Happiness without harm (Ephesians 5:15-20)

When do you feel alive? I can understand people wanting to use substances to drown their sorrows, but sorrows turn out to be good swimmers.

If you’re looking for an alternative way to come alive, how about this:
Do not get drunk on wine … Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

This isn’t random advice. It’s part of a bigger story of how people who feel like the walking dead can come alive in our resurrected king (Ephesians 2:1-5).

The one thing that overpowers our pain is the life-generating work of the Holy Spirit bringing us to life in Christ. He’s establishing a whole new society where our feelings of alienation are replaced with the music of life — Spirit-inspired songs of gratitude for the rescue that’s underway, the restoration of humanity in the leader God has given us.

So, c’mon: God is calling us to let go of the brokenness and participate in being truly human together:

Ephesians 5:15–20 (NIV)
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why raise this contrast at this point of the book? Why wine specifically? Is there anything in the Bible’s larger narrative that would suggest this contrast.

The first person described as drunk on wine was Noah (Genesis 9:21). None of the 66 commentaries I checked made a connection with Noah at this point, but the comparison might make sense if we think in a Jewish framework.

  • In Jewish thought (particularly in apocalyptic), Noah features as a saviour figure. When God acted to deal with the violence and corruption of creation, Noah was the head of a new humanity, a humanity that had been saved in him.
    That kind of language fits Jesus in Ephesians. Jesus is the saviour who raises up a new humanity out of corruption and death (2:1-10), a new humanity that encompasses all people (2:11-22). Jesus is the answer to the apocalyptic mystery of how God would judge the rebellious peoples when he saved his people (Ephesians 3).
  • Noah recognized the Lord by building an altar and offering a sacrifice as a pleasing aroma to the Lord (Genesis 8:21).
    Ephesians 5:2 says Jesus offered himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. This is unique: nowhere else does the NT describe Jesus’ death as a sacrificial fragrant offering.
  • In response to Noah recognizing God, God decreed the restoration of the earth (Genesis 8:21-22). It had been corrupted (šā·ḥǎṯ = ruined, unfit for purpose in 6:11-17), so God restored the blessing of fruitfulness (9:1).
    Ephesians described our way of life as corrupted (4:22). The fruitless deeds of darkness are contrasted with the fruit that grows in the light (Ephesians 5:9-11).
  • In replanting the world in Noah, God’s main concern was the problem of violence (Genesis 9:2-6).
    We might expect it anyway, but this has been a theme in Ephesians: dealing with anger (4:26), removing bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice (4:31).
  • Noah misused the blessing of fruitfulness, drank himself stupid, and behaved shamefully (Genesis 9:20-23). This is classic folly in Jewish thought (e.g. Philo’s treatise on wisdom/folly below).
    This wisdom/folly dichotomy is the immediate context of Ephesians 5:15-17: not as unwise but as wise, … not being foolish, but understanding what our Lord intends.
  • Drunkenness led Noah to curse the world God had blessed — an onerous curse of slavery among brothers (Genesis 9:24-27).
    The Spirit leads us to bless our brothers and sisters: speaking to one another with psalms, and hymns, and songs of the Spirit. It’s the joyful gratitude for God’s liberation of the planet into the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:19-20).

The contrast is clear: getting drunk on wine led to demeaning behaviour and a cursed community under Noah. Being filled with God’s Spirit leads to uplifting behaviour singing joyful songs as the community in Christ.

Whether in Noah’s experience, the experience of others, or your own experience, we’ve seen enough of the way people try to drown their sorrows. It’s time to leave that way of life behind, to enter the new world restored in Christ our king.

Don’t follow Noah down into slavery. Follow Jesus, the one who can set us free and keep us free. In the power of the Spirit, we can do this together.

What others have said

Philo, Planting 140–147:

140 Let us now consider the vine-planting of the just Noah which is a species of husbandry. For it is said that “Noah began to be a husbandman of the earth, and he planted a vineyard, and drank of the wine, and got drunk.” Therefore, the wise man here cultivates with skill and science the tree of drunkenness, though fools enter upon its management in an unartistic and negligent manner. …
142 Therefore, to get drunk is a matter of a twofold nature, one part of it being equivalent to being overcome with wine; the other, to behaving foolishly in one’s cups. …
146 The wise man will never of his own accord think fit to enter upon a contest of hard drinking … 147 Unmixed wine is a poison, which is the cause, if not of death, at least of madness.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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