Ephesians 5:18 – To Be Filled with the Spirit
The background of Paul’s call in Ephesians 5:18 cannot be that the Christians to whom he writes still had to receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever believes in the Lord Jesus shares in the gift of the Spirit. To belong to Christ and to possess the Spirit are inseparable. For the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. It is the Spirit whom Christ obtained for all who are His. Paul says it very tersely in Romans 8:9, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” It is the Holy Spirit who creates the bond with Christ. Whoever does not have the Spirit cannot possibly belong to Christ. But the opposite is also true: anyone who belongs to Christ, has the Spirit and shares in what the exalted Lord has poured out on Pentecost.
From the preceding verses it is clear that Paul assumes that the readers to whom he addresses this letter, already have the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 1:13 the apostle says that when they came to faith, they were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 2:22 Paul writes that they are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. And he admonishes them in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
To be filled with the Spirit, of which the apostle speaks in our text, is undeniably something different from receiving the Holy Spirit for the first time. That this is the case is evident also elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, it is said of Barnabas that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (Acts 1:24). But we read later in Acts 15:32 that this same Barnabas was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).
If we want to do justice to the data of the New Testament, we will have to distinguish between having the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit is a one-time event in the life of God’s children. Anyone who comes to faith receives the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 1:13). But to be filled with the Spirit is something that can happen repeatedly to God’s children. We could describe it this way: because the believers have received the Holy Spirit, therefore they also have to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
What does it actually mean, to be filled with the Holy Spirit? In answering this question we should note that Paul has used the word “filled”’ already earlier in this letter, in Ephesians 1:23. Christ, the Head over everything, fills everything in every way. Just as God fills heaven and earth (cf. Jer 23:24), so Christ is present in all things with his almighty presence. Especially the congregation is the territory, the domain where he reveals his almighty presence. Paul calls her the “fullness” of Christ (cf. Eph 1:23).
It seems to me that we have to understand “be filled with the Spirit” in connection with the way in which Paul uses the word “fills” in Ephesians 1:23. The point in this being filled is that we are completely taken in and dominated by the saving presence of the Spirit. The Spirit is present in the hearts of the believers. But now that Spirit has to rule and lead them. He has to reveal his blessed presence in its fullness.
When this happens, we see the wonderful fruit of the Spirit: wisdom (Acts 6:3), boldness (Acts 11:24), joy (Acts 13:52).
In our text the apostle clearly writes down a command, “be filled with the Spirit.” We may also translate, “let yourselves be filled continually with the Spirit.”
This command should strike us. Many people think, with respect to the powerful guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can only wait passively. They hope to be touched by the Spirit yet some day. But Paul is clearly of a different opinion. Believers have to be “full” of the Holy Spirit, they have to let themselves continually be filled with the Spirit.
Indeed, for Paul knows that also this being-filled-with-the-Spirit has been obtained for them by Christ. In Christ the congregation has been given fullness (cf. Col 2:10). The believers now also have to live out of the riches of this fullness. This fullness has to manifest itself in them.
When reading Ephesians 5:18, we note a sharp contrast. The Christians to whom Paul writes should not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, they should let themselves be filled with the Spirit. True joy does not come by the intoxication of alcohol, but by being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 19, 20). It is possible that with this warning, Paul had in mind the exuberant feasts of those days, in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. It looked so appealing. Unrestrained fun was the order of the day. But Paul tells them what it really comes down to. In reality it is an artificial joy. It leads to intemperance. It degrades man.
Over against this surrogate happiness, there is the true joy, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Where he fills the hearts, there is thankful joy. Is it not written of the congregation at Jerusalem that they ate together with glad and sincere hearts (cf. Acts 2:46), praising God?
The other side of being filled with the Spirit is that people start to sing and thank and praise God. Paul indicates that clearly in the verses 19 and 20. The command of our text goes hand in hand with the mandate, “sing and make melody to the Lord, with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”
Yes! When they are filled with the Spirit, then all will be well in the congregation. It should not escape our attention that so shortly after the charge of our text, the apostle calls them to Christian submission (v. 21). People who are filled with the Spirit will also respect the relationships the Lord has ordained: the husband towards his wife, the wife towards her husband, children towards their parents.
“Let yourselves be filled with the Spirit continually.” The work of the Holy Spirit becomes here a command for the believers. As Christians we so often fall short in this respect. Christ wants to see in his congregation people who are full of the Holy Spirit.
We may pray to be filled with the Spirit. We must seek this in faith. We have been given fullness in Christ (cf. Col 2:10). When Christ is our life, we will experience this fullness. Surely, the Savior said, “Whosoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (Jn 7:38.)