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.” 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.”
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. 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?
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.”
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.
 H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 708.
 Many of the following thoughts were gleaned from Lloyd Jones, Life in the Spirit, p. 55-69.
 Ibid., p. 59.