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Filled with the Spirit: What it Is and What it Isn't

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Eph. 5:17-18


Introduction:  There is a lot said about the filling of the Holy Spirit.  Opinions vary from the sublime to the ridiculous about what is meant by this term. You’ve heard some, I’m sure, so we won’t linger on strange ideas. 

Now, since there are so many ideas floating around, I want to be very meticulous to form careful, precise arguments.  As evangelist John Van Gelderen says, we are going to get technical so we can get practical.  We need precision in our preaching today.

“Thus the early Christians, when harassed with the disputes which heresies produced, were forced to declare their sentiments in terms most scrupulously exact in order that no indirect subterfuges might remain to ungodly men, to whom ambiguity of expression was a kind of hiding place.”

- John Calvin, Institutes, I/XIII/4

But when we really understand what we are being commanded to do when we are told to “be filled with the Spirit,” it is an exciting thing!  It will fill us with confidence and a sense of purpose that will overcome fear and move us forward in God’s will.

What does it mean to be “filled with the Spirit”?

I. What filling is not

* First, to avoid confusion, let’s look at what “filled with the Spirit” does NOT mean:

     A. It is not the indwelling of the Spirit.

- the term “filled” was used to refer to what happened when the Holy Spirit was given to the Church in fulfillment of Christ’s promise.  Acts 2:4 cf. John 14:16

- but that can’t refer to the same thing as our text, since Christ pointed out that the Spirit would dwell with us “for ever”.  As Christians we are already indwelt – the Holy Spirit has already taken up residence in our human spirit.

John 7:38-39. Rom. 8:9 (pres. act. part. – is continually dwelling)

1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19

- if we are already indwelt, there is no reason to command us to “be filled” – unless the filling is something else!

     B. It is not the baptism of the Spirit.

1 Cor. 12:12-13  (aor. pass. ind. – it was done to us)

- again, as believers we have already experienced the one-time­ baptism of the Holy Spirit.

- the baptism of the Spirit is not necessarily a reality that we are conscious of at the time it occurs.  It happens to every believer when they get saved.  It is not a special blessing reserved for certain believers who “pray it down”.

- by the way, in Matt. 3:11 John the Baptist tells his listeners that Jesus would baptize in the Holy Ghost.  The Greek preposition is one of fixed location – Jesus does the baptizing, immersing us in the Holy Ghost. 

* It’s a one-time thing just like water baptism is.

John MacArthur writes:

“This miracle is a spiritual reality – whether realized or not – that occurs in every believer the moment he becomes a Christian and is placed by Christ into His body by the Holy Spirit, Who then takes up residence in that life.”

          1. It is not a “second blessing” – a melodramatic, sudden experience that propels a believer to a new level of Christian living.

- It is not a temporary “zap” that results in visions, ecstatic utterances, etc.

          2. NOR is it the other extreme – doing God’s will in the power of our flesh, with the Holy Spirit’s blessing on our efforts.

     C. It is not the sealing by the Spirit.

Eph. 1:13-14  (aor. pass.)

     D. It’s not a process of progressively receiving more of the Holy Spirit, in degrees or “doses”.

- the Holy Spirit is a Person, not a force.  And that Person has taken up residence.

     E. It’s not an Old Testament “coming upon” event, for a specific task.

- we often hear the phrase “one baptism; many fillings.”  As we will see, this is not really the idea of filling in our text.

- as we’ve already seen, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence.

** Nowhere are we commanded to be baptized with the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, or sealed by the Spirit . . . because nothing we do could make these happen.  They are works wrought by God to us.

** We are, however, commanded to be filled with the Spirit.

II. What filling is

     A. The meaning of the word “fill”

- the Greek word is plhrow, which has a range of meanings, even if we only look in Paul’s writings:

            1. To make full

i.e. “to fill to the full, to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally”  Rom. 15:13-14

            2. To render complete

i.e. “to consummate, to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out (some undertaking)”  Col. 2:10; 4:12

            3. To carry into effect, bring into realization

i.e. “to bring to pass, to fulfill (i.e. to cause God’s will to be obeyed as it should be), to cause God’s promises to receive fulfillment”

- this is the primary way that the word is used in the Gospels.  Matt. 13:34-35

     B. The usage of the word “fill”

* When we look at the connotations in which the word is used, it means more than just filling a cup up to the rim with water.  Here are some ways the ancient Greeks used the word:

            1. The wind filling a sail and thereby carrying the ship


2. Salt permeating meat in order to flavor and

    preserve it (in fact, it was sometimes translated


3. Sailors manning a ship.

* The connotation is one of total control.  For example, one could be “filled with anger”.  In that state, what dominates the individual and controls how he will talk, act, and react?

Acts 5:3

- Moulton’s Analytical Greek Lexicon defines plhrow thus:


“to pervade with an influence, to influence fully, possess fully”

     C. The usage of the word “fill” in Ephesians

Eph. 1:22-23 – here we have the church pictured as the body of Christ, complementing Him as head.  The word “fulness” referred to a ship’s complement of rowers.  The church is the body of Christ who “filleth all in all”.

Eph. 3:14-19 – here the order seems to be reversed: he talks about having the Spirit in the inner man so that Christ could first dwell there.  It’s almost like the Spirit enters first, then Christ.  But he isn’t talking about salvation.

- the verb “dwell” (v. 17) is the verb katoikew, which comes from kata- meaning “down” and oikew meaning “to dwell.”  Literally, it is “to dwell down,” or we might say, “to settle down.”  It’s talking about Christ making Himself at home in our hearts.

- by Christ making Himself at home, we are filled with the fullness of God!

Eph. 4:8-10 – Christ descended into Hades to proclaim victory (1 Pet. 3:18-19).  Then, he ascended (1 Pet. 3:22).  Why?  To fill all things – He fulfilled all of the prophecies about Messiah, He fulfilled all of the tasks His Father had for Him.

     D. The usage of the word “fill” in Ephesians 5:18

            1. The instrument for the filling

- “be filled with the Spirit” – Let’s get technical for a moment.  The word “with” is the preposition en.  The word “Spirit” is what’s called a neuter dative case.  When you use en with the neuter dative, it produces what is called the “instrumental” sense, which leaves us a very specific interpretation here.

Illus: Here’s how that works – if I take a pitcher of water and fill a glass, I could say that I filled the glass with water, or I could say that I filled the glass with the pitcher.  The latter is the instrumental case  – that is, the pitcher was the “instrument” I used to fill the glass.

- so, in the illustration, the Holy Spirit isn’t the water – He’s the pitcher.  We could translate this verse “be filled by the Spirit.”

- it’s not that the Holy Spirit is the substance we are being filled with.  How can He be?  We already have as much of Him within us as we’re going to get!  He is the One doing the filling!

- Let’s tie this all together:  remember that the Greek verb carried the idea of “pervading with an influence”.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be pervaded with His influence; that is, it is to be possessed fully by Him, to be controlled by Him.

Wuest’s Word Studies says:

“We must not think of the Holy Spirit filling our hearts as water fills a bottle; or air, a vacuum; or a bushel of oats, an empty basket.  The heart of a Christian is not a receptacle to be emptied in order that the Holy Spirit might fill it.  The Holy Spirit is not a substance to fill an empty receptacle.  He is a Person to control another person, the believer.”

            2. The command for the filling

- “be filled with the Spirit”

- this is in the imperative mood: it is a command.  That means:

                 a. It is not an option.

                 b. We are not to pray for the filling of the Spirit.

- we have already been told to be filled.  We don’t need to pray about it.  We just need to do what we’ve been told!

            3. The time for the filling

- the Greek word is in the present tense.  That has to do with continuing action.  In other words we are to constantly be in the process of being filled, of being controlled.

- we are commanded to be in a constant state of filling, of the Spirit’s control.

 John MacArthur writes:

“Perhaps the best analogy of moment-by-moment yielding to the Holy Spirit’s control is the figure of walking . . . Walking involves moving one step at a time, and can be done in no other way.  Being filled with the Spirit is walking thought by thought, decision by decision, act by act under the Spirit’s control.”

- It’s not “one baptism, many fillings;” it’s one baptism, one constant state of being filled!

- People get the idea that it’s like driving a car.  You pull into the gas station, “fill ‘er up,” then drive for a while.  Eventually you start to run low on gas, so you stop and fill up again.  But that’s not the case!

- You don’t need to get the Holy Spirit into your life; you need to yield control.  It’s not a fill-up.  It’s also not just letting go of the wheel, since we  are commanded to do it. To stick to the car analogy, to be filled with the Spirit you need to let Him tell you where to turn, where to stop, how fast to go, etc.

- the present tense is continuous.  The question is: are we filled NOW??  How good would you say a marriage is where all of the good things happened in the past?  Or all the good things are hoped for in the future?

- it is contrary to our flesh to yield total control to another.  Horatius Bonar wrote a hymn called “I Was a Wandering Sheep” that sums this up:


I was a wandering sheep,
I did not love the fold;
I did not love my Shepherd’s voice,
I would not be controlled.
I was a wayward child,

I did not love my home;
I did not love my Father’s voice,
I loved afar to roam.

- but our regenerated spirit delights in our loving God’s control!  The hymn continues:

Jesus my Shepherd is:
’Twas He that loved my soul;
’Twas He that washed me in His blood,
’Twas He that made me whole.
’Twas He that sought the lost,
That found the wand’ring sheep,
’Twas He that brought me to the fold,
’Tis He that still doth keep.


No more a wandering sheep,
I love to be controlled;
I love my tender Shepherd’s voice,
I love the peaceful fold.
No more a wayward child,
I seek no more to roam;
I love my heavenly Father’s voice,
I love, I love His home!


            4. The mode of the filling

- the verb is in the passive voice.  That means that we receive the action of filling.  The Holy Spirit does it all.

- we might render this, “be being kept filled”.

- YET, we are given the command.  Therefore, we have some part to play.

MacArthur writes:

“The passive aspect indicates that it is not something we do but that we allow to be done in us.  The filling is entirely the work of the Spirit Himself, but He works only through our willing submission.”

            5. An example of the filling  Acts 6-7

- Salvation was not about getting man out of hell and into heaven.  Moving a dead body does nothing for the corpse.  Salvation was about getting God out of heaven and back into the man!

Conclusion:  What do we do, then, to be filled – to be controlled completely by the Holy Spirit?  DIE.

John 3:30, Gal. 2:20; 5:24-25

Die to self.  Die to ambition.  Die to willfulness.  Choose to submit to and obey the Word of God.  Be filled with the Spirit.

Ada Habershom wrote this hymn back in 1910:

I need to be filled with the Spirit,

Each moment of every day,

I need to be filled in the morning,

Ere starting upon my way.


I need be to filled for the home life,

I need it for work outside,

I need it alone in God’s presence,

That I may in Him abide.


I need to be filled with the Spirit,

To hear or to read His Word,

I need to be filled when by speaking,

I witness for Christ my Lord.


I need it, and oh, I may have it,

For by His enabling power,

The Spirit Whom He has once given,

Can fill me this very hour.



I need to be filled, Lord Jesus,

I need to be filled each day;

I need to be filled with the Spirit,

Each moment along life’s way.

* Be filled with the Spirit.

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