Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20
This unit of exhortation begins with its roots planted in the wisdom tradition.
It is the “wise” who see that a new day has begun in Christ (Ephesians 5:14), and who live that out in their lives. If we are truly awakened from the sleep of sin and death, then our lives will not stumble trance-like along the well-worn paths of the world’s values.
Such a life is able to deal with time honestly. We live in a culture which pushes us to act as though there is never enough time. We are constantly rushing, with every moment of time absorbed in our desire to be connected and productive. In other ways, we try to tell ourselves that we have all the time in the world, and that mortality and its limitations will not impinge upon us. Either way is a path of foolishness. To be the awakened and wise people of God means that we can be good and honest stewards of time, so that opportunities to do justice, and to live boldly as God’s reconciled people during this time, are not missed. We are called to discern the wise ways to live in this time, capitalizing on new opportunities and having our eyes open to potential pitfalls.
Ephesians 5:16b indicates that the motive for such wise stewardship is that “the days are evil.” Ephesians 2:2 talked about those in the world who are “following the ruler of the power of the air.” Though we cannot pretend that evil isn’t real (such a view would hardly be “wise”), this also cannot be the whole story of the world. We know that the world is God’s good creation, and that all days are God’s gifts. This is the time for living in the good works for which God created us (2:10). We cannot look on the world, or our community, or our days, as simply unredeemably “evil.”
We can see the world truthfully and live in it wisely, because we “understand what the will of the Lord is” (verse 17). This does not, however, send us off on an endless quest to discover which car God would like us to purchase. Something far bigger is afoot here. Ephesians 1:10 has already declared that the will of God is to bring all things together in Christ. That is God’s goal, God’s telos for the world. As if that weren’t breathtaking enough, Ephesians 3:10 insisted that God’s intent for the church is that the church will be a witness about God’s rich wisdom to all the spiritual forces of the world. Thus, we know where God is bringing the world, because God has revealed that grace in Christ. We also know that God has an astonishing role for the church in being the community which embodies that promise. To “understand what the will of the Lord is” means to live lives, which align with the goal revealed in Christ.
To live out such a life can only be done by the power of God’s Spirit. The ironic association between being intoxicated and being filled with the Spirit can be seen in the Pentecost story of Acts 2, where the bystanders think that the believers are drunk. However, in Ephesians 5:18 the thought may not be so much about being filled “with the Spirit” (New Revised Standard Version, NRSV) as it is about being filled “by the Spirit” (New English Translation, NET). The Greek construction found here does not indicate the content of the filling in any other New Testament verse, but instead it often speaks about the means of being filled (i.e., how it happens). Furthermore, there are several verses in Ephesians which speak about being filled, and these need to be heard together. In all cases, it is a member of the Holy Trinity that does the filling. Ephesians 1:23 speaks about a divine fullness of which the Church as Christ’s body is the foretaste; in 4:10 it is stated more explicitly that Christ fills all things. The church will be filled with all the fullness of God (3:19); here, “the fullness of God” (i.e., God’s own presence) is the content of the filling. If we hear these other verses in connection with 5:18, the claim is that the church is filled with nothing less than the full presence of God in Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit.
The result of such filling by the Spirit is contained in the actions of verses 19-20. Though the function of the Greek participles here is open to multiple interpretations, it seems best to understand that these activities are not what we do in order to get the Spirit to fill us, but that these are the activities which flow as a result of the Spirit’s work among us. This is what wisdom looks like, and what the Spirit’s filling brings: a life composed in songs, in praise (and lament), a melody joined together across cultures and years. It is in such songs that we declare together “the will of the Lord” for all the world. The phrase “among yourselves” (NRSV) is an attempt to express what more strictly reads “speaking to one another.” In the church’s liturgy and hymns, of course we address words to God. However, such words are intended also for the good of one another. In hymns and songs, we express our struggles and joys, our faith and our doubt; we train one another to give voice to the life and faith of the church.
Verse 20 may speak about giving thanks for “everything” (NRSV) or for “everyone” (NET “each other”). The latter, of course, is contained within the former, but we too easily forget to give thanks for others. To be filled by the Spirit does not lead to private projects or mystical experiences, but to the common work of the community’s worship and mutual building up. The wise life in Christ is one that is embraced within a context of worship, and one which itself becomes an act of worship in thanks to God.