Summary: Here, we are being instructed to the things that exhibit and encourage a Spirit-filled life.
There is a satisfaction to reaching the end of a long walk, especially if that walk has been along beautiful and interesting vistas. So it has been with our walk in this section of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that presents the Christian walk. Stretching from 4:1 to 5:21, we have been given a view of the walk that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called. We have been shown the traits we are to exhibit, the fellowship to which we belong, the path to follow through the forest of the world, and now to our destination…the end of this section.
In chapter 5 Paul has been telling the Ephesians what not to do and what to do instead. Do not engage in crude speech but rather join in thanksgiving. Do not partner in sexual immorality with “sons of disobedience,” but instead walk as children of light. Take no part in works of darkness; instead, by the way you live, expose these unfruitful works of darkness for what they are. Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise but as wise. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Verse 18 presents the last of the do not/do instructions.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.
Let’s be clear as to what is forbidden. As Scripture does not forbid sexual relations but that which is in excess, i.e. outside the prescribed marital boundaries, so it does not forbid the drinking of wine but that which is in excess. Our translation has debauchery. Overdrinking can certainly lead to debauchery. That term gives the image of a person acting out of his senses and being vulgar. That often happens to a drunk person, but this verse here is speaking to drunkenness in whatever way it is expressed. There are some who grow boisterous; some who grow quiet; some who act boorishly; some who become the life of the party. Becoming under the influence of alcohol affects people in different ways. Paul is saying that none of the ways a drunk acts is proper. Being controlled by alcohol is itself excess that is not acceptable.
But then, being controlled is not necessarily bad in itself. It is what we are controlled by that is the issue. And so, instead of being filled with wine, we are to be filled with the Spirit. What then is it to be filled with the Spirit? How can one get filled by the Spirit of God, who, as Jesus explained, is like the wind that blows where it wishes (cf John 3:8)? For that matter, are we not already filled with the Spirit? In this same letter, Paul has told his readers that they are “sealed” with the Holy Spirit (1:13) and that the Spirit is in our inner being (3:16).
In truth, we do have the Holy Spirit. He is in us. It is the Spirit who has regenerated us and who applies the benefits of Christ’s work to us. The Spirit convicts us and gives us faith. The Spirit sanctifies us so that we can walk in the worthy manner of our calling. But though God is at work in us through his Spirit, and he alone receives all glory for what is done in us, Scripture, nevertheless, does not treat us as automatons. It instructs as to what to do, not merely inform us what is being done in us. Here, we are being instructed to the things that exhibit and encourage a Spirit-filled life.
What are those things? Fortunately, Paul tells his readers. To be filled with the Spirit is:
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.
To be filled with the Spirit is to sing! That does not encompass all of what it means, but it is not difficult to see why this activity comes to Paul’s mind here. What do drunk people often like to do? Sing. They lose their normal inhibition, no longer fearful of being embarrassed, and they sing out. And the more who sing with them, the merrier. And being merry is the right word. There are sullen drunks and mean drunks, but there are not sullen and mean singing drunks. And when they sing, they sing heartily. And as they sing heartily they feel camaraderie with their fellow singers.
Paul is saying, instead of depending upon wine to loosen your tongues and to fellowship together in song, do the same in the Spirit. And whereas, drunks will bond together while singing the glory of immorality and drunkenness, you bond together through making melody to the Lord, through giving thanks to the Lord for all that is good.