In seeking to worship God how he desires to be worshipped, Ephesians 5 has long been one of my guides. In a chapter devoted to instructions on how to walk in love and light—not in hypocrisy or foolishness—comes this beautiful exhortation: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18-20).
Allow me to expound on what these verses mean to me.
First, when we come to worship, we are to be filled with the Spirit of God, who gives joy and purpose beyond what we can get from earthly stimulants (like alcohol), and who leads us to obedience and transformation (not debauchery). In true worship, we are not just given a temporary “high” or a momentary “fix.” Instead, through worship, we are renewed in our desire to, and given the means to, obey. We exchange our foolishness for an understanding of what the Lord’s will is (verse 17).
In addition to the command to “be filled with the Spirit,” we are also commanded to sing! Maybe you’re not a big singer. Maybe you would rather just listen to the band or the choir and not ruin the beauty of the music. In this time of covid precautions, maybe you are at home watching a live-stream and feel silly singing out loud. Maybe it’s uncomfortable to sing in a mask. Or maybe singing is discouraged by your church for safety purposes. But to sing is one of the few commands for worship that is reiterated over and over again in Scripture. If God has commanded you to sing, will you obey?
We are also told to sing and make music “from our hearts.” As a worship leader, this one is tricky. How many times have I had to focus on the notes or the tempo or the mix? How many times have I simply tried to sing the right words, never mind understand what I’m singing?
For all of us, there can be distractions in worship. Our minds wander, or we just don’t “feel it.” I tend to think that this is okay; I tend to think that singing is a spiritual discipline, much like prayer or Bible study, something that we need to do (after all, it is a command) whether we feel like it or not. My dad preached a sermon once that stuck with me, in which he drew out Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). My dad said that we often mix up these two phrases and think that where we put our treasure demonstrates where our heart is. Though that is likely true, my dad said that the exhortation in this verse is actually the other way around: Put your treasure where it should be, and your heart will follow your treasure. Scripture commands us to sing. So sing, and your heart will follow.
Of course, I also appreciate in Ephesians 5:19 the freedom that is given to us to sing a wide variety of songs in worship. When I choose songs for worship services, I try to choose music that reflects this freedom—free poetry as well as poetry in stanzas; Scripture texts as well as songs written from the hearts of Christ-followers throughout history and today; teaching texts filled with deep truths as well as devotional lyrics meant to give us space to reflect; psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
I also see in this passage the encouragement for our singing to be directed towards both God and each other (“sing and make music… to the Lord”, “speaking to one another.”) This is one of the reasons why I feel that individual worship is not a substitute for our coming together on Sunday mornings to worship. In our culture, we sometimes feel that having a personal relationship with Jesus is enough and we don’t need to go to church. But our worship is meant to encourage, exhort, and build up Christ’s Church. We are supposed to speak to one another through our worship.
Finally, in these verses we are told to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:18-20 beautifully sums up how our worship reflects the Trinity. We are to sing by means of (“with,” “from”) the Spirit, to the Father, in the name of Christ. To me, the communion of the Trinity when we sing brings such meaning and purpose to my worship!
As I mentioned before, these three little verses follow teachings on how to live godly and transparent lives; our worship should be a reflection of and impetus for how we live. And what follows these verses is this: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21). When we come together as a church to sing, we demonstrate submission to one another. We demonstrate submission to one another when we sing a song that we may not like that much, but the person next to us loves. We demonstrate submission when we sing loudly despite not enjoying the sound of our own singing voice. Or, conversely, we demonstrate submission when we hear and enjoy the worship of the people around us, regardless of their musical capability. We demonstrate submission when we come together in a space with people of a variety of life experiences, economic statuses, ethnicities, and ages to sing in worship of our shared God.
I encourage you to make Ephesians 5 one of your “life passages” for worship. This coming Sunday, when you join with God’s people in worship, do not be foolish but grow in your understanding and obedience. Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord. Give thanks to God the Father, in the name of Jesus. And submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.