The Filling of the Spirit


– By Nate




“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” – Ephesians 5:18-19 (KJV). The meaning of this phrase “filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians chapter five has been questioned and debated over by many, yet its meaning is not as easy to define as other theological issues. Students of God’s word from all walks of life have taken varying stances on the topic, including equating it with being indwelt by the Spirit as if it were a continual quest of the believer to keep God’s Spirit, or possibly even synonymous with Spirit baptism. Although when both the immediate context, and other writings of the Apostle Paul are taken into consideration, it becomes possible to see that the filling of the spirit is more than simply being indwelt by the Spirit after salvation; rather it is descriptive of the Holy Spirits continual sanctifying work in the life of a believer.


Immediate context


Ephesians 5:18 is among Paul’s many teachings on how believers should behave in a practical sense[1]. Paul instructs the believers in Ephesus to be imitators of God (5:1) by walking in love (5:2), and fleeing all forms of immorality (5:3-5). He also deals with how they should be thankful (5:20), and then submitting to one another[2] (5:21). Through chapter six, Paul transitions to how relationships should look within the body of Christ. Three main relationship types are pictured, husbands and wives, children and their parents, As well as the relationship between slaves and masters. In the midst of this practical admonition on what their life should look like, Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit”. It is clear then, that this command is something of a practical nature, which has a lasting effect on the life of the believer.

What then is the practical impact that should be evident within believers? The words used in the command are useful in understanding this practical outworking. The verb πληροῦσθε that is translated as “be filled” is in the imperative mood, making it clear that this is a command. Paul is not telling the believers at Ephesus that it would be helpful to be filled with the Spirit. Rather he is saying it is your Christian duty, your obligation, you must be filled with the Spirit.

The second aspect of the verb πληροῦσθε is that its plural in form, which literally translated is “you all be filled”. The plural nature of this verb is important because it is expressing that all believers are to be filled. By using the plural form, Paul is showing that each individual is therefore, commanded to be filled, not just a select few. This refutes any idea that being filled with the Spirit is something of a temporary nature as was in the Old Testament with individuals like Saul and Samson.

The third aspect of this verb πληροῦσθε is in the passive voice. When a Greek word is in passive voice, another entity is acting upon the subject. This is the work of none other than the Holy Spirit himself. At the same time, one must be mindful, just because this verb is in the passive voice does not justify the belief that the Spirit controls believers beyond their will. This is a command of action on behalf of the believer, yet it is clearly expressing that the Holy Spirit is the one whom completes this work of filling.

The fourth aspect of the verb πληροῦσθε is that it is in the present tense. This conveys a continuous aspect in the verb. Literally stated it could read, “keep being filled”, showing that it is not a one-time event as it is with the indwelling of the Spirit. Rather we are commanded to be continually filled by the spirit. Peter O’Brian points out this same continual aspect in his commentary on Ephesians. O’Brian writes, “Paul’s primary concern is to urge his readers to live by the spirit continually”.[3] This, in its self, argues against the filling and the indwelling of the spirit being synonymous, because they do not convey the same time aspect.

Just before this command in Ephesians 5:18 Paul makes the statement to not be drunk with wine, and contrasts drunkenness to being filled with the Spirit. When making application, one must be cautious in two specific areas regarding this phrase “be not drunk with wine”. First, that Paul is not specifically writing to condemn drunkenness in this passage[4], though it is likely implied within the text, Paul is simply using it to illustrate another point.[5] Secondly one must be careful not to equate the appearance of drunkenness with the appearance of being filled with the spirit as the unbelievers did in Acts 2:13[6]. In the book of Acts, when the Apostles received the Spirit they began speaking in other tongues (Acts 2:6), those who set out to mock them accused them of being drunk. The reference in Ephesians 5:18 is something of a different manner. D.M. Jones in his book, Life in the Spirit explains it this way,

“There is obviously a certain similarity between the two states and conditions. I suggest, therefore, that the Apostle puts it in this way in order that he may bring out both the element of contrast and the element of similarity.” [7]

Paul uses the illustration of drunkenness to help his readers understand what being filled with the spirit is, they are allowing themselves to be controlled[8], directed and influenced by the Spirit. Just as one who has become drunk with wine, their normal functions are impaired and under the influence of this substance. Paul is saying that when one becomes filled with the Spirit, they are like wise impaired, but not impaired from logical function as with drunkenness, but rather the Spirits work is so overpowering that their normal function of sin is impaired, the ability to choose sin without remorse is gone due to the Spirits overwhelming influence, even resulting in a changed conscience[9] and attitude[10]. Or as Jones says, “a controlled life, an ordered life; it is the very reverse condition of the drunkard who has lost control, and is being controlled by something else”.[11]


The broader context of Paul’s writings


Taking a step out of the immediate context of Ephesians, and looking into Paul’s writings as a collective unit. There arises a contradictory element to the filling of the Spirit. Based of the exegesis of Ephesians, the conclusion was drawn that the filling of the Spirit is continuous in aspect, and is a condition by which a believer is strongly influenced and captivated by the Spirit. If this is true, then there must be an opposite, a condition that is characterized not by an absence of the Spirit, but by a lack of control by the Spirit. The question is how does one come to be in such a state. It is clear that after Pentecost, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was permanent. Therefore this lack of influence by the Spirit cannot be a result of lacking the Spirit all together. What Paul does teach, is that it is possible for believers whom are already indwelt, to Resist the Spirit as taught in Acts 7:51, to grieve the Spirit as found in Ephesians 4:30, as well as quench the Spirit in 1 Thessalonians 5:19. Interestingly, this word that is used in Ephesians chapter five for “quench” is not the typical word that was common of that day. Paul chose to use the word λυπεῖτε, which carries the same connotation as the Hebrew word ‏עָצַב that is found in Isaiah 63:10[12] carrying the idea that they were able to vex the Holy Spirit. Combining these pieces, the conclusion can be drawn that it is possible to resist or ignore the Spirits working in ones life to where that individual comes to a point in which they are no longer under the direction of the Spirits leading, they are not being consumed and controlled in the same sense as those whom are filled.

Filling of the Spirit defined


After careful textual analysis, there are two things that the filling of the Spirit could not possibly be equated with. First, the filling of the Spirit cannot be the same as being indwelt by the Spirit. The indwelling of the Spirit is defined as a definitive point in time in which the Holy Spirit permanently enters into all believers (John7:39; Romans 5:5). The indwelling and the filling of the Spirit cannot be a reference to the same event, because indwelling is permanent, where as one who is filled has the ability to vex the Spirit. Secondly the filling of the Spirit cannot be the same as being baptized by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). The baptism of the Spirit is the work that the Holy Spirit does at the moment of salvation, which symbolizes their being brought into the body of Christ (the church). Likewise the baptism of the Spirit is a definitive onetime event that occurs. It is impossible for a true believer to be taken out of the body of Christ; therefore this cannot be the same thing as the filling of the Spirit.

What then is the filling of the Spirit? Andreas Köstenberger describes it this way, “Since the Spirit already lives in them, believers’ major efforts should be directed toward manifesting the Spir-it’s [sic] presence in ever-increasing measure”[13] In it’s most simple of definitions; the filling of the Spirit is when believers are completely under the influence of the Holy Spirits working. It is the active sanctification at work in their lives; teaching them, leading them and guiding them in the way that they ought to go. Being filled by the Spirit stands out from all the other workings of the Holy Spirit. The acts of the Holy Spirit to regenerate, seal, indwell, and baptize are all one time events that are completed at the time of salvation. The filling of the Spirit is more than simply a one-time event at salvation; rather it is descriptive of the Holy Spirits continual sanctifying work in the life of a believer.

[1] Harold W. Hoener, “Ephesians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Colorado Springs: Cook Publishing, 1984), 639.

[2] Charles Gore, “St. Pauls Epistle to the Ephesians,” A Practical Exposition (London: Murray, 1898), 206.

[3] Peter T. O’Brian, “Letter to the Ephesians,” The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans Publishing, 1999), 387.

[4] David J. Williams, “Ephesians,” New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 263.

[5] D.M. LLoyd Jones, “Life in the Spirit In Marriage, Home, and Work,” An Exposition on Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 11.

[6] Peter T. O’Brian, “Letter to the Ephesians, 388.

[7] D.M. LLoyd Jones, “Life in the Spirit In Marriage, Home, and Work”, 13.

[8] Eldon Woodcock, “The Filling of the Holy Spirit,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (January 2000), 68-87.

[9] RC Sproul, “The Ministry of the Holy Spirit”,  (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1990), 147.

[10] Charles Ryrie, “The Characteristics of Spirituality,” Bibliotheca Sacra 126 (1969), 213.

[11] D.M. LLoyd Jones, “Life in the Spirit In Marriage, Home, and Work”, 15.

[12] Frank Thielman, “Ephesians,” Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 318.

[13] Andreas Köstenberger, “What Does It Mean to be Filled?”  The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:2 (June 1997), 235.


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