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Alcohol abuse is a real problem in our world. According to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey, “One in six (16.1%) persons aged 18 years and over consumed more than two standard drinks per day on average”, thus exceeding the guidelines for lifetime risks associated with illness and injury. Furthermore, “just over two in five (42.1%) adults aged 18 years and over” had “consumed more than four standard drinks on one occasion in the past year,” again exceeding health and safety guidelines. The general community is well aware that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to all sorts of serious health problems. And of course, the negative effects of alcohol abuse go beyond issues of personal health and safety for the individual consumer. Drunkenness can lead, for example, to violence, neglect and damage of children, and when combined with driving, injury or death to self and/or others.
(If you’ve been affected either directly or indirectly by the abuse of alcohol or other mood-altering substances, help is available. See the resources and links at overcomersoutreach.net).
The problem of alcohol abuse in our society isn’t simple to solve. As countless politicians have discovered, simply creating and enforcing tougher rules often backfires. Prohibition and regulation in extreme measures tend to drive the problem underground, often leading to more crime and further misery for those affected. That’s why, when we approach the question of drunkenness, we need more than just rules and regulations. We need to know: What’s actually wrong with drunkenness? In answering this question, statistics can only take us so far. Yes, it’s true that on average, alcohol abuse tends to lead to negative health and wellbeing consequences. But that argument by itself is not enough of a reason to change our behaviour, deep down. After all, why can’t we just have a bit of fun and see how far we can outrun the health and safety risks? And what about those who struggle with addiction? In the end, we as Christians need a deeper reason to avoid drunkenness.
Christians do have a profound reason to avoid drunkenness—a reason that goes beyond statistics and simple consequences. This reason comes out in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be fulfilled by the SpiritEphesians 5:18
Do not get drunk (18a)
If you’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you might be slightly surprised by his mention of drunkenness at this point. In the previous verses, Paul hasn’t been listing a series of other vices to avoid. Rather, Paul has been talking about how to live wisely and carefully in light of the time that we live in: “Watch carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise people, reclaiming the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but grasp what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15–17). So why does he go straight on from this talk about wisdom to mention drunkenness? What’s the connection between living wisely and carefully in light of these “evil” days, and avoiding drunkenness?
The key is to see that drunkenness is, in fact, an abandonment of wisdom. According to Ephesians, wisdom involves understanding the shape of the world, and living appropriately. The wise person understands that Christ is risen and victorious and rules all things. The wise person understands that God has a purpose and plan to bring all things under the headship of Christ. And yet the wise person also understands that this goal is not yet complete: the days we live in are still “evil”. So the truly wise person will live appropriately. The wise person will not live life for the moment, but will live carefully, day by day, in light of the plan that God has for the world through Jesus Christ. The wise person has a reason to be in control of their behaviour. That’s why drunkenness is the opposite of wisdom. Drunkenness is “debauchery”—which is all about reckless abandon: losing control, being foolish, letting go and letting the alcohol and uncontrolled desire take over.
Drunkenness, in other words, is only for people who aren’t wise. Drunkenness is only for people with no future and no hope, and who therefore have no reason to keep control of themselves. So drunkenness is not for believers in Christ. That’s because believers in Christ do have a sure hope. We have responsibilities under God, because we are God’s “product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in” (Ephesians 2:10). We are people who need to “put on the new humanity, which has been created according to God in the righteousness and devotion that come from the truth” (Ephesians 4:24).
Now just in case we get the wrong idea, there’s nothing wrong with alcohol in and of itself, according to the Bible. God made alcohol to make us feel better (Psalm 104:15). Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1–11), drank wine himself (e.g. Matt 26:27–29) and used it positively in illustrations (e.g. Mark 2:22). But the Bible always takes a negative stance to drunkenness: that is, excessive drinking to the point of losing self-control (see e.g. Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:3). That’s because drunkenness robs us of the ability to act responsibly and soberly for the sake of others. It prevents us from thinking clearly, and from being able to act in love. It increases our propensity to speak or act in ways that are selfish, unguarded and irresponsible.
Drunkenness and Proverbs
Paul is actually pointing back to the Old Testament here: Proverbs chapter 23. Proverbs describes this process of drunkenness robbing us of self-control in graphic detail:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining?Proverbs 23:29–35 ESV
Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?
Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine.
Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.
In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake? I must have another drink.”
Drunkenness, in other words, robs us of control over ourselves. Then, just a few chapters later, Proverbs 31 gives specific advice to kings about not getting drunk:
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink,Proverbs 31:4–9 ESV
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
According to Proverbs, the problem with getting drunk is that it stops people from being wise. It stops us from exercising self-control, and from being responsible. This is why kings, in particular, should not get drunk. It’s their God-given task to care for the welfare of others, and to make sure that justice happens for the sake of the poor. How will they do this if they’re drunk?
So anyone with God-given responsibility should avoid getting drunk. That’s why in the New Testament, Christian leaders, in particular, must not be open to the charge of drunkenness (e.g. Titus 1:7, 2:3). And in fact, all Christians have a great responsibility. We are God’s product, created to do good works. We have God’s Spirit, who is our security in hope of eternal life, who brings renewal in our lives now. That means we look forward to an inheritance. It also means we have the responsibility, as God’s dearly loved children, to do what is right.
Be fulfilled by the Spirit (18b–20)
But what do we need to avoid drunkenness? We need more than just a command not to do it, don’t we? We need a positive reason. Having a positive reason is particularly important for those who are addicted to alcohol: they need a reason to keep battling and struggling against the temptation to fall back into their addiction.
So in the second half of verse 18, Paul talks about the antidote to drunkenness. The antidote isn’t rules or regulations or prohibitions! It’s a far better alternative: we are to “be fulfilled by the Spirit”. Paul is speaking here about seeking to live in line with the life of hope and purpose we have in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In his letter so far, Paul has already spoken several times about being “fulfilled”. We as the church are Christ’s “fulfilment” (Ephesians 1:23). That means we exist to bring glory to Christ, and we are a key part of God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ”. A little later, Paul prays that as we know Christ’s love, we will “be fulfilled with all the fulfilment of God” (Ephesians 3:19). And Christ’s “fulfilment” happens through us working together, as Christ’s body, building one another up and growing together (Ephesians 4:13). This growth and building work is, in fact, the work of God’s Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:22). So in Ephesians, being “fulfilled” is about being who we were made to be, in light of God’s revelation in Christ, bringing glory to Christ, knowing his love together, building one another up, and being part of God’s plan through Christ for all of creation.
So now, Paul says, “be fulfilled by the Spirit”. It is the Spirit’s work, but it’s something we should actively participate in. It happens as the Spirit brings the knowledge and love of Christ to us, and as we come to know him more and more. This “fulfilment” is something that is yet to be completed on the last day, when Christ returns, at “the fulfilment of time” (Ephesians 1:10). But it’s also something that is happening in and among us here and now. It’s not easy, and in some areas it will be a life long struggle (see Ephesians 6:10–20). But we have this promise in Christ: the Holy Spirit is bringing us to fulfilment.
In the following verses, Paul goes on to talk about how being fulfilled by the Spirit involves right speech and right relationships among us, in many different areas of life. We’ll come to discuss that in future posts. But for now, let’s return to the point about drunkenness. What’s wrong with it? It’s foolish, because it’s an activity for the hopeless, and for those without responsibility. So it’s not for those who are being fulfilled by God’s Spirit. That’s because we have a hope and a future. We have a reason to live carefully and wisely and responsibly, for the sake of others, in joyful service of the one who redeemed us. And we have a reason to keep struggling to live for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who loved us. That is our reason to avoid drunkenness.
In what situations are you tempted to lose control through drunkenness (or other means)?
How does knowing the life and hope you have in Christ help you to live responsibly and avoid drunkenness?
 The word “fulfilled” can also be translated “filled”. It’s possible that Paul is using this word to contrast two ways of being “filled” (one by wine, the other involving the Spirit). But given what he’s said so far in Ephesians about the fulfilment of God’s plans, it is better to translate this word “fulfilled”.
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.