Meditations on Ephesians 5:18-21

Approaching El Pico de Orizaba (18,885′ high), Mexico

Don’t Settle for Substitutes


Ephesians 5:18 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.

So if unbridled joy is a part of the Christian life, it seems natural to ask, “How? How are we filled with that kind of spirit?” Perhaps we need a physical stimulation? It would seem the Greeks in Ephesus who worshiped Dionysius (the so-called “god” of wine) did so by becoming drunk. The United Bible Societies’ translators’ handbook explains:

It is impossible to determine why this particular warning was necessary; it appears that verses 18–20 have to do with group worship, and so the drunkenness could be of a religious nature, that is, drinking wine in worship to gain communion with God, as was the practice among certain religious groups of that time.[1]

Many religious groups use some kind of physical stimulation in worship. Native Americans used peyote. The worshipers of Dionysius in Greece (and perhaps Ephesus) used wine.

I want to be happy! We all want to be happy. Sometimes we need to be distracted from reality. If I turn to television, I can loose myself in someone else’s troubles. If I surf the Internet, there is no telling what I might find. In a video game, I can have super powers. Books, food – even people – can all provide relief from reality. There are darker distractions too: drugs and alcohol. Perhaps you’ve tried them. Perhaps you are wrestling with them now.

The apostle warns, “do not get drunk with wine.” Notice, he doesn’t say, “Don’t enjoy a glass of wine with your meal,” but wine, like so many things, can become a distraction from reality. William Hendriksen observes:

Exhilaration is wrong, however, when the method of inducing it is wrong. Thus it is improper to seek excitement from the excessive use of wine. It is the abuse of wine that is forbidden, not the use (I Tim. 5:23). That such abuse was a real danger in the early church, as it certainly is also today, appears from such restrictions as the following: “The overseer therefore must be above reproach … not (one who lingers) beside (his) wine” (I Tim. 3:3; cf. Titus 1:7); “Deacons similarly (must be) dignified, not … addicted to much wine” (I Tim. 3:8); and “Urge aged women similarly (to be) reverent in demeanor … not enslaved to much wine” (Titus 2:3).

Intoxication is not the effective remedy for the cares and worries of this life. The so-called “uplift” it provides is not real. It is the devil’s poor substitute for the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” which God provides. Satan is ever substituting the bad for the good. Has he not been called “the ape of God”? Getting drunk on wine is “associated with unrestrained living” or “dissolute behavior,” “recklessness” (Titus 1:6; I Peter 4:4). It marks the person who, if he so continues, cannot be saved.[2]

Being filled with the Spirit requires some effort. There are no shortcuts to genuine spirituality. Accept no substitutes!

[1] Bratcher, R. G., & Nida, E. A. (1993). A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. UBS Handbook Series (134–135). New York: United Bible Societies.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 7: Exposition of Ephesians. New Testament Commentary (238–239). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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