Western society is in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. Mores and morals are being turned on their heads as forces, seen and unseen, attempt to implement a new way of thinking and living. The changes we are experiencing now have evolved slowly over the last half-century, a little here and little there, line upon line and precept upon precept. The church has primarily slept or been complicit as the enemy has implemented his strategies among us. What British historian and philosopher Arnold Joseph Toynbee said about civilizations could also be said of the church. He wrote, “Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They break down and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them which they fail to meet.” This same man of words observed, “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.” Keep in mind, Toynbee died in 1975. I wonder what he would say today, some 46 later?
In Jeremiah 6, the prophet, in speaking of the impending captivity of Jerusalem, lays out the folly of its leaders and people:
13 “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, Everyone is greedy for gain, And from the prophet even to the priest Everyone deals falsely. 14 “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace. 15 “Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all; They did not even know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; At the time that I punish them, They shall be cast down,” says the LORD. 16Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ 17 “And I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not listen.’ 18 “Therefore hear, O nations, And know, O congregation, what is among them. 19” Hear, O earth: behold, I am bringing disaster on this people, The fruit of their plans, Because they have not listened to My words, And as for My law, they have rejected it also. (Jer 6:13-19 NASB)
The redemptive verse in this section of scripture is verse 16: “Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls.” God gives a prescriptive way out of their sorrow, but they will not heed His word, hear His voice, and continue to reap the harvest of their folly. The Israelites knew what the ancient ways were. They knew where the good way was. They knew the covenants and law of God, but these became irrelevant in their everyday lives. They were still practicing religion, but God rejected it. In Jeremiah 6:20 God asks, “For what purpose does frankincense come to Me from Sheba And the sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable and your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me.”
Jump ahead with me some 650 years later to the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the major port city in what is modern-day Turkey. Sea routes and overland trade routes intersected here. Being a center of commerce, trade, religion, philosophy, and sin, it was the cosmopolitan haven for new ideas, exotic and erotic practices, and cultic rituals in that entire region. The apostle Paul made a short visit to Ephesus on his second missionary journey. During his third missionary trek, he stopped again, staying three years, planting a church, establishing a Christian witness the entire region was influenced by.
About ten years after establishing the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to them from a Roman prison. His central theme was the ecclesia, the called out, the redeemed of God. He told them what God had done for them in Christ and how the church should live together as His body. Paul had concerns for them because they lacked in some areas of understanding and practice. In chapter 4, verse 17, Paul begins a more direct instruction on the Christian walk, admonishing them on ways of living they should put aside. In chapter 5, he starts by laying down a new standard for their behavior: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:1-2). As he continues, again naming actions that they should refrain from, Paul summarizes much of his earlier thoughts in saying:
7 Therefore [or because of what I’ve already said] do not be partakers with them; 8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light 9 (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. 13But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:7-14).
The following three verses are what I want to focus on in this message. Paul again starts with “therefore.” “15Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 17So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5:15-17). The King James Version renders this first phrase, “See then that ye walk circumspectly.” The Amplified Classic states the entire passage as, “15 Look carefully then how you walk! Live purposefully and worthily and accurately, not as the unwise and witless, but as wise (sensible, intelligent people), 16 Making the very most of the time [buying up each opportunity], because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be vague and thoughtless and foolish, but understanding and firmly grasping what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5:15-17 AMPC).
Let us look at this word circumspectly a bit closer. Circumspect means to look around. According to vocabulary.com, “Near synonyms are prudent and cautious, though circumspect implies a careful consideration of all circumstances and a desire to avoid mistakes and bad consequences.” This definition is clearly in line with the context and content of the biblical text.
Just as Ephesus’s heathen culture was a constant backdrop to the work God was doing in the Ephesian church, we now find ourselves in a similar situation. Surrounded by ever-increasing evil, corruption, and recklessness at every level of society and government, we must consider all of the circumstances as we move forward. Desiring to avoid further complacency and its dire consequences, we must buy back the time we have spent being complicit.
Some thirty years after Paul’s letter, Jesus dictates a letter of His own to the Ephesians. Revelation 2:1-7 reveals Jesus’ instructions to the apostle John:
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: 2’ I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. 4 ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place–unless you repent. 6 ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7’ He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Looking back to Jeremiah, we can see how imprudent Israel was living, the very opposite of circumspectly, and the consequences this brought upon them. Could it be we should look back at Israel’s example, stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it? Is it time to heed Paul’s direction for Ephesus in evaluating who we are and where we are headed as a nation and church? Is it time we consider what Jesus had against a church that thought it was doing everything right but had lost its first love?
If we fail to do so, we fail to live purposefully and worthily and accurately as sensible, intelligent people, understanding and firmly grasping what the will of the Lord is. We then open ourselves up for self-deception, a condition much worse with more significant far-reaching consequences. I turn once again to Toynbee in closing: “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”