Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)
Are you a Bible believing Christian? Yes? Then let me ask another question. Are you filled with the Spirit? Few of us would be bold enough to answer ‘yes’ the second time. And yet fullness of the Spirit would appear to be the New Testament norm for Christian living and experience.
Episodic or habitual?
It is important to recognise that fullness of the Spirit can be both episodic (occasional) and habitual. Along with others, Peter was ‘filled with the Spirit’ on more than one occasion to meet special demands and situations (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31). Paul likewise experienced such an episodic filling when he faced up to Elymas in Acts 13:9.
But the New Testament also speaks of believers being filled with the Spirit in an habitual or on-going manner.
The first deacons appointed by the early church were men ‘full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). Since ‘fullness’ was a qualification for office it had to be something characteristic of these men.
One of their number, Stephen, was ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’, while Barnabas is described as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’ (Acts 6:5; 11:24).
Saul of Tarsus regained his sight after his conversion and was filled with the Holy Spirit in preparation for his apostolic ministry. At Antioch in Pisidia ‘the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 9:17; 13:52).
It is this habitual fullness of the Spirit that will concern us in what follows.
Habitual fullness today
Paul commands the Ephesians, ‘be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). This is definitive – every believer is encompassed by this exhortation. Episodic fullness may be rare today, but the habitual fullness of which the apostle speaks here is surely the New Testament norm.
Firstly, note that there is no conflict between episodic and habitual fullness. Stephen, who was habitually ‘full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ was also ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ in martyrdom as, crushed by huge stones, he saw heaven opened and Jesus standing to receive him.
A glass of water full to the brim cannot be further filled. But no such limitations apply to the spiritual metaphor of fullness. One who is habitually filled with the Spirit can indeed be further filled in an episodic manner if occasion demands.
As we turn to habitual fullness, then, three questions arise. What is it? How may we attain to it? And how are we to recognise it? We shall deal with the first two questions in this article and the third on a future occasion.
What is fullness?
Let me attempt a definition. ‘Habitual fullness of the Holy Spirit is the condition of a believer when his or her heart and mind are under the full control of the indwelling Spirit of Christ’. We need to add that ‘full control’ does not imply sinless perfection, for the old nature (‘the flesh’) is always present.
We saw in November’s ET that one who is born of the Spirit is also indwelt by the Spirit. But it is evident that indwelling is not the same as fullness. Only those who are indwelt can be filled, of course, but it is possible to be indwelt by God’s Spirit yet not filled with the Spirit.
Otherwise, habitual fullness could not have been a useful criterion for selecting the deacons in Acts 6 – every Christian in Jerusalem would have qualified! Again, if habitual fullness were automatic in those in whom the Spirit dwells, Paul would be wasting his breath in Ephesians 5:18. The exhortation would be pointless.
As every believer knows, there is an inner conflict between the Spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17). But which dominates? In so far as the Spirit dominates and rules our hearts and minds, we are filled with the Spirit. Our responsibility is to live as continuously as possible in that condition – in other words, to ‘walk in the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:16, 25).
How may we attain to fullness?
But how may we become and remain ‘Spirit filled’? A clue is found in the present tense of the exhortation ‘be filled’, which could be translated ‘be being filled’. Just as a fire comes to life when it is fed with fuel, so the fullness of the Spirit requires our regular attention.
A second clue is also grammatical. ‘Be filled’ is passive – it is the Spirit who fills us, not we ourselves. Yet the words ‘be filled’ are also an exhortation – there are things that we must do if we are to know the Spirit’s fullness.
The answer to our question, I suggest, lies in the words that immediately follow the exhortation itself – ‘Speaking to yourselves [or one another] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’ (v.19).
This verse is usually taken to refer to a corporate act of worship or fellowship in which believers sing and worship in a manner that exhorts their companions. To agree with this, most modern versions read, ‘speaking to one another’ whereas the AV reads ‘speaking to yourselves’. Either is correct grammatically.
But there are good reasons to believe that Paul is here describing an inner personal activity – speaking to ourselves – rather than an interaction with fellow believers.
Speaking to ourselves
Firstly, the idea of being continuously filled with the Spirit does not sit well with a periodic act of worship requiring the presence of others. Secondly, such an act of worship could only be understood as a consequence, not a cause, of fullness – leaving us with no instruction as to how we might be filled with the Spirit.
Thirdly, the next part of the sentence refers indisputably to an inward activity (singing and making melody in your hearts …’). Such an activity reflects much better the continuous nature of the exhortation itself.
Finally, at the end of the same long sentence (v.21) Paul writes ‘submitting to one another’ – using an entirely different Greek word that can only mean ‘one another’. Thus Paul appears to make a clear distinction between the ‘speaking’ of verse 19 (a personal activity) and the ‘submitting’ of verse 21 (a mutual activity).
Colossians 3:16 is a parallel verse which does, I believe, support this conclusion. It reads, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another [or yourselves] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord’.
Once again there are alternative translations ‘one another’ or ‘yourselves’. But everything else in the verse clearly relates to inward activity. It is more consistent, therefore, to understand this to mean ‘teaching and admonishing yourselves’ – that is, a ministry to one’s own heart rather than to others.
Attaining the fullness of the Spirit
If my reasoning is correct, Paul is telling us that habitual fullness of the Spirit is attained as we minister the Word of God to our own hearts – letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. We are particularly to ‘speak to ourselves’ using those Scriptures that stimulate our hearts to praise and thanksgiving (psalms and hymns and spiritual songs).
In short, we are to feed continually upon the Scriptures, especially as they exalt and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ (they are ‘the word of Christ’). Here is the activity to which Paul exhorts us, that we might be filled with the Spirit.
Obviously, there are implications. First, we must have the Word hidden in our hearts (Psalm 119:11) – we need to memorise Scripture. Unless the food is to hand it cannot nourish our souls.
But secondly, we must digest the food we eat, and this is achieved as we meditate on God’s word – allowing its riches to emerge as we ‘chew it over’ in our minds.
Thirdly, we cannot meditate correctly unless we rightly understand the Scriptures. And this we will only do if we avail ourselves of the public ministry of the Word. This ministry has been provided to the church by the ascended Christ, in the form of men equipped to teach and explain the Scriptures of truth, equipping us all to minister to ourselves and others (Ephesians 4:7-12).
If we do these things consistently, we shall be ‘filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding’ (Colossians 1:9). We will delight in the law of God after the inward man, and our thoughts will be captive to the obedience of Christ (Romans 7:22; 2 Corinthians 10:5).
And with hearts and minds saturated with the Scriptures that testify of him, though still engaged in the warfare with the flesh, we shall know and manifest the fullness of the Spirit.