I enjoy meeting people and learning about their lives. One interesting fellow lived on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. I dropped off some things at his house on behalf of a mutual friend. Francisco invited me in, introduced me to his wife and children, offered me bananas, hard-boiled eggs and sweetened hot milk, then showed me around his beautifully kept little farm.
When I returned from the errand, my friend asked me what I thought. I told him I was impressed with Francisco and his family. I found him to be kind, gracious, obviously loved his family and was enjoying a level of prosperity that I hadn’t seen in that particular community. My friend smiled and nodded.
“You should have seen him before he became a believer,” he said. “Before he gave his life to the Lord Jesus, Francisco was an alcoholic, generally violent, and neglectful of his family. He lived in perpetual poverty because of his drinking. He was barely surviving. Now he’s a leader in his community. People admire him and come to him for advice.”
I could see why that was. Francisco’s life demonstrated that he had learned how to live successfully. This was important because many people have a lot to say about how to do that. They make themselves out to be experts, but when we look at their lives for evidence, we are disappointed to see that they’re no farther ahead than we are.
Words are not enough to convince us. They need to be backed up with fact. This is particularly true when we talk about spiritual things. Christians often say wonderful things about how to live and how God blesses, but a godly life speaks far louder than words. In the passage from Ephesians we’re going to look at today, Paul reminds his readers to wake up and pay attention to the way they live. It’s not enough to know all the right things to say, we need to live in a way that demonstrates the truth. Let’s read.
Ephesians 5:11 “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” 15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul begins this section by urging Christians to not have anything to do with what he calls “the unfruitful works of darkness.” We know from his letters to both churches and to individuals that he placed great value on spiritual fruit. Since the works of darkness did not produce good spiritual fruit they were to be avoided – but not just avoided. Paul wanted the Christians to expose the wickedness in the culture around them. Too often, Christians think that words of condemnation are enough, but that is not the case. People want to see the good fruit of a holy life, not just hear you talk about it.
Paul emphasizes this by saying that it is “shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” Talking about sin just draws more attention to it. What we need to do is live in such a way that our lives glow with the light of God. As we bring God’s light into the darkness around us, that which was invisible becomes visible. In verse 14 Paul includes what many believe was a line from an early hymn: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Once we are spiritually awake, Paul wants us to be careful about how we walk – how we live our day-to-day lives. Christians should not live just by cultural or personal standards however good they may appear to be. We’ve already seen that these are tainted by sin. We are called to a higher standard and to live godly lives we must let God’s word affect how we make decisions. This, in turn, shapes our behaviour, and eventually the course of our lives.
Paul carries on in verse 15 with a series of contrasts: Regarding the way we walk, he says we should do this not as unwise, but as wise. Regarding our use of the one great resource that God gives us all, he says we should make the best use of time, not wasting it. This is important because the days in which we live are evil. When God’s people waste time, they are giving Satan the advantage.
Paul goes on with two more contrasts. We should live our lives not foolishly, but understanding the will of the Lord. This is an interesting contrast in that it reminds us that living outside of the will of God is foolish. This parallels the idea we find in Proverbs 1:7 which says: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The apostle goes on to mention one particular behaviour – drunkenness. He challenges believers to not surrender themselves to drunkenness, because that is debauchery. Debauchery means excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures. He contrasts this with being filled with the Spirit of God.
Let’s think about what the life of a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit looks like. We won’t use our imaginations here. Paul gives us four points to help us with this.
The first is “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” I don’t believe Paul was teaching that Christians should just sing to each other all of the time. That would often be difficult and even inappropriate. I’m not sure anyone would want to hear what I have to say if I were forced to sing it! What Paul is getting at here is edification. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are all edifying – they build up our faith. So whether you speak or sing, let your communication be of such a kind that it builds people up.
The second evidence of a Spirit-filled life is that it is characterized by singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart. Once again, Paul isn’t insisting that the only way we communicate with God is through music, though it has an important role to play in our lives. Paul is stressing that Christians should be expressing joy when they speak to God. Too many of us grumble and complain to Him, but that’s inappropriate. When we spend time with God, we should be expressing our satisfaction with Him. After all, “He does all things well.” (Mark 7:37)
The third thing on Paul’s list is related to the second, but more specific. He tells Christians they should give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul encourages a spirit of thankfulness in the hearts of believers because it is evidence that they are accepting God’s sovereignty in their everyday lives. We believe that God has the power to do as He pleases. When He allows something we find unpleasant or painful to come into our lives, it is because He intends to use it for our good. Therefore, regardless of how we feel about the specific circumstances of our lives, we can be thankful because we know that God is in control and that He intends to bless us.
The last evidence of a Spirit-filled life is that of mutual submission. Paul tells us that we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is certainly evidence of the Holy Spirit, because generally human beings are not inclined to submit to one another. In the Christian context, submission to one another has to do with not seeking to control others thinking or behaviour, but accepting that they may have truth we have yet to learn. Remember that the submission is to be mutual. As soon as we start telling others they have to submit to us, we’re out of balance. The objective is that we’ll be in a constant state of learning from each other.
I find it interesting that Paul chose to use drunkenness as the contrast to being filled with the Holy Spirit. I did some research on the effects of alcohol on people and relationships. These statistics are specifically for Canada, but I suspect the patterns hold in other places. Almost 75% of Canadians over the age of 15 use alcohol, on average having 4 drinks per week. 20% of the people who do drink feel that their drinking has hurt them in some way, physically through illness or accident, losing a job or a relationship, things like that. Just about half of us have experienced being insulted or humiliated by someone under the influence of alcohol. Almost a third have been pushed or shoved by someone who had been drinking. 18% have experienced alcohol-related marriage problems. 15% have been physically assaulted by someone who had been drinking. Almost 3% have been sexually assaulted by someone under the influence of alcohol. It is safe to say that alcohol makes a big impact on the lives of Canadians. It affects users, their families and their communities.
Now, I have to ask myself, and you too, if the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers makes a similarly powerful impact on us and our world to the one alcohol makes on people. Do we Christians allow the Holy Spirit free rein in our lives to change us, affect our families for good and change our communities?
Whether or not we might ever be tempted to be “drunk with wine” (and I acknowledge that many Christians are not), we do have to let Paul’s instruction to be “filled with the Spirit” challenge our spiritual complacency.