“The average church member’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is so vague it is nearly nonexistent” (source unknown).
It is important for Christians to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit and how they can follow Scripture’s command to be filled with the Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit an equal person of the triune Godhead, worthy of our worship and obedience, but also His ministry is of utmost importance in our lives. In fact, Jesus told His disciples that it was good for them that He go away so that He could send the Spirit (John 16:7). What an incredible thought this must have been to the disciples, who were fearful and full of grief because Jesus was talking about leaving them. But obviously, He meant what He said.
The Holy Spirit is instrumental in the process of salvation. The Spirit brings conviction to our hearts and shows us our need of a Savior. Jesus describes the new birth as being born of the Spirit (John 3:6). At salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the believer and is the defining characteristic that he is truly a believer. In fact, Paul writes that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them are not Christians at all (Romans 8:9). By contrast, Paul says that those who truly are Christians are marked with a seal, who is the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). John echoes this thought when he writes, “We know that we live in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (I John 4:13)
However, the work of the Spirit is not limited to our initial conversion experience. Scripture emphasizes the importance for every believer to be filled with the Spirit. Our entire Christian life should be characterized by a continual reliance on the Spirit. “Walk in the Spirit” is a constant refrain of the New Testament epistles, letters that were written to give instruction to the early Christians. Alternate phrases such as “living by faith,” “drawing near to God,” and “submitting to God,” relate to this same idea of being filled with the Spirit.
In Scripture the phrase “filling of the Spirit” is used to describe the empowering, wisdom, and guidance the Spirit brings into a believer’s life. Just before returning to heaven, Jesus told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would soon come and give them power — power that would enable them to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). When the Holy Spirit did come upon the believers on the day of Pentecost, He filled them with power, with the result that they lived holy lives and impacted the community.
Take Peter, for example, the disciple who had three times denied knowing Jesus the night before He was crucified. In Acts chapter two, we see Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, standing up and addressing the crowd that gathered to see what all the excitement was about. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter boldly spoke words of truth and conviction, such that several thousand became followers of Christ that day. Throughout the rest of the New Testament and throughout the history of the church, we witness the transformation that takes place when the Holy Spirit fills and controls a person.
In this lesson we will discuss more about what it means to be filled with the Spirit, but there is a mysterious aspect of being filled that cannot be explained. In the third chapter of his gospel account, John captures a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a religious leader of the Jews. Jesus was discussing the necessity of the new birth and, in this context, He said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) Just as there is a mystical element to the Spirit’s work in salvation, so too there is a mysterious element to the Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives that cannot be fully explained. However, we can begin to understand how a person is filled with the Spirit by understanding two biblical explanations.
A Helpful Analogy
The apostle Paul’s instruction recorded in Ephesians 5:18 provides important information about the filling of the Spirit. This verse reads as follows: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”
There is a comparison and a contrast between the verbs in this verse. Being filled with the Spirit is compared to getting drunk with wine. The gist is: “Don’t allow yourself to be controlled by wine. Instead, allow yourself to be controlled by the Spirit.” Just as habitual drunkards become known for being controlled by alcohol, so Christians who live spirit-filled lives develop a good reputation. Nineteenth-century American evangelist Dwight Moody was to have a campaign in England. An elderly English pastor protested, “Why do we need this ‘Mr. Moody’? He’s uneducated and inexperienced. Who does he think he is anyway? Does he think he has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit?” A younger, wiser pastor rose and responded, “No, but the Holy Spirit has a monopoly on Mr. Moody.” Such is the reputation of one who lives under the control of the Spirit.
Being filled with the Spirit is also contrasted with getting drunk with wine. Wine depresses, while the Spirit stimulates and inspires. Being filled with alcohol causes a person to become sluggish, confused, and out of control. By contrast, being filled with the Spirit leads to a person being alert, engaged, and ready for action.
Understanding the Language
The complex verb structure of Ephesians 5:18 needs to be explored to better understand the analogy. There are four parts to the verb structure in this verse. The English translation is unable to reflect all the facets of the original Greek, so we need to study this verb in some detail. The following four points provide further insight.
The filling is a command.
In Ephesians 5:18 Paul commands the believers at Ephesus to be filled with the Spirit. This command shows that it is God’s will for believers to be filled with the Spirit. It is not an option; it is imperative to the Christian lifestyle. A scuba instructor would never tell a student, “The oxygen tank you have strapped to your back is your source of life. When you go under water, you can open the valve if you so desire.” Rather, he would command, “You must open the valve to your tank when you go underwater. It is the only way you can survive.” For a believer to attempt to live the Christian life without the filling of the Spirit is as foolish as it would be for a scuba diver to attempt to go deep under water without opening the valve to his air tank.
The command applies to all believers.
The understood subject “you” in Ephesians 5:18 is plural. The plural subject shows that the command was written to the whole church and not just to a particular person or to a select group of individuals. This command applies to all believers, young or old, male or female, introverted or extroverted, immature or mature. Being filled with the Spirit cannot be equated with maturity in Christ; however, it is a key part of the maturing process. We could perhaps say that one can be filled with the Spirit without being mature, but no one can reach Christian maturity without the consistent work of the Spirit in his life.
The filling is not done by us.
The verb is in the passive mood. When “be filled” is translated in the passive mood, it reads, “let the Spirit fill you.” In other words, it is something God wants to do for us. It is not something that requires us to meet difficult conditions first (other than submitting to His lordship, which can be difficult indeed). We do not need to achieve a certain level of expertise, we do not need to acquire certain knowledge or to learn special techniques—we simply need to let God fill us with His Spirit.
The filling needs to be an ongoing process.
The verb is in the present tense. In the Greek language, the present tense often conveys the idea that the action of the verb is repeated again and again. Thus, the filling of the Spirit needs to continually be made a reality through conscious dependence on God.
Unlike the effects of alcohol, the filling of the Spirit does not take time to wear off. The moment we choose to resume control over our own lives (when our feelings get hurt, when we get pushed into a corner, when we decide we want something we shouldn’t have or for whatever reason), we are no longer filled by (under the control of) the Spirit.
Dual Aspect of Being Filled with the Spirit—Repentance and Trust
When a person becomes a Christian, he repents (turns from his sin) and trusts Christ (turns to Christ) to give him salvation, forgiveness, and power to overcome sin in his life. Before salvation he is heading one direction; after salvation he is going the opposite direction. As Peter explained in his address to the crowd, “Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God…then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38, New Living Translation)
When it comes right down to it, there are only two kinds of people in this world⎜those who are controlled by their own sinful nature, and those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit of God (See Romans 8:5-8). All those who have not yet believed in Jesus for salvation fall into the first category because the Spirit is given only to those who have become children of God. Christians should always fall into the second category, but the reality of life is that we continue to sin and follow our sinful nature rather than walk in the Spirit. Because we continue to struggle with sin even after we become Christians, it is necessary to confess our sins and consciously trust God to empower us to live for Christ. In other words, it is necessary to continue the pattern of repentance and trust that first brought us to salvation. We should do this whenever we become aware of sin.
In order to enjoy new life in Christ, in order to please God and to walk worthy of our calling in Christ Jesus, in order to fulfill our destiny as Christ’s ambassadors ministering His love to a needy world, we need to be filled with the Spirit. We are filled with the Spirit through repentance and trust, continually acknowledging our dependence on Him. As Paul wrote to the believers at Colosse, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in Him.” (Colossians 2:6)
• Meet with God and work through the Spiritual Growth—The Filling of the Holy Spirit section below.
• Read Romans 8:5-8. Note the difference between a person controlled by the Holy Spirit and someone controlled by his sinful nature.
Spiritual Growth—The Filling of the Holy Spirit
Guidelines for being filled with the Spirit:
• Ask God to bring to mind any sin(s) in your life or any areas He wants you
to obey or trust Him in.
• Write down whatever God brings to mind. Confess and repent.
• Write I John 1:9 across the list of sin(s), and destroy the paper.
• Acknowledge your dependence on God, and ask Him to fill you with His
• Believe that God wants to fill you with His Spirit and that He has.