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Ephesians 5:15-20 Biblical Commentary:
EPHESIANS 4-5: THE CONTEXT
Paul set the tone for chapters 4-5 when he said, “Walk (peripateo) worthily of the calling with which you were called” (4:1). That is the key verse for this section.
From very early times, Jews used the word “walk” to speak of the manner in which one conducted one’s life:
• Enoch and Noah walked with God (Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9).
• God challenged Abram, “Walk before me, and be blameless.”
• The Psalmist said, “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners” (Psalm 1:1; see also Psalm 119:3).
Now Paul calls these Ephesian Christians to walk (or live) worthily of the calling with which they have been called. That calling, of course, is a call to emulate the life of Christ, who emptied himself of his Godly status so he could come to minister to us (Philippians 2:5-11).
The balance of Ephesians 4-5 spell out what it means to walk worthily.
EPHESIANS 5:15-16: WATCH CAREFULLY HOW YOU WALK
15Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise; 16redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
“Therefore watch carefully how you walk (peripateo), not as unwise, but as wise“ (sophos) (v. 15). Paul returns to the theme of walking (living). He calls these Christians to live wisely (sophos)—not unwisely.
The Greeks valued wisdom as an especially high virtue, so Paul is speaking language here that they can appreciate (Ephesus was not in Greece proper, but was heavily influenced by Greek culture).
God made a great deal of wisdom available to Israel through the law and prophets. Proverbs 10-22 contains many short, pithy wisdom sayings.
In his teachings, Jesus gave us further wisdom (see Matthew chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). Paul and the other New Testament writers expanded our understanding of God’s wisdom.
But God’s ultimate expression of wisdom was the gift of his Son to die on a cross—and to break the bonds of death through his resurrection. This appeared as “a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
If you are tempted to wonder whether the wisdom of God is really wise, consider how different our world would be if everyone adopted “love God and love your neighbor” as their number one and two commandments (Mark 12:30-31). What a wonderful world this would be!
“redeeming (exagorazo) the time (kairos), because the days are evil“ (v. 16). The word exagorazo means to redeem something by payment of a price—such as paying the price to set a slave free. Exagorazo was also used to speak of buying something quickly while it was available—”striking while the iron is hot.”
When used for redeeming time, it means making the most of one’s time—seizing the moment—exploiting one’s opportunities.
In this verse, Paul is telling these Christians to make the most of their time, “because the days are evil.” We could respond by saying, “Of course! News reports confirm that we live in evil times. Yes, we need to make better use of our time.”
But there is something more at work here. If Paul were advising us to manage our time more effectively, he would use the word chronos—chronological time—the kind of time we see on the face of a clock—the kind of time that we use to keep track of appointments or to measure progress.
But Paul uses a different word, kairos, which is significant time—the decisive moment—the fork in the road that makes all the difference. A kairos moment divides past from future—ushers us into a new kind of life. Paul’s use of kairos in this verse is a clue that he is thinking about the divide in Godly time that separates the present age (where Satan rules) with the age to come (when God’s rule will be fully established).
So Paul is calling these Christians to use their time well so that they might make the most of their opportunities to witness for Christ until he comes again.
EPHESIANS 5:17: DON’T BE FOOLISH
17Therefore don’t be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
“Therefore don’t be foolish“ (v. 17a). Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. Bad tempered people are foolish (Proverbs 14:29)—and ignorant people (Proverbs 1:11)—and those who walk in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14). Fools refuse to obey God (1 Samuel 13:13) and say, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1). Jesus contrasted the wise person who did as Jesus taught, and prospered, with the foolish person who failed to do what Jesus taught, and perished (Matthew 7:24-27).
“but understand (suniemi) what the will of the Lord is“ (v. 17b). The Greek word suniemi suggests a deep kind of understanding—the kind of understanding that allows a person to piece together the facts and to draw right conclusions.
Understanding God with that sort of depth is both simple and complex. The simplest mind can comprehend that Jesus loves him/her and came to save him/her. The most brilliant mind can spend a lifetime studying the Bible without running out of things to learn.
Understanding the will of the Lord requires time and effort—studying scripture, praying, participating in worship, trying to obey Jesus’ commandments to love God and neighbor—the list goes on and on.
But true discernment requires something more than personal effort. Ultimately, it is a gift from God. Therefore, our efforts to understand the Lord’s will need to begin with prayers for guidance and discernment.
EPHESIANS 5:18-20: BE FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT
18Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, 19speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing, and making melody in your heart to the Lord; 20giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father.
“Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation (asotia), but be filled with the Spirit“ (v. 18). There is some question why Paul inserted this prohibition against drunkenness here. Of course, drunkenness is a sufficiently serious problem that reminders of this sort are needed frequently—and perhaps Paul knows of a problem with alcohol at Ephesus. That, however, is conjecture.
Asotia (dissipation) comes from a (not) + sozo (save). The a in front of sozo reverses the meaning, so asotia means unsaved. Asotia was commonly used to speak of a person who had squandered opportunities through bad decisions—a drunk, an addict, a compulsive gambler, etc.
But in this verse, Paul intends to emphasize “be filled with the Spirit,” and uses “Don’t be drunken” to set up a contrast—”Don’t be filled with alcohol, but be filled instead with the Spirit.” The primary message is “Be filled with the Spirit.” The Spirit in question is God’s Holy Spirit.
The primary thought of verses 18-21 is “be filled with the Spirit.” That is the only imperative verb (command) in these verses. Paul adds five participles (speaking, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and subjecting), each of which is subordinate to “be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, being filled with the Spirit will prompt speaking musically, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and subjecting.
“speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing, and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19). “Speaking” is the first of the five Spirit-inspired actions, but it is musical speech envisioned here. The Spirit gives people joy, and joy very often expresses itself through music. It is no accident that much of the world’s great music over the centuries has been devoted to Christian worship.
While we might find some distinctions between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, they are just different words for music devoted to Godly worship.
“speaking to one another” (v. 19a). This speaking-singing is to be done within the community of believers. Hymn-singing is a church-building activity. Music that is intended to bring glory to God also brings pleasure both to the individual and to other believers.
singing, and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19b). “Singing” and “making melody” are second and third in the list of five participles that are subordinate to “be filled with the Spirit.”
“giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father” (v. 20). “Giving thanks” is the fourth participle in this list that stems from being filled with the Spirit.
We are to give thanks always. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul said, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
It can be difficult to give thanks when things are not going well. However, if we are rooted spiritually, we will be encouraged by the knowledge that God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).
Thanksgiving has its roots in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 16:34-35; 20:21; Jeremiah 33:11; Daniel 2:23). The Israelites gave thank offerings (Leviticus 7:12-15). The Psalmist, in particular, both gave thanks and enjoined others to do so (Psalm 7:17; 28:7; 30:4; 69:30; 86:12; 97:12; 100:1-5; 111:1, etc., etc., etc.).
Jesus gave thanks (Mark 8:6; 14:23; Luke 22:17; 1 Corinthians 11:24) and emphasized the importance of thanksgiving (Luke 17:11-19)—but gave the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to emphasize the futility of thanksgiving gone awry (Luke 18:9-14).
Paul also emphasized thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6; Ephesians 5:4, 20; Colossians 4:2; 1 Timothy 2:1).
In the New Jerusalem, the angels will worship God with songs of thanksgiving (Revelation 7:11-12).
Why should we give thanks? Some scriptural thanksgiving was in response to a particular blessing, such as deliverance from enemies (Psalm 35:11-18) or a harvest (Exodus 34:22; Isaiah 9:3), but much of it was simply a response to God’s grace (Isaiah 12:1-4), especially the gift of Christ on the cross.
“subjecting (hypotasso) yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ” (v. 21). This verse is not included in this reading, probably because it leads into verses 22-33, which are not in the lectionary. However, since “subjecting” is the fifth in the list of participles that is subordinate to being filled with the Spirit, verse 21 should be included in this reading.
The Greek word hypotasso literally means “to place in order.” The thought is that there is an ideal structure in human relationships, and Christians are called to find their place in that structure.
Paul calls these Christians to subject themselves to each other—to subordinate their personal interest to that of the other person. They are to do so “one to another”—with mutuality. A church where the members follow this rule can be expected to prosper and grow, because it won’t find its energy dissipated in selfish tugs-of-war. The same will be true in other relationships as well.
They are to do so “in the fear of Christ.” Fearing Christ has to do with reverence and faith that lead to obedience to Christ. It results in mercy (Luke 1:50) and churches that grow in numbers (Acts 9:31).
MARK 5:22-33. RULES FOR HUSBANDS AND WIVES
22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the assembly, being himself the savior of the body. 24 But as the assembly is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their own husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it; 26 that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, 27 that he might present the assembly to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 Even so husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. 29 For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord also does the assembly; 30 because we are members of his body, of his flesh and bones. 31 “For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will be joined to his wife. The two will become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is great, but I speak concerning Christ and of the assembly. 33Nevertheless each of you must also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
These verses are not included in any lectionary reading. I have to wonder if that is because they are Politically Incorrect—in particular the verse that says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v. 22).
Whenever we find a scripture disagreeable, we would do well to plumb its depths to learn what it would teach us. Otherwise, we run the risk of setting aside a portion of our lives where the Lord is not welcome.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan