Church,  New Testament

What Does it Mean to be Filled with the Spirit?

photo of a dove symbolizing being filled with the Spirit

Ephesians 5:18 commands believers to “be filled with the Spirit.” But what does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Being filled with the Spirit has been understood in a variety of ways. Some have interpreted as some sort of spiritual manifestation of speaking in tongues. Others have said being filled with the Spirit is the same as being filled with Christ. Although there are many notions as to what being “filled with the Spirit” means, I think if we pay attention to the grammar and broader context of Ephesians, we can understand this passage.

First, there is the problem of what it actually means to be filled “with the Spirit.” Many of the English versions (NASB, ESV, KJV, etc.) translate it “with the Spirit” which is ambiguous, because it could mean two different things:

  1. “Filled with the Spirit” could communicate content (one is filled with the content of the Spirit)
  2. “Filled with the Spirit” the Spirit could communicate means (one is filled [with something] by means of the Spirit) [Note: HCSB and NET simply translate it this way, “by the Spirit”]

As it turns out, this is probably a more important issue than we first realize. Ephesians 5:18 is a command to be filled, but we will not be able to fulfill the command unless we know with what we are to be filled.

The phrase “with the Spirit” is a Greek construction (ἐν πνεύματι) which nowhere else in the New Testament communicates content with this verb of filling. In fact, content is usually communicated by the Genitive case, but here it is a preposition plus the Dative. Grammatically, this kind of phrase is often used to communicate means (the Spirit is the means by which we obey this command).

If the Spirit is the means by which we are filled, then with what/whom are we to be filled?

At this point in the letter, Paul obviously assumes you have paid attention to the first four chapters of Ephesians (yet another reason to read contextually and not skip around). At the very beginning of the book Paul stressed the fact that God has revealed the mystery through wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:8-9).

In Ephesians 3:4-10, Paul proclaims that God had revealed this mystery through the whole church by the ministry of the Apostles and the prophets. It is because God has made known the glories of this mysterious union through the church that Paul prays for his readers (Eph 3:14), that they would, “be filled with the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). Here the same exact word (“filled”) and concept as Ephesians 5:18, but the object of the filling is specified as the fullness of God. Ephesians 4:10 continues the theme of filling and speaks of Christ being the active agent of filling all things (same word).

By the time one comes to the command in Ephesians 5:18, the reader recognizes that the believer is to be filled by the fullness of God (Eph 3:19), Christ is the agent who works this out (Eph 4:10), and the Holy Spirit is the means by which it comes to pass (Eph 5:18). Contextually and grammatically, this makes the best sense of the passage.

Why is it important to understand “filled with the Spirit”?

Simply put, we don’t want to focus on the wrong thing. This verse has been used by some as a proof text in the charismatic movement to focus on trying to seek a filling of the Spirit, or a baptism of the Spirit. They want to be baptized with the Spirit, so they will use Ephesians 5:18 to support this idea. After all, if Ephesians 5:18 commands us to seek to be filled with the content of the Holy Spirit, then we are sinning if we are not seeking for that filling.

But, nowhere does Scripture command believers to seek the Holy Spirit. Believers are commanded to be self-controlled and exercise discipline (Titus 2:2-6), to engage in mature thinking (1 Cor 14:20), do good works (Titus 3:1), etc. But seeking a mystical experience with the Spirit is not a part of Christianity.

The reason for the practicality of the Bible’s commands is because when we seek to obey God and align ourselves with His Word, then our relationship with God becomes what it ought to be through the aid of the Holy Spirit’s work in our life. The Holy Spirit is the unseen helper (John 14:16-17) who works behind the scenes to help us obey God and draw close to Him.

photo credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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