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STUDY SEVEN: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT?

© Rosemary Bardsley 2009

 

There are two distinct biblical concepts referred to as being ‘filled with the Spirit’. One speaks about an on-going condition of life which is commanded; the other about specific, often temporary, empowerment, which is never commanded.

A. The ‘fullness’ of the Spirit

The Bible never uses the term ‘the fullness of the Spirit’ [see section # 3 below]. However, the New Testament refers several times to the life lived under the control and direction of the Spirit of God as being ‘full of the Holy Spirit’, or ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’.

Thus, for example,

  • the selection criteria for deacons in Acts 6:3 required that the men chosen must be ‘known to be full of the Spirit’;
  • Stephen is described as ‘full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’;
  • Stephen, Barnabas and some disciples are described as being ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ [Acts 7:55; 11:24; 13:52]; and
  • we are commanded to be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ [Ephesians 5:18].

In each of these references either the adjective pleres [full] or the verb pleroo [fill] is used. Whenever a verbal form is used it has a continuous tense. Thus all of these references indicate a continuity of the condition of being full of the Spirit. This being full of the Spirit simply cannot and does not happen instantaneously – by the very nature of the words used it indicates and requires an on-going, sustained influence of the Spirit in the human life.

A.1 What does being full of the Spirit look like?

This ‘fullness’ of the Spirit is evident in a life lived submissive to the Spirit of God as he teaches us from the Word of God, revealing Christ to us, and gradually transforming us more and more into the image of God.

The verses below do not use the phrases ‘full of’ or ‘filled with’ the Spirit, but they communicate something of the meaning of these terms. How do these verses below express this on-going concept of being filled with or full of the Spirit?  What is the result or evidence of the work of the Spirit?

2Cor 3:18

 

 

Galatians 5:16

 

 

Galatians 5:17-18

 

 

Galatians 5:22-23

 

 

Galatians 5:25

 

 

Ephesians 5:9

[Greek = fruit of the Spirit]

 

In these verses we read of

  • being transformed by the Spirit,
  • living by the Spirit,
  • being led by the Spirit and
  • keeping in step with the Spirit.
  • We also read of the fruit of the Spirit.

Each of these is talking about the same spiritual reality as the terms ‘full of the Spirit’ and ‘filled with the Spirit’ – an on-going positive response [= obedience] to the teaching and instruction of the indwelling Spirit of God.

A.2 Ephesians 5:18-21

In Ephesians 5:18-21 Paul’s command to be filled [the verb pleroo] with the Spirit is in the present continuous tense. It certainly does not refer to a one-off experience of the Spirit towards which Christians have to strive; nor does it refer to a one-off, once-for-all-time filling with the Spirit beyond which the Christian lives on a superior spiritual level. Rather it refers to an on-going spiritual condition in which the Holy Spirit directs and dominates the Christian’s life, including the Christian’s beliefs, perceptions and attitudes as well as actions. The Holy Spirit is the active person here; the believer is the passive sphere/location of the Holy Spirit’s active work. [The verb is in the passive voice.] The command is not about what we have to do or initiate, but about how we are to respond to the Holy Spirit’s teaching and instruction. Our responsibility is to let the Holy Spirit do his transforming work by believing and obedient response to his teaching and instruction.

Paul explains what this ‘be filled with the Spirit’ will look like. In the Greek text there is only one command: ‘be filled with the Spirit’ [18]. This one command is followed [in the Greek text] by a series of present participles which are descriptive of the Spirit-taught, Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed, Spirit-controlled life:

  • [19] speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. This refers to the content of our conversation – people who are full of the Spirit will talk to each other about God’s truth.
  • [19] singing – the life of joy and praise resulting from the Spirit’s teaching and instruction.
  • [19] making music in your heart to the Lord. This refers to the inner relationship with God in which we live in his presence with joy and peace as the Holy Spirit’s instruction in his truth and assurance of our salvation in Christ dominates our hearts and minds.
  • [20] always giving thanks to God the Father for everything. Under the Holy Spirit’s teaching and control we will live our lives with contentment and with praise to God.
  • [21] submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Our attitude to one another under the direction of the Spirit – each giving up our personal rights for the well being of the other, just like Jesus. [What this submission will look like in various life relationships is explained in 5:22-6:9.]

Note that the first four of these are directly dependent on our believing God’s truth that the Spirit teaches us. The last expresses our obedience to the Spirit’s moral instruction.

It is interesting that in Colossians 3:15-17 a very similar list of life-expressions accompany Paul’s command ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. Again we see the essential synergy between the Word and the Spirit. This also instructs us that, whatever else we do with the command ‘be filled with the Spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18, we must at least do this: that we understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer that results in this fullness of the Spirit is intimately connected to his instructing us in the Word of God. The more he teaches us and the more he fills out our understanding, the more our lives will express the results identified in Ephesians 5:19-21 and Colossians 3:16-17.

It is also interesting and instructive that the instructions relating to husbands, wives, children, parents, masters and slaves follow immediately in both of these chapters. Submission is required of each party in each of these two-way relationships as part of what it means to be ‘filled with the Spirit’ in the nitty-gritty of human lives and their interpersonal relationships.

 

B. Special empowerment by the Spirit to communicate God’s truth boldly

The other Greek verb translated as ‘filled’ is pletho. In reference to the Holy Spirit it is used only in Luke’s writing - three times in his Gospel and five times in Acts. 

  • Luke 1:15 - the angel told Zachariah his promised son ‘will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth’. 
  • Luke 1:41 -  Elizabeth, ‘was filled with the Holy Spirit’
  • Luke 1:67 - Zachariah ‘was filled with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘prophesied’ a statement of praise to God for the fulfilment of the Old Testament hope that was about to occur in the ministry of John and of Jesus.

 

  • Acts 2:4 – ‘all of them’ [most likely referring only to the 12 apostles not the 120 believers] ‘were filled with the Holy Spirit’ and spoke in other languages.
  • Acts 4:8 – Peter ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ spoke to the rulers and elders
  • Acts 4:31 – ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’
  • Acts 9:17 – Ananias was sent to Saul so that he could be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’
  • Acts 13:9 – Paul ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ confronted Elymas regarding his opposition and trickery.

With the exception of the future tense used in reference to John the Baptist, this being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ is in the Aorist tense, indicating a pin-point occurrence, not a continuous quality or condition of life. In each case the result or impact of being filled with the Spirit is the bold and effective proclamation of God’s truth. This being filled with the Spirit is God enabling and empowering a person, usually to proclaim his truth boldly or to speak as his person when under pressure.

This filling of the Spirit which enabled bold speech as the occasion demanded was not usually continuous nor was it unrepeatable. Thus we find in Acts 4:8 we find that Peter was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ [Aorist Tense – a decisive pin-point event at this particular point of time]; yet he was one of those who had also been ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ [also Aorist Tense] in Acts 2. Similarly this repeated filling is highly likely for at least some of those who were ‘filled with the Spirit’ in Acts 4:31.

There are a small number of references where this empowerment by the Spirit is mentioned without the phrase ‘filled with the Spirit’:

  • In Luke 2:25-32 we read that ‘the Holy Spirit was upon’ Simeon, and that ‘moved by the Spirit’ he recognized the infant Christ as the Messiah and praised God.
  • When Jesus sent the disciples out on local mission trips and told them not to worry about what they would say if brought before the rulers: he said ‘At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’ [Matthew 10:19,20; see also Mark 13:11; Luke 21:14-15]. This is a promise of empowerment by the Spirit that was relevant both before and after Pentecost. Note that it related to witness, communication, speech.
  • In Luke 24:48,49 Jesus told the eleven apostles ‘You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’. This is also reported by Luke in Acts 1:8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses …’.  

Tabulated summary of this empowerment type of being filled with the Spirit:

Text

Who was ‘filled with the Spirit’ [pletho] or enabled/empowered by the Spirit

How/when the empowerment occurred

Luke 1:15

John the Baptist [filled with]

‘from birth’ – that is, he was empowered by the Spirit from birth.

Luke 1:41

Elizabeth [filled with]

A one off empowerment only for that occasion resulting in verbal expression re the deity of the unborn Christ.

Luke 1:67

Zachariah [filled with]

A one off empowerment only for that occasion resulting in verbal proclamation

Luke 2:25-32

Simeon [Holy Spirit was upon him, he was moved by the Holy Spirit]

Reference to both a sustained presence of the Spirit and a specific empowerment by the Spirit to testify concerning the infant Christ.

Matt 10:19,20

Mark 13:10,22

Luke 21:14-15

Disciples of Jesus – anticipating their witness after Pentecost [given what to say by the Spirit]

Would occur as specific empowerment to speak when brought before rulers etc after engaging in Christian witness

Luke 24:48,49

11 faithful disciples [would be clothed with power from on high]

 

Empowerment for their mission of witness to Christ to all nations.

Acts 1:8

11 faithful disciples [receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you]

Acts 2:4

‘all of them’ -most likely only the 12 apostles [were filled with the HS]

This implemented the empowerment promised by Christ in the two previous references. By this empowerment the disciples declared the wonders of God in languages they had never learned.

Acts 4:8

Peter [filled with]

Specific empowerment for this occasion on which Peter addressed the rulers and leaders of the people.

Acts 4:31

‘they… all’ – believers in a meeting [filled with]

Empowerment on this specific occasion – after Peter and John’s arrest and release; following this the apostles ‘with great power continued to testify to the resurrection’ [v33].

Acts 9:17

Saul/Paul [filled with]

Ananias told Saul he would be filled with the Spirit. The actual occurrence is not recorded, but it appears to be a reference to an initial empowerment for his commission.

Acts 13:9

Paul [filled with]

Discernment and empowerment on this occasion to recognize and rebuke Elymas’ satanic deceit.

Romans 15:18-19

Paul fully proclaimed the Gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum ‘through the power of the Spirit’

Empowerment to preach, with associated miracles.

1Corinthians 2:4

Paul’s message and preaching was ‘a demonstration of the Spirit’s power’

Empowerment to preach and teach the Gospel

It is therefore necessary to clearly distinguish between this empowerment by the Spirit, which is also called being ‘filled with the Spirit’ [pletho], which is never commanded, and which does not happen to every believer, and the on-going condition of a life lived in submission to the Spirit which is called being ‘filled with the Spirit’ or being ‘full of the Spirit’ [pleroo, pleres], which is commanded for all believers.

This empowerment by the Spirit of God appears to bear great similarity to the empowerment of believing people in the Old Testament era to do the work of God and/or to speak the word of God in a given situation or occasion, or in a specific calling.

 

C. The term ‘the fullness of the Spirit’ 

The term ‘the fullness of the Spirit’ does not occur in the Bible. It is potentially a very misleading term.

Consider:

  • Every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God. He is either there or not there. You cannot just have a bit of him. The term ‘the fullness of the Spirit’ confuses some people into thinking that some people have all of the Spirit and others have only a part or portion of the Holy Spirit, instead of the biblical perspective of believers as the dwelling place of God.
  • When an individual believer, for example Stephen, is described as being ‘full of the Spirit’ [pleres] this does not mean that he has more of the Spirit than another believer, but rather, that he is consistently responsive to the indwelling Spirit as the Spirit teaches him. This is commanded for all of us.
  • When an individual believer, for example Peter, is described as being ‘filled with the Spirit’ [pletho] this does not mean that he has more of the Spirit than another believer. Rather it means that in a particular circumstance the Holy Spirit empowered him to do speak God’s truth boldly, above his normal level of ability. This is not commanded or encouraged. It has nothing to do with us; it is at God’s discretion as he chooses to empower or enable us at any particular point of need in our engagement in his mission.

We would do well to drop the term ‘the fullness of the Spirit’.

 

4. Where does ‘being slain in the Spirit’ fit in?

There is not a single word about being ‘slain in (or by) the Spirit’ in either the Old or New Testament. There is nothing by way of example or experience of this phenomenon happening to anyone. It simply is not there. It cannot be validated by any legitimate interpretation of any biblical text. To identify this contemporary phenomenon either with the baptism of the Spirit, or receiving the Spirit, or the gift of the Spirit, or with being filled with the Spirit is totally out of order from a biblical perspective.

As indicated in the study on the Holy Spirit in the Pre-Pentecost era, the only incident that bears any possible similarity is the incident involving King Saul in 1Samuel 19, but even this is very unlike the contemporary experiences termed ‘slain in the Spirit’. 

 

 


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