What is “coarse jesting”, or, in one translation, ‘crude joking’? Is it simply letting your humor occasionally run away with you and taking you over lines you didn’t mean to cross?
The Greek word used in Ephesians 5:4 is eutrapelia, from eú = easily + trépo = to turn = well-turned, i.e. ready with a witty answer). It literally means to turn a phrase smoothly to a witty or vulgar effect. This suggests something like a pun, or perhaps a double entendre.
On one level, it is quite an innocent word with the derivation of versatility. According to William Hendriksen: “The versatile person is able to turn with ease from one subject to another, being at home in all of them. Similarly, the word which the apostle employs was often used in a favorable sense, to indicate the nimble-witted individual.”
Conversations on this level are entertaining and enjoyable. The issue comes when the speaker uses this versatile facility to suggest other nuances. Hendriksen continues: “However, it is also possible for certain speakers to move very easily into the mire of unbecoming expressions. They seem to have a garbage can type of mind, and every serious topic of conversation reminds them of an off-color jest or anecdote.”
The Greek word eutrapelia in Ephesians 5:4 is therefore translated “coarse jesting”, or a wittiness given to telling coarse jokes, “which things are improper.” They are improper because they are “not worthy of the calling” with which believers were called.
The idea of “turning” is interesting. It suggests a rapid-fire comeback, or picking up on a pun or a bizarre word-association on the spot, which can be very entertaining. But John Eadie suggests that the word “refers to the “turning” of one’s speech for the purpose of exciting wit or humor that ends in deceptive speech, so formed that the speaker easily contrives to wriggle out of its meaning or engagement…(eutrapelia) denotes that ribaldry, studied artifice, and polite equivoque (double meaning), which are worse in many cases than open foulness of tongue…Pleasantry of every sort is not condemned by the apostle. He seems to refer to wit in connection with lewdness—double entendre.”
But isn’t it odd –at first glance- that “coarse jesting” should be linked in Ephesians 5 with fornication and filthiness?
The general context of how followers of Jesus are to conduct themselves in speech is carefully drawn in the New Testament. We are warned against “every idle word” (Matthew 12:36), and encouraged to “Let your speech be always with grace” (Colossians 4:6). James (3) warned against sins of the tongue, which, of course, are really sins of the heart.
However, it isn’t hard to see the tie-in between the sins of Ephesians 5:3 and those in Ephesians 5:4! People who have base appetites usually cultivate a base kind of speech and humor, and often people who want to commit sexual sins, or have committed them, enjoy jesting about them. It has been said that the real indicators of a person’s character are what makes him laugh and what makes him weep. Simply put, there is nothing for the follower of Jesus in obscene language or sexual innuendo.
As a final word, I really enjoyed Barnes’ comment on this verse. Here it is: “Christians should be grave and serious, though cheerful and pleasant. They should feel that they have great interests at stake, and that the world has too. They are redeemed–not to make sport; purchased with precious blood–for other purposes than to make men laugh. They are soon to be in heaven–and a man who has any impressive sense of that will habitually feel that he has much else to do than to make men laugh. The true course of life is midway between moroseness and levity; sourness and lightness; harshness and jesting. Be benevolent, kind, cheerful, bland, courteous, but serious. Be solemn, thoughtful, deeply impressed with the presence of God and with eternal things, but pleasant, affable, and benignant. Think not a smile sinful; but think not levity and jesting harmless.”