At my church we are continuing to move through our series in Ephesians, and this past Sunday I preached on Ephesians 5:8-21 (you can listen to it here). There’s one particular phrase in this passage that’s of particular interest for this post: be filled with the Spirit. Paul exhorts these new Christians to be filled with the Spirit as a key part of their new life in Christ – but what does this really mean? And how do you know if you’re filled with the Spirit?
Depending on your background and experience, the phrase “filled with the Spirit” may have a bunch of different connotations attached to it. It may bring up pictures of a powerful, emotional experience. Or perhaps it makes you think of subtle whisperings and feelings, or miracles. Or maybe you just have no idea what Paul is writing about when he mentions being “filled with the Spirit.”
Regardless of where you are coming from, the best place for us to wrestle with what Paul is talking about is to have a closer look at what the passage actually says. Rather than interpreting this phrase in isolation based on what we have heard or experienced, let’s zero in and check it out.
Controlled By the Spirit
First up, we should take note of the whole verse. Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”
Wait, why is he talking about being drunk?
He’s not simply zoning in on drunkenness as some ‘extra-bad’ sin, but is rather using it as a foil against what it means to be filled with the Spirit. When someone is drunk, they are out-of-control and have little regard for the consequences of their actions. So then, in contrast to being filled with alcohol and out-of-control, Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit and live controlled lives, guided by the Spirit.
He is making this contrast to drive home the point that to be filled with the Spirit means that we live in a controlled way and have regard for the consequences of our actions. And this makes sense: when Paul lists off a bunch of evidences that the Spirit is at work in a person’s life (the “fruit of the Spirit”, in Galatians), he ends the list with self-control.
So this helps us narrow things down a bit. It rules out the idea that being filled with the Spirit is some emotional, out-of-control experience. It has to be something more controlled than that.
The Results of Being Filled with the Spirit
Next, let’s take a look at the slightly broader context of this verse for a bit more help.
Although you can’t tell in most English translations (ESV is a noteworthy exception), Ephesians 5:18-21 is one connected sentence in the original Greek. This is useful for us to know, because vv19-21 contain four exhortations that are directly related to the command to be filled with the Spirit, and they explain what it looks like.
To convey this idea, it could well be translated:
“Be filled with the Spirit,
speaking to one another…
singing and making music…
giving thanks always…
submitting to one another…”
Each of these latter four exhortations are directly linked to the first one – they are the results of being filled the Spirit: speaking to one another (encouragement), singing to God in praise, giving thanks to Him, and submitting to each other. They’re all selfless actions that are pointed to others (either fellow believers, or God Himself), and are motivated by love.
If you’re not convinced that this is what Paul is talking about in this context, check out Eph 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love.” If we are to be filled with God’s Spirit, then the obvious result of this is that we are imitators of God – which is to live in selfless love.
And again, this lines up with what Paul tells us in Galatians about the “fruit of the Spirit.” It’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control.
These are the things that grow in us when we are filled with the Spirit. When the Spirit of God fills us, He helps us to imitate God in living a life of selfless love. To be filled with the Spirit means that we, like God, live lives that are motivated by selfless love, seeking the good of others above ourselves.
The Fruit of the Spirit is Love
Hopefully this helps clear things up a bit in your understanding of what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”
It is not some out-of-control emotional experience. It’s living a life guided by God’s Spirit so that we live in a way the pleases Him and bears good fruit in our lives. It means that we are motivated by selfless love in everything we do, just as Christ seflessly gave Himself up for us.
If we are filled with the Spirit, we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So how do you know if you’re filled with the Spirit? You look for the evidence of God’s Spirit growing these things in your life. There are no miraculous or outwardly supernatural signs or gifts that you need to be looking for.
Just look for the fruit of the Spirit.
At least as far as the apostle Paul was concerned, this is what it means to be filled with the Spirit, and he wanted this for every Christian. Are you filled with the Spirit?