To Be Filled by the Holy Spirit


The coming of the Holy Spirit has long been prophesied by the prophets in the OT. Among all others, Joel and Isaiah are the most prominent. They gave lengthy and detailed descriptions to the functions and the works of the promised Holy Spirit. According to Joel, the Spirit is to be given to all flesh (Joel 2:28). It simply means that among those who come to Him, God can give the Spirit to whomever He chooses. The gift of the Spirit is no longer just for an elite few. One outstanding feature of the Promised Spirit is His ever-abiding presence in those whom He dwells, as opposed to His functions in the OT.

Those whom the Spirit dwells are filled by the Spirit. Being filled by the Spirit can be looked at from three perspectives. Firstly, when the Spirit came upon the 120, they were all filled by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). The entire fullness of God was in each and every one of them. The case of Paul being filled by the Holy Spirit is another example (Acts 9:17). This is in fulfillment of what Christ has said that the Spirit shall be given without measure (Jn. 3:34). Being filled here occurs at the receiving of the Holy Spirit. This is also Jesus’ promise before His suffering that after He has ascended back to Heavens He shall send His disciples the comforter (Jn. 14:16, 23; 16:13), who shall direct and build them up from within.

Secondly, in the work of the apostles, being filled by the Spirit has been a common experience to them. However, the experience is not one of receiving the Holy Spirit. They had been given the Spirit already before they were sent out to preach (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8; 2:4). The filling here indicates their trust and faith in the Lord and the determination to carry on with the works that they have been commissioned to do (Acts 4:8, 31; 13:9). It also expresses the power of the Spirit within them in their service to the Lord. With it, they feared no opposition and became extremely alert, being able to discern the work of Satan.

Thirdly, being filled by the Spirit is about living a life driven by the Spirit. It is a state of existence, in which we show great willingness to be led by the Spirit, placing God and salvation above all else. Despite difficulties, we are willing to hold on to Jesus, knowing in whom we believe (cf. Acts 13:52). Leading a Spirit-filled life is only possible when we conscientiously stay clear of corrosive influences of this corrupt world (Eph. 5:18). This requires diligent effort in coming together as a family of God, to strengthen the bond that we have in Jesus.

What must be stressed is that the first perspective of the coming of the Spirit on the believers, after Christ’s ascension, is uniquely evidenced by tongue-speaking. This event combined with the episode of the downpour of the Spirit acts as the initial pattern and the blueprint for the church (Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-48; 11:15-17). The work of the Spirit, working from within a person, is unprecedented, though there may be examples in the overlapping period, such as Simeon, Elizabeth and Zacharias (who were filled by the Holy Spirit). These examples occurred before the ascension of Christ and they do not invalidate the teaching that being filled by the Spirit comes after receiving the Holy Spirit (as instructed by Christ).

A parallel example is Baptism in the name of Jesus. When Christ was in this world, His words could bring about the forgiveness of sins. However, after His ascension, forgiveness of sins must first come through Water Baptism. Praying alone without going through this process does not effect the forgiveness of sins.

Some, in order to drive a wedge between being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, try to find fault with the language used in narrating the Pentecostal experience. The point of contention is that ‘being filled with the Spirit’ occurred before ‘the speaking in tongues’. They base their reasoning on the conjunction ‘and’ as recorded in Acts 2:4. They insinuate that there is a time gap between the two events. The point they are trying to make is that we can be filled by the Holy Spirit after the Water Baptism without speaking in tongues, which they claim will surely come but can occur at a later time of our lives.

One thing for sure is that the 120 were given utterance by the Spirit before they left the upper room. The sound of the tongues drew many to observe the scene of the outpour of the Spirit. The speaking in tongues here could not have happened some time after they were filled by the Spirit. The sound they heard was inseparably connected to the receiving of the Holy Spirit. That prompted Peter to stand up and explain to those who mocked at them. While confirming the coming of the Spirit, he did not differentiate the two; rather he showed them that what they were witnessing there was the reception of the Spirit. Inevitably, the sound (speaking in tongues) alludes to the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

This explanation falls neatly in line with the entire scene of the 120 receiving the Holy Spirit. There are two signs described in the passage. One is the rushing of mighty wind and the other, divided tongues as of fire (Acts 2:2f). In the original text, breath, wind and spirit share the same root word. With this, it is not difficult to understand the breath in Ezekiel’s prophecies of the dry bones as actually being the Spirit (Ezek. 37:14). In addition, Jesus also compares being born of the Spirit to the wind and its sounds (Jn. 3:8).

With this in mind, the two signs stated in the first downpour of the Holy Spirit clearly could not have been a coincidence. In particular, the divided tongues (speaking in tongues) is qualified with the expression ‘as of fire’, which is all the more unique and yet consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible. The fire does not flicker unless it has a breeze. This is used to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit on the 120. Undeniably the breeze has to come before the fire starts to rage. Undoubtedly, there is a point of contact and continuity between the two, in order for the first to initiate the second. Likewise, the 120 must have been filled by the Spirit before they began speaking in tongues.

In a doctrinal sense, being filled with the Spirit comes with the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). In this passage, those who were filled with the Spirit began to speak with other tongues. Cornelius, who later received the Holy Spirit, proves this point. When Peter and some brethren heard the gentiles speak in tongues (there being no mention of being filled by the Holy Spirit), Peter concluded that their encounter of the Spirit was the same as theirs (Acts 10:47; 11:16-17; 15:8). Therefore, those who had been filled by the Spirit in Acts are those who had first received the Holy Spirit.

Some argue that Paul teaches that the church must be filled by the Spirit. It would render Paul’s teaching unsound if the claim that not everyone in the church is filled by the Spirit is adopted. Let us look at the teaching more carefully: Ephesians 5: 18 states that we must be filled by the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in the verse suggests that those who have not received the Holy Spirit are filled with the Spirit. This idea contradicts the very principle of receiving the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit from within a person. It is a practical truth and it therefore, cannot be argued that being filled by the Spirit may occur even when one has not received the Holy Spirit.

In a normal church setting, there are always two groups of people when it comes to the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The first group comprise of believers who have yet to receive the Holy Spirit; the second group comprise of those who have been granted the Spirit. The first group are to be filled by the Spirit, by first receiving the Holy Spirit and then maintaining a life, yielding to the Spirit thereafter. The second group are to maintain the efficient working of the Spirit from within, by submitting to the Spirit.

There is a point of clarification to be made here. The Spirit that fills the collective church is the abiding presence of the Spirit within the church (Eph 1:23). The Spirit’s abidance does not fill every believer with the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14). One notable example is the church in Corinth. Certain sections of the church were corrupt and carnal and they could not accept what the Spirit directed. Yet, Paul talks about the work of the Spirit in the church (1 Cor. 12:11); so, because the Spirit abided in the church, the work continued despite the fact that not all the believers were filled by the Spirit at the church in Corinth.