In Ephesians 5:15-18 Paul alternates negative statements (prohibitions) followed by positive restatements (commands) to delineate the “careful walk” of the Christian: 1) not as unwise, but as wise; 2) do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is; 3) do not get drunk with wine, . . . but be filled by the Spirit.  As getting “drunk with wine” causes one to walk “as unwise” and to “be foolish,” so also being “filled by the Spirit” causes one to walk “as wise” and to “understand what the will of the Lord is.”  Therefore, in order for us to walk “as wise” we need to “understand what the will of the Lord is.”  And in order for us to “understand what the will of the Lord is” we need to “be filled by the Spirit.”  Great!

Now, how do we get started?  I mean, how can we obey the command to be filled by the Spirit?  Do we pray, asking the Holy Spirit to fill us?  Do we empty our lives of other influences to “make room” for the Spirit?  Or, do we just inhale deeply?!  The command is in the passive voice; not “fill yourselves,” but “be filled.”  So what exactly are we responsible to do?  Well, for starters, let’s not stop reading.  Verses 19-21 continue with five adverbial participles that modify the imperative to “be filled”: “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.”  The ESV translation wisely leaves the relationship between the verb “be filled” and the five modifiers unclear to allow us to explore the options for ourselves.  Although there are four possible relationships, based on the grammar, only two options are plausible: the participles are the result of being filled or the participles are the means of being filled.  Most commentators follow Daniel Wallace in rejecting means on theological grounds and opting for result.[1]  In this case, verses 19-21 do not answer our question.  However, interpreting the participles as means is the best fit for the grammar and coincides with Paul’s parallel teaching in Colossians, thus telling us how to “be filled.”

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  You will notice that the three participles “teaching,” “admonishing,” and “singing,” modify the imperative “let dwell,” just as the five participles in our passage modify “be filled.”  It is probably easier to see that the participles here tell us how to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” namely, by “teaching and admonishing . . . . singing . . . .”[2]  The similarity in context and parallel wording between Ephesians 5:15-21 and Colossians 3:12-17 has led most students to recognize the close relationship in Paul’s thought between the Spirit and the Word.  The Spirit of God always works in us by the Word.  This is why every element of worship must be filled with the content of God’s Word as the message proclaiming Christ.  For in that context of worship in Spirit and Truth (John 4:23-24) we are being filled with the knowledge of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As the Spirit thus fills us we are able to understand what the will of the Lord is and, consequently, to walk, not as unwise, but as wise.

For further study and application compare these above passages with Hebrews 10:23-25.


[1] After acknowledging that “means” is the best grammatical choice, Wallace says, “it would be almost inconceivable to see this text suggesting that the way in which one is to be Spirit-filled is by a five-step, partially mechanical formula!” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 639).  Indeed!  However, this is preacher rhetoric, hardly commendable for a scholar of Wallace’s stature.  No one suggests that Paul is laying down a “five-step mechanical formula” for the Spirit-filled life!  Rather, Paul is describing the dynamic worship of the gathered church in which “God meets his people and strengthens them by His Spirit as they corporately worship Him and praise His name” (Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 352).

[2] Cf. Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Nottingham, England.: Apollos, 2008), 285-90.