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What does it mean to be “filled with the Spirit”?


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What happens when a person is “filled with the Spirit”? Is it an experience we are to seek? Is it possible to be “un-filled”? Are there pre-requisites to being filled? Should we pray to be filled? What, precisely, does the NT have to say about being filled with the Spirit?

There are fifteen verses in the NT that describe individuals as being “filled with” or “full of” the Holy Spirit. Fourteen of them are in Luke and Acts. Although some writers see a difference between the two phrases, they are most likely synonymous. Four people are described this way in Luke’s Gospel: John (1:15), Elizabeth (1:41), Zacharias (1:67), and Jesus (4:1). John’s filling was special (”while in the womb”). Elizabeth and Zecharias followed the OT pattern of temporary filling. Although Jesus lived the prototypical Spirit-filled life, it’s dangerous to generalize from the single verse in Luke’s Gospel.

Ten verses in Acts describe a variety of subjects—the Jerusalem church (2:4; 4:31), Peter (4:8), Stephen (6:3, 5; 7:55), Barnabas (11:24), and Paul (9:17; 13:9, 52)—with some individuals/groups being mentioned multiple times. This latter group of passages suggests that a good definition of being filled with the Spirit is “being so given to following Christ that His character and power are clearly evident in your life.”

The final NT verse is Ephesians 5:18. Since that verse occurs in a teaching passage, the remainder of this post will be devoted to that passage. To set the context briefly, 5:15 introduces a section that extends through 6:9. Within that larger section, 5:15-21 introduces the basic topic: How to walk with wisdom (5:15) and understanding (5:17). The sentence that begins in verse 18 extends through verse 21. The command to “be filled” in verse 18 calls for continuing action. In other words, Paul expects us to be so given to following Christ that his character and power are clearly evident in our lives. Verses 19-21 provide four tests by which we can know if we are filled with the Spirit.

The first test is the edification test (v.19a). Although the first part of verse 19 uses musical terms, you don’t need to be musical to do it—the verb is “speaking” not singing. In any case, the activity is directed toward “one another,” and the intent is to edify. How do you edify one another? Look back at Eph 4:29-32:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such as is good for edification according to the need, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

How do you treat other believers? What comes out of your mouth: words of life or words of death? Do you want to know if you are filled with the Spirit? Test yourself and see if you pass the edification test.

The second test is the worship test (v.19b). The first part of verse 19 is directed toward other believers, but the second part is directed toward “the Lord.” The second test is one of worship. That worship is to be done “with your heart,” that is, with your entire being. Do you remember what Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4:23-24?

For an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.

Is your worship whole-hearted or half-hearted? Do you want to know if you are filled with the Spirit? Test yourself and see if you pass the worship test.

The third test is the thanksgiving test (v.20). Verse 20 is also directed toward “God the Father” and focuses on thanksgiving. Paul uses three qualifiers to amplify this test. “Always” points out the frequency with which we are to give thanks (cf. 1 Thess 5:17; Eph 6:18). “For all things” points out the occasion for giving thanks (cf. Rom 8:28). “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” points out the reason for giving thanks (cf. Eph 1:3-14). Colossians 3:17 captures the idea exactly:

And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Is your life characterized by “an attitude of gratitude”? Do you want to know if you are filled with the Spirit? Test yourself and see if you pass the thanksgiving test.

The fourth test is the mutual submission test (v.21). Verse 21 shifts back to “one another” and is probably the most difficult test. It calls for submission to one another. Normally, the verb “being subject” refers to the attitude a subordinate has toward a superior (e.g., Rom 13:1-7). Here, though, Paul says that we are to have that attitude toward one another, regardless of status or role. He advocates the same attitude in Philippians 2:3-4:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

How do you relate to your brothers and sisters—as a superior or as a subordinate? Do you want to know if you are filled with the Spirit? Test yourself and see if you pass the mutual submission test.

Being filled with the Spirit means that Christ’s character and power are clearly evident in your life. In Ephesians 5:18-21, Paul focuses on four tests of character: edification, worship, thanksgiving, and mutual submission. Do you pass them?

Written by Dr. John Harvey, Dean of CIU's Seminary & School of Ministry

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