Monday, August 13, 2018

Walking in Wisdom (Part 2) – Ephesians 5:19-21


Last time we saw that there are three things that the believer must do if he or she is to walk in wisdom (15).  They must redeem the time (16), understand the will of the Lord (17), and be filled with the Spirit (18).  However, the apostle goes on to talk about the effects of walking wisely, and there are three things that he lists in verses 19-21.  These are singing to the Lord and to one another (19), giving thanks to the Lord (20), and submitting to another in the fear of God (21). 

One preliminary observation I think it is important to make is that these things are done in the context of community.  We are to sing to one another (the KJV “speaking to yourselves,” although a possible translation, is not quite on the mark; it ought to be translated, as it is in most versions, “speaking to each other”), and we are to submit to one another.  Even the practice of giving thanks is described in such a way as to point to community: we are to give thanks “in the name of our Lord Jesus,” so that as we give thanks we recognize that our allegiance to Jesus is an allegiance in community. 

If the effects of being filled with the Spirit operate within the context of the gathered church, it stands to reason that we cannot in the first place become wise in isolation.  This of course fits in with what the apostle has already said: the church grows as each member does its part in the community of believers.  We are being transformed into the image of our Lord as we rub elbows with other believers who have different and complementary gifts.  A wise person does not seek to isolate themselves from others, especially those who belong to the church.

Another preliminary observation is that these three categories serve as a way to judge the authenticity of any movement that claims to be Spirit-filled, for all these things are the fruit of being filled with the Spirit.  A true revival of religion will be characterized by people who sing with their hearts to the Lord and to each other, who are thankful, and who strive with all their might to put the concerns of others before themselves.

We begin with the first effect of being filled with the Spirit: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (19).  It is interesting that when Benjamin Franklin described the effects of the preaching of George Whitefield, singing was an important part of his description: “It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent towards Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the Town in an evening without hearing Psalms sung in different Families of every Street.”[1]  Singing, it seems, was a natural byproduct of the revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening, and it fits exactly with the way the apostle described the filling of the Spirit.

And I think we can all testify to the power that music has had in our lives.  Sometimes a song is all it takes to bring us out of a period of spiritual darkness and despair and into the sunlit fields of gospel light.  As I put it to the brethren during our last Wednesday evening prayer meeting, I have found that singing hymns, especially at the end of the day, has the effect of melting my heart which has grown cold and hard during the day.  This is not, therefore, something which is marginally important; it is the very first thing the apostle lists as the result of being filled with the Spirit.

What then does this verse teach us about corporate worship?  First of all, it teaches us something about the content of the music the church sings.  Everyone of these words that Paul uses – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – were used to describe the OT Psalms in the LXX, often in the titles of the psalms.  Also, the word translated “making melody” in the KJV literally means “psalming,” and is an unmistakable reference to the OT practice of singing the psalms.  Now, I don’t think, as some do, that this means the church should only sing the OT psalms.  But it does point to the Psalms as a model for the kind of songs the NT church is to sing.  And when we look to the Psalms, we see that they were filled with doctrinal content as to the character of God and his redemptive purposes.  They were not light and airy compositions with little or no doctrinal substance.  Some of the very best descriptions of the nature and attributes of God come from the Psalms (take, for example, Psalm 145).  The hymns that we sing today therefore need to have words that teach us something about God, that point our hearts and minds to truths about him.  We will never worship God in spirit unless we also worship him in truth.  The important thing is not whether a particular melody moves the soul, but whether the words which are carried upon the melody move the soul and heart.  That is why I appreciate hymns like, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” or, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  These kinds of hymns point us to the greatness of our God, just like the Psalms of old.  Again, just because a song moves you, does not mean it is worthy of the corporate worship of the church.  You need to look at the lyrics.  Do they point you to the God of the Bible?  Do they teach you something about him?  Do they reorient your heart toward God: Father, Son, and Spirit?  Bob Kauflin, one of the great modern hymn-writers, makes this wise observation: “When our songs and prayers are dominated by what we think and feel about God and focus less upon who he is and what he thinks and feels about us, we run the risk of fueling our emotions with more emotion.  We can end up worshipping our worship.”[2] 

Another thing instructive about the Psalms is the different ways they do this.  Many of the Psalms are prayers which are sung directly to the Lord.  We ought therefore to sing songs just like that.  At the same time, there are also many Psalms (like Psalm 78) which are instructional and are directed to the people of the Lord.  As the apostle put it, we sing to the Lord, and we sing to each other.  There ought to be a sense in which truth is being preached to us when we lift up our voices in song.  In this connection, the parallel passage in Colossians is enlightening: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).  Here “teaching and admonishing” has replaced “speaking” in Eph. 5:19.  By the songs we sing, we need to be teaching each other Biblical truth.

This, by the way, is partly what informs my desire to continue the practice to allow for people in our congregation to select some of the hymns that we sing.  If the preacher or the worship leader picks all the songs, it really takes away the ability of the believers to participate in teaching others through song.  In other words, when you pick a song for all of us to sing together, you have become in some sense one who is teaching and admonishing the rest of us through that particular song.  This also fits in with the way the apostle described the worship of the earliest church: “How is it then brethren?  When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.  Let all things be done unto edifying” (1 Cor. 14:26).  I think it is also important for someone who has had a song that has really ministered to them that week to have the opportunity to sing that with the rest of the church on the Lord’s Day.

Another thing that I think is instructive about the comparison with the Psalms, is that the Psalms encompass the full range of human emotion, and I think we ought to allow space in our singing together for just that.  In other words, if every song that the congregation sings together supposes that they are all on the mountain top with no worries, then something is wrong.  There ought to be place for hymns like Psalm 42: “O why art thou cast down my soul/ and why so troubled shouldst thou be/ hope thou in God and him extol/ who gives his saving help to thee/ who gives his saving help to thee.”  You may not be lamenting but someone else in the church may be, and it will not hurt you to sing a song that expresses the lament of their heart – after all, we are to weep with those who weep, and we can do this in song just as well as we can do it with tears.  Psalm 88 sits right beside Psalm 89 in the canon, and I thank God for that.

One may ask in this connection whether these words describe also the mode of our singing.  Does the Bible prescribe one particular way to do this?  The Psalms were clearly sung with musical accompaniment, and had the Divine sanction for the practice (see 2 Chron. 29:25).  If fact, the very word “psalm” originally had reference to the sound of a stringed instrument.[3]  So an argument could be made that the very language of the apostle supposes that our hymns should be sung with musical accompaniment.  However, by the time of the apostle, it could also just refer to a hymn of praise, whether accompanied by musical instruments or not (cf. Jam. 5:13).  So it may be impossible to be dogmatic either way from the language of this verse.  Nevertheless, given the obvious connections of the language of the apostle to the OT Psalms, it seems dubious to me to absolutely forbid the use of musical instruments in the church.

That being said, it is interesting is that the early church – the church of the first four centuries – did not look with favor upon the idea of using musical instruments in the church.  The church fathers virtually unanimously voted in favor of acapella singing in the church.  They felt that using musical accompaniment during worship was Jewish and Pagan; in other words, they wanted to distinguish the practice of the Christian church from the practice of the Jewish synagogue and the Pagan temple, and so they banned musical instruments altogether.  In fact, the Greek Orthodox Church to this day does not use musical instruments in worship (with a few exceptions, it seems), and it dates this practice all the way back to the practice of the early church.  Now this is not a Biblical argument and the early church clearly got some things wrong.  We don’t follow them blindly.  But it ought to give us pause that in our day when musical instruments are thought to be absolutely essential to worship that the early church for the first three or four centuries wouldn’t use them at all and it did just fine.

Personally, I think there are a lot of dangers with introducing musical instruments that we need to be aware of.  One of the dangers is drowning out the voice of the people and turning the worship time into a concert.  The dynamic of Christian worship ought to be congregational, and the use of musical instruments ought to support this not replace it.  But the introduction of musical instruments often ends up eclipsing the singing of the congregation, and this is extremely unfortunate (even if the singing is bad!).  The apostle is describing corporate, not private, worship, and our worship time ought to reflect that. 

However, whether this verse describes a mode of worship that uses musical instruments or not, we do need to note that an essential element to true worship is singing with the heart: “singing and psalming in your heart to the Lord.”  Again, I have heard people use this to say that we should never use musical instruments because the apostle says that we are to sing with our hearts, and musical instruments don’t have hearts.  This, of course, is a stupid argument.  Whether or not musical instruments accompany our voices, the fact of the matter is that we are to worship God in our singing, and the only way we can truly do this is if our hearts accompany the sound.  We do not want to be counted among those who worship God with their lips but their hearts are far from him.  It is impossible to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to remain unmoved when singing truth to God and about the God of our salvation.

Closely connected to worshipping God with singing is thanksgiving: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (20).  Though this is something that we all know we ought to be doing, few do it the way they ought.  We are told to say, “Thank you,” as a matter of duty, but few feel gratitude for the things they receive.  We have to constantly battle against a “you-owe-it-to-me” mentality, this entitlement mentality.  This is especially true when it comes to our relationship with God.

Yet someone who is filled with the Spirit is a person who is giving thanks to God.  You can’t be the kind of person who is singing to God and remain unthankful.  And you can’t be filled with a heart of gratitude and not want to sing to God.  These things go hand-in-hand.

Remember that we said what was the sine qua non of being filled with the Spirit: it is the natural consequence of walking by faith in Christ our Lord.  Those who do so recognize that certain things are true and as a result of this they are filled not only with the Spirit but with thanksgiving as well.  For one thing, they recognize that God is sovereign over all things.  It would be hard to give thanks to God for all things if you did not trust that he is in control and that his control is universal.  God the Father has made Christ king over all: “All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18).  And as sovereign over all, he oversees all things for the good of his people.  “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof” (Ps. 97:1).  “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Ps. 97:12).

Of course, giving thanks for all things does not mean that we give thanks for sin and evil.  We cannot rejoice in iniquity but in the truth.  But it does mean that we recognize that even the bad things that happen to us and others will be overruled for God’s glory and our good: “And we know that all things work together for good, for them that love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  It will be hard to give thanks if you think God is not sovereign over even the small events of your life.  Those who trust in the Lord do not give in to despair but give thanks because they confidently rest upon the good purpose of him who is too wise to err and too good to be unkind.

Those who trust in Christ not only recognize God’s greatness but also their own guiltiness.  There is nothing that will kill that sense of entitlement that spoils every thanksgiving more quickly than a realization of our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The reason why every giving of thanks must be made “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” is because of our sin so that our only hope of approach unto the Father is through the redemptive work of his Son.  We are not entitled to anything.  God does not owe us anything, except perhaps judgment.  The fact that through faith in Christ we are heirs of the glory to come ought to forever silence all grumblings and thankless murmurings.  So we not only thank God because we recognize his sovereignty over all things, but also because we recognize his grace over his through Jesus Christ.

But we also recognize his faithfulness, his covenant love.  We give thanks “always” because God is always for us in Christ.  There is never a time when God our Father stops loving and caring for us.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.  They are accepted in the Beloved always and forever.  We stand in the grace of God, we don’t move in and out of it.  God’s sovereignty and grace extend to his people through all their lives and into eternity. 

And so we thank him always for all things because we trust in his Son who has all power in heaven and earth, and who is with us until the end of the ages, who has died for those who believe in him so that they might have eternal life.  We are filled with the Spirit because we believe these things and live out these things.  And believing, we give thanks.

And then Paul adds, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (21).  Now this verse lays the foundation for everything that Paul will write in verses 22 through 6:9.  In those verses he gives particular instances of submitting to God-ordained leadership.  But before he does that, he lays down a general principle.  There is a sense in which we mutually submit to one another.  The apostle Peter wrote, “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.  Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:5-6).  This is a matter, therefore, of humility and it is a mark of being filled with the Spirit.  It is therefore a mark of walking in wisdom.  Wisdom does not lead to putting yourself ahead of others but of putting the interests of others before your own.  It is what the apostle James was getting at when he wrote, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (Jam. 3:17).  But, more particularly, what does it look like?[4]

It means, first of all, that we recognize that we are not merely individuals acting alone, but are part of a larger community.  We are like soldiers in the army.  You have to act as a part of a larger unit, whether considered at the squad level, or platoon level, and so on.  Thus, we should never think individualistically.  The Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ, so if you are filled with the Spirit, you will not think and make choices that do not take others and their interests and problems into consideration.  There is nothing that tears at the unity of the church, and grieves the Spirit, more than this individualism that so often permeates our attitudes towards others.  Or another way to put this, is that we must kill the spirit of selfishness and self-seeking and putting ourselves first and being self-assertive.  We need to kill it if we are going to keep in step with the Spirit.

Another way to put this is that we are not thoughtless, and we don’t just jump into something without thinking it through.  When I was married, I could make decisions on the fly and whether those decision were good or bad, it didn’t always matter because they generally affected only myself.  But when I got married and then when I started having children, my decisions took on a much greater weight.  They not only affected me but my wife and my wife and my children as well.  In a similar fashion, as we are part of the family of God, we ought to think before we act, especially before we pull the pin on a verbal grenade.  Another way to put this is that I must be thoughtful of others.  You are not the center of the universe.  Christ is.  And we are one part of a much larger body and we can only benefit the body of Christ when we consider those around us.  This is little worse than having to work with people who take little thought of the people around them.

One of the particular ways this is manifested is being opinionated.  The Christian must never be opinionated.  That does not mean he or she cannot have opinions; it just means that we care as much about the opinions of others as we do our own.  We listen before we speak.  The opinionated man speaks before he listens; his one concern is for his opinion to be heard.  As Lloyd-Jones put it, the “opinionated man is much more interested in the fact that he believes than in what he believers; he is always looking at himself; he parades his beliefs. . . . But he is not really interested in truth, he is interested in his relationship to it, his knowledge of it.  Opinionated people always cause clashes.”[5]

Such people tend to be dictatorial; it’s their way or the highway.  Moreover, they also tend to be harsh in their criticism of others.  Worse, they can’t take criticism themselves.  Point out a problem with their thinking or with their behavior and they immediately become defensive and abusive.  They attack those who have lovingly confronted them.  The irony is that these people think they are showing strength when they respond this way; but they are really weak.  They are being foolish.  “A scorner loveth not one that reproveth him: neither will he go unto the wise” (Prov. 15:12).

What is the solution to this kind of attitude?  It is to submit to one another in the fear of God.  Most modern versions read, “the fear of Christ,” and this is probably the better reading.  Regardless, it comes out the same either way.  We are to be motivated by the fear of God, the fear of Christ.  It recalls what Peter said when he set before his readers the “mighty hand of God.”  It is a hard thing to do, to submit to others.  We all want to be exalted now.  It is the pride that is latent in every one of us.  The only way to combat this problem is to place ourselves before God Almighty.  That is what Paul is getting at when he says we are to submit in the fear of Christ.  We will inevitably overestimate our importance and be overly convinced of our self-importance until, like Isaiah, we see ourselves in light of the holiness and majesty and glory of God. 

What does it mean to walk in wisdom?  It means that we turn every moment to our spiritual advantage so that we grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.  It means that we seek God’s word in God’s book so that we understand what is his will for our lives.  It means that we live by faith in Christ so that we are filled more and more by his Spirit.  And as we are being filled, we sing unto the Lord with joy and glory in our hearts, giving thanks, and humbling ourselves before our Lord so that we put others before ourselves.  May God make these realities evident in our lives more and more.







[1] http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/ideas/text2/franklinwhitefield.pdf
[2] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-not-to-worship-your-worship
[3] H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 708.
[4] Many of the following thoughts were gleaned from Lloyd Jones, Life in the Spirit, p. 55-69.
[5] Ibid., p. 59.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Walking in Wisdom (Part 1) – Ephesians 5:15-18


The Christian life is a “walk.”  In the beginning, the path of faith was known simply as “The Way” (Acts 9:2).  You don’t just think about a Way – you walk it.  Faith in Christ is not merely believing certain things like you might believe certain facts of history (though it is not less than that), but it is believing them in such a way that it effects the way you live, the choices you make, how you feel about things, and how you judge the value of things.  We have noticed how the apostle has repeatedly exhorted the saints to walk in certain ways and we have used this as a sort of roadmap as we have explored the application part of this epistle (chapters 4-6).  We are to walk in unity, holiness, love, and light.  And now, the apostle exhorts us to “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (5:15).  Followers of Christ are to be characterized by wisdom in what they choose, in what they love, and in how they live from day to day.
But we should be careful that we do not mistake the wisdom of which the apostle speaks for the “wisdom of the world” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6).  The world in rebellion against God will try to imitate every one of these things: unity, love, light, wisdom, and even holiness.  It will offer you an alternative version of these things and tell you that its version is the real thing.  It looks at faith in Christ, not as wisdom, but as foolishness.  As the apostle put it, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). 
I remember years ago reading Masters of Deceit, a book by J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI.  The book is about the Communist Party in the US in the 1950s.  One of the things I remember to this day was the way he described the way the local party cells operated.  According to Hoover’s description, it sounded a lot like a local church, and it occurred to me how even atheistic movements like Communism try so desperately to mimic the real thing.  But as people made in the image of God, we need community, whether we believe in him or not, and so the devil creates artificial substitutes.  He does this with wisdom as well.
The world in which we live will tell you that wisdom means making the most of your finances and living in such a way that you can retire comfortably when you’re relatively young.  Or it will tell you that wisdom means eating right and exercising so that you don’t die when you’re relatively young.  Or it will tell you that wisdom is mastering some aspect of human experience, and to become a scientist and a scholar.  Our culture worships wealth, physical fitness, and intelligence, and it equates wisdom with people who achieve some measure of success in these areas.
That’s not to say that wealth or physical fitness or intelligence are bad things.  It’s not even wrong to pursue and improve upon these things at some level.  But this is not how the Bible, which is God’s book, describes wisdom.  As you were reminded last Lord’s Day, true wisdom is rooted in the fear of God.  It’s interesting that this paragraph in Ephesians begins with an exhortation to walk in wisdom and ends with an exhortation to mutual submission “in the fear of God” (or, “in the fear of Christ,” which is perhaps the better reading).  Knowing and fearing God is the first and most basic step to Biblical wisdom.  The point of God’s word is that you can have all the wealth in the world, the fittest body, and the highest IQ, but if you do not have eternal life, if your sins are not forgiven, if you are alienated from God, then at the end of the day none of those things are going to do you any ultimate or eternal good.  On the other hand, the world, which doesn’t give two cents for the age to come, thinks that it is totally absurd to spend all your time pursuing the things of God when you should be building your financial portfolio or building your body or building your CV. 
The point is that you are going to have to decide which is most important.  Either the Bible is right or it is wrong on what is of ultimate importance.  If it is right, then it is absurd to seek first the kingdom of this world and its wealth, power, and prosperity.  And if it is right, then it is also absurd not to seek first the kingdom of God, and that means learning to walk in the way of Biblical wisdom.  On the other hand, if you really think the Bible is untrue, then you are a fool to pursue Biblical wisdom.  But if you are convinced that it is true, then you are fool not to pursue Biblical wisdom.
But how are we to figure out who is right and who is wrong?  In our day, it is popular to appeal to the smart people and to scientific studies to back up one’s claims.  But clearly you cannot settle this matter by simply pointing to smart people who hold to a certain view; the problem with this is that there are plenty of really smart people who are on both sides of this issue.  There are plenty of really smart agnostics and atheists, and there are plenty of really smart theists and Christian thinkers.  Nor is it enough to get out the scales and weigh which side has a larger percentage of smart people on its side, for truth has never been decided by majority opinion. 
How then can we decide for ourselves, or must we remain forever halting between two opinions?  Though I am not against apologetics, and in fact very much for thinking through these things, yet the fact of the matter is that very few of us will ever be able to navigate all the arguments for and against.  And yet that doesn’t mean we must remain forever in suspense.  For if the Bible is in fact God’s word, then it is its own witness.  Theologians refer to this reality by saying that Scripture is self-authenticating.  In other words, if God has spoken, then what further proof would you need?  But Scripture claims to be God’s word; the key to wrestling doubt down to the ground must therefore be found by seeking God in his word, which is given to us in the pages of Scripture.
What do I mean by this?  I mean that you should seek God by reading the Bible.  And if you truly are seeking him, you will find him there.  Isn’t that the point of Proverbs 2:1-6?  Note that I am not talking about what Mormons encourage you to do, when they tell you to listen to that “still small voice.”  That is looking inside yourself; worse, it exposes you to mistaking God’s voice with your own feelings, which may or may not be as influenced by undigested pizza as by anything else.  Rather, the advice I am giving is to look out of yourself by looking in God’s word given to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. 
Let me illustrate what I am trying to say by looking at the way John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was converted.  Before his conversion to Christ, Newton was a confirmed infidel in the truest sense of the word.  How did he move from unbelief to belief?  He tells us: “One of the first helps I received (in consequence of a determination to examine the New Testament more carefully) was from Luke 11:13.[1]  I had been sensible, that to profess faith in Jesus Christ, when, in reality, I did not believe his history, was no better than a mockery of the heart-searching God; but here I found a Spirit spoken of, which was to be communicated to those who ask it.  Upon this I reasoned thus: If this book be true, the promise in this passage must be true likewise: I have need of that very Spirit by which the whole was written, in order to understand it aright.  He has engaged here to give that Spirit to those who ask: I must therefore pray for it, and if it be of God, he will make good his own word.”[2]  In other words, Newton found a promise in God’s word and tested it and found it to be true.  He sincerely sought God in his word and he heard his voice.  He found that the truths of the Bible were exactly fitted to the needs of his soul and was led more and more to rest in its truths.
Now that doesn’t mean that reading the Bible mechanically imparts light to all who read it.  A blind man can look at the sun all day long and never see anything.  A spiritually blind man can look at the Scriptures and even write a commentary on it and yet see nothing impressive in it.  The problem with fallen men and women is not a want of information as much as it is a want of a heart to seek and love God.  If your heart remains in opposition to God, reading the Bible will probably not change that.  You will remain blind to its truths and deaf to its Author.  But if you truly seek God, if you are at the end of yourself and if you understand your need of him and feel the burden of the weight of your sins, then don’t be surprised to find God speaking to you in his word.  As our Lord put it, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether it be of myself” (Jn. 7:17).  In other words, there is a moral dimension to wisdom; if your heart and will are strangers to the ethical demands of Scripture, you will never hear God’s voice in its pages.  This is what our Lord was referring to when he told Nicodemus that he must be born again before he could see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3); so it is with us.
It may seem to some that I am advocating blind faith here.  But I am not.  I am not saying that you should believe God’s word before you have reason to do so.  What I am saying is that if your heart is not hardened in rebellion against God, then you will find the reason to believe God’s word in itself.  And this reason is better than all the arguments for or against Divine truth, for this reason is rooted in the personal confrontation of the soul with God in his word and thus transcends, in a sense, all the debates about the trustworthiness of the Bible.
The reason I’ve insisted upon the self-authentication of God’s word is that we have to be convinced that Biblical wisdom is in fact wisdom or else we will wilt when confronted by its substitutes.  You simply cannot pursue the path of Biblical wisdom without finding some opposition from the world.  You are not going to keep rowing against the current unless you are convinced that you have to.  I want you to be convinced of the reality that the path of wisdom laid out in the Bible is infinitely superior to what the culture offers you.  It may be a narrow and hard path but it is much, much better than the wide road that leads to destruction.
I am going to precede on the supposition that the Biblical path of wisdom is as far superior to the world’s wisdom as light is to darkness or as silver is to sludge.  It is so superior that the apostle calls the wisdom of the world folly.  To adhere to it over God’s word is to be a fool.  That being the case, we come to the apostle’s exhortation in verse 15: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise.”  The word “circumspectly” is an old word that means “carefully,” and the apostle is saying that we should take care and pains how we live in this world.  Or, as Charles Hodge puts it, it means that we are “to walk strictly by rule, so as not to deviate by a hair’s breadth.”[3]  The fact that we are to do this with such care points to the value of wisdom over folly.  It also points to the fact that wisdom doesn’t just happen; you have to search for it like you search for gold and silver and hidden treasure.  A wise man doesn’t just wake up with wisdom.  Wisdom is accumulated through many pains that are taken to get it. 
So what does walking in wisdom look like?  What must we do to grow in wisdom?  In the passage that we are looking at, we see that there are three things that people must do to get wisdom, and three things that people do who have wisdom.  Or, to put it another way, we have three prerequisites for wisdom and three effects of wisdom.  The three prerequisites for wisdom are redeeming the time, understanding the will of the Lord, and being filled with the Spirit.  And the three effects of wisdom (or, being filled with the Spirit) are singing, giving thanks, and submitting to one another.  We will deal with the first three today and save the second three for another Sunday.
Three prerequisites for wisdom (ver. 16-18)
If you do not want to be a fool (and, remember, from a Biblical point of view, a fool is not just someone who does stupid things, but someone who does the most stupid of all things – that is, one who does not fear God or listen to his word), then there are some things that you must do.  The first things the apostle mentions in verse 16, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  We walk circumspectly as wise men and women when we redeem the time.
What does this mean?  This is a literal translation, which essentially refers to taking full advantage of every opportunity[4] (“making the best use of your time,” ESV).  In other words, we are to use our time wisely by not letting it slip by without improving ourselves in godliness and faith.  This goes back to what the apostle said about walking carefully.  It is the opposite of someone who just thinks they can float through life without putting forth any effort.  And this is especially true when it comes to the life that God calls us to live.  It is likened to a race (2 Tim. 4) and a warfare (2 Tim. 2) and a wrestling match (1 Cor. 9), and therefore calls for a life of constant self-discipline and perseverance and watchfulness.  You simply will not make strides in godliness and wisdom if you are not constantly striving for it.  Jonathan Edwards knew the importance of this principle when he wrote, “Resolved: Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.”[5]
The reason the apostle gives for this is in the phrase, “because the days are evil.”  It is like sailors on a storm-stricken ship which has sprung many leaks so that the pumps have to be constantly manned to keep the ship afloat.  Leave the pump and the ship sinks.  Even so it is in this life.  We live in evil days, days which are often like storms against an old sailing ship that puts holes in the sails and sides, and sends wave after wave into the ship.  And unless you man the pumps, the ship will sink.  Unless you redeem every possible moment, you will be like a sailor that leaves the pump unattended because he is just too tired.  But your life depends upon it!  We need to see that.  King David fell into grievous sin because he stayed home when he should have been in battle.  Peter denied Christ because he let himself go to sleep instead of staying awake to pray.  And you and I will not grow in godliness and wisdom unless we redeem the time and use every moment as a way to strengthen our spiritual health.
But how do we know how to use the best use of our time?  We get some insight into this in verse 17: “Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.”  This is the second thing we must do to get wisdom. 
Wisdom comes from understanding what God’s will is.  This is acquired, first and foremost, by understanding the overarching Biblical principles that God has given to govern our lives and then by applying those general principles to specific situations.  To get there it is important that we study the Bible so that it informs every part of our life.  It is true that there are details in your life that are not specifically addressed in Scripture, but if you understand its general principles, you will have fewer problems understanding what the will of the Lord is in that situation.  But it’s important to understand that a cursory knowledge of God’s word will not do this for you.  We have to be intimate with its teachings, so that, like Bunyan, our blood is “Bibline,” and when people poke us we bleed Bible.  It needs to permeate the way we think and feel about everything.  There is simply no wisdom apart from the insight that we get from God’s word.
Just as there is an intimate association between understanding God’s will and the word of God, the same is true with the third thing that must be true of us if we would get wisdom: being filled with the Holy Spirit.  “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.”  There is a parallel passage to this in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, where the apostle says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).  Here the effects which are attributed to being filled with the Spirit are attributed to letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly.  You can’t dissociate the work of the Spirit from the word of the Spirit.
What does being filled with the Spirit look like?  Well, notice that in these verses, the apostle has been contrasting two types of people: don’t be fools but be wise (16); don’t be unwise but understand God’s will (17); here, don’t be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit (18).  What we shouldn’t take from this is that being Spirit-filled and being drunk are similar.  They are as similar as wisdom and folly.  They are very different, not only in their effects but also in their very nature.  Lloyd-Jones, speaking both as a pastor and a physician, reminds us that “wine . . . pharmacologically speaking is not a stimulant; it is a depressant.  Take up any book on pharmacology and look up ‘alcohol’, and you will find, always, that it is classified among the depressants.  It is not a stimulus. . . . What alcohol does is this; it knocks out those higher centres, and so the more primitive elements in the brain come up and take control; and a man feels better temporarily.  He has lost his sense of fear, and he has lost his discrimination, he has lost his power to assess.”  He goes on to say, “That is exactly the opposite of being filled with the Spirit; for what the Spirit does is truly to stimulate.  If it were possible to put the Spirit into a text-book of Pharmacology I would put Him under the stimulants, for that is where He belongs.”[6]
What does the Spirit stimulate us towards?  Well, notice the contrast the apostle has set up.  Drunkenness leads to “excess.”  Now the apostle is not here referring merely to the amount of wine in the body.  “Excess” is derived from a word which meant “what cannot be saved” and came to refer to debauchery and dissipation.[7]  A similar and related word is used with reference to the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, where we read that he “wasted his substance with riotous living” (the word “riotous” is the word which is related to “excess” in Ephesians 5:18).  You might say that drunkenness leads to the lifestyle of the Prodigal Son. 
It is this to which being filled with the Spirit is contrasted.  A Spirit-filled person does not lead a life of debauchery; instead, he or she lives a life of devotion to God.  Thus, when the apostle speaks of those who are led by the Spirit, he speaks in terms of mortifying the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13).  To the Galatians, he writes, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).  To be Spirit-filled, then, is not to be determined by an experience of supernatural ecstasy but rather by the measure to which a person has put to death the old lifestyle of sin.  After all, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-25).  Biblical spirituality is not measured by gifts so much as by godliness.  Here we see why being filled with the Spirit is connected to wisdom, for as we have already noted, there is a moral dimension to wisdom.  Sin blinds our eyes to truth and to wisdom.  It is only as we pursue holiness that we will grow in wisdom, but we can only grow in holiness as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul says that we are to be filled with the Spirit, rather than being filled by wine and therefore drunk.  Hodge notes that we “are said to be filled with wine when completely under its influence; so they are said to be filled with the Spirit when he controls all their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.”[8]  But we should not mistake this with a lack of self-control; after all, the fruit of the Spirit is temperance, or self-control!  The Spirit-filled person ought to be the most self-controlled person out there.  Rather, being under the influence of the Spirit means that we share his aims and goals and desires, so that God’s glory becomes our aim and supreme desire.  It is the exact opposite of the life of the Prodigal Son, who went and wasted his life on profligate and riotous living, who gave his flesh full reign and let his passions rule.  The Christian ought never to be like that.  That is part of the past; we have not so learned Christ.
We should not pass on this point without noting the element of mystery that is essential to the life of every Christian.  What do I mean?  Here the apostle has given a command: be filled with the Spirit.  This is something we are to do.  And yet it has to do with the sovereign Spirit.  He is not talking about harnessing some impersonal force, but rather being filled by the blessed influence of that Divine Person who is the Holy Spirit.  But he is not a dog to be put on a leash; he is God to be worshiped and feared and loved and obeyed.  So then how is it appropriate to be told to go out and be filled with the Spirit?
It is appropriate because it is simply a consequence of walking by faith in Christ.  Our Lord is the preeminent example of one who was filled with the Spirit (cf. Luke 4:1).  The Spirit that we receive is the Spirit of Christ (Jn. 14-16), and as we live by faith we walk by the Spirit.  Notice that in the Galatians passage the apostle passes without even pausing between walking in the Spirit to “they that are Christ’s” back to walking in the Spirit.  Belonging to Christ manifests itself in walking in the Spirit.  We therefore are filled by the Spirit as we most fully abide in Christ (cf. John 15:1-5).
But even though this is a command that we are to obey, we should not miss the important implication that we cannot take one step spiritually apart from the Holy Spirit.  That is why we must be filled with the Spirit.  It is as the Spirit fills us and rules us that we are empowered to live a life of obedience and fruitfulness.  We must be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man (Eph. 3:16).  This should remind us of two things: first, that we are helpless without the Spirit and therefore to recognize that there is no room for pride in the Christian life; and second, that we who belong to Christ are never powerless in the face of the remaining corruption that lies within because we can be filled with the Spirit who empowers us to conquer the sin that so easily besets us.  The believer is not fighting sin in his or her own strength; they fight in the strength that God provides, and that ought to give us great encouragement.  In other words, we believe a lie when we are led to think that sin can have dominion over those who are in Christ.  As the apostle John put it, we have the victory: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).
This is why it is folly to equate Christianity with some ethical system or to think that we win the world by making them do the right things.  No one can live the kind of life the apostle is setting before us apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.  And we cannot have the Spirit apart from Christ.  That is why, if your heart is drawn towards what the apostle is describing here, the first thing you need to do is not to clean yourself up, but to believe on Christ, to trust in him and to commit yourself to him fully as your Savior and your King.
We’ve been talking about wisdom and its prerequisites: redeeming the time, understanding God’s will, being filled with the Spirit.  The aim in all these things is to gain wisdom, to be wise.  So let me end with an exhortation from the ninth chapter in Proverbs.  It is addressed to you and me: “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: she hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table.  She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city.  Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanted understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.  Forsake the foolish and live; and go in the way of understanding” (Prov. 9:1-6).  It reminds one of something our Lord said: “Come not me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).  Indeed, come!


[1] “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children; how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
[2] The Works of John Newton, Vol. 1 (Banner of Truth, 2015, reprint), p. xlvii-xlviii.
[3] Charles Hodge, Ephesians (Banner of Truth, 1991, reprint of 1856 ed.), p. 218.
[4] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 692-693.
[5] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Hendrickson, 1998, reprint of 1834 ed.), p. xviii.
[6] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home & Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18-6:9 (Baker, 1973), p. 19-20.
[7] Hodge, p. 220.
[8] p. 220

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