Sometimes we tend to dress-up and formalize Scripture to the point it feels 'iconic' rather than 'real'. This happens most frequently with very familiar passages like the one from which I quoted above (from Ephesians 5:15-20). To counteract the 'icon effect', let's take a look at the same passage from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible, a fairly decent paraphrase: "Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don't be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do. Don't destroy yourself by getting drunk, but let the Spirit fill your life. When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as you praise the Lord with all your heart. Always use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to thank God the Father for everything." I chuckle when I read this version because I wonder how many pastors in America today could get away with making a statement like this - and meaning it - from the pulpit, without losing a chunk of their congregation. It certainly isn't a passage that 'tickles the ears'! Let's spend a few minutes breaking it down.
"Act like people with good sense and not like fools." If you're like me, the word "fools" jumps off of the page because of its strength. But I believe the most important word in this sentence is actually the verb, "Act". Jesus said, "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Sometimes I think the greatest disservice man has ever done to the cause of Christianity is the construction of church facilities. Not because church buildings are bad or wrong, but because when we identify our walk with Christ with a man-made structure, we tend to live 'inside the walls'. In other words, we compartmentalize our spiritual life, associating it with a physical location. This, my friend, is not what the Apostle Paul would call 'good sense'. Make no mistake, we will only be able to live 'outside the walls' if we embrace the words Paul also spoke in Colossians 2, "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness." Living 'in Christ' means we become genuine disciples, obedient to His commands (you can read up on some of these by going to Matthew 5-7 and John 15).
"These are evil times, so make every minute count." We live in a day of unparalleled leisure. Statistics say that children accumulate more knowledge in one year, than they would have in a whole lifetime had they lived just 100 years ago. Nothing of any significance can happen in the world today without it immediately being broadcast globally (Tiger Woods, case in point). There is more vile, unmitigated filth available at the press of a few buttons to anyone who wants to view it, than those who suffered God's wrath for the same acts or less could have ever dreamed of. The average person today lives in conditions which historically have been reserved only for the most wealthy and powerful. Today's (unsaved) wealthy and powerful have a hard time not thinking of themselves as gods. And Paul thought the days were evil in his time! What would he say of these days? (He'd say "Look up, He's coming!) The only way we can make every minute count is to daily spend a significant number of them alone, in study of God's Word, and in prayer.
"Don't be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do." Building off the end of the last paragraph, we will only discover God's plan for our lives as we seek His face; meaning we pursue the presence of Christ in our lives first, before anything else. Oh, my friend, this is so much more easily said than done! Jeremiah 29:11-14 says, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity." This was a prophetic word given to the children of Israel as it related to the Babylonian captivity, but there are some truths here that are applicable to you and me, namely the part about "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you." This 'seeking' is not an easy thing. You must be diligent, determined, devoted, and daring. Remember, "Aslan is not a tame lion!" (C.S. Lewis; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)
"Don't destroy yourself by getting drunk, but let the Spirit fill your life." (I love the way this whole passage builds upon itself.) If "getting drunk" means you indulge in excess to the point of losing control of yourself, then allowing "the Spirit to fill your life" requires that we do the opposite: live surrendered and obedient to God's Word, Ways, and Will. Getting drunk is a choice we make. So are surrender and obedience; not easy choices, mind you, for they are contrary to our stubborn human nature (which tends to get us into loads of trouble!). Ironically, only surrender and obedience will set us free...from ourselves! This is one of the greatest paradoxes of God's kingdom.
So far we've been instructed to "act with good sense, make every minute count, seek God's face, and live Spirit-dominated lives." We have (finally) come to the place where Paul encourages us to gather together in a way that pleases the Father! "When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as you praise the Lord with all your heart." "With all your heart." The last time we read these words it was in the context of seeking God's face. It seems that Paul is wrapping up worship, meeting together, and seeking God's face into a 'package deal'. This phrase is the pinnacle of the passage. But it is conditional on us taking seriously and building on what has already been stated (act with good sense, make every minute count, seek God's face, and live Spirit-dominated lives). Oh dear brothers and sisters, we have the potential to do ourselves and the name of the Lord such damage when we gather together with unprepared hearts! You see, Paul's little maxim (act with good sense, make every minute count, seek God's face, and live Spirit-dominated lives) is not a suggestion, but a directive. Our spiritual engine won't work - won't even turn over - if we're not doing these things first, before we gather together and meet as God's people. Yet how often do we get the proverbial cart before the horse? It's no wonder our churches get into such turmoil at times; and, sadly, it's no wonder the world has so little use for 'organized' Christianity!
What is the 'litmus test'? How do we know we are doing things in the right order? The answer to this question is in the last line of this passage, "Always use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to thank God the Father for everything." The words that come out of our mouths evaluate us. Jesus said, "By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:37). I dare you to go through a day and listen - really listen - to the words that come out of your mouth. Are your words ones of blessing, praise and thankfulness, or are they words of criticism, self-pity, and gossip? Do they direct others into the presence of Christ, or do they quench the Spirit of God? In the same passage Jesus also said, "..out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." What is your 'overflow'?