“Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Eph.5:18 (WEB)
Paul writes that the Ephesian believers should be filled with the Spirit, but places an unusual image beside his command – drunkenness. It’s an image containing contrasts and comparison. The contrasts are obvious. Drunkenness is a moral negative, while the Spirit’s fullness is a positive good. Being drunk is a physical state, while fullness pertains to the soul. Being inebriated undoes the body and mind, but the Spirit’s fullness focuses us for God. There are other ways that these two states are different, but it is the comparison of the two which helps us understand what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.” It is their similarity that informs us on how the filling of the Spirit occurs. It is the “How?” that is important.
Believers who are following Jesus and want to mature in their spiritual walk long for the filling of the Spirit. We know that everyone who places their faith in Jesus receives the Spirit, in His wholeness ( Rom.8:9; Jn.14:17 ). So, the filling of the Spirit is not a bestowal of His presence within us, but rather a movement of the Spirit with His power and purposes upon us. How does that happen? Paul is frustratingly vague in his instructions. He gives the command and makes a comparison. To understand, we need a brief grammar lesson followed by an explanation of the comparison.
When Paul writes “Be filled with the Spirit”, it is a passive imperative. I recognize that Greek grammar may cause brain fog for most of us, but it is essential for clarity. The verb is a command, an imperative. So, there is something that we can and must respond to. But it is a command in the passive form. The action of the verb doesn’t start with us. We do not initiate the action, but we participate by allowing it to happen. In the morning you may say, “I closed my eyes until sleep overtook me.” Sleep is the active agent; you were simply available and receptive. The grammar lesson is done. What it means is this, “being filled with the Spirit” is an action of God done for us that we invite or allow. Being filled with the spirit is God’s doing, but we place ourselves in a condition to receive it. That’s where the image of drunkenness is important.
How do you get drunk? While I have never been drunk, the process is not hard to understand. Being inebriated doesn’t just happen to you when you walk past a pub. It is not something you pray for, and drunkenness falls from the sky. It can happen any time and any place, but there are steps necessary to it. You get drunk by a certain action and then repeating it. You take a drink and then you take another. If this action is repeated enough times, you place yourself under the influence of alcohol. The number of repetitions varies from person to person, but our bodies are built to respond to the effects of alcohol and those effects increase with the habitual action. That is the key to being filled with the Spirit.
The filling of the Spirit is God’s initiative, but we can take actions that open our soul to His filling. The actions of prayer, scripture, worship, obedience, mission, fellowship, seeking God – these are the activities of those who seek to place themselves under the influence of the Spirit. It is the habit and consistency of these actions that creates the internal conditions receptive to the Spirit. Our souls are shaped to be sensitive to His presence and work. A pattern of godly responses heightens that sensitivity. Even as sailors set their sails waiting for a breeze, our consistent disciplines prepare us for the Spirit’s fullness. We do not create it, but are prepared to receive it.
We can ask for the filling of the Spirit. God is gracious. Yet our error is the assumption that our infrequent prayers, sporadic Bible reading, or scattered obedience is enough to place us under the Spirit’s influence. May our longing for the Spirit’s fullness be witnessed not simply in our asking, but in our repeated posture of readiness. We do what we can do to receive what is God’s alone to do.