Drunkenness and the Filling of the Spirit

By Mark D. Roberts

October 9, 2019

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

Ephesians 5:18

As we saw in yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, Ephesians 5:15-18 is structured by three parallel don’t-do injunctions: Don’t be unwise, but do be wise (5:15); Don’t be foolish, but do understand the Lord’s will (5:17); Don’t get drunk, but do be filled with the Spirit (5:18). The first two pairs make intuitive sense, in that the positive exhortation is the opposite of the prohibition. But then we come to the last pair. If we hadn’t already read verse 18, we might well think that it should say, “Don’t get drunk, but do be sober.” In fact, elsewhere in his letters Paul does encourage sobriety (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8). Yet in Ephesians 5:18 the contrast is between not getting drunk and being filled with the Spirit. Why?

Dancing womanIt’s likely that Paul was familiar with Jewish traditions that associated divine inspiration with drunkenness. Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who wrote several treatises during the first century A.D. One of his essays was entitled De ebrietate, “On Drunkenness.” It was written, in part, because of the pervasive problem of drunkenness in the Greco-Roman world. In this essay, Philo observes, “For in the case of those who are under the influence of divine inspiration, not only is the soul accustomed to be excited, and as it were to become frenzied, but also the body is accustomed to become reddish and of a fiery complexion, the joy which is internally diffused and which is exulting, secretly spreading its affections even to the exterior parts, by which many foolish people are deceived, and have fancied that sober persons were intoxicated.” (De ebrietate 147, trans. C. D. Yonge). Being filled with God can look like being filled with alcohol, according to Philo.

We have an example of this sort of thing in the New Testament, too. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus at Pentecost. They began praising God in various languages, languages they didn’t know by human means. Some of those who observed this miracle were skeptical, observing, “They have had too much wine” (Acts 2:13). But Peter explained that they were not drunk, pointing to the fact that it was only nine in the morning. He went to on show how what was happening to the disciples of Jesus was, in fact, a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Paul surely knew the story of Pentecost and the charge that the believers were drunk. He also knew that many of the pagan religions of his time mixed drunkenness with mystical religious experience. Drinking great quantities of wine was thought to be a ticket to spiritual ecstasy and celebration. Paul was clear that this was not the way of Christ. His followers were not to get drunk on wine in order to be filled with the Spirit. Rather, they were to avoid drunkenness even as they were to be filled with the Spirit.

In tomorrow’s devotion, we’ll look more closely at the imperative, “Be filled with the Spirit.” For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Something to Think About:

In your experience of God, have you ever experienced something like what Philo describes? Have you ever witnessed something like this?

Why do you think Christians are not encouraged to use drunkenness as a way to experience religious feeling?

How might you actually respond to the imperative to be filled with the Spirit?

Something to Do:

Talk with a friend or with your small group about experiences you have had of the filling of the Spirit.


Gracious God, you have made me as a whole person, heart, soul, mind, and body. You have given me the capacity for celebration. You have made connections between my body and my inner self. You invite me to give all of myself to you and to delight with all that I am in your presence.

Thank you, Lord, for those times when my whole self is caught up in worship. Thank you for the fact that I can experience you fully and truly when I am thinking clearly and soberly.

Help me, Lord, to be filled with your Spirit. Teach me what this means so that I might live my life more completely by your power and for your purposes. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Working Faith, Finishing Up, and Keeping the Faith (1 Thess. 1:1–4:8; 4:13–5:28; 2 Thess. 1:1-2:17)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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