Ephesians 4:29

Ephesians 4: 29

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Last week we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and that fact constrained the message.  So I wasn’t able – as I like to do – to bring a New Year’s sermon.  So today is that.  I’d like to challenge us in year 2023 to give special attention to our speech.  This is a sermon about the importance our Lord Jesus places on healthy, edifying communication, the opposite of corrupting talk.  

Are you a good communicator?  Healthy, edifying?  If I asked your wife, would she say you’re a good communicator?  Do you talk enough?  But also, are you abiding in the principle of Proverbs 17: 28 – Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise… ?  

Are your words helpful – that is, do they move the project forward, put wind in the sails, equip for the battle, disarm against unnecessary strife?  

The Importance of Speech

We all know, or knew (we forget this fact) that our speech, our communication is wildly important for how our lives turn out.  We mentioned this Proverb in Sunday School the other day: Proverbs 13: 2 – From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good…. That means, as a result of skillfully employed, timely communication, a person can do very well for himself.  He can carve out a successful life on the strength of good speech.  

But if life is in the power in the tongue, so also is death.

Proverbs 18: 6 – A fool’s lips walk into a fight/ and his mouth invites a beating.  

And the next Proverb, 18:7, is a little more general – A fool’s mouth is his ruin/ and his lips are a snare to his soul.  

When I think of troubles I’ve had in my life, there’s normally some hasty, sharp sentences attached to them.  I hate to admit that many of those sentences were uttered by me.  Importantly, most if not all of those destructive sentences were true, and could even be called insightful.  But I had spoken them before it was time for them to be heard.  Or perhaps these true and insightful words should never have come out of my mouth.  My words, as our Ephesians verse has it, didn’t fit the occasion.  

There’s a section of Scripture that highlights how important our speech is.  Several of the sermons of Isaiah center on the future arrival of “the Servant of Yahweh” who’s going be the difference maker in God’s saving project moving forward.  The identification of that Servant seems at first to be the people of Israel, but then later an embodiment of Israel, a single Israelite, upon whom “the iniquities of us all were laid upon” – Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ!  

But we won’t get too far into the vocation of the Servant except to point out that there’s a section in one of Isaiah’s sermons where he has the Servant himself speaking about how He was trained by Yahweh.  Listen carefully: The LORD God has given me the tongue of those who are taught/ that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.  (Isaiah 50:4).  My speech reflects the fact that God has taught me…and what it looks like to have learned what I was taught is that my speech is notably encouraging.

And this coming where it does in Isaiah is after we’ve already heard from the Servant about His training, in the previous sermon.  Listen again: The LORD called me from the womb/ from the body of my mother he named my name/ He made my mouth like a sharp sword…. (Isaiah 49:2) God taught me to speak effectively.

And indeed, the first time we encounter this Servant, almost the first thing we learn about Him is something about his speech, its restraint, its gentleness: He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street… (Isaiah 42:2)

So, when we are introduced to this Servant by whom many [will be] accounted righteousit’s the quality of His speech that is front and center.  What was it about Jesus that made Him so effective?  And one of the first answers to that question has to be: he had learned to take his communication very seriously.

In Isaiah 6, when Isaiah is confronted with Jehovah sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, you might remember that one of His first reflections was how unworthy he was to be in the Presence.  Unworthy, not because he was a human being, but because he was a man of unclean lips [dwelling] in the midst of a people of unclean lips.  

Speech is so ubiquitous that no one thinks much about it; but then in a crucial moment you realize how central it is, that to be a human being is to be a speak-er, that much of what has set the atmosphere of our world is words, communication.  

And in the little letter of James that has his collected Christian sermons to dispersed Israel, he also keeps returning to the capacity of speech for effecting good or ill.  The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things (James 3: 5)

Yes, the tongue is a small body part; and yes, it’s mainly kept out of sight, by the Creator’s will, double-barricaded behind teeth and lips; and yes, when it does emerge it does so unspectacularly, dealing out only words.  And yet, James says, the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  (James 3:6)

Take it easy, we say to James.  

And James’ response is: THEM ARE SIMPLY THE FACTS.

And so, to say that our speech is wildly important turns out to be a wild understatement.  With that in mind, let’s return to our verse, our verse for 2023:

Ephesians 4: 29 – Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  


Now, it’s always nice to hear sentences set into their broader context.  Well, next week we’re going to run through the entire letter to the Ephesians, and then you’ll have all the context you’d want!  For our purposes today, I’ll simply explain that here Paul is speaking to those who have been placed into Jesus Christ.  

But they weren’t always connected to Jesus, Paul says…nobody is!  Before their union with Christ, they were away from God, their sins were unforgiven, they were associated with, and lethally influenced by others, like themselves, who were facing God’s ultimate anger.  And that anger stemmed from the fact that, following their first ancestor Adam, they had fallen short of being the creature that man was created to be: in the likeness of God, reflecting God, glorifying God. 

But God in His mercy took them out of that state, out of their “natural,” “Adam-ic” humanity, and placed them into Christ.  In their faith connecting them to Christ, they return to God as valued children.  Their sins are forgiven through Jesus’ death.  

Now, together, they are being formed into a new community, a renewed humanity, a humanity in Jesus Christ, with his righteousness as theirs.  This new community of Christians are being formed by the Spirit to be a place where God dwells, a temple where God shows up in the reflection of His image bearing children.  

These renewed humans, called the Church, are being taught by the Spirit how to shake off their old habits of falseness, death-dealing, devil cooperating, shortcut taking, going through the motions…; and learning how to be a true human, a genuine image bearer, not conformed to the culture that wants to squeeze them into the old Adamic mold, but bearing God’s image in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).

As they’re taught by the Spirit, they’re going to have to re-think all their old ways and learn from the inside out how to be a human.  (And again, they’ll have to do this while the old humanity still exerts influence.)  They’re going to have to re-think even the most basic things, like work.  

Now, sometimes the new way they’re learning won’t look that much different from the old way they used to do things, but under the surface it is animated by new motives, new thoughts.  

Indeed, a new way of thinking is key to all this transformation.  Look carefully at Ephesians 4: 17ff: Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  But that is not the way you learned Christ!  

One of the things this new community will need to re-think, relearn, is how to talk.  And (again), they’ll have to learn to speak while still being pressured by the old humanity that shows up in the popular culture, in their friends and family members who don’t know Christ, but also in the residual of their old Adamic habits.  But they should change because they are changed!  God has saved them out of the dying race and brought them to eternal life through the Resurrected Man, Jesus!  

So talk like one in Christ!  Here’s how:

Corrupting Talk

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth

Which means, even after being saved from your sins and ultimate death, corrupting talk could still escape out of your mouth.  Don’t let it out, even though it’s always looking to dart out, like your dogs when you open the front door.  Oh, shoot, there they go!  No, you’ll have to be careful.  Especially if there hasn’t been much training before, you’ll have to be on your guard against corrupting talk slipping out.  

Corrupting talk is the kind of communication that destroys, destroys either all at once or very slowly or somewhere in-between.  Let’s list such:

Lying.  Nagging.  Blame-shifting.  Character assassination.  Flattery.  Prattling on.  Complaint.  Fault-finding.  Exaggeration.  Gossip.  Throwing shade.  Bossiness.  Over-promising.  Bragging.  Outbursts.  Dramatizing.  Overly vagueness.  Constant joking.  Blasphemy.  Constant teasing.  Claiming insider information – know-it-all.  Hyper-sensitive.  Twisting stories to suit ends.  Misleading by wordsmithing.  Intimidation.  Sowing discord among brothers.  Cursing God.  Careless (of the truth, about sacred things).  Muckraking.  Clamor.  Disrespect to authority.  Telling secrets.  Pontificating.  Pretentiousness.  

Let’s think through just one of those uglies: flattery.  Flattery is excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests.  (Dictionary)  Why is flattery corrupting, corrosive?  Well, when you flatter someone, you harm him.  You prevent him from receiving correction which would have been good for him.  You might very well steel him against receiving helpful correction from other quarters.  You encourage him to relax some type of self-control that will be good for him now and in the future.  You cause him to be pleased on false grounds, and thereby get him used to other falseness.  All that’s harmful.

And when you flatter, you also harm yourself.  You see the smile or faint blush come onto the face of the one you flatter, and that in turn gratifies you for being able to cause that, and so (rather unconsciously) you think, I’ll do that again.  I’ll deal in falseness again.  That’s bad for you!  

Now just imagine flattery’s effect on a societal scale: no one wants to be corrected.  Everyone is being nice but just for his/her own sake.  Selfishness and falsehood and everywhere you turn…. Scary stuff!  

But only [let come out of your mouth] such [talk] that is good for building up

Edifying Speech

What kind of talk builds up?  

  1. Speech where there’s an integrity between heart and mouth.  

Listen carefully to Psalm 37: 30, 31a: The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom/ and his tongue speaks justice.  The law of God is in his heart…. Did you see that?  Edifying speech comes out of a mind/heart that’s been instructed by God.  Undergirding edifying speech from the mouth is good intentions in the heart.  Good speech is the utterance of the well-framed heart and intention. – John Webster.  

Speech that might be formally correct and ok, yet that at its source is meant to manipulate, or confuse, or distance… is not edifying speech.  Edifying speech starts with a heart that has been taught by God.  This is the lesson of the Servant’s speech. The LORD God has given me the tongue of those who are taught…    

Sometimes you can be frosty toward others and yet if you’re called on it, you can excuse yourself by: I didn’t say anything wrong.  You’re just being overly sensitive.  How many times Christians can hide behind fine words, but what they’re hiding is a heart of judgmentalism, impatience, even hate.  Don’t do that.  That aint edifying!   

In the year 2023, let’s leave behind – not politeness – but a surface kind of speech that covers up all kinds of nasties – self-pity, resentment, bitterness, unresolved anger, etc. Among that kind let’s leave behind various renditions of frostiness toward our spouse, which we excuse to ourselves by claiming that our words have been just fine!  And we made them dinner, didn’t we?  Or we went to work every day, right?  

No!  Follow the transparency and sincerity of Paul, who said to the Corinthians: We have spoken freely {hiding nothing from life from you, as one commentator says} to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open.  There’s this coherence between our heart and our words.  Our heart is full of openness and love and out of that comes edifying words.  

What kinds of speech edifies?  Trustworthy speech.  If we wanted to get philosophical, words are linguistic signs, that point to some reality outside of themselves.  There should be a coherence between the signs – words – and what they’re pointing at – reality.  In other words, tell the truth.  

But not simply the formal truth – you know how politicians and wordsmiths can dance around things while saying things technically correct – but the linguistic signs should be clear and comprehensible to the hearers and point straightforwardly to what is actually out there.  

In 2023, leave behind manipulation, vagueness, and all kinds of dishonesty.  Instead, let’s practice truth telling.  And alongside, practice clarity.  Isn’t this really the underlying point of the tongues discussion in 1 Corinthians 14?  Paul says, in church things should be clear to the listeners because only what’s clear can edify.  

So far, we have edifying speech as possessing integrity – maybe sincerity is the better word, and trustworthiness.  Next, edifying speech is uplifting when at all possible.  Actually, those are almost the same words, edifying and uplifting.  

One important difference between encouragement and flattery is that flattery is ultimately working from the self-interest of the flatterer, while the encourager encourages from an obligation of love, even justice.  Here is my neighbor, and he’s involved in an honorable pursuit and he is pursuing that honorable pursuit honorably.  Out of love I should strengthen him with encouraging words.  He is owed such.

Paul exhorts in Romans 12: outdo one another in showing honor.  If someone has done well, there should be a complement.  There should be encouragement, the word in season to him who is weary in doing the good, hard thing.  Honor everyone, Peter says, including and especially in our speech.  Acknowledge the good done by them, through them.  Express gratitude – that’s classic edifying speech.  

Fathers, how valuable it will be for you to spot some way your children are holding steady, fighting the good fight, and notice and acknowledge that.  Wives, same with your husbands.  Employers, employees.  

At the end of the first canonical letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours.  Give recognition to such people (as he’s doing here!).

Another quality of edifying speech is that which Paul spells out: it fits the occasion.  There’s a great Proverb: Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice/ rising early in the morning/ will be counted as cursing.  The words might be fine and sincerely meant, but if the person isn’t in a position to properly hear them…well, that’s not edifying speech.  

Jesus once said to his disciples: I have many things to say to you, but you’re not ready to hear them.  There are topics that a teenager isn’t ready to grapple with.  There are people who aren’t yet ready to hear the gospel.  There are environments and times of the day more or less appropriate to communication.  The message needs to be tailored to whom it’s being given.  Don’t communicate woodenly.  Read the room.  Know your audience.  

As much as we are concerned with what comes out of our mouth, we should also concern ourselves with the ears of those who hear.  We consider the message and the receptor andreception of the message.  Don’t be blunt or be heard obscurely or prattle on while missing the fact that your audience is – for whatever reason – overwhelmed by your torrent of words.  Saying that positively: strive for a connection, for a meeting of the minds and the souls, for clarity, for patience in waiting for the good moment. 

Giving Grace

And all so that your speech will give grace to those who hear.  

Give grace – wow.  Grace is so much more than positivity.  Grace blows in from the land of Calvary, from the place where God dwells, the God who offers salvation and peace and eternal life.  Grace is the gift of God that confronts and exposes and overcomes sin and death.  Grace is a big word… and by our words – be they “spiritual” or not – we can extend at least a little grace to those who hear.  

We read earlier in this book, in 2:10, about the good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  And speech that gives grace is truly some of those good works.  

God has determined that a lot of the way He’ll save, in big and small ways, will be through words.  

God has determined that the Kingdom will advance, the church will be built, via words.  Do you realize, I’m here as a result of words?  I saw a posting online – words.  I went to your website and I was intrigued by the picture of the church (ok, not words) but also the bio of Russell.  There was some humor.  I responded and sent in my information -words.  Back and forth words flew.  I came here to speak.  Words, words, words is how God is confronting sin and advancing His authority in this world.  

God might use several things to get people’s attention, but if anyone crosses from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of Christ, it will be through a message of nouns and verbs – words – about the Lord Jesus Christ.  Have you heard the words of the record of the Lord Jesus Christ?  That He is the One sent by God?  That He is the Son of Man who rules the world, and someday that will be the official, public, Wikipedia fact?  That God is offering forgiveness of all your sins through Jesus’ death?  That to turn away from Jesus Christ is to stay in your sins, to reject grace, to embrace death?  That to call on His name is salvation, eternal life?  

Brothers and sisters, this world needs grace.  They need to hear words sourced from the realm of salvation, even if those words aren’t always directly related to salvation.  There are wounded people around you that need to be healed, they need the tree of life: your gentle tongue could be the tree of life.  There is a lot of ignorance out there – the lips of the wise spread knowledge.  

Edifying speech, words of grace – you don’t make a decision to employ these.  Rather you decide to be trained to employ these, to put in the work.  This is a lifelong school.  

Learning to saturate yourself in the word of God, so you pick up His message in His tone.  To get yourself around people who have wise speech.  To pray for the wisdom of good speech. To work on talking when you don’t feel like it.  To learn when it’s much better to be quiet.  To learn to say sorry for wrong speech.  Maybe even signing up for Toastmasters so you learn some basics of speaking.  To learn how to dismiss that inner voice of critique and complaint and sourness and hatred.  

There’s a lot that’s possible in our speech.  In year 2023, let’s commit to pursuing the good.  

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