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A meditation on Ephesians 5:18


This command, which is found only in Ephesians 5:18, has generated much discussion within the church. Can any of this confusion be removed? Yes. It can.

From what Paul has already taught in this letter we know that the Holy Spirit already lived within these Christians and was at work in them.  When they believed in Christ they had been sealed or marked as God’s possession by the Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing their participation in salvation [1:13,14]. Through the Spirit they have access to the Father [2:18]. They were being built together as a dwelling place in which God lives by the Spirit [2:22]. The unity of the Spirit already bound them to each other [4:3,4] 

Paul is not commanding them to receive the Holy Spirit. That is clearly something that already occurred at their point of faith in Christ.  

Nor is Paul commanding them to a one-off, life-changing experience in which they have a new encounter with the Holy Spirit. The command ‘be filled’ is written in the present tense in the Greek text. This means that Paul is commanding something that is on-going and continuous, something that is to happen and keep on happening day after day after day. To communicate this in English we would need to translate it: ‘keep on being filled with the Spirit’.  

The fact that Paul puts being filled with the Spirit in contrast to getting drunk with wine shows that he is speaking about what we are dominated or controlled by, about what influences us in our attitudes, words and actions. Just as a drunkard is ‘under the influence’ of alcohol, so a Christian is commanded to live ‘under the influence’ of the Spirit of God. 

Paul is commanding us to be fully influenced by the Holy Spirit, to live our lives fully under his direction and control. It is one more way of describing or explaining the Christian obedience he has been commanding from 4:1 onwards: live worthy of your calling … don’t live like the Gentiles any longer … be made new in the attitude of your minds … put on the new self … be imitators of God … live as children of light … be careful how you live … understand what the will of the Lord is … be filled with the Spirit – be fully influenced, controlled, dominated by the Spirit. 

This is the key concept of Christian obedience. This is the direct opposite of what happened in Genesis 3. There, rather than live under the influence of the Spirit of God, subject to the word of God, we, in Adam, made our choice under the influence of our own self-centred desires [Genesis 3:6] and also under the influence of Satan the deceiver.

At its simplest, and its deepest, meaning ‘be filled with the Spirit’ is a command to obey God.

In next week's meditation we will look at Paul's summary of what being 'filled with the Spirit' looks like (Ephesians 5:19-21)).

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2006, 2011