Beginning in Ephesians 4:17, Paul’s main concern in outlining the practical results of faith in Jesus is to remind us that life as Christians is unlike life as unredeemed people. Holiness and the pursuit of God’s will must characterize God’s people, not falsehood, sexual immorality, theft, malice, covetousness, and foolishness (Eph. 4:17–5:17). Such ungodliness, if engaged in impenitently, leads finally to destruction, but Spirit-animated love, truth, and goodness strengthen us in Christ, restoring us to wholeness (Eph. 3:14–21; 4:15–16; see also 1 Cor. 8:1; 2 Peter 2).
The apostle’s contrast between life in Christ and life as a citizen of this unbelieving world means that his contrast between drunkenness and life in the Spirit is not an abrupt shift in his thinking. Drunkenness is one of the many destructive impulses of the Gentiles (unbelievers); thus, it is inconsistent for those who profess Christ to drink excessively. Like the rest of Scripture, Paul does not forbid alcohol consumption altogether. God’s Word permits the wise use of alcohol, but it forbids drinking to the point of intoxication (Ps. 104:14–15; Prov. 23:20–21; Rom. 13:13).
Being filled with too much alcohol leads to drunkenness and destruction. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, results in sobriety and edification. When the apostle exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18, he is not teaching that those in Christ get a measure of the Holy Spirit that comes and goes at will. The Spirit seals every believer until the day of redemption, and He does not leave us (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Given the book of Ephesians’ stress on the work of the triune God in salvation and on the fullness of Christ (1:15–23; 3:14–19), Paul’s stress on being filled with the Spirit points to our need to be conformed to God’s own character. The Holy Spirit exists in perfect, indivisible union with the Father and Son, and He is the agent by which God’s fullness indwells His people. We now experience a taste of this fullness in part, though we do not yet fully enjoy the communion with the Lord that will be ours when are glorified. To be filled with the Spirit is to yield ourselves willingly to His sanctifying work as He prepares us for that final day. In so doing, our union with Christ is strengthened, our fellowship with the Father is enhanced, and we increasingly bear the image of God Himself.
Today’s passage also tells us that evidence of the Spirit-filled life includes being full of song and delight (Eph. 5:19). Matthew Henry comments: “Though Christianity is an enemy to profane mirth, yet it encourages joy and gladness. God’s people have reason to rejoice, and to sing for joy.” Though we do not deny the reality of pain, Christians should be the most joyful of people, and this joy should be evident in our corporate singing.