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“Full Time in the Spirit”

Ephesians 5:15-20
Bob DeGray
May 22, 2016

Key Sentence

The wise believer wants to spend full time filled with the Spirit.


I. Make the best use of your time (Ephesians 5:15-16)
II. Following the will of the Lord (Ephesians 5:17)
III. Allowing the Spirit to fill you (Ephesians 5:18)
IV. Learning the language of worship (Ephesians 5:19)
V. And always giving thanks (Ephesians 5:20)


I’ve been doing a lot of pre-marital counseling lately. In fact, I’ve been meeting with as many as eight couples, which is a record. The weddings start next month: Enoch and Megan on June 4th, my daughter Hannah and her fiancé Darin on June 18th in Pennsylvania, and then Matt Coleman and Morgan Foster on June 25th. The rest are scattered out across the fall.

It’s been great fun to get to know these people. I always start pre-marital counseling by asking my favorite question of all time, “tell me the story of your life.” I’ll talk one and then the other through the story of their childhood and growing up, and then the story of how they met and got to know each other and why they want to get married. And almost inevitably at some point they will say “We are so looking forward to spending all of our time together.”

That’s the way it works. These two people may be involved in the same activities or classes, they catch each other’s eye, then they start deliberately hanging out together. They find that they enjoy each other, that they can talk to or help each other. At some point that moves to a formal dating relationship or courtship, more time doing things together, and at some point one of them says “I want to be with you all the time,” and the other one says “Forever.”

That’s the promise, the ideal, of marriage. I try to be gentle when I break the news that even after the wedding you don’t actually get to spend all your time together. What with work, school, babies, homemaking and commitments, if you’re not careful the promise of ‘be together all the time,’ can wither into ‘ships passing in the night,’ or even worse, strangers sharing a house. Just last night Gail got back from almost two weeks in Pampa. She got to help care for Ruth and Joseph’s baby, Mark. But we’ve done way too much of that divide and conquer thing. At times we’ll give each other a hug and say ‘Why don’t we get married. We can be together all the time.” It’s still the ideal.

I say all that to introduce Ephesians 5:15-20, which is among my favorite passages in this whole wonderful book. In this passage we learn that “the wise believer wants to spend full time filled with the Spirit.” The beauty of our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit is that we get to be together all the time, and that’s the best use of our time. But like the marriage relationship, it takes some effort and intentionality. We’re wise as believers if we allow ourselves to be continuously filled with the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin by reading this short passage, because the outline builds verse by verse through the text.

Ephesians 5:15-20 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart, 20always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Be very careful how you walk. This is the fifth time since the header in the first verse of chapter 4 that Paul has used the word ‘walk’ to describe our Christian life. He’s continuing to show that the Good News about Jesus changes everything, or at least is supposed to change everything for all of us. So be careful how you live. We might say ‘watch where you’re going.’ In doing so you will live, or walk, not as unwise, but as wise. Someone who is watching carefully the steps they take will not take near as many false steps. Stott says that “Everything worth doing requires care. We all take trouble over the things which seem to us to matter - our job, our education, our home and family our hobbies, our dress and appearance. So, as Christians, we must take trouble over our Christian life. We must treat it as the serious thing it is.”

“Not as unwise but as wise,” Paul says. The two words are opposites in Greek just as in English. The contrast goes back to the book of Proverbs. Solomon teaches that the wise person is the one who lives in active response to who God is, what he requires, and what he has done. The foolish person, on the other hand, lives apart from the reality of God. This is the point of Jesus’ story of the wise and foolish builders. In a land where fierce storms, waves and wind are a regular feature of the weather, it is foolish to build on a foundation of sand. The wise person takes into account the reality of storms, and builds on rock. True wisdom is still like this. Wisdom is not driving into water during a deluge. Wisdom is walking away from a fight or a bar or a website. Wisdom is knowing that not all people are good, not all advertising is true.

There are realities to life, work, and nature. The wise person sees those realities and adjusts to them. God is the greatest of these realities, so the greatest wisdom is to take into account who God is, what God wants, and how God is at work. So Proverbs says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The person walking worthy of his or her calling, walking in wisdom, is the person who most fully integrates the reality of God into their lives.

Paul, being practical, gives practical guidelines for that integration. First, verse 16, wise people make the most of their time. The Greek for ‘make the most of’ can mean to ‘redeem’ or ‘buy back,’ to ‘ransom the time from its evil usage.’

Each one of us can look at our use of time during the day, during the week, and see places where we’ve not taken the opportunities, God has given us. Somebody once advertised as follows: Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes.”

We struggle to keep from wasting time, yet we struggle to balance work and leisure. We struggle to keep going when overloaded, fatigued, or frustrated, and we struggle to stop working to recharge, refresh, and relax. So, on the one hand, Paul has already said that people should be encouraged to work hard, so they have something to give away. If we find ourselves watching another season of a TV show, or scrolling endlessly on Facebook or playing that online game all night or just sleeping so much we’re drugged by it, we ought to feel called to change our use of time, to be doing something to care for others, to accomplish goals, to be useful to the kingdom, or to pray or study God’s letter to us. It’s even healthy for us. A study out this week showed that people who remain busy into old age have, statistically, higher scores on cognitive tests.

But again, making the most of the time does not require being busy every minute. We know we need leisure, sleep, Sabbath, even entertainment. Only pride insists that we can do everything. Humility recognizes that God is God, the only one infinitely capable. If wisdom means sleep, and not another meeting or more desk-work, we are unwise not to take that sleep. I often struggle with that temptation. God has to keep reminding that I need to do what I can, in the strength he gives, and then trust in his faithfulness to do an infinite number of other things using other people. Wise use of time, then, involves discerning the particular will of God for me. That’s exactly what Paul says in verse 17 “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Paul uses a new word here, not unwise, but foolish, which one commentator defined as ‘moral stupidity in action.’ I think all sin is moral stupidity in action. When we sin we shut down our brains, and follow impulse, lust or greed, even when a moment of thought would reveal the negative consequences. It is that ‘brain-shutting-down’ effect of temptation that has led me to coin perhaps my most famous saying, that sin makes you stupid. Temptation makes you stupid. I used to tell a story by Portia Nelson, that illustrated moral stupidity in action, and the growth of wisdom. I’ve slightly modified her ‘Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,’ to show that we are rescued by crying out.

Chapter 1 - I walk down the street. there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. I’m there forever before I finally cry out.

Chapter 2 - I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time before I cry out.

Chapter 3 - I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in . . . It’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I cry out as fast as I can.

Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I teeter as I edge my way around it. I don’t fall in.

Chapter 5: I walk down a different street.

Are you growing in wisdom? How can you understand what the Lord’s will is? It’s both easy and very hard. Scripture tells us what the Lord’s will is, what to do, what to avoid. Don’t have any other gods. Don’t murder. Don’t covet. Do love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself. In this sense, it is easy to know the Lord’s will. The trouble comes when I try to convert what I know into right behavior in the face of temptation. How do I do that? Wisdom puts up boundaries and accountability. Wisdom develops habits and disciplines, and all those things are good and effective, but I find I need something more.

Paul knows this. We’ve read about his struggle in Romans 7 and the answer he found in Romans 8, but he puts it succinctly right here, in one of the most important thoughts in this letter, verse 18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” Paul selects drunkenness as his example of moral stupidity in action - foolishness - because it forms such a contrast to his desire for us, the fullness of the Spirit. But you can substitute any characteristic sin in that ‘do not,’ lust, anger, pride, laziness, materialism, and the second half of the verse, ‘be filled’ would remain powerfully the same.

There is, of course a superficial similarity between drunkenness and the filling of the Sprit. A person who is drunk we say is ‘under the influence’ of alcohol, and a Spirit filled Christian is under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But there the comparison ends. It is a serious mistake to suppose that to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ is a kind of spiritual inebriation in which we lose control of ourselves. And yet so often people-out-of-control is the picture we see, even the picture that is applauded. But, no. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British preacher of the 1950's was a medical doctor before becoming a pastor. He says “Alcohol, medically speaking, is not a stimulant, it is a depressant. Take up any book on pharmacology and look up ‘alcohol’ and you will find always, that it is classified as a depressant. It depresses the highest centers of the brain, which govern everything that gives a man self-control, understanding, wisdom, and judgment.”

The Spirit, however, does the opposite: “If it were possible to put the Holy Spirit into a book of pharmacology, I would put him under the stimulants, for that is where he belongs. He really does stimulate. He quickens every faculty, the mind and intellect, the heart and the will.” So in the face of temptation, foolishness, and unwise living, we are to be filled with the Spirit.

But here’s where it gets good. If you look at the Greek verb you will find it is present imperative, continuous, passive. Present imperative, do it now; continuous, begin this and don’t stop; passive, let this happen. That last one may be most important. You can’t fill yourself with the Spirit. You can only open a valve, cry out for help and allow the Spirit to himself fill you, which he promises to do. So the best paraphrase might be ‘Don’t indulge in your characteristic sin, but continually allow yourself to be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Be stimulated by the Sprit, not depressed by sin. If you want all of your mind, all of your intellect, to be given over to wise walking, do not dull it with alcohol, or any of the depressants of this world: drugs, entertainment, pornography, or even food. Instead let your mind be filled with the Spirit. Think in dependence on the Spirit. Discern by the Spirit. Choose, walk, live, be filled, by the Spirit.

Shortly after the great Chicago fire, Evangelist D. L. Moody had a spiritual crisis. He knew he’d been doing things, making decisions, ministering for God in his own power. He cried out to God for weeks to fill him with the Holy Spirit. One day he begged use of a room, lay himself out on the floor, and, “I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand.” Notice that the fullness of the Spirit was perceived as the fullness of God’s love. Isn’t that just like God?

This fullness of the Spirit is the key, that all of my mind might walk in wisdom, and that all of my heart might walk in worship. Verse 19: “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart.” This is a picture of worship, especially corporate worship Such worship expresses itself in song, and the singing part of worship is to be a corporate, group activity, which means each of us is called to sing with our voices as well as with our hearts. All these words are participles which express what it means to be filled with the Spirit. And all of these are heart words. The Spirit not only gives wisdom to the mind, but life to the heart. When your heart isn’t engaged in the Christian life you aren’t experiencing fullness.

It’s interesting that in the parallel passage, Colossians 3:16, it is the Word of Christ that fills us rather than the Spirit. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

Do you get the parallel? Being filled with God’s word and being filled with God’s Spirit play nearly the same role. Being filled with the word also allows us to teach and admonish one another, but in both cases we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude. So when we speak to one another, being filled with the Spirit, we should speak in the words of Scripture. And our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, should speak the truth of Scripture. Our music should be true to Scripture, draw us to Scripture, challenge us with Biblical ideas and thoughts. That doesn’t mean every song will quote Scripture, but that the thoughts in the song will accord with Biblical truth and principles.

And yet, even with a foundation in Scripture, there can be diversity in musical styles. Paul speaks of Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. The Psalms, of course, were the traditional fountain of worship for the Jewish people, and even today the Psalms speak to our hearts, and especially when set to music. The hymns, in classical Greek, were festive lyrics in praise of a god or hero. So they were, at least in some sense, a style drawn from secular sources. But within the church they were used to convey basic and evangelical doctrine not found in Psalms. We’ve probably already studied hymn fragments in this book, such as "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Others are very clear in Paul’s writings, especially that great hymn in Philippians poetically describing the incarnation and exaltation of Christ.

It’s hard to distinguish ‘spiritual songs’ from hymns, unless the distinction is that ‘spiritual songs’ are less formal, less pre-meditated than hymns. It’s tempting to associate these ‘spiritual songs’ with our ‘choruses’ and hymns with our hymns, but there is no real evidence that such a distinction can be made.

The thing that we can say with confidence is that music is always associated with the life of the Christian church. The Roman governor Pliny, in his famous letter to Emperor Trajan in A.D. 112 tells how the Christians in his province had the custom of meeting on a fixed day before dawn and ‘reciting a hymn antiphonally to Christ as God.’ Whenever the Spirit has been at work, whenever there has been revival, there has been song. When Francis founded his reform order of monks, the Franciscans, he left them a legacy of music and chant. Martin Luther did, as legend suggests, go to the streets for the tunes that he put with his hymns. When John Newton experienced God’s amazing grace, he expressed it in song. John and Charles Wesley wrote more than 6000 hymns during the Methodist revival, many of which we sing today.

This is a heart issue. This is not simply a command to use music, to have it be part of our gatherings. This is a command, to worship, out of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart.”

Notice what this phrase adds to the overall thrust. This singing, this melody is something that happens with your voice and in your heart. I’ve said many times that in my own life as a believer, second only to Scripture, the truths set to music that echo and revolve in my mind are the moment by moment expression of the Spirit’s presence. I’ve recently been listening to the musical “Hamilton,” which is very clever, I’ve liked it. But I have to keep going back to our weekly heart prep, and to Dustin Kensrue and Indelible Grace and so many others who lead my heart to worship the one true God, as Paul says “singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord,’ and no one else.

The response of heart and mind to God is worship, praise, and thanksgiving. Verse 20: “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Old Testament, thanksgiving was a central part of worship: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever”

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer, and at one point he addresses praise versus thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving,” he says, “is a subcategory of praise. Thanksgiving is praising God for what he has done, while ‘praise proper’ is adoring God for who he is in himself. Psalm 135 calls us to praise the Lord, and Psalm 136 to give thanks, and yet close inspection shows how the two overlap. Psalm 135 praises God for having delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, and Psalm 136 thanks God for being loving and good. Thanksgiving for blessing automatically draws our mind toward the attributes and loving purposes of the God who has blessed Praise for God's love and goodness shifts effortlessly into thanksgiving for all the examples of his goodness in our life.

We’re commanded to give thanks, always and for everything. Someone will say ‘wait a second!’ How can even the Apostle Paul expect me to do that? Does he expect me to give thanks for evil? When I’m going through pain and trial, overworked, hovering on the edge of burnout, does he expect me to give thanks? If there is illness or death, strife or conflict, adultery or anger or hatred or abuse, should I give thanks? What does ‘always and for everything’ mean?

Stott points out that the understanding I just proposed is at best a dangerous half-truth, and at worst, ludicrous, even blasphemous. He says “Of course God’s children learn not to argue with him in their suffering, but to trust him, and indeed to thank him for his loving providence by which he can turn even evil to good purposes. But that is praising God for being God. It is not praising him for evil. To do this would be to condone evil, something God himself never does. God hates evil: we cannot thank him for what he himself hates.

No, as in 1 Thessalonians 5, this giving thanks is in every circumstance, but not for everything. We don’t give thanks for evil, but we give thanks for God’s hand on us through the evil, his sovereignty over the evil, and his good purposes.

So thanksgiving, like all of worship, has to spring from the heart. Wisdom, on the other hand, and careful walking, that has to start in the mind. All of my heart, all of my mind needs to be engaged if I am going to live with integrity. But notice what ties the two things together. It’s that one little phrase ‘be filled with the Spirit’ It is God’s Holy Spirit living in us that gives us wisdom for our walk. It is God’s Holy Spirit living in us that gives us a heart for worship.

I’ve often been asked why I don’t preach about the Holy Spirit more. Part of my response is usually that when the Spirit is mentioned in the text, I preach about Him. And I’ve been in awe these last few weeks as I’ve meditated on this text at the truth of the Holy Spirit seen here: he’s the one who will continuously pour himself out to fill believers so that whether the task is walking in Biblical wisdom or worshipping in heart truth, it is the Spirit who is at work. No wonder we want to spend full time filled with the Spirit. Just as in a healthy marriage the husband and wife want to be together all the time, so also you and I should long to be with the Spirit all the time. My plea to you and to myself as we worship and as we walk is “be filled with the Spirit.” Open that valve, especially through your intake of God’s word and let him fill you.