What Does it Mean to be Filled With the Spirit?

Ephesians 5:18

The 20th century has been rightly called the “Age of the Holy Spirit.” There are many reasons for this, but the greatest has to do with the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. It is no secret that many of the fastest-growing churches in the world are Pentecostal and Charismatic to one degree or another. According to church growth expert Peter Wagner, those churches comprise the “third wave” of the Christian movement.

It is therefore no surprise that more has been written on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in this century than in the previous 1900 years. In fact, 100 years ago it was hard to find a book on the Holy Spirit. But times have changed. Every Christian bookstore carries dozens of titles relating to the Holy Spirit and his work in the world today. Earlier this week during a radio interview with a station in Buffalo the host asked me for the names of my different books. (I’ve written five books and co-authored another one.) Then he asked which one has sold the most. He was surprised when I told him that the little book Names of the Holy Spirit has sold far more than anything else I’ve written.

I’m sure there are several reasons for that, but one of them must be the contemporary interest in anything relating to the Holy Spirit. If you will pardon the image, the Holy Spirit has come out of the shadows in this century and taken center stage in Christian theology.

Questions, Questions, Questions

It therefore didn’t surprise me when the congregation turned in many questions relating to the Holy Spirit. You asked basic questions such as, Who is the Holy Spirit and how can he help me? and What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? You asked about the sign gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy, tongues and healing. You also asked about Holy Laughter and being drunk in the Spirit. One of our junior highers asked, “What materials is the Holy Spirit made of?” That’s easy to answer: He’s a Spirit so he is not made of any materials at all.

But most of the questions were very practical and personal. I have chosen a very basic question to deal with today: What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? I believe this is one of the most important principles of the spiritual life. Learn this and you will discover a source of supernatural power that can help you every single day. As far as possible, I would therefore like to set all controversy aside and impress upon your heart your great need to be filled with the Spirit. This is our great need. Indeed, this is the need of the hour-for God’s people to discover what it means to be filled with the Spirit.

Some questions immediately rise to the surface: What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? What difference does it make? How does it happen? But preeminent above all others is this question: Am I filled with the Spirit?

What a question! What is your answer? Suppose someone asked, “Are you filled with the Spirit?” what would you say? It’s not easy to answer and therefore makes us uneasy as we think about it.

I. Three Common Misconceptions

Before you can accurately answer a question like that, we need to know what the filling of the Spirit is-and what it isn’t. Let me mention three common misconceptions.

A. It is an emotional experience.

This is probably the first thing that comes to mind for many of us. We hear of strange things happening in revival meetings. People begin to shake, tremble, fall on the floor, bark like a dog, laugh uncontrollably. Some weep, others shout, still others speak in strange tongues. All of this is done in the name of the Holy Spirit, and so many people assume that’s what the filling of the Spirit is all about. Without stopping to pass judgment, let me say clearly that the filling of the Spirit is not primarily an emotional experience. Those things I mentioned are not necessarily the mark of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. This is not to say that some of those things might not be genuine. They might be, but what I am talking to you about this morning is not an emotional experience.

B. It is reserved for special Christians.

The second misconception flows from the first. Because we hear of these unusual things happening, and because they don’t happen to every Christian, it’s easy to think that the filling of the Holy Spirit is reserved for some special class of super-Christians. It’s not true. The Bible clearly commands every Christian to “be filled with the Spirit.”

C. It is controversial and therefore better off ignored.

Again, this follows from what I have said. Some people overreact to the excesses of others and dismiss the doctrine of the Spirit’s filling. Some even refuse the entire doctrine of the Spirit. That’s a huge mistake because the Holy Spirit is the One who brings the presence of Christ to our lives. Again, without going into controversy this morning, may I simply say to you that we desperately need the Holy Spirit today.

I remember some years ago hearing Dr. J. Vernon McGee preach a commencement address at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was then in his early 80s and near the end of a long and fruitful ministry. I’ve forgotten almost everything else he said that night, but one comment has stayed with me. He said that if he were starting his ministry over again, he would give much more attention to the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. He would preach on the Spirit more frequently and attempt to lead people to depend on his power every day.

The greatest preacher of the 19th century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said, “The grand thing the church wants in this time is God’s Holy Spirit.” More than anything else, we need to rediscover the Holy Spirit and learn anew to depend on him.

II. Observations From the Text

With that we turn to our text-Ephesians 5:18. Let me give it to you in several different translations: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (NIV). The New Living Translation gives a slightly different wording: “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you.” Finally, we have this paraphrase by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him.” I especially like the phrase: “Drink the Spirit of God.” That’s very picturesque, isn’t it?

In order that we might have the teaching clearly in front of us, let’s think about four observations from the text.

A. Note the contrast between wine and the Spirit.

This is the most basic point of the verse. There is a direct parallel drawn between being drunk with wine and being filled with the Spirit. What precisely is the point of comparison between wine and the Holy Spirit? Doubtless the issue is influence or control. A person under the influence of wine experiences altered behavior. He may say or do things he would not ordinarily do. Emotions may be heightened for a brief period, causing the person to experience anger followed quickly by elation followed quickly by depression. If the person drinks enough wine, his mental processes will be affected and decision­making ability radically altered-almost always with a negative result.

Likewise, the filling of the Holy Spirit produces a change in behavior. In the Book of Acts, once­timid disciples became flaming evangelists for Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 5:19­21, Paul mentioned three practical results of the filling of the Spirit: Singing, a thankful heart, and an attitude of mutual submission. The last result is most significant because true submission always involves giving up your right to be in control in every situation. When we submit from the heart, we are saying, “I don’t have to have my way all the time.” Only a heart touched by the Holy Spirit can maintain such an attitude in every relationship of life.

B. This is a command.

In the Greek language, this verb is said to be in the imperative mode. This means the filling of the Spirit-whatever it is-isn’t an optional part of the Christian life. Every Christian is to be filled with the Spirit all of the time. If you aren’t, you are out of God’s will.

C. It is in the present tense.

This insight is particularly helpful because the Greek present tense has the idea of continual action. It’s what happens when you tell your children to go out and rake the leaves before the snow comes. So they go outside and rake for a few minutes and then come back in. When you check it, you see that most of the leaves haven’t been touched. So you say, “Why didn’t you rake the leaves?” “I did.” “Why didn’t you rake all the leaves?” “You didn’t tell me to.” What do you do? You tell them, “Go back, pick up the rake and keep on raking until all the leaves are raked.” That’s the present tense. You keep on doing something. It’s not a one-time event.

We could legitimately translate this verse this way: “Be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.” That by the way is why the filling of the Spirit is not primarily an experience. It’s supposed to be the normal way of life for the Christian.

D. It is in the passive voice.

This is a nuance many people would miss. In Greek, as in English, commands can be either active or passive. However, we’re much more used to active commands: “Go to the store and pick up some milk, please.” That’s an active command. If I say, “Fill that hole with dirt,” that’s also in the active voice. But Ephesians 5:18 is in the passive voice. He doesn’t say, “Fill yourself with the Spirit” but rather “Be filled with the Spirit.” That’s a bit hard to understand. It’s like saying to someone, “Be loved.” How do you do that? How do you “be loved?”

But this is the key to everything. To “be filled” means that the filling of the Spirit is a work of God, not man.

Let me illustrate. Suppose I command you to “be loved.” But if there’s not someone who wants to love you, you can’t obey that command. Likewise, if there’s not someone who wants to fill you, you can’t “be filled” with the Spirit. He’s not saying “fill yourself” but rather “be filled.” Itís like the difference between saying “love yourself” and “be loved.”

I draw two important implications from this truth:

1. The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to fill us at any moment.

2. The most we can do is to make ourselves available to him.

That’s why the New Living Translation says, “let the Holy Spirit fill and control you.” I cannot “be loved.” But I can make myself available to those who want to love me. If you will, I can put myself in a position of loveability. I can do those things that make me easy to love or I can be a blockhead and make myself hard to love.

Let me give you a new term you’ve never heard before. The term is “fillability.” It’s what happens when you go to a full-service gas station and say, “Fill íer up.” The person pumping the gas knows that the statement “Fill íer up” means two things: 1) I’m empty and 2) I want to be filled with gas. That’s fillability. It’s need plus desire. And when your need to be filled with the Spirit becomes your great desire, you will be filled. Over and over again. Instantly. Every time.

III. Application to Life

I’d like to wrap up this message by making a direct application to your life. There are basically three issues we need to think about relating to the filling of the Holy Spirit.

A. The Issue of Control

This is always the central issue of life. Who’s in control of your life? Last Wednesday night I shared with my Ecclesiastes class what I believe to be the most fundamental truth of the spiritual life. It’s very basic but we tend to forget it almost every day. Here it is: God is God and I am not. Everything else flows from that simple truth. Learn that and you’ve learned the central reality of life. Miss that and nothing else makes sense. Most of us need to relearn this a thousand times because it’s easy to forget.

Here’s my definition of the filling of the Spirit. It’s what happens when the Holy Spirit has the controlling interest in your life. Go back to the contrast between wine and the Spirit. Drunken and Spirit-filled people have this in common: They are both controlled people. Their lives and their behavior are radically changed by that which fills them.

If a man is filled with anger, than anger controls his life.

If a man is filled with greed, then greed dominates his life.

If a man is filled with love, then love influences all he does.

And if a man is filled with the Holy Spirit, he will have the controlling interest in your life. It is “control by consent.”

Let me stop and make a critical distinction: Being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean I have more of the Spirit, it means the Spirit has more of me. It doesn’t happen all at once any more than you get drunk all at once. Being filled with the Spirit happens as you continually choose to live under his influence.

B. The Issue of Cooperation

This week I talked with a friend who lives near Salem, Oregon. We were discussing this whole issue of the Spirit-filled life and he made an observation I had never heard before. He said that he believes that every Christian is filled with the Spirit from the moment of the new birth. After I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Since the Holy Spirit indwells us from the moment we are saved, it only makes sense that new believers are filled with that same Spirit, which is why new believers often have so much joy and walk so closely with the Lord. For them, it’s the natural thing to do. They haven’t learned to be boring and backslidden yet.

My friend made a further very helpful comment. He said that over the years he has come to realize that for him the central issue is one of cooperation. Am I going to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and let him lead me or I am going to keep on trying to do things my own way?

So many of us struggle at precisely this point. We fight the Lord because we want to do things our way. And God says, “Okay, we can do it your way for awhile, but it’s not going to work.” In that sense, if we won’t cooperate with God, he’ll cooperate with us by letting us do things in our own strength and by our own will. But then we fail and cry out to the Lord and he says, “Are you willing to cooperate with me now?”

C. The Issue of Contact

Finally, there is the issue of contact. In one of his books, F. B. Meyer explained the Spirit’s filling this way. He said that most people think of the Spirit as a substance to fill us, like gas filling up a tank. So we run out of the Spirit and God fills us again. But that’s not the best image to use. Think about the elevated trains that run through the Chicago area. How do those trains work? Those trains run on three rails-two for the wheels and one for the electricity. The electricity is always there, but the train doesn’t move unless there is contact with the third rail. Touch that rail and the train moves, pull away from the rail and it stops.

The third rail is like the Holy Spirit. His power is always available-and unlike ComEd, there’s never a power shortage and never a brownout. But sometimes we live out of contact with his power. When that happens, our lives simply stop working the way God intended.

Our Greatest Need

Let me end where I began. I started by saying that the filling of the Spirit is the most important doctrine of the spiritual life. It is foundational to everything else. There is nothing we need more.

Here is my final definition of the filling of the Spirit: It is that state in which the Holy Spirit is free to do all that he came into my life to do. The key word is “state.” The filling of the Spirit is not primarily an emotional experience and it’s certainly not reserved for a few super-Christians. It’s nothing more than the normal Christian life when the Holy Spirit is in control. That is why the command is in the present tense.

We are to be continually

controlled by the Spirit,

cooperating with the Spirit, and

in contact with the Spirit.

This, then, is God’s moment-by-moment provision for vitality, strength, courage, boldness, victory and the abundant life. It’s for you, it’s a command, it’s God’s plan for your life.

Emptiness and Openness

I close with this thought. God is ready, willing and able to fill you right now. He’s more willing to fill you than you are to be filled. If for some reason you aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s not because of God’s reluctance. We do not have to beg God to do what he has already promised to do. Rather, he is begging us to make the way clear so he can do what he promised to do!

In a sense being filled with the Spirit is an impossibility-at least as far as it depends on us. Only God’s Spirit can fill us. We need two things-emptiness and openness. You can’t fill a jar that’s already full, and you can’t fill a jar that is not open. There must be a sense of need-"Lord, I’m empty and I need to be filled by your Spirit.” There must be a willingness-"Lord, I’m open to you. Let your Spirit fill me now.”

The filling of the Spirit is really as simple as that. As long as we are conscious of our need and as long as we are willing to yield to the Lord, we can be filled with the Lord all day long. This power is available to us all day long.

If we live another day without the Holy Spirit’s control in our lives, we have only ourselves to blame. God has made himself fully available to us. Have we made ourselves fully available to him?


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