To understand fully Spirit-filling, we must see the contrast between two things in Ephesians 5:18.
First, Be not drunk with wine in wherein is excess.
Why mention something like this when speaking of such the grand subject of Spirit-filling? One reason is because nothing in Paul’s day (or ours) was more characteristic of the old man than drunkenness. As one commentator puts it bluntly, “It is perhaps the best example of stupidity. The drunk can’t think straight.” No one is more idiotic, more embarrassing to himself and others than a drunk. Further, in some respects there’s a similarity between drunkenness and Spirit-filling—both speak of control. While the drunk is controlled by alcohol and has lost control, the Spirit-filled person is controlled by the Spirit and retains control.
One commentator says it well: “The filling of the Spirit is contrasted with drunkenness (Ac 2:13). Both wine and the Spirit do their work deep in the human psyche. They affect people below the level of consciousness, down at the foundations of personality. The Spirit is not merely with God’s people but in them. The meaning of the present text is: let all the church, therefore, cooperate with the Spirit who lives down deep in their hearts so they will spontaneously overflow with orderly and joyous worship of God.” While the drunk is stupid and without control, the Spirit-filled Believer is sensible and in control.
Notice first the word drunk. A curious use of the of Greek word here (methuskō) occurs in Homer, where he describes the stretching of a bull’s hide, which in order to make it more elastic, is soaked with fat. So the translation could be, “Do not be soaked with wine.”
Paul further adds, drunk in excess. The Greek here (asotia) is an interesting word and refers to more than just the amount consumed; it means having no safety or deliverance, having no preservation from danger, loss, and destruction. This word is used of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:13) who wasted “his substance in riotous living.” Peter used it to describe the old life, “when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (I Pet. 4:4). What a picture! And drunkenness is right in the middle of it. So the idea of this phrase is, “Do not be soaked with wine which leads to riotous living, wastefulness, and destruction.”
Historically, the Ephesians immediately knew precisely what Paul meant when he used these words because they were familiar with a particular Greek myth. Greek mythology taught that Zeus was the supreme god of the universe. The myth says that he gave birth to a son in a rather unique fashion. His wife Semele, who was actually a mortal, made Zeus appear before her in his divine splendor, but she was consumed by his lightening when he did so. Zeus took the child-god she was carrying and thrust it into his thigh until it was time for it to be born. The infant was then cared for by a band of nymphs. One version of the legend says that the child was kidnapped and murdered by the Titans. Zeus salvaged the heart and the child was soon reborn (“resurrected”) as Dionysus. Dionysus became the god of vegetation and especially the god of wine. Supposedly, he actually invented wine. The worship of this god was characterized by frenzied orgies that were associated with intoxication. The use of phallic symbols, the tearing of wild animals into pieces, the eating of raw flesh, and savage dancing were also practiced, especially in Thrace and Asia Minor (the location of Ephesus). Dionysus later became known as Bacchus, the name by which he was known to the Romans.
Additionally, in the month of Poseidon, there was a festival in honor of Dionysus in Athens. During the three-day spring festival, everybody was more or less drunk and there was a competition in wine drinking. Alexander the Great held such a contest in which 30 competitors died. I was reminded here of today’s New Year’s Eve parties as well as the deaths of college students during drinking binges.
Drunkenness became the key to the worship of Dionysus, as well as most other pagan gods we might add. Why? For one reason it dulled the senses enough to subdue any guilt which might be felt as a result of sin. Likewise, people today use alcohol, drugs, sex, even a vocation to deaden and even bury their consciousness of God. Drunkenness also gave the worshippers a false exhilaration that counterfeited true joy, just as people today think that if they are drunk, they are happy. Many try to stay “high” all the time because when they come down, things look worse than they did before.
Paul therefore uses this term drunk to show the contrast between the orgies of evil and the sweetness of Spirit-filling. The Ephesians understood the imagery. Of course, they would not get drunk and identify themselves with such pagans. Neither should we ever “lose ourselves” in drink or drugs, rather we immerse ourselves in the Holy Spirit. This leads us to the next phrase, which we’ll examine next time.