Be filled with the Spirit.
Reflections on Ephesians 5:18
Recently I had the opportunity to teach a couple of sessions about the Holy Spirit at a local Gospel Partnership training course. Rather than give an overview of historical or systematic theology, or highlight the varying views expressed in the contemporary church, I decided that the most helpful approach would be to see exactly what the Bible taught, in both Testaments, about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Working through so many different texts was a joyful thing to do, humbling and edifying in equal measure - for we live in a world where we cannot see God, many years after the days when Jesus walked the earth, died and rose again. We live in the age of the Spirit.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus his intention was to deepen their understanding of what it means be church. The two groups of people he addressed – Jews and Gentiles – had been alienated from one another and from the God who created them. But now, in Christ, they had been made alive; raised with every spiritual blessing in Christ. They were now his people, the church, described as his body and “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:23). They were now a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (2:22).
But these glorious truths beg a question. If as Christians, we have every spiritual blessing in Christ, if we have his fullness, if God dwells in us by his Spirit, how can Paul then give the instruction of 5:18 “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit”?
On one level this clearly relates to how we are now to live in relationship to God and to one another. The outworking of what it means to be filled with the Spirit is given in the following verses. Modern translations sometimes miss the dynamic nature of what Paul is saying – for being filled with the Spirit is seen in speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks to God the Father for everything and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Our on-going thanksgiving, singing to the Lord, speaking to one another and submitting to one another, are all signs of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. It is the glorious sober-minded control and desire of the true believer.
On another level we are bound to wonder how it is that we are filled. The nature of the verb used suggests that this should be an on-going experience for the believer. But what does this look like in practice? It is not uncommon to be given images which suggest that there are different amounts of the Spirit enjoyed by different people or different types of Christian; or that in some ways we ‘leak’ the Spirit and have to be topped up to keep us going. Such images are powerful, but they don’t sit easily with the truths already given by Paul to the Ephesians - we already have every spiritual blessing, we have been raised with Christ, two are indwelt as a people; his power is at work within us (3:20).
The clue might be in the teaching of Jesus himself. Back in John 7, before the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus explained what would happen when the Spirit is given. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. By this he meant his Spirit, whom those who believed I him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (John 7:38,39). According to Jesus, the streams of living water flow from within. The source of the flowing Spirit for the believer does not come from an external source so much as from an internal one, from the new identity we have in Christ.
The Christian is someone who already has everything, as Paul has made clear - But the Christian is not always living out that true identity. The battle we face, which is not against flesh and flood, conspires to prevent its expression, to stop us being the people we were made to be. That is why Paul not only explains the nature of the fight but also prays for the outworking of that which we have already been made in Christ . . . “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being . . . according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:16, 20). There is a very real sense in which the Christ-like character, our Christian service, the gifting to serve the church and our readiness for the new heaven and the new earth, (all of which are ascribed to the Spirit in the New Testament) are expressions of the reality of having been made new in Christ. It is as we know who we are, understand what we are and ask God that we might become what we are, that we are filled with the Spirit who brings us to us all that Jesus is and all that we already have in him.
As we pray to be filled with the Spirit we are asking the Lord so to work in us that all we are and have in Christ may be seen and expressed more and more each day to his glory – such is the power that is at work within us. “To him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”