“Wise Living in the Spirit”
By: Dr. Fredrick J. Long, Professor of New Testament
Eph 5:15-21 (NET)
5:15 Therefore be very careful how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 5:16 taking advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 5:17 For this reason do not be foolish, but be wise by understanding what the Lord’s will is. 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit,5:19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, 5:20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5:21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
This passage begins with “self-scrutiny” of sorts. It’s a New Year, so why not?! But, who really likes such scrutiny––to hold up a mirror to look at one’s face or to take selfies and post them for others to comment on. We sometimes do, and we sometimes don’t like take a close look. Here the apostle Paul explains that this scrutiny is not about looks, however, or appearance, or grooming, but rather about living. “Therefore be very careful how you live––not as unwise but as wise.” It’s about living wisely instead of the real possibility of living unwisely. In fact, unwise living is nearly a default for us, unless we train ourselves to live differently. Why should we? “Because the days are evil.” Around us are pressures, influences, temptations that would have us live unwisely. But how do we know if we are being unwise? What is the sign that we are living unwisely? Well, such living is the opposite of what Paul describes as wise living that “takes advantage of every opportunity.” The grammatical construction here in the Greek is a “post-nuclear circumstantial participle” (to be technical); basically, we can say that “taking advantage…” is a verbal idea added after the main verb “living wisely” to further describe it in more detail. Whatever else walking wisely looks like, Paul boils it down to “taking advantage of every opportunity,” which would suggest that living unwisely is the opposite––not taking advantage of opportunities.
Importantly, the verb “taking advantage” (cf. “making” in NRSV) involves an apt metaphor that is lost in our translations and involves “purchasing;” it is the verb ἐξαγοράζω (“I buy up, I redeem”) from verb ἀγοράζω (“I buy”) that is from the noun ἀγορά or agora (“market”). It is significant that Paul uses the strengthened verbal form ἐξ-αγοράζω (the preposition ἐξ intensifies the “buying”) so that it conveys “to buy up/out” precisely because of the nature of the purchase––“opportunity, time” (καιρός kairos in Greek, for those of you who had Dr. Bob Mulholland as a professor). Time or opportunity is a precious commodity that we can buy up, even redeem, because all around us are instances of the unwise use of time. Our time usage should be markedly different than the evil uses of time. You know, time is one of those entities that, once gone, we don’t get back. It is a limited commodity, which makes it valuable, like gold or anti-matter, which incidentally is the most expensive commodity at $ 62.5 trillion per gram! Wasting opportunities is like anti-time to us––it is costly! We each have limited time that needs to be bought up completely, in fact, redeemed. To “redeem” is to buy back, which indicates “renewed or proper use.” We can buy back our present time and opportunity and put it to proper use. It’s not too late to start.
Next, Paul develops the distinction between the unwise and wise by contrasting being foolish with instead “understanding the Lord’s will” (v. 17) “and not getting drunk with wine… but being filled with the Spirit” (v.18). Here, Paul has opened up a BIG can of worms for us: What is God’s will? And, what does it look like to be filled with the Spirit? We might wonder about these, but Paul answers both questions in the surrounding context. Paul begins in 1:4–14 explaining that God’s will was to give Christ to the world to forgive and redeem us through the Gospel, both the Jews and the Gentiles (1:10–14; see also 2:11–22). Then, again in 3:6 he explains that God wants to unify Jews and Gentiles into one body through Jesus Christ. So, our living wisely involves our understanding that God wants to have us who buy up opportunities to reach others with the gospel of Christ. This is redeeming the time. See also, Colossians 4:5–6, where Paul makes reaching out to others abundantly clear: “4:5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone” (NET).
The second question on being filled with the Spirit is one that people commonly wonder about. Here, Paul describes the third divine installment or deposit within us in Ephesians. First, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within us through faith (3:16-17) for the purpose of God filling us (3:19). Paul commands us to be filled with the Spirit. On closer examination, this is a bit odd, because the verb is “passive voice”––“to be filled.” Normally with passive verbs, the subject (“you” plural here) is acted upon by another force (here “the Spirit”). But, Paul issues this passive verb as a command in the present tense meaning: “Continue being filled with the Spirit.” How do we do this? We must assume a posture, I think, of receptivity, an openness, a willingness to be ready to receive the Spirit, which God pours out to us not reluctantly or stingily, but willingly. In fact, the Spirit conveys God’s love to us and is happily given to us. The Spirit empowers us for living in holy love to testify to the Gospel of Jesus in the world.
In contrast to being filled with the Spirit is “getting drunk with wine, which is debauchery.” Alcohol influences our thinking in an analogous way to the Spirit. It is also helpful to know that “wine parties” were a common form of entertainment in Greco-Roman society. This helps us to understand more about the word “debauchery,” which is a common, but unhelpful translation. First, we really don’t know what “debauchery” means in English––it’s not a word we typically will use. Second, the Greek word here (ἀσωτία) means “wastefulness.” We are back to matters of “time” and how we may waste it. Our Western cultures are largely entertainment cultures and this devours our time, it wastes it. One football game––boom, 3.5 hours gone. Although we do need rest and relaxation, it is tempting to be inundated with entertainments of all kinds. Instead, Paul urges us––no, commands us––to be filled with the Spirit and to come under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
But what does this filling with the Spirit look like? Well, Paul tells by using five circumstantial participle clauses after the command to be filled with the Spirit in 5:19-21: “5:19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, 5:20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5:21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Notice how encouraging and social these Spirit-filled activities are and how mindful they are of God––worshipful, in fact. Indeed, it is out of this Spirit-filled, worshipful living that entails mutual self-submission that Paul quite naturally moves in the following verses to look at the Christian household––the Spirit-filled life will impact the home starting with the husband-wife relationship, moving to the parent-child relationship, etc. The home thus becomes a place filled with God’s presence. Wisdom begins in and emanates from the home and urges us to live wisely and reach out others with the Gospel of Christ.
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