Be Filled with the Spirit | Ephesians 5:18-21

 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV

Robert Estienne introduced our present day verse divisions of the New Testament in 1551, and although his markings have become so popular that they are very unlikely to be changed, some have humorously chalked questionable placements up to Estienne marking verses while bouncing up and down upon his horse. Yet whatever criticisms have been made, our present four verses are divided exactly as I would expect them to be. Verse 18 is our thesis, the primary command that we are to keep: be filled with the Spirit. Verses 19-21 then expound upon what being filled with the Spirit looks like.

As I noted last week, this present passage acts as both a summary of what Paul has discussed so far, particularly 4:1-16 though, and it is also a prelude to the household commands that he is about to present. Indeed, while the apostle is preparing to discuss the topics of marriage, parenting, and work, here gives us guidance for being the household of faith. These four verses give us the general character and conduct that must mark each of us as we seek to build up the body in love.

BE FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT // VERSE 18

Within this central verse of the passage, Paul gives us another put off/put on pair of commands. On the negative end, he warns do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, while for the positive we receive be filled with the Spirit. The word but between reminds us that these are two contrasting and conflicting realities. To be drunk with wine is incompatible with being filled with the Spirit because drunkenness is debauchery. Debauchery, by the way, means “extreme indulgence in bodily pleasures and especially sexual pleasures: behavior involving sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. that is often considered immoral.”[1] Extreme indulgence in anything is necessarily against the Holy Spirit because one of the fruits that He produces in His people is self-control (Galatians 5:23). Debauchery is the very opposite of controlling oneself.

While some have assumed that drunkenness was a particular concern for the Ephesians, I prefer instead the insight of one commentator, who notes that “we should not infer from this that drunkenness was a particular problem in the Ephesian church. Rather, drunkenness is conventionally linked with a life of folly (Prov 23:29–35).”[2] The effect of excess alcohol to destroy sobriety, cloud good judgment, and lead to a host of other sins makes it a fitting contrast to the work of the Holy Spirit. Walking in the Spirit, after all, makes us sober-minded and watchful and conscious of avoiding whatever would cause our Comforter grief. Thus, drunkenness is being presented as a fitting representative of being controlled by sin or, we might say, being under the influence of sin.

Indeed, being under the influence of the Spirit is what I believe Paul means by being filled with the Spirit. Pentecostals notably argue that while the Holy Spirit is certainly necessary for salvation every Christian should strive for a second outpouring of the Spirit through baptism in the Spirit, which is evidenced by speaking in tongues. They would, therefore, interpret this command as a call for all Christians to enter that deeper walk with the Lord through being filled with the Spirit.

Although growing up in the Assemblies of God, I disagree with this interpretation. As Paul noted, in Christ we are now sealed by the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of our inheritance, and it is the Spirit who indwells us as the Spirit of adoption, testifying within us that we are truly children of God. To be a Christian, therefore, means receiving and being filled with the Spirit.[3] But if we are all filled with the Spirit, why is Paul commanding us to be filled with the Spirit?

First, while we have the Spirit dwelling within us as believers, we still experience greater or lesser awareness of the Spirit throughout our lives. Consider a similar example. Because we know that God is omnipresent, the manifestations or removal of His presence throughout the Scripture cannot mean that God ever actually was or is absent. Instead, God is always present; we are simply given manifestations or concealments of His presence. Likewise, in Christ we are now indwelt by the Spirit, yet we may experience greater or lesser awareness of Him throughout different times in our lives. So, Paul could be urging us to strive to experience a greater awareness of the Spirit’s presence. Perhaps.

However, I think it more likely that the apostle isjk commanding us to be more submissive to the Spirit, to be actively walk according to the Spirit with the same intentionality that a drunkard drinks to excess. In fact, Paul used this same word negatively in Romans 1:29, describing the God-haters as “they were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.” Just as our days will inevitably be filled with what we most care about, so too will be filled with what we desire. If our desire is debauchery then alcohol alone is not the danger, browsing Amazon can make us just as “drunk.” The Gentiles “have given themselves to sensuality” (4:19) and to debauchery, but we are called to no longer walks as they do. To be filled with the Spirit is to live under the Spirit’s influence rather than the desires of the flesh. Consider then how Paul wrote the Galatians about this very topic:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16-25

We are to be a people who do not walk in debauchery, gratifying the flesh, but instead walk in step with the Spirit. Within the next three verses, Paul gives us three specific examples of walking by the Spirit, of being filled with Him.

PSALMS, HYMNS, & SPIRITUAL SONGS // VERSE 19

First, the Spirit-filled Christians are known for addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. Notice how Paul intermingles the physical and spiritual, the ordinary and the extraordinary. We are to address one another, which is a verb that Paul uses two other times in Ephesians, in song.[4] But even as we are speaking the truth to one another in song, we are also singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. The beauty, therefore, of our worship in song is that we are singing both to each other and to Christ. The spiritual inhabits the physical. The heart is given voice through the vocal cords. Christ is worshiped as we build up His body.

For all the lifetimes of music available to us on platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, we should guard ourselves against forgetting the power of singing. Understand this distinction: listening has never been easier but listening is not the same as singing. Of course, listening to David’s music drove the harmful spirit away from Saul, but David the psalmist was the man after God’s own heart, not Saul. The presence of the Psalms within the biblical canon indicates that we are expected to follow David’s path of worship. Indeed, as Paul and Silas were beaten and bound in the Philippian prison, they “were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). Certainly singing should be placed alongside prayer, since Paul also said “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). And to the Colossians, he placed singing alongside teaching as an example of Christ’s word dwelling in us richly (Colossians 3:16). God’s people should sing.

But, you may interject, what if I can’t sing? Keith and Kristyn Getty note that when most people say that they cannot sing what they really mean is that they do not sing well. Their answer is simple: “Your heavenly Father cares whether and what you sing, but He does not mind how well you sing.”[5] If you can physically sing, then you are called to sing regardless of your innate talent or not.

What then are we called to sing? Paul says psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms is almost certainly a reference to the book of the Bible and the other psalms found throughout Scripture. Defining hymns and spiritual songs is a bit more complex. Verse 14 of this chapter may have been such a kind of song, where phrases from Isaiah were evidently mixed together and applied to Christ. Likewise, the so-called Christ Hymns of Colossians and Philippians were perhaps examples of early church songs. Regardless, we do know that the hymns and spiritual songs stand beside the psalms as examples of God’s eternal truth being put to song.

Does this mean that a Christian should not listen to “secular” music? Not necessarily. Leland Ryken writes about three categories of literature that can be applied to art in general: Christian belief, common experience, and unbelief. Songs regarding life’s common experiences may easily have something more beautiful and commonly true than an explicitly Christian song that fails to uphold orthodoxy. Yet we should submit ourselves to Paul’s warning to the Corinthians: “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Paul obviously expects us to give our time and attention to songs from Scripture or presenting the wondrous truths of Scripture. Repeatedly playing a song again and again is a form a meditation, and if we meditate on mostly worldly things, worldly behavior should not be a surprising result. Stop filling your mind with songs of sensuality and debauchery; instead, be filled with the Spirit, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

GIVING THANKS ALWAYS // VERSE 20

Second, Spirit-filled Christians are marked by giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanksgiving is the logical next step after singing to the Lord, since both are often intimately bound to one another.

But consider the scope of this description: always and for everything. But what if our hearts are too enmeshed in sorrow and pain to give thanks? Knowing brokenness of the world far better than we do, God inspired one-third of the psalms as laments, which very often contain or conclude thanksgiving in the midst of crying out in pain and confusion to God. He even included an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations for our benefit. Thomas Watson writes:

A gracious soul is thankful and rejoices that he drawn nearer to God, though it be by the cords of affliction. When it goes well with him, he praises God’s mercy; when it goes badly with him, he magnifies God’s justice. When God has a rod in his hand, a godly man will have a psalm in his mouth. The devil’s smiting of Job was like striking a musical instrument; he sounded forth praise: ‘The Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21). When God’s spiritual plants are cut and bleed, they drop thankfulness; the saints’ tears cannot drown their praises.[6]

The very recipients of our thanks ought to awaken thanksgiving within our hearts. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we have been chosen, forgiven, redeemed, and adopted by God Himself as our Father! In Him we have received every spiritual blessing because the Author of life has united us to Himself! Being firmly rooted in the gracious and kind, merciful and loving, all-wise and all-powerful, providential sovereignty of God, we should always and for everything be thankful to our almighty Father. Just as Lewis called praise one’s “inner health made audible,”[7] so too we might call thanksgiving a yardstick for measuring our maturity. Our readiness to give thanks to God is powerful sign that we are beginning to see reality from the biblical lens of truth.

SUBMITTING TO ONE ANOTHER // VERSE 21

Third, Spirit-filled Christians ought to be submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. This may be one of the hardest phrases in Ephesians for our modern ears to hear, although the household commands which follow will prove no less difficult. Submission or being in subjection to someone else is fundamentally against our sinful nature. Milton summarized Satan’s entire mentality as “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”, and as we continue following that serpent’s lie, we claim his motto as our own. But as we discussed last week, wisdom is fundamentally an act of submission to God and His ways.

Even so, it is one thing to submit to God but another entirely to submit to others, right? Wrong because we are Christ’s body, His earthly representatives. Take note that Paul does say out of reverence for Christ. We are not to submit to one another out of mere etiquette. That would result in a daily life version of four cars coming to four-way stop at the same time and each waving the others to go first. No, Christ is Himself our authority, and He has established our earthly authorities with proper boundaries and guidelines. In 5:22-6:9, Paul will give specific examples of submission and authority with three of the most common relationships: wives/husbands, children/parents, and servants/masters. While he is certainly introducing that section here, we must also remember that it is concluding how we are to be filled with the Spirit. There is, therefore, a kind of mutual submission that we are meant to display among one another.[8]

Paul, acknowledging his apostolic authority, noted that “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). He was more than willing to subject himself to others for the sake of the gospel. Or as he said in the same letter, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Our love for one another in the reverence for Christ should make us happy to forego our own freedoms of conscience in situations that may cause a brother or sister in Christ to fall into sin. Or perhaps we might consider the rather petty but unfortunately all too common experience of a church member telling a visitor to get out of their seat. Indeed, this sort of mutual submission is fittingly expressed by Paul elsewhere as, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Or for the negative end, we can look at how John described Diotrephes:

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.

3 John 9-10

Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls this “a meaningless exhortation to anybody who is not filled with the Spirit.”[9] Left to our own devices, we will always put ourselves first, making ourselves preeminent. The Spirit, however, is ever conforming us into the image of Christ, who was Himself submissive to the Father. Our Lord is not asking us to do anything that He has not already done. In His first coming, He did not assert Himself as the only true King; instead, He “came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Likewise, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44). Indeed, such submission is one of the ways in which we no longer walk as the Gentiles do who lord their authority over one another (10:42). It is our joy to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Let us conclude with self-reflection. Are you under the influence of the flesh or of the Spirit? Are psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs readily on your lips, for the sake of your brothers and sisters and to the praise of God’s glorious grace? Do you give thanks always and for everything, or is your heart given to grumbling like the Israelites in the wilderness? Are you living as a servant of all like Christ or a lord of all like the Gentiles?


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/debauchery

[2] Fowl, S. E. (2012). Ephesians: A Commentary. (C. C. Black, M. E. Boring, & J. T. Carroll, Eds.) (First Edition, p. 177). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] The delays between belief and receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts are obviously the pool from which Pentecostals draw this belief. I, however, would argue that God used those delays to accent the radical outpouring of His Spirit that was being given to His church. That these delays vanish by the end of Acts shows the validity of this point.

[4] “let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (4:25), and “that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (6:20).

[5] Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, 3.

[6] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 131.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 94.

[8] I use the phrase mutual submission with a significant amount of trepidation because it is largely associated with egalitarianism and I am firmly complementarian. But while we will spend the next three weeks discussing the complementarian nature of marriage, I believe we should not refrain from discussing the general characteristic of submitting to one another that should mark Christ’s church. Mutual submission, therefore, seems like a fitting term for this thought.

[9] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit, 56.

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