Being Filled With The Spirit: A Study Of Ephesians 5:18-21

Several people that I study and work with have told me that they have been “filled with the Spirit.” Being raised in Pentecostal type churches, they have often been told that the Spirit operates in a way that requires people to cease rational and logical thought, and that He operates upon them in such a way that will cause them to possibly lose control of their senses and do things which a otherwise reasonable person would never do. I have known people who have run around church buildings, spoken in gibberish-like “speech,” twitched uncontrollably, danced with serpents, rolled around on the ground, barked like dogs, screamed like banshees, and even slap their family members in the face, all the while claiming that this is the result of being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible teaches that the evidence of the Spirit will be found in His fruit in the life of the Christian (Galatians 5:22-23), not in incoherent and illogical actions. Paul said that the Christian Message is one based on truth and reason (Acts 26:25), and the evidence to the unbeliever of the truthfulness of Jesus Christ is not in some emotional experience but rather in a “defense” of Christianity that is based on logical answers and solid proof (I Peter 3:15). Yet, this Biblical mandate is not the basis of modern day Pentecostal and Pentecostal-like denominations. John MacArthur has well stated:

“Ask the average charismatic what the Holy Spirit’s influence looks like in his or her life, and you’re likely to get one of several answers. The classic Pentecostal will probably emphasize speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, or some other imagined manifestation of miraculous gifts…Based on such criteria, they identify themselves as Spirit-filled Christians. But what do they mean by that label? Within a charismatic context, almost any subjective experience is construed as evidence of the Spirit’s involvement. Charismatics may think they are being filled with the Spirit when they utter nonsensical (and often repetitious) syllables, fall backward in a mindless trance, speak fallible words of so-called prophecy, feel a sensation of emotional electricity, or donate money to their favorite health-and-wealth prosperity gospel preacher. But none of those things is any indication of the Holy Spirit’s presence. A spirit may be at work in such phenomena, but it is not the Spirit of God.” (John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger Of Offending The Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship, 56 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; Nelson Books)

In this article, we are going to carefully notice what it actually means to be “filled with the Spirit.” Further, we will notice the means by which this “filling” takes place, and the stark contrast between the Bible concept of being “filled with the Spirit” and the modern day religious scene. In writing his letter to the church of Christ at Ephesus, the apostle Paul said:

Ephesians 5:18-21-18    And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit,19    speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,20    giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,21    submitting to one another in the fear of God.

The Context Of Paul’s Statement

Paul begins his injunction of being filled with the Spirit with a strong command for the Christians to abstain from recreational drugs (i.e., wine) which would lead to intoxication. Understanding the context of the church at Ephesus will help to clarify why this was such a pressing concern. The city of Ephesus was well known for the worship of the pagan god Bacchus. (This has been established by the presence of ancient coins, inscriptions, and literary accounts from the city). In describing this “deity,” Ferguson tells us:

“The orgiastic and ecstatic celebrations of Dionysus (Lat. Bacchus) in classical times are known from Euripides’ play The Bacchae. A period of fasting preceded the winter festival. Weakened by the fasting, the devotees in wild ecstatic dance to the accompaniment of the aulos worked themselves into a delirium. In this frenzy, according to the prevalent interpretation, they ate the raw flesh with the blood in it of animals that were seized. Mainly women were affected. Known as maenads, they are depicted in art carrying a torch or a thyrsus (a staff with a pine cone on the end and entwined with vine or ivy leaves) and swirling in dance in the presence of sileni. Since Dionysus was believed to appear in animal form and to be present in the wine, eating the flesh from a living animal and drinking wine could be understood as incorporating the god and his power within.” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds Of Early Christianity, 5043-5048 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Believing that wine was the channel of communication with Bacchus, religious devotees would use alcohol (and other drugs) in worship and devotion. Could it be that some of the Ephesians who had been converted to Christ had brought over this practice into the church? Or was Paul simply rebuking the sinfulness of recreational intoxication? Whatever the case might be, Paul makes it absolutely clear that Christians should not use drugs for recreational uses. This is especially clear by his command to not be “drunk” with wine. Paul here condemns “drunkenness.” What does this mean?

“There are several Greek terms which are translated ‘drunk,’ ‘drunken,’ and ‘drunkenness’ in the New Testament. Along with several others, W.E. Vine makes an interesting distinction in regard to methusko. He defines it as ‘to make drunk, or to grow drunk (an inceptive verb, marking the process of the state expressed in methuo), to become intoxicated, Luke 12:45; Ephesians 5:18; I Thessalonians 5:17a.’ Robert Young, along with W.A. Haynes, defines it as ‘to begin to be softened.’ S.T. Bloomfield views the term as meaning, ‘to moisten, or to be moistened with liquor, and in a figurative sense, to be saturated with drink.’ E.W. Bullinger says methusko means, ‘to grow drunk (marking the beginning of methuo.’) The renowned Joseph Henry Thayer states that the term means ‘to get drunk, become intoxicated.’ These definitions clearly establish beyond a doubt that drunkenness is something that can grow, progress from one state to another, be considered as a state of becoming softened, and, therefore, that it is the beginning of even an advanced degree. The implication is that persons begin to be drunk when they begin to drink. No doubt the reason that some fail to see this fact is because of what they literally see. They have built into their systems the idea that persons must be staggering or in a stupor to be drunk. If they see them in such condition, they consider them as drunk, and otherwise they do not. This is not, however, the basis upon which the Bible determines drunkenness. Medical science also testifies in regard to alcoholic influence.” (W.D. Jeffcoat, The Bible And “Social” Drinking: In-Depth Research Of A Universal Problem, 106-107; Huntsville, Alabama; Publishing Designs, Inc.)

Thus, the Holy Spirit (through the apostle Paul) forbids Christians from becoming intoxicated. Drugs may be used medicinally (cf. Isaiah 38:21; Colossians 4:14), but not recreationally (cf. Titus 2:11-14).

What is especially interesting about the apostle’s command is that he uses what is known as an “inceptive verb” in the original. The inceptive verb was used by the Greeks to mark the beginning of a process.

“2. Ingressive (Inceptive, Inchoative) Aorist…The aorist tense may be used to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state.” (Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics Of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar, 5263 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

“The inceptive imperfect expresses the initiation of an action in the past (‘I began to loose’).” (David Alan Black, Learn To Read New Testament Greek,1145 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; B&H Academic)

“inceptive…Giving emphasis to the beginning of the verbal action (Lat. inceptivus, ‘starting’). This term often appears in connection with the aorist (see 2 Cor 8:9) or imperfect-tense verbs (see Mt. 3:5). Also called inchoative, incipient or ingressive.” (Mathew S. Demoss, Pocket Dictionary For The Study Of New Testament Greek, 779 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; InterVarsity Press)

By using the inceptive verb, Paul is commanding the Christians, “Do not even begin the process of becoming intoxicated.” Don’t take the first drink! The apostle Paul definitely did not believe in and endorse the concept of “social drinking.”

He further states that intoxication leads to “dissipation” or “excess” (KJV). Some through the years have claimed that this passage teaches that it is alright for the Christian to drink a “little,” but not “too much.” They base this on a misunderstanding of what the word “excess” meant to the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, as opposed to what the word means in our day and age.

“The words, ‘wherein is excess,’ are to to be construed with the entire clause, ‘Be not drunk with wine,’ not with the word ‘wine’ alone, but with the becoming drunk with wine. ‘Excess’ is asotia, from sozo, ‘to save,’ and Alpha privative, ‘the literal meaning being, ‘unsavingness’; that is, that which is asotia has nothing of a saving quality about it, but rather, a destructive one. The word as it is generally used expresses the idea of an abandoned, debauched, profligate life.” (Kenneth Wuest, Ephesians And Colossians In The Greek New Testament, 127 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company)

The Bible condemns the recreational use of drugs.

Be Filled With The Spirit

In contrast, Paul now tells the Christians that they need to be “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Godhead (I John 5:7). He comes to live in those who are members of the church, i.e., those believers who have repented of their sins and have been baptized into Christ (Acts 2:37-38; I Corinthians 6:19-20; Galatians 4:6).

The word “filled” is a very interesting word in the original. While every Christian has the Holy Spirit abiding within, it is possible to “quench” or to “grieve” the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians 4:30-And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

I Thessalonians 5:19-Do not quench the Spirit.

This “filling” is shown to be a habitual activity in the Greek of the New Testament. It is in the imperative mood (which shows that this is a command and hence something the child of God is obligated to do), yet is in the passive voice (showing that while the child of God plays a role in this filling, there is also a sense in which he is the recipient of the action). So, the idea is that Christians are to continually be allowing God to fill us with the Spirit.

Yet how does this “filling of the Spirit” occur? The Bible provides for us five “channels” or “ways” in which this “filling” occurs (verses 19-21). Notice:

“The second, positive exhortation, ‘be filled with the Spirit,’ is followed by a series of five present participles that explain how the action of the verb should be fulfilled…It is this last view, the participles taken as the means of being filled by the Spirit, that makes the best sense in this context. Interpreting the participles as means fits well with the grammar of the passage, as Wallace concedes, because a participle of means often follows a present imperative to explain how the action will be carried out.” (Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, 9493, 9713 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

So, we are filled with the Spirit by: (1) “speaking” to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; (2) “singing;” (3) “making” melody in our hearts to The Lord; (4) “giving” thanks; (5) and ‘submitting” to one another.

The Essentiality Of The Church Worship Assembly For The Filling Of The Spirit

Before examining these methods of being filled with the Spirit in detail, let me point out that it is clear from this how important the Christian assembly is in this regard. Basically stated, these commands of being filled with the Spirit are primarily to be carried out in the worship assembly with the saints. Where else can we better admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs than in the worship assembly?

Consider a parallel passage in Colossians:

Colossians 3:16-Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Notice those two little words “in you.” Paul says to let the Word of Christ dwell richly “in you.” I used to believe that this simply meant we need to allow the Word to remain in our hearts. While this is certainly true (James 1:21; Psalm 119:11), this is not what Paul is talking about in this passage. The phrase that he uses here (“in you”) is en humin. Notice some other places where this phrase is used in Paul’s writings;

Colossians 4:16-16    Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.

I Corinthians 1:10-Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

I Corinthians 3:3-for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?

I Corinthians 11:18-For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.

The massive Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament has this note:

“Loh. Kol. on 3:16 is mistaken in relating en humin to individuals. En humin ‘among you’ in the communiy etc. is common in Paul. Of 18 instances in 1 C., 13 p;ainly have this sense: 1:10 f.; 2:2; 3:3, 18,; 5:1; 6:5; 11:18 f., 30; 14;25; 15:12, and it is implied in 3:16 and 6:19 on the basis of 14:25. In 6:2 the meaning is certainly not ‘within you,’ nor ‘for yourself’ in 11:13.” (Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament: Volume VIII, 498 (footnote 63); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)

Therefore, Paul is talking about the “filling of the Spirit” that takes place primarily in the assembly of the saints. The parallel passage in Colossians (as well as the overall theme of Ephesians) highlights this fact:

“…While some understand this to refer to the indwelling of the word in the individual life, the text moves to a corporate expression in the modifying statements. This most likely refers to the words ‘in you,’ although individuals certainly had to make sure it was in them as well…The entire context points to the freedom of the word to determine the actions, motivations, and decisions of the group.” (Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon: The New American Commentary-Volume 22-An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture, 7697-7705 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; B&H Publishing Group)

This “filling of the Spirit,” therefore, takes place primarily in the worship assembly of the church. There are many who cut themselves off from the church and from her worship assemblies, all the while believing that they can still receive the filling of the Spirit. My friends, that is not how it works. The church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). Where is a spirit located? That’s right: in the body (James 2:26). If we are not in the body of Christ, we do not have access to His Spirit. If we are willfully forsaking the local assembly of God’s people, we are not going to receive the blessing of the filling of HIs Spirit.

“This suggests that the corporate life of worship and mutual relations is the context in which it is possible to grieve the Spirit (4:30) and it is also the context in which the filling with the Spirit takes place. Even more important, believers participate in ‘filling each other up’ with the Spirit. Such an understanding is entirely in keeping with the strong emphasis on building each other up in the process of growth into the Christ who is the new human (cf. 4:3, 12-16).” (Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley, Ephesians: Believers Church Bible Commentary, 4634-4638 (Kindle Edition); Waterloo, Ontario Scottdale, PA; Herald Press)

The Five Ways To Be Filled With The Spirit

We are commanded here to be filled with the Spirit by “speaking.” The verb used here simply means to “talk” and “utter words.” The “speaking” of the Christians is to take the form of psalms, hymns, and songs.. The word psalms has reference especially to the songs and prayers of the Old Testament found in the Book of Psalms, whereas the word “hymn” carried with it the idea of praise to a hero or God. “Song” was a term that was used especially in the New Testament to refer to praises to the Godhead. (It is interesting to notice that the word “spiritual” is a term that can grammatically modify all three terms-psalms, hymns, and songs).

Many Christians do not like to sing. I can certainly relate to this, because there are times when I do not FEEL like singing hymns and praises to God. It is precisely at those times that I need to be singing the most. In our world, it is so easy to lose sight of the important things-the things which really matter. We have shifting priorities in our lives, and like the Hebrews we can often forget God during good times if we are not watchful (Deuteronomy 8:11-18). Our brothers and sisters need us to “speak” them. Through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we are encouraging them not to give up even as they encourage us to persevere.

Related to speaking to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are the concepts of “singing” and “making melody” in our hearts to The Lord. In song, we not only encourage and edify one another; we also show our love and worship of God. There is an obligation for each of us to give praise to God, for He is good (cf. Psalm 100; 107; Matthew 5:44-45). On our worst day, He has richly blessed us.

The phrase “making melody” is from the Greek psallo, which at one time had reference to plucking an instrument of music. Some have therefore concluded that we should employ instrumental music in our worship assemblies to God. However, this overlooks the fact that by the time of the New Testament, this words’ meaning had come to mean simply to “sing.’ Dave Miller provides some incredible and fascinating linguistic information regarding this:

“In case after case, lexicon after lexicon, after noting the original and root meaning of ‘to touch, pluck, etc., the Greek authorities explain that by the first century and in the New Testament, psallo meant ‘to sing.’…In addition to these lexicographers, numerous other lexicons could be cited that date back to more remote times that also reveal the transitional development of the meaning of psallo. Kurfees collated 17 lexicons a hundred years ago, noted the ‘radical meaning’ as ‘to touch,’ and then summarized the lexical evidence in terms of five meanings as applied in Greek literature beginning in the classical period and evolving through the centuries: (1) to pluck the hair; (2) to twang the bowstring; (3) to twitch the carpenter’s line; (4) to touch the chords of a musical instrument, that is, to make instrumental music; (5) to touch the chords of the human heart, that is, to sing, to celebrate with hymns of praise (1911, p. 16; cf. Delling, 1972). He then concluded that concerning the first four meanings, psallo ‘had entirely lost all of these meanings before the beginning of the New Testament period, and that, therefore, the word is never used in the New Testament nor in contemporaneous literature in any of these senses. At this time, it not only meant to sing, but that is the only sense in which it was used, all the other meanings having entirely disappeared (pp. 44-45).'” (Dave Miller, Richland Hills & Instrumental Music: A Plea To Reconsider, 61-62; Montgomery, Alabama; Apologetics Press)

Even if the word psallo had included “instrument” when Paul wrote this to the Christians, he specifies what the “instrument” is that God should be praised with: the human heart! There is no Divine authorization for instrumental music in the New Testament church.

Paul then says that we are filled with the Spirit by “giving thanks.” Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, he highlighted several blessings that we should be especially thankful for as Christians. Speaking of the similarities between Ephesians and Colossians, Bruce Daugherty has written:

“…The emphasis of the epistles is really two sides of the same coin. In the epistle to the Colossians Paul emphasizes the pre-eminence of Christ (Col. 1:15-18). In Ephesians, the emphasis now falls on the people who must grow up to their head, Christ (Eph. 4:15)….The rich imagery for the church in Ephesians (Perkins 358-359) still emphasizes the relationship to the Godhead: body of Christ, household of God, temple of The Lord, bride of Christ. ‘In general terms, the high ecclesiology of Ephesians, which cannot ultimately be separated from its high Christology, is intimately bound up with the place of God’s people within his saving purposes’ (O’Brien 29). The church is glorious because of its’ relationship to the glorious Christ!” (Bruce Daugherty ‘Overview of Ephesians’ in Ephesians: The Glorious Church Of The Glorious Christ-2007 Victory Lectures-West Virginia School of Preaching, 17-18; Moundsville, WV; WVSOP)

If we will more often stop and consider how richly we are blessed in Christ, we will begin to realize that God is truly worthy of our thanks and praise

Finally, we are “filled with the Spirit” when we are “submitting” to one another. The church is a family (Ephesians 3:15), and it is to be a place where the mind of Christ has preeminence (Philippians 2:5-8). In our world of church divisions and splits, the words of the apostle Paul are extremely relevant and powerful:

Ephesians 4:1-6-1    I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called,2    with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love,3    endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.4    There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling;5    one Lord, one faith, one baptism;6    one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Working together for unity means that we will work to control our tempers when something does not go the exactly the way that we want; it means that we will strive to be quick and ready to forgive.

Ephesians 4:31-32-31    Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.32    And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

Please do not misunderstand: there are times when we need to make a stand. Paul said that we must have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but must instead reprove them (Ephesians 5:11). We need to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). False teaching must be opposed (Galatians 1:6-9; I Timothy 1:3). There are many false teachers in the world which must be rebuked (Romans 16:17-18).

However, the sad fact is that all too often the divisions happen within Christendom over matters of personality and opinion. This is a tragedy, and one that disciples of Christ must not propagate. It is here especially that we must learn to “submit” to one another. We must put others ahead of ourselves. Paul wrote:

Philippians 2:1-4-1    Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy,2    fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.3    Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.4    Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

I believe that the Easy To Read Version does a fantastic job on this passage:

Philippians 2:1-4 (Easy To Read Version)-1    Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings,2    then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other, and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think.3    In whatever you do, don’t let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves.4    Don’t be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too.

When we learn to submit to one another-to put others ahead of ourselves-then we will begin to be filled more and more with the Holy Spirit.


As you can see from what the apostle Paul said, there are many differences between what the religious world of our day and age classifies as being “filled with the Spirit” and what the Bible teaches.

One of the greatest blessings God provides to His children is the blessing of His Holy Spirit. God gives the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) to all those who “obey Him” (Acts 5:32). We receive this gift when we (as believers) repent of our sins and are baptized into Christ for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:37-38). If you have never obeyed The Lord, won’t you please do so today? Then as a member of Christ’s church (Acts 2:47), as you grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18), you will continue to be “filled with the Spirit” in your Christian walk.

The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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