John MacArthur tells this story on pages 241-42 of Our Sufficiency in Christ:
A poor man had wanted to go on a cruise all his life. As a youngster he had seen an advertisement for a luxury cruise, and ever since, he had dreamed of spending a week on a large ocean liner enjoying fresh sea air and relaxing in a luxurious environment. He saved money for years, carefully counting his pennies, often sacrificing personal needs so he could stretch his resources a little further.
Finally he had enough to purchase a cruise ticket. He went to a travel agent, looked over the cruise brochures, picked out one that was especially attractive, and bought a ticket with the money he had saved so long. He was hardly able to believe he was about to realize his childhood dream.
Knowing he could not afford the kind of elegant food pictured in the brochure, the man planned to bring his own provisions for the week. Accustomed to moderation after years of frugal living, and with his entire savings going to pay for the cruise ticket, the man decided to bring along a week's supply of bread and peanut butter. That was all he could afford.
The first few days of the cruise were thrilling. The man ate peanut butter sandwiches alone in his room each morning and spent the rest of his time relaxing in the sunlight and fresh air, delighted to be aboard ship.
By midweek, however, the man was beginning to notice that he was the only person on board who was not eating luxurious meals. It seemed that every time he sat on the deck or rested in the lounge or stepped outside his cabin, a porter would walk by with a huge meal for someone who had ordered room service.
By the fifth day of the cruise, the man could take it no longer. The peanut butter sandwiches seemed stale and tasteless, he was desperately hungry, and even the fresh air and sunshine had lost their appeal. Finally, he stopped a porter and exclaimed, "Tell me how I might get one of those meals! I'm dying for some decent food, and I'll do anything you say to earn it!"
"Why, sir, don't you have a ticket for this cruise?" the porter asked.
"Certainly," said the man. "But I spent everything I had for that ticket. I have nothing left with which to buy food."
"But sir," said the porter, "didn't you realize? Meals are included in your passage. You may eat as much as you like!"
As ridiculous as it may seem, we believers in Jesus Christ generally do exactly the same thing as the man in that parable. We live as if we are in spiritual poverty, when actually we already possess infinite resources through union with Christ.
In the book of Ephesians, God's Word insists that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). It insists that in union with Christ "you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22).
The apostle's inspired prayer is that God "may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" (Eph. 3:16-17). When the Holy Spirit united you to Christ, you "put off your old self" and "put on the new self" (Eph. 4:22-24). Therefore, "you are light in the Lord" (Eph. 5:8). The Lord calls us to act out of, and in accord with, our new life in Christ.
Against that backdrop, Ephesians 5:18-20 says, "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
"Be filled with the Spirit" is a command for every believer. But what is it like? How can you recognize it?
Ephesians 5:18 says, "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit." Drunkenness is a sin, but here God puts drunkenness and being filled with the Spirit side by side. He does so more by way of contrast than by way of comparison, but the two do have this in common: both involve coming "under the influence." The similarities break off there. Drunkenness "leads to debauchery." It makes you lose control. But one fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control (Gal. 5:23). Drunkenness promises freedom, but it delivers bondage. The Holy Spirit calls you to bondage, but he produces freedom! This is our hope when we sing, "Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free" (Trinity Hymnal #687).
The fullness of the Holy Spirit inevitably produces genuine fellowship. The Spirit-filled life is never solitary. The Holy Spirit draws God's people together to "speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19).
It seems strange that this would be the first thing Scripture mentions as a proof of the Holy Spirit's influence. But why should that surprise us? The first listed fruit of the Holy Spirit is "love" (Gal. 5:22). No matter how thrilling your spiritual experiences may be, you are by no means filled with the Holy Spirit if you're not on speaking terms with your brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter how lucid your doctrinal understanding may be, you are by no means filled with the Spirit if you won't get along with God's redeemed children. No matter how tireless your Christian activities may be, you are by no means filled with the Spirit if you don't love the members of Christ's church. "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness" (1 John 2:9). The Spirit of Christ is devoted to gathering and perfecting the church of Christ. He is busily preparing a beautiful bride for Christ. And so he must and will produce fellowship in the body of Christ.
Spirit-produced fellowship is more than talk. It manifests itself in humility and service: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). The touchstone of a Spirit-filled Christian is not self-assertion. It's self-giving! It's not self-indulgence. It's humble service!
Second, the Holy Spirit frees you to worship God. The Spirit-filled life is not self-centered. It can't be, because it is God-centered. It can't be self-indulgent, because it is God-exalting. The Holy Spirit takes self-centered sinners and transforms them into worshipers who seek the glory of their Lord: "Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19). The Holy Spirit loves to glorify Jesus. This is why one mark of his fullness is that above all you seek to glorify him, too.
"Sing and make music in your heart." Spirit-motivated praises are sincere. They flow from transformed hearts. In a real sense, they are downright unnatural. They don't depend on external stimulilike lights and sound and movementthat naturally make one's adrenaline flow. Spirit-motivated praises don't need these things because they are supernatural fruit produced by the Spirit of Christ himself.
A Spirit-filled worshiper will be characterized by gratitude: "always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20). Some people give thanks sometimes for some things. Spirit-filled believers give thanks always for all thingsgrievous and painful things as well as good and pleasant things. This is because the Holy Spirit lifts you out of yourself and up to God.
The opposite of this is grumbling. God regards grumbling as an especially grave sin because it expresses self-centeredness, not God-centeredness, and infects others, too. Ironically, many Christians grumble and, because they do it together, they self-deceptively call it "fellowship." What about you? Are you marked by gratitude? Or are you marked by grumbling? Be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will liberate you from grumbling. He will lift your heart out of yourself to God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, and that will make you overflow with gratitude. You will readily give thanks.
Further, the Holy Spirit produces evangelism. The Spirit-filled life is not monastic; it's missionary. It gladly engages in God's mission to the world. It embraces Christ's call to be "in the world but not of the world." This was evident in the apostolic church. "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31).
Thanks to the pervasiveness of confused, unbiblical teaching, many naïvely assume that the proof of the Spirit's fullness is extraordinarythat it is evidenced by things like miraculous healings or tongues or sensational experiences or even animal sounds. But God reveals that they are barking up the wrong tree! Rather, the Holy Spirit's supernatural fullness is most often marked by ordinary God-centered, Christ-exalting activities. In particular: Christian fellowship, Christian worship, and Christian witness.
What does it mean to "be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18)? Reformed preachers may not speak in tongues, but we do insist on reading in tongues (i.e., Hebrew and Greek)! The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the Greek verb translated "be filled" is very instructive.
First, the verb "be filled" is in the imperative mood. This is no mere suggestion. It's a command. To be filled with the Spirit is not an option. It's your obligation. And that means that to fail to be filled with the Spirit is a sin. The good news is that this means that it is possible. Whenever God commands believers to do something, he also provides his abundant grace in Christ Jesus to grant it.
Second, the verb "be filled" is in the passive voice. The fullness of the Spirit isn't something you can produce yourself. Rather, it's something you must receive. This verse does not tell us to "fill yourself." Instead, it says, "be filled." That is, let the Holy Spirit fill you.
But how is that done? The only way you can be filled with the Holy Spirit is to depend upon him and to receive him through the ways and means that he provides. (These means are discussed below.)
Third, the verb "be filled" is in the present tense. It means "keep on being filled." The experience of being filled with the Spirit is continuous and ongoing, not once and done.
It isn't hard to see why. On the one hand, as in any relationship, your relationship with the living, personal God keeps on growing and developing. As you grow in grace, you grow in your spiritual capacity. Therefore, you need a continuing supply.
On the other hand, the Holy Spirit refuses to stagnate. He flows through you to minister to others. "On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.' By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified" (John 7:37-39).
So again, you need a continuous supply. It's misguided to think that you receive this filling once and for all. Always keep on seeking to be filled by the Holy Spirit!
Fourth, being filled with the Spirit is a church experience. The verb "be filled" is plural in number ("you all be filled"). This fullness of the Spirit isn't a privilege reserved for some elite. Each and every believer is to be filled.
Further, the fullness of the Spirit is never private or individualistic. It's also for God's people together! It's not generally something you experience in isolation, but in fellowship with God's people. It's something you ordinarily experience in the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. (This is all the more apparent if you read the whole epistle to the Ephesians in one sitting.)
Fifth, being filled with the Spirit is a thoroughgoing influence: "be filled"filled to the full, so full that everything else gets pushed out. Humanism regards "religion" as just one small slice of the pie of life. Ironically, fundamentalism actually accommodates humanism insofar as it divides life into "sacred" and "secular" compartments and urges Christians to limit their spiritual activities to the "sacred" compartment.
But the Holy Spirit refuses to isolate his work to the "religious" or "sacred" sphere. He claims every nook and cranny of God's entire creation for King Jesus. Cornelius Van Til liked to quote Abraham Kuyper, "There is not one square inch of life of which Jesus Christ does not say, 'It is mine!' "
One by one, the Holy Spirit casts out your every idol. Step by step, he breaks down your love-relationship with the world. Inch by inch, he takes your every thought, every word, and every deed captive to Christ. Time after time, he makes you love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Over and over, he enables you to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ in every dimension of your life. Again and again, he emboldens you to bear witness to Jesus Christ across the whole of your life and vocation. Therefore, you can be confident "that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).
Clearly, the fullness of the Spirit is something we need. We need it so desperately. But how can we get it? What are the means of being Spirit-filled? Like the poor man eating peanut butter on the cruise, we often fail to enjoy that which we already have in Christ. The answer is simpler than you might imagine.
First and foremost, trust Jesus Christ. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to all who believe in him (John 7:38-39). Never try to divorce the Holy Spirit from Jesus. The fullness of the Holy Spirit is not something different from knowing Christ, more than knowing Christ, or additional to knowing Christ.
A self-sent campus "preacher" was heard at the Ohio State University describing it this way: "When you trust Christ as your Savior, it's like eating hot dogs. But when you get filled with the Spirit, it's like eating steak."
He couldn't have been more wrong! According to God's Word, the Holy Spirit never gives you more than Christ. But he always gives you more of Christ. "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Eph. 3:16-17).
Moreover, the Word of God insists that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. In John 14:18, as Jesus was preparing his disciples for his departure from earth to heaven, he said to them, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." In the context, he says that the way he himself will come to his people is by sending "another Counselor"his Holy Spirit.
In fact, Christ's work of applying himself to sinners is so intimately intertwined with the work of the Holy Spirit that 2 Corinthians 3:17 actually says that "the Lord is the Spirit." The Lord, the exalted Christ, works through his Spirit. And the Spirit exalts and applies Christ the Lord. So keep drawing near to Christ in faith!
How do you keep drawing near to Christ in faith? Diligently use the means of grace that King Jesus himself ordained.
In particular, actively participate in Christ's church and his public ordinances. Remember, the verb "be filled" is plural. It can legitimately be translated "you all be filled." The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is his home. He concentrates his presence there. All who are united to Christ "are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22; cf. 1 Cor. 3:16).
Don't seek the Holy Spirit in isolation. Go to his temple, his home, the church. He promises to draw near to you as you worship and fellowship and serve with God's people.
Further, regularly hear God's Wordand heed it. The Protestant Reformers coined a slogan: "Word and Spirit." It was never "Word or Spirit"; it was always "Word and Spirit." God's Word and God's Spirit always belong together. Why? Because "the Word of God"especially when it is preached and when it is made visible in the sacramentsis "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17). It's the primary means of grace by which you eat and drink of the Spirit by faith.
(The sovereign Spirit is of course free to work apart from his Word, but that doesn't mean that you are authorized to seek him apart from his Word. Nor are you ever encouraged to expect him to work apart from his Word.)
It's very enlightening to compare Ephesians 5:18-20 with Colossians 3:16-17. They are parallel passages. Both speak of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." Both speak of similar activities. Both introduce a longer section on submission in differing relationships. But where Ephesians 5:18 says "be filled with the Spirit," Colossians 3:16 instead says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." God is his own interpreter. The way to be filled with the Spirit is to let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.
You see, the Holy Spirit is the breath of God"spirit" and "breath" are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. God discloses himself by his Spirit or breath through his Word. He "breathes" out his Word to us. God reveals himself to us through his Word by means of the breath of his mouth, by means of his Spirit. Therefore, we need to hear and heed "the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (Confession of Faith, 1.10).
Moreover, regularly cry out to the Lord in prayer. Jesus promised, "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13). Pray! Acts 4:31 links the fullness of the Spirit with corporate prayer: "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." Pray!
Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34). In other words, the mouth says whatever the heart is full of. If you carry a full cup and it gets jolted, what spills out? Whatever is in the cup.
In the same way, as you get jolted in your daily life, that which spills out of your mouth will be whatever you are full of. If you're full of pride and self-importance, what will spill out? Pride and self-importance!
But if you're full of the Holy Spiritif you're full of the grace of Christ, if you're full of the Word of God, if you're under the influence of the Spirit of Christwhat will spill out? From your heart will flow the holy love of God, the righteous graciousness of Christ, the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Make it so, our Father in heaven! Please make it so! Amen.
The author is the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education and the editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2001.