Filled with the Spirit

Today is Pentecost. The Jewish Feast of Weeks. The anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The birthday of the Church as we know it.

I once did a study on the phrase “filled with the Spirit” and how it is used in the Bible. Because it’s fascinating and liturgically appropriate, I thought I’d share some of the results today.

The phrase appears a number of times in the Bible, mostly in the writings of Luke (ie the Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts) and once in the writings of Paul. Almost every usage has some kind of implication for our “normal” evangelical-charismatic-pentecostal expectations of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Whatever your theological stance on what the term means, there are probably going to be a few surprises.

Let me broaden your mind, then:

1. John the Baptist. We first encounter the term “filled with the Spirit” in the annunciation to his father Zechariah of the birth of John. The words of the angel were that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth”, or “from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

Already we’re in unfamiliar territory as far as our standard thinking on being filled with the Spirit goes. John didn’t pray a particular prayer, or dedicate himself to the obedience of Christ, or have anybody lay hands on him or any of the things we sometimes associate with being filled. He was in his mother’s womb. How are you going to lay hands on a preborn infant?

The first lesson, then, is that being filled with the Spirit is at the Father’s discretion. It’s not because of what we do or don’t do. John was something of a special case, as the forerunner of Messiah and antitype of Elijah, so we might expect some unusual things about his being filled with the Spirit, but this is still an important lesson. We get so focused on our part – what we’re supposed to do in order to get filled – that we can sometimes miss the fact that it’s truly not about us. The Holy Spirit is personal, the third Person of the Triune Godhead. He has will and personhood, and it’s His decision, not ours.

Though this sounds like we can no longer be sure that we can be filled, all it really means is that we don’t have to perform certain feats of repentance or faith, or rites of anointing or laying-on of hands, in order to be filled. The good news is that God wants us to be filled with the Spirit, so much so that he makes it a command (Eph 5:18, which we will come to in due course).

2. Elizabeth. After hearing her own angelic annunciation of a birth, Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, which sets up the trigger for the next appearance of the phrase “filled with the Spirit”. Mary arrives and says “Hi” to her relative, at which point the fœtal John the Baptist does a somersault in her uterus, which triggers Elizabeth being filled with the Spirit (Luke 1:41).

Put that in your book on “how to be filled with the Spirit”!

What I want to draw out of this is the supernatural breaking into the ordinary. What could be more natural and ordinary than a relative’s greeting on arrival? But what could be more supernatural than being filled with the Holy Spirit?

Getting filled with the Spirit shouldn’t be some pseudo-liturgical, churchy thing that only happens in a worship service or through specifically-designated rites. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that He doesn’t like to be boxed. He delights in breaking out of the boxes of our expectation and ritual. He wants to be in the ordinary and natural as much as He wants the elevated and sacred parts of our lives. Elizabeth was filled with God the Holy Spirit through the most oddly mundane of means. Maybe we should broaden our horizons of where we expect God to show up and be powerfully at work.

3. Zechariah. The third person that the Bible records as being “filled with the Spirit” is John’s father Zechariah. Obedient to the angel whose words he had first doubted, he writes “his name is John” in reference to what his son’s name should be. Immediately, his tongue is loosed and he is filled with the Spirit (Luke 1:67).

I find it highly significant that the first three people that the Bible describes as being filled with the Spirit all come from the same family. When we use “Spirit-filled” as an adjective, it’s usually with respect to either “Christians” as individuals or “churches” as groups of individuals. We never hear about “Spirit-filled families“, and I wonder why not.

Does God the Holy Spirit have nothing to do with our family life? Or are we just such individualists that this family dimension never occurs to us?

What might happen if our families got filled with God? Well, for a start the marriage breakdown rate among followers of Christ might stop looking exactly like the world. We might not have to worry so much about the possibility of our kids doing drugs. Guided by the infilling Spirit, can we not trust Him to keep our kids on the right path?

Notice, too, the immediate result of his being filled. “His father Zechariah was filled with the Spirit and prophesied” (Luke 1:67). Don’t let anyone tell you that speaking in tongues is always the result of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Bible states that John, Elizabeth and Zechariah were all filled with the Spirit without that particular result.

There is a common thread to the results of being filled, though, but it isn’t that. John was filled in his mother’s womb, and his life calling was to be “the voice of one calling in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!'” (John 1:19-23). Elizabeth was filled and immediately exclaimed “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” to Mary, the mother of the Messiah. Zechariah is filled and bursts forth in prophetic utterance.

It’s speaking that seems to characterise being filled, not specifically “in tongues”. This will be a recurring theme, but I bring it up here.

4. Jesus. Next in sequence comes one of the familiar passages that people sometimes use to expound on the Spirit and on being filled. Even it is not without its questions, though. Such as this one:

Jesus was God. Why did He need to be filled with God if He was God already?

The rite of baptism as practiced by John is intriguingly counter-cultural anyway, or ought to be. AS I understand it, baptism was used in first-Century Judaism as part of the rites of becoming a proselyte – a convert from paganism to the worship of YHWH. It wasn’t as irrevocable as the act of circumcision, by which one so thoroughly identified with the people of God that one was no longer counted a Gentile but a Jew, but as a mark of turning from idolatry and sin, you were baptised in water. Marginal Jews – tax-collectors for a pagan Emperor, or prostitutes, or other sinners – might also get baptised as a mark of getting serious about God.

It was no wonder the Pharisees were offended at the suggestion that they needed to be baptised. It their eyes, they were models of righteousness. Baptism would imply that they were no better than a pagan or a prostitute.

And now here comes Jesus, down to the water to be baptised. In one of the great “what on earth..?” moments of Scripture, John double-takes. “I need to be baptised by you! Why are you coming to me?”

Not denying this, Jesus nonetheless insists. “Let us do this, in order to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14-15). Both as testimony to the righteousness of John’s role as harbinger and as testimony to who Jesus is and why John should be believed about Him, Jesus goes through with the rite.

In that context, the question of why Jesus needs to be filled with the Spirit may be the wrong question. As testimony to the new pattern for believers, of course He would need to be filled. But the immediate result is that He’s taken off into the desert for the mother of all battles with Satan.

Interestingly given what we noted previously about speaking being the result of the filling of the Spirit, how does Jesus fight and vanquish the enemy’s temptations? With the Word of God, spoken out at need.

5. The Disciples. What’s fascinating is that the passage which we use as the definitive glimpse into what it means to be filled with the Spirit and what that looks like doesn’t occur until the fifth instance. Far from being the singular pattern-setting event we sometimes paint it as being, the pattern has in some ways already been set.

Except it hasn’t. You’d be hard-pressed to find much commonality between the first four instances, except what we’ve already drawn out.

Part of God’s unwillingness to stay in whatever box we put Him into is an apparent dislike of doing things the same way every time. How do you get filled with the Spirit? John was filled from his mother’s womb. Elizabeth was filled in response to her unborn baby leaping within her. Zechariah was filled in response to an act of obedience to God in naming his son. Jesus was filled in association with his baptism in water. I’m seeing diversity, almost chaos, rather than pattern.

What were the disciples expecting? They’d been with Jesus from the beginning; they knew about His baptism, about John’s ministry and testimony about Jesus that He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. He’d proven Himself to be the Messiah by rising from the dead. Now he was promising that just as Jesus had been, they too would soon be filled with the Spirit.

Last time, that had looked like a dove descending bodily and visibly on Jesus. Were they expecting 120 doves?

It’s not what they got. They got a noise like a hurricane and everyone’s head apparently catching fire. Being filled with the Spirit typically doesn’t look typical. When dealing with the Almighty it can be dangerous to get locked into a single pattern and expectation.

But it’s this passage (and one other that we will look at in a minute) in which the immediate result of being filled with the Spirit is the notorious “speaking in tongues”. In charismatic/pentecostal circles, this usually looks like a “prayer language” unrelated to any human languages. I’ve got no problem with this, except if you make it into a club to beat people over the head with. Biblically speaking, not everyone who is filled speaks in tongues, and the only Biblical examples of it where they are don’t really look that much like what we have come to associate with the modern manifestation.

The original purpose of speaking in tongues according to Acts 2 was evangelistic, not edificatory. The breaking of Babel, the spreading of the Good News beyond the Koine Greek-speaking Hebrew world. And lest I get into a whole discussion on this and never finish what I started, that’s all I’m going to say right here about that.

6. Peter. The language here is “full of the Holy Spirit” rather than “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8), emphasising the result rather than the process. What follows is the first of many defence speeches given by the Apostles and others to exprain what has happened and preach the Good News about Jesus.

Since Jesus Himself promised that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say when we are taken away as part of a persecution, we could probably infer that his words were from the Holy Spirit anyway, but here Luke makes it explicit. The religious authorities may be on the other side, but Peter is speaking by the Holy Spirit.

7. Stephen. (Acts 6:5 & Acts 7:55). These two references neatly bookend the life of Stephen the protomartyr as recorded in Acts. He is introduced as a man full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and almost his penultimate words are explicitly by the Holy Spirit with Whom he was filled. His life is characterised by miraculous signs, which are almost a kind of speaking in themselves, and he makes a long, eloquent and very Jewish defence speech before the elders of the people.

8. Saul. (Acts 9:17) Saul, or Paul as he became better known, will receive further treatment later, but this is the first time he is accepted as a brother by the embryonic Church.

His acceptance would be one of the crucial tests of the Church. Why should they accept their former persecutor? But if they didn’t – one Christianity dominated by Peter and the Apostle James, and one Christianity with Paul at its head? Lest the faith be divided, someone from the community of believers had to be involved in Paul receiving the Holy Spirit, in order to give evidence that no deception was being practiced.

9. Cornelius. (Acts 10:44 & 11:15) Of course, having said that speaking in tongues isn’t supposed to be the definitive mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit and that God doesn’t do things the same way every time, I now have to deal with the one instance in which being filled with the Spirit looks exactly like the last time and prominently features speaking in tongues.

There is a definite point to God repeating Himself, though. Cornelius and his family, and presumably those whom he had gathered, were Gentiles. Non-Jews, separated from the Covenant promises of the Lord by the presence of a foreskin. Though devout and worshippers of the Most High, they weren’t allowed into the Temple beyond the outer courts and were excluded from most of Jewish religious life.

In order to break down what one of the Apostles called “the dividing wall of hostility”, God the Holy Spirit had to make it clear that being filled with God was neither restricted to Jews, nor were Gentiles to be subjected to any additional requirements in order to receive it.

So He repeats the experience of Acts 2. The significance of this cannot have been lost on the Jewish believers who came with Peter. As the chief Apostle said “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Can anyone prevent them from being baptised?”

The language is slightly different: “came upon” rather than “were filled with”. But Peter’s testimony makes it clear that this is referring to the same event, so I have included it here.

One new community, with one common experience of being filled with the Spirit. Which based on the totality of Scriptural teaching so far is probably not going to look identical, but which had better look right that first controversial time, to raise tha fact that Cornelius and his Gentiles really had been filled beyond doubt.

Even when He’s operating within the box of our expectations, it turns out that the Holy Spirit is engaged in breaking boxes.

10. Saul/Paul. The first overt demonstration that Saul/Paul was indeed filled with the Spirit came some years later in his first missionary journey (Acts 13:9). The situation is another test of the new faith: Will the power of Jesus be able to overcome the power of Satan as expressed through the Jewish false prophet and sorcerer Elymas?

Elymas is evidently a very powerful individual, and he has the ear of the Roman proconsul. Perceiving Barnabas and Saul’s teaching as a threat to his power base, he tries to turn the proconsul against the faith. Then Paul steps up, full of the Holy Spirit, and strikes the false prophet with blindness.

It’s an interesting sign for a first miracle, made even more so by the fact of Paul’s own experience with blindness. Perhaps, having been on the receiving end of a Divine blindness, he both knew on a gut-deep level that God was able to do it and what far-reaching transformative effects such blindness could have.

We’re not told Elymas’ eventual decision with regard to the Faith, but it’s just possible that we might even meet him in heaven one day. After all, no-one expected Paul to become a follower of Jesus either.

11. Ephesian disciples. Again, this is “come upon” language rather than strictly “filled with” language about the Spirit, but for similar reasons I include it here. Also, it makes the number of instances add up to the wonderfully numerologically significant 12, so who am I to argue?

When Paul first comes to Ephesus, he meets a group of disciples who had received the baptism of John only (Acts 19:1-7). It’s an interesting account of a situation that perhaps we shouldn’t really expect to find today – what about John’s disciples? They had believed the words of John, turned from sin and in all likelihood, as they lived in Ephesus, not known a whole lot about Jesus. Whatever the true status of these “disciples”, Paul detects something incomplete about their faith and understanding.

What he does about it is instructive. There are plenty of people today who know a little bit about Jesus but have a defective or incomplete understanding. Rather than tear them apart for ignorance of the truth, Paul begins where they were, with the testimony of John, and goes on to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Unlike the way we so often want to behave, he doesn’t make their ignorance wrong. They aren’t evil opposers of the truth; just trying to follow God in the best way they know how. No-one had ever explained the truth to them properly. Maybe people assumed they were believers. Or maybe people assumed they were wilful heretics.

Either way, Paul deals with them remarkably gently, so that in the end they are full believers.

12. Every believer. Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5:19-20 is phrased as a command to believers. “Do not be drunk with wine. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…”

Again, it seems that being filled with the Spirit presupposes communication as an outworking.

We should not be surprised at this. God is a communicative God. He spoke the universe into being. Jesus is the Word. We should not be at all surprised that the Holy Spirit’s infilling promotes speaking.

Rather, we ought to be suspicious if it doesn’t.

I’m writing at least partly to myself here, because I’m an introvert and I don’t like talking to people. But the truth remains: If God is the arch-Communicator, and we are truly full of God, how can we not communicate?

Not that everything has to be verbal. There is, after all, a full and communicative silence as well as an empty one. But let us not deceive ourselves: God is not a hidden secret that we can keep to ourselves. Even the great mysteries of the Cross and the Resurrection did not happen in a corner.

Let us, today of all days, be filled with the Spirit. And speak!


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