Ephesians 5:15-20


Lenski is of the opinion that the first word in this text introduces the last four admonitions in Ephesians. Look at 4:1,17; 5:1 for the other three. Stoeckhardt, on the other hand, connects the word with verses 11-14 which precede our text immediately. He says: "The brief admonitions of verses 15-17 are given because of those who are without the Christian Church. What Paul writes in a parallel, Colossians 4:5, favors this interpretation." 

We prefer Stoeckhardt's explanation to that of Lenski. Kretzmann says: "The apostle continues his admonition to the Christians to walk as the children of life, since such behavior on their part will always serve to impress the unbelievers." The section preceding our pericope stresses the difference between works of darkness and fruits of light.

Ephesians 5:15 Be very careful, then, how you live -- not as unwise but as wise,

NKJV: "See then that you walk circumspectly." RSV: "Look carefully then how you walk." 

"Wise" introduces the thought of the applying of acquired knowledge.

Lenski: To be wise is more than to know; it means to use, apply, and thus to get the most out of knowledge in our walking or in the management of our life.

The word "wisdom" here implies that they know what Paul has said about Law and Gospel, about sin and grace, in the chapters and verses preceding our text.

Stoeckhardt: They are not to drift along without forethought and plan, but to give serious thought upon the way and means by which they may accomplish their purpose, they are to study how they may help to build the Kingdom of God and advance the cause of Christ.

The Christian is like the wise man described in Matthew 7:24-25. The non-Christian is like the foolish man described in Matthew 7:26-27. Our text is speaking about spiritual wisdom, not mere intellectual knowledge.

Ephesians 5:16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

The first three words of this verse are found in Colossians 4:5. How does a man prove his wisdom? By doing what this verse says.

"The days are evil" is translated in JB as "This may be a wicked age, but your lives should redeem it." In other words, the Christian must buy back time which evil has taken over. All our other versions follow the meaning suggested by Rienecker: "seizing the opportunity." AAT is representative of this explanation: "And make the most of your opportunities because these are evil days." 

This is surely the correct interpretation. Christ has redeemed people. They do not "buy back" time from evil but simply make the best use of their time.

"Opportunity" reminds us of the old Roman proverb: Carpe diem, which means  "seize the day," or "seize the opportunity."  True. Common sense tells us to grasp opportunities. Wise parents constantly tell their children: "Make the most of your opportunities." 

Our text is speaking about making use of opportunities in the interest of the Kingdom of God, whatever that opportunity may be. Unbelievers make use of opportunities to further their own material gain. It is not wrong for Christians to do that. They should do that. But, in addition to that, they must wisely seize opportunities which are in the interest of God's Kingdom.

Stoeckhardt: Take advantage of the right moment, grasp the opportunity to approach opportunely those who despise God and Christ, to get a hearing for the divine Word, to get in some good work and accomplish something for the Lord.

Why should we do this? "Because the days are evil." The word here means  "actively evil." The world and all that is in it opposes the Kingdom of God. There is so very much immorality, sin and wickedness all around us. But there are opportunities nonetheless.

Lenski: These seasons of opportunity are brief, they soon slip away . . . Pay the necessary price in effort and exertion. . . Our lives are brief and present only so much opportunity . . . Opportunity itself is always a positive invitation and incentive. . . Wickedness reduces the opportunities.
Kretzmann: The general opposition of the world against the Gospel of Christ is a hindering factor. Opportune moments are rare and should be grasped immediately.

Ephesians 5:17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.

 "For this reason" What reason? Because the days are wicked. Here we have a prohibition. The word "foolish" means either not to have good judgment or to fail to use it when the opportunity presents itself.

How do we combat foolishness? By doing what follows the "but." This adversative conjunction, following a negative, is very strong. According to Rienecker, "understand" means "the ability to bring things together and see them in relation to one another." Remarkably enough in our time people speak about "getting it all together." That gets at the meaning here. It takes effort to do that. We have to sift, test and think about what the will of the Lord is, what pleases Him.

Bengel: The will of the Lord not only generally, but specifically.

Correct. The text is speaking not only of general knowledge, for example that all men are sinners but that all are saved by grace in Christ. The text is speaking about what we should do in specific cases for the good of people as prospects for the Kingdom of God. That takes true Christian wisdom. The text forthrightly tells us to do it. Christians should be careful to think about each time, place and circumstance to apply the will of the Lord. What was Paul's first question when he was converted?  "Lord, what would you have me do?" That is our question too at all times.

Ephesians 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

Verse 18 is explanatory of verse 17, and at the same time particularizes the verse. Both verse begin with a prohibition, followed by a "but" and an imperative. The verse is evidently an allusion to Proverbs 23:31.

This verse is not warning against the use of intoxicating beverages, but against the abuse of the same. It is a warning against the loss of sanity and sobriety. To lose one's sense of good judgment is great foolishness. One cannot grasp opportunities, one cannot determine what the will of the Lord is, when intoxicated.

Very likely the sense is "Do not allow yourself to become drunk on wine." Drunkenness is a tool of the Old Adam in every generation. It was prevalent in Paul's day. It is prevalent today. It is a sin, not a disease. The word "wine" here includes all other alcoholic beverages, drugs, etc.

"Which leads to" is "because of which condition." 

"Debauchery" literally means "unsavingness." The translations are interesting: "excess, debauchery, dissipation, wild living." 

"Be filled" might mean "be controlled." Phillips translates: "Let the Spirit stimulate your souls." 

The three participles in verses 19-20 are explanatory to this imperative. The parallel passage Colossians 3:16 is very helpful: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." 

People are filled with the Holy Spirit when they hear the Word of God and keep it. Lenski is of the opinion that "spirit" here means the renewed spirit of man, not the Holy Spirit. Neither Stoeckhardt nor Kretzmann nor any of our versions agree with him on this point. Neither do we.

 The Formula of Concord (Tappert 623.42): In the same way many receive the Word with joy, but after that they fall away again, Luke 8:13. But the reason for this is not that God does not want to impart the grace of perseverance to those in whom he has begun the good work. This would contradict St. Paul in Philippians 1:6. The reason is that they willfully turn away from the holy commandment, grieve and embitter the Holy Spirit, become entangled again in the filth of the world, and decorate their hearts as a tabernacle for the devil so that their last state will be worse than the first, 2 Peter 2:10; Luke 11:24-25; Hebrews 10:26; Ephesians 5:3-11,18.

Ephesians 5:19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,

In the Greek text verses 15 and 16 are one sentence; verse 17 another sentence, and verses 18-20 comprise the third sentence. KJV, NKJV, RSV, an NASB honor this order. TEV, NIV and JB make the four participles in verses 19-20 imperatival. We are not calling this wrong. That may have been Paul's intention. But, as they stand in our text, the four participles are either attendant circumstance, or denote means or manner. That is the way the four translations mentioned above handle them.

Furthermore, very likely "psalms" and "hymns" are explanatory to "spiritual songs." But because of the great similarity of this passage to Colossians 3:16 we should not rule out the spoken Word. That passage begins with "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly." 

Probably meant here are Old Testament Psalms, worship hymns as we know them today, and popular Christian songs. Note that the third is qualified by the adjective "spiritual" which makes it clear that they were not secular songs.

"In your heart" is used in the same sense as when we say of a person "It's not just a matter of the head, but also of the heart." It's not merely intellectual but of true faith and conviction.

Such singing is done to the glory of the Lord and for His Kingdom. This kind of conversing and singing is done in church, in the home, at Christian gatherings. One can imagine a family, or a husband and wife, doing the things mentioned in verses 18-19. The Lord blesses such activities. There should be more of them.

Ephesians 5:20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On this verse compare Colossians 3:17. "Always" is an adverb of time meaning  "all the time." "For everything" is an adverb phrase meaning "about everything" which excludes nothing. Look at Romans 8:28.

If God makes all things work together for our good, and He does, than we ought thank Him for everything, even adversities and death.

JB makes the participle "giving thanks" the result of verses 18-19. That is interesting. We are not necessarily recommending it but where there is constant study of Scripture and the singing of hymns and religious songs there will be thanksgiving.

The simplest way to take the phrase "in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ," is  "because He is my Savior and Mediator." God is our Father through Jesus Christ.

Note that our text does not include verse 21. Grammatically it belongs to verses 18-20 because of the participle. Thus it is translated in NKJV. NEB made a separate paragraph of it, separate from verse 20 and separate from verse 22. But, so far as the thought is concerned, verse 21 goes with the following. This is the way it is translated in JB, RSV, AAT. TEV and NIV also make a separate paragraph of this verse, as does NEB.


(Adapted from Exegetical Notes Epistle Texts, Series B, Sundays after Pentecost,
by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 53-55)

Return to top

Return to Buls' Notes Index