Filled with the Spirit, Worship God in Spiritual Songs—Ephesians 5:18-20

In my times in Africa, I have often noticed women singing while they work. My wife, son and daughter, who are from Africa, tend to do the same. Well, I guess I have sometimes done the same, though normally when I think nobody is around. (They all sing a lot better than I do.)

But this need not be a characteristic limited to African life, as we shall see with respect to Eph 5:18-20.

In my work on Acts, I initially treated Eph 5:18 as a different expression of being filled with the Spirit than what we find in Acts. Luke’s emphasis about the Spirit in Acts is empowerment for mission (Acts 1:8), with filling by the Spirit usually expressed in Luke’s work by Spirit-inspired (prophetic-like) speech for God (2:17-18; cf. 4:8, 31; 13:9; 19:6; 28:25; Luke 1:15-17, 41-42, 67). In keeping with Acts’ emphasis on mission to the nations (Acts 1:8), this inspired speech is often expressed by worshiping God in other people’s languages (2:4; 10:46; 19:6).

I argued that Paul aproaches tongues (in 1 Corinthians) and being filled with the Spirit (in Ephesians) from a different, if complementary, perspective. In 1 Cor 14, Paul focuses on the role of tongues in private prayer, also viewing it in the context of gifts from the Spirit generally (1 Cor 12—14). Although Paul prays in tongues privately more than do all the Corinthians (14:18), Paul emphasizes that in corporate worship tongues should be interpreted so as to benefit all the hearers. He is correcting abuses in Corinth, but the believers there presumably learned the practice through him, perhaps some of them even in the sort of collective outpourings of the Spirit like those sometimes narrated in Acts. But the way Paul articulates his focus differs from that which Luke associates with corporate outpourings of the Spirit narrated in Acts (e.g., 4:31; 13:52), which sometimes mention tongues (2:4; 10:46; 19:6).

In Eph 5:18-20, I argued, Paul emphasizes a different expression of being filled with the Spirit, and he is probably urging a regular or continuous experience with God. He is not narrating collective experiences, often (as in Acts 2, 10, 13 and 19; not 4) inauguratory ones, as Luke is doing in Acts. (The Greek term for “filled” also differs from the usual term used by Luke, except in Acts 13:52, but that might be merely stylistic preference.)

In Eph 5:18, we are to be filled and ruled by the Spirit in contrast to being filled and controlled by wine (cf. Acts 2:13-15). A drunk (or otherwise stoned or high) person may utter or sing nonsense, but being filled with the Spirit in the sense of Eph 5:18 leads to better content in one’s speech. The command “be filled with the Spirit” is followed by a string of subordinate participial clauses that express what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit, especially in relation to one another (5:19-21):

  • Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and Spirit-moved songs
  • Singing and praising [possibly even, “psalming”] the Lord with [all] your hearts (for the pairing of these same Greek terms for singing and praising, cf. LXX Ps 20:14 [ET 21:13]; 26:6 [27:6]; 32:3 [33:3]; 56:8 [57:7]; 67:5, 33 [68:4, 32]; 103:33 [104:33]; 104:2 [105:2]; 107:2 [108:1]; 143:9 [144:9])
  • Always giving thanks for everything to [our] God and Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
  • Submitting to each other because you reverence Christ

Yet Eph 5:18 is not nearly as distant from Acts as I have sometimes thought. Here, too, being filled with the Spirit is expressed in Spirit-inspired speech. Here this Spirit-inspired speech is expressed in worship in 5:19; but the tongues passages in Acts probably also involve worship (note 2:11; 10:46, with kai connecting the tongues and magnifying God more closely than te … kai in 19:6, which probably distinguishes the tongues from other prophetic speech). Paul elsewhere treats tongues in terms of prayer (1 Cor 14:13-15) and blessing and thanking God (14:16-17), so if Acts describes the same experience (albeit from a different angle), tongues there probably involves especially worship as well.

The worship in Eph 5:18 is not surely limited to, yet surely includes, tongues. “Spiritual songs” likely means “songs from the Spirit”; since Paul elsewhere speaks of tongues as a gift of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:10), and speaks of its use in song (14:13-15), this would include singing in tongues. This conclusion might follow all the more if we construed “spiritual” as referring to the human spirit, since Paul elsewhere depicts singing in a tongue and interpreting it as singing with his spirit and with his mind, respectively (14:13-15).

Again, Paul’s understanding of worship in Eph 5:18 is not limited to tongues. Paul speaks of psalms and hymns, which undoubtedly include biblical psalms (as in the synagogue). As for hymns, some scholars identify what they believe are pre-Pauline hymns in Paul’s letters. I am more inclined to see these as exalted prose (grand rhetoric), since they do not fit the structure of Greek hymns, and I am inclined to attribute most of them to Paul. (Greeks used specially exalted language for the divine or sublime; Paul applies such exalted prose especially to Christ.) Nevertheless, Paul seems to take for granted that his audience accepts as common ground what he articulates in these praises of Christ. His affirmations in these passages therefore reflect wider Christian beliefs, and such beliefs were undoubtedly expressed in actual worship.

All of this suggests that a key New Testament expression of being filled with the Spirit, not only in Luke’s writings but also in Paul’s letters, is that even our lips yield to the Spirit’s leading. (The tongue is, after all, the most difficult organ to subdue—cf. Jms 3:2!) Moreover, we can often expect that when we experience the empowerment of the Spirit, this will be expressed in worship to God.

So far I have not commented on the final subordinate clause that flows from being filled with the Spirit (5:18): submitting to one another (5:21). Humbly submitting to and serving one another an overarching Christian principle (cf. Mark 10:43-45; John 13:14-15; Rom 12:10) that Paul applies to various relationships relevant to his audience (Eph 5:22—6:9). But in Acts, also, the Spirit produces loving devotion to and service for one another (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35).

People of the Spirit are people who, both when gathered together and as part of our normal lifestyle, joyfully praise God and care for others.

Previous Post

Specious reasoning

Next Post

Paul in Athens—Acts 17.22-34

Related Posts