Be Filled with the Spirit

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.

The apostle Paul commands in Ephesians 5:18 that we be filled with the Spirit. Therefore, I want to try to answer two questions today: What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? And, how can we be filled with the Spirit? I think it might help you follow me if I tell you at the outset where I am going. So I’ll start with my conclusions and then give the biblical support. I think being filled with the Spirit means, basically, having great joy in God. And since the Bible teaches that “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10), it also means there will be power in this joy for overcoming besetting sins and for boldness in witness.

But, basically, it means radiant joy, because the Spirit who fills us is the Spirit of joy that flows between God the Father and God the Son because of the delight they have in each other. Therefore, to be filled with the Spirit means to be caught into the joy that flows among the Holy Trinity and to love God the Father and God the Son with the very love with which they love each other. And then, in answer to the second question, the way to be filled with the Spirit is by trusting that the God of hope really reigns — that not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will (Matthew 10:29) — and that he runs the world for you and for all who trust his word. In believing that, you will be filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy.

“To be filled with the Spirit means to be caught into the joy that flows among the Holy Trinity.”

With the spread of Pentecostalism in this country and in the third world, there has been a lot of discussion about the New Testament phrases “filled with the Spirit” and “baptized with the Spirit.” I feel some obligation, therefore, today not merely to interpret Ephesians 5:18 in its immediate context, but also to orient what I say in the wider New Testament teaching.

What Does ‘Baptize in the Holy Spirit’ Mean?

The phrase “baptize in (or with) the Holy Spirit” was apparently coined by John the Baptist. All four of our gospels record that he said, “I have baptized you with water, but he (i.e., Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). The only two writers in the New Testament who refer elsewhere to the phrase “baptize with the Spirit” are Luke in the book of Acts, and Paul in 1 Corinthians. Luke refers to it twice, quoting John each time (Acts 1:5; 11:16), and Paul refers to it once (1 Corinthians 12:13). But I don’t think Paul and Luke use this phrase to refer to the same thing. For Paul, it is virtually identical to regeneration or new birth (conversion). For Luke, it is essentially the same as being filled with the Spirit and refers to that first introductory experience of this fullness.

I’ll try to show very briefly why I think this. First, we must never assume that a particular phrase means exactly the same thing every place it occurs in Scripture. Good interpretation lets a word or phrase mean whatever the immediate context demands. What really matters in Scripture is not that a phrase everywhere has the same meaning, but that the reality which a phrase describes does not contradict other descriptions of reality in the Bible. So Paul and Luke need not use the phrase “baptized with the Spirit” in the very same sense. Paul uses the phrase only once. He says in 1 Corinthians 12:12, 13:

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

According to this one reference, Paul conceived of Spirit-baptism as the act by which the Spirit made us members of Christ’s body. Once we were alienated from God, cut off from Christ (Ephesians 2:12), but then the Holy Spirit swept over us and brought us to life by uniting us to the living Christ and thus to his people in one body. This is a once-for-all event. It is never repeated, and nowhere does Paul (or Luke) ever admonish a Christian to be baptized by the Spirit.

But Luke seems to mean something different by the phrase, namely, something essentially the same as being filled with the Spirit, which is not a once-for-all event (for Luke and for Paul) but an ongoing or repeated occurrence. The evidence for this comes from the book of Acts. In Acts 1:4–5, Luke reports that Jesus, just before he ascended to the Father, told his apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” This was a clear reference to Pentecost. But when Pentecost comes in chapter 2, listen to how Luke describes it:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–3)

Jesus promises in chapter 1 that they will be baptized by the Spirit, and Luke describes the fulfillment of that promise in chapter 2 in terms of the filling of the Holy Spirit. Yet we know from Acts 11:15–17 that Luke does see Pentecost as a baptism with the Spirit. He reports there how Peter described his preaching to the Gentiles, in Cornelius’s house:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?

So this later outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles (in Acts 10:44) is equated with the first Pentecostal outpouring, and both are explained as a baptism with the Spirit. Therefore, Luke sees what happened at Pentecost as both a baptism with the Spirit and a filling with the Spirit. Since Luke refers later on to the disciples being filled again (Acts 4:8, 31; 13:4), but never refers to them as being baptized again with the Spirit, it seems to me that for Luke “baptism with the Spirit” refers to that initial filling by the Spirit after a person trusts in Christ.

I don’t think Luke equates “baptism by the Spirit” with regeneration like Paul does. That would mean that all the apostles, who, with God’s help, had confessed Jesus to be the Christ (Luke 9:20; Matthew 16:17) and had seen him alive after his resurrection and had their minds opened by him to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45), were in fact dead in trespasses and sins and enslaved to the flesh during all their time with Jesus and up till Pentecost morning.

If we asked Luke, “Is that what you mean?” I think he would say, “Oh no, they had already been born of the Spirit, just like all the great saints of the Old Testament, but they hadn’t yet experienced to the full what God could do through them by his Spirit. But now that Christ has come and through his death and resurrection purchased all the blessings of God, it is God’s purpose to call all his people to experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” When a person first experiences this fullness of the Spirit, that is what Luke means by being baptized with the Spirit. And that is different from Paul who, I think, uses the phrase to refer to regeneration (new birth or moment of conversion).

Pentecostal Theology

Now we are right at the heart of the charismatic controversy, and I want to try to sort out some things and let you know where I stand and why I think this stance is biblical. What is clear so far is at least this: if anyone ever asks you, “Have you been baptized with the Holy Spirit?” your first response should be to say, “What do you mean by baptism with the Holy Spirit?” So many of our arguments could be avoided if we just started off defining our terms. Suppose the definition they gave was this: “Baptism with the Holy Spirit is an experience you have with God after conversion in which the Holy Spirit falls upon you in such a way that your heart bursts forth in the utterance of tongues (some ecstatic speech or unknown language).”

What would our answer be, then? Some of us would say, “Yes, I have experienced that.” Others would say, “No, I never have spoken in tongues.” But both of us should then say, “But, you know, that definition of baptism with the Spirit is not a biblical one.” There is no way to argue rightly from the book of Acts that God intends for baptism with the Spirit always to be accompanied by speaking in tongues. And Paul teaches plainly in 1 Corinthians 12:10 that God does not give the gift of tongues to everyone. Being baptized with the Holy Spirit may or may not result in glossolalia (tongues-speaking) and, therefore, speaking in tongues is not a necessary part of either Luke’s or Paul’s definition of baptism with the Spirit.

“It is not wrong to insist that tongues are a possible part of our Spirit-filled experience today.”

I want to stress here, though, that I do not reject the validity of the gift of tongues for our own day. It is wrong to insist that they are a necessary part of the baptism of the Spirit; it is not wrong to insist that they are a possible part of that experience today. When I was in high school, I listened to Mr. DeHaan on the radio. I was standing in my bedroom one morning, listening to him try to argue from the New Testament that the so-called sign gifts, like tongues and miracles and healing, were intended by God to come to an end at the close of the apostolic age, so that they are no longer valid today.

And I can remember even in those early years saying to myself, “Mr. DeHaan, those arguments are not valid. All you are able to show is that if there are no tongues today, you can see some possible reasons for it. But nothing that you have said proves that God intends for these gifts to end before this age closes.” And now after twenty years of Bible study and friendships with charismatic believers I will say with even more assurance: let us not reject or despise any of God’s gifts, including tongues.

But now back to the person who is asking if you have been baptized with the Spirit. If he uses Paul’s definition and means, “Have you been united to Christ by the Spirit so that you are part of his body (1 Corinthians 12:12)?” — then the answer of all believers should be, “Yes, I have indeed been baptized with the Spirit.” If he uses Luke’s definition and means, “Have you ever once been so filled by the Holy Spirit that you overflowed with joy, had victory over besetting sins, and were made bold to witness?” — then the answer should be and could be, “Yes,” for all Christians, but probably won’t be.

The apostle Paul taught that there is such a thing as a babe in Christ, and he contrasted with the babe in Christ the person who is spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:1). Now, both Luke and Paul would have agreed that what this new, faltering babe in Christ needs is a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit into his life. Paul would have called this experience “being filled” with the Spirit. And Luke would have agreed, but then would have also called this first experience of the Spirit’s fullness the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” So while the phrase “baptized with the Spirit” is used differently by Paul and Luke, they view man’s need and God’s action as basically the same.

Perhaps one other clarification of some Pentecostal teaching should be mentioned. We are sometimes urged to seek a “second blessing” or second experience of the Spirit after our initial conversion experience. Two things need to be said. First: the blessing of the fullness (or baptism) of the Holy Spirit may occur at the moment of conversion and leave nothing to be sought but its preservation and growth or repetition. Second: even if one does not experience the fullness of the Spirit at conversion, the thing to be sought is not “the second blessing,” as if that experience would be the end of our spiritual quest.

What we should seek (and this applies to all Christians) is that God pour his Spirit out upon us so completely that we are filled with joy, victorious over sin, and bold to witness. And the ways he brings us to that fullness are probably as varied as people are. It may come in a tumultuous experience of ecstasy and tongues. It may come through a tumultuous experience of ecstasy and no tongues. It may come through a crisis of suffering when you abandon yourself totally to God. Or it may come gradually through a steady diet of God’s word and prayer and fellowship and worship and service. However it comes, our first experience of the fullness of the Spirit is only the beginning of a life-long battle to stay filled with the Spirit.

Don’t Turn to Alcohol, Turn to the Spirit

And that brings us to Ephesians 5:18, where the present tense of the verb in Greek means just that: “Keep on being filled with the Spirit.” Let’s look at the context to see more specifically what this means:

Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. (Ephesians 5:15–18)

The contrast with drunkenness is the key here. What do people go to alcohol for? For a happy hour. We all want to be happy, but there is a problem: “The days are evil.” Notice the logic of verses 16–18:

The days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk . . . but be filled with the Spirit.

Where do you turn when the days are evil, when you are frightened or discouraged or depressed or anxious? Paul pleads with us: “Don’t turn to alcohol; turn to the Spirit. Anything of value that alcohol can bring you, God the Holy Spirit can bring more.”

“Anything of value that alcohol can bring you, God the Holy Spirit can bring more.”

There are people who can’t begin to whistle a happy tune or sing a song at work because they are so tense and anxious about life. But later in the evening at the tavern with a few drinks under their belt they can put their arms around each other and sing and laugh. All of us long to be carefree, uninhibited, happy. And the mounting tragedy of our own day, as in Paul’s, is that increasing numbers of people (even Christians) believe that the only way they can find this child-like freedom is by drugging themselves with alcohol or other mind-benders. Such behavior dishonors God, and so Paul says: there is a better way to cope with the evil days — be filled with the Spirit, stay filled with the Spirit. And you will know unmatched joy that sings and makes melody to the Lord.

The fundamental meaning of being filled with the Spirit is being filled with joy that comes from God and overflows in song. And Luke would agree with that, too, because he says in Acts 13:52, “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” To be sure, one of the marks of a person filled with the Spirit is that he is made strong to witness in the face of opposition (Acts 4:8, 31; 7:55; 13:9). But the reason for this is that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). When you are happy in God, you are a strong and brave witness to his grace. So I repeat, whatever joy or peace you find in alcohol, the Spirit of God can give you more. Even the psalmist of the Old Testament had experienced this. He says in Psalm 4:7– 8:

You [O Lord] have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

How to Do What Can Only Be Done for Us

And that psalm leads us now to our final, all-important question of how we can obey this command to be filled with the Spirit. We are in the same predicament we were in last week. We are commanded to be full, and yet we are not the filler; the Spirit is. The answer to this predicament in the New Testament is that God has ordained to move into our lives with fullness through faith. The pathway that the Spirit cuts through the jungle of our anxieties into the clearing of joy is the pathway of faith. Luke says of Stephen in Acts 6:5, that he was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and he says of Barnabas in Acts 11:24 that he was “a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” The two go together. If a person is filled with faith, he will be filled with the Spirit, the Spirit of joy and peace.

The most important text in Paul’s writings to show this is Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Notice that it is in or by believing that we are filled with joy and peace. And it is by the Spirit that we abound in hope. When we put those two halves of the verse together, what we see is that through our faith (our believing) the Spirit fills us with his hope and thus with his joy and peace. And, of course, since hope is such an essential part of being filled with joy by the Spirit, what we have to believe is that God is, as Paul says, the God of hope. We have to rivet our faith on all that he has done and said to give us hope.

Nobody stays full of the Spirit all the time — no one is always totally joyful and submissive to God and empowered for service. But this should still be our aim, our goal, our great longing. “As a deer pants for the flowing streams, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1–2). But in order to slake that thirst, we must fight the fight of faith. We must preach to our souls a sermon of hope:

Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God. For I shall again praise him. He is my help and my God. (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5)

We must set before our own soul the banquet of promises that God has made to us and feed our faith to the full. Then it may be said of us as it was of Stephen and Barnabas: “They were filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit.”