You’re Using It Wrong: Ephesians 5:16 & Time

persistance-of-timeIf you have been around Christian circles for any length of time you have no doubt been admonished at some point “you have to redeem the time” meaning that you need to quit loafing and get busy.  The days are evil, in other words, time is short and life is fleeting, so get to work.  You may have read this, you may have heard this from the pulpit, you may have had someone tell you this in private, you may even have said it to yourself (or someone else).  But I’m sorry to say, if you think Ephesians 5:16 is about industriousness and time management, You’re Using It Wrong!

There are two enormous problems with this interpretation. First the youre-doing-it-wrongancients, including those who lived in Ephesus in the first century, didn’t think of time the way we do, as an asset to be squandered or spent wisely. That is entirely a modern, and more precisely western, conception of time. I would add, it seems to me that the obsession with busyness and the confusion of frenetic activity with productivity is a uniquely American vice. One of my favorite fiction authors once quipped (and I am quoting from memory, and he may have been quoting someone else) “in Italy the days march on, in England the clocks run, and in America time flies.” I think the point he was making is clear, how we approach time is colored by our culture, and Americans are obsessed with not wasting any of it.

More importantly the kind to time that ticks by on our clocks is not even mentioned in Ephesians 5:16. There are two Greek words commonly translated as time in the New Testament. One is chronos which BDAG, the definitive lexicon of Koine Greek, defines as “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place.” At the risk of being accused of committing the root fallacy, this is where the term “chronograph” the technical term for a stopwatch comes from. If Paul was talking about wasting the seconds and minutes and hours that make up a day, this is the word he would use. The other word for time is Kairos which BDAG defines as “a point of time or period of time.” Think harvest time, or dinner time or bed time. Kairos is the word used by Paul (writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) in Ephesians 5:16.

This is an enormous difference. But one that is often missed. Commenting on this verse Mike Abendroth in his latest book Evangelical White Lies minces no words, saying:

Modern advice, even from Christians, in the area of time, is erroneous. Regularly Christians take a verse about a subject, but ignore proper interpretation principles…Some incorrect applications of Ephesians 5:16 are Account for time like a commodity…Budget time…Don’t waste a minute of the day…Do not let other people spend your time for you.[1]

So if that is the wrong interpretation, what is the right one? As always, the key to right understanding is context. The context here rules out the simple get busy interpretation and application of this verse.

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. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-21 ESV

When you read the whole paragraph, there is simply no room to make “make the best use of” or “redeem” the time as the NASB translates it about not being a time waster. This is all about walking, or living wisely, in the midst of days or times that are characterized by the embrace of moral evil. As Paul fleshes out what it means to walk wisely, it is all about being filled with, or controlled by, the Holy Spirit (think walking according to the Spirit as Paul describes it in Galatians 5:15-22 or living by the Spirit as Paul describes it in Romans 8).  As he continues giving examples of what being filled with the Spirit looks like, every example has to do with our orientation and actions toward God (thankfulness always for everything) and our fellow believers (being mutually submissive and engaged in worship through song together). There is nothing about busyness or industriousness or idle time here at all.

A much better understanding is gained from Harold Hoehner’s, the foremost evangelical scholar of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, translation of this phrase; “taking advantage of every opportunity.”[2]

In other words, when God brings a kairos, an opportune point of time, into your life don’t squander it, but seize the opportunity. No opportunity to share the gospel with an unbeliever, obey God, give thanks to Him, gather together in worship with other believers, serve one another, submit to one another, or otherwise do the (moral) will of the Lord is to be wasted. By airondact-chairthe way, that includes opportunities to take a Sabbath rest or to simply enjoy the good things the Lord gives you. You can actually “redeem the time” by sitting outside and enjoying God’s creation, or even sleeping in on a day off when you are worn out.

If you are too busy to gather together with the saints except on Sunday morning, or so busy studying that you just don’t have time to serve the local church or one another, or you don’t have time to waste deferring your preferences in favor of the others, or are too busy to allow someone who is less frenetic to take the lead, you are actively not “redeeming” or making the best use of the time.

The truth is that in order to make the best use of the time, you just might have to slow down. That just might be what you have to do in order to walk wisely.

(You can listen to a sermon on this passage here.)

[1] Mike Abendroth Evangelical White Lies page 20

[2] Harold Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary page 692

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.