Filled with or Full of the Spirit: Acts and Ephesians

by Larry R. Oats[1. Dr. Larry Oats is the Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.]

In the Book of Acts, various disciples of Christ were “filled with the Spirit,” some apparently more than once. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul commanded the believers to be “filled with the Spirit.” There is, however, no commandment in Acts to be filled, and there are no examples of anyone actually being “filled with the Spirit” in the Epistles. Because of Paul’s command and the results that happened when the early believers were filled with the Spirit in the book of Acts, some believers today seek some kind of miraculous work of the Spirit to demonstrate their obedience to the Word.

This article will examine the concept and language of being “filled with the Spirit” in Luke and Acts (the phrase is not used in Matthew, Mark or John) and compare that with Paul’s commandment in Ephesians 5:18, in order to demonstrate that these two fillings are not the same. This article will also examine the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament to lay a foundation for this New Testament study.


There were numerous ministries of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. A common reference in the Old Testament, one which relates to this article, is the phraseology of the Holy Spirit coming upon a person.[2. The preposition routinely used is l[;.]  It will be seen that these passages speak of the Holy Spirit empowering or enabling someone for special ministry. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, it will be demon­strated that the leaders of God’s people were enabled to function by the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. The judges, Saul, David, the prophets, the apostles and the elders of the church at Ephesus are all examples.[3. D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1994), Num 11:16–35.]

The first references to the Spirit coming upon someone are Numbers 11:17, 25, and 26. The Spirit was taken from upon Moses and put upon others. This should not be taken to mean that the Holy Spirit can somehow be divided or separated. In this passage, the Lord enlarged the ministry of Moses by placing his Spirit upon the elders who would assist him (24–30). The sign of the Spirit’s coming was prophecy, as at other times (for instance, 1 Sam 10:6–13; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:4; 1 Cor 12:10). Numbers 11:29 goes further by indicating that Moses desired that the Spirit would come upon all the Israelites (although that did not happen).

In Numbers 24:2 the Spirit of God came upon Balaam. The text states that Balaam “lifted up his eyes and saw.” This is referring, both here and elsewhere, to an individual “seeing or observing perceptively.” The combi­nation of this perceptive vision with the Holy Spirit coming upon him demonstrated that Balaam was “endowed with divine insight as he observed the Israelites below him in the wilderness of Moab.”[4. R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, The New American Com­men­­tary 3B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 416.]  In Judges 3:10, the Holy Spirit came upon Othniel, a little known judge of Israel who brought peace to the nation for forty years. This is a good example of the Spirit’s ministry of empowering and authenticating “individuals who are unqualified for or indisposed to service for him. In the present instance the empowering presence of the Spirit of God transforms this minor Israelite officer from Debir into the ruler (šôpēṭ) of Israel and the conqueror of a world-class enemy.”[5. Daniel Isaac Block, Judges, Ruth, The New American Commentary 6 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 155.]

In Judges 6:34 the Spirit of God came upon Gideon. Gideon seems to have done all he could to avoid the leadership to which God was calling him, but his people rallied around his leadership nevertheless.

Why are Gideon’s clansmen, tribesmen, and countrymen so ready to respond to him? Are they impressed with his leadership ability or his courage? Do they recognize him as the “valiant warrior,” whom the messenger of Yahweh had addressed in v. 12? Not if one may judge from his expressed perception of his standing within his own family and his tribe (v. 15) when God calls him to military leadership or from the trepidation with which he destroyed the Baal cult site in the preceding account (v. 31). From the succeeding narrative of the dew and the fleece (vv. 36–40) it seems that nothing has changed internally or personally. Gideon remains hesitant.[6. Block, Judges, Ruth, 271–72.]

That the people would rally around Gideon was undoubtedly because of their recognition of the empowering of the Spirit on his life. Verse 34 may give an indication of the reason, for the text indicated that the Spirit of Yahweh “clothed” Gideon.

The Holy Spirit came upon Jephthah (Jud 11:29). The Lord had rejected the prayer of Israel for deliverance from the Ammonites, because he knew their hearts. Nevertheless, he took pity on the nation and raised up a judge, Jephthah, to deliver them. Jephthah, rejected by his family because he was the son of a prostitute, was sought to lead Israel against the Ammonites. Judges 10 and 11 reveal his political and scheming nature. Yahweh took pity on Israel, but Jephthah was more interested in elevating his own status. In spite of his selfish motives and lack of spirituality, God still sent his Spirit upon him and Jephthah experienced the kind of empowerment that preceding judges had experienced.[7. Carson, Judges, 11:12–28.]

Similarly, the Spirit of God came upon Samson (Jud 14:6, 14:19, and 15:14). His lack of spiritual maturity is clearly demonstrated in the narrative, but in his grace, Yahweh sent the Spirit to come upon Samson. “As we have noted earlier . . . , if anything positive happens to Israel in the Book of Judges, the credit must go to God.”[8. Block, Judges, Ruth, 272.]

This coming upon various men continued through the Old Testament. In 1 Sam 10:6, 10:10, 11:6, and 19:23, the Spirit of God came upon Saul. In 1 Sam 19:20–21 the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul. In 1 Samuel 19 Saul was attempting to capture David, but the Holy Spirit, coming upon both Saul and his messengers, caused them to prophecy for a lengthy period of time, ruining Saul’s purpose and humiliating him at the same time. In 1 Chron 12:18 the Spirit of God came upon Amasai. In 2 Chron 15:1 the Spirit of God came upon Azariah. In 2 Chron 20:14 and 20 the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah. In Ezekiel 11:5 the Spirit of God came upon Ezekiel. Space constrains a fuller discussion of these incidents, but they are similar to what has already been presented.

An important reference concerning this ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is 1 Sam 16:13. The Spirit of God departed from Saul and came upon David, apparently at the same time. David viewed this ministry of the Holy Spirit, sometimes referred to as the “theocratic anointing,” as necessary to rule the nation effectively and righteously.[9. There is no room at this point for a discussion of whether David, or indeed any of the Old Testament saints, understood the Holy Spirit to be a separate person of the Godhead or to be an extension, in power or presence, of the one true God, Yahweh, and thus the spiritual presence and power of God.] It was for this reason that he prayed that God would not remove his Spirit from him after his sin with Bathsheba (Ps 51:11). This confirms the intimation from the preceding passages that the Spirit coming upon a person was a temporary ministry. He could come upon someone, but he could also depart from them.

There are prophesies concerning a future descent of the Spirit upon the Messiah and his followers. Isaiah 42:1 and 61:1 declare that the Spirit of God will come upon the Messiah. Ezekiel 39:29 states that the Spirit of God will come upon the nation of Israel eschatologically. Joel 2:28–29 prophesy that the Spirit of God will come upon the Jews’ sons and daughters, the young men and old, and even upon the slaves.

In every Old Testament instance, the Holy Spirit was (or will be) empowering an individual, or in a few cases a group, for a specific ministry or activity. There is no indication of a universal or permanent empowering of all believers in the Old Testament; instead the indication is that this is a temporary situation for a select few.

There are only a few references in the Old Testament that use the language of filling, fullness, or being full of the S/spirit. Exodus 28:3 speaks of God filling individuals with the spirit of wisdom. Whether this is the Holy Spirit or simply “a wise spirit” (a special measure of wisdom) is difficult to ascertain. Most commentaries take this to mean a wise spirit.[10. See Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), 601; John I. Durham, Exodus Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1987), 381; Waldemar Janzen, Exodus Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald), 353; Carl F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Old Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, nd), 1: 525.] A similar statement is found concerning Joshua when he is said to be full of the spirit of wisdom (Deut. 34:9). In Exodus 31:3 and 35:31, the text clearly declares that God filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God for the purpose of leading the workers who would build the Tabernacle.[11. The word for “fill” or “full” in all these passages is alm.] This “filling” was focused in the areas of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and workman­ship for the purpose of designing artistic works in gold, silver, bronze, jewels, wood, and finally a general statement of “all manner” of workmanship.

The references to the Holy Spirit filling, empowering, or coming upon someone in the Old Testament are few and narrative in character. There are some clear conclusions which may be drawn, however. First, this was a sovereign act of God. No one prayed for, requested, sought, or asked in any way for this filling or empowering. Second, the personal character of the recipient was not a defining norm. Third, this was a special activity, reserved for a very few select individuals. Fourth, it was designed to provide the necessary ability for a specific ministry.

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament

In the New Testament, there are significant changes to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Believers are given far more information concerning the Spirit and his ministry. The varied ministries of the Holy Spirit encompass a broader body of individuals. Some ministries, such as the indwelling presence of the Spirit involve all believers. The filling or empowering ministry is at least available for, if not used by, all believers.


Jesus told the disciples that they were to wait in Jerusalem until he sent the Promise of the Father upon them (Luke 24:49). The promise is clearly the Holy Spirit. The timing of the coming of the Promise was said to be future, but not too far in the future, for the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem until it came.

This Promise is repeated by Luke in Acts 1:4–5. The statement is phrased differently in Acts, for Luke is not quoting Jesus directly, but rather speaking about the Promise. In this passage, the Promise of the Father is linked directly to the Spirit.

Jesus had previously promised that the Holy Spirit would come after he departed (see John 7:37–39 and 16:7). In John 20:22, Jesus breathed on the disciples and commanded them to receive the Spirit. Calvin argued that this was a precursor to Pentecost, a sprinkling of the Holy Spirit, while Pentecost was an outpouring.[12. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2. 205.] An early dispensational view was that John 20:22 was referring to a temporary filling of the Spirit given to the disciples to provide for their spiritual needs prior to Pentecost.[13. Robert Gromacki, The Holy Spirit (Nashville: Word, 1999), 141–42.] Another interpretation is that this was the power for the new life, while Pentecost was the power for ministry.[14. B. F. Westcott, The Gospel according to St John: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes (London: John Murray, 1908), 2: 350–51.] Another view argues that there were two comings of the Holy Spirit; John 20:22 was the fulfillment of the promises in John 17:17–19, and Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Paraclete promises. However, all of these create a problem. Jesus had promised that the Spirit would come after Jesus ascended to the Father. The actual empowerment came in Acts 2. Therefore, it may be best to take John 20:22 as a symbolic fulfillment or prospective fulfillment of the soon-to-be-given gift of the Spirit, which would actually take place later at Pentecost.[15. Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commen­tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 574.]

In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter referred to the Spirit coming in two distinct, but related ways. In Acts 2:17, Peter referred to the events of Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel 2:28ff. A discussion of whether the prophecy in Joel was completely or partially fulfilled is beyond the scope of this paper. In the context of this article, however, it is sufficient to note that in the Old Testament the Father promised to send the Holy Spirit to believers in the last day. Peter declared that “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.”

Later in the Sermon, however, Peter further developed his theology of the Spirit. He declared to the multitude what Jesus had told the disciples earlier would happen—that Jesus received the Holy Spirit from the Father in order to pour out the Spirit on the believers (Acts 2:32–33). Peter linked the promised coming of the Spirit with the ascension of Christ. In these verses, Peter drew a distinction between the apostles who had seen the risen Christ (“we all are witnesses”) and the multitude that had not. The activities on the day of Pentecost were proof of the promise that the Holy Spirit had been sent (“what you now both see and hear”). Thus, Peter linked Jesus’ ascension and place at the right hand of God (compare Acts 5:31) with the coming of the Spirit. It was from his position at the right hand of the Father that Jesus fulfilled the promise that the Father would send the Holy Spirit.[16. Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Commentary 17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 100–01. Elsewhere Peter indicated the similar idea that Jesus appeared only to the disciples “who were appointed beforehand by God” (Acts 10:41).] Paul referred to the Holy Spirit as the promise of the Father in Gal 3:14 and Eph 1:13. In Galatians Paul, defending his position against the Judaizers, argued that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles so that they could receive the promised Spirit just as the Jews did. In Ephesians Paul declared that believers are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.

It may be argued, then, that the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the New Testament would be a combination of what he did in the Old Testament, on a broader scale, with a new ministry unknown in the Old Testament.

The “Upon” Ministry

The New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit coming upon people in language that is essentially identical to that of the Old Testament. Matthew 12:18 is a quotation from Isaiah 42:1, indicating that God would put his Spirit upon the Messiah. Jesus quoted this, indicating that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. This pouring out of the Spirit upon the Messiah was done “without measure” (Matt 3:16 and John 3:34). “The Spirit is given in some measure to all who serve God, but clearly here it is envisaged that the servant will have a special endowment.”[17. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 310.] This indicates that the Spirit’s relationship to the Messiah was similar to, but in some way different from, that of human believers. The reference to “measure” indicates that there is a quantitative, but not necessarily a qualitative, difference.

Luke 4:18 refers to Jesus in the synagogue reading from Isaiah 61:12 and indicating that he was the fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy. Like Matthew 12:18, Jesus indicated that the Holy Spirit would be upon the Messiah, empowering him for his ministry.

In Luke 2:25 the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon. Simeon had already been informed that he would live to see the coming of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit brought him to the temple at just the right time to see the child Jesus and particularly equipped him to identify the child as the Messiah.[18. See I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 118.] These references in the Gospel of Luke indicate that the Holy Spirit continued to come upon men and women in a manner similar to that of the Old Testament; this coming-upon ministry empowered an individual for a specific task at a specific time.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost. This statement was in response to the disciples’ question concerning when the kingdom would be coming, and it put the disciples’ question in proper perspective. The restoration of the kingdom was a far future event, one which the disciples were not to worry about. Instead, they were to focus on the current needs, which included worldwide evangelization and church planting. Therefore, Jesus promised the disciples two necessary elements: power and witness. John Polhill points out that in this context the future tense has an imperatival sense: “you will [must] receive power” and “you will be my witnesses.”[19. John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary 26 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 86.] The power the disciples would receive was divine power, δύναμις, which is the same word used to refer to Jesus’ miracles. This power would come from the Spirit, for the disciples had to wait at Jerusalem until the Spirit came. In this context, the link between the Spirit coming upon someone and the Spirit empowering them for ministry is clear.

Acts 2:17-18 has already been noted, but it is the next occurrence of the Spirit coming upon someone. Peter quoted Joel 2:28–29, which states that the Spirit of God would come upon numerous people. Joel prophesied of this; Peter experienced it on the day of Pentecost.

In Acts 8:16 the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in Samaria. The language is a little different, for Luke indicates that the Spirit had not yet fallen upon them, but when the disciples came from Jerusalem, they then received the Holy Spirit. Some are concerned that the arrival of the Spirit is separated chronologically from the new disciples’ believing and baptism, but Luke is not speaking of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. He clearly speaks of the Spirit having not yet come “upon” them. Luke is not using this terminology any differently than in his previous references. The Spirit came “upon” the Samaritans and empowered them for ministry. Here the ministry seems to be primarily confirming that the Samaritans were to be included in the proclamation and reception of the gospel in equal standing as the Jews. “Many interpreters point to the signifi­cance of the experience being one of an outward demonstration of the Spirit in some visible sign that Simon could ‘see’ (v. 18). Therefore this does not rule out the Spirit’s having worked inwardly in them at the point of their initial conviction and commitment.”[20. Polhill, 218.] Others have noted that the imagery in this passage is that of a community empowering, like the day of Pentecost, rather than an individualized ministry. This reinforces the idea of an empowering for ministry, rather than an individual salvific work.[21. Richard Belward Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles (London: Methuen, 1925), 117.]

Acts 10:44 is very similar. Peter had taken the good news of the coming of the Messiah to Cornelius. While Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household. Cornelius was already a believer in the Jewish religion and in the true God; with Peter’s coming, he learned the truth of the coming of the Messiah.[22. There is not enough time to comment thoroughly on the dispensational transition hinted at here. He and his household were already devout God-fearers (Acts 10:1–2), when an angel directed him to Peter so that he might hear the news of the Messiah. This writer suggests that, like the Eleven before him, he was already a believer, but needed to learn the greater revelation which was only now being made available to him.] The language and context is similar to Acts 2. When Peter defended his actions upon his return to Jerusalem, he used this similarity as his defense. In Acts 11:15 Peter argued that the Holy Spirit came upon the household of Cornelius, with the accompanying miraculous sign of speaking in tongues (Acts 10:46) as it did upon the disciples “at the beginning,” a clear reference to Pentecost. In his defense, Peter included the words of Jesus when he compared John’s baptism in water with Jesus’ baptism in the Holy Spirit.

A final reference to the Spirit coming “upon” someone is found in Acts 19:6. Twelve men in Ephesus had, at some point, become followers of John the Baptist. The point of the narrative seems to be that they were only that—followers of John and ill-informed followers at that. Part of John’s message had been the future baptism by Jesus in the Holy Spirit, but these men were not even aware that there was a Holy Spirit. Paul, therefore, introduced these men to the Messiah. The timeline of the passage is instructive and should not be ignored. Verse 4 summarizes Paul’s message to them. Following this they were baptized in the name of Jesus. Paul laid his hands on them, and at that point the Holy Spirit came “upon” them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Had this event not occurred, the previous three narratives would have concluded a neat package—the Spirit had come upon Jews in Jerusalem, half-Jews in Samaria, and Gentiles in Caesarea. These three would seem to have symbolized the completion of the command to be witnesses to the entire world.[23. See Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Commentary 17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 681.] The addition of this fourth similar pouring out of the Spirit seems to be best explained by Kistemaker.

A possible answer is to consider the extension of the church in Jerusalem, Samaria, and Caesarea as a first phase of mission work among Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. A second phase relates to the work of evangelizing persons who have an inadequate knowledge of Christ but are subsequently instructed in the truth of the gospel. If we consider the first phase to be extensive, then the second is intensive.[24. Kistemaker, 681.]

The preposition for this “upon” ministry is evpi,. When used with the genitive, it commonly has a physical meaning of being upon its object. It also carries the meaning of “over” in the sense of “power, authority, control.”[25. BAGD, evpi,.] While the physical concept fits the descent of the Spirit “as a dove” at the baptism of Jesus, the concept of the Spirit taking “over,” controlling the individual or assuming authority over him may better fit its more common usages in the New Testament.

Filled with the Spirit

Πίμπλημι. Luke, in both his Gospel and in Acts, refers to a variety of individuals being “filled with the Spirit.” One of the Greek words for filled in the phrase “filled with the Spirit” is πi,μπλημι pimplemi. In the New Testament it is used in the following passages in connection with the Holy Spirit.

The angel who spoke to Zacharias and foretold the birth of his child declared that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). The external evidence for this is found a few verses later in Luke 1:41. When Mary walked into the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the baby John, still in his mother’s womb, leaped for joy at the presence of the Messiah (see also verse 44). Kistemaker notes concerning the infant John: “That at this stage of its development it already has all the nerves it will ever have and is normally able to react to stimuli is well known. In view of verse 15 it should be added that in some mysterious manner, incapable of further analysis, the Holy Spirit was already actively present in the soul of Elizabeth’s child.”[26. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, New Testament Commentary 11 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 97.] There is no natural way for John to have known that Jesus was present in the same room with him, except through the miraculous work of the Spirit. This event fits with the previous discussions of the “upon” ministry of the Holy Spirit; it was a special empowering for a specific task at a given time. The following instances of individuals being “filled with the Spirit” seem to fit that same model.

In Luke 1:41 Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. The result of this was her hymn of praise directed toward Mary and the unborn Messiah. Similarly, in Luke 1:67 Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied concerning the future ministry of his son, John, and his role in preparing the way for the Messiah.

In the book of Acts, the “filling of the Spirit” is interpreted in problematic ways. Referring to Acts 2:4, John Polhill declares:

Verse 4 gives the result of the Spirit’s coming on those gathered in the upper room. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and this led them to “speak in other tongues.” From this point on in Acts, the gift of the Spirit became a normative concomitant of becoming a Christian believer (2:38). The expression of this differs; in 9:17 Saul is said to have been “filled” with the Spirit, as here. Sometimes this experience is described as a “baptism” in the Spirit (1:5; 11:16). In other instances the word “poured out” is used (2:17ff; 10:45) or “came upon” (8:16; 10:44; 11:15) or simply “receive” (2:38; 10:47). All these instances refer to new converts and point to the Spirit’s coming in various ways, not always signified by tongues, as a permanent gift to every believer. This should be distinguished from other references to “filling,” where the Spirit comes upon one who is already a believer in a time of special inspiration and testimony to the faith (cf. 4:8, 31; 7:55; 13:9).[27. John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary 26 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 98.]

The result of an interpretation like Polhill’s (and he is not alone in this) is that the gift of the Spirit, the baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, and the receiving of the Spirit all become the same event, with the same theological and practical implications. Yet even Polhill acknowledges that this broad approach does not always work, since there are times when these events happen to believers and other times when they happen to unbelievers. There is a better way to understand this “filling of the Spirit.”

In Acts 2:4 the disciples in the upper room were filled with the Holy Spirit, which resulted in preaching on the day of Pentecost. The text indicates that it was only the disciples, not those who would eventually come to salvation that day, who were filled with the Spirit.

In Acts 4:8 Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. The result of this filling of the Spirit was that Peter preached about Jesus and his miracles and proclaimed that there is no other name under heaven which can save. Some would argue that the filling of the Spirit is a permanent state for the believer and that the reference here is only a reminder of what had already happened to Peter at Pentecost.[28. Polhill, Acts, 98.] Others argue that the filling is a temporary event.[29. Kistemaker, Acts, 152.] This writer agrees with the latter position. The “filling of the Spirit” and the coming “upon” ministry seem to have the same purpose and result – to empower individuals for specific acts or times of ministry.

Acts 4:31 declares that the church as a whole was filled with the Holy Spirit. It is important to note the prayer in verse 29. This was not a prayer for a special “filling,” but one for boldness. The connection between filling and speaking in Acts 4:8 and 31 shows “that the filling is not an end in itself, but the condition for speaking with boldness in the missionary situation.”[30. Colin Brown, “Fulness,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1975), 1:739.] In Acts 9:17 and 13:9, Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit, with the result being the preaching of the Word (Acts 9:20).

In each case of these fillings of the Spirit, the individual was the passive recipient. “The Spirit-filling (with pimplemi) in Acts is never commanded, nor is it related particularly to sanctification. Rather, it is a special imbueing [sic] of the Spirit for a particular task (similar to the Spirit’s ministry in the OT).”[31. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 94.]

πληρo,w. Luke used another phrase that is very similar and is sometimes translated identically to what has already been presented; this phrase is “full of the Holy Spirit” (sometimes translated “filled with the Spirit”). In these cases, Luke used the Greek verb πληρo,w pleroo and its related adjective πλh,ρης pleres. In this article, to maintain the distinction between the Greek words, the author uses “filled” to refer to πi,μπλημι pimplemi and “full” or “to make full” to refer to πληρo,w pleroo and πλh,ρης pleres.

In Luke 4:1 Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit as he entered into the temptation. He returned in the power of the Spirit (v. 14). This is the only occurrence of this idea in Luke’s Gospel.

In Acts 6:3 the apostles instructed the church to select seven men who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” which the church as a body did (see also 6:5 and 7:55).  These were to be men who had a “good reputation.” “[F]or the task of distributing food and money a person must have a reputation that is above reproach and a recommendation that his peers and superiors gladly provide (compare 10:22; 16:2; 22:12).”[32. Kistemaker, Acts, 222.] The end result was nothing miraculous or even extra­ordinary; the church selected seven men of good character who set about to solve a problem. The first deacon mentioned is Stephen, who is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit. In Acts 7:55, as he was being martyred, Luke portrayed him as a man “full of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 11:24 describes Barnabas as a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. This is the same terminology that was used of Stephen, except that the order of the words is reversed.

In Acts 13:52 the believers in Pisidia were full of joy and the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas had led these individuals to Christ and had begun to establish them in the faith. Because of persecution incited by the Jews, they were forced to leave. “We would expect these fledgling believers to be disheartened by the departure of Paul and Barnabas. Instead they are filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. God fills the vacuum created by the sudden exit of the teachers by giving the disciples the gift of joy, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the believers is in itself indescribable joy.”[33. Kistemaker, Acts, 498.]

Luke also used this word group to refer to individuals being full of wisdom, full of faith, and full of grace and power. Luke also used the words to refer to people who had certain vices as he spoke of individuals who were full of wrath (Acts 19:28 and Luke 4:28), full of fury (Luke 6:11) and full of jealousy (Acts 5:17 and 13:45).

In Acts 5:3, Peter asked Ananias why he allowed Satan to make full his heart to lie to the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:9 has an interesting combination of πίμπλημι pimplemi and πλήρης pleres. Paul, filled with the Spirit, confronted Elymas the sorcerer and accused him of being full of deceit and fraud.

The conclusion that can be drawn from these references is that when Luke used πίμπλημι pimplemi, he was referring to a sovereign act of God, in which the Holy Spirit empowered individuals for a particular ministry at a specific time. When he used πληρo,w pleroo or πλήρης pleres, he was referring to the character of the individual. The former is temporary and outside the control of the individual. The latter is a reference to a person’s character. “As contrasted with ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ in [Acts] 1:41, 67 the phrase ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ refers to a permanent condition, not a momentary experience.”[34. J. Reiling and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Handbook on the Gospel of Luke (New York: United Bible Societies, 1993), 186.] To be full of the Spirit indicates that a person is spiritual, spiritually minded, spiritually mature, and characterized by spiritual qualities such as joy, wisdom, faith and grace.

Paul’s Commandment

Ephesians 5:18–19 is the key passage to the under­standing of Paul’s teaching on the fullness of the Spirit. Paul used the present passive of πληρo,w pleroo. It is usually translated, “be filled,” but to maintain the English distinction used in this article, it will be translated routinely as “be full,” or to better reflect the passive, “be made full.”

Grammatically, this passage is a transition. It is the final imperative in a series with a not . . . but contrast. Verse 18 states, “Do not be drunk . . . but be full.” Verse 17 states, “Do not be unwise . . . but understand.” Verse 15 says, “Not as fools, but as wise.” The final “not . . . but” is “be not drunk with wine . . . but be full of the Spirit.”

Paul’s command then leads into a chain of participles, all of which are subordinate to the imperative, “be full by the Spirit” and are best understood as results of the fullness. Those who are full of the Spirit will sing praises to God, have their hearts filled with these praises, give thanks for all things in their lives, and live lives of spiritual submission to one another.

The reason why Paul used being “drunk with wine” as the contrast with being “filled with the Spirit” is debated.[35. “Wine” and “Spirit” are contrasted in Luke 1:15 and Acts 2:13–18, but nowhere else in the New Testament.] It may be a command directed against misconduct in the assembly, similar to the drunkenness taking place in Corinth.[36. P. W. Gosnell, “Ephesians 5:18–20 and Mealtime Propriety,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 363–71.] Still others view Paul as saying that drunkenness (part of the old lifestyle) is no solution to the cares and worries of this life and that only the Spirit can enable a person to live in these days.[37. C. Rogers, “The Dionysian Background of Ephesians 5:18,” Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (1979): 249–57.] Still others view Paul as saying that drunkenness (part of the old lifestyle) is no solution to the cares and worries of this life and that only the Spirit can enable a person to live in these days.[38. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 239.] More likely, however, Paul is drawing a contrast between folly and wisdom; drunkenness is folly, and being full of the Spirit represents the wise way to live. The contrast is not between the wine and the Spirit, but between the state of being drunk which leads to dissipation and the state of being full of the Spirit which leads to joy and obedience. Both involve bringing oneself under the influence of a controlling agency.[39. It is noteworthy that the apostles at Pentecost, filled with the Spirit, were accused of being drunk.]

Paul added to the mix of terms πλh,ρωμα pleroma, the noun form of πληρo,w pleroo. He used the word four times in Ephesians, twice in Colossians, and six times in the rest of his epistles. Six of these occurrences have no significance to this article.[40. Rom 11:12 speaks of the fullness of the Jews at the end of the church age. Rom 11:25 speaks of the fullness of the Gentiles in this age, as does Gal 4:4 and Eph 1:10. Rom 13:10 says that love is the fullness of the law. When Paul would finally arrive in Rome, he would come in the fullness of the gospel. 1 Cor 11:26 refers to all the fullness of the earth as the Lord’s.] The remaining usages of the term (all in Ephesians and Colossians) are full of meaning.

In Eph 1:23 the church is described as “the fullness of the one making full all in all.” There is not agreement to who or what is the “fullness.” There are some who argue that the precedent should be Christ, not the body or the church.[41. See A. E. M. Hitchcock, “Ephesians 1:23,” Expository Times 22 (1910–11): 91; G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 49; C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 164–69.] This is argued because it has fewer theological problems, since the implication would be that Christ is the fullness of the church. It also makes Eph 1:23 parallel to Col 1:19 and 2:9, where the fullness clearly relates to Christ. This interpretation, however, stretches the gram­mar. “Fullness” follows immediately after “body” in the Greek. “Christ” comes twelve verses earlier and would require a quite awkward grammatical construction. Additionally, the emphasis of the context (especially 1:22b) is on the church, not Christ. Verse 23 is best taken as enlarging Paul’s definition of the church. Therefore, it is more reasonable to conclude that Paul is arguing that the church is the fullness of him who makes full all in all. This will also make Eph 3:19 parallel to this verse.

How then can the church be the “fullness” of Christ? The “fullness” can be taken in two ways. One interpretation sees the church as that which is filled up or made complete by Christ.[42. See J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1879), 261 and H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, tr. J. R. de Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 390.] The other interpretation sees the church to be that which fills or completes Christ.[43. See T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), 27; J. A. T. Robinson, The Body (London: SCM, 1952), 43–44, 255–59; P. D. Overfield, “Pleroma: A Study in Content and Context,” New Testament Studies25 (1979): 393.] The latter seems to be problematic. This interpretation makes Christ somehow defective without the church. Elsewhere Christ is seen as the one completing or finishing the church, not vice versa. Thus, it is best to interpret this fullness as Christ, who fills all things in all places and who, therefore, makes the church full of all that is godly and necessary for its existence and ministry.

Eph 3:19 enlarges upon Paul’s discussion of fullness. The immediate context is Paul’s prayer that introduces the latter half of Ephesians. Paul makes a request that the believers “be full toward (or with reference to) all the fullness of God.” The content of the fullness (the Greek uses the preposition eivj eis with the accusative to indicate content) is God’s fullness, probably a reference to his moral attributes, which believers should emulate. In Eph 1:23 the church is described, theologically, as already the fullness of Christ. In this passage, as Paul turns his attention toward the practical application in chapters 4–6 of the theology which he developed in chapter 1–3, he prays that the believers would actually attain to that which they are already in principle.[44. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1990), 214.]

In Eph 4:10 Christ is said to be the agent of the filling. He will “make full all things.” While it is undoubtedly true that Christ “fills the universe through the exercise of his lordship over everything,”[45. Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 297.] in the context Paul is not concerned about the universe; his focus is on the church and its ministry. Paul adds the specifics of that fullness: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. Paul expands this in verse 13 to indicate that the goal toward which believers are moving is mature manhood, defined by the fullness of Christ.

Paul next speaks of the fullness of the church and/or believer in Ephesians 5:18–19 where he commanded the believers: “Be full of the Holy Spirit.” He used the present passive imperative, which may be translated “be continually being full of the Holy Spirit.” This is something that should be routine in the Christian life; the Spirit’s fullness is to be a continuing state.

The case of “Spirit” is dative. Normally a verb of filling takes a genitive (which is called the genitive of content). In Acts, whenever Luke speaks of the “filling of the Spirit,” the case of “Spirit” is genitive. There are no clear examples in biblical Greek in which evn en plus the dative indicates content. It would, therefore, be “grammatically suspect”[46. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 375.] for Eph 5:18 to mean to be filled with the content of the Spirit. The concept that “the Spirit is the content with which one is filled is most likely incorrect.”[47. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 170–71.] No other Pauline text focuses on the Spirit as the content of the filling. Wallace argues, effectively, that “be not drunk by means of wine” is a direct parallel to “be filled by means of the Holy Spirit” (both verbs are passive imperatives) and the use of evn en with the dative suggests not the content, but the means. He concludes that “the idea intended is that believers are to filled by means of the [Holy] Spirit. If so, there seems to be an unnamed agent.”[48. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 375.]

The church already shares the fullness of Christ (1:23), yet Paul’s petition concerning the Ephesians is that they might be full of the fullness of God (3:19). The prayer in 3:19 and the use of the imperative in 5:18 implies that this is not an automatic status. God began to answer Paul’s request in the present, but will ultimately complete the fullness in the final day. The petition of 3:19 is addressed to the Father, so he is the one who is doing the actual filling. Yet it is also Christ who fills all things (4:10).

The reasonable conclusion is that both the Father and the Son, by means of the Spirit (in his various ministries of indwelling, illuminating, sealing, etc.), make full God’s people with God’s character. All believers are urged to be imitators of God. The fullness theme is concluded with believers being made full by Christ by means of the indwelling presence of the Spirit in their lives with the content being the fullness of God.[49. Wallace, Greek Grammar, 375.] Put simply, Christ, through the Holy Spirit, makes believers godly. Believers are to be receptive to the Spirit’s transforming power; they cannot fill themselves. That which causes believers to obey Paul’s command is what precedes this passage—wisdom. The result of that obedience is what follows—worship and thanksgiving.

Many commentators see Colossians 3:16 as a parallel passage.[50. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1982), 208–209 and Ephesians, 392; Howard W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 704; Lincoln, Ephesians, 339ff. See especially J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, A Revised Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 246ff.] The latter portion of Col 3:16 is very similar to the results of Eph 5:19–20. The command to be full of the Spirit in Ephesians is replaced with the command to have the Word of Christ dwell richly in all wisdom. “Of Christ” is an objective genitive, indicating that Paul is referring to the message that centers on Christ.[51. O’Brien, Colossians, 206.] Believers, then, must be subject to the Spirit’s control, “which is tantamount to letting Christ’s word rule in our lives (Col 3:16), so that we may walk wisely (Eph 5:15).”[52. Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 394.] “Be full by means of the Spirit” and “let the Word of Christ dwell in you” are parallel and mean essentially the same thing.


The indwelling of the Spirit takes place at salvation. There is no command anywhere in the New Testament to be indwelled. Rom 8:9 declares that if a person is not indwelled by the Spirit, he is not saved. The indwelling of the Spirit is not an option for the believer.

On the other hand, there are commands to be “made full” by the Spirit and to “walk” by the Spirit. If a person were only full of wisdom, he would experience only an impersonal influence on his life. This fullness is not an automatic bestowal at conversion, but an injunction for every believer to follow.

There are significant differences between being filled with the Spirit and being made full by the Spirit. Different terms are used. The grammatical structures are not the same. Miraculous events are never associated with the fullness. The filling is routinely an aorist passive with the genitive case. The people who were filled had no control over the filling; it was a sovereign work of God. The fullness commanded by Paul in Ephesians, on the other hand, is an imperative passive, meaning that believers are commanded to allow it to happen; they can control their willingness to be filled. The purpose of the fullness is oriented toward a person’s character and is not task-oriented.[53. Max Anders, Galatians-Colossians, Holman New Testament Commentary 8 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 180.] The contrast is between the filling of the Spirit in Acts, which was a momentary empowering for a specific ministry, and the fullness of the Spirit in Ephesians, the long-term characteristic of a person’s life.[54. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 782.]

This writer would argue that the filling of the Spirit is still a legitimate ministry of the Holy Spirit, minus the miraculous signs and wonders, which are no longer for this age. However, a person can do nothing to claim that filling, and thus no one should pray for it or seek it. Likewise, he should not seek the miraculous signs and wonders that sometimes accompanied the filling of the Spirit in the New Testament.

Instead, the believer should seek the fullness of the Spirit. Paul commanded believers in Ephesians 5:18 to be full of the fullness of God by means of the ministry of the Holy Spirit; believers are to allow themselves to be governed by the fullness of Christ in their lives. Wisdom brings about this obedience; the result is joyful singing, giving of thanks, and a purity of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and even masters and slaves.[55. Anders, Galatians-Colossians, 180.]