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Bible Commentaries
Ephesians 5

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1

(1) Followers of God.—The phrase is unique and very striking; literally, imitators of God: and the word “therefore” implies that this imitation of God must be chiefly in His essential attribute of love. It is instructive to observe that our Lord’s startling command, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), is explained both by the context and the parallel passage in St. Luke (Luke 6:36) to mean, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” See in Hooker’s Ecc. Pol., i. 5, a striking passage on the imitation of God as the law of all moral progress in man. In this idea, indeed, lies the essential and distinctive principle of a religious morality as such.

As dear children.—Literally, as children beloved of Him. The knowledge of the love of God to us is the first source, as of our love to Him (1 John 4:19), so also of our love to men as brethren under His fatherhood (1 John 4:11). As being His “children,” and therefore partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), we can imitate Him; as His “beloved children” we imitate Him most naturally in love, and especially in that form of love which we call “mercy,” and which, as being ourselves sinners, we especially crave and receive from Him.

Verses 1-2

(3 a) In Ephesians 4:31 to Ephesians 5:2, he deals with malignity, as utterly unworthy of the love of God manifested to us in Jesus Christ.

Verse 2

(2) As Christ also hath loved us.—To this idea of the “imitation of God,” essential to all true religion, St. Paul now adds an exhortation to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, in that especial exhibition of love by suffering and self-sacrifice, which is impossible to the Godhead in itself, but which belongs to the incarnate Son of God, and was the ultimate purpose of His incarnation. There is a similar connection of idea in John 15:12-13, “This is My commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The imitation of God is in free and natural beneficence; the imitation of Christ is in that power of showing mercy, which is bought by suffering and sacrifice. He not only “loved us,” but “gave Himself for us.”

An offering and a sacrifice to God,—The same words, “sacrifice and offering,” are found in close connection in Hebrews 10:5, which is a quotation from Psalms 40:7. Comparing these with the Hebrew words which they represent, and looking also to the etymology of the Greek words themselves, we see that the word “offering” signifies simply a gift offered to God, and is applied especially, though not exclusively, to unbloody sacrifices; while the word “sacrifice” distinctly implies the shedding of blood. Each word, when used alone, has constantly a more general sense. Thus “offering” is used in Hebrews 10:10; Hebrews 10:14; Hebrews 10:18, for the sacrifice on the cross; while “sacrifice,” in Acts 7:42, is made to translate the word commonly rendered as “offering.” But when placed in juxtaposition they must be held distinctive; and hence we may conclude that our Lord made Himself “an offering” in the perfect obedience of His great humility, “coming to do God’s will” (according to the prophetic anticipation of Psalms 40:7-8), and gave Himself a “sacrifice,” when He completed that offering by shedding His blood on the cross. Both are said to be offered “for us,” i.e., on our behalf. We have, therefore, here a complete summary—all the more striking and characteristic because incidental—of the doctrine of the Atonement.

For a sweet-smelling savour.—The sense of this phrase is explained in Philippians 4:18 by the addition of the words “a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God.” It is the translation of an expression, frequent in the Old Testament (as in Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18; et al.), signifying “a smell of acquiescence” or “satisfaction.” It describes the atoning sacrifice as already accepted by God.

Verse 3

(3) But fornication, and all uncleanness, or Christian light covetousness.—“Fornication” is closely joined (as in 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Colossians 3:5) with “uncleanness,” of which general sin it is a flagrant species. It is distinguished (as also in Colossians 3:5) from “covetousness,” or greediness. “Uncleanness” is a sin against our own body and soul (see 1 Corinthians 6:18); “covetousness” (literally, the insatiable desire for more) is a sin against our neighbour. At the same time, the constant connection of the two words suggests the truth which is conveyed by the union of the two kinds of “coveting” in the Tenth Commandment, viz., that the temper of selfish and unbridled concupiscence has a two-fold direction—to the covetousness of lust, and to the covetousness of avarice—the one perhaps especially a vice of youth, and the other of old age.

Verses 3-14

(3b) Ephesians 5:3-14 warn, with even greater fulness and emphasis, against the sins of impurity and lust, as incompatible with membership of the kingdom of heaven, as works of darkness, impossible to those who are children of light.

Verse 4

(4) Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting.—The word “filthiness” (unlike the “filthy communication” of the parallel passage in Colossians 3:8) is in itself a general word. But the connection with the words following, and the distinction from those going before, appear to show that St. Paul here uses it for “filthy talking.” He is passing from impurity of the inward soul to impurity in outward expression. Of such foul speaking he appears to distinguish two forms. There is, first of all, “foolish talking,” or the talk of “the fool,” in the worst sense in which that word is used in Scripture (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 23:17), as implying something worse than mere emptiness or blindness—describing the condition of the soul which has “lost its savour” (Matthew 5:13), i.e., has ceased to distinguish what is right or wrong, wise or foolish, noble or base. There is then “jesting,” i.e., properly, the more polished “versatility,” which will find occasion for wit or levity in anything, however sacred, fearing nothing so much as to be dull, and mistaking all seriousness and reserve for dulness. It is notable that in classical Greek the word is sometimes used in a good sense, as a mean between “churlishness” and “obsequiousness,” but yet hovers on the border of that condemnation which Christian gravity here pronounces unhesitatingly. The former kind of foul talking is coarse and brutal; the latter refined and deadly. Of both kinds Greek and Roman literature furnish specimens only too many and too striking.

Which are not convenient.—That is, “which are out of character” in a Christian—a milder repetition (perhaps suggested by the ambiguous meaning of “jesting” noted above) of the indignant declaration in Ephesians 5:3, that it “becomes not saints that these foul things should be even named among them.” They pollute the Christian mind and tongue even in condemning them.

But rather giving of thanks.—The opposition is striking. “The foolish talking and jesting” aim at mirth and play of mind; St. Paul will not austerely condemn, such light-heartedness, but he finds a wholesome and spiritual vent for it in the habitual expression of thankfulness to God, which proceeds from a natural and childlike cheerfulness. Exactly in the same spirit below (Ephesians 5:18-20) he contrasts the excitement of drunkenness with the being “filled with the Spirit . . . giving thanks always for all things.”

Verse 5

(5) For this ye know.—The true reading of the original is curiously emphatic. It runs thus: For this ye know, knowing . . . But, as it uses two different words, in the former clause properly “ye know” and the latter “learning to know,” the sense seems to be: “For this ye know, learning it afresh so as to know it better.” Whatever else is doubtful, this is certain; yet it admits of an ever growing certainty.

Covetous man, who is an idolater.—Comp. Colossians 3:5, “Covetousness, which is idolatry.” Whatever becomes the chief object of our desire, so as to claim our chief fear and love, is, of course, an idol; for “ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Perhaps in this metaphorical idolatry, as in the literal, there are two distinct stages, passing, however, by invisible gradations into each other—first, the resting on some visible blessing of God, as the one thing in which and for which we serve Him, and so by degrees losing Him in His own gifts; next, the absolute forgetfulness of Him, and the setting up, as is inevitable, of some other object of worship to fill the vacant throne.

Hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and [of] God.—The phrase “the kingdom of Christ and God,” though probably it does not in strict technicality declare the identity of “Christ” and “God,” yet implies that the “kingdom of the Christ” is, as a matter of course, “the kingdom of God,” for “the Christ” is by prophetic definition “Emmanuel,” i.e., “God with us.” The unworthy Christian has indeed “an inheritance” in it, to his own awful responsibility; but in the true spiritual sense he is one “who hath not,” “from whom shall be taken that which he hath” (Matthew 13:12).

Verse 6

(6) Let no man deceive you with vain words.—It seems likely that St. Paul has in view, not mere worldly condonation of evil or low heathen morality, but some anticipation of that Antinomian form of Gnosticism which held that the things done in the body, being evil only by the irresistible, inevitable gravitation of matter to evil, could not touch the soul. We know that in the Colossian Church there was an anticipation of the more ascetic Gnosticism (Colossians 2:21; comp. also 1 Timothy 4:1-5). As the earlier Judaistic rigour had assumed this later form, so the earlier Antinomianism (of Romans 6:1) may probably have passed into the more systematic and speculative Antinomianism of the Gnostic type. (Comp. Philippians 3:18-19.) In this same spirit St. John, himself familiar with the life of Ephesus, writes earnestly: “Let no man deceive you; he that doeth righteousness is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Hero the Apostle warns them that it is for these sins that “the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience,” i.e. (see Ephesians 2:2), on the heathen; and urges the Christians not to fall back, by being “partakers with them” both of their sin and their punishment, into the gross heathen darkness out of which they had been saved.

Verse 8

(8) Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord.—This expression is unique, and far more emphatic than the more common phrases of “being,” or “walking,” “in darkness” and “in light.” (See Romans 2:9; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:4; 1 John 1:6-7; 1 John 2:9-10.) For here the outward element of light or darkness is said to pervade the inner nature of the soul. (1) Christ is the “true Light,” the “Sun of Righteousness” (John 1:4-9; John 3:19; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 12:46). His servants are sometimes mere secondary lights (or “candles”) (Luke 11:33-34; Luke 11:36; John 5:35; 2 Peter 1:19), kindled from His rays; sometimes, like the moon or planets, they are said, as reflecting His light, or as having His light in them (John 12:35), to be actually “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), which, however, shines as a mere reflected light, so that “men glorify” not it, but “the Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). They thus become light, but only “in the Lord:” that is, as being made one with Him. (2) So, on the other hand, they who walk in darkness are said to be themselves darkness—new sources, so to speak, of the darkness which hates and quenches light, both to themselves and to others. “The light” which is in them “becomes darkness;” “and how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23.) As there is a natural delight in giving light, so the reprobate state is distinguished by a horrible pleasure in spreading the cloud of delusion, sin, or unbelief, by which to hide God from man.

Walk as children of light.—So our Lord teaches, “While ye have the light, believe in the light, that ye may become children of light” (John 12:36; comp. 1 Thessalonians 5:5). “Children of light” are they who not only love the light, but also manifest the likeness of the one true Light, “the Father of Lights” (James 1:17), being His children in Jesus Christ.

Verse 9

(9) For the fruit . . .—The true reading is, of the Light, for which the easier phrase, “the fruit of the Spirit,” has been substituted, to the great detriment of the force and coherency of the whole passage. Light has its fruits; darkness (see Ephesians 5:11) is “unfruitful.” The metaphor is striking, but literally correct, inasmuch as light is the necessary condition of that vegetative life which grows and yields fruit, while darkness is the destruction, if not of life, at any rate of fruit-bearing perfection.

Goodness and righteousness and truth.—These are practical exhibitions of the “being true in love,” described in Ephesians 4:15 as the characteristic of the Christ-like soul. For “goodness” is love in practical benevolence, forming, in Galatians 5:22, a climax to “longsuffering” and “kindness,” and, in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, distinguished as practical from the “faith” which underlies practice. The other two qualities, “righteousness” and “truth”—that is, probably, truthfulness-are both parts of the great principle of “being true.”

Verse 10

(10) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.—So in Romans 12:2, the “proving what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” is the fruit of transformation “in the renewing of the mind.” “To prove” is to try in each case, by the full light of God, what is accordant to His will; it is a work partly of thought, partly of practical experience; and it always implies a searching examination of heart and action by the touchstone of God’s word.

Verse 11

(11) Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.—To “have no fellowship” with such works is not to refuse to take part in them (for this surely might be taken for granted), but to keep no terms with them, to have no sympathy or indulgence or excuse for them. So the word is used, in Philippians 4:14, of “communicating with my affliction;” and in Revelation 18:4, of “being partakers with the sins” of Babylon. It is through such weak or cowardly indulgence, more than the actual love of evil, that sin is suffered to prevail. Hence St. Paul adds, “rather reprove them.” Our Lord Himself has declared in all such cases, “He that is not with Me is against Me.”

The unfruitful works of darkness.—St. Paul has a similar antithesis in the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6:19-22). They who are in sin “yield their members servants to iniquity unto iniquity.” Iniquity has no result but iniquity; and hence he goes on to ask, “What fruit had ye then in those things of which ye are now ashamed?” This weary fruitlessness is at once the sign and the penalty of sin, so that men have fancied it to be one chief element of the suffering of the lost. But they who are in Christ “yield their members servants to righteousness unto holiness.” “They have,” he says, “their fruit unto holiness” now, and “in the end the everlasting life,” which is everlasting holiness. Similarly, in Galatians 5:20-22, we have “the works of the flesh,” but “the fruit of the Spirit.” Rarely, indeed, does Scripture speak of “evil fruit” (Matthew 7:17; Matthew 12:33). Generally, “to be unfruitful” is an all-sufficient condemnation. “Every branch that beareth not fruit he taketh away” (John 15:2).

Rather reprove them.—In the word “reprove,” whether in its application to the witness of the Holy Ghost (John 16:8), or to the witness of men (as in 1 Corinthians 14:24; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:9-13, et al.), there is described a double function—to “convince,” if it may be, the sinner in himself; to “convict” him, if the other function fails, before men and angels. Both these functions St. Paul urges here. It is not enough to “have no fellowship with them.” To this tacit reproof open reproof in word and deed is to be added; only in such reproof it should be remembered that it would be disgraceful “even to speak” in detail of the actual “things done in secret.”

Verse 12

(12) It is a shame even to speak . . .—Comp. Ephesians 5:3. Sin may be plainly indicated, and perhaps most effectually branded, without polluting the tongue by describing its actual developments. The need of St. Paul’s caution is only too obvious when we read some satires and denunciations against sin, or some manuals of self-examination.

Verse 13

(13) But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light.—This should properly be rendered, But all things, when reproved, are illuminated by the light. The translation “are made manifest” is indeed fully in accordance with the common usage of the word. But the whole context shows that St. Paul is here using it in what is indeed its more proper etymological sense, for “are illumined.” For the mere “being made manifest” is implied in the “being reproved;” whereas he is certainly passing on here to a fresh idea, and, moreover, to one which will bear the inference of the last clause of the verse. To “reprove” after the Christian manner is to bring into the full light of Christ’s truth; and the effect of this is not merely to reprove, but to illumine by the inherent power of the light. Exactly with the same distinction of sense St. John uses both words (John 3:20-21).

For whatsoever doth make manifest is light.—That this translation (suggested, perhaps, by the difficulty of the passage when rightly rendered) is nevertheless certainly wrong, is shown both by the usage of the original word and by the genius of the whole context. It should be, for everything which is illuminated is light. St. Paul here explains still more clearly what he means by illumination. It implies the catching the light and reflecting it, so as to become a new source of light. It must be noted that the subject of the sentence is not “the works of darkness,” but “all things” in general. Hence the whole process is described, with almost scientific accuracy, as three-fold. First, the things, or persons, are dragged out of darkness into light; then they are illuminated; lastly, they become light in themselves and to others. There are, no doubt, exceptions to this, the right and normal process, in the case of the utterly reprobate, who have lost all power of reflecting light, and are therefore dark still in the blaze of noon; but the next verse shows that St. Paul is not contemplating these; and even these may be beacons of warning to others. The whole metaphor is more and more striking to us as modern science enlarges our knowledge of the manifold effects of light, not only to illuminate, but to change and to vivify.

Verse 14

(14) Wherefore he (or, it) saith.—This phrase is used (as also in James 4:6) in Ephesians 4:8 to introduce a scriptural quotation; and the most natural completion of the elliptical expression is by the supply of the nominative, “God,” or “the scripture,” from the ordinary phrase of quotation or citation. But no scriptural passage can be adduced which, with the fullest allowance for the apostolic freedom of quotation, comes near enough to be a satisfactory original of this passage. The nearest is Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee;” and this is certainly very far off indeed. Nor is the case much helped by blending other passages (as, for example, Isaiah 26:19) with this. Some additional verbal coincidences may be gained, but at the expense of still greater diversity from the spirit of the passage as a whole. Hence we are driven to conclude that the quotation is not from Holy Scripture. Yet the very form shows that it is from something well known. An apocryphal quotation is imagined by some, but with no knowledge of any quotation at all resembling it. Others have supposed it a traditional saying of our Lord (like Acts 20:35); but the form seems decisive against this. On the whole, it seems most likely that it is from some well-known Christian hymn. In the original a rhythmical character, rough, but by no means indistinct, strikes us at once. The growth of defined and formal expressions—mostly, it is true, of embryo creeds of Christian faith, as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Hebrews 6:1-2; 1 Timothy 3:16, in the last of which the acknowledged difficulty of etymological construction in the true reading may perhaps be best explained by the supposition of quotation—is notable in the later Epistles, and especially in the “faithful sayings” of the Pastoral Epistles. The use of some liturgical forms is traced with high probability to a very early date. The embodiment of popular faith in hymns, always natural, was peculiarly natural as adapted to the imperfect education of many early converts, and to the practice of trusting so much to memory, and so comparatively little to writing. Some such usage certainly appears to be referred to in the celebrated letter of Pliny to Trajan, the first heathen description of Christian worship.

Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead.—The word “awake” is used in our version to render two different words: one which properly means “to wake,” or “be awake,” or “watch,” as in 1 Corinthians 15:34; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:8; 2 Timothy 4:5; 1 Peter 1:12; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8); the other, as here, which properly means “Up!” “Rouse thyself!” preparatory to “arising” and coming forth. The exhortation in both forms is common enough (see especially the famous passage in Romans 13:11-14); but the following words, “Arise from the dead,” are a bold and unique exhortation. Generally we are said to be raised up from the death of sin by God, as in Romans 8:11, “He that raised up Christ from the dead shall quicken your mortal bodies;” or Romans 6:11, “Reckon yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God;” or Colossians 3:1, “If ye are risen in Christ.” Here the soul is described as hearing the Saviour’s call, “Come forth,” and as itself rising at that call from the grave. If distinction between the two clauses is to be drawn, we may be rightly said to “awake” out of lethargy and carelessness, and to “arise” out of the deadness of sin.

Christ shall give thee light.—Properly, Christ shall dawn upon thee. The word is virtually the same which is used for the literal dawn in Matthew 28:1, Luke 23:54. The same idea is strikingly enunciated in 2 Peter 1:19, where prophecy, looking forward to Christ, is compared to “a light shining in a dark place,” “till the day dawn, and the Day-star arise in your hearts”—He, that is, who is “the bright and morning star” (Revelation 22:16). Christ, as the “Day-star,” or as the “Sun of Righteousness,” is already risen. The soul needs only to come out of the darkness of the grave, and the new rays shine down upon it, till (see Ephesians 5:7) they pervade it and transfigure it into light.

(3 c.) In Ephesians 5:15-21 the Apostle passes from lust and impurity to the cognate spirit of reckless levity, and the love of excitement, of which drunkenness is the commonest expression. He opposes to this the united forces of soberness and sacred enthusiasm, each tempering and yet strengthening the other.

Verse 15

(15) See then that ye walk (properly, how ye walk) circumspectly.—The word rendered “circumspectly” is properly strictly, or accurately—generally used of intellectual accuracy or thoroughness (as in Matthew 2:8; Luke 1:3; Acts 18:25; Acts 18:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:2); only here and in Acts 26:5 (“the straitest sect of our religion”) of moral strictness. The idea, therefore, is not of looking round watchfully against dangers, but of “seeing,” that is, being careful, “how we walk strictly;” of finding out the clear line of right, and then keeping to it strictly, so as not “to run uncertainly.” In the corresponding passage in the Colossian Epistle (Colossians 4:5) a similar admonition has especial reference “to those without,” and bids us have a resolute unity of aim, a distinct religious profession, amidst all the bewildering temptations of the world. Here it is more general; it bids men not to trust wholly to general rightness of heart, in which “the spirit is willing,” but to be watchful over themselves, and to be a law to themselves, “because the flesh is weak.”

Not as fools, but as wise.—This still further explains the “strictness,” for “wisdom” is the practical knowledge of the true end and purpose of life. (See above, Ephesians 1:8.) He who has it not, whatever his intellectual and spiritual gifts, is “unwise.”

Verse 16

(16) Redeeming the time.—Or rather, the opportunity, whenever it arises. The meaning of this phrase (used also in Colossians 4:5) is clearly illustrated by its use (although in a bad sense) in Daniel 2:8, “I know that you would gain the time”—i.e., catch the opportunity to escape from difficulty. To “redeem” is “to buy up for oneself”—not having essentially the idea of ransom or redemption, which attaches to the use of the word in Galatians 3:13; Galatians 4:5, only from the nature of the context. As applied to opportunity, it carries with it the idea, first of making sacrifice for it, then quickness in seizing it, and sagacity in using it to the utmost, whether by silence or by speech, by facing or avoiding danger, by yielding to a crisis (see Romans 12:11) or conquering it. The reason given that “the days are evil” must be taken in the widest sense, of all that induces temptation to swerve out of the “strictness” of the right way. The general lesson is that which is drawn by our Lord in the parable of the Unjust Steward—to apply the wisdom of the buyers and sellers of the world to the work of “the children of light.”

Verse 17

(17) Be ye not unwise.—The word here is stronger than in Ephesians 5:15; it is properly senseless, used of “the fool” (in Luke 11:40; Luke 12:20; 1 Corinthians 15:36; 2 Corinthians 11:16; 2 Corinthians 11:19; 2 Corinthians 12:6; 2 Corinthians 12:11). By it St. Paul emphasises his previous warning; then he adds the explanation that to be “wise” is to “understand what the will of the Lord is”—to know His purpose towards us and towards the world, and so to know the true purpose of our life. Hence we are told in Job 28:28, that “the fear of the Lord is wisdom,” or, more precisely, in Proverbs 9:10, that it is “the beginning of wisdom.”

Verse 18

(18) Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess.—From the general idea of reckless levity, St. Paul passes on to the special sin of drunkenness, as not (like gluttony) primarily a gratification of the appetite, but as a reckless pursuit of excitement at all costs—glorified as an excitement of emotion, and even of wit and intellect, in such contemporary writers as Horace, and actually confused, as in the Dionysiac or Bacchanalian frenzy, with a divine inspiration. How necessary the admonition was we see by the directions as to the choice of clergy in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 3:28; Titus 1:7; Titus 2:3); the more necessary, because (as 1 Timothy 5:23 shows) the right use of wine was recognised. Hence St. Paul emphatically brands drunkenness as “excess,” a word properly signifying “recklessness”—“incapable of saving,” or denying itself anything, and naturally passing through this want of self-restraint into profligacy—rightly translated “riot” in Titus 1:6, 1 Peter 4:4, as the corresponding adverb is rendered “riotous living” in Luke 15:13. For drunkenness is at once the effect and cause of utter recklessness. It is the effect of a self-abandonment, by which the sensual or passionate elements of the nature are stimulated to frenzy, while the self-controlling judgment is drugged to sleep. It is the cause of yet greater recklessness: for as these passions and appetites become jaded, they need stronger and stronger stimulants, till the whole nature, bodily and mental, is lost in delirium or stupor.

But be filled with the Spirit.—The antithesis is startling, but profoundly instructive. To the artificial and degrading excitement of drunkenness St. Paul boldly opposes the divine enthusiasm of the Spirit, one form of which was scoffingly compared to it on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13). He is not content with warning us of its ruinous excess, or urging the strictness of stern self-restraint. Drunkenness comes from an unnatural craving for excitement, stimulated by unwholesome conditions of life, physical and mental. He would satisfy the craving, so far as it is natural, by a divine enthusiasm, brighter and stronger than even duty to God and man, breaking out in thanksgiving, adoration, and love.

Verse 19

(19) Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.—The same words are found in Colossians 3:16, with a notable difference of application. There the idea is of teaching: “teaching and admonishing one another;” here, simply of a natural vent for emotion, especially of thanksgiving, although probably here also “to yourselves” means “to one another,” and refers, perhaps, chiefly to public worship. The well-known passage in Pliny, “Carmen dicere inter se invicem,” describes alternate, possibly antiphonal, singing of such sacred music. Of the various kinds of this music, the “psalms” and “hymns” are easily distinguished. The “psalm,” as the word itself implies, is music with instrumental accompaniment, and can hardly fail to refer to the Old Testament psalms, familiar in Jewish worship, and as we know, used in the first instance we have of apostolic worship (Acts 4:24). On their frequent use see 1 Corinthians 14:26; James 5:12. The “hymn” is purely vocal music, apparently of the whole company (see Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25), more especially directed to praise of God, and probably designating the new utterances of the Christian Church itself. But the interpretation of the “spiritual song,” or “ode,” is more difficult. It is often considered as inclusive of the other two (as etymologically it might well be), but the genius of the passage appears to make it co-ordinate, and so distinct from them. From the use of the word “song,” or “ode,” as applied to lyric poetry, it may perhaps be conjectured that it describes more varied and elaborate music, sung by one person only—a spiritual utterance of one for the whole congregation. In a passage of Philo (2 p. 476)—quoted by Dr. Lightfoot on Colossians 3:16—on Jewish sacred music, we read, “He who stands up sings a hymn composed in praise of God, either having made a new one for himself, or using an ancient one of the poets of days gone by.” The Christian counterpart of this might well be the “spiritual song.” To some such utterance, under the name of psalm,” St. Paul seems to allude in 1 Corinthians 14:26, a passage dealing expressly with special spiritual gifts. “Each one of you has a psalm.” Evidently it might be strictly a “hymn” or “psalm,” though in common usage (as here) it would be distinguished from both.

Singing and making melody in your heart.—The word rendered “making melody” is the verb corresponding to the “psalm” above, as singing to the “song.” This clause is not identical but co-ordinate with the last. That described audible and public melody; this, the secret utterance of music in the soul, whether accompanying the other or distinct from it.

Verse 20

(20) Giving thanks always for all things.—This temper of universal and pervading thankfulness is dwelt upon in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:18) as indissolubly united with unceasing joy and prayer (“Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.”) Since thanksgiving is for what God has given us, and prayer for what we still need, both must be united in our imperfect condition here. In Colossians 3:17 it is associated with action “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here it is dealt with alone, as the basis of the praises, public and private, corporate and individual, described above. In regard to the former, St. Paul marks thanksgiving as the fundamental and invariable element of all Christian worship, clothing itself naturally in all variety of music; in regard to the latter, he describes the habitual spirit of thankfulness, prevailing alike in joy and sorrow, undisturbed even by penitent sense of sin, as the inner music of all Christian life.

Unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.—Both these expressions are emphatic. To all consciousness of God belong fear and reverence; to the belief in Him as “our Father” (see Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-6) specially belong love and thanksgiving. But it is “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”—that is, as identified in perfect unity with Him—that we have the adoption to sonship which is the ground of such thanksgiving. So also in the same unity (see John 14:13; John 15:16; John 16:23-24) we have the ground of perfect confidence in prayer.

Verse 21

(21) Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.—In grammatical construction this clause is connected with the preceding verses; in point of idea it leads on to the next section, which treats of the three-fold submission of wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters. There is, however, a certain connection of idea with the preceding section also, and especially with the encouragement of a Christian enthusiasm in the last clause. The strong and frequent emphasis laid in the New Testament on subjection, whether (as in Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) to the civil powers, or (as here, in Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1, and 1 Peter 2:18 to 1 Peter 3:7) to domestic authority, or (as in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15) to ecclesiastical authority, probably indicates some tendency, in the first exuberance of Christian liberty and enthusiasm, to disregard the wholesome restraints, laws, and conventions of outward life. Hence St. Paul’s general caution here, prefatory to the more detailed teaching of subjection which follows.

Verses 22-33


Practical Exhortation continued (Ephesians 5:22 to Ephesians 6:9).




Between husbands and wives—a relation which is a type of the unity between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

(b) Between parents and children—a relation hallowed as existing “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1-4).


Between masters and servants—a relation softened and deepened by common service to the one Master (Ephesians 6:5-9).]

Verse 23

(23) For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.—It is instructive to compare this with the partly similar passage in 1 Corinthians 11:3. There “the head of the woman is the man,” as here; but “the head of every man (individually) is Christ,” considered in His human nature; and finally, “the Head of Christ,” as the Son of Man, “is God.” There, accordingly, “headship” is simple lordship; the woman is subject to the man, the man is subject to Christ alone; Christ as the Son is subject to the Father. Here, on the other hand, we note, first, that in accordance with the general idea of the Epistle, the headship of Christ over the Church at large takes the place of His headship over the individual; next, that from the idea of His headship so conceived is derived the further idea of a spiritual unity, involving self-sacrifice in the head, as well as obedience to the head; and, lastly, that since the very idea of unity in Christ is unity with God, there is nothing to correspond to the third clause in the former Epistle.

Verses 23-24

(23, 24) And he is the saviour of the body. Therefore . . .—The words “and” and “is” are wrongly inserted, and the word “therefore” is absolutely an error, evading the difficulty of the passage. It should be, He Himself being the Saviour of the Body. But . . . This clause, in which the words “He Himself” are emphatic, notes (as if in order to guard against too literal acceptation of the comparison) that “Christ” (and He alone) is not only Head, but “Saviour of the Body,” i.e., “of His body the Church,” not only teaching and ruling it, but by His unity infusing into it the new life of justification and sanctification. Here no husband can be like Him, and therefore none can claim the absolute dependence of faith which is His of right. Accordingly St. Paul adds the word “But.” Though “this is so,” yet “still let the wives,” &c.

As the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.—The subjection of the Church of Christ is a free subjection, arising out of faith in His absolute wisdom and goodness, and of love for His unspeakable love. Hence we gather (1) that the subordination of the wife is not that of the slave, by. compulsion and fear, but one which arises from and preserves freedom; next (2), that it can exist, or at any rate can endure, only on condition of superior wisdom and goodness and love in the husband; thirdly (3), that while it is like the higher subordination in kind, it cannot be equally perfect in degree—while it is real “in everything,” it can be absolute in nothing. The antitype is, as usual, greater than the type.

Verse 25

(25) Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church.—The love of Christ for His Church is such that He counts Himself incomplete without her (Ephesians 1:23), and raises her to be one with Himself; that He bears with her weakness and frailty; that He draws her on by the cords of love; and that He gives up Himself for her. Only so far as the husband shows the like love in perfect sympathy, in chivalrous forbearance, in abhorrence of tyranny, in willingness to self-sacrifice, has he any right to claim lordship.

And gave himself for it.—Here, as before, the antitype transcends the type. In the character of our Lord’s sacrifice, as an atonement offered “for” the Church, and in the regenerating and cleansing effect of that sacrifice (see next verse), none can approach Him. The husband may be said to give himself for his wife, but it cannot be in any higher sense than as taking the chief share of the burden, and if possible the pain, of life for her. He may follow Christ in love, and in that alone. Compare St. Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24, “I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ for His body’s sake, which is the Church” (where see Note).

Verses 25-27

(25-27) In these verses we trace, under the nuptial metaphor, a clear description of the three great stages in salvation—justification in His “giving Himself for us, sanctification in the “cleansing by water in the Word,” glorification in the final “presentation” to Christ in glory. The metaphor is certainly preserved in the last two clauses, which correspond to the bath of purification of the bride, and the festal presentation of her (usually by the friend of the bridegroom, John 3:29), in all her beauty and adornment, to her husband at his own home; perhaps even in the first also, for the husband used to give a dowry, which was held in the rude simplicity of ancient times to purchase his wife, and here that which Christ gives is the unspeakable price of His own Self. Throughout, in accordance with the whole tenor of the Epistle, it is the Church as a whole, not the individual soul, which is “the Spouse of Christ.”

Verse 26

(26) That he might sanctify and cleanse it . . .—The true rendering is, that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it in the laver of the water in [the] Word. The reference in “the laver of the water” to baptism, is even more unquestionable than in “the laver of regeneration” of Titus 3:5. Hence we must conclude that the phrase “in the Word” is in some way connected with that sacrament. Of the two Greek words translated “word,” the one here used is that which signifies not “the word” existing as a definite thought in the mind, but “the word” as audibly spoken. It has, indeed, in the original no article, but this is probably because it had assumed so technical a sense as to resemble a proper name; and it is best connected with the phrase “having cleansed it,” thus being coordinated, not subordinated, to the “laver of the water.” Accordingly it would seem to signify all that element of baptism which is “in word”—that is, the question of faith, “the answer of a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21), and, lastly, the solemn formula of baptism “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” If we are to single out any of these, we must surely (with Chrysostom) take the last. But it is better to embrace the whole, and so include the whole spiritual element of baptism, both the acceptance of faith on the part of man, and the grace-giving blessing of God.

To “sanctify” is here to consecrate to Himself (comp. John 17:17; John 17:19) after purification. In the same connection we have in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “Ye were washed, ye were sanctified, ye were justified.” In virtue of such consecration the Church visible is “holy” in idea and in capacity—the Church invisible here (which will be the Church triumphant hereafter), holy in the actual purity which becomes a consecrated nature. Of such consecration baptism is unquestionably the means; as we see in command in Matthew 28:19, and in fact in Acts 2:38; Acts 2:41.

Verse 27

(27) That he might present it to himself.—The original is more emphatic—that He might Himself present it to Himself. This presentation belonged usually to the “paranymph,” or “friend of the bridegroom, to whom St. John Baptist compares himself in John 3:29 (where see Note); St. Paul himself assumes that office in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I have espoused (or rather, betrothed) you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” Here, however, all is of Christ. He, as Paranymph, comes down to seek and to save His Bride; He, as Bridegroom, receives her in His heavenly home.

A glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle . . .—Properly, (that He might present) the Church as glorious, not having a spot (i.e., a stain on its purity), or a wrinkle (i.e., a defect in its beauty and freshness of life); but that it may be holy (not merely consecrated to holiness) and without blemish (as He is without blemish). On these last words see Note on Ephesians 1:4. They are most commonly sacrificial, corresponding (see Colossians 1:22) to the sacrificial use of the word “present.” Here, however, they are seen clearly to have reference to the nuptial metaphor by what goes before.

In all this we have a picture which properly belongs to the Church in glory, and which is fully drawn out under the same metaphor as Revelation 19:7-9; Revelation 21:2; Revelation 21:9-10; for only in it can the description be fully realised. In capacity and promise it belongs to the whole Church militant; in reality, but in imperfection, to the Church invisible on earth; in absolute perfection to the Church triumphant in heaven.

Verse 28

(28) So ought men to love their wives . . .—From this glorious digression; applying only to the divine Antitype, St. Paul comes back to the one point, in which the type may imitate it—that is, a deep and unfailing love. “So” refers to the previous verse, describing the love of Christ, not to the “as” following; otherwise the want of connection would be strangely abrupt. Moreover, from this idea of the love of Christ as the pattern, the latter part of this verse and the following verses naturally arise. Christ loves the Church as His body, a part of Himself. Hence the idea that the husband is “the head of the wife” gives place to the absolute identification of himself with his wife, as “one flesh.”

He that loveth his wife loveth himself.—All right “love of our neighbour” is directed to be given to him “as to ourselves.” It is to be of the same kind as the love of self—that is, first, an instinct (as of self-preservation); and next a rational and settled principle (as of reasonable self-love, seeking our own perfection, which is our happiness). Here, however, this love to our neighbour is actually identified with self-love. The wife is the husband’s very self; he can no more fail to love her than to love himself, though (again to follow the example of Christ) he may love her better than himself. We may note that this identification of husband and wife is the basis of all ecclesiastical, and, in great degree, of all civil, law of Christian nations as to marriage.

Verse 29

(29) His own fleshi.e., as above (Ephesians 5:28), his own body. There are two parts of the natural care for our own bodies; first, “to nourish” (properly, to rear them up from childhood, as in Ephesians 6:4), and then “to cherish” (literally, to keep them warm), to provide all they need for health, and comfort, and life. In all that corresponds to both, the husband is to show love to the wife, not only as a self, but as a weaker self, for whom he is bound to think and to act. It may be noted in passing that the very comparison accords with the Christian idea of the body as a part of the true self, redeemed to be a temple of God; and is utterly incongruous with the Gnostic conceptions (already beginning at Colossæ, probably not unknown in other Asiatic churches) of all matter as the source of evil, and of the body as that for which the spirit should not deign to care.

Verses 29-30

(29, 30) Even as the Lord the church: for we . . .—Again St. Paul escapes from the type to rest on the Antitype (see Ephesians 5:32). The idea of the natural rearing and cherishing the body suggests the thought of the tender care of Christ, in which He “rears up” His Church from weak infancy to full maturity in heaven, and all the while “cherishes it (comp. 1 Thessalonians 2:7, spoken of His servants) as a nurse cherisheth her children,” “carrying it in His bosom” (Isaiah 40:11), comforting and cheering its childlike weakness. Hence he goes back again to speak with great and special emphasis of our unity with Him.

Of his flesh, and of his bones.—Literally, made out of His flesh and bones—parts, that is, of His glorified body, having “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). The expression is unique, suggested, of course, by Genesis 2:23, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” but designed to bring out in a startling emphasis the true meaning of the familiar phrase, “the members of His body.” We are grafted into Him. What we grow to be is, so to speak, the product of His divine substance, proceeding from the indwelling life which gradually forms the organised limbs.

Verse 31

(31) For this cause.—In spite of much authority, it seems far simpler to consider the words “Even as the Lord . . . His bones” as parenthetical, and refer back to Ephesians 5:28-29. In exactly the same way our Lord quotes the same verse of Genesis (Genesis 2:24) to show the indissoluble character of the marriage tie. Here the similarity of connection with that of the original passage is even stronger. Because a man’s wife is as his own body, “for this cause shall a man,” &c. To connect these words with those going before is indeed possible, but somewhat too mystical even for this passage.

Shall a man leave his father . . .—The relation of parentage is one of common flesh and blood, and stands at the head of those natural relations which we do not make, but into which we are born. The relation of marriage is the most sacred of all the ties into which we are not born, and which we do make for ourselves, in accordance with a true or supposed harmony of nature. It becomes, says Holy Scripture, a relation, not of common flesh and blood, but of “one flesh.” Itself originally voluntary, it supersedes all natural ties. Our Lord therefore adds, “They are no more twain, but one flesh. What God hath joined together let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Hence it strikingly represents that unity with Christ—voluntarily initiated by Him, voluntarily accepted by us—which yet so supersedes all natural ties that it is said to oblige a man to “hate his father and mother . . . and his own life also” (Luke 14:26).

Verse 32

(32) This is a great mystery.—Rather, This mystery is a great one. The words apply to the type, as well as to the Antitype. (1) The indissoluble and paramount sacredness of marriage, as all history shows, is “a mystery”—that is (see Ephesians 1:9), a secret of God’s law, fully revealed in Christ alone. For in heathen, and, to some extent, even in Jewish thought, marriage was a contract far less sacred than the indissoluble tie of blood; and wherever Christian principle is renounced or obscured, that ancient idea recurs in modern times. It may be noted that from the translation here of the word “mystery,” by sacramentum in the Latin versions, the application of the word “sacrament” to marriage arose. (2) But the following words, “But I” (the word “I” being emphatic) “speak concerning Christ and the Church,” show—what indeed the whole passage has already shown—that St. Paul’s chief thought has passed from the type to the Antitype. He has constantly dwelt on points which suit only Christ’s relation to the Church, and to that relation he has, by an irresistible gravitation of thought, been brought back again and again. (3) Yet the two cannot be separate. The type brings out some features of the Antitype which no other comparison makes clear; and history shows that the sacredness of the type in the Church has depended on this great passage—bearing, as it does, emphatic witness against the ascetic tendency to look on marriage as simply a concession to weakness, and as leading to a life necessarily lower than the celibate life.

Verse 33

(33) Nevertheless.—Although, i.e., the primary and perfect application is to Christ alone, let the teaching be so far applied to marriage as that practically “the husband love his wife as himself,” and “the wife reverence (properly, fear) the husband.” This return to homely, practical duty after high and mysterious teaching is characteristic of St. Paul. (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:58.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ephesians 5". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/ephesians-5.html. 1905.
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