Growing in Your Walk with Christ, part 7

Ephesians 5.15-21 contains a verse much disputed in the church. Verse 19 is a passage used to prohibit the use of musical instruments in worship services. Intensive word studies, exhaustive exegetical articles, and not a few early church essays have been written on that single verse. Frankly, it is a tragedy that the rest of the context surrounding this verse tends to be ignored. It is rich with how to wisely navigate life in the Spirit.

A Wise Walk (5.15-21)

Living with Christ means seeking His wisdom & will.

15Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,

Look carefully…walk: Then indicates that Paul is continuing his exhortation to these Christ to be what they are in Christ. They do that by walking carefully or “circumspectly” (NKJV). A careful walk is one which includes strict attention to detail & complete obedience to the standard.

To “walk…carefully” carries the idea of accuracy, precision, & diligence. It is a life lived in strict conformity to the Christian ethic. Half-hearted or lackadaisical discipleship is more in line with the unwise behavior of the world than it is with the heart & desire of God. A Christian’s walk is to careful not carefree.

Not as unwise but as wise: This is once more a contrast in cultures: the heathen culture is unwise whereas the Christian ethic is wise. Cf. Colossians 4.5

We teach our children to “Stop, look, and listen” when crossing the street. How much more is this true when living the Christian life? We must be intensely vigilant as we walk with Christ knowing that there are deadly consequences to evil actions. Armed with that knowledge, we can wisely navigate our lives.

One word of caution: There may be a threat toward legalistic rule keeping. This is not what Paul is advocating at all. He is saying, “Do not walk loosely, without fixed principles of actions; but make sure that you rules are of the true kind” (Pulpit Commentary 210). Many people are very strict & rigged but they are not wise in that rigidity. They have rules, very strict rules, but they are not good rules. So that is a key difference between what Paul is exhorting us to and legalism which Paul would never be in favor of.

16making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

Making…the time: Lit. “Redeeming the time.” Several scholars see here an allusion to the marketplace: a merchant would buy up the good articles & products. So the Christian must seek the precious pearls of time and purchase those, i.e. use every opportunity for good.

And so we sing, “Your empty, wasted years/ He will restore;/ and you iniquities/ remember no more.” As Longfellow has said, “Life is real; life is earnest/ and the grave is not its goal./ ‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest,’/ was not spoken of the soul.” Life is urgent! We must consider how we spend our time, what little we have left. Paul seems to be saying, “embrace every opportunity to glorify God, save your own souls, and do good to men.” (Clarke) “How wise, then, to seek to make out of every passing moment eternal gain!” (PC 236) Why?…

Because the days are evil: there was trouble & temptation all around. These Christians lived in a very pagan world with much immorality.

The more things change, the more they stay the same – the days are still evil! In fact, as Paul says elsewhere, “evil people go from bad to worse” (2 Tim 3.13). Or as one country preacher once put it – “evil people go from worse to worser!” So in 2,000 years since Paul penned these words, our world has gone from bad to worse, worse to worser. Society progresses further into secularism. Evil is good and good is evil. Religious formalism where the letter of Law stifles the Spirit of the Law permeates much of Christendom. Philosophical skepticism which for the most part is anti-God, anti-Christian, and anti-supernatural has a choke hold on many people. So if ever there was a time when Christians need to make the best use of their time, it is now.

17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Therefore, do not be foolish: Therefore here has a summation quality of the foregoing context. Since you are to be imitators of God (1-2), children of holiness (3-7) & light (8-14), do not be “senseless” or “unthinking.” Again, this is old self & “outsider” behavior.

But…Lord is: But (Gk alla) is a strong, sharp contrast. Those “in Christ” make it their career to understand (pres. Imp.) the Lord’s will. This is more than just hearing and knowing. Involved in understanding is careful consideration and private pondering so as to take it to heart.

Here is the purpose-driven life – understanding God’s will and walking accordingly. Any other life is “foolish” & “unwise,” purposeless & aimless. But a life devoted to the pathway of God which He has marked out by His stated will revealed by His word has purpose, direction, and progress. We will spend the rest of lives seeking to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” The present tense indicates this is a lifelong pursuit, the ongoing practice of every wise saint.

18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,

Do not get drunk with wine: Some pagan religious cults would become intoxicated during their worship (ex. Dionysus) in order to express spiritual elation (usually in erratic behavior). That kind of pagan revelry should not mark the Christian. In fact, we have a better way (i.e. the Spirit).

“Intoxication with wine has a degrading effect; intoxication with the Spirit (cf. Acts 2.13) can have an uplifting effect upon Christian community” (Patzia 264). We are to be filled with the Spirit not drunk on spirits. Getting drunk is not wise (Proverbs 20.1).

For that is debauchery: “Both the wastefulness and the lack of self-control implied by [debauchery] are things which should not be seen in the lives of those who have found in Christ the source and the way of wisdom” (Foulkes 158).

A word about drinking: Drunkenness is categorically condemned in Scripture (Deut 21.20; 1 Cor 5.11; Gal 5.21). Especially if you were a leader in the church it is condemned (1 Tim 3.3, 8; Titus 1.7; cf. 2.3). Granted, total abstinence is not mentioned except in the case of special vows (for example the Nazarite vow, Num 6.3). Hmm… but aren’t we people who have taken a special vow? Drinking is a habit which sends everything to wreck and ruin.

But be filled with the Spirit: In typical fashion, Paul replaces the negative with the positive. Be filled (present passive imperative) indicates 1) this should be the ongoing lifestyle of the Christ, 2) it is God (with the Holy Spirit) who fills the Christian, 3) every Christian must be filled with/by the Holy Spirit.

19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,

Addressing one another: One another indicates that this “speaking” (NASB) is an expression of our being filled with the Spirit. Though some are quick to apply this to the worship service (almost exclusively), “the meetings would seem to have been for social Christian enjoyment rather than for public worship of God” (PC 211). Context bears this out since the overall lifestyle of the Christian is what Paul has been discussing (5.1-18).

Psalms…spiritual songs: Some have found subtle distinctions between these words, however, Jimmy Jividen says, “There is no evidence in the New Testament or the writings of the early church that distinction is to be made between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” (Worship in Song 11).

Singing…your heart: All worship (in the assembly or not) is always directed to the Lord. Jividen finds no distinction between singing and making melody, both referring to the melodic utterance of words. He does note that your heart is the only instrument for our singing (Worship in Song 11, 62).

While certainly applicable to the assembly of the saints every Lord’s Day, what is view here is any expression of worship in which saints engage in. Our whole lives are music of a specific kind to the Lord. Be it a small group study, and in-home Bible study, or just sitting around the campfire, we can address one another and worship our Lord in song from the heart. It is the heart not the harp which is the appropriate instrument for our worship.

20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Giving thanks…Jesus Christ: Contextually, we do this by and in our singing. However, that is not the only avenue by which we give thanks to God. It is always (at all times) and for everything (all things) that we give thanks to God the Father, Who is Himself the source of all blessings. Our Lord Jesus Christ is our mediator to the Father.

“Spirit-filled Christians live in a continual attitude of gratitude for everything” (Patzia 264). At its core, sin is basically ingratitude. We need to affirm that all that we have is from God. When we truly give thanks, from that will flow ethics and right behavior. Further, thanksgiving has a transformative effect. It is nearly impossible for a person to be both spiteful (harboring resentment) and grateful, giving thanks unto God. When we realize we have been set free from our old self and have been infused with the life-giving Spirit, how could we not be thankful?

21submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Submitting…for Christ: The habitual practice of Christians is willing submission to each other. Mutual Christian submission is born out of  “fear” (Gk phobos, respect & awe) for Christ.

Here is still another key factor to living a Spirit-filled life. Pride in a Christian is an oxymoron. Pride is the heart leaves no room for the Spirit of God. Pride kills fellowship. Thinking of ourselves as better or too highly is destructive to true, authentic Christian fellowship. “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” and look “to the interests of other” (Phil 2.3-4). So humble mutual submission is the key to unlocking how to live as husband & wife (5.22-33), parenting effectively (6.1-4), and how to behave on the job (6.5-9).

Submission for all Christians is the divine calling upon our lives to honor & affirm Christ’s leadership and serve Him according to grace He has given to each one of us. The word “submit” was a military term used to describe the various soldiers under the command of their leader. It is interesting that Paul ends this epistle utilizing the military motif (6.10ff). Further, this word had a non-military usage for voluntarily giving in and cooperating to carry a burden. It is to voluntarily yield ourselves to Christ in love. This kind of mutual submission is illogical when disconnected from Christ. Only through the cross can we proper express submission. By uniting with Christ and dying to self we can submit as we ought to His lead.

See You Tomorrow

“See you tomorrow.” “See you next week.” “See you next time.” We say these things so effortlessly and (sometimes) thoughtlessly. We take for granted that we will be alive to see so-and-so tomorrow, next week, next time. Someone has said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” James addresses the thoughtlessness of first century Christians who assumed too much. Since they made such a grand assumption, they became arrogant and over-confident in self. This section of Scripture “prohibits an arrogant, boastful attitude that neglects to take into account the transitoriness of this life” (Moo 153). James’ typical style is to ask pointed questions. In honor of that, the following outline is presented in question format.

James 4.13-17 (ESV)

13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—

14yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

17So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

What are you saying? (13-14a)

Verse 13 opens in a rather abrupt fashion. First, James begins “come now” which was a “popular” form of address in Greek literature and prose. Second, “you who say” combined with “come now” gives this a rather curt feel. Third, whereas James has addressed his readers as “brothers” throughout this letter (even while in the midst of correcting them, 4.11), here James omits that title with simply “the ones saying.” All this combines into a rather brusque transition. No doubt his readers recognized this; it was designed to arrest their attention.

Based on what these people are saying, it would seem they may be considered at least in part with the rich whom James will address in 5.1ff. These are people who plan to engage in extensive travel for the purpose of carrying on business in order to “make a profit.” This seems to indicate they are at least well off. But James does not condemn their wealth or even their ability to get gain – what is condemned is a haughty and prideful attitude. They do not even know “what tomorrow will bring” and yet they are boasting over what their plans. James is critical of the relative ease in which they leave God in the rear view mirror as they venture forward in life. This world is transitory and insufficient in and of itself. To make plans with only this realm in mind is a crucial mistake. One must always live and act in a manner which demonstrates that life is ordered around the unseen spiritual realm, especially God. Surely James is directing the attention of his readers to a familiar passage of the Old Testament to emphasis this (see Proverbs 27.1).

What is your life? (14b)

Here is James’ pointed question directed squarely at the heart of his readers: what is your life? The answer depends upon which version of the Bible you read. The NASB says it is a “vapor;” the ESV says it is a “mist;” the NET says it is a “puff of smoke.” It seems best to understand this as a vapor or mist caused by steam. Truly the emphasis is on the brevity of the existence of the misty vapor: it is here for a moment and then disappears. The Scriptures are rife with this principle. Indeed, it is all over the Old Testament (2 Sam 14.14; 1 Chron 29.15; Job 7.16; 8.9; Psa 78.33; 102.11; 144.3-4). All of this should have been familiar to this Jewish audience to which James writes and yet they are in need of reminder. “Illness, accidental death, or the return of Christ could cut short our lives just as quickly as the morning sun dissipates the mist or as a shift of wind direction blows away smoke” (Moo 155).

What should you say? (15-16)

Yet again the shepherd heart of James comes to the forefront as he instructs the flock concerning what they ought to say in view of the transient nature of this present realm. Instead of saying what you’re saying, say this – “If the Lord wills…” Typically, especially today, this verse and phrase is boiled down to be somewhat of a charm or magical (mystical) formula. “Lord willing,” we say. However, when James instructs these Christians (and all Christians across time and space), it is significant. Even heathens of antiquity invoked this formulaic phrase. So we must rescue these words from such base usage. Several times this phrase is used by Paul (Acts 18.21; 1 Cor 4.19; 16.7). Our life and our every moment is dependant upon One – the Lord God. If it please Him that we even live another day then we will do thus and such. But only if He permits.

Contrast this with what these arrogant boasters have been saying and we see just how theologically blinded these poor brethren had become. These Christians believed that things continue on as from the beginning which is not Christian thinking (see 2 Pet 3.4). The fact is they had no basis whatsoever for feeling so assured of living into tomorrow. They boasted in this false and baseless pride. Typical of James, he pulls no punches – this kind of bragging is evil! Purely wicked and from the devil, the evil one. To boast in the Lord is a good thing; to boast in self is sinful.
What should you do? (17)

“Therefore” is how verse 17 starts indicating that this principle is clearly connected with the preceding instruction. Here and contextually James has made known “the right thing to do” (“You who say…ought to say…”) and failure to do it “is sin.” So just do it! That is, acknowledge the providential care and continued sustenance of the Lord God. Cease and desist in living as though you are guaranteed tomorrow or even the strength to do what you have planned tomorrow. Depend upon God for all future plans. Deo volente.

Nevertheless, commentators and scholars are in near agreement that this phrase was a principle which was in circulation among Christians. In fact, some suggest that in back of this Christian principle are the words of Jesus from Luke 12.47: “that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.” How often we know the right thing to do and not do it!

Lenski on this verse presents a brief discussion about of the doctrine of probabilism, a Jesuit doctrine which essentially says that if one can find any cause for doubt concerning the moral law, then it is acceptable to follow one’s inclinations. Lenski wraps up the argument: “Not to do when one knows is not sin as long as one can on at least some father’s say-so or on some apparent ground cast some doubt on what one knows one should do. How many Protestants follow the same principle in order to justify their own sins of omission or of commission!”[1]

Brothers, this is sin. And there can be no excuse making. Ignorance is not an excuse. There is no, “yeah, but…” James is clear and emphatic. The principle is clear and emphatic. Herein is the sin of omission:

“It is not only sinful to do wrong; it is also sinful to lose an opportunity of doing good. God means us not only to be harmless, but also to be useful; not only to be innocent, but to be followers of that which is good. How miserable is the satisfied acquiescence in the thought, ‘I never did anybody any harm’ – a thought which is falsely used as a consolation at many a death-bed.The slothful servant who hid the talent in a napkin did no wrong with it, but nevertheless he was condemned. He failed to do good. So God claims from all of us, not merely that we should ‘cease to do evil,’ but also that we should ‘learn to do well;’ for ‘to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin’” (Pulpit Commentary 58).


[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Columbus, O.: Lutheran book concern, 1938). 643.