Yesterday I wrote about Paul’s command to be filled by the Spirit and examined the musical emphasis of this Spirit-filling. Today I want to look at the verses directly preceding this:
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15–17)
These are strong words. Words that have challenged Christians throughout the ages. But what exactly do they mean?
Paul is talking about “walking wisely,” and he says that this will include making the best use of the time. Other translations say that we are to be “redeeming the time.” Some take this to mean “be productive.” Don’t sit down, don’t rest, don’t engage in recreation (especially if it involves the entertainment industry), because there is work to be done, and the time needs to be used wisely. Others will insist that redeeming the time means that we won’t waste our time on the things of this world, opting instead to think and talk about heavenly things (also look at this post, or this one).
But I don’t think Paul had either of these things in mind. I’m not advocating laziness, but productivity or heavenly-mindedness don’t seem to be Paul’s concern here. The phrase “redeeming the time” most likely means “taking advantage of every opportunity.” The Greek word for “redeeming” talks about “buying something up intensively” or “snapping something up.” The word for “time” in this context most likely refers not to the ticking of the clock but to the “the opportunities offered by time.”
So the picture is one of living wisely, and this is accomplished by taking advantage of every opportunity we receive. Why should we do this? Because “the days are evil.” This present age is dominated by the “god of this age” (Eph. 2:2), and he is doing everything he can to withstand the kingdom of God. So Paul calls us to make the most of every chance we get to further the kingdom.
Paul’s life is a prime example of this. In Philippians 1:12–14, for example, Paul says that his imprisonment became an opportunity to advance the kingdom. When he was imprisoned in Philippi, he and Silas used that opportunity to sing joyfully and saw the kingdom expanded as a result (Acts 16). When Paul was brought before the Areopagus, he took the opportunity to show their need for Christ (Acts 17).
When Paul says that the days are evil, we would all wholeheartedly agree. But notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Avoid interacting with the world, because the days are evil.” Nor does he say, “Be very suspicious and afraid, because the days are evil.”
What Paul does say is very important: “Take advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” This world needs Christ, so get in there, identify the opportunities for the kingdom of God, and exploit them.
It’s understandable that many Christians would equate “redeeming the time” with avoiding the culture and yelling the gospel into it from time to time. But Paul seems to be suggesting that we interact with the world—not so that we can be just like the world, but so that we can take advantage of the opportunities that wait for us.
It comes back to the question of what it means to be in the world, but not of it. The balance here is not easy to find, but we can be sure that avoiding contact with all things worldly is not Paul’s answer.