Ephesians 5:18-21 (Being filled with the Spirit), Part 1

Ruins of Celsus Library in Ephesus

(Eph 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Context, context, context. Remember what we covered in the earlier posts on Ephesians. Paul isn’t changing subjects. Indeed, it’s plain that this sentence continues Paul’s earlier thoughts. He begins with “and” — connecting this sentence with what precedes. And he ends the sentence with “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” in parallel with —

(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Paul begins and ends the chapter with call to sacrificial submission in imitation of Jesus. This is the broad subject at hand.

But within that subject, Paul is addressing the importance of fleeing pagan immorality and instead following the way of Jesus. Therefore, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” is surely a reference to pagan banquets, where men gathered for drunkenness and sex with prostitutes.

Drunkenness and debauchery

The exact relationship of drunkenness and debauchery in the verse is a matter of some dispute among the translators —

(Eph 5:18 NIV) Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

(Eph 5:18 NAS) And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

Most translations follow the NAS and ESV, finding that the drunkenness itself is the debauchery or dissipation, rather than merely leading to debauchery. And this means the thrust of the command is against drunkenness, although we understand in context that the drunkenness typically occurred at pagan banquets, where plenty of other sins occurred.

What is commanded?

We should also notice that the passage is one sentence in the Greek. Some translations, such as the NIV, break the sentence down, giving the impression that it’s a series of commands —

(Eph 5:18-21 NIV) Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. 19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

But grammatically, there are but two commands: don’t get drunk; be filled with the Spirit. The rest of the passage is a series of participles, which do not amount to commands.

Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics has a couple of discussions of the participles –

On a syntactical and stylistic level, this view [that the participles are imperative] does not take into account the semantic situation in which an imperatival participle is found (which, among other things, indicates that this is a very rare usage), nor the usage of dependent participles in this letter in particular (cf. Eph. 1:13-14, for example, where several dependent participles are strung along). To view any of these participles as imperatival is to view the passage from the English point of view only, ignoring the Greek.

(p. 651). The author is speaking of the fourth participle “submitting yourselves … ,” but the analysis applies even more strongly to “singing and making melody …” It’s not a command!

He later writes,

In this text the five participles are debatable. Some have suggested means, manner, attendant circumstance, and even imperatival! … As we shall see later, attendant circumstance and imperatival par­ticiples are rarely, if ever, found in a construction such as the one in this text. … Result participles are invariably present partici­ples that follow the main verb; as well, the idea of result here would suggest that the way in which one measures his/her success in fulfilling the command of 5:18 is by the participles that follow (notice the progressive difficulty: from speaking God’s word to being thankful for all, to being submissive to one another; such progression would, of course, immediately suggest that this fill­ing is not instantaneous and absolute but progressive and relative). There are other arguments for the idea of result in these participles that we will have to forego. Suffice it to say here that the issue is an important one in light of the popularity and abuse of the command in Eph 5:18 (especially in evangelical circles).

(p. 639). He’s likely not even aware of the Church of Christ controversy, and yet he shows plainly that the participles are not commands but evidences of our growth in being filled with the Spirit.

“Filled with the Spirit”

You can’t interpret the verse at all, therefore, unless you sort out the meaning of being filled with the Spirit. After all, the giving thanks, singing, making melody, and submission are all a result of the being filled with the Spirit. If you were to do these things, but not as a consequence of the Spirit’s infilling, you’d not obey the command. If I tell my son, “Cut the grass, singing a song.” It’s not remotely enough for him to sing. In fact, if he had to do only one, he’d better cut the grass!

The phrase has a history in scripture —

(Exo 28:3 ESV) 3 You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood.

(Exo 31:1-5 ESV) The LORD said to Moses, 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.

(Luk 1:14-15 ESV) 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.

(Act 2:4 ESV) 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

(Act 13:51-52 ESV) 1 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

(Rom 15:13 ESV) 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Now, being filled with the Spirit does not necessarily refer to miraculous abilities, as John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit and did no miracles. Rather, the Spirit was shown by his ability to announce God’s will and compel listeners to repentance.

The clear implication of Eph 5:18 is that all Christians should be filled with the Spirit. We all have the Spirit. What does being filled with the Spirit add to that?

Now, there are plenty of other passages inside and outside Ephesians that explain the Spirit, but we start in context. And I think the most important of these passages is Eph 2:21-22 —

(Eph 2:21-22 NIV) 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

This passages speaks of the Spirit indwelling the church, rather than the individual (which is also true). The idea is for God to build the church into a unified whole suitable for the Spirit to live in. This is very reminiscent of —

(2Ch 7:1-3 ESV) As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. 2 And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD filled the LORD’s house. 3 When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Don’t you see? God’s glory — his presence — filled the temple. We are that temple! And Paul implores us to let God’s glory fill us! “Be filled with the Spirit” means “be a temple fully constructed in which every room is a holy of holies, where God’s presence dwells.” To be filled with the Spirit is to have no areas in your heart, your mind, or your congregation not indwelt by the Spirit.

So how does this happen?

(Eph 3:14-19 ESV) 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

We gain “all the fullness of God” by the power of the Spirit, “through faith,” and by knowing the love of Christ. Also —

(Eph 1:17-19a NIV) 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

(Eph 4:3 NIV) 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

(Eph 6:16-18a ESV) 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

Prayer, unity, wisdom, and revelation are all gifts from God that help us be filled with the Spirit. “Revelation” could certainly include prophecy, but the thought in Eph 1:17-19 is that God will reveal in us, through the power of Paul’s prayer, the ability to recognize and appreciate the hope, inheritance, and the power we have from God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Ephesians 5:18-21 (Being filled with the Spirit), Part 1

  1. Andy says:

    A study of the word, filled (Greek pleroo) shows that it means to be voluntarily controlled by the Holy Spirit because he has totally permeated our being.

  2. Jay,
    How appropriate that your post today deals with the text that contains the following:

    giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

    I also love the parallel in Colossians 3:15-17 where thanksgiving is noted in all three verses in succession:

    And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

    Thanks for clearly setting out the context of Eph 5:18-21 as being the contrast between pagan reveling and life in the kingdom of God through being filled with His Spirit.

    Keep these great posts coming!


  3. Doug says:

    I sadly admit that while I possess the Spirit within me I seldom feel filled with the Spirit during Sunday morning services. I know this to be the case because I have been filled with the Spirit while in a prison enviroment and I know the difference between what I experienced inside the prison and what I experience on a usual Sunday morning.

    One experience occurred as a "prayer chain" was brought into the room inside the prison. As I looked at over 2000 chain links, each one representing a person who was praying for me and the whole prison team and the inmates we came to serve, I was filled. I wasn't the only one filled by this and both team members and inmates instinctively drew to one another as we saw the evidence of the prayers being offered for us. Tears were shed and I was reassured that God was in me but He was also IN THAT ROOM, I am 100% sure of this. Maybe it was His presence in those around me that I felt but He was there. I am thankful for that experience and I long for it again… maybe this Sunday morning?

  4. James says:

    Great post, Jay. I appreciate the look beyond the typical proof-texting that this passage is often subjected to by people on both sides of the IM issue. There are far deeper things going on here.

    Like Jerry, I find it striking how often Paul brings up thanksgiving in the same breath as discussions on living by the Spirit. It's certainly no coincidence!

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