Tommy Ice, Ph.D.
There are two basic approaches to spirituality: metaphysical or ethical. Metaphysical spirituality teaches that a believer is directly connected to God and that His Spirit is infused into the believer, as electricity flows through a motor, energizing to action. It is taught that when a believer sins the flow stops; when sin is dealt with, the flow resumes. The standard of spirituality may or may not be character development, but usually focuses upon internal experiences and power displays. This is the view universally taught by mysticism.
Ethical spirituality teaches that our relationship with God is mediated indirectly and develops in a way analogous to physical growth. True, Christian growth begins with a direct, metaphysical act of God through the new birth. However, as in physical birth, once conceived and born, all of the capacity was imparted at birth and the believer is now to grow through eating (learning the Word) and exercise (obedience) which results in spirituality (i.e., Christlikeness or fruit of the Spirit). Progress in the spiritual life focuses upon ethical progress outside of the believer as he measures spirituality in terms of character development.
I believe that every instance of teaching and illustration about spirituality in the New Testament supports the ethical or growth approach to sanctification. Yet many evangelicals have taught a blend of both views. Perhaps this explains why the last few decades have seen a steady stream of evangelicals moving toward charismatic spirituality. Ephesians 5:18 is an important passage where a metaphysical interpretation has been widely held by evangelicals. Yet, I do not believe that a proper exegesis of the passage will support such an understanding. I therefore present the following study of what it means to be filled by the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18.
The Lukian Passages
Luke describes a special filling of the Holy Spirit that is a sovereign work of God. It is a work by which God gives men power by the Holy Spirit to do a divinely ordained service. This filling is temporary and has its background in the Old Testament. Here are a few references:
- Exodus 31:3-5 (35:31-35).
- Numbers 11:17, 25-26.
- Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9.
- Samuel 16:13.
These are a few passages that give us to understand that the Holy Spirit empowers men to do a specific divine task. When the task was complete, this special filling was withdrawn. Such filling was not the normal experience of the Old Testament saint’s daily life. In the New Testament, we see the same type of filling for a special service. Special filling emphasizes the event of filling (we find the verb 8 times), rather than a state of fullness. Luke indicates this by the Greek phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” (pivmplhmi pneuvmato” ajgivou):
|1. Luke 1:15, John the Baptist 2. Luke 1:41, Elizabeth
3. Luke 1:67, Zacharias
4. Acts 2:4, They all
|5. Acts 4:8, Peter 6. Acts 4:31, They all
7. Acts 9:17, Paul
8. Acts 13:9, Paul
The verb always occurs in the aorist tense (emphasizing an event, not a state) and in the passive voice (the subject or person is acted upon).
- Nature of the filling: It is an instantaneous filling that gives power or ability to the believer and mostly deals with prophetic utterance.
- Condition of the filling: No conditions are mentioned, but rather the recipients were filled by the Spirit as a sovereign work of God and man’s human will is not a factor in these cases (passive voice of the verbs).
- Repetition of the filling: Peter was filled with the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) but was filled again in Acts 4:31. This context does not indicate that Peter had lost the initial filling because of unconfessed sin, but that the empowerment of the Spirit was needed again for a new task. The same could be said about Paul (Acts 9:17 and 13:9).
- Purpose of the filling: Each filling was used for special prophetic activity. It is also used for boldness in their witness of the Word of God. It was a special enablement to do a specific task.
- Duration of the filling: The filling lasts as long as it takes to accomplish the given task. This can be seen from Peter (Acts 2:4; 4:31) and Paul (Acts 9:17; 13:9). In no instance is there an indication that sovereign fillings lasted only until there was personal sin in one’s life.
- Scope of the filling: In every instance, the special filling of the Holy Spirit is a sovereign work of God by which men are empowered by the Spirit for a divine task. There are no conditions and no one is ever commanded to seek it. Some conclude that, since the fillings produced prophetic utterances that only occurred in the first century, there are no such sovereign fillings by the Holy Spirit today.
The normal filling of the Holy Spirit emphasizes the abiding conditionof fullness (adjective: 5 times; the verb is used once as an adjective in the participial form). The second Greek phrase is plhvrh” or plhrovw pneuvmato” ajgivou (pleresor pleroo pneumatos hagiou). All but one verse uses the adjectival form “full” (plhvrh”[pleres]) that clearly describes an abiding condition. The verb form “were filled,” (plhrovw [pleroo]) (Acts 13:52), also emphasizes the condition or state of fullness. The difference between the words Luke uses for special filling and normal filling is that special filling, pivmplhmi (pimplemi), indicates that the action of filling has occurred while the normal filling, plhrovw (pleroo), indicates that a state of fullness has been achieved. See the following verses.
|1. Luke 4:1, Jesus 2. Acts 6:3, Seven men
3. Acts 6:5, Stephen
|4. Acts 7:55, Stephen 5. Acts 11:24, Barnabas
6. Acts 13:52, The disciples (verb)
Perspective Regarding Normal Fullness
Nature of the fullness: Luke does not present this phrase as a spiritual method, or as any kind of special endowment of the Spirit to do a specific task.
The phrase appears to be a way of describing someone who is already Spirit-motivated. One does not become ‘full’ in order to achieve a great measure of spiritual motivation, one is spiritually motivated and is then described as ‘full of the Spirit.’ This is much the same in the case of a man who is exceedingly wise; we describe the greatness of his wisdom by saying ‘he is full of wisdom.’ He does not become ‘full’ in order to be wise, but he is exceedingly wise and is thus ‘full.’ 1
Thus, a man full of the Spirit is someone who has consistently exhibited in his life a high degree of control by the Holy Spirit. This state did not come instantaneously but through a growing process of spiritual maturity. Condition of the fullness: There are no explicit conditions set down in Scripture. A man full of the Spirit is a spiritually mature man. Therefore, the steps of spiritual maturity would be the means of achieving the end characteristic of “fullness.”
Purpose of the fullness: The fullness is not means for accomplishing an end, but it seems to be an end in itself. “One does not become full in order to live the victorious life, but one becomes so submitted to and influenced by the Holy Spirit that the extent of the Spirit’s influence over his life may be described by saying ‘is full of the Holy Spirit.’” 2
Duration of the fullness: The accomplishment of this state of fullness did not come instantaneously (like the sovereign filling) but through a growing process. As long as a man manifests a relatively high degree of the Spirit’s control in his life, he would be characterized by the phrase “full of the Spirit.” A young believer or an immature believer may exhibit the Spirit’s influence in his life, but not in a high degree. Spirituality comes through the process of spiritual maturity.
Scope of the fullness: The fullness of the Spirit is normative truth that may be, and should be, true of the experience of every follower of Christ.
The Lone Pauline Passage:
The New Testament mentions the filling of the Spirit only once outside of Luke’s writings in the New Testament. In Ephesians 5:18 we find the command to “be filled with the Spirit” (plhrovw ejn pneuvmati [pleroo en pneumati]). Paul’s solitary reference refers to the normal filling of the Spirit. We find the phrase “by the ‘Spirit” (ejn pneuvmati[en pneumati]) also in Ephesians 2:22; 3:5; and 6:18. These all refer to the Holy Spirit as a personal agent. Some hold that “spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 refers to the human spirit and not the Holy Spirit. 3While this is a grammatical possibility, it is not the proper rendering according to the context. It refers to the Holy Spirit because Paul only uses this phrase in reference to the Holy Spirit. We find the phrase “in one Spirit” (ejn ejniV pneuvmati [en eni pneumati]) in Ephesians 2:18.
- Ephesians 5:18 refers to the normal filling of the Spirit because the description that follows this command (5:19-21) describes abiding characteristics of a person that correspond with Luke’s usage in Luke 4:1; Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24; and 13:52.
- Also, Ephesians 5:18 refers to the normal filling of the Spirit because Paul uses the same Greek verb “be filled,” plhrovw(pleroo) and not pivmplhmi (pimplemi), as Luke did to describe the normal filling of the Spirit.
Function of the Spirit
In Greek grammar the nouns have case endings that dictate the way we must use the word. The nominative is the naming case and is the form the subject of a sentence would take. The genitive is the case of description and separation. It is usually translated with the prepositions “of” or “for.” You may have “of the Spirit” to denote the material. The dative would denote interest, location, or means, thus, we would translate “to,” “in,” or “by.” The accusative designates or limits the context to the person/thing being addressed: it would be the object in the sentence. You may be saying at this point, “That’s a nice grammar lesson, but what does it have to do with being filled by the Spirit and spirituality?” It is important in understanding the meaning of “filled by the Spirit.” Let me show why!
It is a law of grammar that the verb “to fill,” plhrovw(pleroo), may govern more that one case of a noun, in order to distinguish and to enable us to identify its exact function for the purpose of precise communication. So when context uses the verb “to fill,” plhrovw(pleroo), with various cases it looks like the following:
- With the genitive it refers to the material that fills, i.e., the content of the filling is the Spirit.
- With the dative it refers to the agent or instrument that effects the filling, i.e., be filled by means of the Spirit.
- With the accusative it refers to the thing filled; i.e., be filled in your human spirit.
Most English translations incorrectly render the phrase in Ephesians 5:18 as “be filled with the Spirit.” This makes the English reader think that the genitive case in the Greek is behind this English translation. However, this is not the case (no pun intended)! The Greek uses the dative case. A proper English value for the Greek then would be “be filled by the Spirit,” the dative denoting the agent of the filling, not the content of the filling as “with” would lead one to believe.
Ephesians 5:18 should be taken in the same way as 2:22: “You are built together for an habitation of God by the Spirit.” So it denotes the One who fills, not the content with which one is filled.
What, then, does the filling of the Spirit mean? It seems to imply the real presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, but the force of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians is that they are to be more and more controlled by means of the Spirit and that this relationship will produce the effects set forth in the Epistle. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not involved in the process.. He is. However, He is involved in the same way that human life animates our physical bodies. It is the mans by which we act and do all kinds of things. So the fact that we are animated by means of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the flesh, should produce visible behavior that indicates that we are alive spiritually–the fruit of the Spirit of Christ-like character.
The figure of speech Paul uses here is that of metonymy in which the cause is put for the effect, the cause being the Spirit producing the effects of verses 19-20. The same kind of figure is found in Colossians 3:16, “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,” resulting in the same effects produced by the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-20. Here the agency is the “Word of Christ.” In other words the Spirit is the one who causes the believer to produce spiritually mature actions (5:19-21) and it is the believer who exhibits the effect. Also, the behavior enabled by the Spirit (i.e., a spiritually alive person) is to be consistent in character with that of God (i.e., the Holy Spirit).
The meaning of the filling
- It cannot mean absolute control by the Spirit since this would necessitate sinless perfection; a believer would not be able to resist the sovereign work of God. So “filling” does not denote “Spirit possession” as some suggest. If God the Holy Spirit absolutely controlled a believer’s life, it would be impossible for that one to sin because God does not sin (James 1:13). Even the decision to thwart the control of the Spirit and fall back under the control of the flesh would be impossible if God were 100% in control of the person. Thus, the filling of the Spirit is not total control but rather a progressive and dominant control by the Spirit. When a person is controlled by the Spirit to a high degree he is described as full of the Spirit.
- Filling emphasizes the effects of the Spirit in one’s life (metonymy of cause for effect). Thus, our focus should be on whether or not we are “speaking truth each one with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25), “being kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other” (4:32), “trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:10), “making the most of [our] time” (5:16). “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (5:19-20), “being subject to one another” (5:21), and there are many more commands, of which Ephesians 5:18 is just one.
- Paul presents this filling as a process that progresses to a goal, thus it is progressive, not complete or total (compare Luke 2:40, John 16:24, which imply progress toward a goal). The goal is the control of the Holy Spirit. This rules out a state of being filled, often coupled with being “in” or “out of fellowship.” An example of this incorrect view is seen in Campus Crusade for Christ’s booklet The Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-filled Life (their track-sized blue booklet). Note especially their concept called “Spiritual Breathing.” Now in Ephesians 5:18, the illustration of becoming drunk indicates a progressive process. Each drink brings a man closer to drunkenness. When a man is drunk, then we say he is full of wine or strong drink. Likewise, the Spirit progressively gains control of our lives so that others notice when we are full of the Spirit.
- The meaning of “filled” is control: “. . . to exercise restraining or directing influence over . . . ” (Webster’s Dictionary).
- The verb “be filled” (pleroo) has certain implications: a. It is plural in number: “Be all of you filled by the Spirit.” Accordingly, being filled is not a privilege reserved for a few; it is potentially available to all believers. b. It is in the present tense: “All of you be continually filled by the Spirit.” The present tense in Greek describes continuing action. Again this fits well with our understanding that normal filling is an abiding characteristic of a person’s life. c. It is a command. This is not an option but a clear statement of the will of God for all believers. The bottom line is that Paul commands us to be spiritually mature, which is the same as saying, “be filled by the Spirit.”
- There is no formula or mechanical method for achieving a state of being filled by the Spirit. Instead, as has already been mentioned, there is a process that is continuous in this life. If there were a formula or technique that would produce immediate results, we could speak of a special filling with immediate results but no conditions. I am not saying that the Holy Spirit does not produce results (i.e., love, self-control, power, etc.). However, many teach that if we meet certain conditions then we will automatically see certain fruit in our lives and that is not taught in the Bible. The filling of the Spirit is not gained by one prayer or meeting certain steps and lost by one act of sin. This concept has led many to frustration in their walk.
- Assurance of being filled by the Spirit is not based upon following a formula, but on the fruit of the Spirit in one’s life. Simply, am I acting like one is supposed to act who is being controlled by the Spirit?
The Conditions of the Filling of the Spirit
There are no “conditions” for the filling of the Holy Spirit per se. However, the following are a number of New Testament admonitions that enhance spiritual growth. For example:
Dedication to Christ (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 3:8-10)
Growth in Christ (2 Peter 3:18; Acts 2:42)
- Study the Word (Colossians 3:16; 1 Peter 1:23-2:2; Matthew 4:4; 2 Timothy 2:15; John 8:31; Psalm 1:2-3).
- Prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Colossians 1:9ff, 4:2; Ephesians 6:18).
- Fellowship (Hebrews 10:23-25; Ephesians 4:11-16).
- Witness (Romans 1:14-16; 10:9-15; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:8; Colossians 4:3-6 5).
- Obedience (Romans 6:13-15; James 1:22-25).
Purity and confession of sin (1 Corinthians 11:31-32; Ephesians 4:30; 1 John 1:7-2:2).
A Dependent Life–Paul’s word to describe the Christian life is “walk.”
- A new way of living (Romans 8:2-4; Galatians 5:16).
- Each step of your life (Galatians 5:25).
The Results of Filling, or How Do I Know I Am Full of the Spirit?
- Worship and praise (Ephesians 5:19-20).
- Submission in relationships (Ephesians 5:21-6:9).
- Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25).
- Walk not according to the flesh (Romans 8:4, 12-17).
- Walk according to the new creation (Romans 6:4; Galatians 6:16).
- Walk in love (Romans 14:15; Ephesians 5:2; 2 John 6).
- Walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7).
- Walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10).
- Walk worthy of calling (Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12).
- Walk as wise (Ephesians 5: 15; Colossians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:12).
- Walk like Christ (Philippians 3:17-18; Colossians 2:6; 1 John 2:6).
- Walk in truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3-4).
- Walk in the light (Ephesians 5:8; 1 John 1:6-7).
The Holy Spirit is the agent of the filling, whether special/sovereign or normal. The Holy Spirit is the One who works quietly behind the scene, who gives us the power and ability to live in accordance with the Lord’s norms and standards, producing in us Christ-like behavior. Christ Jesus is the focus of the believer’s relationship with God. This relationship is evident by growth in terms of “the fruit of the Spirit.” We see this in the parallel passage to Ephesians 5:18, that is, Colossians 3:15-16. Christ is the content, as spelled out by the Word of Christ (the Bible), so that one can evaluate one’s spirituality on the basis of a fixed standard outside of oneself (Scripture), rather than a subjective and misleading formula. There must be a proper relationship of dependence without legalism and obedience without license to the glory of God.
What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? It means to be a mature, Christ-like Christian who exhibits the fruit of the Spirit! It means to be occupied with Christ, not with oneself, or one’s experience with the Spirit. 4
Tommy Ice received his B.A. degree from Howard Payne University, Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Tyndale Theological Seminary. He presently is director of the Pre-Trib Research Center in Washington DC. Dr. Ice has also pastored churches in Oklahoma and Texas, is an adjunct professor at Chafer Theological Seminary, conference speaker and author of several books, including Dominion Theology and Overrun by Demons.
©1997 Chafer Theological Seminary, http://www.bible.org. Anyone is free to reproduce this material and distribute it, but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author’s consent.
Footnotes1 Timothy Crater, ” The Filling of the Spirit in the New Testament,” (unpublished Th.M. Thesis, 1971 Dallas Theological Seminary).
2 Crater, p. 46.
3 Editor’s Note: We plan to provide in the future a two-part series that presents the arguments for this position, i.e., that pneumati demotes the human spirit.
4 Help was gleaned from Dwight Ekholm’s Th.M. Thesis, 1973, at Dallas Seminary, 1973; and a paper by Pastor Steve P. Sullivan. Help was gleaned from Dwight Ekholm’s Th.M. Thesis, 1973, at Dallas Seminary; and a paper by Pastor Steve P. Sullivan.