What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Is your local Church a Spirit-filled community? Where should we look to these questions?
The personal presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the One who makes it possible to live in a way that pleases God. The Holy Spirit is also the source for true Christian community.
The Scripture speaks of:
- Walking by the Spirit
- Being led by the Spirit
- Bearing the fruit of the Spirit
- Keeping in step with the Spirit
- Sowing to the Spirit
This emphasis reminds us that everything in the believer’s life related to the role of the Holy Spirit. All of these expressions (from Galatians 5 & 6) also fit under the New Testament command: “Be Filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
- But how does one obey this command?
- What does the Spirit-filled life look like?
- Is there a way to identify the Spirit-filled person?
A measurable and visible description:
An epitaph was written over the life of Barnabas identifying him as “…a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:24). This epitaph of being “full of the Holy Spirit” is treated as a measurable and visible description of his character. We see the same thing in Acts 6:4 where the Church is told to “pick out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.”
We must guard against the tendency to understand the spirit-filled life as a subjective reality. It is about measurable character and life choices. One should be able to see evidence that testifies to the Spirit-filled character of an individual or a community of believers.
Let’s explore this in more depth:
In Ephesians 5:18, the command to be Spirit-filled follows another command: “Do not get drunk on wine.” The two commands are placed in contrast in a way that invites a comparison between what the one forbids and the other requires. The first command is given in a verb tense (aorist) requiring that we never do what it forbids: “Do not ever get drunk on wine.” The second command is in a verb tense (present) requiring continual action: “Be continually filled with the Holy Spirit!” This supports the idea that being Spirit-filled should be descriptive of a person’s life.
Further, since each of these is given as a command – each one becomes a matter of choice and obedience – because each one could be disobeyed.
- Becoming drunk is a choice
- Being filled with the Spirit is also a choice.
But what does it mean to be filled?
Two observations help us understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit:
- The meaning of the word “filled.” It is used of wind filling a sail, of being filled with emotions like joy or grief, of a body being filled with leprosy and of a person being full of deceit (Acts 13:10). The idea of permeation or domination is envisioned. It could be framed this way, “allow the dominating influence of the Holy Spirit to permeate every part of your life.”
- The contrast with getting drunk: The person who decides to get drunk chooses to allow the alcohol to be the controlling factor in every function of his life (speech, vision, bodily coordination and even the mind are affected when one is drunk).
In contrast, the Spirit-filled person chooses to allow the Spirit of God to be the controlling influence in all parts of his life (speech, vision, body, mind).
“A person, and in this case, a community, whose life is so totally given over to the Spirit that the life and deeds of the Spirit are as obvious in their case as the effects of too much wine are obvious in the other” (John Stott).
The commands of Ephesians 5:18 are followed by four supporting participles –
- giving thanks
These descriptions are usually read as commands. But they are actually participles, and should be viewed as expected outcomes of obedience to the main command to be filled with the Spirit (in this sense, it is legitimate to see them as participles with imperatival force i.e. the force of commands).
We could summarize the four descriptions of a Spirit filled person as follows:
- Full of joy: 1st, 2nd participle
- Grateful: 3rd participle
- Humble/submissive: 4th participle
To put matters differently, a spirit filled person is not:
- Grouchy or grumpy
- Ungrateful or discontent
- Rebellious or arrogant
Again, central to living a life that is pleasing to God is the personal, presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Personal: (Ephesians 4:29-32); Presence: (As a community: I Corinthians 3:16, in individual lives: I Corinthians 6:18-20); Power: (Ephesians 3:14-19). And all of this is presented in the context of choices related with the question of control (cf. the battle for control Galatians 5:16-17).
Flesh or Spirit?
Life which is (according to the flesh) is a life that is directed by self and for self. It is life driven by selfish ambition and self-absorption. It is life where I demand to be in control. And, since I am in control – I feel easily threatened and I must fight, scheme, manipulate and worry. I do these things to fight for my control (compare the contrast in James 3:13-17).
The apostle uses a harvest metaphor to describe our response to the flesh and to the Spirit. Choose the soil that you wish to cultivate and then do your sowing. But expect to reap a harvest from your choice.
“Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:7-8).
- Sowing to the flesh is a choice to cultivate and plant thoughts, attitudes and behaviors in keeping with the things described in Galatians 5:15;19-20,24-25.
- Sowing to the Spirit is a choice to allow the control of the Holy Spirit to be the permeating and dominating reality in your life. It involves giving yourself – your thoughts, attitudes and actions to producing the fruit of the Spirit:
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Each of the qualities from Galatians 5:22-23 is presented in the New Testament as a command to be obeyed. We are commanded to love, be joyful, practice peacemaking, etc. This validates what we’ve said about choice and control. Galatians 5:16 itself is a command: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The question we must answer is “Who or what will we allow to be in control?”
Five summary points:
- Being Spirit-filled is objectively measurable in specific behaviors and attitudes. Any professed subjective experience of the Spirit must be accompanied by these observable and measurable realities (Gal. 5:21-22; Eph. 5:18-21; cf. the life of Barnabas and the seven chosen in Ac. 6:1-4).
- When the Spirit fills an individual or a community of believers, expect to find permeating qualities of joy, gratitude and humility.
- When the Spirit fills an individual or community of believers, do not expect to find a life or atmosphere permeated by complaining, discontentment, lack of gratitude or arrogance.
- When the Spirit fills an individual or a community of believers, expect to find permeating qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The repeated commands in relation to the Spirit-filled life remind us that although the Spirit produces spiritual fruit (godly character qualities), he does not do this in a way that allows believers to be passive recipients of his work (See: Philippians 2:12-13 “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”).
Audio link: “Be filled with the Spirit–What does it mean?“