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Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay

Key Texts: Eph 5:1-20

Key Questions

  1. What arguments does Paul offer to support his ban of crude speech among Christians? (Eph 5:3-5, 12). Which of these arguments are most applicable to our day?
  2. What “bargains” are on offer to you as you await Christ’s return? (see Eph 5:16 and Wednesday’s lesson). What would it mean to “snap up” those bargains?
  3. In Ephesians 5:18b-20 Paul imagines Christians gathered to worship. In your own words, describe the early Christian worship service he recounts.
  4. Paul has illustrated the use of thanksgiving in prayer (Eph 1:3-23, esp. v. Eph 1:16; 3:14-21) and put thanksgiving forward, in contrast to crude speech, as central to discipleship (Eph 5:4). In Eph 5:20 he shares how pervasive thanksgiving should be in Christian worship: “. . . giving thanks always for all things” (Eph 5:20, NKJV). Why such a fixation on thanksgiving?

How might we sketch out the major themes of Eph 5:1-20?

  • Eph 5:1-2 The overarching call: To live as imitators of God, loving others in a way that mirrors Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us
  • Eph 5:3-6 A call for sexual purity in immoral days
  • Eph 5:7-14 A call for Christian witness in dark days
  • Eph 5:15-20 A call for strategic worship in evil days

Is Eph 5:1-20 just a set of jumbled, miscellaneous commands? Like the verses before it (Eph 4:25-32), Eph 5:1-20 exhibits relatively short sentences and “not this, but that” pattern, correcting vices and advocating Christian virtues. The passage can seem like a random, rapid-fire stream of commands. To understand the passage, we must grasp Paul’s perspective and his tone. His perspective is that of the end time, as is evident in Eph 5:15-16 where he uses a word borrowed from the marketplace to describe the behavior believers should practice: exagorazō, to “snap up the bargains” on offer as we await Christ’s return. His tone is the urgent one of the battlefield, which is indicated by his use of a variety of battlefield motifs such as awakening out of sleep (Eph 5:14) and attending to the time (Eph 5:15-16; cf. Rom 13:11-14; 1 Thess 5:1-11). Our passage is not a random list of exhortations but Paul’s end-time, battlefield instructions to combatants in the great controversy.

Why is Paul so interested in sexual purity? Paul’s tart ban of sexually-explicit speech (Eph 5:4) makes it clear that his focus is on the Christian house churches as they gather for worship (cf. Eph 5:18-20). He writes in awareness of the devastating impact that adultery and other forms of sexual immorality could have on the Christian house churches in Ephesus, damaging God’s grand initiative in establishing the church as a signal of His planned, cosmic unity in Christ (Eph 1:9-10; 2:11-22; 3:10). He dares to offer substitutes to fill any vacuum created by the absence of salacious speech—“psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” and “giving thanks . . . to God” (Eph 5:19-20). Instead of recounting sexual experiences, conquests, and jokes, he imagines songs of praise and thankful speech directed toward God.

Living a life that revolves around sexual sin is not just a threat to the effectiveness and unity of house churches in the present, it imperils future salvation (Eph 5:5). Any who do so fall victim to “empty words” that suggest sexual sin and Christian discipleship may coexist happily in the lives of believers (Eph 5:6; cf. 1 Cor 6:12-20; 2 Tim 3:6; Heb 13:4; 2 Pet 2:1-22; ; Jude 4; Rev 2:14, 20). Paul cautions that believers who are deceived in this way will suffer the same judgment, “the wrath of God,” that “comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:6). Paul earnestly warns believers to avoid both decimation of church fellowship in the present and the loss of eternal life at Christ’s return.

How does Paul encourage believers to bear witness? In another word of battlefield advice, Paul calls believers to bear witness in a time marked by “the works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). Declaring that believers are “light in the Lord,” he charges them to “Walk as children of light,” living out what they discern to be “pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:8-10). Beyond avoiding “works of darkness,” believers are to “expose” such deeds (Eph 5:11-12). Paul refers both cryptically and poetically to how they are to do so: “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Eph 5:13-14a). He does not envision harsh, public confrontation of their pagan neighbors. He imagines instead that they will employ a “show forth God’s goodness” strategy, exhibiting a God-honoring lifestyle for all to see. Such a witness holds promise of light-bathed transformation.

Paul concludes his call for Christian witness in dark days by citing a saying or hymn: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14b, ESV). Is Paul addressing the unbeliever? Or is he encouraging the believers’ witness? Probably the latter, since Paul draws on Isaiah 60:1-3, which is addressed to God’s people. If so, the statement offers a heartwarming promise: As you seek to bear witness to Christ in difficult times, Christ Himself will inspire and encourage you. The light you share will be refracted light, originating in the light Christ shines into your life.

How can we practice strategic worship (Eph 5:15-20)? Paul urges believers to make an end-time substitution for the elaborate dinner and drinking parties, the symposia, which were the focus of social life and entertainment at the time (see Eph 5:3-4, 11-12, 18). Audaciously, he advocates shared, Christian worship as that substitute. For Paul, these are the essential characteristics of strategic, end-time worship:

  1. Worship is not a spectator sport, but is highly participatory: Paul portrays believers “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another . . .” in worship (Eph 5:19).
  2. Worship offers varied types of heartfelt, God-centered music: “. . . psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19).
  3. Worship is not a public relations event, advertising the church and its programs. It is exclusively focused on the worship of God: “. . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:20).
  4. Worship nurtures and actualizes Christian camaraderie and community: “. . . submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). For Paul, battlefield worship is shared, corporate worship, which Paul regards as an essential survival strategy for evil, end-time days.

How does our passage inform the pressing question, “How can I know God’s will?” Paul twice commends an important, end-time task: “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10); “Understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5:17). Taking the two passages together, we learn that understanding God’s will does not (at least usually) happen in a momentary flash of insight, but is a process of thought, discernment, and testing (Eph 5:10), leading to a decision about the values that will determine one’s choices (Eph 5:17).

Ephesians 5:1-20 suggests useful strategies that inform the process of discerning God’s will: 
(1) Observe carefully the Pattern (Eph 5:1-2). We are to be “imitators of God” and of Christ, patterning our lives after the God of love and the self-sacrificing Christ; (2) Reflect on the lifestyles of unbelievers as a negative exhibit of how not to live (Eph 5:3-20). Paul develops this thought in detail, pointing to sexual immorality (Eph 5:3-6), crude speech (Eph 5:4), etc.; (3) Learn with fellow believers (Eph 5:19-21). Decisions about God’s will are not intended to be lonely, individual ones. The process of discerning God’s will is advanced by worshiping with other believers, seeking their counsel, and submitting to the wisdom God shares through them (Eph 5:19-21).

Addendum: Wine and Drunkenness in Ephesians 5:181This addendum is a condensed version of an excursus on the topic in John K. McVay, Ephesians [the companion book to the quarterly] (Pacific Press, 2022), 82-83.

It is frequently assumed that Paul, in his exhortation “Do not get drunk with wine” (Eph 5:18), is careful to distinguish wine-drinking from drunkenness. In this view, he does not speak against drinking wine but is opposed only to becoming drunk as a result of drinking wine to excess. The passage is taken to mean, “It’s OK to drink wine.” Is this an appropriate understanding?

Two arguments suggest this view is an inadequate one:

  1. Paul is drawing on Proverbs 20:1 and 23:29-35, passages that locate the evil associated with wine and strong drink not just in the drunkenness that results from consuming it, but in the drink itself: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” (Prov 20:1). The wise man’s commands move beyond a ban on drunkenness: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly” (Prov 23:31). Danger is present from the moment the cup is lifted toward one’s lips. Paul’s Greek grammar is clear, the “debauchery” is located in or attached to the wine itself, “And do not get drunk with wine, in which [i.e., in the wine] is debauchery.” Mirroring Proverbs, Paul warns against the risks associated with imbibing wine.
  2. Eph 5:1-20 reflects the vocabulary and thinking Paul has already used in Rom 13:11-14 and 
1 Thess 5:1-11, encouraging believers, cast as soldiers preparing for battle, to not be drunk but rather to be sober, drawing a sharp contrast between the two behaviors. Since you are “children of light, children of day,” you should not “sleep as others do,” but “keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:5-6). “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober,” fully alert and fully armed and prepared for spiritual battle (1 Thess 5:8). Paul wishes Christian believers to be as stone cold sober as someone who has just awakened (cf. 1 Pet 1:13, “fully sober,” NIV).

In view of these two arguments, which of the following two positions aligns more accurately with the thought and intent of Paul’s command, “Do not get drunk with wine, in which is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18)? (1) Paul is only concerned about drunkenness and approves the consumption of wine. Believers may with perfect propriety and clear conscience participate in drinking wine as long as they avoid getting really drunk; or (2) There is inherent danger in drinking wine. The Christian believer should be on the alert, careful to practice sobriety.

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