Everyone probably knows this already, but I still need to say it: There is a part of me that really despises the chapter-and-verse demarcations that have become associated with the biblical text. Don’t get me wrong: I understand why we have them. We need those references so we can indicate what portion of the Bible we have in mind when we refer to it as we make a specific point. This standardized way of referring to biblical passages helps us to communicate better without quoting the biblical materials over and over again in our conversations and writings, when a brief citation works just as well. And the guy behind the goalposts who holds up the John 3:16 poster for the TV cameras would have a much more difficult time printing out that entire verse for viewers to read, whereas the reference works just fine (although I suspect a growing percentage has no idea what that sign even means … but that’s another topic).
But by formatting biblical texts into chapters and verses, we have also hacked those texts into smaller portions. And although this may not have been intended, these artificial breaks in the text also became places for us to start and stop our readings. So narratives or stories were broken down into scenes, with the result that they often lose continuity as one story that was to be understood and read together. And letters were broken into smaller units, even though each letter was written to be delivered as one message at one time. The lectionary does help by holding these passages together, so that a congregation can live together in a text for an extended time. Yet we must work hard to avoid partial readings: readings of biblical texts that lose and forget their place within a broader biblical context.
That is certainly the case with this week’s passage, Ephesians 5:15-20. We can easily read this passage on its own and draw some basic moralistic conclusions, based simply on “what the Bible says.” For in these six verses there may appear to be some general teachings (and they are very general) that could be applied to a contemporary context (although one of the first tasks in the interpretation of a letter is to explore what is at issue in the context and to discern what gospel principles are at stake behind those teachings, rather than rushing too quickly to apply to our day a teaching that was intended to/for the ancient context, not for us). But these verses appear near the end of a letter that stresses the transforming and reconciling work of God in bringing not only heaven and earth together in Christ (Eph. 1:7-10) but also humanity in oneness (i.e., Jew and Gentile, Eph. 2:11-22) so that even the “powers” of this world will realize that Jesus is Lord and they are not (Eph. 3:7-13). Such reconciliation can be seen particularly in the ways that God brings about oneness in the church: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, NRSV). God’s work in the church takes the diversity of the body and transforms it to strengthen them (Eph. 4:16).
When seen in this context, our broader passage is more than merely a set of random, general moral guidelines. The first instruction in verse 15 may be translated, “Watch carefully, then, how you walk!” This summarizes the advice provided in the preceding paragraph (Eph. 5:6-14). The author calls the believers to respond in particular ways, based on what they understand God to have done in transforming them as the body of Christ and also in God’s redemption of all creation. They are to be active participants in their world, as those who test what is “pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). Rather than being provided a list of specific things for them to do or avoid, they are to discern what would be suitable behavior or responses in specific situations, based on God’s reconciling work through Christ (Eph. 5:17). Such responses would be “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16) in ways consistent with that divine activity.
Many readers of this passage focus on the command in the first half of verse 18: “Do not get drunk with wine” (NRSV). But it is important to see the juxtaposition of this command with another command: “But be filled with the Spirit” (NRSV). The contrast of these two commands is significant. It is possible that this alludes to either the story of Hannah (who was accused of being drunk by Eli when she was praying diligently to God; 1 Sam. 1:12-18) or the story of Pentecost (when Peter and the others where accused on being drunk when proclaiming the gospel message; Acts 2:1-14). The imperative “be filled” is in the present tense, indicating that this should be ongoing or recurring. What gets lost in translation is that there are five other behaviors or actions listed (participles) as results of this “filling with the Spirit”. The first literally refers to “speaking to each other” or “addressing one another” with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, NRSV). Although our worship is to God, often our hymns address us as well as God, with the result that we remind one another about God, God’s faithfulness, etc. (e.g, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). The second and third refer to singing praises and the making of music with musical instruments. The four refers to “giving thanks always for everything,” which is not a call to be grateful for bad things but a call for thanksgiving in light of what God has done (as the author describes here in the letter).
It should be noted, however, that there is a fifth action or participle listed as a result of the “filling with the Spirit.” Some translations like the CEB do not break (correctly) the paragraph after verse 20, as this recognizes the connection between Ephesians 5:15-20 with what follows. This fifth action highlights the submission “to each other out of respect for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). In other words, because of the filling of the Spirit that is possible because of God’s transforming and reconciling work in Christ, the use of power and dominance over others is replaced by a response of mutual submission: not submission of one person or party within a relationship, but submission to each other. It is this kind of response toward one another that is described in more detail in the remainder of the chapter and in chapter 6. Although the last part of the chapter is itself often read separately without the context of the rest of the letter, an interpretation within this context recognizes that the author is describing a radical departure from the norms of relationships of his age: a relationship between husband and wife that was based on the transforming and reconciling work of God in Christ that also brings their relationship together based on mutual submission because of God’s Spirit that fills them and is at work in them. (But it is only by reading and interpreting these materials together that one may adequately interpret the later instructions for wives and husbands in Eph. 5:21-33.)