Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live…”
These verses continue instructions regarding the Christian life. This life is the result of the reconciliation that God has brought about in Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:13-18). Its focus is on living in love for the building up of the body of Christ (4:1-2, 11-16). A review of the word “live” (5:15; Greek, peripateō) provides a helpful reminder of some important themes of the book. The recipients are those who once lived in sin (2:1-2), but must no longer live as Gentiles (4:17). Because God created good works for their way of life (2:10), they are urged to live in a way that is worthy of their calling (4:1), reflecting the love of Christ (5:2) and their adoption as children of light (5:8).
The rest of the passage centers on three parallel sets of instructions: do not be unwise, but wise; not foolish, but understanding; not drunk but filled with the Spirit.
First, readers are to be wise people (Greek: sophoi) rather than unwise (asophoi). The use of the term “wise” differs here from much of the Pauline corpus, where Paul often seeks to distance himself from claim to wisdom (e.g., Romans 1:22; 1 Corinthians 1:19-20, 25-27; 3:18-20). Yet there are other exhortations to be “wise” in the New Testament, including Romans 16:19, where Paul counsels the Romans to be “wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.” James defines the wise as those who “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” While James has a different overall message, the instructions about life within the community (e.g., James 1:19-21) and the attention to speech (James 3:1-12) are not all that different from those of Ephesians. For both writers true wisdom is reflected in the community’s life and the behavior of its members.
The “wisdom” that the author has in mind seems similar to a general philosophical understanding, in which being “wise” was a cardinal virtue. Such wisdom involved abstract ideas but also had a practical edge and was acted out in one’s daily experience. Yet in Ephesians, this wisdom also has particular Christian content. The one clarification provided is that one who is wise “[makes] the most of the time, because the days are evil” (5:16).
Thus, wisdom reflects an understanding of Christian life as being lived in the “in-between time,” the time between Christ’s inauguration of the reign of God and its completion on the last day. The language of Ephesians reflects this understanding of Christians as those who have been “marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (4:30). The situation of Ephesians seems relevant for many modern Christians, for Ephesians contains no sense of urgency about the coming day of the Lord (unlike 1 Thessalonians 5:2-7; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Nevertheless, understanding one’s location in time shapes Christian behavior and is part of what it means to be “wise.”
Second, readers should “not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). Here again, the injunction not to be foolish is straightforward. It has none of Paul’s sense of irony, that God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20), or of Paul acting a fool himself to make a point (2 Corinthians 11:21; 12:11). Nevertheless, the point of pursuing God’s will is familiar from other New Testament writings (cf. Romans 12:2).
The author of Ephesians has already given voice to his understanding of God’s will. It is a “mystery” that God has made known (1:9). A good deal of the “mystery” is described in God’s reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles through the cross of Christ (2:11-22, with the repetition of the “mystery” language in 3:1-6). The writer undoubtedly has this reconciliation in view when he writes that God’s will has “destined” believers for “adoption (1:5) or for and “inheritance” (1:11). Understanding the will of the Lord, then, relates directly to the reader’s comprehension of the message of Ephesians 1-3. God’ will in reconciling Gentiles and Jews has made possible their present status as children of God. It is also interesting to note that the acts of destining and making known God’s will are done according to “God’s good pleasure” (1:5, 9).
The third and final instruction is “do not get drunk…but be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). Drunkenness is a vice noted elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10). The resulting state, “debauchery” (Greek: asōtia) is also mentioned in a couple of places (Titus 1:16; 1 Peter 4:4). The related Greek word, asōtōs, may be more useful in creating a picture for people of what “debauchery” consists of. This word occurs only in Luke 15:13, where the Prodigal Son is said to have “squandered his property in dissolute living (asōtōs).” It is no surprise that such behavior is inconsistent with the transformed life the author of Ephesians describes.
The alternative is being “filled with the Spirit.” Just as being filled with wine carries over and leads to a life of debauchery, so also being filled with the Spirit has its abundant effects, described somewhat profusely in verses 19-20. A life of the Spirit results in singing and thanksgiving. “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are not likely distinct kinds of songs, but suggests quantity and continual singing. Likewise, “singing and making melody” are synonyms. The description includes songs being sung both “to each other” (NRSV: “among yourselves”) and “to the Lord” (5:19). The cumulative effect is that the life to which the reader is called is one of constant praise. Thanksgiving should likewise be abundant–“at all times and for everything”–and is given in the name of Christ and directed to God the Father.