Under the Influence
Topic: Expository Scripture: Ephesians 5:15–5:21
Synopsis: In the second half of Ephesians, Paul is setting a high standard of conduct and behavior for the followers of Christ. But how do we do that? In this message, taken from Ephesians 5:15-21, we find out that we cannot do it in our own strength or wisdom – but we don’t have to. We have been given the Holy Spirit to help us. Comparing the filling of the Spirit to being drunk with wine, Paul instructs us to walk Under the Influence and also tells us what the accompanying signs are of the Spirit’s filling.
I remember an incident that took place during my first or second year as pastor of ECC. I know it was early in my time here, because it took place at the old TEAM Center, the worship center that was our home during the first few years of our time in Abu Dhabi. The church was small, around 100 people in attendance. It happened during one of our worship services on a Friday morning. I was in the middle of my sermon. I can’t remember the text, but I know it was a sermon calling Christians to a high standard of Christian behavior. A man was attending the service. He had visited ECC before, but I did not know him well. On this particular day, he arrived in a state of semi-inebriation. Even though it was 10 in the morning, it was obvious that he had already had a few drinks. Either that, or he was still feeling the effects of the night before. He wandered in and seated himself on the front row. He sat quietly and seemed to be listening. But then, suddenly, right in the middle of my sermon on living the Christian life, he spoke up and interrupted me with a question: “But how do we do that?” he burst out.
I sometimes think back to that man and to his question. Because it is a good one and a fair one. In his semi-drunken and therefore uninhibited state, he asked the question that many of us are asking, but are embarrassed to articulate out loud. And if we aren’t asking the question, maybe we should be. Good intentions and high aspirations and sermons about Christian behavior are all very well, “But how do we do that?”
For almost two chapters, Paul has been exhorting us to “walk in a manner worthy of our calling” as saints and as members of God’s family. He has been describing what that worthy walk looks like. And he has set a very high standard for us. As we consider these high standards and what it means to follow Christ, we sometime become frustrated, and in our frustration, we may fall into one of two traps.
One trap is to throw up our hands in defeat and then somehow convince ourselves that it doesn’t really matter. We are saved by grace, so we are going to get to heaven anyway, so why sweat it? Sure, the Bible sets high standards, but after all, I am only human. God understands. And besides, I am no worse than most of the other Christians I know.
The second trap is the trap of legalism. The standards are high, so we determine to put all of our human effort into it. We make rules and laws and codes of behavior and strive with all our might to meet them. And when we can’t, we pretend that we do anyway. At least we never admit to anyone else that we are failing or struggling. After all, we must keep up a good front. And along the way, we codify our Christian life into a lifeless list of dos and don’ts that we carry out with a tired, joyless desperation.
In our passage this morning, Paul points us in a different direction; one which will avoid both of these traps, and address that man’s question: “How do we do that?”
In verses 15-17, Paul addresses the first trap. His point is clear. It does matter how we live. Verse 15 says, Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
Notice that Paul is continuing to address the way we walk and the importance of walking in a worthy manner. We could paraphrase this: Be very careful how you walk.
Two illustrations come to my mind that help me visualize this command. Picture a bride on her wedding day, dressed in the pure white wedding dress of her dreams. She arrives at the church for the wedding. But it has been raining. To get her from the car to the door of the church, friends have laid out wood planks across the puddles and mud. You can imagine the great care she would take as she navigates those narrow planks above the mud, striving to keep her white wedding dress spotless.
The second image is an actual scene that comes to my mind from our days in Kenya. Because of the crime rate, many homes in Nairobi had walls built around the property or compound. Oftentimes, these walls had broken bottles and other pieces of glass embedded in the cement on the top of the wall to discourage thieves from scaling the wall. I can still picture a cat walking along such a wall, carefully picking his way and placing his feet carefully, so he would neither fall from the wall, nor injure himself on the sharp pieces of glass.
Be very careful how you walk. It matters how we walk. It is the difference between being wise or being foolish.
In verse 16, Paul adds a sense of urgency to the command: making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
The phrase “making the best use of time” can be translated “redeeming the time” or “redeeming the opportunity.” The idea is that of buying up something that is in short supply. I am old enough to remember the 1970’s in the US when it was declared that there was a shortage of gas or petrol in the US. Suddenly, long queues formed at gas stations. People would wait for hours to fill their tanks. Then, before their tank was even half empty, they would join another queue to “buy up” some more gas, because they were not sure when they would have another opportunity.
The same thing used to happen when we were living in Kenya. A rumor would go around that there was going to be a shortage of sugar. Soon long lines would form at the supermarket and people would “buy up” the sugar, because they feared a shortage. Shortages or prospective shortages create a sense of urgency.
We need to carry that same sense of urgency into our spiritual walk. If you are like me, you have a tendency toward procrastination. We tend to put things off, especially difficult things. We tend to do that in our spiritual lives as well. But that is a mistake. “The days are evil.” I am not sure exactly what Paul meant by that when he wrote to the Ephesians. Were troubled times coming on the church? Were they already suffering persecution? Was he referring to the fact that sin was rampant in society? Like I said, I am not sure – but I know his words give a sense of urgency. We don’t know how much time we have, or what opportunities we have. We must buy up the time now, because we are not promised tomorrow. Opportunities today may not be present tomorrow.
It does matter how we live. It should matter to us, because we know that it matters to God. Look at verse 17: Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
When we are talking about walking in a worthy manner, we are really talking about living in a way that is consistent with God’s will. God’s will in this context is what he desires to see in our lives. What God wants is important. His will matters. It matters to him. It should matter to us. We should be understanding and seeking to fulfill God’s will in our lives. This actually takes us back to what Paul said in verses 9-10:
(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
So, to those of us who might be caught in the first trap of taking the call to walk in a worthy manner as a casual matter to be put off until another day, hear this: It does matter how we live. And it matters now!
But now to those who have agreed that it matters and have set out to do it in their own strength only to fall into the joyless trap of legalism, Paul adds further instruction. It is the fact that: We cannot walk a worthy walk in our own strength or wisdom.
Verse 18 tells us this: And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,
What is this verse telling us, and what is the connection between the first and second half of the verse?
Paul is making a deliberate comparison and illustration between being drunk and being filled with the Spirit. There is a common arrest made in the U.S. abbreviated as DUI. Can anyone tell me what the “I” stands for? That’s right. Influence. A person who is drunk is under the influence of alcohol. The alcohol is controlling him. Under the influence of alcohol, he does things and says things which are not natural or normal to him. He would not say them or do them if he were not influenced by the alcohol. Observers might be heard to say, “Oh, that’s just the liquor talking.” He talks more, or less, too loud, too soft, can’t walk or drive in a straight line.
The kind of influence that an excess of wine or alcohol has leads to something called “debauchery.” That’s not a word we use very much in English. The original word was not a very common word in Greek either. The essence of the word refers to a kind of foolish or excessive behavior that takes no account of consequences of the actions. A drunk person who can barely walk gets behind the wheel of a car to drive home. He is not considering the consequences of his actions.
When I lived in Kenya, I used to enjoy attending rugby games at the rugby club just down the road from our home. It was a cheap form of Saturday afternoon entertainment. But if you are familiar with rugby culture, it often includes a lot of beer drinking among spectators during the game and the players after the game. I remember on one afternoon one of the spectators had had a few too many beers. The game came to an exciting conclusion and the team this man was cheering for won the game. He gave a great cheer, and then took his next, nearly full glass bottle of beer and threw it straight up into the air in celebration. He took no thought of the consequences or of the fact that what goes up must come down! Fortunately the bottle fell back to earth without hitting him or any of the other spectators in his vicinity. That is “debauchery.” And what is more, I knew this man slightly. I had observed him and I knew that he was normally very polite and reserved and had very good manners. Such reckless behavior was not characteristic of him. He was “under the influence” of too much beer.
In contrast to giving ourselves over to the influence of wine, we are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit.” By comparison, we are to walk under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Under his influence, we will find ourselves doing things which are unnatural to us; things which we would not or could not do in our own strength. The Spirit will produce in us the worthy walk which we have been talking about. We cannot walk a worthy walk in our own strength or our own wisdom. But we can if we yield ourselves to the Spirit’s control and walk under his influence.
The grammar of this sentence is revealing. It is a present, passive imperative. Doesn’t that bless your heart? Well, it should. Let me unpack that for you.
It is an imperative. That means it is a command. This is not a suggestion or an optional extra in the Christian life. This is a command to every single saint; every single follower of Christ.
It is in the present tense. In Greek grammar, a command written in the present tense is a command to continual, ongoing action. “Be always, continually filled and controlled by the Spirit.”
It is passive. It is kind of an oxymoron to have a passive command. But what it tells us is that we don’t fill or control ourselves. Our part is to submit and to yield ourselves and our wills to the control and influence of the Spirit of God within us.
I think we should also recognize that this understanding of the Spirit’s filling as control shows us that it is not a matter of getting more of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person. He does not come in pieces or in amounts. When we receive Christ as Savior, we receive the Holy Spirit. He indwells every believer. Every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and sealed by the Holy Spirit, but not every believer is filled or controlled by the Spirit on an ongoing basis. That’s the point of this command.
I would also point out that this is not an inherently emotional experience. Feelings may or may not accompany the Spirit’s filling. The essential issue is our will, our obedience, our deliberate yielding to what the Spirit wants us to do. It is saying, “Holy Spirit, fill me; control me right now in this situation and give me the wisdom to know what to do and the strength to do it.”
How does this work? Let me depart from the script here and just share the way this plays out in my own experience. Early in each day, I try to remember to have a word with the Lord. It may be part of my regular devotional time, or if there is not enough time for that, simply a brief prayer as I get out of bed: “Lord, fill me and control me by your Spirit as I face the challenges of this day.”
Then as I hit the various crisis or decision points during the day, I find myself shooting up quick prayers: “Spirit, control me now. Give me wisdom. Give me strength. Put your words in my mouth.”
I have discovered certain things about myself. I find it relatively easy, almost second nature now, to do this in matters which are clearly spiritual; preaching, sharing Christ, counseling. I make it a habit before I get up to preach to simply pray; “Fill me with your Spirit as I deliver your word today.” By the way, I have also prayed for the Spirit’s filling during the week when I was preparing the sermon. The filling of the Spirit is no substituted for doing our home work!
I also find that I am more conscious of my need for the Spirit’s filling and influence during times of crisis; in the big things, the issues that are beyond me. I am overwhelmed and so turn fairly naturally to the Spirit for help. As a result, I generally respond better to big issues.
Where I am more likely to struggle is in the day to day, nuisance events of life, the unguarded moments, my “off duty” times. These are the times and situations when I struggle to remember to submit to the Spirit’s control.
Now, as we submit to the Spirit’s influence, how will we know that he is in control and that we are not simply engaging in a new form of legalism? Paul lists three experiences which are characteristic of the person who is filled with the Spirit.
The first one is Joyful praise.
Verse 19 says: addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.
Singing and praise are a natural expression of a heart controlled by the Spirit of God. Paul uses three different words to describe a variety of musical expression. I remember a sermon once when the speaker tried to define each of these words and relate it to different kinds of music used in the church. I think attempting to sort out such nuances is a futile exercise when we recognize how widely diverse forms of musical expression can be amongst the many different cultures of the world. I doubt that any of the kinds of music used in the early church would sound or feel familiar to us today. What this verse tells me is that God is comfortable with and enjoys a wide variety of musical forms. The key to such expression is found at the end of the verse. We are to do it “with our heart.” It’s not just music. It’s not performance. It isn’t something we can do with instruments or voices alone. The one instrument that the Lord is listening to is our hearts. Are our hearts in tune?
There isn’t time to go into a full theology of Christian music and worship here. But I would summarize it quickly in this way. We are all the worshippers. We are the choir. We are to sing to each other, but we are also to sing “to the Lord.” And our primary instrument is our heart. If you are not singing in your heart and from the heart – then it doesn’t meet the measure of Spirit filled worship.
The next mark of the Spirit filled saint is Thankfulness. Verse 20 tells us: giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Spirit-filled person is a thankful person. Self-pity and complaining simply cannot remain when we submit to the control of the Spirit of God. In its place we will be giving thanks. When? Always. For what?
Everything. You say, “But that’s not natural.” No, it isn’t. That is how we know that the Spirit is in control and we are under his influence!
There is one more mark of the saint who is filled with the Spirit. And this one is the most unnatural one of all. It is Mutual submission.
Look at verse 21: submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The word comes from the military. It means “to line up under.” One of the marks of being filled with the Spirit is that we will “line up under one another, out of reverence for Christ.” Our submission and obedience out of reverence for Christ will result in submitting to one another; ending the endless battles of one-upmanship, the striving to be first in line and get the lion’s share of the credit, and the spotlight and the headlines. We will defer to one another, listen to one another, respect one another, give in to one another when there is no Biblical or moral standard at stake.
This is just the introduction for the next section of the letter. Paul is going to go on to describe what this looks like for husbands and wives, for parents and children and even for slaves and masters. But this is the underlying principle that will govern all he is about to say. Mutual submission; “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
You may say, “But that’s not natural.” No, it isn’t. That is how we recognize that we are filled with the Spirit and under the influence.
So let me come back to the question that my inebriated friend asked on that Friday morning so many years ago: “How do we do that?” It starts by recognizing that we cannot walk a worthy walk in our own wisdom or strength. So, BE FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT!
- Read Ephesians 5:15-21 together.
- “Be very careful how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” Why is this command an important one for Christians to hear today?
- “Redeeming the time/opportunity because the days are evil.” Give an example from daily life of buying up something in short supply. Why do you think Paul said that the days were evil? Do we live in evil days ourselves? If so, how should that affect our approach to Christian life and ministry?
- Compare and contrast being “drunk with wine” and being “filled with the Spirit”.
- What are the signs/evidences of someone who is drunk with wine?
- What are the signs/evidence of someone who is “filled with the Spirit”? (After you have searched this passage, Galatians 5:16-26 is a helpful parallel passage.)
- What has been your experience of being filled with the Spirit and walking in the Spirit?
- Remember “Be filled with the Spirit” is a command, not a suggestion! What have you learned in this study/sermon that will help you obey this command?