Probably a dozen times a year I’m asked, “How can I be filled with the Spirit”? The motivations behind this question, I think, are two: First, many traditions of sanctification have emphasized the filling of the Spirit as the key that unlocks the spiritual life. Being filled with (or by) the Spirit has been set forth as the one thing a believer must do to experience the fullness of the spiritual life. Second, believers struggling against temptation and sin are looking for an antidote. Like an immunization against a nagging illness, the experience of being filled with the Spirit sounds a lot like a spiritual booster shot against chronic temptation and sin.
But have we misunderstood the filling of the Spirit? Does that classic text have something more to say to the way we live together as a church rather than how we behave as individuals?
Certainly, we have clear examples of the Spirit filling individuals for service (Exod 31:3; Acts 4:8; 13:9). The filling of the Holy Spirit is always manifested through observable effects. These include wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skill, power, prophecy, healing, boldness, faith, joy, hope, and peace, among others (Exod 31:3; 35:31; Micah 3:8; Luke 1:67; Acts 2:4; 4:31; 6:5; 9:17; 13:52; Rom 15:13). So, one knows that an individual is filled with the Spirit based on the effects of the Spirit, which often correspond to the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23). If you see the fruit, you know the root. But this individual indwelling and enabling is only one aspect of the filling of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Paul also refers to a community aspect of the Spirit’s filling. He describes the church in Corinth as a temple of God, indwelled corporately by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). So, the filling of the Spirit occurs in individuals, but it also occurs in the Church community (Acts 2:4; Eph 2:22).
Almost everything I read about Ephesians 5:18 relates it to the Christian’s individual surrender, yielding, decision, or action that fulfills the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” But could Paul’s primary intention in that passage be the community’s experience of the Spirit rather than the individual’s empowering? When he uses the second person plural, is Paul saying, “Each and every one of you must be filled individually” or is he saying, “Let you all as a community be filled”? The negative command, “Do not be drunk with wine” is also plural, but its possible that Paul was contrasting an inherently selfish, individualistic pleasure (drunkenness) with a selfless, corporate participation (spiritual life). Possible . . . but we need to let the context of Ephesians 5:18 guide our interpretation.
Many point out that Ephesians 5:18 is a passive command. How do we obey a passive command—regardless of whether it’s addressing an individual or a community? Well, we may have to stop doing something that obstructs the Spirit, or otherwise allow the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants. If we emphasize the individual aspect of this command, the problem is a bit more difficult—I must personally must stop or start something to allow the Spirit to fill me. But if Paul intended to emphasize the corporate aspect of the Spirit’s filling, this opens up the fulfillment of the command to reflect mutuality—“one another” living in community, among which the Spirit is producing corporate effects.
In any case, the Spirit’s filling must involve both individual and community elements, though I believe the broader context of Ephesians 5 points us toward a corporate filling of the Spirit. In Ephesians 2, Paul compared the Church as a corporate body to a holy temple, “in whom you [all] also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The rest of the epistle emphasizes togetherness, unity of the one body, corporate giftedness, and spiritual growth together (see especially Eph 4). Thus, the letter as a whole focuses on the corporate spiritual life. In fact, the immediate context of Ephesians 5:18 emphasizes this same corporate mutuality. Following the passive plural command to be filled with the Spirit, Paul attaches a series of participles indicating what being filled with the Spirit looks like. Note the corporate effects of this Spirit filling: speaking to one another with melodious thankfulness (5:19–20) and being subject to one another after the example of Christ (5:21–6:9).
Thus, it appears that the command to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” refers primarily to allowing the Spirit to work in and through our relationships with each other in the Church community. Of course, this requires individual responses and responsibilities as we submit to each other, look out for each other’s interests, meet each other’s needs, and allow others to reciprocate their love and concern for us. But Ephesians 5:18 has little to do with being filled by the Spirit in order to resist temptation, conquer sin, or lick a bad habit. That worn-out application of the passage doesn’t quite fit Paul’s point.
Read in this light, Ephesians 5:18 is extremely convicting to us as we consider our own local churches. It demands that we answer several probing questions. Is our church community filled with the Spirit? Do we exude the attractive aroma of unity, care, support, encouragement, subjection to one another, and uplifting, joyful attitudes? Or do we exude an odor of disunity, selfishness, criticism, discouragement, rebellion, and destructive, pessimistic cynicism? Ask yourself, as you wander the halls of your church, overhear conversations, or whiff the “whine” from the grapevine—do you sense the warm breeze of the Spirit? Or, instead of being continually filled with the Spirit, does your community seem to have outposts of the Spirit battling against a lingering insurgency of the flesh? Or is it even worse than that? Is our church building just a whitewashed tomb, impressive on the outside but lacking Spirit-enabled community life within? Think about your church—and about your participation in its spiritual health. Then answer this important question for yourself: Are we filled with the Spirit?