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)
I think I’ve said all that needs to be said about alcohol and drunkenness, but there’s more to cover regarding this passage’s historical context. We often make the mistake of dropping the Bible into our present-day circumstances without first considering to whom it was originally written and why. We can be in too much of a hurry to make personal application of the text that we miss the fullness of its meaning if we don’t misunderstand it entirely.
We live in a society that loves its debauchery. No one thinks twice about drinking until he’s tipsy if not drunk. As long as he doesn’t get behind the wheel, what harm is there? As long as he doesn’t hurt someone, why shouldn’t he enjoy the pleasures of life? We have no trouble imagining a culture that would defy the commandments of God for the sake of a good time, so there isn’t any apparent reason for us to stumble over this passage in Ephesians.
What if, however, there is more to the situation in first-century Ephesus than we know or can readily identify when reading this passage? Perhaps Paul was not merely offering a choice between alcohol and the Spirit, or drunkenness and the Spirit’s influence. Maybe he is addressing a deeper issue that 21st-century believers don’t necessarily see in the text.
Most commentaries and study Bibles highlight the prominence of drinking in ancient Ephesus. For example, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible says of Ephesians 5:18:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Although Jewish wisdom despised drunkenness, it was a common feature of ancient Mediterranean life, especially in Gentile cities. It was common both in the late-night banquets of the rich, often accompanied by sexual immorality, and in the taverns of the poor. (Local taverns provided food and company during the day, but taverns for travelers were part of inns, and those barmaids were typically slaves who functioned as prostitutes at night.) People regularly associated drunkenness with loss of self-control, and occasionally also with a sort of inspiration, madness or possession by Dionysus, god of wine. (These latter cases could also include sexual promiscuity and violence.)
Did you catch that last part about Dionysus, the god of wine? Up to that point in the commentary, the author could have been describing modern America. There’s a bar or store selling alcohol on every corner. People love to throw “late-night banquets” where they invite friends over, play music, and drink. I doubt that most people are hiring prostitutes, but they don’t need to; they have the Tinder app. Hooking up is free.
Apparently, our society’s problems are the same as they were in Ephesus two-thousand years ago with one subtle difference. The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes it this way: “People regularly associated drunkenness … with a sort of inspiration, madness or possession by Dionysus, god of wine.” In other words, Greeks of the past viewed drunkenness as a potentially religious experience. Drinking to the point of intoxication was the means by which someone could be filled and overtaken by Dionysus.
We know the Ephesians were superstitious pagans. When Christianity first emerged in the city, the silversmiths were angry because people stopped buying their silver idols of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals and fertility. (Don’t ask me how she became the goddess of both. I don’t know what one has to do with the other.) Even today, Ephesus is best known for its Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Let’s not forget how Paul’s ministry led many of the Ephesians to quit practicing magic arts.
The city of Ephesus was very religious even before Paul first preached the gospel in that place, but their religion was demonic and idolatrous. More than that, they used it as justification for all kinds of wickedness beyond idolatry. They got drunk to be filled with one false god and committed fornication to supposedly worship another. The historical context in which this letter was written reveals deeper depravity than obvious sins such as drunkenness.
When Paul says, “Do not get drunk with wine,” his original audience probably heard more than we hear (Eph 5:18). We hear him saying, “Don’t get drunk,” because we readily understand the sin of drunkenness. Maybe we’re wise enough to also apply this warning to other mind-altering substances (i.e., drugs), but the Ephesians likely took this lesson even further.
If the believers in Ephesus associated drinking with their former idolatry, then intoxication was not an isolated sin, but a symptom of a deeper issue. They once drank not for the mere sake of drinking; they drank because they were idolaters. In their minds, Paul was not just contrasting two potential influences (alcohol or the Spirit), but he was also encouraging them to think about the sins which lie beneath. Idolatry, at least in part, motivated them to drink.
Let’s say you become angry with someone. In the heat of the moment, you lash out at that person. Immediately, you regret what you’ve done and repent of your sin, but have you stopped to consider why you got angry in the first place? Could it be that your fury stems from a lack of contentment? Are you frustrated because you envy that person? Maybe he or she corrected you, and you responded with anger because you despise the truth.
My point is, our sins may run deeper than they appear on the surface. We can easily spot someone who is drunk, but what about the less evident sins of the heart? Think of the Pharisees who were so diligent to keep the law, but they didn’t know Christ, our Lord and Savior. They not only rejected him, but they also accused him of committing evil. In other words, they were righteous on the surface, but depraved, unregenerate sinners at heart.
Today, the church is plagued by nominal Christianity. People pay lip service to Jesus Christ, but their hearts are far from him. They claim to be Christian and perhaps abstain from the most obvious sins, but do they have an intimate, genuine relationship with Jesus? God’s word says, “My son, give me your heart” (Pr 23:26). In 1 Samuel 16, God says, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1Sa 16:7).
In Matthew 9, Jesus was eating with Matthew and other tax collectors, a despised class of men in first-century Israel, when the Pharisees took notice. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked the disciples (Mt 9:11). In response, Jesus cites a verse from the book of Hosea which quotes God as saying, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).
God wants our love and devotion more than empty rituals. We may never touch a drop of alcohol our entire life, yet our heart may be filled with idolatry. Drunkenness could be the least of our problems because something even more grave looms beneath the surface.
If I had to guess, I’d say that that was not the primary issue Paul had in mind when writing to the Ephesians. Instead, he was more likely concerned that they might knowingly or unknowingly corrupt their worship of God by incorporating elements of their former paganism. Given the cultural backdrop of this letter, we can hardly deny that this passage in Ephesians 5 has religious undertones. Paul sets a contrast between getting drunk and being filled with the Spirit for a reason most relevant to his original audience.
The Ephesians may have been tempted to worship God as they once worshiped Dionysus or Artemis. They didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt where drinking is taboo. Not only was drinking typical for many of them, but it was also spiritual. Drinking carried them to a higher realm. In their minds, intoxication wasn’t the result of too much alcohol in the bloodstream; it was a divine experience where god—that’s a small g—would fill them with warmth and heavenly euphoria. Maybe, they thought, God (with a capital G) will give us the same experience if we drink in his name.
Getting drunk for the Lord may sound ridiculous to us, but I think we can relate. Let me ask you this: Have you ever grown bored with the church? Have you ever grown tired of singing the same songs, praying the same prayers, and listening to the same sermons week after week? Have you ever thought to yourself, I’m just not getting much out of this thing we call worship?
Think back to the last time you were really excited about something. Maybe it was a football game, a new movie, a trip to the Bahamas, or an Amazon package on your doorstep. When was the last time you actually felt giddy? Chances are, it wasn’t on Sunday morning. I’m not passing judgment; I’m speaking from experience. Even the most sincere believer can become quasi-nominal.
As a pastor, I want the entire church to be excited about worship. I want us to feel giddy at the thought of joining together with our family in Christ to sing God’s praises, pray, and hear the word of God be expounded, but I also know that we don’t always feel that way.
Hypothetically, let’s say it’s come to my attention that people seem far more thrilled about watching the Super Bowl than listening to my sermon, so perhaps I suggest we have a football-themed worship service. I’ve seen how enthusiastic people can be when cheering for their favorite teams, so why not find a way to bring that level of enthusiasm into our church gatherings?
I’ve seen how people practically worship musicians during concerts. Perhaps we can create a similar atmosphere in the church. Build a large stage, turn the amplifiers up, add stage lights with a fog machine, tell the band to play some secular songs that we all know—it wouldn’t be too difficult to give ourselves that shot in the arm we need to get excited about worship once again.
While we’re making changes, we should consider swapping the English Standard Version of the Bible for one a bit more contemporary. In Psalm 1, for instance, the ESV says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1). That text is a little dry. Couldn’t we spice things up by using The Message which says, “How well God must like you—you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College”?
It may be a stretch for us to imagine any church using alcohol to enhance their worship, but I think we can relate to the underlying temptation. The temptation is this: We’d love to find a way to simultaneously satisfy both our soul and our flesh. It’s our flesh that gets bored with the long-standing traditions of the church. It’s our flesh that grows tired of orthodoxy. It’s our flesh that says, “Give me something new and exciting. Let’s make worship fun. Having a charismatic pastor with entertaining sermons which promise me health, wealth, and prosperity wouldn’t hurt. Think of how the church would grow.”
This methodology is not hypothetical. Churches are employing it all over the world. Decades ago, A.W. Tozer warned:
Religion today is not transforming the people; it is being transformed by the people. It is not raising the moral level of society; it is descending to society’s own level and congratulating itself that it has scored a victory because society is smiling, accepting its surrender.
In his book, Made For His Pleasure, Alistair Begg wrote:
Contemporary Christian literature is awash with the notion that, in order to be effective and successful, we must respond to market forces. In earlier generations, such an approach was unheard of. … “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” That was [Paul’s] message. Even though the Corinthians were demanding miracles and wisdom, Paul did not give them what they wanted. Indeed, he continued to supply the one thing they clearly did not want—preaching. He rejected the style and content that was most acceptable in his day. … It is not possible to give people what they want to hear and proclaim the message of the Cross at one and the same time.
Today, we often talk about the dangers of the seeker-sensitive movement where churches do their best to accommodate unbelievers. If we can get unbelievers through the door, they think, perhaps we’ll have a chance to convert them. In the churches that have gone down that road, there must have been believers who allowed it to happen. They allowed it to happen because the changes appealed to their own flesh.
Based on what Jesus said to the Ephesians in Revelation 2, I doubt they ever disobeyed Paul’s command by bringing alcohol into their worship, but the temptation may have been present. Regardless, the full historical context of this passage gives us more ways to think about its possible applications in our lives. The contrast of Ephesians 5:18 is not only between unrighteous and righteous behavior in general, but it’s also between impure and pure worship. Perhaps we could say service in place of worship.
Again, Paul says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). He is imploring us to seek the satisfaction of our soul, not our flesh. In Galatians 5, he tells us:
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other. (Galatians 5:16-17)
Through his prophet, Amos, God asked, “Do two walk together
unless they have agreed to do so?” (Am 3:3). In context, he was asking whether God and Israel can live together in harmony if Israel is living contrary to God’s will. The answer was no. While Israel maintained some semblance of serving God, they also committed terrible acts of idolatry. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, but God refused. He would not continue to bless them if they were unwilling to serve him and him alone.
We can’t “gratify the desires of the flesh” and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16). “These are opposed to each other” (Gal 5:17). I believe that is the fundamental choice Paul is presenting to us. Will you gratify the flesh or walk by the Spirit?
Specifically, Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Filled is passive, meaning we are to yield to the Spirit’s influence. Implied by this command is a believer’s desire to have the Spirit in his or her life. We should want the Spirit. The question is, how do we seek the Spirit? Better yet, how do we yield to the Spirit?
First, we need to read, study, and meditate on the word of God. In a parallel passage to what we read here in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16). The rest of the passage is nearly identical to Ephesians 5, but “let the word of Christ dwell in you” stands in place of “be filled with the Spirit.” If we want to be full of the Spirit, then we need to be full of his word.
Second, we need to believe what we read in God’s word. Paul asked the Galatians, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:5). The answer is faith. When we trust in the words of Scripture, God supplies his Spirit.
Third, we need to obey what we read in God’s word. Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23). Inevitably, if we trust the Bible, then we will be faithful to obey the Bible. If we obey the Bible, we provide God’s Spirit with an environment in which he will be pleased to dwell.
Fourth, we need to crave the Spirit. We shouldn’t artificially manufacture so-called spiritual experiences as the pagans were prone to do with drunkenness. Our desire should be the Spirit of God himself, his presence, and his influence over us. As the sons of Korah wrote, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:1-2). Similarly, David said, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1).
Do you remember what I said about what God wants from us? God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). He doesn’t want us to merely go through the motions. He wants our affection, steadfast love, and intimate knowledge of him. He wants us to want and crave him like one craving water in the desert. He wants all of our heart, mind, and soul.
There is simplicity in genuine faith. Paul says:
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)
Listen to J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase of this passage:
Let the Spirit stimulate your souls. Express your joy in singing among yourselves psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making music in your hearts for the ears of God! Thank God at all times for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And “fit in with” each other, because of your common reverence for Christ.
Sing, be thankful, and humbly submit to one another. Whether Paul intends these three items to be the means by which we yield to the Spirit or activities that flow out of being filled with the Spirit, they are each remarkably simple in nature.
First, we sing. In other words, the joy in our heart pours from our mouth. We can’t contain it nor do we want to. Specifically, we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Psalms primarily refers to the Psalter, the book of Psalms in the Bible. They are lyrics about the nature and work of God set to music. Above all else, they magnify and glorify God. We could probably place even a few of the songs that we regularly sing in this category, though they are not Psalms of the Bible. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a good example.
Hymns are songs of praise. In the early church, they were distinguished from psalms because psalms exalt God while hymns praise Jesus specifically. Parts of the New Testament were once used as hymns such as Colossians 1:12-16:
Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:12-16)
In 1918, archeologists found what is believed to be a Christian hymn from the third century. It is the oldest hymn we have that contains both lyrics and musical annotations. The lyrics read:
Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds … and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things,
Today, songs such as “In Christ Alone” or “The Old Rugged Cross” would fall into the hymn category.
Lastly, spiritual songs were probably testimonial songs. It’s likely a broad category that encompasses any music expressing spiritual truths. “I’d Rather Have Jesus” or “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” would be examples of spiritual songs. Frankly, we can’t be certain what Paul meant by this term—it’s quite vague—but we can safely assume any song is only as good as the truth it communicates.
Singing isn’t complicated. It may not be as flashy as what a seeker-sensitive church prefers, but it’s what God intended. Whether we have musicians or not, sing new or old songs, sing ten minutes or an hour, the one who is filled with the Spirit or wants to be filled with the Spirit will “[sing] and [make] melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19).
Second, he or she will be thankful. Paul says, “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:20). When should we be thankful? Always. For what should we be thankful? Everything. How are we to be thankful? In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is to say our thankfulness should be consistent with the person and will of Jesus. To whom are we to thank? God the Father.
I read the story of a missionary in London who found a woman on the floor of an old building dying of an incurable disease. The room was cold. The floor was hard. The woman had nothing, not even a bed. The missionary asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She replied, “I have everything I need. I have Jesus Christ.”
It’s easy to be thankful when our life is comfortable, but what happens when it’s not? If our joy and contentment are determined by external circumstances, then we’re not really thankful. Listen to what Paul says in Philippians 4 as he wrote from his Roman imprisonment:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul says that our walk with the Spirit begins with an expression of joy where we sing from our hearts, but it must go even deeper. You may remember the four groups of seeds in Jesus’ parable of the sower. He said of the second group:
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20-21)
In short, this group wasn’t thankful “always and for everything” (Eph 5:20). Anyone can sing. Anyone can be momentarily enthusiastic if he or she gets caught up in the emotion of a song. Our roots need to grow deeper. We need to learn the secret of contentment as Paul did and be thankful to God for all things.
Finally, we must “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Once we’ve felt joy in our hearts and genuine thankfulness to God, the next step is to humble ourselves before others. This step is the hardest of them all. Chances are, you’re already thinking, Why? What does submission have to do with being filled with the Spirit? Apparently, the answer is plenty. Submission is the subject of the rest of this chapter and the first nine verses of the next.
Please be patient with me. We’ll study this subject on its own in the coming weeks.