And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21)
Before I expound on this text, I want you to see its general outline. Otherwise, you may not understand the connection between drinking alcohol, being filled with the Spirit, singing, giving thanks, and submitting to one another. You may think this passage is little more than a random collection of unrelated topics.
First, Paul offers yet another contrast. He has made several throughout this letter (e.g., light versus darkness, wise versus foolish, truth versus falsehood). In this case, the comparison is between being intoxicated with wine and being filled with the Spirit of God. I’ll do my best to explain why Paul would make that contrast.
Second, Paul shows us the outworking of being filled with the Spirit. When believers are Spirit-filled—let’s not confuse being filled with being indwelt, baptized, or sealed by Spirit—we instinctively sing, become thankful, and show a willingness and humility to submit ourselves to one another. Our first response is inward (singing from the heart), the second is upward (giving thanks to God), and the third is outward (submitting to one another).
If you’re taking notes, the primary bullet points will be the command followed by the consequences. The command has two parts: (1) don’t get drunk; (2) be filled with the Spirit. The consequences are three-fold: (1) sing, (2) give thanks, and (3) submit. Can you see those various parts in the text? We may stop somewhere in the middle. If so, we’ll pick up where we leave off next week.
Generally speaking, the command here is remarkably straightforward. Rather than allow yourself to be under the influence of alcohol, believers should be under the total influence of the Spirit.
Even if you’ve never touched a drop of alcohol, you likely know the severity of its influence over a person. Drinking destroys one’s inhibitions. He loses clarity of mind, not to mention basic motor skills. If he drinks enough, he may even lose consciousness. Alcohol has the ability to completely dominate the one who consumes it.
Paul emphatically states, “Do not get drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18). He is repeating an imperative we find over and over again in Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments unequivocally condemn drunkenness. Once someone has drunk alcohol to the extent that his mind or actions are modified, he is drunk and has committed sin.
The book of Proverbs warns:
Hear, my son, and be wise,
and direct your heart in the way.
Be not among drunkards
or among gluttonous eaters of meat,
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
and slumber will clothe them with rags. (Proverbs 23:19-21)
Not only should we avoid drunkenness, but we should also stay away from people who get drunk. The writer goes on to say:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who tarry long over wine;
those who go to try mixed wine.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
and goes down smoothly.
In the end it bites like a serpent
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
and your heart utter perverse things. (Proverbs 23:29-33)
You won’t see that in the Budweiser commercials. Marketers will show you the redness of their wine, the way in sparkles in the cup, and how it goes down smoothly when someone drinks it. They’ll never mention the consequences. They won’t talk about sorrow, strife, pain, hangovers, addiction, broken marriages, and people killed by their products.
The makers of alcoholic beverages won’t remind us that more than twenty million Americans are alcoholics. Almost four million of them are teenagers. They won’t mention that one person will die from an alcohol-related car crash every fifty minutes in this country. While politicians argue over gun control, alcohol kills at least three times as many people as firearms. If we add drugs and other mind-altering substances to the equation, the numbers climb much higher.
The worst part is, people believe alcohol is a means to happiness. Though it should be obvious, they fail to see that drinking is a brief moment of fun followed by potentially devastating consequences. The problem is, we can’t know the consequences until it’s too late. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “Drunkenness is the devil’s back door to hell and everything that is hellish. For he that once gives away his brains to drink is ready to be caught by Satan for anything.”
Consider the examples we have in Scripture. Shortly after the flood, Noah got drunk which led to nakedness and shame. Lot allowed himself to get drunk, then unknowingly committed incest with both of his daughters.
In Daniel 5, “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine” (Da 5:1). We’re told, “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Da 5:4). Their drunkenness led them to commit vulgar idolatry. Suddenly, “the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace” (Da 5:5). Have you ever heard the expression, “The writing is on the wall”? It originates with this story in Daniel.
The king then invited Daniel to interpret the writing which said, “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Da 5:26-28). God stripped Belshazzar of his kingdom in the middle of his drunken feast.
In the New Testament, we read of the Corinthians getting drunk while participating in the Lord’s Supper. They treated the sacred meal as though it were a flippant party. The wealthy were gorging themselves while neglecting others in the church who had no food. They were drinking the wine, meant to represent Christ’s blood, in excess, so Paul says, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1Co 11:30).
Did Noah, Lot, Belshazzar, or the Corinthians expect such terrible things to happen as a result of drinking a little alcohol? No, but no one ever does. We just want to have some fun. Maybe we intend to drown our sorrows or, as Billy Joel sang, “Forget about life for awhile.”
Our desire for happiness is not wrong. When someone drinks to feel joy, the problem is not his motive but the means he has chosen to attain joy. I believe God wants us to be happy, but alcohol is not the way. If our joy is not in Christ and his gospel, then our joy is temporary and meaningless. Don’t be fooled by the false promises of alcohol. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler,” according to Proverbs, “and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Pr 20:1).
Let me also say that drinking in excess is not harmless. It won’t bring you lasting joy, but it’s also extremely dangerous. If it doesn’t kill you or make your life miserable, it is perfectly capable of numbing your soul and leading you into deeper sin. I suppose the examples I’ve already given are sufficient.
To be clear, the Bible does not altogether prohibit drinking. For example, drink offerings of wine were made in the Old Testament. Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Isaiah compares God’s grace to the free giving of wine when he says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa 55:1).
Listen to the advice of Proverbs 31: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more” (Pr 31:6). Paul tells Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1Ti 5:23).
To get a balanced view of alcohol, perhaps we need to understand the various kinds of wine mentioned in the Bible. There are at least three types. First, we read of a wine commonly referred to as strong drink. As you would expect, it’s alcohol content was higher than other wines. Second, we read of sweet wine. That’s what the people were drinking at Pentecost in Acts 2.
We most often read of yayin in the Old Testament or oinos in the New Testament. This wine was more like syrup. People boiled fresh grape juice to create a heavy syrup that stored better than other wines with less chance of spoiling. Boiling reduced most of the water, killing the bacteria and preventing some of its potential fermentation. Then, when they were ready to drink it, they would mix it with water. That is why it is sometimes referred to as mixed wine. Isaiah, for instance, mentions “wine mixed with water” (Isa 1:22).
In biblical times, most of the wine had an alcohol content of less than three percent. To put that number in perspective, a beverage today needs 3.2 percent to even be classified as an alcoholic drink. Today, most alcoholic beverages are artificially fermented to raise the alcohol content. Needless to say, getting drunk on yayin or oinos required a lot of drinking.
Interestingly enough, when the New Testament uses the word drunkard in a couple of places—the KJV translates it “given to wine”—the original Greek is paroinos. If you could see its spelling, then you would notice that the word for wine is within the word for drunkard. Paroinos literally means alongside wine. It describes a person who spends a lot of time next to a cup of wine, which explains how he is able to get drunk when the alcohol content is so low.
Today, we don’t have to drink nearly as much to become intoxicated which makes the biblical warnings about alcohol even more serious. We have clean drinking water, so we don’t need to drink wine in most cases. In short, the reasons to abstain from alcohol far outweigh the reasons the drink.
We shouldn’t be legalistic about it. It is not a sin to drink alcohol, but we are putting ourselves at physical and spiritual risk when we do. I should also point out that we are responsible for avoiding even the potential for sin which undoubtedly increases every time we drink. Jesus said, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Mt 5:30). Don’t give yourself another opportunity to sin.
As for the Christians in Ephesus, Paul knows there is more to drinking than personal enjoyment. Alcohol was an integral part of worship among the pagans. They considered the height of religious experience to be various forms of ecstasy including drunkenness. If they wanted to have communion with their false gods, dancing, sex, and heavy drinking would help them reach a higher state of spirituality.
Does any of that sound familiar to you? Today, we don’t call it worship; we call it a party, but the goal is practically the same. People attempt to escape what they consider to be a mundane reality to a false world of bliss and physical pleasure. They turn the music up to eleven, flash the lights, dance into a frenzy, titillate one another, and alter their state of mind with drugs and alcohol, never realizing the demonic nature of it all.
Given the religious culture of Ephesus, maybe you can understand why Paul makes the contrast he does in this passage. You can imagine someone taking his Christian liberty too far. Perhaps he continues to drink or incorporates other aspects of paganism in his worship of Yĕhovah, “the Lord our God” (Dt 6:4).
Paul offers the godly alternative. Don’t get drunk; let God’s Spirit influence you rather than alcohol. Don’t let secular music emotionally manipulate you; sing simple songs to the Lord from your heart. Don’t be ungrateful to the One who saved you; be thankful in all you do. Don’t pursue selfish indulgence; learn to live in humble submission to others. In short, don’t trade the fulfilling genuine experience of believers for Satan’s counterfeit version.
“Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul says (Eph 5:18). What does that mean? I’ll begin by telling you what it does not mean. First of all, this expression does not refer to the initial indwelling of the Spirit at regeneration. The moment a person is saved, he or she possesses the Spirit of God. Listen to what Jesus taught in John 7 followed by John’s commentary:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
When someone believes in Christ, he or she receives the Spirit. He or she is baptized by the Spirit. Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1Co 12:13). Paul also says the Spirit seals us. You probably remember this statement from Ephesians 1:
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
From the day of Pentecost forward—I’m referring to Acts 2—we do not read of God’s Spirit moving here and there as he did in the Old Testament. Prior to Pentecost, the Spirit filled a person for a specific purpose for a limited time. He appeared, then disappeared. Since Pentecost, the Bible describes the Spirit as coming into the believer and staying permanently.
The Spirit’s role in the Old Testament can be a source of confusion for people. Weren’t Old Testament saints born of the Spirit just like we are? Weren’t they led by the Spirit? Maybe an analogy would help.
Imagine a massive hydroelectric dam on a river. This dam has the potential to supply power to every home in the country. Prior to the dam, lots of people used the river. They drew water from it, bathed in it, and used it to turn mill wheels. Once the dam was completed, however, electricity surged through the entire nation. People far and wide were positively impacted. It provided possibilities that people could once only imagine.
On the day of Pentecost, God poured out his Spirit like never before. People from all over the world were affected and have been ever since. I believe that’s the reason the Bible’s language concerning the Spirit changes from the Old Testament to the New. If nothing else, we learn just how far-reaching and powerful the Spirit’s impact is under the new covenant.
When Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” he is not talking about regeneration or the Spirit’s initial indwelling of believers (Eph 5:18). He’s also not talking about a dramatic esoteric experience where specially-gifted people speak in tongues, heal others, or display some other supernatural ability.
The imperative, “be filled,” is in the present passive tense. Literally, it means “be being kept filled.” In other words, the command is to consciously continue being filled. The idea is that we submit to the Spirit’s guidance and control on a daily, moment-by-moment basis. Even so, it is passive. We do not fill ourselves with the Spirit; we allow the Spirit to fill us. We provide the right environment for the Spirit if you will.
The word Paul uses (translated, “be filled”) has several uses throughout Scripture. It describes the wind filling the sail of a ship. It is also used the way we use the word permeate. It can also mean total control. For instance, someone who is filled with sorrow is dominated by that emotion. I suppose all of these definitions touch on what Paul is teaching us here about the Spirit.
Perhaps the best analogy would be a glove. A glove is powerless without a hand to fill it. It was designed to fit over a hand. Similarly, we are powerless without the Spirit filling us. We don’t function as intended without him. As believers, we may be indwelt and sealed by the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean we are filled by the Spirit.
One of the advantages we have when reading the book of Ephesians is that Colossians is remarkably similar. There are many parallel passages between them. If we want to better understand what Paul meant in Ephesians, we can read what he wrote in Colossians for greater insight.
Colossians 3 contains a parallel to this passage in Ephesians. Paul writes:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17)
To be filled with the Spirit is to be filled with the word of Christ. Both cause us to sing and be thankful. Both cause us to humbly submit to one another as Paul goes on to describe in Colossians as well. It seems that being filled with the Spirit is not so mysterious after all. It’s not a rare experience among the spiritual elite. There is no secret formula. To be filled with the Spirit is to let the word of Christ dwell in us.
Paul is telling us to learn and submit to the truth of Christ. We are filling our hearts and minds with God’s Word. His will is becoming our will. His thoughts are becoming our thoughts. We are allowing ourselves to be continually molded by the Scriptures. The Spirit-filled believer is yielding every step to the Spirit by obeying the words of the Bible. As Paul says elsewhere, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
The first result of being filled by the Spirit is “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19). “Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous!” says one of the psalmists, “Praise befits the upright” (Ps 33:1). We are new creatures with a new song. When we walk with the Spirit, we can’t help but sing.
When God delivered Israel out of Egypt, the people came together and sang. After Israel was saved from the Canaanites, they sang. After Judah’s captivity in Babylon was over, they sang. The last thing Jesus did with his disciples before his arrest was sing a hymn. When Paul and Silas were sitting in prison, they sang. The redeemed in Revelation 14 sang. John writes:
I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. (Revelation 14:1-3)
Sadly, congregational singing was lost for many years of church history. The Catholic church replaced it with professional musicians and choirs. The average person sitting on the pew never sang. One of the lesser-known byproducts of the Reformation was the return of congregational singing. When the Word of God was restored, singing came with it, and I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
Maybe some of us wish we would forgo singing, thinking, I can’t sing. You’re in luck. Once again, Paul seems to choose his words carefully. He says, “Laleō one another” (Eph 5:19). Utter a sound to one another. The word originates from the babbling noises a child makes when he’s first learning to talk. You don’t have to be Whitney Houston to make a sound. The book of Revelation uses this word in reference to trumpets and thunder. It has nothing to do with your natural singing abilities or lack thereof.
If you’ve ever heard renditions of early Christian hymns, then you know their singing would hardly qualify as singing by modern standards. It sounds more like chanting than singing. Ancient music seems to have been relatively simplistic. Anyone with a heart to make a joyful noise could participate.
It’s important to realize that the purpose of singing is to glorify God. Everything we do should be to God’s glory. Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1Co 10:31). In this passage, he reminds us that we are “singing and making melody to the Lord” (Eph 5:19). While we are speaking to one another through the songs we sing, we are primarily singing to the Lord.
Why is that important to keep in mind? If nothing else, it removes the pressure to sound perfect when we sing. We’re not auditioning for American Idol. We’re not trying to please human judges. I appreciate John Wesley’s take on this subject. He said:
Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Have I ever told you why I became an avid listener of Bob Dylan? By now, most of you know that he’s my favorite secular artist, but you may not know why. I discovered Dylan when I was still in high school. My friends hated it. They would joke that he was a terrible singer, but that is one of the things I loved about him. He gave me motivation to sing more. I thought, If Dylan can be a world-famous recording artist with a voice like his, what do I have to lose my letting people hear me sing?
If you wonder why I sing as loudly as I do, it’s because Bob Dylan taught me not to worry about what people will think. If you have a reason to sing, then sing. If you want to practice singing or take vocal lessons to improve your singing for the glory of God, that’s great. I admire you for it. Either way, make a joyful noise. Sing with no regard to what others may think. If you let the Spirit take control of your life, then you will sing.