Living Soberly (Ephesians 5:18)

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Doug Van Meter - 26 Mar 2017

Living Soberly (Ephesians 5:18)

Drunkenness is destructive. It therefore is to have no place in the Christian’s life. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 5:18, but, as he has done throughout this passage (4:17ff), he balances a divine prohibition with a divine replacement: “Be filled with the Spirit.” In essence, Paul is exhorting Christians to sober living. In this study, we will begin another long section of practical Christian living, relating to congregational life, family life, workplace relationships, and the wider world. Verse 18 provides the foundation for success in all of these areas. As we do so, we will see that we must first understand the context before we look to obey the commands.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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I have never personally experienced this, but I have seen in various places that when a driver is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, one of the tests that they must pass is walking in a straight line. The philosophy is simple: How one walks indicates whether they are under the influence of alcohol or mind and body influencing substances.

Christians should never be guilty of DUI, but every one of us should be characterised as LUI—living under influence of the Holy Spirit.1

In v. 18, Paul indicates that wise people are not drunk people. Rather, wise people are sober people. They are sober people because they are truly spiritual people. This will make all the difference how we walk in this world (vv. 15–17); it will make all the difference to the world in which we live (5:19–6:20).

In this study, we will begin another long passage that addresses practical Christian (not merely moralistic) living. In other words, the practical matter of our relationships with others and the practical matter of how we stand in this world of darkness is God-centred; it is God-driven. And for this reason we need to be grounded in doctrine—the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

It was said of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards that all his doctrine was application and all his application was doctrine. He learned this from the apostle Paul.

If we will have holy, healthy, helpful relationships in the church, in our family, in the workplace, and in the wider world, then we need to understand what the Bible teaches concerning this matter of being “filled with the Spirit.”

As we begin to do so in this study, we will do so under three headings.

This is Not a Deviation, but a Continuation

First, we see that Paul is not deviating here from his previous point but continuing his thought. It is a continuation of contrasts. Paul begins v. 18 with a conjunction: “And.”

Paul has been speaking of the walk or the way of wisdom (vv. 15–17), and here I think that he has the same theme in mind. We learned that wise people walk carefully (v. 15), economically (v. 16) (making the best use of our opportunities), and thoughtfully (v. 17) (focusing on the revelation of God’s will in His Word). As he has indicated from v. 1, the Christian walks in light, not in darkness. And drunkenness is one of the characteristics of the life lived in darkness.

The testimony of the New Testament is consistent with regard to drunkenness. Consider a few sample texts.

“Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy” (Romans 13:13).

“Those who sleep, sleep at night. Those who get drunk, get drunk at night” (1 Thessalonians 5:7).

“The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3).

“Drunkenness” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). In Galatians 5:21, drunkenness is damned as a work of the flesh. The Gospels likens drunkenness to spiritual slothfulness and drunkards as being unprepared for the final judgement (Matthew 24:49; Luke 12:45; 21:34). Revelation 17:2, 6 and 18:13 use drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual infidelity (cf. Isaiah 29:9–10; 51:39, 57).

The main point of this verse is not drunkenness; it instead continues the theme that Christians do not walk in darkness. Nevertheless, drunkenness is clearly displayed as a work of darkness. Those who walk in the light do not walk in drunkenness. The contrast is clearly stated: “Do not be drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit.” And, as I have said, the injunction (“and”) is used in such a way that it continues the contrast between wise living and foolish living, between living in the light and living in the darkness. It is a continuation of what it means to live like you “understand what the will of the Lord is” (v. 17). In fact, this is the will of the Lord.

But we need to go further. Paul, as he has throughout this passage (4:17ff), balances a divine prohibition with a divine replacement: “But be filled with the Spirit.”

He is telling us that walking as children of light (walking wisely) is not natural. This kind of walk is not one of mere self-discipline. Walking as wise children of light requires far more than personal and natural self-control; it requires powerful supernatural Spirit-control. Paul introduces this theme at this point and it will largely dominate the rest of the epistle. But what does it mean?

The word translated “filled” means “filled to the full.” It speaks of being so filled with the contents of something that it characterises and controls you.

The word is used of Jesus who was “full” of grace and truth (John 1:14). It is used of those who are “filled” with sorrow (John 16:6). It is used of those who are “filled” with joy (John 16:24). Satan had “filled” the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to lie to God (Acts 5:3). The Ephesians were “filled” with wrath (Acts 19:28) and Paul prayed that the Romans would be “filled” with peace and believing (Romans 15:13).

To be filled with the Spirit means to be characterised and controlled by the Holy Spirit. Since He has come to show us Christ (therefore convicting us to convert us to be like Christ), to be filled with the Spirit is to be consumed with Christ. He will be our focus—the object of our faith and devotion. We are to live coram Christus—in the presence of Christ, under the authority of Christ, glorifying Christ.

Hendriksen summarises well the effect of this filling: “Being filled with the Spirit will enrich you with the precious treasures of lasting joy, deep insight, and inner satisfaction. It will sharpen your faculties for the perception of the divine will.”2 Clearly such a lifestyle is one of sobriety—Christ-driven clear thinking.

Those who take seriously their walk with and for God, will appreciate their need for supernatural power. Having been taught by the Lord Jesus (4:20), and having been instructed by God the Father (5:1), they will know their need for the power of the Spirit if they will put off and put on. They understand their need for a Spirit-controlled mind (4:23).

Ours is a spiritual walk. This does not mean that it is ethereal; rather, it means that it is a walk that is enlightened and empowered by the Spirit of God. In other words, it is not a natural walk but rather a supernatural walk.

This is Not a Comparison but a Contrast

Many approach this verse, I believe, erroneously, drawing comparisons between being filled (“soaked” in Tyndale’s translation) with wine and being filled with the Spirit. The argument goes like this: Just as you used to be controlled by alcohol, now be controlled by the Holy Spirit. Just as you used to be intoxicated by alcohol, now be intoxicated by the Holy Spirit. This is incorrect. It borders on the blasphemous.

Paul’s point is that those who are controlled by the Spirit are radically different to those who are controlled by wine. This point is well illustrated in Acts 2:1–14ff. At Pentecost, God gave the early disciples the supernatural ability to speak in tongues. Many were perplexed, but others hurled accusations at the disciples: “These men are filled with new wine.” Peter responded by “standing with the eleven” and preaching the gospel.

The note of Peter “standing with the eleven” is interesting. In the first century, teachers typically sat when teaching. Peter did not stand up as a symbol of authority, but as evidence of self-control. His point was that the accusations were completely off base. Wine leads to lack of self-control. It produces mindless words and behaviour. It leads to disorder. There was nothing about what happened in drunkenness that remotely compared to was happening that Pentecost.

A Contrast of Culture

Ephesus was a city, like Athens, that was wholly given to idolatry and false religion (much like Johannesburg!). It was a centre of the worship of Bacchus (or Dionysus), who was considered to be the god of wine. Cleon Rogers (director of German Theological Seminary) suggests that it was the worship of this god that formed the cultural backdrop to this verse:

To talk of wine and drinking immediately brought Dionysian expressions in the conversation. To live a riotous, wanton, debauched, drunken life was characterized as a “Dionysian mode of life.”

The cult was so widespread that it was part of common everyday life in the ancient world.

The festivals celebrated in honor of Dionysus varied from place to place, but it seems that one common feature was the emphasis on fertility and sex…. Lewd debauchery [was] connected with this worship…. Another feature of the festivals was the wild, frenzied dancing and uncontrolled ravings, in connection with wine drinking and the music of flutes, cymbals, drums, or tambourines…. The purpose of the intoxication by wine … was to have Dionysus enter the body of the worshiper and fill him with “enthusiasm” or the spirit of the god.

Rogers adds, “Dionysus was to possess and control such ones so that they were united with him and partook of his strength, wisdom, and abilities. This resulted in the person doing the will of the deity…. And having the ability to speak inspired prophecy, and was often thought to be the source of artistic or poetical ability.”3

Though we need to be careful of reading too much into this, the fact remains that this epistle was written in a particular cultural context. It would seem strange for Paul to address the issue of drunkenness in connection with his statement concerning being filled with the Spirit unless he had this in mind.

Again, Ephesus was inundated with false worship, including idolatry and the drunken orgies that attended religious festivals connected to the worship of these idols. Many in the church there had been converted out of such a religious milieu. Paul wanted to set it straight that their conversion to Christ involved a complete break with their dark past.

Their former life had been one of pagan, fleshly inebriation as an escape from the world; as Christians, their life was now to be marked by godly, Spirit-filled exhilaration in the exaltation of Christ. In a word, they had been called to live, not drunkenly, but soberly.

Hence, this is not a comparison, it is a stark contrast.

A Contrast of Effects

Inebriation with alcohol produces “dissipation.” The KJV speaks of “excess” and the ESV of “debauchery.” The word literally means “unsavedness.” It refers to that which is dissolute, riotous, or profligate. In other words, drunkenness produces behaviour that is characterised as squandering what one has. Drunkenness does not conserve. It does not save, but wastes. Jesus used the same word when He spoke of the prodigal son’s riotous, wasteful living (Luke 15:13).

Waste summarises the outcome of drunkenness. Even in party lingo, those who are drunk are said to be “wasted.” That is more true than many would guess.

Consider the difference. Being drunk is vastly different to being filled with the Holy Spirit. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who was trained as a medical doctor, brings this out clearly when he writes,

What Alcohol does is this; it knocks out those higher centres, and so the more primitive elements of the brain come up and take control; and a man feels better temporarily. He has lost his sense of fear, and he has lost his discrimination, he has lost his power to assess. Alcohol merely knocks out his higher centres and releases the more instinctive, primal elements; but the man believes that he is being stimulated. What is really true of him is that he has become more of an animal; his control over himself is diminished.

That is the exact opposite of being filled with the Spirit; for what the Spirit does is truly to stimulate. If it were possible to put the Spirit into a text-book of Pharmacology I would put Him under the stimulants, for that is where He belongs. He really does stimulate. He does not merely appear to do so, as alcohol does, and, thereby fools and deludes us. The Holy Spirit is an active, positive, real stimulus.4

Specifically, alcohol, when misused, leads to debauchery rather than holiness, to disorder rather than order. Alcohol numbs rather than enhances the mind. It is destructive rather than constructive. I recently read of a young woman at my former university who became so inebriated that she dropped dead. Alcohol produces regret rather than rejoicing.

Being filled with the Spirit produces radically positive results. Being filled with the Spirit produces fidelity rather than a breach of marital vows. It produces mercy rather than misery. It produces grace rather than guilt, harmony instead of disharmony, and self-control rather than self-centredness. To be filled with the Spirit is humanising rather than dehumanising.

John Stott perhaps best summarises the clear contrasts between drunkenness and being filled with Spirit when he writes, “If excessive alcohol dehumanizes, turning a human being into a beast, the fullness of the Spirit makes us more human, for he makes us like Christ.”5 Simply put, being filled with wine produces waste, while being filled with the Spirit produces worship. Being filled with the Spirit never leaves you with a hangover. Rather, it refreshes you with a sober, clear-thinking, well-ordered and productive life. Again, listen to Dr. Lloyd-Jones: “Alcohol, or any artificial stimulus worked up by man, always leaves us exhausted and tired. Not so the Spirit! Drunkenness exhausts; the Holy Spirit does not exhaust, but energizes.”6

This is not a Suggestion but a Commandment

Finally, we note that Paul is not offering a suggestion but issuing a command.

Do Not Get Drunk

The first part of the command is straightforward: “Do not be drunk with wine.” This is a present passive imperative, which means that if someone is doing it, they are expected to stop doing it—now!

As we have seen, Paul’s main concern here is not the prohibition of the abuse of alcohol. It is that, but it is more. What Paul is introducing here is a contrast between living wisely and living foolishly, between living in darkness and living in the light, between being darkness and being light, between living disorderly and orderly, between living mindlessly and living soberly. There is perhaps no better way to do this than to contrast being drunk with being filled with the Spirit.

Let me also point out that you may be guilty of violating this command even if alcohol has never touched your lips. As Chapell comments, we are to be “emptying ourselves of anything in this world that would hold us under its influence. Such influence, whether by wine or other intoxicants, leads to reckless living that would darken the very life of light the apostle has been advocating.”7

Prohibiting, not Prohibition

Now, we need to be careful here. This commandment is not a prohibition against the use of alcohol; rather it is a commandment against the abuse of alcohol—at any time. Wine in the Bible was alcoholic; there is no way around it. When Jesus turned water into wine, it was fermented wine. Yes, the percentage of alcohol in wine back then was far lower than it is today, but wine was fermented nonetheless.

Christians may absolutely enjoy alcohol as a gift from God. Genesis 27:28 describes it in precisely that way. Wine was included in offerings (Leviticus 23:13) and in God’s supply for the priests (Numbers 6:20; 18:12). Deuteronomy 7:13 again defines the supply of wine as a sign of God’s blessing. Wine was employed in festal enjoyment (Deuteronomy 14:23–26) and the psalmist spoke of wine making the heart glad (Psalm 104:15).

But, as with all of God’s gifts, it can be abused. That is what is here forbidden. Christians are prohibited from getting drunk. Christians are to be sober, not drunk. They are not to be under the mind-confusing control of any substance. Rather, they are to be clear-headed.

Drunkenness in Scripture

Both Testaments reveal God’s displeasure at drunkenness. The first mention of wine in the Bible is in a decidedly negative and shameful context (Genesis 9:20–27). It was drunkenness that led to the incestuous relations between Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:33–34). Eli rebuked Hannah when he (wrongly) assumed she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:13–15). Nabal is portrayed as a scoundrel, one of whose characteristics was drunkenness (1 Samuel 25:36). King Elah was murdered during a drunken episode (1 Kings 16:9–10). Drunkenness and noble leadership do not go together (Ecclesiastes 10:17; cf. Jeremiah 13:13). Lewd behaviour is associated with drunkenness in Lamentations 4:21 (cf. Habakkuk 2:15). Psalm 107:27 speaks of drunkards reeling to and fro and staggering about at their wits’ end—hardly a complement. Isaiah 19:14 speaks of a drunkard staggering in his vomit. The psalmist spoke of drunkards singing mockingly about him (Psalm 69:12). In Corinth, there were people who were rebuked for being drunk at the Communion Table, a clear sign of self-centredness and lack of self-control. It was shamefully blasphemous.

In short, the Bible portrays drunkenness in one light: Darkness!

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaints? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long at the wine, those who go in search of mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. Yes, you will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, or like one who lies at the top of the mast, saying: “They have struck me, but I was not hurt; they have beaten me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?”

(Proverbs 23:29–35)

Drunkenness is condemned in the Bible from cover to cover. Christian, do not get drunk!

But why does the Bible universally view drunkenness negatively? Because to get drunk is to turn yourself over to another “spirit.” It is a rejection of self-control. It is one of the most irresponsible actions a person can commit. To get drunk is to fail to guard your heart. To get drunk is to render yourself unable to think clearly.

That is one reason that elders are required to be “not given to wine.” Imagine calling your pastor in the middle of a crisis only to have him show up tipsy. His reasoning will be impaired and it really won’t do much good.

What Drunkenness Produces

Drunkenness is destructive—to marriages, family life, finances, employment, careers, life itself. How much of the carnage on highways is attributable to drunkenness. There is a man in our neighbourhood whose drunkenness often leaves him passed out on the sidewalk. He is wasting his life through abuse of alcohol.

Don’t waste your life. Don’t waste your opportunities. “Drunkenness immerses one in the flow of evil days and makes life a series of missed opportunities. This is a tragic waste!”8


Related to this, Christians are not to be characterised as drinkers, but as being sober. We recently ordained three new deacons at our church. As the elders prayed for them, one of my fellow-elders thanked God that they are men who are not characterised as being lovers of wine. They are not to be characterised as loving alcohol.

This raises an issue that hits closer to home.

Most Christians do not struggle with the sin of drunkenness, though many do. I am compassionate toward those who admit this and seek help. But I am equally concerned about Christians who, though they may not get drunk, are too happy to be characterised as drinkers. They almost seem to boast in their drinking. When a photo is posted of them in social media at a social function, you can almost guarantee that that it will be with a beer bottle in their hand. They seem to go out of their way to be seen as those who socially drink.

I would suggest that this is unwise. It is not necessarily sinful, but it is silly and possibly a stumblingblock both to others and to themselves.

Parents, if you consume alcoholic beverages, be careful that you teach your children wisdom in this regard. I do not mean teach them to drink in moderation—especially when they are below the legal age-limit for drinking. I mean make sure that they are Spirit-filled children before you introduce them to another spirit. This is called discipleship.

A glass of wine for pleasure in one thing; a glass of wine to make a statement is completely something else.

Do Be Sober/Spiritual

The flip side of the command, and the main point of both this verse and what follows all the way to the end of the letter, is found in the second half of the verse: “but be filled with the Spirit.” Paul wants his readers to live soberly by living in a Spirit-filled manner.

This command is to be continually obeyed. The command is in the present active tense. We are not to be in the habit of being intoxicated; at the same time, we are to be in the habit of being spiritually sober.

The command is to be compliantly obeyed. It is in the passive voice. We are to be active to be acted upon! The Spirit of God is to so fill us that He controls us. And He controls us by pointing us to Christ.

The command is to be corporately obeyed. It is not individualistic, but rather each member of the congregation is to be filled with the Spirit.

Putting this all together, we can conclude that each member of the local church is to be continually obedient to the Sprit’s work of pointing us to the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, each and every member is commanded to grow in the habit of living soberly rather than self-centredly. Each of us is to live a life of worship rather than a life of waste.

Let me drive this final point home by referring to a 2012 article in The South African Medical Journal. The article estimates that South Africans consume in excess of five billion litres of alcohol annually. This figure is likely to be higher if sorghum beer is included, and equates to 9–10 litres of pure alcohol per person. According the World Health Organisation (WHO) report released in 2011, this is among the highest per capita consumption rates in the world, and it is continuing to rise.

Of course, the social and financial cost of such abuse of alcohol is monumental. The article states that the financial cost to the nation due to alcohol related “to absenteeism, poor productivity, high job turnover, interpersonal conflict and injuries and damage to property, is reckoned to be around R9 billion per year, equivalent to 1% of GDP.”

Further, the article highlights that “a high social cost accrues from the behaviour that attends drunkenness: crime (murder and assault, rape, robbery), interpersonal—including domestic—violence, sexual offences against children, reckless driving (or walking) accounting for road traffic deaths and injuries involving passengers and pedestrians, unsafe sex and sexual promiscuity with transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), foetal alcohol syndrome and child neglect, and school truancy.”

This article makes the point that drunkenness is destructive to every kind of relationship imaginable. Now consider what Paul says. According to Ephesians 5:18–6:20, when we are filled with the Spirit (rather than soaked with artificial intoxicants), every possible relationship is enriched, to the glory of God. This is because such a Christian is worshipping in every sphere of life: in church life (5:19–21); in marriage (5:22–33); in family life (6:1–4); in the workplace (6:5–9); and in the wider world (6:10–20).

May God help us to be filled with the Spirit. May He help us to live soberly, productively, orderly, joyfully and worshipfully to His glory, resulting in our good.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 262.
  2. William Hendriksen, Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 240.
  3. Cleon L. Rogers Jr., “The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18,”, retrieved 26 March 2017.
  4. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home & Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18–6:9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1975), 20.
  5. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 205.
  6. Jones, Life in the Spirit, 17.
  7. Chapell, Ephesians, 262.
  8. R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), ??.