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"And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." Eph 5:18-20, [NET]

I have two questions about this passage

  1. In most of Bible translations we read "Be filled." Some dictionaries claims that the Greek verb πληροῦσθε is Present Passive Imperative, others Present Middle Imperative. Why not translate it "fill yourself by the Spirit"? Would that be correct? Is filling in the Spirit our work or only God's work who fills us?
  2. Speaking in psalms, singing in hearts, giving thanks, submitting one another. Are these behaviors the result of being filled in the Spirit or are they ways to fill yourself in the Spirit?
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I've heard more than one preacher suggest the imperative in Eph 5:18 could be translated legitimately as "Be ye, being filled with the Holy Spirit, [be] speaking . . making music . . . giving thanks . . . submitting . . .." That translation stresses the ongoing need to be filled again and again. Whose work is it? It is not a matter of "EITHER God OR us," but "BOTH God AND us." God does His part; we do our part. He empowers; we yield. Compare Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." –  rhetorician Apr 26 at 2:28

3 Answers 3

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There are four instances of the Present Imperative (Second Person Plural) in the Epistle to the Ephesians where there is ambiguity between the middle and passive voice, because the literal grammatical verb form is identical. (Please click here for more examples in the New Testament.) In the Epistle to the Ephesians, every single one of these four verbs is in the Present Imperative Middle: viz., Be angry! (Eph 4:26); Be not drunk! (Eph 5:18); Be filled! (Eph 5:18); and Be strong! (Eph 6:10). Each verb could therefore be translated with more of the colloquial middle voice than the passive voice: viz., Get angry! Don't get drunk! Get filled! Get strong! The "get" conveys more of the middle voice than the confusion of the passive voice, when something is being done to you. To examine more closely, let us look at this tension in this verse at hand -

Eph 5:18 (GNT)
18 καὶ μὴ μεθύσκεσθε οἴνῳ, ἐν ᾧ ἐστιν ἀσωτία, ἀλλὰ πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι,

There are two imperatives in this verse (both in the present tense and 2nd person plural). The first imperative is not to "get" drunk (negative) and the other is to "get" filled (positive). In English, the word "get" conveys the tension between passive voice and middle voice, such as when we "get" dressed in the morning with our clothing, which leans more toward middle voice than passive voice. So to "get" drunk, does the wine make us drunk (passive voice), or do we "get" drunk by drinking wine (middle voice)? To use a loose but modern analogy, do law enforcement authorities blame the bartender (passive voice), or do they blame the drunk driver (middle voice)? Are we made drunk by the bartender's wine, or do we "get" drunk?

The middle voice is therefore what we find in the context of Eph 5:18, because whether we drink alcohol (and "get" drunk), or whether we yield to the Lord (and "get" filled), the verb voice is not passive, but middle.

Another illustration will help.

When we "get" drunk (with alcohol), we relax our inhibitions of morality and perform deeds consistent with the flesh; however, when we "get" filled (with Spirit) we relax our inhibitions of immorality and perform deeds consistent with the Spirit. That is, when we "get" drunk with alcohol, we do things contrary to our moral nature; when we "get" filled with the Spirit, we do things contrary to our immoral nature.

Thus when the believers at Pentecost spoke in tongues, the confusion with being drunk with alcohol was not because the apostles were speaking in understandable, intelligible and clearly-spoken foreign languages, but because they were proclaiming "the great deeds of God" (Acts 2:11). In other words, when we consider that all these Jewish proselytes from foreign lands heard "the great deeds of God," we must turn to the LXX (Greek Septuagint) and realize that the "great deeds of God" (neuter plural substantive of μεγαλεῖος) are mentioned in the hymns and praises of Ps 71:15-16 in regard to the righteousness of God in forgiving and saving sinners. The Christians of Pentecost were seen as drunk not because of gross moral inhibition, but because of gross immoral inhibition (that is, behaving contrary to their immoral nature) by proclaiming repentance from and the forgiveness of sins.

It is another discussion in its entirely, but if we compare the parallels between the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) and Pentecost, then we see the "celebration" of the "Great of Deeds of God" in saving his people. (Please click here.) In other words, the songs, hymns, and spiritual songs sung on Shavuot in celebration of the salvation from bondage in Egypt are the direct parallel to "Great Deeds of God" celebrated and proclaimed through the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (salvation from the bondage of sin)...

In summary, we "get" filled with the Spirit (middle voice) when we yield and humble ourselves before the Lord (James 4:6-8) and present ourselves to Him as living sacrifices (dead to the power of the flesh) as noted in Rom 12:1-3. We may do so by singing in our minds and hearts spiritual songs, hymns, and the giving of thanks to the Lord for our salvation and freedom from the bondage of sin.

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1) Since the verb "πληρόω" is transitive, there won't be any wordform distinction between present middle and passive, and only the context can guide you. So of course there are two interpretations: the passive is favored by those who believe God fills people with (the) Spirit and the middle is favored by those who believe people fill themselves with spirit.

The term "get drunk" (μεθύσκομαι/μεθύω) has the same issues but is even more difficult since its active form in Greek is translated as passive in English. The SBLGNT marks it as passive even though in English it can only be action to oneself.

2) I'll have to get back to you when I've done an exhaustive study of middle/passive verbs followed by (long chains of) present participles. But I suspect this is also open to interpretation.

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Brother Jospeh has given a great answer to your first question, so I wanted to address the second one: "Speaking in psalms, singing in hearts, giving thanks, submitting one another. Are these behaviors the result of being filled in the Spirit or are they ways to fill yourself in the Spirit?"

In Greek, these are present active participles that are acting adverbially to the verb in Ephesians 5:18 "be filled with the Spirit." To rephrase your question, you are asking if these are adverbial participles of result ("the result of being filled") or means ("ways to fill yourself"). A third option should be considered that Paul purposefully used vague grammar and that the answer is "both" (i.e. these are both the way that we are filled with the Spirit and the result of being filled with the Spirit).

My opinion has come to be the third option. Here are my reasons:

  • I have not been able to find any reason from grammar or context to prefer result or means over the other.
  • The verb "to be filled" is in a imperative mood. This means that we are responsible for being filled with the Spirit. It is in contrast to drunkenness. This would make it seem that the following participles are means to do that. Since the command is vague (i.e. how do we obey a command to be filled with the Spirit?), these would be practical steps we could take to be filled.
  • The verb "to be filled" is probably in a middle voice (could be passive). It carries an idea of something that we allow to happen to ourselves, thus indicating results of being filled.
  • Paul often uses word plays like this in his writing (i.e. is purposefully vague to give two meanings). Here are a few examples:
    • Philippians 1:3, is it every time Paul remembers the Philippians or every time they remember him? Both "my" and "your" are genitives and based upon word order either one could be the subjective or objective genitive. If it refers to Paul's remembrance of the Philippians, it is just meaning each time he thinks of them. If it is the Philippians remembrance of Paul, it is in reference to them sending him financial gifts during his imprisonment (a major theme of Philippians). Which one is it? Probably both.
    • Philippians 1:7, does Paul have the Philippians in his heart or do the Philippians have him in their heart? The fact that both "me" and "you" are accusatives is purposefully vague. One is the subject of the infinitive and one is the object. Perhaps Paul is being purposefully vague here to use a word place about their relationship - that they both have the other in their heart!
  • And a non-exegetical part to my answer, I have experienced both. When I am dry and need to experience God, I have found that these kinds of actions help bring my heart back to God. When I am filled up with God, I naturally do these things! Therefore, I have seen that both the participle of means and participle of result are true in my experience (note: be careful with my remarks here, sound exegesis should always trump personal experience!).
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