Toward a Wise Life: Ephesians 5.15-21

As we’ve worked through the difficult section of moral instruction in Ephesians, which stretches from the middle of chapter 4 through all of chapter 5 and into chapter 6, we’ve attempted to keep the big picture in mind. Rules and regulation are not what Paul is all about (and far less so, Jesus), but rather a whole new way of life that breaks the systemic patterns of ‘normal’ human life ‘in this world.’ Today we’re going to look at a short text of just seven verses, which serves as the introduction to a larger section, which stretches from 5.15-6.9.

Here is today’s text:

(5.15) So then, watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise people but as the wise, (16) taking advantage of this season while it lasts, for 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 on wine, which is wasteful excess, but be filled instead with the Spirit, (19) speaking to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing instruments with your heart to the Lord, and always (20) giving thanks to our God and Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (21) submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.

This text is a bit of a mishmash of different ideas, but it’s pretty straightforward in the basic message, which completes one long section of moral instructions and prepares the reader for the ‘household code’ to follow. It starts with another reference to ‘walking’, that is to living out one’s faith in daily life. The last section commanded readers to walk in imitation of God’s love and as children of the light. Here this is is glossed in terms of wisdom, which is a helpful reminder that this sort of moral instruction falls into the broader category of Wisdom Literature. We are then urged to make the best use of the time we have, not being foolishly distracted by other things (presumably the ‘appetites of the flesh’, along with the other two negative influences Paul mentioned in 2.1-3, the purveyors of lies and half-truths and ‘the way the world works’), but understanding — and doing — the will of God. Then there is a command against drunkenness, understood as yet one more example of sinful excess. This is contrasted with being filled with the Holy Spirit, a way of life that is described in three ways: singing hymns and other spiritual songs (worship here functioning as a key form of the speech that builds up, to which Paul exhorted his readers in the last two sections); giving thanks always, as a sign of right relationship with ‘things’ as gifts from God; and “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” This is what it means to live a wise life, according to Ephesians 5.15-21.

Today I’d like to quickly look at a couple details within the text before focusing on on the final clause (5.21), which sets up a large section of text from 5.22-6.9:

  • What does the author mean by ‘taking advantage’ of the time (5.16)?
  • How does the command against drunkenness fit in with the larger argument?
  • How should we interpret ‘submitting to one another in the fear of Christ’?

Taking Advantage of the Time

5.16 contains an interesting and unique expression that is worth some consideration. After the discussion of the right way to ‘walk’ — in love, as light, and as wise people — Paul includes the clause phrase I’ve translated as “taking advantage of the season while it lasts” (exagorazomenoi ton kairon).* Literally, it means something like, “buying out the season.” The first word is a metaphor from the market, an emphatic form of the word ‘to buy’. Its direct object is kairos, one of the main words we often translate as ‘time’, but referring to the appointed or appropriate time for something to be done, hence ‘season’, ‘opportunity, ‘critical moment.’ The sense is that wise living involves making the most of the time provided to us. Paul modifies this with “because the days are evil.” In uncertain and ‘evil’ times, when good futures and positive outcomes are difficult to imagine, it’s all the more important to ‘make hay while the sun shines,’ or ‘buy now while quantities last’ — to push forward in faith in the here and now. There’s not a moment to lose.

Drunkenness and the Spirit

Another odd detail is the injunction against drunkenness in 5.18. The instruction itself is not odd — drunkenness was a common vice discussed in moral literature of Paul’s time and his explanation for it as “wasteful excess” fits in perfectly with the overall understanding of sin Paul developed in 4.17-19 and 5.3-4. What makes it odd is its placement here; it seems like it would fit far more naturally with the discussions about anger, theft, sex, and foolish or nasty conversation in the previous sections than it does here, in this ‘bridge’ section where Paul is speaking in more general terms. My guess is that the thoughts connected for Paul in the idea of contrasting being filled with wine and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul describes being filled with the Spirit here in terms of conversation filled with Scripture and hymns which edify and fortify the faithful; there’s an implicit contrast here with the type of sloppy, bawdy, and generally stupid conversation people have when drunk. Again, Paul mentions thanksgiving as an antidote to the excess that he has previously called ‘idolatry’ — wise living indeed!

Submission and the Fear of Christ

The final way Paul describes a Spirit-filled life in this section involves “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” Both halves of this are important, since both the idea of submission and doing anything out of ‘fear’ raise big questions for us today.

The term used for submitting here (hypotasso) is the normal one for setting anything, particularly people, in order. It has no sense of inherent difference in esteem or essence, only difference in role and status. Christ himself is said to submit to the Father (1 Cor 15.28) — there is no image here of “degrading servility,” as Ralph P. Martin put it, or of “a passive, weak life dominated by a negative self-image,” as Klyne Snodgrass describes our concerns about the word. Here, rather than exhorting the faithful to submit to a kind of hierarchy, the text tells them to submit to one another. There is no ‘privileged’ or ‘marginalized’ group here.

While, as the household code in the next section (5.22-6.9) shows, the application of this idea in the world is more complicated than the ideal lets on (for Paul does not undo the existing hierarchies that governed the household), we need to give the ideal its revolutionary due. In a world where everyone from the Emperor down to the lowliest slave was understood to be in a hierarchy of patronage, favour, and submission, the idea of mutual submission — addressed to everyone in a community — would be shocking. It is a teaching that Paul picks up from Jesus, who rejected his disciples’ wranglings for places of honour and power and told them instead to become “the slave of all” (Mark 10.44), and who used his last hours as a free man to wash his disciples’ feet, saying:

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, slaves are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13.14-16)

And at the end of that same meal, he said:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13.34-35)

From Christ’s own example and teaching we have this idea of service to one another motivated by love. And of course just at the start of Ephesians 5, Paul has exhorted his readers to imitate God’s love as revealed in Jesus’ self-transcending offering of his own life for the life of the world. Submission in the New Testament is the expression of the self-giving, other-focused, humble love lived out by Jesus and therefore expected of all Christians.

This is a wonderful and fundamentally Christian ideal, but, of course, it presumes that everyone in the community will be on the same page about it; if even one person is out of line, the call to mutual submission in love can be a recipe for abuse and coercion.

I’ve referred to this ideal as ‘mutual submission in love’. Theologically this is accurate since it is submission in imitation of Christ’s love. However, this is not the language Paul uses here. Rather, he says to submit to one another “in the fear of Christ.” This is the only time in the New Testament that this use of fear (common in the Scriptures, referring to God) is directed towards Jesus. This usage of fear should not be confused with the fear of violence or the fear of tyrants, but is about awe, wonder, and humility in the face of transcendent power. This seems particularly fitting in this setting, since Christ’s example of humble love is so great as to seem inimitable — and yet we are called to imitate it nonetheless. (Lord have mercy!)

Concluding Thoughts

This post has been a bit scattered, but to be fair, so has this section of Ephesians, which we might think of as an ‘off ramp’ carrying us from the section on general moral instruction to the household codes that follow. The section urges us to a life of wisdom, making the best use of our allotted time, and filled with the Holy Spirit, building one another up in faith, giving thanks to God as an expression of our restored proper relationship to created things, and submitting to one another in love, regardless of status or rank, in imitation of Christ.

This wonderful, idealistic vision of Christian life and community will need to stay front and centre as we tackle the next section of Ephesians, the challenging, much-maligned, and much-abused household code.

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