Summary of the Text
As a child, I was attracted to the dark recesses of my neighborhood. I was drawn to the dim lit woods that were away from the din of the suburbia in which I was raised. I even remember removing a storm drain with another friend to descend into the depths of the concrete cylinders where our steps shifted from light into shadow and into relative darkness. As an older teen and young man, I found spelunking a place of splendor. The limestone caverns along the Mississippi provided ample routes off the beaten path where stalactites and stalagmites, dripping water and bat-infused darkness abound. Physical darkness for a child can spell adventure, untapped sources of fun and discovery. Spiritual darkness is quite the opposite.
In Ephesians 5:8 & 9, Paul implores us to, “walk as children of the light for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” On the other hand, the darkness proves only unfruitful. For Paul, there are only two ways for one to walk, the right way and the wrong way, a sentiment that certainly rubs the moral and ethical gray out of a culture awash within it; yet, this is the certain conclusion for Paul of a people who were once dead in their transgressions and who have now been made alive in Christ.
There are two ways to walk which is Paul’s metaphor for life. One can walk in the light or one can walk in the darkness. One can live in the light of life and wisdom or one can live in the darkness of death and foolishness. Therefore, he says in verses 15-17, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Of course, the apostle is not the first to speak in such terms. The Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible implores the innocent and naive to walk in wisdom. The contrast between that which is wise and that which is foolish is a distinction of location. The Psalmist declares in Psalm 1 the blessedness of the one who does not walk in the way of the wicked or sit in the seat of the scoffer. She is like a tree firmly planted by streams of living water because of her delight in the law of the Lord. Location determines success. A person who gladly surrounds themselves with those who mock God will be prone to do the same; whereas, a person who roots themselves in the concerns and character of God will find her life flowing actively and abundantly through them and as Paul says, “understand what the will of the Lord is.”
So, why is drunkenness spelled out by the apostle in the next sentence?
Paul has already delineated behavior that is unbecoming of walking in the light in verses 3 & 4 and the reference to debauchery is simply separated from the pack of problematic living. Its separation is important, though, because the state of drunkenness represents a walk into the dredges of darkness. Intoxication leads to other immoralities while life in the light of the Spirit is the path of moral and ethical sobriety. He makes a clear contrast between the life filled with strong drink and that filled with the Holy Spirit.
He then returns to the theme of encouragement and above all thanksgiving, which he had mentioned in verse 4, “…let there be thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ was to be the appropriate mode of discourse among a community walking in the wisdom of the light in contrast to a community devoted to darkness whose dialogue is characterized by filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking.
Angles for Preaching:
- The preacher may wish to tease out Paul’s metaphorical use of walking as living and explore the contrast between physical and moral/ethical light and darkness as a way of engaging his community.
- It would be helpful to reference the wisdom literature and its own contrasts of light and darkness, wisdom and foolishness that are appropriated by Paul as the comparisons of life in Christ and without Christ.
- The preacher would also do well to distinguish between mere moralistic duty done by the efforts of ordinary people and the extraordinary life of good works offered by a revived and renewed life through the grace-filled Spirit of God dwelling within us. One represents an obligation while the other represents an opportunity, duty versus freedom.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better…. When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.
Practice is to Judaism…
Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judaism suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.) This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text).
This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.”
The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe. In this midrash, the rabbis have offered an apology for spiritual practice, for doing.