When Substances Take Over

Week of February 3, 2019

The Point:  Only God’s Holy Spirit should dictate our thoughts and actions.

Walk as Wise:  Ephesians 5:15-21.

[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.   [ESV]

“The nature of wisdom [15-17].  Paul’s next little paragraph is based upon two assumptions, first that Christians are wise people, not fools, and secondly that Christian wisdom is practical wisdom, for it teaches us how to behave. His word for to ‘behave’ throughout the letter has been a Hebrew concept, to ‘walk’. Our Christian walk or behavior, he has written, must no longer be according to the world, the flesh and the devil [2:1-3], or like the pagans [4:17]. Instead, it must be worthy of God’s call, in love, and as children of light [4:1; 5:2; 5:8]. Now he adds a more general exhortation to us to behave like the wise people he credits us with being: look carefully then how you walk, he writes. Everything worth doing requires care. We all take trouble over the things which seem to us to matter – our job, our education, our home and family, our hobbies, our dress and appearance. So as Christians we must take trouble over our Christian life. We must treat it as the serious thing it is. What, therefore, are the marks of wise people who take trouble over their Christian discipleship? First, wise people make the most of their time. The verb can mean to ‘redeem’ or ‘buy back’, and if used in this way here, the appeal is to ransom the time from its evil bondage. But probably it means rather to ‘buy up’, in which case the ESV is right to translate making the best use of the time, ‘time’ referring to every passing opportunity. Certainly wise people know that time is a precious commodity. All of us have the same amount of time at our disposal. None of us can stretch time. But wise people use it to the fullest possible advantage. They know that time is passing, and also that the days are evil. So they seize each fleeting opportunity while it is there. For once it has passed, even the wisest people cannot recover it. Jonathan Edwards wrote in the seventieth of his famous Resolutions:  ‘Resolved: Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.’ He was a wise man, for the first sign of wisdom which Paul gives here is a disciplined use of time. Secondly, wise people discern the will of God. They are sure that, whereas willfulness is folly, wisdom is to be found in God’s will and nowhere else. Nothing is more important in life than to discover and do the will of God. Moreover, in seeking to discover it, it is essential to distinguish between His ‘general’ and His ‘particular’ will. The former is so called because it relates to the generality of His people and is the same for all of us, e.g., to make us like Christ. His particular will, however, extending to the particularities of our life, is different for each of us, e.g., what career we shall follow, whether we should marry, and if so whom. Only after this distinction has been made can we consider how we may find out what the will of the Lord is. His ‘general’ will is found in Scripture; the will of God for the people of God has been revealed in the Word of God. But we shall not find His ‘particular’ will in Scripture. To be sure, we shall find general principles in Scripture to guide us, but detailed decisions have to be made after careful thought and prayer and the seeking of advice from mature and experienced believers.

The fullness of the Holy Spirit [18-21].  Paul has already told his readers that they have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and that they must not grieve the Holy Spirit [1:13; 4:30]. Now he bids them be filled with the Spirit. There is no greater secret of holiness than the infilling of Him whose very nature and name are ‘holy’. Grammatically speaking, this paragraph consists of two imperatives (the commands not to get drunk but to be Spirit-filled), followed by four present participles (speaking, singing, thanking and submitting). Theologically speaking, it first presents us with our Christian duty (to avoid drunkenness but seek the Spirit’s fullness) and then describes four consequences of this spiritual condition, in terms of our relationships. The apostle begins by drawing a certain comparison between drunkenness and the Holy Spirit’s fullness [18]. And indeed there is a superficial similarity between the two conditions. A person who is drunk, we say, is ‘under the influence’ of alcohol; and certainly a Spirit-filled Christian is under the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. But there the comparison ends and the contrast begins. It is a serious mistake to suppose that to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ is a kind of spiritual inebriation in which we lose control of ourselves. On the contrary, self-control is the final quality named as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit we do not lose control; we gain it. Consider now how Paul paints the contrast. The result of drunkenness, he writes, is debauchery. People who are drunk give way to wild, dissolute and uncontrolled actions. They behave like animals, indeed worse than animals. The results of being filled with the Spirit are totally different. If excessive alcohol dehumanizes, turning a human being into a beast, the fullness of the Spirit makes us more human, for He makes us like Christ. The apostle now lists the four beneficial results of being filled with the Spirit. 1. Fellowship: addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [19a].  The mention here of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (which are not easily distinguishable) indicates that the context is public worship. Whenever Christians assemble, they love to sing both to God and to each other. Here is fellowship in worship. 2. Worship: singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart [19]. Here the singing is not to one another but to the Lord. With your heart refers to either the sincerity or the inwardness of authentic Christian praise, or both. Without doubt Spirit-filled Christians have a song of joy in their hearts, and Spirit-filled public worship is a joyful celebration of God’s mighty acts. 3. Gratitude: giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ [20].  The call to thanksgiving is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. The grumbling spirit is not compatible with the Holy Spirit. Grumbling was one of the besetting sins of the people of Israel; they were always murmuring against the Lord and against Moses. But the Spirit-filled believer is full not of complaining, but of thanksgiving. Although the text reads that we are to give thanks always and for everything, we must not press these words literally. For we cannot thank God for absolutely everything, including blatant evil. The strange notion is gaining popularity in some Christian circles that the major secret of Christian freedom and victory is unconditional praise; that a husband should praise God for his wife’s adultery and a wife for her husband’s drunkenness; and that even the most appalling calamities of life should become subjects for thanksgiving and praise. Such a suggestion is at best a dangerous half-truth, and at worst ludicrous, even blasphemous. Of course God’s children learn not to argue with Him in their suffering, but to trust Him, and indeed to thank Him for His loving providence by which He can turn even evil to good purposes. But that is praising God for being God; it is not praising Him for evil. To do this would be to react insensitively to people’s pain and to condone and even encourage evil. God abominates evil, and we cannot praise or thank Him for what He abominates. So then the everything for which we are to give thanks to God must be qualified by its context, namely to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our thanksgiving is to be for everything which is consistent with the loving Fatherhood of God and the self-revelation He has given us in Jesus Christ. Once again the doctrine of the Trinity informs and directs our devotion. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit we give thanks to God our Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. 4. Submission: submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ [21].  Sometimes a person who claims to be filled with the Spirit becomes aggressive, self-assertive and brash. But the Holy Spirit is a humble Spirit, and those who are truly filled with Him always display the meekness and gentleness of Christ. It is one of their most evident characteristics that they submit to one another. They also submit to Christ, for their mutual submissiveness is out of reverence for Christ. Those who are truly subject to Jesus Christ do not find it difficult to submit to each other as well. Such are the wholesome results of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They all concern our relationships. If we are filled with the Spirit, we shall be harmoniously related both to God (worshiping Him with joy and thanksgiving) and to each other (speaking and submitting to one another). In brief, Spirit-filled believers love God and love each other, which is hardly surprising since the first fruit of the Spirit is love. We need now to return to the imperative on which these four participles depend, that is, to the Christian duty and privilege from which these four Christian attitudes result. It is the command be filled with the Spirit. The exact form of the Greek verb is suggestive. First, it is in the imperative mood. Be filled is not a tentative proposal, but an authoritative command. We have no more liberty to avoid this responsibility than the many others which surround it in Ephesians. To be filled with the Spirit is obligatory, not optional. Secondly, it is in the plural form. In other words, it is addressed to the whole Christian community. None of us is to get drunk; all of us are to be Spirit-filled. The fullness of the Spirit is not an elitist privilege, but available for all the people of God. Thirdly, it is in the passive voice. There is no technique to learn and no formula to recite. What is essential is such a penitent turning from what grieves the Holy Spirit and such a believing openness to Him that nothing hinders Him from filling us. It is significant that the parallel passage in Colossians reads not ‘Let the Spirit fill you’ but Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly [Col. 3:16]. We must never separate the Spirit and the Word. To obey the Word and to surrender to the Spirit are virtually identical. Fourthly, it is in the present tense. In Greek there are two kinds of imperative, an aorist describing a single action, and a present when the action is continuous. Thus, when Jesus said during the wedding reception at Cana, Fill the jars with water [John 2:7], the imperative is aorist, since the jars were to be filled only once. But when Paul says to us, Be filled with the Spirit, he uses a present imperative, implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation. We have been sealed with the Spirit once and for all; we need to be filled with the Spirit and go one being filled every day and every moment of the day. Here, then, is a message for both the defeated and the complacent, that is, for Christians at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and He will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what He has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.” [Stott, pp. 201-209].

“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. 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, praise, and thanksgiving.”  [Boice, pp. 188-189].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. In 5:15, Paul issues his third command in chapter 5 concerning our Christian walk. We are to walk in love [5:2], walk as children of light [5:8], and now we are to look carefully then how you walk [5:15]. What does Paul mean by his use of “walk”? Why is it significant that he uses the present tense for the imperative “to walk”? How is your Christian walk?
  2. What are the two marks of the one who walks as wise? These two marks characterize the wise person who is concerned about their walk before their Lord. Our walk before our Lord is a life-long pursuit. Prayfully analyze your walk in light of these two marks. How are you doing? Where do you need to improve in how you use your time wisely? How can you grow in your understanding of what the will of the Lord is?
  3. What does Paul mean by the command be filled with the Spirit? What does he intend to teach us by using the contrast with drunkenness? Why is it important that Paul uses the present tense for the imperative: be filled? What are the four consequences of one who is being filled with the Spirit? Note that these four consequences deal with our relationships. How does being filled with the Spirit affect our relationship with God and with other believers?
  4. What is the significance of Paul writing Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in the parallel passage, Colossians 3:16? What is the relationship between the Spirit and the Word? Why does Stott write: “We must never separate the Spirit and the Word?” What does this tell us about how we are to grow in our being filled with the Spirit?


Ephesians, James Boice, Baker.

The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.

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