENTERED
More closely, the implication of this section of our passage indicates that the believer’s speech is directed toward building up others (notice the word that I italicized). Talking about yourself all the time is part of the old, pre-Christ fallen nature that needs be put off ! The believer’s clear priority is to focus on building up others with his tongue—rather than self. People who talk about themselves all the time (typical of so many today) telegraph immaturity and self-absorption to others who are AGED. Nothing is a greater turn-off than listening to someone extol his or her own greatness! I find it downright appalling! (One of their typical games is to throw you a question once in a while—one like “But enough talk about me. Let’s talk about what you think about my accomplishments.”) How much more impressive it is to hear a leader deflect comments and refocus attention and praise on others! One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Proverbs 27:2:
“Let another praise you and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.”
As I have seen with my children, if you memorize that passage and meditate on it, it will aid you in edifying others with your words. Edification means you are focused on building up others.
C. EDIFYING SPEECH MUST BE IMPARTIAL
Although this aspect of edifying speech is not apparent from the home passage, Scripture teaches that all the actions of a believer need to be free from partiality. In other words, in the capital, do you possess a similar attitude in your conversations with the janitor as you do with the president? James 2:1 states “do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”
Speak to the janitor as you would the president.
Both are created in the image of God, therefore each is important and is due respect. Speech favoring one over another is sinful. Edifying speech is impartial.
D. EDIFYING SPEECH IS VOID OF GOSSIP
Another common problem that this portion of Scripture relates to is idle conversation, chatter and gossip. Sheer idle talk is prohibited by the governing phrase but only such a word. The believer’s speech must be noted by few words—words that are meaningful to others—versus building up oneself (B), acting important by dropping big names (C), or talking for the sake of being heard, or worse, slandering3 others (D). Proverbs 10:19 states summarily on this point:
“When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
E. EDIFYING SPEECH STEMS ONLY FROM HUMILITY
Edifying speech can stem only from an inner attitude of humility. Matthew 12:34 states, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Your speech makes it clear to others whether you are in love with yourself or in love with Jesus Christ and others. Paul told the Philippian Church to “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus… [Who] emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant…He humbled Himself ” (2:5–8). Your speech shows whether you’re proud of heart or humble of heart. Accordingly, the believer’s speech must be Christ like, humble, self-deflecting, and others-centered.
Last, and profoundly important, it is only from the cognizant, sobering acknowledgement of Christ’s atonement for your sins—and your utter realization that you cannot save yourself—that you can possibly possess a basis for a truly humble heart. All other bases for humility are to some extent self-conjured hypocrisy. Make no mistake; herein is the theology behind genuine humility: it is only from our utter realization of personal brokenness and indebtedness to the cross of Christ that we could possibly possess the motives which in turn manifest humility and ensuing speech patterns that are genuinely edifying to other human beings!
IV. THE CAUSE FOR YOUR SPEECH: APPROPRIATENESS
“according to the need of the moment…”
A. DEFINING APPROPRIATE SPEECH
Biblical speech considers the occasion, it fits the needs, and it is attentive and appropriate. Such speech displays the skill and wisdom of an astute listener. But it takes great discipline and practice to achieve this type of ability; few are those who possess it. But how powerful it is! James 1:19 carries a strong admonition in this regard,
“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear and slow to speak…”
The idea of “slow to speak” doesn’t mean awkward pauses in your responses, but rather that you give careful measure to what you say—such wisdom in conversation will be evident to all: it beckons to others, suggesting to them that it is far more important to you to listen than to speak.
Quality before quantity: it is better to speak less and say something of signifance.
Proverbs 15:23 states, “A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word!” Conversely 17:7 states, “Excellent speech is not fitting for a fool…” Herein is speech that’s AGED.
B. ILLUSTRATING APPROPRIATE SPEECH
This sensitive spirit in conversation and speech is evident in the writings of the apostle Paul in several ways. First, notice what he said to the believers at the church in Corinth. Prior to writing 1 Corinthians, Paul had penned a previous letter to them (per 1 Corinthians 5:9), which to this day, is lost to the church. Evidently the Corinthians grossly misunderstood the content of its instruction. And so, among other reasons, Paul writes this epistle stating in chapter 3, verse 2, “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able.” In other words, the Corinthians were in need of Paul teaching them again the simplest aspects of Christian doctrine. Accordingly, that is what Paul gave them: milk versus meat in terms of a spiritual diet. That was the need of the moment. And as a servant-minister, Paul met them where they were and communicated appropriately.
Another illustration of Paul’s speech being according to the need of the moment is illustrated in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Paul taught the church at Thessalonica to sum up the real needs people have and minister accordingly: Notice the differing needs of the moment: If a believer is unruly, then one’s speech and actions need to be corrective. If a believer is fainthearted one’s speech should be encouraging, and with a believer who is weak, one’s speech needs to be helpful. Such displays AGED communication.
C. APPROPRIATE SPEECH IS OFTEN CORRECTIVE
Some years ago as I was surveying the 13 epistles that Paul wrote in the New Testament I noticed that 10 of them contained heavy polemic content. In other words, it was more often than not that the need of the moment, which Paul faced, was for admonition purposes rather than encouragement. And, while it is sometimes appropriate to correct false teaching, such attempts should always be motivated by patience and love, which means one will go to another person privately and address errors, versus immediately making it a public matter. The motivating cause behind all appropriate speech is always to build up and restore, not to tear down or destroy. The need of the moment is never to “detonate a bomb.”
V. THE CONSENSUS ABOUT YOUR SPEECH: GRACIOUSNESS
“so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
Since the believer is saved by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9) and kept by God’s grace (Romans 8:39), it follows that one’s speech should be patterned after that sobering reality. “Let your speech always be with grace,” said Paul to the church at Colossae (4:6). In essence, our speech directed toward others should depict how gracious God has been toward us. By definition grace means that you will give to another what they do not deserve. I memorized this verse years ago in desperation in order to appropriately answer inquiries asking, “How tall are you?” I am sure you too as a public servant are peppered with repetitive, less than appropriate inquires as well; all believers need speak words and display actions toward others, which are not necessarily deserved.
Finally, notice this passage is not a suggestion. We are commanded by God to give grace to those who hear.
This is a serious matter of obedience to a command of Scripture. So-called Christians who swear and act unbecomingly are not depicting of God’s grace.
Martin Lloyd Jones summarizes the manifestation of grace that every believer needs to possess in his or her speech:
My dear Christian people, there are weary people round and about us, weary of sin, weary in sin, weary of life. There are Christian people round us carrying burdens, carrying loads, suffering illness and sickness, disappointment, the treachery of friends, some fond hope suddenly gone, dashed and vanished illusions; there are men and women around us who are weary! And as we meet them and speak to them, let us forget ourselves; let us not regard the meeting as an occasion when we can display how wonderful we are. God forbid! Let us pray that we may…be enabled to speak a word in season to some poor, weary soul. Our Lord came from heaven to do that…that is the way for us also. As we travel through this journey of life we are to help men and women by a word, a word of encouragement, a word of cheer, perhaps a word of rebuke, but a word that will remind them that they are under God, and that if they are in Christ they are precious to Him.4
Delicate practice that is honed by constant attention to one’s heart and communication disciplines. Again, this delicate choice of words can only be mastered through programming one’s heart with a constant diet of scriptural nutrition. Beloved in the Capitol, herein is AGED, mature, sage speech! Radical need be the communication transformation of the new man or woman in Christ! May your peers share a consensus opinion about your speech as being Christ-like. cm
1 When Peter denied the Lord in Matthew 26:74, he did it with unwholesome words.
2 Peter O’Brien, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series: The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) p. 345.
3 “Slander,” according to Merriam-Webster is “utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage reputation.”
4 D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17–5:17: Darkness and Light, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982) p. 263.