Living in Christ's Wisdom
Ephesians 5:14-21
By Paul Robison

The first short story is about an Italian woman in her sixties years who was reading the book of Acts for the first time on her own.  When we read how members in the Jerusalem church sold their goods to help one another, her eyes sparkled, and she asked excitedly, “Where is that church today?  Why can't we do that?  Why can't we be like them?”  That's a wonderful example of the “Aha!” experience that the Scriptures can bring to our lives.  The second story is about a preacher who writes books for adult Bible classes.  One of his favorite expressions is this: “Familiar passages must be read more slowly and considered more carefully.  We think we already have them figured out, and sometimes miss what they are saying.”  A final short story is about the teacher who told us that whenever the members came to a hard passage in their Bible class that nobody understood, the teacher would ask: “Does anyone know what this means?”  Then someone would say, “Well, it means what it says, and it says what it means.”  After about 10 seconds, everybody would feel holy, and then move on to the next verse.” 

Today, we are going to pick back up with looking into the book of Ephesians.  Let's review just a moment about the city, the church, and the message of the letter.  The city had about 200,000 inhabitants and was wealthy since it had several trade and seas routes that came into it. 

It boasted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Temple to the goddess Diana or Artemis.  The city held games similar to the Olympics every four years and was a center for magic, incantations, and astrology.  The church began there in about 52 A. D. with the conversion of some disciples of John the Baptist.  The apostle Paul also utilized a school there, and many people throughout Asia heard the Gospel.  This is the city where the silversmiths caused a riot to take place since Paul's preaching had hurt their pocketbooks. The letter itself was written between 58-60 and emphasizes being consistent or living up to our calling in Christ.  In the first chapter, we saw how both Jewish and Gentile Christians can praise God because all spiritual blessings have been given by Him!  Paul then prays that the members will deeply grasp God's hope, riches, and power!  Then Paul further explains what God has done for them individually, collectively, and locally.  Paul also prays that they will be transformed, more enlightened, and more filled with God's traits, blessings, and favors.  Then Paul challenges them in chapter 4 to all work together to live up to their calling!  Then Paul describes some huge contrasts between pagans and Christians.  In chapter 5, Paul admonishes the members to live in Christ's love, to live in Christ's light, and to live in Christ's wisdom.  Living in Christ's wisdom covers the passages that were read this morning, verses 15-21.  This is a passage that is familiar, but as was pointed out earlier, maybe we need to read this passage more slowly and carefully to understand it.  This passage contains some wonderful news that challenges our thinking!  This sermon is not designed to make us feel holy and just move on.  This sermon can provide a real “Aha!” experience for us if we'll really hear what Paul was trying to tell the brethren in Ephesus.  Paul gives one command, three exhortations about it, and four ways that the third exhortation can become a reality! Paul first begins with this overall command for living in Christ's wisdom  in verse 15: “See then that you walk circumspectly” or we might say, “Be very careful how all of you live!”  This command is addressed to the whole congregation; the “you” is plural meaning “all of you.”  Believers should not return to the senseless living they did as unbelievers.  They must now be very careful.  Literally, Paul is saying that we need to watch each step that we take, and we must keep a watchful eye to all that is going on around us.  Satan has set his snares and pitfalls to entice us, and he knows that just one or two wrong steps just might get us started down a path going in the wrong direction.  One commentator made this good remark: “We need to be scrupulously careful about every detail of our conduct, for nothing is trivial or unimportant.  Our manner of speech, fashion of clothes, companions in pleasure, use of time, choice of magazines and books, expenditure of money, are all indicative of the degree of [wisdom] over [foolishness that we manifest] in our lives” (Paxson ).  But do you really care how you live?  A demon once asked Satan if there was any strategy that he could use to keep Americans from thinking about God and faith.  “Oh yes,” said Satan, “It's very easy.  Just remember this four letter word—b-u-s-y.”  A man once received a call from a female worker in his department saying that her car had broken down about two miles from the office.  He went out to meet her and asked what had happened.  She said that the car just suddenly quit running.  He asked if there was gas in the tank, and she replied that she's just filled it up.  Then he asked if it made any noise, and she answered: “Oh yes, it went, brump, brump, brump, pow!”  So then he asked, “When was the last time you changed your oil?”  “Oil?” she questioned with a puzzled look on her face.  Now get this: the same man said that he often got the same puzzled look when he had asked members of the church this question: “When was the last time you slowed down and stopped long enough to take a good spiritual inventory of your life?”  Be very careful how all of you live!

“Well, Bro. Paul of Tarsus, can you help us to understand a little more what living circumspectly means?”  So Paul now gives us three exhortations to help us further see what it means to live carefully, to live in Christ's wisdom.  These three exhortations have the same structure.  There is something not to do, followed by a contrast showing what to do. The first exhortation is seen in verses 15-16: “Not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” or we might say, “Don't live as fools, but take advantage of every opportunity since the days are evil” (5:15-16)!  Jesus affirmed in Matthew 7:24-27 that people who hear His teachings and put them into practice are wise, but those who do just the opposite are foolish.  Here is what not to do.  “Not as fools” -- Don't live as an unthinking person, who falls in line with the crowd, who takes the path of least resistance, who plays along with the majority, who disregards Jesus' teachings and His wisdom (Paxson).  Here is what to do.

Instead, we are to be wise.  “Well, Paul, how can we be wise?”  And Paul responds by saying, “You need to be redeeming the time.”  We'd say, “Take advantage of every opportunity.”  Here are some questions for you: “Do you eagerly grasp every opportunity to use it so that it will bring the most profit to God, or to others, or to yourself?  Are you a murderer who kills time and fails to see the enormity of such a sin” (Paxson)?  Do you spend more time in front of the TV absorbing humanistic ideas or in God's Word absorbing divine ideas?   You see, “the wise Christian will use up his or her opportunities for righteousness in the face of an evil age.  He knows that he must 'buy up' those occasions to influence his family and children for Jesus now.  She knows that she will not always have the occasion to speak a word about Jesus to a coworker, so she must speak today.  He knows that God's way of escape for a certain temptation may not always be open, so he must claim it while it is available.  She knows that the mid-week Bible study will help her develop her relationship with God, so she takes advantage of it.  He knows the opportunity to do a good deed in Jesus' name may soon slip away, so he gets involved quickly (Bullard).  These are examples of redeeming our time.  As a Christian, you should want to make every moment count because you know that the way you use your time here will determine your eternal destiny.  To neglect our opportunities to show forth Christ is to follow the world's foolish ways!  Be very careful how all of you live!  “Don't live as fools, but take advantage of every opportunity since the days are evil” (5:15-16)!

Now Paul provides another exhortation on how to live carefully.  Notice what verse 17 states: “Therefore do not be unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.”  You see, we might say: “Don't live as unwise (what not to do), but understand Christ's will (what to do)” (5:17)!

The Christian's understanding of life has been changed because we have a new heart or a new mind (Weed).  “Well, Paul, how can we keep from being unwise?”  And Paul replies by saying, “You need to be understanding Christ's will.”  The word “Lord” in this letter has always referred to Jesus.  The fundamental secret of living in Christ's wisdom is seeking Christ's will for our lives each day (Paxson)!  When you hit those forks in the road, you should make your decisions based on what will please Jesus and what will bring honor to His name in those circumstances.  You should always make choices with a thoughtful consideration of Christ's will.  See why Satan says, “B-u-s-y” is such a powerful strategy against us?  We don't even think at times, “What would Jesus have me to do?”  We're constantly thinking, “What's next to do on the agenda?”  We're often like the little girl at the elementary school who was having her picture made.  The photographer was making some light conversation and asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And she replied, “When I grow up, I think I'll be tired all the time.”

“The command in this verse 'understand' implies that you will put forth the time and effort to discover what Christ wants you to do and say in your world.  Through Bible study, prayer, personal reflection, and conversations with other disciples, you can come to know Christ's will.

His will isn't something mysterious and illusive; no indeed, it's readily available to you if you'll search for it.  The writer of Hebrews says this at the close of his letter in 13:20-21: “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”  Did you hear that?  God can help you to be complete in every good work to do His will!  Each day you must submit, as our Master, the Lord Jesus did: “Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Be very careful how all of you live!  “Don't live as unwise, but understand Christ's will” (5:17)!


Now Paul gives another exhortation on how to live carefully.  Notice what verse 18 states: “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”  You see, we might say: “Don't live as drunkards, but let yourselves be continually controlled by God's Spirit” (5:18)!  This is a remarkable statement when we look at it closely.

Mentioning drinking may strike us as somewhat odd, but in the Ephesian culture, drinking and religion were related.  Many ancient religions, and especially the worshipers of certain gods and goddesses, used wine, dancing, and music in wild rites designed to produce a frenzied state of intoxication which was believed to facilitate [both] communication with [a] deity and understanding the will of that god [or] goddess (Weed).

Paul is telling those who used to worship the goddess Diana in this way not to revert to that type of behavior.  Paul is not trying to take away joys and pleasures from these believers' lives, but he wants them to have higher joys and better pleasures (O'Brien).  One commentator gave an additional idea that serves as a warning to our culture as well: “Alcohol is the greatest single killer in the United States today, and it produces more sorrow than what may attributed to any other single source on earth.  It corrupts government, aggravates poverty, destroys spirituality, and eventually destroys any society stupid enough to indulge the unrestrained use of it” (Coffman).  You see, Satan wants us to substitute alcoholic spirits for the Holy Spirit because he always wants to replace the good with the bad (Ibid.).  “Dissipation” refers to sexual excess and sensual indulgences.  “Well, Bro. Paul of Tarsus, how can we keep from being intoxicated and living unrestrained?”  And Paul replies by saying, “Let yourselves be continually controlled by God's Spirit” (5:18)!  Have you heard many sermons on this command?  Unfortunately, probably not, because we are scared of the Holy Spirit.  We're scared because the Holy Spirit does not act in conventional ways.  We're scared because any influence by the Spirit apart from the Word almost sounds miraculous.

We're scared because we still want to control our lives instead of letting God's Spirit guide us.  But, beloved brethren, we don't need to be scared; we need to listen to the apostle Paul!  The verb used here is a present passive imperative second person plural.  Now let's examine the implications of this.  “Present” means that the action is on-going.  The indwelling of the Spirit, we receive in a onetime event at our baptism, but the filling of the Spirit is a continual daily action.  One commentator said it this way: “Being filled with the Spirit implies more than being indwelt by Him.  In some believers' lives, He has little more than a foothold, being almost crowded out by a number of concerns.  Paul is eager that his converts should be under the undisputed control of the Spirit.”  Do we have some “intoxicants” or concerns today that prohibit the Spirit from filling our lives?  Could sports (especially those that include the Razorbacks), watching TV, making money, using the Internet, or whatever we have a strong thirst for, could these “intoxicants” cause us to be controlled by them rather than to be controlled by God's Spirit?  Now back to understanding the verb: present means continuous action.

Passive means that the Spirit is filling us; it is doing the acting and we receive that action.  Imperative means it is a command; something we must all put into practice.  Second person plural means “you all”; this is something that happens to us together.  So this is why the translation: “Let yourselves be continually controlled by God's Spirit!”

“But Bro. Paul of Tarsus, how can we let the Spirit control our lives?”

This is where Paul gives four ways that we can do it.  To better understand what Paul does, we need a quick grammar lesson. Listen to this sentence: “Go to the store by taking your car.”  What is the main verb in that sentence?  It is “go”.  It is a command.  What is the word “taking”?  It is called a participle of means.  How are you going to go?  Well, the means you will use is your car.  In like manner, Paul now uses four particles of means to show how we can be controlled by or filled with the Holy Spirit.  The first way is by “speaking to one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs” (5:19) or we might say, “by teaching one another through songs.”  This emphasizes the horizontal aspect—we help the Spirit to control us by teaching to each other when we sing.  Psalms were those old Jewish songs based upon the book of Psalms.  Hymns were songs devoted to a god or goddess, but the Christians in Ephesus now used this type of song to glorify Jesus and God.

Spiritual songs were more personal and informal; songs that some members themselves probably wrote.  “Imagine how beautiful and soul-satisfying these meetings [filled with songs] must have been” (Hughes)!  Notice how Paul encouraged these members to use the  “old traditional psalms” as well as “the modern songs” adapted from their culture and written by their own members!  It is good that we can sing both older and newer songs.  And when are we going to hear some original songs written by members right here?  Yes, if you have the talent to write poetry and music, then why not try to write a spiritual song that we can sing?

Now look at the next way that we can be controlled by the Spirit: “by singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (5:19).  And you see, this emphasizes the vertical aspect.  We are not singing to please ourselves or to please one another; we are singing to please our Lord Jesus.  We sing with our vocal chords and make melody with the chords of our mind.  This worship involves both vocalizing and thinking; it does NOT involve using any mechanical instruments.  Another lesson is going to be devoted to the topic of why instruments of music in worship should be rejected.  But right now, let's not lose the train of thought that Paul is expressing to these brothers in Ephesus.

The third way that we can be filled with the Spirit is by “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:20).  We are to be a thankful people who pray to our Almighty God through our one and only Mediator, Jesus.  “Always” means all the time, and “for all things” means thanking God for all the spiritual and material blessings that He has provided.  It does not seem here that Paul is asking us to become hypocrites and thank God when evils strike our congregation.  But even in those terrible situations, we can know that God is near and continue to bless His name, just as Job did.  When we are being truly grateful and appreciative, we are being filled with the Spirit.

The fourth way that we can be Spirit controlled is by submitting to one another in the fear of God” (5:21).  “In Paul's day 'submit' was a military term, and it literally meant 'one equal putting himself under another equal'.  It carried no connotation of inferiority. ... Submission is for every believer.  To the degree that we humbly serve and treat each other with respect, and to that same degree we are [controlled by] the Spirit.  The reason that some Christians never get anywhere in their Christian lives is that they are always standing up for their rights!  As long a Christian is doing this, he or she cannot be yielding to the Spirit's control.  After all, what rights does a dead individual have anyway, [one who is dying daily on his or her own cross]” (Bullard)?  You see, being controlled by God's Spirit is not about ecstasy or exuberance, but it’s about singing, praying, and submitting TOGETHER!  You see, this fullness from God's Spirit is something that we obtain only when we work together at it.  It is not something that we can get as individuals.  We can only be filled with the Spirit when we assemble together!  See what you miss out on when you don't attend?  “Let yourselves be continually controlled by God's Spirit!” .. this should be an “Aha!” experience for us!  Don't let the familiarity of using this text as a proof-text against instrument music in worship blind you to the more wonderful message that it has to offer!  This interpretation is a little different, so feel free to share your idea after services.  It doesn't just “say what it means,” it challenges us all to be very careful how we live, to take advantage of our daily opportunities, to understand Christ's will daily, and to be let ourselves be filled by God's Spirit as we sing and pray together and mutually submit to one another!

There was a professor who was to give a lecture at another university.  When he got to the airport, he was greeted by a tall male student in his mid-twenties.  As the student was escorting the professor to his car and walking through the airport, he would break conversation with the professor for a minute and go over to help a woman put her suitcase on the scale, or he would pick up child who was crying and twirl it over his head, then dry its tears and keep on walking, or once he darted over to help a man in his wheelchair pick up his dropped billfold, which he put in his hands with a smile.  The professor finally got his attention long enough to ask, “How do you do that?”  “Do what?” the student asked.

“How do you serve others like you do?”  “Oh that,” said the student.  “Well, sir, it's like this.  In Vietnam, my job was to use the sweeper to discover the land mines and signal the troops following me to avoid them. 

This practice taught me to look broadly, to walk carefully, and to do all I could to keep as many of my comrades alive as possible.  I guess I've kind of grown used to doing the same thing now.  Only now I look for the opportunities to leave the beaten path and bring as much joy to as many others as I possibly can.  Every day we live in this good land is a gift from God, and I want others to realize that too” (Unknown).  Have you been walking carefully, thoughtfully, and joyfully?  Have you been taking advantage of every opportunity?  Have you been trying to put Christ's will into practice each day?  Have you let other things crowd out the Spirit's control?  Have you forgotten the importance of growing together with other members in the church?  Great living begins with making Christ the supreme relationship in your life, and it continues as you live in Christ's wisdom!