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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