What Does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Adapted from a sermon I preached in 2018

Some years ago FedEx put out a commercial that was a take-off of the movie Castaway. Here it is (sorry for the low res).


This always reminds me of Ephesians 5, where we, who already have the Spirit, are told to let ourselves be filled by the Spirit.

17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That brings us to the question: if the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian then why is there such a gap between the life that Jesus had and our own Christian life? What does Paul mean when He tells us we should be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5? What in the world is the filling of the spirit?

1. What is the filling of the Holy Spirit?

Well, we can see one aspect of it from what it is contrasted to here in Ephesians 5. First we are told not to get drunk with wine. And then the contrast: be filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, the contrast between being filled with alcohol and being filled with the spirit are obvious, but there seems to be one thing that makes the contrast apt: in both cases you are under the control of something else. What happens when a person gets totally smashed? Well, a lot of things. Yelling, Fighting, Lame attempts at humor. Calling your ex-wife at 3 in the morning. Some people are mean drunks and some are funny drunks. It affects your judgment in a lot of ways. Scientists say that ugly people become more attractive to you (they call this effect having beer goggles). But one thing is clear: when you are drunk, you, because of what you are filled with, do things you normally wouldn’t do. You are, in some way and in some degree, controlled by something else.

The filling of the Spirit is like that in only that one way: we do things we ordinarily would not do, with a power and wisdom we normally would not have. Instead of calling the ex at three in the morning or picking a fight with a lamp-post, we find joy and power in serving and living and witnessing. We are able to resist sins and habits that otherwise nail us every time.

Now the second thing to note here is that this is not a one-time event, but a continual process. The English language is a wonderful thing, but one thing it lacks, compared to the Greek that this was first written in, is a full set of verb tenses. We get basically the past, present and future, with some variations. The tense of this verb speaks of a continual action: keep on being filled, be filled continually. Banish from your mind the idea of this being some event where you make this huge spiritual commitment and then you are filled with the spirit from that point forward. Every day, we choose what will fill us.

The third point we should bring out here is also based on a close reading of the verb: it is a command, but it is a passive command. Do this: what: fill yourselves? No, be filled. Not so much do this, as let this be done to you. And this slight variation in wording teaches us a lot about what it means to be filled and indeed about the Christian life in general.

You see, some of us may view growing in the Christian life as something like a rowboat: you get where you are going by rowing, and the harder and better you row, the closer you get to where you should be. Its all about effort, about trying harder. It usually results in frustration and exhaustion.

Some people, instead, view Christian growth and the Christian life as more like a lifeboat. The important thing is you get saved off the sinking ship. Now the point is to just stick around till Jesus picks us up. And if there is any place we are supposed to go in the meantime, well its all God’s work. We’re saved by grace, we grow by grace, so any effort or plan for growth would be rather pointless.

I would like to suggest a different kind of boat. Not a rowboat, or a lifeboat, but a sailboat. You see, a sailboat doesn’t go anywhere on its own. The captain realizes it has no power on its own. But that doesn’t mean it does nothing. It knows there is power out there, but unless it does some things, like hoisting the sails and securing the rigging and so on, that the power out there, the power available, will not be power used.

I think that is why Paul uses that active/passive phrase: let yourself be filled. He knows we do not grow in the Christian life by simple human effort, but neither does he want us to throw up our hands and just wait for God to do something. There is something to do, but it is about receiving power, not exercising power.

What does it take to be filled with the Spirit?

That brings us to this second question. What does it take to be filled with the spirit? How do we, as it were, set out the sails and anchor the rigging so that we can receive this power?

I am going to suggest three things, one of which is implied here, and two of which are based on other passages in the New Testament.

The first is submission. This is implied already in how we have explained the filling of the Holy Spirit. Because it is the Holy Spirit, it will lead us to change some unholy things about us. The Spirit may prompt us, especially from scripture, to change some habit, or to reach out in some specific way. You ever had someone that you just stopped talking to, because they never seemed to listen? Hearing the voice of the Spirit and not listening is like seeing the wind fill your sail, then taking the sail down because you didn’t like the direction.

The second thing is also very simple, and I think, overlooked. It actually goes along with the first thing, submission: It is asking. Asking God, in an attitude of submission, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us, to guide our lives, to give us power to serve Him, to provide comfort and perspective in our problems.

The verse I am thinking of here is Luke 11:11-13.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now, it is true that now we already have the Spirit within us. But surely these words apply to the fullness of the Spirit: not that we would have more of the Holy Spirit, but would have more of His power and strength and wisdom, more of His filling, in our lives.

The third thing that I think sets the sails for the Spirit to fill us is this: Meditation in God’s word. Now, I want you to note how Paul describes the renewed worship and thankfulness that arise out of this (note: in the Greek, verse 19 is not a new sentence nor a command, but simply, “as you speak…).

17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now look at a passage by the same author, Paul, under inspiration of the same spirit. (Colossians 3:15-17).

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Note the main command is in that same active/passive structure: let something dwell in you or live in you or fill you. But in this case what we are to let dwell in us is this: the word of Christ. Now why does Paul use this phrase instead of the word of God? I think because in the book of Colossians he was especially concerned with showing the supremacy of Christ, and so even this book is described as the word of Christ since it ultimately points to Him. And did you note how the same themes, mostly even the same words of worship and thankfulness flow out of this indwelling?

Indeed, this has been the experience of Christians throughout the ages: The Spirit's leading and filling are closely associated with our being filled with the word of God. God’s spirit operates mostly through God’s word. But it is not enough to simply read it, not even enough to study it. The Pharisees read and studied more than any of us ever will. It is to let it dwell in us, to meditate on it in submission, seeking its wisdom and direction in our lives.

By the way, this should also show us why God does not give us the filling of the spirit apart from these pre-requisites. If God gave us the guidance of the Spirit apart from our willingness to obey, it would be pointless. If He gave us comfort apart from the truth of the scriptures, it would be perverted and false comfort. If He gave us power apart from our willingness and passion to use that power for Him, it would be dangerous. In this way, the receiving the filling of the Spirit is like receiving the power to command men in the armed services. You don’t make someone an officer unless you trust that person to use that authority and power for the good of the country and in line with the principles they learned and studied in officer’s school.

So the promise is this: each one of us can be as full as we want to be, and we will show how full we want to be by these three things. These are the conditions. And this is exactly why we are not more full. For the most part, we don’t want to meet them. We don’t want to pay the price, as it were.

I remember four years ago when we moved into our first house. Yes, we had either been in a parsonage or rented before. Now we had a chance to have a real garden. And we had lots of room. We cant get dsl or cable or sewer service where we’re at, but we do have lots of room. So I thought, hey, lets make this a real garden. Lets tear up a whole lot of grass and just fill it with corn and beans and pumpkins and watermelons. So I borrowed a roto-tiller and set to work. I dug up a patch about the size of this room. But because it was so big, I didn’t do a very thorough job of roto-tilling. So a lot of the grass came back. Worse, it was impossible to get ahead of the weeds. I vastly underestimated both the effort involved in this and how much others in the family would help. It was a mess. I was embarrassed to show it to anyone. I desired this beautiful and productive and well-ordered garden. What I got was a really huge weed patch with a few tomatoes sticking up between the dandelions.

This gardening or farming is like our spiritual growth. I knew I couldn’t make things grow: I don’t know how a seed senses the time is right and sends its life out into the ground searching for nutrients, climbing towards sunshine, producing fruit. I can’t control that mystery, any more than I can explain or control the mystery of this new spiritual life inside me that God has planted their. But I knew that there were some things I could do to let that life flourish: I could water it, I could weed it, I could mulch it, I could tend it. But inwardly, at some point, I did a cost/benefit analysis and said, you know, green beans in a can are really cheap. I let it go. I wish the garden would have turned out a certain way, but I was not willing to meet the conditions.

But the filling of the Spirit is not sold in cans. There is simply no substitute. And the response I am asking God to work in our hearts as we conclude this it two-fold: first, that we have a clearer understanding of what the filling of the Spirit means. And secondly, that in that cost-benefit analysis that we do every day regarding our spiritual growth, we see a little more clearly the incredible benefit or being filled with the very spirit of God.

Can visualize the wonder of God’s spirit filling someone like me or you, so you have the power to win over that certain sin or habit, so you have wisdom to think like He does about the problem or issue, so you have insight in helping your children in the areas that really count, witnessing to that co-worker that has been on your heart, to give to others of your very self, and be able to do it all with joy? Oh, and that vision would be so attractive to us that we drop our rebellion and pick up submission, that we drop the remote and the magazine and the computer, and pick up the word: not our of duty, but in joyous expectation of being filled, not with the world’s view, or even our own thoughts and desire, but filled with the very Spirit of the living God.

24 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

I want to begin today’s post with an interesting historical fact. Its’ about magic. Specifically, it is the fact that magic in western culture reached its zenith, not during the ancient times of Rome

This video from the Bible project is a wonderful overview of the epistles of John. https://www.bible.com/videos/25512-1-3-john