Being filled with the Spirit

In the seventies, my wife Pat and I became disciples of the Lord Jesus. The first church we attended was a traditional Pentecostal assembly, and the leaders wasted no time in instructing us in the need for baptisms. First they baptised us by immersion in water and then, some months later, they laid hands on us to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. The Charismatic renewal was in full flood then and we were soon exposed to people who identified themselves as ‘born again, baptised in the spirit, tongues talking believers’. It came as a sad shock to realise that some folk regarded themselves as higher class citizens in the Kingdom of God because of their ‘second experience’. Our naivety was also assaulted by traditional folk who thought that being ‘born again’ was some sort of cult membership initiation. On the one hand we heard Charismatics referred to as ‘holy rollers’, and on the other to traditional worshippers as ‘the frozen chosen’. My, my, my!

If we unpack the core differences concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit from their traditional and language wrappings, it comes down to the following: Pentecostals and most Charismatics believe that there are two distinct experiences of the Holy Spirit. The first is when He gives us new spiritual life and we are born anew from above. The second is when He empowers us for ministry. The first experience is being ‘born again’ and the second is being ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’. The teaching of the traditional non-Pentecostals is that there is only one experience, and that we receive the full blessing of the Holy Spirit when we are converted from the dominion of darkness to the Kingdom of God – “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13 NIV) Lying between these two positions is the path I choose to walk. I accept that when we become disciples of the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives us a new spiritual life, and we are thus born again in a very real sense. I also believe that the Holy Spirit empowers us for life and ministry many times afterwards. I understand that sometimes there is a significant time delay between conversion and effective empowerment and I can see that in these cases an encounter with the Holy Spirit can be a dramatic and radical ‘second’ experience at a level of intensity beyond subsequent anointings.

For me, the issue is not so much the label we attach to the experiences, nor the timing of these encounters with the Holy Spirit, but the fact that we need to fully embrace His presence and ministry in our lives. A key text is Ephesians 5:18 where, in the context of God’s will for us, it has; “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (NIV). The Greek word translated as ‘be filled’ is a present tense imperative verb. The present tense indicates that it is something that should occur repeatedly. The imperative indicates a command, or at least an entreaty. This statement embraces both initial and subsequent experiences of the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. More than this, it points us firmly to the need for frequent spiritual infillings. Perhaps, to avoid any confusion it would be better to refer to being filled with the Holy Spirit rather than baptised in the Holy Spirit. In this way we will not restrict ourselves to just one formative, post regeneration, spiritual experience.

The Greek word pleeroústhe, ‘be filled’, contains a further aid to our understanding; it is in the passive voice. This means that we, the objects, receive the action, we do not generate it. We receive an infilling of power from on high and it is the Holy Spirit who does the filling. He gives and we receive. We do not ‘plug into’ some heavenly power; rather we receive from the one who is the very source of spiritual power – the Holy Spirit Himself.

When I discuss the spiritual manifestations of 1 Corinthians 12 with some folk, a fairly common response goes something like this; “Why do I need to speak in tongues and what difference would it make if I did?” I point out that tongues are a form of prayer (1 Corinthians 14:2) and provide the believer with a Holy Spirit given means of expressing adoration and dependence that goes far beyond the limitations of our mother language. A similar question can be posed; “I am saved by the grace of God, so why do I need to be ‘spirit filled’?” Well, if you have been regenerated, born again, then in a way you are already ‘spirit filled’. But are you effective in life and ministry? When you put a new rechargeable battery into a torch you will have the ability to shed light. But batteries discharge by being used, and rechargeable batteries loose their current even when the torch is not in use. We are much like that – if we are not recharged then we loose what charge we have. Being filled with the Spirit is just not an optional, charismatic, religious experience – it is a spiritual life, and light, necessity!

When Zerubbabel returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia to rebuild the Temple, the prophet Zechariah spoke this word of God to him; “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6 NIV) He could attempt to rebuild the temple by organizational group might or by personal power, and in this way erect a building. However, only the anointing power of the Holy Spirit could enable him to restore the Temple, the place where God dwelt by His Spirit. We too can do many good works in our own strength. By organizing and mobilising the church we can do even greater works. But if we are not anointed by the Holy Spirit for these tasks then that is all they will ever be, good works. NGOs’ and social societies can do good works, but only a spirit filled disciple of the Lord Jesus can make an eternal difference in the lives and destinies of people and nations. Is this a bold claim? Perhaps it is, but this is how I understand the prophetic word to Zerubbabel and the injunction of the Lord Jesus to His disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” (Acts 1:4 NIV)

So then, we NEED to be spirit filled, not just once, but often. But what do we need to do? ….We need to ask. Jesus said this; “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13 NIV) It is so simple that it is almost impossible for us to comprehend. “Just ask?” “Yes, just ask!” However, asking is not a perfunctory or casual enquiry. To ask for empowerment is to acknowledge total dependence on God. To ask Him to fill us with His Spirit is to admit that we cannot be effective without His empowerment. Perhaps this is why we so often fail to ask… to really ask. James pinpoints the problem; “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives…” (James 4:2-3 NIV) This is hard to swallow, but it is often the true diagnosis of our condition.

We need to be constantly filled with the Spirit and we need to express our motive and humility by asking. If we do, then will we instantly be ‘mighty men of God’ or ‘wondrous women of faith’? Probably not, but I believe we will become more effective in ministry than we were before, and we will be more sanctified in lifestyle than we were. The Holy Spirit both empowers and frees from sin. Anything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, done in the anointing power of the Holy Spirit can make a life-changing difference and even a small adjustment towards holy living, affected by the work of the Holy Spirit, can change us eternally.

We can argue about being baptised in, by, or with the Holy Spirit. We can set ourselves above others because of our claim to a higher experience of the Spirit. We can discuss when the various acts of grace occur in our lives. But all of this will not change anything! What changes us, our church, and our world, is the power of God. Being spirit-filled is not the subject of a doctrine or a tradition, it is a spiritual life necessity.


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