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No Time to Waste - a Study of Ephesians 5:15-21

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-21] To help us live the way we are called to live, God has given us three helps: His Word, His Spirit, and His people. We need all of them. We need to accept God’s wisdom (as found in His Word) as primary. And we need to spend our time together (in worship) lifting and edifying one another even as we praise God together.

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Goofus and Gallant

One of the Lifeway resources mentioned “Goofus and Gallant”, a feature in the classic Highlights Magazine. I read Highlights religiously as a kid (for reasons I can’t explain, I loved the Timbertoes) but haven’t thought about it in decades. So Lifeway sent me on a full nostalgia trip. (By the way, as further proof that we can’t have anything nice, my Google search for Goofus and Gallant cartoons turned up a whole bunch that were edited very inappropriately.) Anyway, the setup of the strip is that you have two boys in the same situation; one always does the wrong thing, and one does the right thing. Often it was just about conventional manners, but sometimes it would be about treating people the right way. It was always exaggerated, but that was the point. Like proverbs, they wanted to make the truth exceedingly clear. Do you remember anything from school like this where you learned “right and wrong”? Something that your class members might relate to? If so, I think it would be fun to bring in a few samples, and see if that sparks any conversation about ways your class members learned right and wrong behavior as a child. If you want to take it to the next level, if your resource is a comic strip like Goofus and Gallant, print the images without the captions and see if your class can figure out what it was teaching. The point: we all learn behaviors from somewhere. Are our sources going to send us down a good path or a bad path? (A note about Highlights: not a Christian company. We will talk inside about the limitations of secular “kindness and decency”.)


Do you know anyone who sings all the time? I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard at funerals where are child or grandchild will fondly remember listening to grandma sing while doing chores. What is the emotional impact of listening to someone sing? Seriously—ask your class. Psychologists have demonstrated the value in hearing singing. In our passage, Paul will talk about singing to one another. While he didn’t necessarily mean literal singing, I think he touched on something that God put deep within us: the uplifting in our hearts from singing. Obviously, there are some things more worth singing than others (and this is a part of Paul’s argument). Anyway, my person who sings all the time is John Richards. I know he’s around because he’s singing, usually a gospel song. He’s doing exactly what Paul tells us to do. The words of that gospel song are on his mind because they’re coming out of his mouth. And that’s Paul’s point. Challenge your class to put a Jesus song on their lips.

This Week's Big Idea: Biblical Wisdom

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. The Bible Project has a great section on what wisdom means in the Bible as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.

David is preaching through Proverbs this month, and he has essentially agreed with The Bible Project in defining Proverbs as the accumulation of wisdom from generations of godly people. It does not contain promises or commands; it records observations made by people who have looked at the world through godly eyes. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, approaches the world with the knowledge that living by Proverbs doesn’t always work out. And Job tackles the difficult reality that sometimes people who have been wise and godly even get the opposite of what Proverbs says. The full picture of biblical wisdom requires understanding all three books.

To the secular world, “wisdom” is the art of succeeding in life. A wise person makes decisions that “work out” more often than other people’s. He or she is healthy and wealthy because he or she is wise. There is quite a bit of this definition of wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job (even non-Christians find value in Proverbs; remember how I said that Highlights was not a Christian publication? They focus on this kind of “wisdom”.) But the Bible includes one additional layer to wisdom, a spiritual layer. Clearly, life is more than following a set of wise guidelines and benefiting materially from that obedience. Real wisdom is the fear of the Lord.

The Holman Bible Dictionary does a great job of defining wisdom literature in the Bible, and here is a quick summary of that summary. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are unique because they are not actually about the history of God’s people or God’s covenants. They are also not just for Jews. Rather, the wisdom contained in these books is universal and timeless. Even the references to “religion” remain generic to “the house of God” or the like. There is nothing about “election” or “forgiveness” in these books. Essentially, these books state that God created the universe to operate under certain principles; any human can learn those principles and live by them.

Most importantly, life operates by cause-and-effect. Our choices and actions have consequences. If we choose to walk on a highway, we may not get hit, but we very likely will. (This points us to the ultimate cause-and-effect of what we have done with Jesus.) There are broad areas of life under which wisdom prevails. (1) Sexual morality. God gave laws for sexual behavior because humans were created with a right and wrong way to experience sexual relationships. When we fail to act wisely sexually, we will suffer significantly. (2) Business ethics. If we are lazy, if we are unethical (stealing/taking advantage of others), if we are untrustworthy—those things will cause us to be less successful financially. (3) Human interaction. If we are violent, if we are gossips, if we are unkind, if we are hurtful—we will not have meaningful or satisfying relationships with other people. (4) Environmental awareness. This was particularly true in an agrarian society; how we “treat the land” impacts our yield, our town, and our quality of life. So true. Within this, there are two separate kinds of wisdom. There is what we would call prudence, which any person can exercise. But there is also what we would call illumination. There are some things that we would never understand unless God explained/revealed it to us. (Most important of these is salvation in Jesus.) Many truths that we might take for granted today and call prudent were actually revealed to us by Jesus (concepts like servant-leadership, forgiveness, and humility). And that’s how this ties back to “wisdom is the fear of the Lord”. If the Lord has revealed it to us in His Word, we do it. If the Lord nudges us a direction by the Holy Spirit, we follow it. If the Lord has given us an example of it in Jesus, we reflect it. Even if the rest of the world does not consider the practice “wise”. Paul helps us see the huge gulf between worldly wisdom and godly wisdom; refer your class to 1 Cor 1: 18-31.

Our Context in Ephesians

A quick review of our “practical” lessons:

  • Christians should be unified (4:1-10)

  • Christian churches should help us mature (4:11-16)

  • Christians should not act like the world (4:17-32)

  • Christians should imitate Christ in love (5:1-14)

But in addition to living in love, Christians should be wise. This might help clear up any questions you had about “how are we supposed to love?”, particularly when the world is giving us a definition of love that seems to be at odds with what the Bible says. This is exactly what Paul had established to the church in Corinth: “Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:24-25). In other words, Paul knows that what he is saying is difficult, and that’s precisely why we need God’s wisdom to know how to live.


Part 1: Be Wise (Ephesians 5:15-17)

Pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

The word for “then” is the same as “therefore”, which is another great tieback. Ask your class if they can summarize what we talked about last week. It should be something to the effect of the incredibly high standard God has for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, we don’t have time to mess around. We certainly don’t have time to dilly dally. And that’s what these verses emphasize. We need to look very closely at our lives. Are we “making the most” of the time we have? That means different things to different people. To me, it means accomplishing as much as possible in the limited amount of time given. To others, it means living the moment “to the fullest”. For example. I believe my greatest tourist accomplishment is conquering all four Disney parks in two days (literally—we rode all but two rides in all four parks, and that’s because they kept breaking down). Shelly, though, would have been equally fulfilled had we taken our time and milked one park at an easy pace for those two days. Paul doesn’t tell us exactly how to “make the most” of our time, which gives us flexibility. But your class needs to know when they aren’t making the most. For “time”, Paul doesn’t use the word for chronological time, but rather for “season”. Each season of our lives comes with different opportunities and goals—we need to meet them. Something else you might ask your class about here would be those things that suck our time—”time wasters” (often related to technology that’s ironically supposed to improve our productivity) that get in the way of their making the most of each day. And I think that’s where Paul is going with his comment about “evil”. Time itself is not evil, but each day brings with it things that get in the way of our mission. Some of that are “time wasters” that we might bring on ourselves, but a lot of that are the consequences of sin in our world. Your car breaks down. Your child gets sick. Your office closes. As Paul has already established in this letter, our world tends towards chaos, corruption, and sin. Those things get in the way of us making the most of our time, and that makes them evil. (As we will note, “making the most” also involves enjoying our lives, enjoying one another, and praising God—none of which are particularly “efficient” activities.)

And if anyone in your class has questions about what this means or how to do it, Paul gives us the ultimate answer: ask God for wisdom. There are lots of “wise vs. foolish” illustrations you could use to help your class follow Paul’s logic, but it’s important to point out that while today we often use “fool” to talk about intellectual capacity, in Paul’s day “fool” was almost always used in a moral sense. The fool wasn't the person who didn’t know better; the fool was the person who did know better but made the wrong moral decision. The wise person sought to know God’s will and obey it (“the fear of the Lord”). Some aspects of that are easy, like “don’t steal” and “no unwholesome talk” and “be kind and compassionate”. Some aspects are much more complicated, like how to “live in love”, and require more guidance from God (and sometimes that guidance comes from one another, as Paul will say shortly!).


Part 2: Be Filled (Ephesians 5:18)

And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit.

This is another great “wise vs. foolish” contrast. You can choose to fill yourself with wine (which is technically “a spirit”), or you can choose to fill yourself with the Holy Spirit—but not both. Why is that? Because of the effect of too much wine; it makes a person foolish. [Two debates I don’t have time to cover and don’t recommend you spend much time on: (1) is it okay for a Christian to drink? That’s not Paul’s point here, and clearly he infers that a wise person understands how much is too much wine; (2) isn’t being filled with the Spirit a Pentecostal thing? No, and that’s not Paul’s point anyway. What Paul is saying is that Christians can choose to fill their lives with things that “crowd the Spirit out”, like alcohol and worldly “wisdom”. This has nothing to do with a “second blessing” or the like.] A wise person removes such influences and instead focuses on the Spirit of God. How? Well, note that the verb is passive. We cannot fill ourselves with the Spirit. (That immediately knocks out a number of Pentecostal practices.) Rather, we empty ourselves of those competing influences—like wine, worldly wisdom, anger, slander, etc. for the purpose of allowing God to have greater authority in our lives. That comes through prayer, Bible study, and worship. But also note that it’s still a command: “be filled”.

Ask your class how much influence they think the Spirit has on them. If not the Spirit, then what does? Get personal. Ask your class where they go for advice and answers for living. Is it the Bible, a pastor, Christian friends? Or is it Oprah, or a non-Christian coworker or friend? Paul is saying that we have a choice how to live: as unwise or as wise (see v. 15). The wise choice is to fear the Lord—submit to God, follow God’s wisdom as found in the Bible, listen to godly leaders and advisers (like Paul). Will your class members be willing to look to the Lord first for advice?


Part 3: Be Genuine (5:19-21)

speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.

I don’t think I like the subtitle. This isn’t about being genuine; that’s a given. This is about using our spiritual wisdom to edify one another even as we praise God. I hope I gave you enough already on “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the Focus. Something to point out here is the parallel between this passage and Colossians 3:16-17; here the driver is being filled with the Spirit/there the driver is the Word of God. The two passages work together. If we want to be filled with the Spirit, we must fill ourselves with the Word. The “one another” aspect of these verses leads us to believe that Paul is speaking of church gatherings. In those days, every time the church gathered, the church worshiped. To them, worship was more of an attitude than an action. It included praising God, but it also included listening to God’s Word intently, spurring one another on to love and good deeds, and holding one another accountable to follow Jesus well (“walk worthy”). Today, we tend to equate “worship” and “singing”. Then, everyone understood that singing songs of praise was just a part of worship. All of this ties together to a common theme from the last few weeks: the words that come out of our mouths. We shouldn’t have vulgar or hurtful words come out of our mouths because we should be too busy giving praise and thanksgiving to God and edifying one another. This is just another example. When we are together, let’s sing praises and truth and lift one another up in joint worship of God.

When you’ve been in a powerful time of musical worship, isn’t your heart lifted up? Don’t you feel blessed for having been there? That’s because God has made us to respond to an environment of musical worship. And I’ve learned that the style of music does not impact my experience of the Spirit unless I let it. For example, we’re having the Whisnants and Mark Trammel Quartet at our church for a Christmas concert on November 30. Everybody is invited. I don’t generally choose to put on southern gospel music, but I love that concert because I love the spirit of joy and love that those musicians bring with them. If you have someone in your class who refuses to be a part of a service which involves music that they don’t personally “like”, encourage them to put being edified by the word (assuming that strong and meaningful texts are being sung) and being encouraged by their fellow church members above transitory preferences. I can guarantee that all of us would be “put off” by a first century worship service. They didn’t do music like we do. They had many “weird” traditions that we wouldn’t understand (assuming that we spoke fluent Greek). And those were first-generation followers of Jesus! Rather, we are to let the music that wells up within us come out in joy and love and bless those around us as we desire to praise God. Can you imagine a Sunday morning where everybody was so glad to be together in the presence of God that we were humming a joyful tune, speaking God’s Word, just being thankful for God and Jesus? Wouldn’t that be amazing, and wouldn’t it bring everybody back for more? That’s supposed to be our normal Sunday.

But also note the end (which we will unpack next week). We are to submit to one another. Guess what? That means that we are commanded to put aside our personal preferences for what edifies those around us. Why? The fear of Christ! After everything Jesus did for us, would we dare hold something back from Him (for any reason, let alone a selfish one?). Have your class evaluate themselves on how they’re living up to Paul’s definition of worship, fellowship, gratitude, and mutual submission.


Aside: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

I took a number of music/worship classes in seminary, and this was always a favorite topic of debate. “Why did Paul use three different words here, and what do they mean?” The easy one is “psalms”, which definitely refers to songs in the Book of Psalms. We know that early Christians sang psalms (although we don’t know how—there were no musical notations in that day like we have). The word for “hymn” was used of Greek poetry; it could also be used as a verb, which could have meant what we think of as “sing” or also “chant” or even just “read dramatically and lyrically”. Texts called hymns were often in praise of a deity or of a famous event. The word for “spiritual song” is where we get “ode”. The places it is used in the Septuagint are clearly musical (instruments and dancing are involved), and also always used of a praise of God. The other places it is used in the New Testament are in Revelation—the “new song” and the “song of the Lamb”. So, in a nutshell, you could make the words means anything you want. (Baptist opponents in the 1690s even argued that they didn’t refer to singing/songs at all!)

I think we need to go to context to get Paul’s meaning. First, we note that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are both directed “to one another” and “to the Lord”. They have dual purpose. They are edifying to one another, and they are praise to God. The word for “speaking to one another” can refer to any kind of vocalization, including speaking and singing. But the “making music” must refer to music in the traditional sense (even if it is just done in your heart—my guess is they had really bad singers in their day just like we have today). So, it is definitely a musical context. These are all songs. “Psalms” refers to Old Testament psalms (which can be found throughout the Old Testament). “Hymns” refers to poetic texts written in praise of something. “Songs” refers to any number of “ditties” that people hum and sing at any time. But Paul adds “spiritual” to them to distinguish them from the secular ditties that Gentiles would sing. My take? I think Paul is identifying three categories of songs: (1) those taken directly from the Bible, (2) those based directly on the Bible, and (3) those inspired by the Bible. What is most important is noting that the process of writing songs never stops. Anyone who tries to argue that churches should only sing hymns written in the 1800s and early 1900s really, really doesn’t understand what they just said. Those songs were new in their day. If we should have stopped with them, then we should have stopped with the songs written in the first century! But we don’t have music from the first century. Any text that we find, we have to make up the tune and the meter and so on, and I think that’s purposeful! Music is a creative expression of a culture, and God has made His praise accessible to every culture from every era. We had better not expect Chinese Christians to sing the same way we do; neither should we expect people in the 1800s to sing the same way they did in the 1400s. But they are rooted in God’s truth (for the edification of one another) and directed in praise to God. That much we should agree on.


Rabbit Trail: Baptists, Congregational Singing, and Benjamin Keach

I wrote a book on this subject, so it is very near and dear to me. Did you know that Baptists introduced and popularized the idea of corporate hymn-singing? Other denominations would chant psalms, and Isaac Watts eventually convinced his reformed brethren to sing his modified versions of psalms. But it was the Baptists who wrote the theological defense of singing songs in church that church members had written. I’m still trying to get Benjamin Keach’s book The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship published by a reputable publisher. He started by having his congregation sing a song at the end of their Lord’s Supper (because “after this they sang a hymn” Matt 26:30). And then they would sing a song at their thanksgiving service (based on our passage this week). Keach argued that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” must mean more than something from the book of Psalms. His church split multiple times while he was encouraging them to adopt hymn singing (this was in the 1680s and 90s), but eventually everyone who stayed at the church was in favor of the practice. And it turns out that his church was one of the few that survived the most tumultuous years of British religious persecution, eventually becoming the church that Charles Spurgeon pastored at Elephant and Castle. Because they were a Baptist church—a free church—Keach believed that God had given them the right and the ability to compose their own texts for worship (they did not have to use the government-approved Book of Common Prayer), something we take for granted today. He and other like-minded pastors started writing poems that they would sing. Most of the early ones were pretty bad. It was actually their indirect impact on Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley that led more and more churches to accept these newfangled songs. And in America, the Baptists were the ones that promoted it the most and hardest, and here we are.

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