Filled with the Spirit: Experiencing the Spirit

What do Pentecostals believe about being ‘filled with the Spirit?’ What do the Scriptures say about it and what do they mean?

Pentecostal experiences

Pentecostalism teaches not only a singular initial experience of baptism in the Spirit for Christians after conversion, but also the need for multiple experiences of ‘filling’ after Spirit-baptism. Pentecostals emphasize the need for continual experiences of the Spirit based upon Ephesians 5:18 where the Apostle Paul gives the command: “be filled with the Spirit.”

Luke’s reference to Jesus’ statement that God is ready to “give the Holy Spirit” to those who ask him (Luke 11:13) is also used in support of this emphasis. The central message in Pentecostalism is the importance of personal experiences for Christians because of a continual need for the reception of ‘more’ of the Spirit.

What the Scriptures say

Although there are references in the narratives of Acts to individuals and groups of people who were “filled with the Spirit”, some of these refer to Spirit-baptism (such as Acts 2:4; 9:17) – that is, people receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit – and others refer to those who, after receiving the gift of the Spirit are described as being ‘filled’ or ‘full’ of the Spirit (Acts 4:8, 31; 6:5; 7:55). The term can clearly be used generically to describe baptism with the Spirit or the Spirit’s ongoing work in Christians.

Ephesians 5:18 is the only verse in the New Testament that gives direct instruction to Christians about being filled with the Spirit and it describes the Spirit’s ongoing work in Christians. It is in fact a command given by Paul to Christians in the church in Ephesus: “be filled with the Spirit.” What does it mean? Is this a solid basis for the Pentecostal emphasis on spiritual experiences and the need for Christians to have ‘more’ of the Holy Spirit?

Ephesians 5:18 in context

The passage of which Ephesians 5:18 is a part gives a clear picture of what it means to be 'filled with the Spirit':

Ephesians (ESV) 5:15: "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands… 25 Husbands, love your wives… 6:1 Children, obey your parents…4 Fathers, do not provoke your children… 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters… 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord…"

No full stop

There is no full stop at the end of Ephesians 5:18. Verse 18 is the beginning of one very long paragraph in the Greek describing what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Unlike drunkenness, which is foolishness and leads to debauchery, being 'filled' with the Spirit is understanding the Lord’s will and leads to addressing one another, singing to the Lord, giving thanks in everything and submitting to one another.

Not an experience, but a relationship

Ephesians 5:18 does not imply Christians need regular experiences in order to ‘top up’ or ‘refill’ with the Spirit. The context of this verse does not imply that spiritual experiences are in view at all. What Ephesians 5:18-6:9 does collectively indicate is that being “filled with the Spirit” – unlike drunkenness, which leads to sensual indulgence – leads to godliness: speaking to one another God’s word; singing praises to the Lord; heartfelt thanksgiving to him in trials; submitting to husbands; loving wives; obeying parents and legal authorities.

Clearly the language of 'filling' is used because of the contrast with alcohol. However 'experiences' are events, and what is described here is a continual process. And the agent is not an inanimate element such as liquid, but a person. What is in view here is the active involvement of the person of the Spirit; that is, if this is an 'experience', it is relational. Of course, we all experience one another in some sense when we relate. If somebody is particularly influencial in my life, then it is true that my behaviour changes because I experience that person's persuasion, or temptation, or whatever else causes me to do the things I am led to do when I am with them.

But Pentecostals emphasis ecstatic, momentary spiritual experiences as singular (though repeating) events. But a Christian 'under the influence' behaves like one 'full' of Spirit-likeness, precisely because the person of the Holy Spirit is a powerful influence upon their behaviour to lead them away from sin to live like Christ Jesus.

Walk by the Spirit; Be led by the Spirit

It is much like 'walking' ('living' in the NIV) and being 'led' by the Spirit. The passages in which these terms occur also show that spiritual experiences are not what is in view. This language also refers to the 'controlling' influence of the Spirit in the context of our conflict with the influence of sin.
Galatians 5:16-26: "live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control....Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires."
Romans 8:5-14: "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."
To be 'led' by the Spirit, like being 'filled' with the Spirit, is to (through faith) be influenced by God to live in the new way of the spiritual nature, not in the old way of the sinful nature.

Be filled with the Word

Ephesians 5:18-6:9 should also be read in comparison to Colossians 3:16-4:1. When writing to the Colossians at the same time as Ephesians, Paul preceded the same commands to both with similar but different exhortations: in his letter to the Ephesians he says, “be filled with the Spirit”; in his letter to the Colossians he says “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”. He interchanges his command, “be filled with the Spirit” with an analogous command: “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” For God’s word is God breathed – the Scripture is the word of his Spirit.

“The Holy Spirit to those who ask”

Similarly, Pentecostalism misunderstands the meaning of Luke 11:13; “how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him”. One cannot literally have more of the person of the Spirit, for he is One; yet this verse is used to gain support for the idea that God will give the Spirit to Christians who are in Christ already because they have been given his Holy Spirit.

Luke 11:13 does not contain the idea of Christians receiving ‘more’ of the Spirit. Christ is recorded here speaking before the day of Pentecost and his words look forward to his gift of the Holy Spirit (his ‘baptism with the Spirit’), first given in Acts 2. At this time no one yet had received his Spirit in this way (John 7:39); Jesus was teaching that God will be good in giving his Spirit after Jesus' resurrection to those who asked him. In other words, there is no one to whom God will give judgement when they ask the Father for the gift of his Spirit unto salvation. This understanding of Luke 11:13 is consistent with the vital truth that the Holy Spirit is a person. The Spirit is not a ‘power’ or a ‘force’; it is impossible to have more of him because he is the third undivided Person of the Godhead.

The true experience of the Spirit

Christians do experience the Spirit in their lives. While not the reception of ‘more of the Spirit,’ what Ephesians 5:18 shows is that being filled with the Spirit is (to use a cliché) the experience of the Spirit taking more control of Christians. Of course, Christians do need to have an ever increasing amount of the Spirit’s influence and active control in their lives. Those full of the Spirit are those full of wisdom, full of the word of Christ, full of an understanding of what the Lord's will is, who walk under the influence of the Spirit (not alcohol) so that they live holy and godly lives in all of their relationships.

More on this topic

The Day of Pentecost: Part I - The Event

The day of Pentecost: Part II - The Promise

The day of Pentecost: Part III - The meaning | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.