A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:21. d). Submission: be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Although RSV begins a new paragraph with this verse, and translates it as an imperative, it is in fact another present participle (*hypotassomenoi*), dependent on the command ‘be filled with the Spirit’, like the preceding three. Sometimes a person who claims to be filled with the Spirit becomes aggressive, self-assertive and brash. But the Holy Spirit is a humble Spirit, and those who are truly filled with him always display the meekness and gentleness of Christ. It is one of their most evident characteristics that they submit to one another.
They also submit to Christ, for their mutual submission is *out of reverence for Christ*, or in more familiar terminology ‘in the fear of Christ’. Those who are truly subject to Jesus Christ do not find it difficult to submit to each other as well. Incidentally, this expression ‘in the fear of Christ’ is a notable if indirect testimony to Paul’s belief in the deity of Jesus, since the regular Old Testament requirement was to live ‘in the fear of God’. There are several other ‘Christianizations’ of Old Testament thought in this chapter. For example, God’s kingdom is Christ’s (verse 5). We are to please Christ and seek his will, just as before Christ people sought God’s will and pleasure (verses 10,17), and worshipping God becomes worshipping Christ (verse 19). For in the last three verses mentioned ‘the Lord’ is a title for Jesus.
Such are the wholesome results of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They all concern our relationships. If we are filled with the Spirit, we shall be harmoniously related both to God (worshipping him with joy and thanksgiving) and to each other (speaking and submitting to one another). In brief, Spirit-filled believers love God and love each other, which is hardly surprising since the first fruit of the Spirit is love.
We need now to return to the imperative on which these four participles depend, that is, to the Christian duty and privilege from which these four Christian attitudes result. It is the command *Be filled with the Spirit*. The exact form of the verb *plerousthe* is suggestive.
First, it is in the *imperative mood*. ‘Be filled’ is not a tentative proposal, but an authoritative command. We have no more liberty to avoid this responsibility than the many others which surround it in Ephesians. To be filled with the Spirit is obligatory, not optional.
Secondly, it is in the *plural form*. In other words , it is addressed to the whole Christian community. None of us is to get drunk; all of us are to be Spirit-filled. The fullness of the Spirit is not an elitist privilege, but available for all the people of God.
Thirdly, it is in the *passive voice*. NEB renders it: ‘Let the Holy Spirit fill you’. There is no technique to learn and no formula to recite. What is essential is such a penitent turning from what grieves the Holy Spirit and such a believing openness to him that nothing hinders him from filling us. It is significant that the parallel passage in Colossians reads not ‘Let the Spirit fill you’ but ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (3:16). We must never separate the Spirit and the Word. To obey the Word and to surrender to the Spirit are virtually identical.
Fourthly, it is the *present tense*. In Greek there are two kinds of imperative, an aorist describing a single action, and a present when the action is continuous. Thus, when Jesus said during the wedding reception at Cana, ‘Fill the jars with water’ (Jn.2:7), the imperative is aorist, since the jars were to be filled only once. But when Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative, implying that we are to go on being filled. For the fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation. We have been ‘sealed’ with the Spirit once for all; we need to be filled with the Spirit and go on being filled every day and every moment of the day.
Here, then, is a message for both the defeated and the complacent, that is, for Christians at the opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. To the defeated Paul would say, ‘Be filled with the Spirit, and he will give you a new love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.’ To the complacent Paul would say ‘go on being filled with the Spirit. Thank God for what he has given you thus far. But do not say you have arrived. For there is more, much more, yet to come.’
Tomorrow: Ephesians 5:21-23. Husbands and wives.