Ephesians 5 Commentary

Avoid Shameful Sins (5:3 – 6)

SEXUAL SIN AND greed. The shift from Christ’s self-giving nature in 5:2 to the self-indulgence of 5:3 is striking. The three sins mentioned — “sexual immorality” (porneia), “impurity” (akatharsia), and “greed” (pleonexia) — were already mentioned at 4:19. The second and third sins are the same in both passages, but the first sin in 4:19 is “sensuality” (aselgeia). Galatians 5:19 lists porneia, akatharsia, and aselgeia as the first explanations of “works of the flesh,” all three apparently in reference to sexual sin. The NIV does not show it, but “sexual immorality” and “impurity” are linked in 5:3 as a tandem (see also Col. 3:5). “Impurity” refers primarily to sexual sin, even with “of any kind” being added. “Greed” is added as a separate sin, which can include sexual lust, but can refer to any kind of drive to “have more.”


Lax sexual standards do not fit with Christianity, whether in the first or the twenty-first century. Christians too easily adopt the sexual attitudes of the surrounding culture, but sexual sin will not mesh with life in Christ. What we do with our bodies matters because we belong to God.


Greed, too, stares back at us from the mirror of the text. The desire to have more motivates both sexual sin and all other sins. In fact, sin has been described as seeking to get more out of life than God put into it. Even though God has packed life full of good things, most of us are never satisfied. When desire for more takes over — especially with sexual relations — it distorts the mind, debilitates us, disrupts life, and finally becomes our master.

Sins of the tongue (5:4). This verse is an expansion of 4:29. The three words for sins of speech in this verse occur nowhere else in the New Testament, although cognates appear of the word translated “obscenity” (aischrotes; see, e.g. Col. 3:8). The root expresses that which is shameful or disgraceful; while the word could have a wider reference, its being paired here with two words on speech here indicates that Paul’s concern is about shameful and indecent language. “Foolish talk” (morologia) suggests speech from a fool (one void of understanding) and brings to mind the frequent condemnation of the fool in Old Testament wisdom literature. “Coarse joking” (eutrapelia) usually has a positive meaning outside the New Testament, but clearly is negative here. It suggests something easily turned, a double entendre—speech innocuous in itself but turned to have an indecent intent. Such speech is not fitting for the believer.


“Foolish talk” seems primarily concerned with foolish talk of a sexual nature, but application of the text requires rejecting any talk appropriate to fools (i.e., those who are morally and spiritually perverse). This is not a rejection of humor, but of misguided humor. Humor is a gift, but it can be a form of egotism, escapism, or self-defense and can be used in harmful, belittling ways.

The Relation of Christians and the Disobedient (5:7 – 14)

The word translated “partners” (symmetochoi) is actually a compound form, “partners with” or “fellow partners.” The simpler form was used often for business partnerships, though not always in a technical, legal sense. […] If one is joined to Christ and shares in him, one cannot share in the lives of those practicing sexual sin and greed (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14).

Let the light do its work (5:11 – 14). The command in verse 7 not to partner with the disobedient is expanded in verse 11 with the command not to participate in their actions either. The NIV “have nothing to do with” instructs believers not to share in or participate with wrongdoing.


The separation Paul calls for, however, is not so much a withdrawal as a confrontation. “Expose” (vv. 11, 13) often carries a nuance of correcting or convincing someone. Whether the confrontation is only by conduct or also verbal is debated, though to suggest this passage has nothing to do with spoken confrontation is overly narrow.

CAREFUL LIVING (5:15 – 17).

In verse 16 the NIV’s “Making the most of every opportunity” is an interpretation of the phrase “redeeming the time.” The Greek word translated as “redeem” is a compound form, an intensification, of the word that means “buy” or “purchase.” It is used with reference to buying back a slave, but in the New Testament, except for this text and Colossians 4:5, refers only to Christ’s purchasing salvation (Gal. 3:13; 4:5). Discussions about whether the meaning is an attempt to gain time or to ransom time from the bondage of evil are probably too literalistic. The expression is a metaphorical way to speak of using time well. A good translation would be, “Buy up every opportunity.” Time is going by, and evil will use it if Christians do not.


What to do about alcohol? The text’s prohibition of drunkenness obviously is directly applicable and possibly needed even more now than in Paul’s day. Drunkenness has no place in the life of a Christian. How can we watch closely how we live if we are drunk? Consumption of alcohol is not necessarily a sin, but we surely must warn against its dangers and abuse.

Drunkenness — to say nothing of alcohol addiction — is a major problem in our society. This is clear in the problem of drunken drivers, of drunkenness as a form of escapism, of binge drinking (especially by students), and by our society’s strange notion that to have fun we ought to get drunk. We spend a lot of time trying to get people not to drink and drive. If it impairs judgment so much, maybe we should just say, “Don’t drink.” Nothing makes more sense for a faith that emphasizes the development of the mind and human discernment.

The distributors and sellers of alcohol spend enormous amounts to persuade people to drink, while warnings of addiction and abuse are whispered. Why does our society complain bitterly about the abuses of the tobacco industry but say nothing about the alcohol industry? Consumption of alcohol has become acceptable for Christians, with the result that they too are guilty of laxness and over-indulgence. Drunkenness and addiction are not a mere innocent loss of control; they are the destructive waste of a life that ought to be lived unto God. Paul’s real concern is the avoidance of “debauchery” — excessive and wasteful indulgence. If we as Christians choose to drink alcohol, we must make sure that it is a carefully monitored amount and that our witness is not compromised by our actions. The greater the abuse in a given culture, the less Christians should take part.


In addition to singing, life in the Spirit is characterized by giving thanks (5:20). Many Christians lack appreciation of the importance of thanksgiving in the New Testament. Even more than Ephesians the sister letter to the Colossians stresses thanksgiving repeatedly (Col. 3:15 – 17; 4:2). As we have seen, Romans 1:21 views the failure to give thanks as the root cause of sin. With such a theology, it is not surprising that thanksgiving is associated with life in the Spirit. Thanksgiving is the believing acknowledgment of God and his purposes for good in Christ. Obviously such giving of thanks points to a lifestyle and not just to spoken words.

The House Codes (5:22 – 33)

Christians had to treat these subjects, at least in part, because they were accused of destroying society with their focus on freedom, love, and following Christ. Non-Christians needed to know that this was not the case, and Christians needed to be taught the relevance of their faith for their primary social relations. Unlike other house codes, Christian house codes focused not only on wives, children, and slaves, but also on the responsibilities of the more powerful persons (husbands, parents, and masters).

Instructions to wives (5:22 – 24, 33b). We must begin by emphasizing that the instruction to wives to submit to their husbands is only the first example of the mutual submission required of all Christians. The word “submit” is not even used in the Greek text of verse 22.

Christianity brought with it significant change for women, and apparently their freedom was a source of offense to non-Christians. In Galatians 3:28, for example, Paul wrote that distinctions like male and female no longer determined value. In 1 Corinthians 7:15 he counseled Christians that they did not have to stay with an unbelieving spouse who wanted to leave. That he would have granted wives such privilege would have been surprising to non-Christians, for the assumption of the day was that a wife would take the gods of her husband. It is understandable, therefore, that in Titus 2:5, Paul instructed women “to be subject to their husbands so that no one will malign the word of God.

Verse 23 is surely one of the most abused and debated texts in the New Testament. Its focus is not on the privilege and dominance of the husband, and Paul never intended to suggest that wives were servants, compelled to follow any and every desire of the husband. The text does not tell women to obey their husbands, nor does it give any license for husbands to attempt to force submission.


Still, Ephesians 5:23 does not focus on authority, but on the self-giving love of both Christ and the husband. “Head” in this context suggests “responsibility for.” The husband has a leadership role, though not in order to boss his wife or use his position as privilege. Just as Jesus redefined greatness as being a servant (Matt. 20:26 – 27), Paul redefines being head as having responsibility to love, to give oneself, and to nurture. A priority is placed on the husband, but, contrary to ancient society, it is for the benefit of the wife. The activity of both wife and husband is based in their relation to Christ and in his giving himself for the church.

Instructions to husbands (5:25a, 28 – 29 a, 31, 33a). Since wives are asked to submit, one might expect the text would ask husbands to rule in an appropriate way. It does not; instead, it asks husbands to love and give themselves with the same self-giving love that Christ had in giving himself for the church. Both the directions to the wife to submit and to the husband to love only make specific commands that had already been given to all Christians in 5:2 and 21 (cf. 4:2).

Ancient sources, surprisingly, do not speak frequently of husbands loving their wives. Why he did not ask wives to love their husbands is unclear. Is something different intended with the command for husbands to love than the command for wives to submit? No, for both commands are Christologically grounded and require giving oneself to the other person. In the final analysis, submission and agape love are synonymous. If anything, the stronger language is used of the husband’s responsibility. The command for him to love his wife as himself is an application to husbands of the expectation of mutual submission required of all Christians (5:21).


Analysis of the other house codes in the New Testament shows a great deal of concern for testimony to unbelievers. Colossians 4:5 (parallel to Eph. 5:15) encourages Christians to walk wisely with respect to those outside the church (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32). Likewise, 1 Peter 2:12, 15; 3:1 – 2 encourage behavior that will stop slander against Christians and bring people to God. Such apologetic motivation must be considered in applying these texts in a society that views family relations differently.

This commentary was taken from: Snodgrass, Klyne. “Ephesians 4:1 – 16” In The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians. By Klyne Snodgrass, 193-228. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1996.

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One Response to “Ephesians 5 Commentary”

  1. Ian B. says:

    Well said. I’m prepping for a coed college bible study and I found this analysis incredibly useful. I’m stoked to see what God does tomorrow. Thanks, and God Bless!

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