Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20
Ephesians 5:15-20 concludes a section in Ephesians (that began in 5:3) emphasizing the contrast between the morals of the world and the morals of the church.
Christians are to be “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) rather than “children of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6; the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates this less vividly as “those who are disobedient”), and our lives should reflect this difference in status. The emphasized moral degradations to avoid are sexual immorality, greed, and various kinds of negative speech (verses 3-5). The positive morality is stated more generally prior to our passage — our lives are to produce “fruit of the light,” which is “all that is good and right and true” (verse 9).
Taken in the larger context of the overall letter, our passage is right in the middle of the second half of the letter, Ephesians 4-6. This second half consists mostly of moral exhortation, which is tied closely to the more strictly theological first half of the letter, Ephesians 1-3. The connection is that the first half of the letter lays out how God has brought the Gentiles (the primary audience of the letter) into God’s people, so that there is no longer a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, but rather that together in Christ there is now one inclusive, universal church, the holy temple where God actually dwells. The section of moral exhortation builds on this primarily by emphasizing unity and peace as the moral goals that Christian behavior is designed to bring about.
In this section of Ephesians 5, however, the emphasis is on how the re-created status of Christians should result in changed lives, lives that look different from those who do not serve God and whose deeds will bring about God’s wrath. The church is universal in the sense of being open to all, but the church still exists in a “present darkness” where evil is at work (Ephesians 6:12). “The days are evil,” our passage puts it (Ephesians 5:16), and this fact calls for a wise and vigilant faithfulness.
It is with a simple admonition to be wise rather than unwise that our passage opens (verse 15). In the immediate context, the recommended wisdom probably was meant to consist of the very instructions that Ephesians has been providing. But, of course, both the ancient Ephesians and modern readers have a much wider store of wisdom to draw on in heeding this instruction.
Wisdom was a virtue in both Jewish and Gentile traditions, and while Jews and early Christians no doubt looked first to the Old Testament wisdom writings for understanding, wisdom is by nature inclusive and expansive — it is to be sought and accepted wherever it may genuinely be found. For Christians, then and now, there is also another side of wisdom — Christ is the true wisdom of God, in contrast with the foolish wisdom of the world that did not recognize Christ for who he was (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). The admonition to be wise, then, is not as simple as it may sound at first.
Ephesians 5:17 repeats the admonition to not be foolish, but this time the positive contrast is to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” God’s will has been mentioned several times already in the letter (Ephesians 1:1, 5, 9, 11); it has mainly referred to the cosmic plan of God to include the Gentiles in the church (this is the case in all of these except Ephesians 1:1, which refers to Paul’s calling as an apostle).
Here the context suggests a more moral focus, perhaps contrasting with “the desires of flesh and senses” from Ephesians 2:3 (where “desires” translates the same Greek word used for “will” in Ephesians 1:1, 5, 9; and here in 5:17), and certainly contrasting with the negative behavior described throughout Ephesians 5:3-20. That the same phrase can refer to both the cosmic theological plan of God and to moral behavior is significant, for one of the key lessons of Ephesians is that the foundation of moral living is understanding what God has done for us in Christ.
Ephesians 5:18 gives the one specific prohibition of the passage: “Do not get drunk with wine.” Drunkenness has not been mentioned as a vice before in Ephesians, but we should probably see it as going hand in hand with the other vices mentioned in the chapter — sexual immorality, greed, and evil speech — characteristic of the irresolute, wrongly focused lifestyle condemned throughout the chapter (the word used here, asotia, the NRSV’s “debauchery,” is a general term referring to any kind of immorally loose lifestyle). Most Jewish and Gentile moralists of the day would have agreed that drunkenness was a vice, but here it is again the contrast that is especially interesting. Instead of being drunk with wine, we are to be “filled with the Spirit.”
The Spirit’s role, both in forming the Christian community and in empowering Christian lives, has been important throughout Ephesians (see especially 1:13-14; 2:17-22; 3:16; 4:3-4, 30). Here thus added to the Spirit’s role is moral formation — being filled with the Spirit should produce in us “all that is good and right and true” from verse 9. Of course, it is difficult here not to think of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-26.
The mention of the Spirit here leads in a different direction in the next verse, however, to the worshipful life of the church, spelling out particularly the musical worship of the community (verse 19). The passage then concludes with an emphasis on being thankful “at all times and for everything” (verse 20), a point which is made all the more powerful when we remember that Ephesians is among Paul’s prison letters (see 4:1). That being filled with the Spirit is connected with all of these things — moral life, worship, and thankfulness — underscores the diverse power of the Spirit in our lives and points us back once again to the unity of Christian identity and ethics in Ephesians, this time also adding in that worship is a natural consequence of who we are as the unified body of Christ.
Passages like this one will probably not be popular today. Condemnation of the world’s morals doesn’t tend to “sell” well today, both because it is associated with a preachy, potentially hypocritical form of Christianity that many today want to disassociate from and because the contemporary emphasis on social justice tends to make us downplay distinctions between the church and the world. But perhaps in this context it is good to remind ourselves that Christians are still called to a different kind of life from that practiced by many around us. We should instead be filled with the Spirit.