Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20
Much of Ephesians deals with the ongoing interplay between Christian identity and Christian conduct. Indeed, Ephesians 1-3 functions as a type of identity reminder. In these initial chapters, Christians are being reminded of who they are especially as it relates to their place in God’s plan for cosmic salvation which is centered in Jesus Christ.
They have been given a new, distinct identity so that Christians are no longer who they once were (see especially Ephesians 2:11-22). Ephesians 4-6 builds on this as identity-foundation by presenting both broad and particular instructions regarding Christian conduct which both is empowered by our new reality and manifests this new, God-created reality. Thus, Christians put off their old self and its ways of living and put on the conduct of their new self (4:22-24). In this way, Christian living entails walking in the light of our new reality and not walking in the dark of our old reality (5:8-13).
Ephesians 5:15-20 picks up this contrast and depicts it as wise living over against foolish living. Indeed, in each of the three sentences which make up this short text, there is a negative “not as” which is then contrasted with a positive “but as” (see 5:15, 17, 18). The foolish person lives the former while the wise person lives the latter. Through these contrasts, the text is calling on Christians to pay close attention to how they are to live wisely. In the vision which Ephesians seeks to establish, a key question is: “What does living wisely involve?”
First, and perhaps foremost, living wisely is not a matter of doing what comes naturally; what comes naturally is the foolish, contentious ways of the old self (Ephesians 2:1-3) which includes living in reckless abandon and self-indulgence (5:18). Wise living flows out of the Spirit which is at work in the lives of individual Christians and in the corporate life of the Christian community. At the same time, living wisely is not a matter of obeying a given set of laws. Indeed, the word “law” is used only once in the entire letter of Ephesians and that is to inform us how Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances” (2:15). While there are a number of “dos” and “don’ts” in Ephesians 4-6 (including our text), these are not presented as fixed rules which must be followed.
Rather, living wisely involves discerning and enacting the will of Christ (Ephesians 5:17). While our succinct text does not elaborate on the details of Christ’s will, throughout the letter, his will is exemplified in the cross (for example, 2:13-16; 4:31-5:2). Living wisely also includes being able to tell time. That is, while we still live in the present evil age, we are called to make the most of the critical time at hand (5:16) as Christians are very much a part of the cosmic conflict between God and the devil (6:10-17).
Living wisely also embraces and reflects the proper dynamics of worship which flow from the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the community and are carried out in the name of the Lord (Ephesians 5:18-20). Such worship has the vertical dimension of addressing Christ as well as the horizontal dimension of being corporate and edifying so that as we sing songs to God we are also singing songs to each other. Vibrant worship especially means celebrating all that God has done in Christ through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
This short text and its surrounding context remind us that wise living is personal but never private. Each Christian is a new self which has been created by God. But this new self does not live in isolation. Rather, each new self exists as a member of the body of Christ, joined integrally to the body’s other members. In this way, we live both with each other and for each other. Similarly, our new self is created to be active by doing good works (Ephesians 2:10) and not to be dormant or secluded. Wise Christian living is not relegated to either the privacy of one’s church attendance on Sunday morning or one’s devotional life at home. Living wisely means allowing the Spirit to work the will of Christ in all aspects of life so that who we are as Christians is integral to how we live as Christians.
All of this brings us back to the opening line of this text. Unfortunately, most English translations render the opening Greek as a type of warning such as “Be careful, then, how you live” (NRSV, which is very closely aligned with the “Be very careful” wording of the NIV). The text’s opening, however, would be better rendered as a vibrant exhortation of encouragement: “Pay really close attention to how to live.” Hence this text (as well as most of the entire letter) does not seek to present cautions or red flags with regard to wise living.
Rather, it offers robust encouragement for enacting our God-given, Spirit-empowered reality in Christ as it relates to all aspects of our lives individually and corporately. Living wisely, especially as it entails discerning the will of Christ, means active engagement and involvement in all of life’s circumstances so that the reality of our new self is continually manifested in and through the light of our new conduct “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).