In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says (5:18) that they should be filled with the Holy Spirit. What does this mean?
My understanding of this is that Paul is encouraging a continuous process of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The picture is of a jug being filled to the brim and then overflowing. This means that the life of God flows through us and out to others. Some of the effects of this are described in Scripture, such as fruit (the character of Jesus) and gifts (the power of Jesus). He is not talking about a once-off event, but neither is he talking about nothing much at all.
Some people say that this is not what is meant. They are uncomfortable with the picture of the Spirit as a fluid. He is a person. We either have 100% of him (i.e. we are saved) or we have none of him - there are no degrees of being filled. So they say that what it really means is that we should be filled by the Spirit - he will fill us with good things such as the fruit. This view is commonly found among conservative evangelicals. It neatly avoids the issue of some Christians being 'Spirit-filled' and others not, as claimed by charismatics. So is the Spirit the substance of the filling or the agent of the filling?
Unfortunately the original Greek is ambiguous - the word 'en' can mean 'in' or 'with' or 'by'. We therefore have to look at other Scriptures. However, it should be noted that most Bible translators agree that here the correct translation is 'with'. It seems to me that there are two issues:
There are several places in the Bible where the Holy Spirit is mentioned using fluid-like words. In the prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit is said to be 'poured out' on all people (i.e. not just a few special ones). The same picture is used to describe what happened to Cornelius (Acts 10:45). John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptise people with/in the Holy Spirit; here it is clear that Jesus is the agent and the Spirit is the substance. Baptism really means immersing or soaking, as in dyeing cloth; the cloth is immersed in the dye so the dye can soak into the cloth. So the Spirit, the author of Scripture, is happy to describe himself in terms of a fluid. Note that I am not saying that the Holy Spirit is a fluid, merely that he is happy to use such terminology to help us understand him. No analogy is perfect, but we can't really understand God without using analogies so we should not be shy of using those analogies which God himself has given us.
If the idea of a jug is disturbing, then think of the cloth. Having been dunked, it certainly was in the dye and the dye is in the cloth. The cloth now clearly carries the visible mark of the dye. Yet we can dunk it again and it will pick up more dye and show the colour more clearly. The second dunking, and any subsequent ones, does not do anything different from the first one; it is just more of the same. The only difference is that before the first dunking the cloth was still in its original state without any of the dye. Given this analogy, why should we think it strange that Paul encourages those who already have the Spirit to have more of him? This is not the 'second-blessing' theology of pentecostalism, but neither is it the 'one-blessing-and-that's-your-lot' theology of conservatism.
In the Ephesians verse Paul actually compares/contrasts the effect of wine and the Spirit. Many Christians find this quite alarming! If it wasn't clearly there in Scripture they would probably think it blasphemous. Both bring happiness, a reduction in inhibition, a loosening of the tongue and a feeling that you can take on the world and win. The difference is that the effects of wine have faded by the morning, while the Spirit lasts for eternity. Wine brings an illusion, the Spirit brings reality. Note that wine is a fluid, and we can drink a little or a lot. One of the aspects of the charismatic movement which shocks conservatives is that sometimes charismatics seem to behave as though they are drunk. The same accusation was made on the day of Pentecost.
There are several places in the Bible (particularly in Acts) where a person or group is said to be 'full of' the Spirit or 'filled with' the Spirit. The first describes a state; the second describes an event. In some cases the event was also a conversion experience, in others it was subsequent to conversion. In most cases the effect of this event are described too. For example Acts 4:31 says that the effect of this filling was boldness in speaking for God. So Scripture says that they were filled with the Holy Spirit (event) and they spoke boldly (consequence) - it does not say that the Holy Spirit filled them with boldness. We must accept that Scripture says what it means to say. I am always suspicious of people who tell me that it doesn't really mean what it says.
When choosing the Seven (Acts 6) they looked for men who were 'known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom'. Whatever 'full of the Spirit' might mean, it clearly implies that not all of the men in the church were 'full of the Spirit'. This means that it cannot be merely another way of saying 'saved'. It also cannot be simply another way of saying 'full of the fruit of the Spirit', as we know fruit takes a long time to mature and this was still early days. Could it mean 'full of the gifts of the Spirit', as some charismatics seem to think? I don't think so, as if gifts were the issue then presumably they could look for those particular gifts which would help with serving the widows and orphans. No, I think it means exactly what it says: 'full of the Spirit' means 'full of God' i.e. godly. I think we all know a godly person when we meet one, even if God still has lots of work to do in them. Even a young Christian can be full of the Spirit, even though the fruit has had insufficient time to grow, the gifts have yet to be discovered and Scripture is still largely unknown. Such a person, properly supervised, can be trusted to serve God and his people. Conversely, I am sure we have all met people who have been Christians for many years yet who still seem to be lacking something.
If 'filled with the Spirit' should really be 'filled by the Spirit', then 'full of the Spirit' would be meaningless as it should say 'full of whatever the Spirit has given'. There are places where Scripture says 'full of the Spirit' and 'full of something he has given' (e.g, Acts 6:5) so it is saying that both are true. When the Spirit fills us, he will naturally have a real effect - this is not some mystical inner experience with no external consequences - but our aim should be to be full of God rather than merely full of the things he can give us.
Is it meaningful to talk about some Christians being 'Spirit-filled'? My answer is: 'Yes and No'.
Scripture says that some Christians are full of the Holy Spirit, so by implication not all are. However, charismatics are mistaken to connect this too tightly with a once-off event, sometimes called 'Baptism in the Spirit'. I do not believe that there are two classes of Christian: those who have 'it' and those who don't. On the other hand, conservative evangelicals are wrong to dismiss the idea altogether by assuming that there is fundamentally no difference between different people. Some Christians have experienced more of God than others. It is reasonable to think of degrees of fulness, yet without imposing an upper limit - we could never be 100% full of God!
I believe the main difference between those who may claim to be Spirit-filled and those who do not like this description is that the former have, usually, had an experience of God in which they felt him touch them in a special way. They know His love and peace, not just because they believe it by faith, but because they have experienced it. In many cases they have also found themselves using one or more of the charismata. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that it is like the difference between reading about a place and visiting it. Once you have been there your knowledge of it exceeds that of anyone who has not been there, even if the non-visitor knows many more facts about the place. It would be foolish for the non-visitor to claim that the visitor is mistaken (or even deluded) in his claim of superior knowledge. However, the visitor's knowledge will fade with time so he cannot forever look back on a past visit and claim current knowledge. It is necessary to visit again from time to time.
Another way of looking at it was described by, I believe, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He said that all Christians know what it is to walk alongside God holding his hand. They all know God's love. However, some have had the experience of God picking them up and giving them a big hug. Even after they have been put down again and are just holding God's hand, they know they are loved in a way which they did not know before the hug. In that sense they are now different from those who have yet to have this experience. The love has not changed at all, but their experience of it has. Sadly, the hugged ones can consider themselves superior to the unhugged, who respond by denying the possibility of hugs and thus regarding themselves as superior to those claiming hugs.
The real issue is not 'have you been filled with the Spirit?', but rather 'how full of the Spirit are you?'. However, it is inevitable that those who share a similar experience of God will find that this gives them a common understanding and vocabulary and they may prefer to associate with each other rather than with those who deny the reality of the experience. Then 'Spirit-filled' becomes merely a shorthand way of referring to the group, rather than the grand claim to superiority which is sometimes assumed. Some people outside the group may be currently more full of the Spirit than some inside the group, but this does not mean that the group is mistaken or deluded. A similar issue arise with those who are happy to use the term 'born again' to describe themselves; this group will include both charismatics and conservatives, but not everyone in the group is actually born again and there will be some outside the group who genuinely know the Lord. So 'Spirit-filled' is a useful label, provided its limitations are understood.
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created 18 Sept 2008