Ephesians 5:17, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Every Christian, at one point or another, has asked this question: “What is God’s will for my life?” The drive to discover the will of the Lord is certainly understandable. After all, the Holy Spirit creates a desire in us to do what is pleasing to our triune Creator; thus, we want to follow Paul’s exhortation to seek that which the Lord approves (Eph. 5:10; Phil. 2:12–13).
Much of the time, our quest to know God’s will is related to matters of personal guidance. We want to answer questions such as these: “Who does the Lord want me to marry? Where does God want me to live? What is my vocation?” These questions are appropriate, and we can answer them by the principles for holiness revealed in Scripture. But the Bible never answers these kinds of questions directly; instead, we are responsible to apply biblical teaching wisely to our circumstances. Relying on the Holy Spirit who speaks through Scripture, we read God’s Word and seek advice from wise Christians to help us make decisions pleasing to the Lord.
Matters of personal guidance, despite their importance, are secondary when Scripture calls us to understand God’s will. Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5:17 that those who walk in the light should not be foolish but instead know the will of the Lord is to be read in context. He has already defined God’s will as the union of all things in heaven and all things on earth (Ephesians 1:9–10). The divine goal is to bring together the whole of Creation in submission to the King of kings — the Lord Jesus Christ. This goal begins to be fulfilled in the church as the Savior, in His fullness, unites Jew and Gentile into one corporate body animated by love and intent on submitting to His lordship (Ephesians 1:22–23; Ephesians 2:11–22; Ephesians 3:1–21).
Understanding the will of the Lord means that we emphasize the Church’s need to be united in truth and love. It means that we discern our role in fostering this union. Those who are foolish, the characteristic that marks out those who misunderstand God’s will (Eph. 5:17), seek to divide the Body and engage in the impure acts that Paul warns us against in this epistle (Ephesians 4:17–6:20). Wise people who love the Lord’s will, on the other hand, promote Christian unity and submit to the principles for sanctified living found in Ephesians and in all of Scripture.
Knowing the will of the Lord — a church united in truth and love — is easy. Fulfilling our part in accomplishing this end, however, is more difficult. On account of our fallenness, we do not readily seek harmony but are more apt to gossip and backbite. Furthermore, we often prize our own opinions over biblical truth. If we are guilty of these sins, then we are not acting to fulfill God’s will but are foolish, unprofitable servants.
With that in mind, those whose aim is the shining of Christ live with understanding. With this care and with this mission as our priorities for Christ’s sake, we are not foolish but seek to “understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17). Elsewhere the apostle writes, “It is God’s will that you should be holy” (1 Thess. 4:3). God desires a holy people to reflect his holy light. The children of light so desire to be such a people that they give their minds to understanding what God’s will is so that they will not live foolishly.
So that his children might reflect the light of the Son, the Lord has given us clear instructions regarding how we should live and think. These are necessary and vital aspects of the Christian life that the children of light must know. As ministers, counselors, missionaries, parents, and friends, you cannot hope to be a reflector of Christ’s light if such matters are not part of your instruction. To have the light of Christ shine into the lives of those we love, and he loves, they also must know how to live and to think according to a biblical worldview.
Paul does not stop explaining our need to live for the glory of Christ with these general principles for Christian living. What will follow in the book of Ephesians is much more practical instruction on marriage, the household, and Christian warfare. Still, something new and vital connects these general principles and practical instructions. When people come to the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a common path that they follow with regard to Scripture. First, they use the Bible as a guide to good behavior. Their constant use of the Bible is to have it tell them what to do. At some point, however, they get the what-to-do down, and the next phase of their lives gets devoted to determining what to think. At this stage, the Bible may simply become a book of doctrines used to validate our logic and to beat others in debate.
At some point, however, if spiritual growth continues, the new believers discover that as important as correct behavior and thought are to the Christian, the Bible ultimately is neither a Boy Scout manual nor a debater’s index. Some Christians (in fact, entire movements of Christians) can get stuck in one or more of these modes, believing that living as the children of light is essentially about right behavior or about right thought. But the Bible is about more than right behavior or even right thought. Mature believers discern that God’s Word is the means by which God makes himself known so that we might live in union with him. The ultimate aim of Scripture is making known to the heart the reality of God, who is himself the ultimate desire, power, meaning, and hope of the children of light. And the ultimate aim of the apostle as he seeks to rescue us from darkness is to encourage us not only to reflect the light of the Son but actually to live as the light of the Son.