Be Filled With The Spirit

(this one’s a little tiny bit technical for a just bit…but the practical payoff is totally worth it!¬† ūüôā¬† )

I spent most of July in Guatemala, lecturing on the book of Ephesians to pastors and ministers from all over Central and South America.¬† Preparing and delivering those lectures was a very enriching time for me and I will probably just go ahead, bite the bullet and write a full-length commentary.¬† In the meantime, though, I wanted to jot down one or two thoughts that have been particularly impactful.¬† Today, I want to focus on Eph. 5:18:¬† …and do not get drunk on wine, in which is dissapation, but instead be filled with the Spirit.

For many Christians, this is a familiar command, yet one which is not easily put into practice.¬† It’s hard not to read this verse and wonder, “How exactly can I do that?”¬† The not-getting-drunk part is easy to apply, but the be-filled-with-the-Spirit part is a little less concrete, isn’t it?¬† I remember when I was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ back in Kent, Ohio in the early 90’s, the staff used to talk about something called “spiritual breathing” in which we were to breathe out sin (i.e. confess our sin to God) and breathe in the power of the Holy Spirit (i.e. appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit for Christian living).¬† This was an attempt to make Paul’s command in Eph. 5:18 practical on a daily basis, an attempt which I fully endorse.¬† However, as well-intentioned as the attempt was, it fell a bit short in terms of actual practicality.¬† “Breathe in/appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit” is really no less abstract than Paul’s original command.

However, in my recent work on Ephesians I realized that Paul’s command is not abstract at all.¬† In fact, Paul gave us very explicit, practical instruction on how to go about being filled with the Spirit.¬† This instruction immediately follows the command in question:

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and being subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph. 5:19-21)

Here, Paul uses¬†five verbs, each of which gives us practical instruction on how to be filled by the Spirit.¬† ¬†Actually, to be technically accurate, it might be better to say that Paul instructs us how to position ourselves to be filled by the Holy Spirit.¬† The Holy Spirit is God, of course, and therefore is not subject to our will.¬† We cannot “make” the Holy Spirit do anything, but we can do things which make us ready to take advantage of the Holy Spirit’s preferred mode of operation.¬† When Paul says “be filled with the Holy Spirit”, the form of the verb “be filled” reflects this reality.¬† In the Greek, this verb is a present, passive imperative which is slightly odd.¬† See, the passive form suggests something that is done to us, rather than something that is done be us…hence “be filled” rather than “fill yourselves”.¬† Yet the fact that this is an imperative means that there is something which we must actively do in order for this to happen.¬† So while we cannot “fill ourselves” with the Spirit, we can put ourselves in a position to “be filled” by the Spirit and the five verbs in vv.19-21 outline what it is that we are to do.

Now I should probably point out that not all commentators agree with me on this.¬† In fact, it appears to me that most commentators take the five verbs in vv.19-21 as the results of being filled by the Spirit rather than the means to being filled by the Spirit.¬† Thus, most commentators think that being filled by the Spirit will result in speaking to one another in songs and hymns and spiritual songs, singing, making music, giving thanks and being subject to one another.¬† This interpretation is quite possible, because the five verbs in question here are actually participles which are usually translated in English with an “ing” ending:¬† speaking, singing, thanking, etc.¬† And participles may sometimes denote the results of an earlier verb, so I understand how commentators can come to this conclusion.¬†

However, I disagree with taking these participles as the result of being filled with the Spirit for basically four reasons.¬† First, if these verbs denote the result of being filled with the Spirit, then we have no practical instruction on how to go about doing what we are commanded to do.¬† Second, while participles can denote result of an earlier verb, they do not usually do so and probably shouldn’t be understood this way unless there is a clear indication of this in the text, such as the presence of a purpose-word (“so that…”, “in order that…”, etc.).¬† No such clear indication is present in Eph. 5.¬† Third, if these five actions are the result of being filled with the Spirit, then no further instruction regarding them would be required.¬† What I mean is that if being filled with the Spirit results in singing, then this singing is essentially out of our control.¬† No further instruction on how to sing would be necessary.¬† And yet these five participles have accompanying instruction, some of which are even in the form of imperatives (direct commands).¬† We are told what kinds of songs to sing, when to be thankful and given extensive instruction on how to “be subject to one another.”¬† This instruction goes on well into chapter 6.¬† But all of this instruction makes little sense if the verbs in question are themselves results.¬† That would be like saying “jump out of the window with the result that you are falling and I command you to hit the ground at a speed of 60 m.p.h.!”

The fourth reason I differ from many/most commentators in my interpretation of this passage is simply that understanding these verbs as means rather than results fits perfectly with other clear biblical teaching.¬† Why should singing praise and songs of adoration lead to being filled by the Spirit?¬† Because as Psalm 22:3 states, “[God] you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel”.[1]¬† This theme is echoed in other places as well, including Mat. 18:20.¬† Why should thankfulness lead to being filled by the Spirit?¬† Because in gratitude we focus on what God has done and thus align ourselves with His purposes rather than¬†being fixated on our¬†circumstances.¬† Why should¬†“being subject to one another” lead to being filled with the Spirit?¬† Because being subject to one another leads to unity and unity¬†within the body of Christ grants us access to the Holy Spirit’s power.¬†¬†This is a significant theme in Ephesians and is emphasized in many¬†other parts of the New Testament as well.¬†

On the whole, then, I think it’s¬†pretty clear that Paul is giving us solid, practical instruction on¬†how to go about fulfilling the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit:¬† we are to¬†worship¬†God in song, we are to be thankful to him in all things and we are to be subject to one another,¬†fostering unity within the body.

One final issue which some of you more observant readers may have already ¬†noted:¬† understood this way, the¬†command to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” is a command to the church rather than to individuals.¬† In other words, Paul is giving instruction here on¬†how the church is to operate so that the church will be filled with the Holy Spirit.¬† This is not a command¬†or instructions for individual believers.¬† Again, this goes against the grain of most popular teaching on the subject, but two things should be noted.¬† First,¬†in the original Greek, the command is clearly plural, stressing the communal nature of the instruction.¬† The lack of a second person plural in English makes this difficult to bring out in translation but it is clear in the original.¬† Second, saying that the command to “be filled with the Spirit” is intended for the church as a whole does not mean that it does not also apply to individuals.¬† In fact, this command will only be fulfilled in the church as a whole to the extent that it is fulfilled in the lives of the individuals who make up that church.

So…if we want to experience the power of God in our churches, the answer’s probably not the newest church-growth technique or the latest preaching fad.¬† If we want to see God move in power among us, maybe we should be concentrating on what God has already told us to do in order to get ready for precisely that!


[1] There is some question about the translation of this line.¬† In addition to the normal translation given above it could also be rendered as ‚Äúyet you are enthroned as the Holy one, You are the praise of Israel.‚Ä̬† However, this translation, while possible, seems awkward given the original Hebrew word-order.¬† Moreover, the LXX Greek translation of this line favors the more common translation given above.