In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we read something very interesting.
In describing the spiritual condition of many people who have rejected Christ, the Apostle tells us:
Ephesians 4:19-who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
Notice that phrase “being past feeling.” In the original Greek Of The New Testament, we learn some very interesting g lessons. The word that is used here is apalgeo.
Speaking of this word, Clinton Arnold tells us:
“Paul uses an exceedingly rare word to characterize these people: they are “callous” (); 8 that is, they have ceased to feel pain9 or become dead to feeling. 10 The perfect tense suggests that they have reached this point, presumably after a period of rejecting God and his ways, and now there is a hard, impenetrable shell that renders them insensitive to God and describes their ongoing condition….The reflexive pronoun () clarifies that this was not a condition thrust on them involuntarily; they became this way on their own volition. God has allowed them to pursue their own course and immerse themselves into a life of self-indulgence.” (Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Ephesians, 7687-7693 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
Please notice several things with me about this passage.
The Reasons Some Are Past Feeling
To understand the reasons why some in the world are “Past Feeling,” need to examine the text in which this phrase is found.
Ephesians 4:17-19-This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
The Futility Of Their Mind
Paul points out to us that the Gentiles walk “in the futility of their mind.” The wors translated here as “futility” is used several times in the Old Testament translation of Ecclesiastes, where the wise man writes about the “meaningless” of life apart from God (Ecclesiastes 1:214; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19). It is the idea that life is meaningless, empty, and without purpose apart from God. Many people go through life thinking that they can find true and lasting purpose apart from God, yet this is just another lie of Satan.
The Word “mind” has reference to the ability of man to reason, think, plan, make moral decisions and lifestyle judgments (Arnold, 7632). Therefore, the futility and emptiness of life separated from God is the way that Paul characterizes the Gentiles.
Having Their Understanding Darkened And Being Alienated From The Life Of God
How had the Gentiles gotten to this point where their minds were futile? Paul tells us two reasons.
First, their understanding has been darkened. The word “understanding” had reference to the ability to judge moral and spiritual issues, while the word “darkened” had the idea of a gradual diminishing. The phrase “separated from the life of God” had reference to the person who was unable to properly understand life and meaning because of the decision to try and live apart from God and His Word.
In so many way, this is similar to Ecclesiastes. The wise man tried to find purpose and meaning in life apart from God, as was demonstrated by the use of the phrase “under the sun” and other phrases in the Book.
“Vanity of vanities. We have already noted that Solomon used the word vanity thirty-eight times in this book. It is the Hebrew word hevel, meaning “emptiness, futility, vapor.” The name “Abel” probably comes from this word (Gen. 4: 2). Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind, and does not satisfy is hevel, vanity. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as “whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.” Whether he considers his wealth, his works, his wisdom, or his world, Solomon comes to the same sad conclusion: all is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2: 11). However, this is not his final conclusion, nor is it the only message that he has for his readers. We will discover more about that later. Under the sun. You will find this important phrase twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, and with it the phrase “under heaven” (1: 13; 2: 3; 3: 1). It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view. He applies his own wisdom and experience to the complex human situation and tries to make some sense out of life. Solomon wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (12: 10–11; 2 Tim. 3: 16), so what he wrote was what God wanted His people to have. But as we study, we must keep Solomon’s viewpoint in mind: he is examining life “under the sun.”” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Ecclesiastes: The Wiersbe Bible Study Series-Looking For The Answer To The Meaning Of Life, 16-17 (Kindle Edition); Colorado Speings, Colorado; DavidCook)
The person Paul addresses in Ephesians is one who is much like Solomon in his ignorance and foolishness.
The minds of the Gentiles have become futile because of their gradually darkening understanding and choice to try and find purpose in life apart from God and His Word.
Because Of The Ignorance That Is In Them And Because Of The Blindness (Hardness) Of Their Hearts
The phrases “ignorance that is in them” and “blindness (hardness) Of Their Hearts” are prepositional phrases which further describe WHY the Gentiles have had their understanding darkened and why they have been separated from the life of God.
The word “ignorance” in the Bible can have reference to both an unwilling lack of knowledge or a deliberate choice to refuse the acceptance and implications of certain kinds of knowledge. The word “blindness” is the same word translated as “hardness,” and has reference to that which has become calloused.
This condition of the Gentiles being futile in their thoughts (as a result of having their understanding darkened and because they are separated from the life of God) was brought on by the ignorance that is in them and by the willful and continual hardening of their hearts. As a result of all these things, the Gentiles have now become “past feeling.” They have no sense of shame, and they are numb emotionally and spiritually. Therefore, they give themselves over to every kind of evil.
Listen to some different translations of this passage.
Ephesians 4:17-19 (NLT)-17 With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. 18 Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against Him. 19 They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.
Ephesians 4:17-19 (ERV)-17 I have something from the Lord to tell you. I warn you: Don’t continue living like those who don’t believe. Their thoughts are worth nothing. 18 They have no understanding, and they know nothing because they refuse to listen. So they cannot have the life that God gives. 19 They have lost their feeling of shame and use their lives to do what is morally wrong. More and more they want to do all kinds of evil.
General Observations About This Passage
The first thing that really stands out to me about this passage is that it is possible to become so hard-hearted that a person will continually reject God and oppose Him in every way. Were it not for the grace found through the Gospel of Jesus, this would be the case of each and every sinner in the world.
In my experience, people often harden heir hearts against God for at least three reasons.
First, people become hardened against God because they are ignorant. There are things which they do not understand.
Perhaps have been hurt by the world and the people of the world and they just don’t understand why God could allow such to happen. Why did God allow me to suffer? Why did God allow my loved one to die? Why didn’t God take away my terminal illness?
There are many in the Bible Who thus came to doubt and near disbelief because of the supposed inactivity of God. Remember valiant Gideon?
Judges 6:12-13-12 And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him, and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!” 13 Gideon said to Him, “O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”
Here is a warrior who was hurting and wondering, “God, if you are really there, you wouldn’t let us suffer like this! How can you not see how badly the Midianites are hurting us?!” I don’t know about you, but I can feel the anger and the pain in those words. Yet, Gideon learned that God was not silent and He was indeed working. In fact, he learned that God was going to work through him to help the people!
How about Habakkuk? Remember how angry and confused he was with God?
Habakkuk 1:1-4 (ERV)-1 This is the message that was given to Habakkuk the prophet. 2 LORD, I continue to ask for help. When will you listen to me? I cried to you about the violence, but you did nothing. 3 People are stealing things and hurting others. They are arguing and fighting. Why do you make me look at these terrible things. 4 The law is weak and not fair to people. Evil people win their fights against good people. So the law is no longer fair, and justice does not win anymore.
Habakkuk was really questioning God! And, God didn’t get mad at Habakkuk for asking the hard questions. But God had a message for His Prophet: even though it seemed like God was not working, He was!
Friends, when we suffer something horrible in life, we can be assured of the fact that God knows about it, and that He has allowed it to happen for some good purpose that we may not yet realize. But if we will trust Him, He will bring about that good (Romans 8:28)!
Second, people often harden themselves against God because they believe that they can do a better job of running things then God Himself does. This is, in many ways, similar to the point just examined. They buy into the lie of the devil that God is not really good (Genesis 3:1-5). Like Job, they come to believe that God is evil (Job 9:21-24) and they think that they can do a better job of running the universe then the One Who made it and Who continually cares for it.
They somehow forget that the main reason why there is suffering and death in the world is because of angelkind’s and humankind’s decisions to rebel against God (Genesis 3:1-7; 17-19).
Yet fact of the matter is that God has the blueprint for the best way. The best way for what? The best way for EVERYTHING.
He has the blueprint for being optimally happy.
God knows the knowledge of how to correctly love and be loved.
God has the perfect blueprint for how the church should be operated.
One of the reasons why God is so angry with sin is because sin has corrupted the good way that things were supposed and meant to be. Quoting Cornelius Plantinga, McDowell and Morrow tell us of the meaning behind the Hebrew word shalom:
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be…God is, after all, not arbitrarily offended. God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be…. We may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically (e.g., by disease), morally, spiritually, or otherwise.” (Sean McDowell and Johnathan Morrow, Is God Just A Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised By The New Atheists, 3268-32277 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Kregel Digital Editions)
People become convinced that God is evil, and then they think that they know better then God, but they don’t.
Humans demand that God give them their freedom, and then they blame Him when we suffer the results of disobedience against God.
How often do we consider that every evil in the world that we see is so horribly evil because we are seeing it in contrast to the good that we often take for granted?
For every Hurricane Harvey, there are hundreds of days of good weather!
For every cell of cancer, there are trillions that operate correctly.
Instead of blaming God for all the things that go wrong, perhaps we should stop and thank Him for all the things that go right.
Third, sometimes people become hardened against God because they are angry at a righteous God Who has judged sin for what it is: sin. The fact of the matter is, God is HOLY and we ARE NOT. God is the One Who, because of His perfectly good and holy Nature, has the RIGHT to be God. Yes, God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. He has the right to tell us what is right, and what is wrong. He has the right to instruct us about holiness, about worship in the church. He, being Lord of all, has the right to be the MASTER of our lives.
Yet many are like Pharaoh of old who arrogantly said, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His Voice?” (Exodus 5:2). Many simply do not want God to be in control.
Another thing about this passage which stands out to me is that much of Paul says has an overtime of spiritual warfare. Much of what he writes is similar to other Jewish writing in which the same phrases are used in conjunction with evil spirits. Further, he had mentioned the devil as the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:1-2), as well as the principalities and powers (Ephesians 3:9-11; 6:10-12). Arnold points this out:
“The precise combination that we have here ( with ) appears also in T. Dan. 2: 4: “For the spirit of anger ensnares him in the nets of deceit, blinds his eyes literally, darkens his understanding () by means of a lie, and provides him with its own peculiar perspective.” In our passage, however, Paul lays stress on the person’s own culpability. Nevertheless, elsewhere in this letter, Paul recognizes the intermediate agency of demonic spirits (e.g., 2: 2), which for him does not alleviate personal human responsibility.” (Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Ephesians, 7654-7660 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
A Heart Of Flesh For A Heart Of Stone
Another lesson I see from this passage is that even the most hardened heart may possibly be reached with the Gospel.
How do we know this?
Well, the Ephesian Christians to whom Paul was writing had been in that condition! Notice the wording again of verse 17-no longer walk. The point is, the disciples to whom Paul was writing had been in that condition of being “past feeling,” and yet they were reached!
What was it that penetrated the calloused heart?
Ephesians 1:13-In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,
The Word of God has the power to reach the most hardened heart.
Centuries before Christ was born, the Prophet Ezekiel had this promise of God for the people of Israel:
Ezekiel 36:26-I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
I love the way that the ERV translates this passage:
Ezekiel 36:26 (ERV)-I will also put a new spirit in you to change your way of thinking. I will take out the heart of stone from your body and give you a tender, human heart.
Yes it is frightening to think of a person being so hardened in sin that they are past feeling. Yet it is absolutely amazing that the God of glory can provide a tender heart to even the most hardened individual!
Friends, God will give you a heart of flesh if you will turn to Him. He will give you that new life, that new spirit, that new heart, if you will follow Him. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to the world to heal all the broken-hearted (Isaiah 61:1-3). By learning from Him and His teachings, we who are weary and burdened with the cares of this life can find true peace (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on the third day is Good News for us (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), because through that Good News we can be saved (Romans 1:16)!
As a believer, you need to be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Will you not today repent of your sins and be baptized into Christ to have that newness of life that only He can being (Romans 6:3-4)?
If you are a Christian who has turned from the Lord, won’t you please come back in repentance and prayer (1 John 1:8-2:2)?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.