15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 5:15–21). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Do Not Get Drunk with Wine
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, (5:18a)
The verse which these words introduce is one of the most crucial texts relating to Christian living, to walking “in a manner worthy of the calling with which [we] have been called” (4:1). Being controlled by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential for living the Christian life by God’s standards. God’s way cannot be properly understood or faithfully followed apart from the working of the Spirit in the life of a believer.
But before Paul commanded us to “be filled with the Spirit” and gave the characteristics of the Spirit-filled life (vv. 18b–21), he first gave a contrasting and negative command, And do not get drunk with wine. Getting drunk with wine not only is a hindrance to, but a counterfeit of, being filled with the Spirit. In light of the apostle’s preceding contrasts between light and darkness (vv. 8–14) and between wisdom and foolishness (vv. 15–17), his point here is that getting drunk is a mark of darkness and foolishness and that being filled with the Spirit is the source of a believer’s being able to walk in light and wisdom.
There have been few periods of church history in which the drinking of alcoholic beverages has not been an issue of disagreement and debate. Evangelical churches and groups in our own day have widely differing views on the subject. Denominations and missions organizations sometimes have differing views even within their own constituencies from country to country.
We must be clear that drinking or not drinking is not in itself a mark, and certainly not a measure, of spirituality. Spirituality is determined by what we are inside, of which what we do on the outside is but a manifestation.
Many reasons are given for drinking, one of the most common of which is the desire to be happy, or at least to forget a sorrow or problem. The desire for genuine happiness is both God-given and God-fulfilled. In Ecclesiastes we are told there is “a time to laugh” (3:4) and in Proverbs that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (17:22). David proclaimed that in the Lord’s “presence is fulness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). Jesus began each beatitude with the promise of blessedness, or happiness, for those who come to the Lord in the Lord’s way (Matt. 5:3–11). The apostle John wrote his first letter not only to teach and admonish fellow believers but that his own joy might “be made complete” (1:4). Paul twice counselled the Philippian Christians to “rejoice in the Lord” (3:1; 4:4). At Jesus’ birth the angel announced to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). God wants all men to be happy and joyful, and one of the great blessings of the gospel is the unmatched joy that Christ brings to the heart of every person who trusts in Him.
The problem with drinking in order to be happy is not the motive but the means. It brings only artificial happiness at best and is counterproductive to spiritual sensitivity. It is a temporary escape that often leads to even worse problems than the ones that prompted the drinking in the first place. Intoxication is never a remedy for the cares of life, but it has few equals in its ability to multiply them.
Scripture Always Condemns Drunkenness
Drinking to the point of drunkenness, of course, has few sane defenders even in the secular world. It has caused the loss of too many battles, the downfall of too many governments, and the moral corruption of too many lives and whole societies to be considered anything less than the total evil that it is. The United States alone presently has over twenty million alcoholics, almost three and a half million of which are teenagers. And alcohol is a killer.
Drunkenness is the clouding or disruption by alcohol of any part of a person’s mind so that it affects his faculties. A person is drunk to the extent that alcohol has restricted or modified any part of his thinking or acting. Drunkenness has many degrees, but it begins when it starts to interrupt the normal functions of the body and mind.
Both the Old and New Testaments unequivocally condemn drunkenness. Every picture of drunkenness in the Bible is a picture of sin and disaster. Shortly after the Flood, Noah became drunk and acted shamelessly. Lot’s daughters caused him to become drunk and to commit incest with them, as a foolish and perverted means of having children. Ben-hadad and his allied kings became drunk and were all slaughtered except Ben-hadad, who was spared only by the disobedience of Israel’s King Ahab (1 Kings 20:16–34). Belshazzar held a drunken feast in which he and his guests praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. And during the very midst of the drunken brawl the kingdom was taken from Belshazzar (Dan. 5). Some of the Corinthian Christians became drunk while at the Lord’s table, and God caused some of them to become weak and sick and others to die because of their wicked desecration (1 Cor. 11:27–30).
The book of Proverbs has many warnings about drinking. Speaking as a father, the writer said, “Listen, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way. Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags” (Prov. 23:19–21). Our skid rows today are filled with more men clothed in rags because of drunkenness than the ancient writer of Proverbs could ever have imagined. A few verses later he asked, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly” (vv. 29–31). Wine is enticing to look at, with its bright color, sparkling bubbles, and smooth taste—just as modern commercials vividly portray it. What the commercials are careful not to say is that “at last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things” (vv. 32–33).
We also read in Proverbs that “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise” (20:1). Drunkenness mocks a person by making him think he is better off instead of worse off, smarter instead of more foolish, and happier instead of simply dazed. It is a favorite tool of Satan for the very reason that it deceives while it destroys. Surely it presents vulnerability to demons. The drunk does not learn his lesson and is deceived over and over again. Even when he is waylaid, beaten, and finally awakens from his drunken stupor he “will seek another drink” (23:35).
Between those two warnings about drunkenness we are told, “A harlot is a deep pit, and an adulterous woman is a narrow well. Surely she lurks as a robber, and increases the faithless among men” (vv. 27–28). The revered Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch commented, “The author passes from the sin of uncleanness to that of drunkenness; they are nearly related, for drunkenness excites fleshly lust; and to wallow with delight in the mire of sensuality, a man created in the image of God must first brutalize himself by intoxication.” (Johann K. F. Keil and Franz Julius Delitzsch, vol. 4 of Old Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and authors, n. d.], 750.)
Isaiah warned, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink; who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them!” (Isa. 5:11). An alcoholic characteristically begins drinking in the morning and continues through the day and evening. Again the prophet portrayed a vivid scene when he said, “And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment. For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place” (28:7–8).
Scripture shows drunkenness in its full ugliness and tragedy, as always associated with immorality, dissolution, unrestrained behavior, wild, reckless behavior, and every other form of corrupt living. It is one of the sinful deeds of the flesh that are in opposition to the righteous fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:19–23). Drunkenness is first of all a sin. It develops attendant disease as it ravages the mind and body, but it is basically a sin, a manifestation of depravity. It must therefore be confessed and dealt with as sin.
Peter told believers to forsake the way of the Gentiles, who pursued “a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (1 Pet. 4:3). Paul admonished the Thessalonians, “Let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:6–8; cf. Rom. 13:13). He warned the Corinthian believers that they were not even “to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11). In the next chapter he went on to say, “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9–10).
It is possible for a Christian to become drunk, just as it is possible for him to fall into other sins. But his life will not be continually characterized by drunkenness or any of the other sins mentioned by Peter and Paul.
In light of the Ephesian situation, however, it must be recognized that Paul’s primary concern in the present passage is religious, not moral. To the Ephesians, as to most pagans and former pagans of that day, drunkenness was closely associated with the idolatrous rites and practices that were an integral part of temple worship. In the mystery religions, which began in ancient Babylon and were copied and modified throughout the Near East and in Greek and Roman cultures, the height of religious experience was communion with the gods through various forms of ecstasy. To achieve an ecstatic experience the participants would use self-hypnosis and frenzied dances designed to work themselves up to a high emotional pitch. Heavy drinking and sexual orgies contributed still further to the sensual stupor that their perverted minds led them to think was creating communion with the gods.
The modern drug and hard rock culture is little different from those pagan rites. Drugs, psychedelic lighting, ear-pounding music, and suggestive lyrics and antics all combine to produce near-hysteria in many of the performers and spectators. It is significant that much of this subculture is directly involved in one or more of the Eastern, mystical religions that teach greater spiritual awareness through escape into supposed higher levels of consciousness induced by drugs, repetition of prescribed names or words, and other such superstitious and demonic means.
The greatest god of ancient mythology was known as Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Roman), and by other names in various regions and times. In what we can now see as a Satanic counterfeit of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit, myth claimed that Zeus somehow caused the goddess Semele to become pregnant without having contact with her. Semele decided that she had a right to see the father of her child, and while it was still in her womb she approached Zeus, only to be instantly incinerated by his glory. Before it could be destroyed, Zeus snatched the unborn child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh, where it continued to develop until birth. The infant god was named Dionysius and was destined by Zeus to become ruler of the earth.
The legend further told that when the Titans, who then inhabited the earth, heard of Zeus’s plan they stole the baby Dionysius and tore him limb from limb. Again the child was rescued by his father Zeus, who swallowed Dionysius’s heart and miraculously recreated him. Zeus then struck the Titans with lightning, reducing them to ashes from which was raised the human race. As ruler of this new race, Dionysius developed a religion of ascendancy, whereby human beings could rise to a level of divine consciousness. The mystical system he devised was comprised of wild music, frenzied dancing, sexual perversion, bodily mutilation, eating of the raw flesh of sacrificial bulls, and drunkenness. Dionysius became known as the god of wine, the intoxicating drink that was integral to the debauched religion that centered around him. His Roman counterpart was Bacchus, from whose name we get bacchanalia, the Roman festival celebrated with wild dancing, singing, drinking, and revelry that has for over two thousand years been synonymous with drunken debauchery and sexual orgy.
The city of Baalbek, in eastern Lebanon, contains some of the most fascinating ruins of the ancient world. It is the site of pagan temples first erected in the name of various Canaanite gods, and later rededicated in the names of corresponding Greek and then Roman deities when it was conquered by those empires. The central temple was that of Bacchus, the columns and parapets of which are intricately and profusely decorated with carvings of grapevines—symbolic of the excessive use of wine that characterized their orgiastic worship.
That is precisely the type of pagan worship with which the Ephesians were well acquainted and in which many believers had once been involved. It was also the type of worship and associated immorality and carnality from which many of the Corinthian believers had such a difficult time divorcing themselves and for which Paul rebuked them strongly. “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?… I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:16, 20–21). Later in the letter he gave a similar rebuke: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (11:20–21). Satan is a thief and a liar, and he revels in stealing the most beautiful and sacred things of the Lord and counterfeiting them in sensually attractive perversions that entice men into sin and deceive them about the truth.
In Ephesians 5:18, Paul was therefore not simply making a moral but also a theological contrast. He was not only speaking of the moral and social evils of drunkenness, but of the spiritually perverted use of drunkenness as a means of worship. Christians are not to seek religious fulfillment through such pagan means as getting drunk with wine, but are to find their spiritual fulfillment and enjoyment by being “filled with the Spirit.” The believer has no need for the artificial, counterfeit, degrading, destructive, and idolatrous ways of the world. He has God’s own Spirit indwelling him, the Spirit whose great desire is to give believers the fullest benefits and enjoyment of their high position as children of God.
The context of this passage further indicates that Paul was speaking primarily about the religious implications of drunkenness. The frenzied, immoral, and drunken orgies of pagan ceremonies were accompanied by correspondingly corrupt liturgies. In verses 19–20 Paul showed the kind of liturgy that pleases God: Spirit-filled believers “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.”
Scripture Sometimes Commends Wine
Despite its many warnings about the dangers of wine, the drinking of it is not totally forbidden in Scripture and is, in fact, sometimes even commended. Drink offerings of wine accompanied many of the Old Testament sacrifices (Ex. 29:40; Num. 15:5; cf. 28:7). It is likely that a supply of wine was kept in the Temple for that purpose. The psalmist spoke of “wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Ps. 104:15), and the writer of Proverbs advised giving “strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter” (31:6). In speaking of God’s gracious invitation to salvation, Isaiah declared, “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isa. 55:1).
Paul advised Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23). Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:6–10). He also spoke favorably of wine in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who poured oil and wine on the wounds of the man he found beaten by the roadside (Luke 10:34).
Like many other things, the kind of wine of which Scripture speaks (discussed below) has the potential either for evil or good. I believe there was a time when the juice of the grape, like every other thing God created, was only good and did not have even the potential for evil. Fermentation, a form of decay, likely was made possible by the corruption of nature at the Fall and actually began with the vast environmental change caused by the Flood and the accompanying removal of the vapor canopy over the earth that had protected it from direct sunlight. It is not unreasonable to believe that in the millennial kingdom the process will again be reversed, when the curse is removed and nature is restored to its original state of perfect goodness.
Guidelines for Christians
In light of the fact that Scripture gives many warnings about drinking wine, yet does not forbid it and even commends it in certain circumstances, how can a believer know what to do? Following are eight suggestions, given in the form of questions, which if answered honestly in light of Scripture will serve as helpful guidelines.
is today’s wine the same as that in bible times?
Our first task in answering this question is to determine exactly what kind of wine is referred to in the Bible, and the second is to determine how that wine compares to what is produced and drunk today. Many sincere, Bible-honoring Christians justify their drinking wine on the basis of its being an acceptable practice both in the Old and New Testaments. But if the kind of wine used then was different from that used today, then application of the biblical teaching concerning wine will also be different.
One kind of wine, called sikera in Greek (see Luke 1:15) and shēkār in Hebrew (see Prov. 20:1; Isa. 5:1), is usually translated “strong drink” because of its high alcohol content and consequent rapid intoxication of those who drank it.
A second kind of wine was called gleukos (from which we get our English term glucose) and referred to new wine, which was especially sweet. Some of the onlookers at Pentecost accused the apostles of being drunk on this kind of wine (Acts 2:13). The corresponding Hebrew word is tîrôsh (see Prov. 3:10; Hos. 9:2; Joel 1:10). Because freshly-squeezed juice would ferment rapidly and could cause intoxication even when not fully aged, it was generally mixed with water before drinking.
A third kind of wine, however, is the one most often referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word for that wine is yayin, which has the root meaning of bubbling or boiling up. The figure of bubbling did not come from the pouring of the wine but from the boiling of the fresh grape juice to reduce it to a heavy syrup, sometimes even a thick paste, that made it suitable for storage without spoiling. Because boiling removes most of the water and kills all the bacteria, the concentrated state of the juice does not ferment. Yayin most often referred to the syrup or paste mixed with water and used as a drink (cf. Ps. 75:8; Prov. 23:30). Even when the reconstituted mixture was allowed to ferment, its alcohol content was quite low.
The most common New Testament Greek word for this third kind of wine is oinos, and in its most general sense simply refers to the juice of grapes. Any accurate Jewish source will point out that yayin, mixed wine, or oinos, does not refer only to intoxicating liquor made by fermentation, but more often refers to a thick nonintoxicating syrup or jam produced by boiling to make it storable. In Jesus’ illustration of putting new wine (oinos, not gleukos) only into new wineskins, He was possibly saying that it was thereby “preserved” from fermentation as well as from spillage (Matt. 9:17).
The practice of reducing fresh grape juice to a syrup by boiling or evaporation was widespread in the biblical Near East as well as in the Greek and Roman cultures of that day—and is not uncommon in Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon in our own day. In addition to being diluted for use as a beverage, the heavy syrup was used as a flavoring and as a jam-like spread on bread and pastries. Both the syrup and most of the drink made from it were completely nonintoxicating.
The Jewish Mishnah—the ancient oral and later written interpretations of the Mosaic law that preceded the Talmud—states that the Jews regularly used boiled wine, that is, grape juice reduced to a thick consistency by heating. Aristotle described the wine of Arcadia as being so thick that it had to be scraped from the skin bottles in which it was stored and the scrapings diluted with water in order to make a drink. The Roman historian Pliny often referred to nonintoxicating wine. The Roman poet Horace wrote in 35 b.c., “Here you quaff under a shade, cups of unintoxicating wine.” In the ninth book of his Odyssey Homer told of Ullyses putting in his boat a goatskin of sweet black wine that was diluted with twenty parts of water before being drunk. In a.d. 60 the Greek biographer Plutarch commented that “filtered wine neither inflames the brain nor infects the mind and the passions, and is much more pleasant to drink.”
Writing in Christianity Today magazine (June 20, 1975), Robert Stein explains that the ancient Greeks kept their unboiled, unmixed, and therefore highly-alcoholic wine in large jugs called amphorae. Before drinking they would pour it into smaller vessels called kraters and dilute it with water as much as twenty to one. Only then would the wine be poured into killits, the cups from which it was drunk. It was this diluted form that was commonly referred to simply as wine (oinos). The undiluted liquid was called akratesteron, or “unmixed wine,” wine that had not been diluted in a krater. Even among the civilized pagans, drinking unmixed wine was considered stupid and barbaric. Mr. Stein quotes Mnesitheus of Athens:
The gods have revealed wine to mortals, to be the greatest blessing for those who use it aright, but for those who use it without measure, the reverse. For it gives food to them that take it and strength in mind and body. In medicine it is most beneficial; it can be mixed with liquid and drugs and it brings aid to the wounded. In daily intercourse, to those who mix and drink it moderately, it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half, and you get madness; unmixed, bodily collapse.
From an early Christian volume called The Apostolic Tradition we learn that the early church followed the custom of using only such mixed wine, whether made from a syrup or from the unmixed liquid.
Naturally fermented wine has an alcoholic content of from nine to eleven percent. For an alcoholic beverage such as brandy to have a higher content, it must be artificially fortified by distilling already-fermented wine. The unmixed wine of the ancients therefore had a maximum alcohol content of eleven percent. Even mixed half and half (a mixture which Mnesitheus said would bring madness), the wine would have had less than five percent alcohol. Since the strongest wine normally drunk was mixed at least with three parts water to one of wine, its alcohol content would have been in a range no higher than 2.25–2.75 percent—well below the 3.2 percent that today is generally considered necessary to classify a beverage as alcoholic.
It is clear, therefore, that whether the yayin or oinos mentioned in Scripture refers to the thick syrup itself, to a mixture of water and syrup, or to a mixture of water and pure wine, the wine was either nonalcoholic or only slightly alcoholic. To get drunk with mixed wine (oinos) would have required consuming a large quantity—as is suggested in other New Testament passages. “Addicted to wine” (1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7) translates one Greek word (paroinos) and literally means “at, or beside, wine,” and carries the idea of sitting beside the wine cup for an extended period of time.
The answer to the first question is clearly no. The wine of Bible times was not the same as the unmixed wine of our own day. Even the more civilized pagans of Bible times would have considered the drinking of modern wines to be barbaric and irresponsible.
is it necessary?
The second question that helps us determine whether or not a believer today should drink wine is, “Is drinking wine necessary for me?” In Bible times, as in many parts of the world today, good drinking water either did not exist or was scarce. The safest drink was wine, and wine that had alcoholic content was especially safe because of the antiseptic effect of the alcohol. It actually purified the water.
Yet it seems hard to believe that the wine Jesus miraculously made at the wedding feast in Cana or that He served at the Lord’s Supper and on other occasions was fermented. How could He have made or served that which had even the potential for making a person drunk? When He made the wine at Cana, He first instructed the servants to fill the jars with water, as if to testify that the wine He was about to create was obviously mixed. The wedding guests commented on the high quality of the wine (John 2:10), and because they called it oinos, it obviously was like the mild drink they were accustomed to making by adding water to boiled-down syrup.
Even though circumstances often required or made advisable the drinking of wine that contained alcohol, the preferred wine even in Bible times had little or none. Modern believers therefore cannot appeal to the biblical practice to justify their own drinking, because so many alternatives are now readily and cheaply available. Drinking alcoholic beverages today is an extremely rare necessity; most often it is simply a matter of preference.
Nor is drinking necessary in order to prevent embarrassing or offending friends, acquaintances, or business associates. A Christian’s witness is sometimes resented and costly, but most people are inclined to respect our abstinence when it is done out of honest conviction and is not flaunted self-righteously or judgmentally. The argument of not wanting to offend others is more likely to be based on concern for our own image and popularity than on genuine concern for their feelings and welfare. Some feel that drinking is sometimes necessary for the sake of establishing a relationship with an unsaved person with a view to bringing him to saving faith. But such a view of evangelism fails miserably in understanding the sovereign work of God and the power of the gospel apart from human devices.
is it the best choice?
Because drinking of wine is not specifically and totally forbidden in Scripture and because it is not a necessity for believers in most parts of the world today, the drinking of it is a matter of choice. The next question is therefore, Is it the best choice?
Throughout the history of God’s people He has given higher standards for those in positions of greater responsibility. Under the sacrificial system instituted under Moses and described in Leviticus 4–5, the ordinary person was required to give a female goat or a lamb as a sin offering—or two pigeons or two doves (5:7), or even a meal (grain) offering (5:11), if he was very poor. But a ruler had to offer a male goat, and the congregation as a whole or the high priest had to offer a bull.
Aaron and all succeeding high priests were also given higher personal standards by which to live. They were commanded, “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die—it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations” (Lev. 10:9). Because the high priest was called apart to a higher office, he was also called to a higher commitment to God and to a higher quality of living. Whether their drink restriction pertained to their total living or only to the time while they were actually serving in the Tabernacle or Temple, their ministry for the Lord was to be marked by total abstinence from all alcoholic beverage. Their minds and bodies were to be clear, pure, and fully functional when they ministered in the Lord’s name. There was to be no risk of moral or spiritual compromise in sacred ministry.
The same high standard applied to rulers in Israel. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink, lest they drink and forget what is ordered, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Prov. 31:4–5). Their judgment was not to be clouded even by the amount of alcohol found in wine (yayin), much less by the much higher amount in strong drink (shēkār). Strong drink was to be given only “to him who is perishing,” as a sedative to ease his pain (v. 6). Any other use of it was not condoned. Normal mixed wine could be given for enjoyment “to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more” (vv. 6–7). But the high priests and the rulers of the people were to drink neither yayin nor shekar.
Any person in Israel could choose to set himself apart for God in a special way by taking the Nazirite vow. “When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin” (Num. 6:2–4). A Nazirite also vowed not to shave his head or to ceremonially contaminate himself by touching a dead body as long as his vow was in effect (vv. 5–7).
The name Nazirite comes from the Hebrew nāzîr, which means “separated, or consecrated.” Such separation was voluntary and could last from 30 days to a lifetime. But while the person, man or woman, was set apart in that way for special service to the Lord, his life was to be marked by special purity, including abstention from anything even associated with alcoholic drink. The Nazirite was, in a sense, stepping up to the level of a ruler or high priest by his act of special consecration and separation.
Scripture names only three men who were Nazirites for life—Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist. All three were set apart as Nazirites before they were born, Samuel by his mother (1 Sam. 1:11) and Samson and John the Baptist by the Lord Himself (Judg. 13:3–5; Luke 1:15). The mothers of both Samson and Samuel also abstained from wine and strong drink (Judg. 13:4; 1 Sam. 1:15), Samson’s mother by the direct command of the angel.
Though we do not know their identities, many other Nazirites lived in Israel and served the Lord through their specially consecrated lives (see Lam. 4:7, AV, but see also NASB; Amos 2:11). Unfortunately, many of them were forcibly corrupted by their fellow Israelites, who “made the Nazirites drink wine” (Amos 2:12; cf. Lam. 4:8). The world resents those whose high standards are a rebuke to low living. Instead of trying to attain a higher level for themselves, people who are worldly and fleshly—including worldly and carnal Christians—seek to bring those who live purely down to their own corrupt level.
In Jeremiah’s day the entire clan of the Rechabites had taken a vow not to drink wine, and had remained faithful to that vow. Because of their faithfulness, the Lord had Jeremiah set them up as a standard of righteous living, in contrast to the corrupt unfaithfulness of Judah, on whom He was about to bring judgment (Jer. 35:1–19).
The most outstanding Nazirite was John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater” (Matt. 11:11). Before John was born, the angel said of him, “He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine (oinos) or liquor (sikera); and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).
Yet Jesus went on to say in regard to John the Baptist that “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). In Jesus Christ, every believer is on the spiritual level of a high priest, a ruler, and a Nazirite. Christ loves us and has “released us from our sins by His blood, and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev. 1:5–6). Christians are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. v. 5). Every Christian is specially set apart for God, and every Christian is to be separated from everything that is unclean (2 Cor. 6:17). “Therefore, having these promises, beloved,” Paul continued, “let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (7:1).
God did not lower His standards for New Testament saints, who are greater, Jesus said, even than John the Baptist. In both the Old and New Testaments drinking wine or strong drink disqualified a person from the leadership of God’s people. Christian leaders, like those of the Old Testament, are held to specially high standards. Overseers, or bishops, who are the same as elders and pastors, must not be “addicted to wine,” which, as mentioned above, translates one word (paroinos) and literally means “at, or by, wine.” A leader in the church is not even to be beside wine. “Must” (1 Tim. 3:2) is from the Greek particle dei, and carries the meaning of logical necessity rather than moral ought. Paul is therefore saying that leaders in the church of Jesus Christ not only ought but “must be … not addicted to wine” (vv. 2–3).
James said, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1), and Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). If Old Testament high priests, Nazirites, kings, judges, and other rulers of the people were to be clear-minded at all times, the Lord surely does not have lower standards for leaders in the church, which is the present incarnate Body of His own Son, Jesus Christ. For deacons, whose responsibility is to serve rather than to give leadership, the standard is less stringent. They are allowed to drink wine but are not to be “addicted,” which is from a different Greek word (prosechontas), meaning “to be occupied with.” Such allowance still forbids drunkenness, and it reflects the distinct place of the elder, pastor, bishop, who should totally avoid any possibility of having his thinking clouded. The thrust of Paul’s message here seems to be that, because of the need for clear minds and pure example, the decision-making leaders of the church, are to be held to the highest possible standards of conduct, including abstinence from all alcoholic beverages, and that deacons, who are not in such critical roles, are allowed to drink wine in moderation.
That Paul advised Timothy to “no longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23) indicates that, consistent with his leadership abstinence, Timothy previously had drunk no wine at all and that Paul’s recommendation to start drinking “a little wine” was purely for medicinal purposes. Every believer is to present his body “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1), in total consecration to Him.
is it habit forming?
A fourth area of concern for believers should be the matter of addiction. Many things become habitual, and many of the habits we form are beneficial. On the other hand, many other habits are harmful and are difficult to break.
Paul’s principle that though all things for him were lawful, he would “not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12) clearly applies to the danger of alcohol addiction. Alcohol easily produces overpowering dependency. In addition to the alcohol’s direct clouding of the brain and disruption of bodily functions, the dependency itself distracts the attention and interferes with the judgment of the one who is addicted.
A Christian not only must avoid sin but must avoid the potential for sin. We should not allow ourselves to get under the influence or control of anyone or anything that leads us away from the things of God even to a small extent. The safest and wisest choice for a Christian is to avoid even the potential for wrong influence.
Even when something is not habit-forming for us, it may be for someone who is looking at and following our example. Because alcohol is universally acknowledged to be highly addictive, a Christian’s drinking unnecessarily creates the potential for the alcohol addiction of someone else.
is it potentially destructive?
A fifth concern should be for alcohol’s potential destructiveness. The pagan writer Mnesitheus, already quoted, spoke of wine mixed with half water as causing madness and of unmixed wine’s bringing bodily collapse. The mental, physical, and social destructiveness of alcohol is too evident to need much documentation.
Over 40 percent of all violent deaths are alcohol related, and at least 50 percent of all traffic fatalities involve drinking drivers. It is estimated that at least one fourth of all hospitalized psychiatric patients have a problem with alcohol. Heavy consumption of alcohol causes cirrhosis of the liver and countless other physical disorders. Alcohol-related problems cost billions of dollars each year in lost income to employers and employees, in settlements by insurance companies and in higher premiums for their customers, and in many other less direct ways.
Dissipation, to which drunkenness inevitably leads, is from asōtia, which literally means “that which is unable to be saved.” It was used of a person who was hopelessly and incurably sick and also was used of loose, profligate living, as in that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:13). Dissipation is therefore a form of self-destruction.
As mentioned earlier in the chapter, the Old Testament gives many vivid accounts of the close association of heavy drinking with immorality, rebellion, incest, disobedience to parents, and corrupt living of every sort. Violence is a natural companion of strong drink (Prov. 4:17), and “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” (20:1).
The prophet Joel cried, “Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth” (Joel 1:5). Later in his message he said, “They have also cast lots for My people, traded a boy for a harlot, and sold a girl for wine that they may drink” (3:3). Habakkuk warned, “Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom even to make them drunk so as to look on their nakedness! You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter disgrace will come upon your glory” (Hab. 2:15–16).
The Christian must ask himself if it is wise for him to have any part of something that has such great potential for destruction and sin.
will it offend other christians?
In speaking of food sacrificed to idols, Paul said, “We know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.… However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.… For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:4, 7–9, 11).
A Christian who himself is perfectly able to drink in moderation is not able to guarantee that his example will not cause a weaker fellow Christian to try drinking and become addicted. Not only that, but just as in Paul’s day, a former drunk who becomes a Christian will often associate many immoral and corrupt activities with drinking, and to see a fellow Christian drink is likely to offend his conscience. Our freedom in Christ stops where it begins to harm others, especially fellow believers. We have no right to “destroy with [our] food [or drink] him for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15). We cannot be absolutely certain even of our own ability to always drink in moderation, and even less certain that our example will not cause others—including our children—to drink beyond moderation. “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food,” Paul continued. “All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (vv. 20–21). Our own freedom in Christ should not be cherished above the welfare of even one other believer. We are to do those things “which make for peace and the building up of one another” (v. 19).
will it harm my christian testimony?
To exercise our liberty in a way that might harm a brother in Christ cannot possibly enhance our testimony to unbelievers. Drinking might make us more acceptable in some circles, but our lack of concern for fellow Christians would work against any positive witness we might give. It would also hinder our testimony before many other Christians, who, though they might not be concerned about our influence hindering their own living for the Lord, would nevertheless be concerned about how it might harmfully influence other Christians.
Paul’s standard given to the Corinthians indicates that the best testimony is to refuse a pagan host so as not to offend a brother: “If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone should say to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:27–29). The witness is most effective if the pagan host can see how much you love and care for your Christian brother.
“Not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7–8). Because everything a Christian is and has is the Lord’s, the apostle also said, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:31–33).
If we want to reach people who are not saved, as well as give an encouraging example to those who are, we will not exercise our liberty to drink or to do anything else that would cause them to be spiritually offended or misled.
is it right?
In light of all the above questions, the Christian should finally ask, Is it right for me to drink at all? We have seen that the answer to the first question is clearly no—the wine drunk in Bible times is not the same as contemporary wine. The answers to the second and third questions are also no for the majority of believers today—it is generally unnecessary to drink wine and is seldom the best choice. The answer to the next four questions is yes in at least some degree. Drinking is clearly habit forming and potentially destructive, and it is likely to offend other Christians and could harm our testimony before unbelievers.
A man once said to me, “I have a beer with the boys sometimes. Is that wrong?” I replied, “What do you think about it?” “Well, I don’t think it’s wrong; but it bothers me.” “Do you like being bothered?” I asked. “No, I don’t,” he said. “You know how to stop being bothered don’t you?” I continued, to which he gave the obvious answer, “Yes. Stop drinking.”
Paul explicitly said, “He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Even if we believe that something is not sinful in itself, if we cannot do it with a completely free conscience, we sin because we do it against our conscience. Going against our conscience will push us into self-condemnation and self-imposed guilt. Conscience is a God-given alarm to guard against sin, and whenever we go against it we weaken it and make it less sensitive and less reliable, thereby training ourselves to reject it. To continually go against conscience is to cause it to become “seared … as with a branding iron” (1 Tim. 4:2) and to become silent. When that happens, we lose a very powerful agent God has given to lead us (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5, 19).
As we ask ourselves questions about drinking, the final one is the most important: Can I do it before others and before God in total faith and confidence that it is right?
Be Filled with the Spirit—part 1
but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (5:18b–21)
Apart from the truth in verse 18, which is the heart of Paul’s message, the book of Ephesians would appear to be legalistic. Every exhortation he gives would have to be fulfilled through the power of the flesh. Believers would need to rely on their own resources and strength to follow the great road map of the Christian life that the apostle presents in chapters 4–6—and would, of course, find themselves completely deficient. Christians cannot walk in humility, unity, separation, light, love, and wisdom apart from the energizing of the Holy Spirit. To walk without the Spirit is to walk unwisely and foolishly (see vv. 15–17). We can “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1) only as we are filled with the Spirit (cf. John 15:5).
In 5:18–21 Paul first presents the contrast of the way of the flesh with the way of the Spirit. As seen in the preceding discussion of v. 18a, the way of the flesh is characterized by the pagan religion out of which many of the Ephesian believers had come, a religion that centered around drunken, immoral orgies of supposed ecstasy, in which a person tried to progressively elevate himself into communion with the gods. It is the way of self, pride, immorality, greed, idolatry, confusion, deception, fantasy, falsehood, and even demonism. It is the way of darkness and foolishness (see 5:3–17).
In vv. 18b–21 the apostle gives the other side of the contrast—the godly walk of God’s children that expresses itself in the Spirit-controlled life and worship of beauty and holiness. He first gives the central command of the epistle (which is the focal point of the New Testament for believers) and follows it with an outline of the consequences of obedience to that command.
but be filled with the Spirit, (5:18b)
Although Paul was not present when the Holy Spirit manifested Himself so powerfully at Pentecost, he must have had that event in mind as he wrote be filled with the Spirit. Pentecost obviously occurred while he was still an unbeliever and before he began persecuting the church. But without Pentecost he and other unbelievers would have had no reason to persecute the church, because it would have been too weak and powerless to threaten Satan’s domain. It was there that the other apostles heard the heavenly “noise like a violent, rushing wind,” saw “tongues as of fire distributing themselves” and resting on “each one of them,” and were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:2–4). It was also there that some of the crowd accused the apostles of being “full of sweet wine” (v. 13), probably expecting them to break out into the typical frenzied antics of mystical pagan worship.
Though others (such as Moses, Ex. 31:3; 35:31) had been filled with the Spirit for special purposes, it was at Pentecost that all believers in the church were first filled with the Holy Spirit. Every promise that Jesus gave to His disciples on the last night He was with them was fulfilled in some sense by the coming the Holy Spirit on that day. In fact, it was the coming of the Holy Spirit that made real all the promises of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16–17). The Holy Spirit’s permanently indwelling all believers—rather than only being with some of them, as was true before Pentecost—is one of the great dispensational truths of the New Testament. In the new age, the church age, the Spirit of God would not just be alongside His people but in them all (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). It is this residence of the Holy Spirit in believers that makes possible the fulfillment of all Jesus’ other promises to His people, and in Ephesians 1:13 He is called “the Holy Spirit of promise.”
The Holy Spirit is our divine pledge and security that Jesus’ promises are fulfilled (2 Cor. 5:5). Among many other things, He guarantees and gives assurance that we will have a heavenly dwelling place in the Father’s house (John 14:2–3); that we will do greater works, not in kind but in extent, even than He did (14:12; cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:8); that whatever we ask in His name he will do (John 14:13–14); that we will have Christ’s own peace (14:27); that the fullness of His joy will be in us (15:11). The Holy Spirit assures us that Jesus Christ and the Father are one (14:20); that we are indeed God’s children (Rom. 8:16); that he will intercede for us, making our prayers effective (Rom. 8:26); and that He will bear fruit in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23).
But the work of the Holy Spirit in us and on our behalf can be appropriated only as He fills us. Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and has the potential of receiving the fulfillment of all Christ’s promises to those who belong to Him. But no Christian will have those promises fulfilled who is not under the full control of the Holy Spirit. We have just claim to all Christ’s promises the moment we believe in Him, but we cannot have their fulfillment until we allow His Spirit to fill us and control us. Unless we know what it is to be directed by the Holy Spirit, we will never know the bliss of the assurance of heaven, or the joy of effective work for the Lord, of having our prayers answered constantly, or of indulging in the fullness of God’s own love, joy, and peace within us.
the meaning of being filled
Before we look specifically at what the filling of the Spirit is, we should clarify some of the things it is not. First, being filled with the Holy Spirit is not a dramatic, esoteric experience of suddenly being energized and spiritualized into a permanent state of advanced spirituality by a second act of blessing subsequent to salvation. Nor is it some temporary “zap” that results in ecstatic speech or unearthly visions.
Second, being filled with the Spirit is not the notion at the other extreme—simply stoically trying to do what God wants us to do, with the Holy Spirit’s blessing but basically in our own power. It is not an act of the flesh which has God’s approval.
Third, being filled is not the same as possessing, or being indwelt by, the Holy Spirit, because He indwells every believer at the moment of salvation. As Paul plainly states in the book of Romans, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (8:9; cf. John 7:38–39). A person who does not have the Holy Spirit does not have Christ. Even to the immature, worldly Corinthian believers, Paul said, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, … and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). Unlike believers before Pentecost, on whom the Holy Spirit would come temporarily (Judg. 13:25; 16:20; 1 Sam. 16:14; Ps. 51:11), all Christians are permanently indwelt by the Spirit.
Fourth, being filled with the Spirit does not describe a process of progressively receiving Him by degrees or in doses. Every Christian not only possesses the Holy Spirit but possesses Him in His fullness. God does not parcel out the Spirit, as if He could somehow be divided into various segments or parts. “He gives the Spirit without measure,” Jesus said (John 3:34).
Fifth, it is also clear from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that the filling with the Spirit is not the same as the baptism of the Spirit, because every believer has been baptized with and received the Spirit. Although its results are experienced and enjoyed, baptism by and reception of the Spirit are not realities we can feel, and are certainly not experiences reserved only for specially-blessed believers. This miracle is a spiritual reality—whether realized or not—that occurs in every believer the moment he becomes a Christian and is placed by Christ into His Body by the Holy Spirit, who then takes up residence in that life.
Paul did not accuse the Corinthians of being immature and sinful because they did not yet have the Holy Spirit or the baptism in the Body and then exhort them to seek the Spirit in order to remedy the situation. Rather he reminded them that each one of them already possessed the Holy Spirit. Earlier in the letter he had pleaded with them to “flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (6:18–19). They were not sinning because of the Holy Spirit’s absence but in spite of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Even when a Christian sins he is still indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and it is that very fact that makes his sin even worse. When a Christian grieves the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) or quenches the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), he grieves or quenches the Spirit who resides within himself.
Finally, the filling with Spirit is not the same as being sealed, or secured, by Him. That is an accomplished fact (see on 1:13). Nowhere are believers commanded or exhorted to be indwelt, baptized, or sealed by the Holy Spirit. The only command is to be filled.
Be filled translates the present passive imperative of plēroō, and is more literally rendered as “be being kept filled.” It is a command that includes the idea of conscious continuation. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not an option for believers but a mandate. No Christian can fulfill God’s will for his life apart from being filled with His Spirit. If we do not obey this command, we cannot obey any other—simply because we cannot do any of God’s will apart from God’s Spirit. Outside of the command for unbelievers to trust in Christ for salvation, there is no more practical and necessary command in Scripture than the one for believers to be filled with the Spirit.
Commands such as this one remind us of the fact that believers are subject to divine authority and are called to obedience as the most basic element of Christian living. In some Christian circles, the manner of living, and even the actual teaching, reflects the notion that just being in the kingdom is all that really matters. Anything one might do in obedience to the Lord after that is considered to be simply a kind of spiritual “extra credit.” Some would say that in Christ there is safety from hell, and that even if all works are burned up and no rewards are given, one will still go to heaven. Even the most obscure corner of heaven will still be heaven, it is argued, and all believers will live there in eternal bliss.
That sort of thinking is totally out of harmony with the teaching of the New Testament. It comes from spiritual hardness of heart and tends to produce a life that is careless and indifferent, and often immoral and idolatrous. The person with such an unscriptural attitude toward the things of God is either walking in direct opposition to the Spirit or else does not possess the Spirit at all—in which case he is not a Christian. Submission to the will of God, to Christ’s lordship, and to the guiding of the Spirit is an essential, not an optional, part of saving faith. A new, untaught believer will understand little of the full implications of such obedience, but the spiritual orientation of his new nature in Christ will bring the desire for submission to God’s Word and God’s Spirit. A person who does not have that desire has no legitimate claim on salvation.
To resist the filling and control of the Holy Spirit is flagrant disobedience, and to deny or minimize its importance is to stand rebelliously against the clear teaching of God’s own Word. Every Christian falls short of God’s standards and will sometimes fall into sin and indifference. But he cannot be continually content in such a state, because the experience of sin and indifference will be in a constant struggle with his new nature (see Rom. 7:14–25). He knows they cannot be justified or in any way reconciled with God’s will.
As we learn from Paul’s dealing with the Christians at Corinth, it is possible that for a time a believer may become and even remain carnal, or fleshly, to some extent (1 Cor. 3:1), but that will never be a true believer’s basic orientation. The terms carnal or fleshly are most often used in the New Testament of unbelievers. “The mind set on the flesh is death,” Paul said, “but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:6–7). A person whose mind is regularly set on the things of the flesh cannot be a Christian, because a Christian is “not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in [him]” (v. 9). A professed Christian who continually longs for the things of the world and the flesh needs to examine his heart carefully to see whether his carnality is that described in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 or in Romans 8:6–8 (cf. 1 John 2:15–17; James 4:4).
Although every Christian is indwelt, baptized, and sealed by the Spirit, unless he is also filled with the Spirit, he will live in spiritual weakness, retardation, frustration and defeat.
The continuous aspect of being filled (“be being kept filled”) involves day-by-day, moment-by-moment submission to the Spirit’s control. The passive aspect indicates that it is not something we do but that we allow to be done in us. The filling is entirely the work of the Spirit Himself, but He works only through our willing submission. The present aspect of the command indicates that we cannot rely on a past filling nor live in expectation of future filling. We can rejoice in past fillings and hope for future fillings, but we can live only in present filling.
The mark of a good marriage relationship is not the love and devotion the husband and wife have had in the past—as meaningful and lovely as that may have been—nor is it the love and devotion they hope to have in the future. The strength of their marriage is in the love and devotion they have for each other in the present.
Plēroō connotes more than filling something up, as when someone pours water in a glass up the rim. The term was used in three additional senses that have great significance for Paul’s use of it here. First, it was often used of the wind filling a sail and thereby carrying the ship along. To be filled with the Spirit is to be moved along in our Christian life by God Himself, by the same dynamic by which the writers of Scripture were “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
Second, plēroō carries the idea of permeation, and was used of salt’s permeating meat in order to flavor and preserve it. God wants His Holy Spirit to so permeate the lives of His children that everything they think, say, and do will reflect His divine presence.
Third, plēroō has the connotation of total control. The person who is filled with sorrow (see John 16:6) is no longer under his own control but is totally under the control of that emotion. In the same way, someone who is filled with fear (Luke 5:26), anger (Luke 6:11), faith (Acts 6:5), or even Satan (Acts 5:3) is no longer under his own control but under the total control of that which dominates him. To be filled in this sense is to be totally dominated and controlled, and it is the most important sense for believers. As we have already seen, to be filled with the Spirit is not to have Him somehow progressively added to our life until we are full of Him. It is to be under His total domination and control. This is in direct contrast to the uncontrolled drunkenness and dissipation in the worship of Dionysius that was alluded to in the first half of the verse.
We see the controlling work of the Holy Spirit even in Jesus’ life while He ministered in the flesh. The Holy Spirit led Him “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). We learn from the parallel passage in Luke that it was Jesus’ being “full of the Holy Spirit” that prepared Him to be “led about by the Spirit in the wilderness” (4:1). The account in Mark uses an even stronger term, saying that “the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness” (1:12). It was not that Jesus resisted or had to be coerced, because His greatest joy was to do His Father’s will (John 4:34), but that He submitted Himself entirely to the Spirit’s control. Because He was full of the Spirit He was controlled by the Spirit.
The Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit can be compared to a glove. Until it is filled by a hand, a glove is powerless and useless. It is designed to do work, but it can do no work by itself. It works only as the hand controls and uses it. The glove’s only work is the hand’s work. It does not ask the hand to give it an assignment and then try to complete the assignment without the hand. Nor does it gloat or brag about what it is used to do, because it knows the hand deserves all the credit. A Christian can accomplish no more without being filled with the Holy Spirit than a glove can accomplish without being filled with a hand. Anything he manages to do is but wood, hay, and straw that amounts to nothing and will eventually be burned up (1 Cor. 3:12–15). Functioning in the flesh produces absolutely nothing of spiritual value.
When the church at Jerusalem wanted men to free the apostles for the more important work of prayer and ministering the Word, they chose men such as Stephen, who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:4–5). Because Stephen continued in the fullness of the Spirit, “he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” even as he was about to be stoned to death (Acts 7:55). Being filled with the Spirit detaches us from the desires, the standards, the objectives, the fears, and the very system of this world and gives us a vision of God that comes in no other way. Being filled with the Spirit makes everything else of secondary importance, and often of no importance at all.
Although Peter was first filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost along with all the other disciples, some while later he spoke to the assembled Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and it is again said that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8).
Before God could use Saul, who later became Paul, as apostle to the Gentiles, He had Ananias lay his hands on Saul’s head and tell him, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Without the yieldedness that allowed the filling of the Spirit, Paul would have been of no more use to the Lord than were the worldly members at Corinth among whom he would later minister.
When the church at Jerusalem needed a man to help with the ministry to Gentiles in Antioch, “they sent Barnabas … for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:22, 24). We read that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he confronted the deceitful magician named Elymas (Acts 13:9), and that “the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” while being ridiculed and persecuted (13:52).
The concern we often hear about recapturing the dedication, zeal, love, and power of the early church is commendable. But we cannot have the early church’s spiritual power simply by trying to copy its methods of operation. We can experience those believers’ spiritual power only when we are surrendered to the Holy Spirit’s control as they were. It was not their methodology but their Spirit-filled lives that empowered believers to turn the world upside down in the first century (Acts 17:6).
the means of being filled
God commands nothing for which He does not provide the means to obey. And if God commands something of us, we do not need to pray for it, because it is obviously His will and intent for us to do it. It is God’s deepest desire that each of His children be filled with His Spirit. We only need to discover the resources He has provided to carry out that obedience.
To be filled with the Spirit involves confession of sin, surrender of will, intellect, body, time, talent, possessions, and desires. It requires the death of selfishness and the slaying of self-will. When we die to self, the Lord fills with His Spirit. The principle stated by John the Baptist applies to the Spirit as well as to Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Paul’s command to the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,” was followed by a series of subsequent and dependent commands (Col. 3:16–25) that exactly paralleled those Paul gave in Ephesians 5:19–33 as being results of the filling of the Spirit. In both cases we see that singing, giving thanks, and submissiveness follow being filled with the Spirit and letting the word of Christ dwell in us. It is therefore easy to conclude that the filling of the Spirit is not an esoteric, mystical experience bestowed on the spiritual elite through some secret formula or other such means. It is simply taking the Word of Christ (Scripture) and letting it indwell and infuse every part of our being. To be filled with God’s Spirit is to be filled with His Word. And as we are filled with God’s Word, it controls our thinking and action, and we thereby come more and more under the Spirit’s control. As Charles Spurgeon said, the Christian’s blood should be “bibline,” bleeding Scripture wherever he may be pricked or cut.
Peter’s strength lay in his always seeking to be near Jesus. When Jesus walked down a road, Peter was with Him. When He went up to the mountain or out in a boat, Peter went with Him. Peter got into trouble only when he got away from His Lord. When he stayed near the Lord, he did the miraculous, said the miraculous, and had miraculous courage.
When Peter saw Jesus standing on the water some distance from the boat, he stepped out on the water himself when Jesus said, “Come!” and found himself walking on the water just like the Lord—until his attention turned from Jesus to himself and his circumstances (Matt. 14:27–31). On another occasion, when Jesus asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately “answered and said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven’ ” (Matt. 16:15–17). Because his mind and spirit were centered on Christ, Peter was used by God to make that great testimony to Jesus’ messiahship and divine sonship. A short while later, however, Peter pitted his own understanding against the Lord’s, and discovered that he then spoke for Satan rather than for God (16:22–23).
When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, they drew back and fell to the ground when Jesus identified Himself as the One they were seeking. Perhaps taking courage from that reaction, Peter took out his sword and cut off the right ear of Malchus, a slave of the high priest, and probably would have continued fighting to the death had not Jesus restrained him (John 18:3–11; cf. Luke 22:47–51). When he was near the Lord, he feared no one. But when a short while later he found himself separated from the Lord, he did not have the courage even to admit knowing Jesus (John 18:15–27).
After the ascended Lord sent His Holy Spirit to indwell and fill His disciples as He had promised, Peter found himself again able to say and do the miraculous and to have miraculous courage. He had the courage to fearlessly proclaim His risen Lord in the place where, a few months earlier, He had been arrested, beaten, and crucified—and found his message miraculously empowered and blessed, with some three thousand coming to salvation from that one sermon (Acts 2:14–41). When the lame man near the Temple asked Peter and John for alms, Peter replied, “ ‘I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!’ And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened” (Acts 3:1–7). When he was arrested by the Sanhedrin and questioned about the healing, Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed that he had healed by the power of Jesus Christ, whom they had crucified. Because they could not deny the miracle and were afraid of the many people who glorified God because of it, the Jewish leaders simply commanded Peter and John to no longer preach in Jesus’ name. Peter responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:1–22).
To be filled with the Spirit is to live in the consciousness of the personal presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, as if we were standing next to Him, and to let His mind dominate our life. It is to fill ourselves with God’s Word, so that His thoughts will be our thoughts, His standards our standards, His work our work, and His will our will. As we yield to the truth of Christ, the Holy Spirit will lead us to say, do, and be what God wants us to say, do, and be. “We all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Christ consciousness leads to Christ likeness.
Perhaps the best analogy of moment-by-moment yielding to the Holy Spirit’s control is the figure of walking, the figure Paul introduced in Ephesians 4:1. Walking involves moving one step at a time, and can be done in no other way. Being filled with the Spirit is walking thought by thought, decision by decision, act by act under the Spirit’s control. The Spirit-filled life yields every step to the Spirit of God. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:16–17). Our flesh is the beachhead of sin, the yet unredeemed part of our humanness that is exposed to and inclined toward sin. Even as Christians, as new creatures in Christ, our spiritual and moral Achilles’ heel is the flesh, the remnant of the old self that seeks to drag us down from behavior consistent with our heavenly citizenship. Paul spoke of it as “a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:23). The only way to override that residual sinfulness, our evil desires, and the temptations of Satan is to function in the Spirit.
Not to be filled with the Spirit is to fall back into “the deeds of the flesh … which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envyings, drunkenness, carousings, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). We do not have to consciously choose to do the deeds of the flesh. If we are not living under the control of God’s Word and Spirit, the deeds of the flesh are the only things we can do, because the flesh is the only resource we have in ourselves.
The sole defense against the negative power of temptation, sin, and Satan is the positive power of the Holy Spirit. We have no power over those evils, and to try to combat them in our own strength is to try to walk on water by our own power. We win spiritual victories only when God’s Holy Spirit does battle for us.
But when we surrender to the control of God’s Spirit, we find Him producing amazing things in us, things which are entirely of His doing. Paul calls these marvelous blessings the fruit of the Spirit, and they are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). The person who is Spirit-controlled and who bears the Spirit’s fruit is the person who belongs to Christ and who has “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit,” Paul continued, “let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24–25). To walk in the Spirit is to fulfill the ultimate potential and capacity of our life on earth as God’s children.
Making the Most of Time
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Years ago when I was nearer to the beginning of my ministry than I am now, I spent most of my time trying to amass the facts and acquire the necessary skills for an effective ministry. I suppose that is true of anyone who is entering a new field of work. But as the years went by and I had acquired the necessary facts and skills, I found myself looking for something else: wisdom. I had the facts, but I was concerned how to use them. I had acquired the skills, but I wanted wisdom to apply them rightly. Today, when I pray, I pray for wisdom far more than any other element.
That is a biblical emphasis. Much of the Bible assumes large measures of Christian knowledge and experience but in addition calls for the pursuit of wisdom by those who serve God. The first third of the book of Proverbs pictures Wisdom standing in the streets, crying out for the wise and godly man to pursue her. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” she declares (Prov. 9:10). In the New Testament Paul deplores the so-called wisdom of the Greeks, which is actually foolishness. Instead, he says, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:23–25).
There are two parts to this wisdom: (1) its content, centered in the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, and (2) the application of that content practically. It is this second aspect of wisdom that I have been praying for and that specifically concerns the apostle Paul in this next section of Ephesians.
Redeeming the Time
There are three areas in which Paul thinks of the Christian exercising wisdom, and the first of these is his use of time. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (vv. 15, 16).
In my opinion, most Christians do not consider time as important as it really is. It is one of the two things we have going for us in our calling to serve God: space and time. I call these the warp and woof of history, for they fix us at a particular point in God’s vast plan of salvation. Space fixes us as to location. We are in Philadelphia, rather than in New York or Los Angeles or London, to give just one example. What we are going to do for God we must do here. But again, we are not in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, when the country was just coming into its own and so many of the Christian institutions we know today were getting started, or in the nineteenth century, with its great missionary movements. We are living in the last years of the twentieth century, and our problems and opportunities are unique. The wise man is the one who recognizes this and applies himself accordingly.
It is almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of time in biblical religion, because the religion of the Bible is a historical religion and history means time. This more than anything else sets Judaism and Christianity off from the religions among which they flourished. In the Old Testament period virtually all the surrounding religions were nature religions. They identified the most high god with some aspect of nature—the sun, moon, wind, rain, or seasons—and in many cases with means or processes of reproduction. The flow of these religions was cyclical—from one new moon or harvest to the next—and history had no real meaning.
In the Greek world there was either a resurgence of these religions, borrowed from the East, a mythologizing of human experience in the cult of the gods, or philosophy. But again, time meant little, and history went nowhere. In contrast, the Old and New Testaments are rooted in history. When God called Abraham, he made him a promise in history that would also be fulfilled in history. He said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1–3).
In the Old Testament there were many partial fulfillments of this promise, including the Exodus and the eventual invasion and conquest of the land. But the chief fulfillment was in the appearance and work of Jesus Christ. His incarnation was the decisive intervention of God in history, and his time was that which gives all other times their meaning. Paul wrote of the importance of this moment, saying, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Nor is this all. Christians also look forward to a culmination of history in the return of Christ when all historical actions will be judged.
Another way of looking at the importance of time when seen from God’s perspective is by studying the biblical words for it. There are many of them: hēmera (“day”), hōra (“hour”), kairos (“season”), chronos (“time”), aiōn (“age”), and others, all with unique associations. Of them all the most important is the word kairos, the word used in our text in Ephesians.
The significance of this word is best seen by contrasting it with chronos. Both kairos and chronos refer to time and are frequently translated as “time” in our Bibles. But chronos refers only to the flow of time, the following of one event upon another; it is the idea involved in our word “chronology.” Kairos refers to a moment that is especially significant or favorable. It is used this way secularly, as in King Felix’s response to Paul’s teaching, “When I find it convenient, I will send for you” (Acts 24:25). It is used this way chiefly of the coming of Christ. Peter wrote of the prophets searching intently and with greatest care “to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:11). Jesus used the same word when he said, “My appointed time is near” (Matt. 26:18).
What this means is that time is to have this full or meaningful element for the wise Christian. Moreover, he is to redeem it or make the most of it precisely for that reason. Left to themselves “the days are evil.” But they can be redeemed from evil for good by Christian people.
A few years after the end of World War II an English historian named Herbert Butterfield wrote a book in which he tried to set the past in perspective and rally Christians to significant ethical behavior. He focused on the biblical perceptions about time: “It has always been realized in the main tradition of Christianity that if the Word was made flesh, matter can never be regarded as evil in itself. In a similar way, if one moment of time could hold so much as this, then you cannot brush time away and say that any moment of it is mere vanity. Every instant of time becomes more momentous than ever—every instant is ‘eschatological,’ or as one person has put it, like the point in the fairy tale where the clock is just about to strike twelve.
“On this view there can be no case of an absentee God leaving mankind at the mercy of chance in a universe blind, stark and bleak. And a real drama—not a madman’s nightmare or a tissue of flimsy dreams—is being enacted on the stage of human history. A real conflict between good and evil is taking place, events do matter, and something is being achieved irrespective of our apparent success or failure.”
Making the most of time is to enter into this conflict and make a contribution for good.
What the Lord’s Will is
This leads directly to the second area in which Paul thinks of the Christian exercising true wisdom: in understanding what the will of the Lord is. Usually, when we talk about knowing God’s will, we stress knowing Scripture, for God’s character and precepts are disclosed there as they are disclosed nowhere else. If we want to know what God’s will is, we do not need some special mystical experience or revelation. We can find it by studying the Bible, allowing the Holy Spirit to illuminate it to our understanding and apply it to our heart and circumstances. That is basic, and Paul is probably assuming that in what he says here.
But in this passage I believe Paul is interested in more than knowing God’s will as revealed in Scripture. He is concerned with wisdom, which is more than the acquisition of mere facts. He is concerned with our perception of what God is doing in history and with our wise response to it.
If it were only a matter of knowing what God says specifically in Scripture, then the proper exhortation would be to study Scripture. “Learn what God says and live by it,” Paul might say. But that is not the way this passage is going. Paul is talking about wisdom and about making the most of that specific historical time God gives to us. It is as if he is asking: “What are we to do with our moments? How are we best to spend this day, this hour, this minute? What does God want us to be doing?” Against this background, Paul seems to be encouraging us to perceive what God is doing now and act in accordance with it.
I have a friend who sits on many Christian boards, and he has become somewhat skeptical of movements that promise to do something or other for God. When he speaks of wisdom he says that in his judgment, “Wisdom consists in perceiving where God is going and then jumping on his bandwagon.”
I think this is what Paul is saying. The fool, with whom he contrasts the man of understanding, is being led astray into one “promising” program after another and so dissipates both time and energy. The wise man weighs these programs and strives to set a course through them in the direction he perceives God to be leading. This wisdom is particularly necessary for the leadership of churches in our day. The programs available to church leaders for growth, renewal, evangelism, media exposure, fund-raising, and such things are multiple, and not every program can be used. Which should be chosen? Which should be rejected? It takes wisdom to perceive God’s direction for a particular church and follow it without deviation.
Filled with the Spirit
The third area in which Paul encourages the wise Christian to excel is in being filled with the Spirit, which he contrasts with getting drunk on wine. There is so much misunderstanding about the Spirit-filled life today that it is necessary to begin with a few definitions.
First, being filled with the Spirit is not the same thing as being “baptized” by the Spirit. Some, having confused the two, have taught the need for a second work of grace, usually accompanied by the gift of speaking in tongues, if a person is to grow or get on in the Christian life. Actually, the baptism of the Spirit refers to the work of the Spirit in regenerating us and uniting us to Christ, which is how we become Christians in the first place. It is rightly called “baptism,” because baptism is the sacrament marking the beginning of the Christian life. It is something that happens to every Christian and does not need to be urged upon him.
Being “filled” with the Spirit is something that is urged upon Christians, which is what Paul does here. But it does not concern any special miraculous gifts such as speaking in tongues. Rather, it refers to our being so under the Holy Spirit’s control and leading that our thought and life are entirely taken up with Jesus Christ, to whom it is the Spirit’s chief responsibility to bear witness. In Acts there are ten occasions, at Pentecost and afterward, when an individual or group of individuals is said to have been filled with the Holy Spirit. In each case the common factor is that the persons involved immediately bore testimony to Jesus.
Paul says that the wise man should desire to be so filled with God’s Spirit that he might bear a faithful and effective testimony to Jesus Christ. Quite obviously, this will be a testimony conveyed by the upright character of his or her life, which is what Paul has been talking about all along. Also, quite obviously, it will be a testimony conveyed by the content and character of his or her speech, which is what the next two verses deal with.
There are three specific things that this verbal side of being filled with the Spirit concerns.
- Worship. Paul has this in mind when he says, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19). Actually, it is hard to say precisely what this refers to. On one hand, Paul writes about “speak[ing] to one another,” as opposed to singing and making music, which appear in the next sentence. This led John Stott to call what is involved here fellowship. On the other hand, the sentence does speak of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” which sounds like worship. Probably the right view is a combination of the two. It is fellowship, but not that of the coffee hour. It is that deeper, closer communion Christians have when they worship God together.
- Praise. When Paul says “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19), he is writing of music. But since this is “to the Lord,” it is clearly the music Christians use to bless God. Paul is probably contrasting the edifying joyous worship of the Christian community, which has praise of God as its aim, with the destructive, noisy revelries of the pagan world, when people are drinking.
- Thanksgiving. Paul had already mentioned thanksgiving once in this section, contrasting it with the six vices of sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking (vv. 3–4). Now he returns to it again as a proper outworking of the Holy Spirit in the child of God. Spirit-filled believers give “thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” True! Ingratitude in children wounds and sometimes kills. But how much more unnatural and repugnant is ingratitude in those who have become sons and daughters of the living God. It is so unnatural that a person may wonder if such a one has actually become a Christian in the first place.
Now is the Time
Earlier I listed a number of biblical words for time and contrasted kairos, which deals with the significant moment or opportunity, and chronos, which deals only with time’s duration. There is another biblical word which I did not mention then but which I turn to now as an appropriate closing: the word nun. It means “now,” and it occurs in verses which show that the kairos in which we live, the pregnant present moment, is eternally significant. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
If you and I are going to redeem time, as wise men and women, we had better do it now, because there may be no opportunity tomorrow. If we are to understand the will of God, now is the moment that counts. If we are going to be filled with God’s Spirit, now is when we need filling.
Be wise, as Jonathan Edwards was when he wrote in his diary at age twenty: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.”
Emptied of the World (5:18a)
To keep our faith from being merely about human doing and thinking, the apostle says, “Do not get drunk on wine.” This command is a synecdoche (a part for the whole), referring to emptying our lives of excess wine but also—in contrast to the filling of the Spirit—emptying ourselves of anything in this world that would hold us under its influence. Such influence, whether by wine or other intoxicants, leads to reckless living that would darken the very life of light the apostle has been advocating.
Filled with the Spirit (5:18b–21)
Not only are we to be emptied of the control of worldly intoxicants, we are to be filled with the Spirit. The play on words is striking, for just as Paul warns against worldly inebriation, he wants to charge us with L.U.I. (living under the influence) of the Spirit. What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? To answer we must first remember the context that already indicates those filled with the Spirit are radiating the presence of Christ to the world around them. Four sets of participles in the Greek text then describe the characteristic activities of those who are Spirit-filled (i.e., under his influence): (1) speaking, (2) singing (and making music), (3) thanking, and (4) submitting.
1–2. Speaking and singing (5:19). Seemingly entering right into the heart of contemporary worship discussions, Paul exhorts us to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19a). The instruction first endorses gathering our expressions of worship from numerous sources: the psalms of the Old Testament; hymns (i.e., the songs of the New Testament church, presumably such as the one he has just quoted in verse 8); and spiritual songs (i.e., personal songs of the heart that in this Spirit-filling context are apparently an expression of the Spirit’s ministry in the individual). But these worship expressions are not simply for the individual. The musical expression of the church involves “speaking to one another.” In contrast to some contemporary teaching that says that our worship is to be directed entirely to God, Paul presumes that there is a horizontal dimension to our worship. In praising God we consciously should be directing our worship to the edification of others. As Christ ministers to others by extending himself for them, when we worship with the needs of others as our concern, then we are ministering Christ and consequently being filled with his indwelling Spirit.
But the music of our worship is not exclusively a horizontal ministry. To be filled with the Spirit, Paul also says, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19b). Our worship is not to be merely formulaic and perfunctory, but a true expression from the heart of our love for God. We are singing to the Lord. We are honoring him in our worship. He is the audience and object of our praise and, thus, we are filled with his Spirit in our worship. This understanding of being filled with God’s Spirit in worship, however, creates an additional glorious perspective of our privileged vessels. Since in true worship we are filled with the Spirit, our God is both the audience and the voice of our praise. We are the instrument by which God becomes present in praise to himself, a concept that brings rich meaning to the psalmist’s observation that God inhabits the praise of his people (Ps. 22:3 KJV). This realization that we are generating the voice of God for the praise of God in our worship makes our praise more glorious than we normally imagine, and should give our sinful hearts much hope in the realization of the spiritual power by which he can use us to praise him as well as speak to his people.
The power of praise both to glorify God and to minister to his people recently shined brilliantly in our town. We faced the tragic and, as yet, unexplained death of a dear young woman. Her college and high school friends packed the largest church in our town for her funeral. During the service a young couple sang to us of their abiding faith through the words of a contemporary song: “the valley of the shadow will lead to the river of joy.” As the couple sang, a row of the deceased woman’s friends rose from their seats at the front of the church and stood together as a stirring affirmation that this song was their faith, too. At one point, one of these young women even raised her fist as if to say in defiance of death, “We will not let even this darkness conquer the light of our faith or the testimony of our friend who is now with the Lord.”
I wept then at their courage and faith made so evident, knowing that the young people who joined in the presentation of that song were speaking to the rest of us of the beauty of faith and, at the same time, were praising God for the eternal promises that made their faith so precious. But the young friends were not the only ones speaking and singing. As they spoke to us and sang to God, they were being filled with God’s Spirit, so that he himself was ministering to us and glorifying his name. One glory reflected a greater glory, as our God filled the praises of these young people to speak comfort to the rest of us and to make his name great so that we would all know the light of heaven that we so desperately needed in the darkness of that tragedy.
- Giving thanks (Eph. 5:20). Thanksgiving is another natural outflow of hearts made melodious by God’s great grace. We have been redeemed from the darkness and made a part of the eternal song. God himself sings through us to himself. This is cause for much thanksgiving. Because abundant thanksgiving is a natural response to such supernatural grace, the apostle says that we are to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything” (Eph. 5:20a). Doing this is completely unnatural to us. It may even strike us as wrong.
How can we always give thanks for everything? We easily understand how and why we should express godly gratitude for the blessings in our lives, but apparent blessings are not the only things that enter our lives. Are we to give thanks for murder and abuse, for cruelty and hate? Despite the contrary insistence of some well-meaning commentators and churches, the answer must be, No. We cannot speak with God’s Spirit and at the same time praise him for what he hates. Yes, the extent of our praise is to be expansive: “always” and “for everything,” but there is a context for this thanksgiving. It is to be “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20b). We are filled with the Spirit when we praise God for everything that hallows and magnifies the name of our Savior.
To the extent that tragedy makes us dependent on our Lord, and enables others to see his comfort and seek his eternal promises, we can give thanks. As stars shine brighter in the desert and a diamond is more beautiful on black velvet, so the name of our Savior—his glory, honor, and redemption—beacons more brightly and intensely in the darkness of the world. We give thanks even for the darkness that makes the glory of Christ’s name more evident. The thanksgiving, however, is not for the horrors of a fallen world but for the name of the Savior that alone can answer and redeem those horrors.
My friend John Dozier, the one who wrote about the snow and the geese at the beginning of this chapter, wrote of another experience in the snow that occurred one Christmas:
The time was about 8:30 p.m., Christmas night, 2002. As I stood up to walk away from my Dad’s body lying in the snow, and dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, [in my mind] I heard some very familiar words from the Bible that I had clung to for many years before this most dreadful night: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25), and “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). [It was as though] the voice inside me said, “Have faith, John, this night too I will redeem. Have faith, my beloved.” And for me, God began to fulfill His promise that very evening last Christmas as I stepped into the police station and began a conversation with a young police officer that ended in the affirmation of his faith.… Then and there God gave me the gift of a down payment on his redemptive promise.…
Even the darkest darkness God will redeem by his light. In my friend’s recognition of the promise and need of the Lord’s redeeming the darkness of that Christmas night is seen the source of thanksgiving that we can offer always and for everything. God promises to redeem all things in Jesus’ name. Because he shall stand upon the earth as the Lord of all things for all time, we can thank him always for all things as all will be made glorious by him. We can praise him now for the down payments of the fulfillment of his promised kingdom even in this present darkness, in Jesus’ name.
- Submitting (Eph. 5:21). In addition to offering praise to God on that awful Christmas night, my friend John also submitted his pain in faith for the eternal well-being of a young policeman he did not even know. By so shining the light of Jesus, the babe that was born on a Christmas night two thousand years ago was made present again on that Christmas night in 2002.
In submitting ourselves for the good of others, our crucified and risen Savior shines powerfully through us and we are filled with his Spirit. Perhaps that is why the apostle finishes his definition of what it means to be filled with the Spirit with the encouragement to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), a phrase that sets the stage for the rest of this epistle’s instructions about human relationships (see chapters 5 and 6 on husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants).
The natural and simplest reading of the final words of this passage is that we should honor the command to submit to others out of reverence for Christ’s authority over our lives. Unquestionably this is part of the meaning, but there is an additional richness in these words in light of what has already been said. When we perceive the Spirit of God as present in his children, then submitting to them is submitting to Christ in them. And when we submit to them as Christ submitted himself for us, then we are Christ to them.
When we submit ourselves for the good of others by the Spirit of Christ in us, we do not merely reflect the glory of the Son; we become the glory of the Son to them. As we minister in his name, submitting to one another—not out of anyone’s deserving—out of reverence for Christ, then we are filled with his Spirit and so is the marriage, or the home, or the workplace, or the church in which such submitting occurs.
Subsequent chapters of this commentary explore the connection between this verse and home life (Eph. 5:22–6:9). At this stage it is important to note that this verse is also applicable to church relations as a whole, for this verse (and the participle verb it contains) clearly is connected to the command to “be filled with the Spirit” and to that command’s application in the worship and life of the church (Eph. 5:18–21). Equally critical to note is the use of the verb hypotassō, with its meaning of subjection to an appointed order (see the extended discussion in the notes of chapter 19). Here the word emphasizes that church members are especially to subject themselves to those who are deemed of more authority in the church and in the family (even if all are to interact humbly and sacrificially with one another; see Eph. 5:1–2; Phil. 2:1–11; 1 Peter 5:5–6). Thus, with this verb, “one another” designates each member’s responsibility to submit to those with appointed authority in the church (1 Cor. 16:16; 1 Peter 5:5) rather than an indiscriminate submission of every person to everyone else. Such submissive sacrifice is powerful reverence for, reflection of, and expression of our Savior. By such presentation of him, his indwelling Spirit is demonstrated and he is present.
Many times in the course of my preaching, I have told the account of my first trip to college. I was going to a school that I had never visited in a town that I had never seen. My father drove me the five hours to the campus. As we approached the college, our conversation became increasingly difficult. I became more and more quiet. Finally, my father looked directly at me and said, “You are frightened, aren’t you?” I confessed that I certainly was. Immediately my father pulled to the side of the highway and stopped the car. He turned toward me with words that I pray I will never forget. He said, “I do not know if things will go well or poorly for you. I do not know if you will succeed or fail. But I want you always to remember that you are my son, and nothing will ever change that. No matter what happens, I will love you and there is a place for you in my home.” The words did not take away all the challenges of college, or remove all the darkness of some events, but my father’s words were a beacon of light and hope through it all. They were strength to me, as his willingness to submit his heart and home to the assurance of my welfare became Christ’s own witness of care for me.
Much more recently my own son faced intense struggles at college because of the untimely death of a close friend. My son’s loving heart kept him from sleeping at night and being able to focus on his studies. When he came home for the funeral of the friend, the funeral activities and arrangements kept my son’s energies and thoughts occupied for a few days. Then the time came to pack the car and return to school. I sensed his concern beginning to grow again, but other traveling companions were soon to arrive and we were running out of time to talk. Desperate to offer some help, I followed my son into the garage as he packed the last load of books and clothes into the car. “Jordan,” I said, “I do not know how things will go for you back at school—whether you will do well, or whether you will not be able to continue. But whether you finish or flunk, I want you to remember that I am your father, you are my son, and nothing will change that. There will always be a place for you here, no matter what.” As I said the words, they had a familiar sound in my ears and later I recognized that I was echoing the words of my own father to me. I was reflecting my father’s love in my life to my son. Still, my words were more than a reflection. At the same moment that they reflected my father’s love, my words were also an original, real, and authentic expression of my own love and, by his Spirit in me, of my Savior’s love to my son. As I submitted all that was in my heart to try to be light in my son’s darkness—in ways beyond my full understanding—Christ was present to my son through his Spirit in me. God made me Christ to my son.
Such ministry of the Savior is the ultimate aim of our lives that we must never forget. We are not put in relationship with others primarily to tell them something to do, or to teach them something to know, although each of these is vitally important. Ultimately the aim of all our doing and all of our knowing is to bring to God’s people the person, ministry, and glory of our Savior. May he who fills us with his Spirit so that we might know him and make him known fill each heart with his light so that even in this dark world his glory would shine in us and through us for the sake of his people and his glory.
18 The NIV doesn’t translate the connective kai, which may have an emphatic function here—“Indeed.” Paul transitions from the general appeal to know God’s will to the specific instruction. It includes another contrasting negative and positive, following the contrasts in vv. 15 and 17 and reminiscent of the “put off” and “put on” of the previous section (starting at 4:22). In fact, this is the final imperative in the series of “do not … but.” Christians are not to be inebriated, a universal and consistent prohibition in the Bible; drunkenness is taboo. We cannot be certain why Paul isolates this particular sin here after he has focused on many others in the previous section. The contrast to Spirit-control probably supplies the key rather than any suggestion that Paul knew of pervasive alcoholism or that mystery religion practices were influencing his readers. Paul describes drunkenness with a word that might refer to something as simply “wasteful” or “purposeless,” but in the biblical usage asōtia (GK 861) conveys very negative meanings—“reckless abandon, debauchery, dissipation, profligacy” (BDAG, 148; cf. Tit 1:6; 1 Pe 4:4). Drunkenness represents a uniformly abhorrent, ungodly lifestyle. The Christian alternative is a life characterized by the filling of the Spirit.
As with Paul’s more common “in Christ,” only with difficulty can we arbitrate between the locative and instrumental senses here of “with the Spirit.” The Spirit is either the “content” or the “means” by which they should be continually filled. The grammar of the verb “be filled” (plērousthe, GK 4444) is present tense, imperative mood, passive voice—suggesting that Christians allow some “agent” to keep filling them with some “entity.” Does Paul intend that the readers allow God (the agent) to fill them with the Holy Spirit (the content)? This is the popular conception. Or is the Spirit the means by which the believers are to be filled with some other “content”? If the latter, then what might the content be? The immediate context suggests “the Lord’s will” (v. 17), i.e., wisdom in contrast to foolishness. But elsewhere in the letter Paul used “filling” language when he prayed that his readers might be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19) and might “[attain] to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). More likely then, they need to allow God’s Spirit to transform their lives to be like God and like Christ. They must resist the culture and its values, their former selves, and certainly drunkenness—which Paul selected to epitomize their former non-Christian lifestyle. The Spirit is the instrument who fills believers with God and Christ, precisely because he builds the church into the temple in which God dwells (2:22). Since as Christians they are sealed by the Spirit (1:13; 4:30), Paul emphasizes that through the Spirit they become full of God. In other words, “Put yourselves in the place where God’s Spirit can keep filling you with all that God wishes you to have and to be.”
We would probably not think to make a point by contrasting drunkenness with the filling of the Spirit, though Schnackenburg, 236, points to a “long tradition for such a comparison.” What does Paul intend? Perhaps it is this: as excessive wine “directs” a person’s conduct into debauched behavior, so the divine Spirit can direct us to the godly conduct that fulfills God’s will. In effect, Paul urges his readers to allow God’s Spirit continually to direct their behavior; this is the path of wise living. The next section on worship suggests another possible connection. Drunkenness that led to ecstatic behaviors played a role in the mystery religions; Spirit-filling leads to truly God-honoring worship.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 229–254). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 184–189). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.
 Chapell, B. (2009). Ephesians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 262–269). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 143–144). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.