Ephesians 5:18 “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

Is our experience of the Holy Spirit any less urgent or less vivid today than it was in the days of the apostles? I had a letter this week from my friend Baruch Maoz in Israel. He has visited us and spoken here, but he was describing in this letter what he witnessed two weeks ago, which would have been no different from any other week in their congregation in Israel. He writes, “Last Sabbath I was asked to preach for another church. Following the service I made my way back to Grace and Truth church. The hall was full and overflowing, as usual, but the parking lot outside was no less full. One hundred and twenty nine men, women and children were crowded under a canopy in the car-park, with an industrial air blower making a feeble attempt to overcome the sweltering heat. I peeked into the hall. There was not a single space left, not even for standing. The doorway was crowded with people, the walls lined with them. Members of the congregation were sitting on the floor in the corridor leading to our toilets. It was a glorious, heart-rending sight: these people love the preaching of God’s word. They come to worship under circumstances that would drive away the less committed. But, how long can we continue in this way?

“In the meanwhile, we are seeking ways to make it more comfortable for those forced to follow the service in the parking lot. We are also considering the purchase of a suitable tent for the winter because there is no way we can crowd everyone into our existing hall. There is considerable reticence to make such a purchase because it will siphon severely needed funds from the building project and we prefer to use every penny we have for that urgent purpose. The sooner we are able to occupy the building, the less it will cost us to build. I am full of admiration at these people, who endure so much discomfort week after week, yet love the Lord well enough to keep coming. Other churches can offer them far more convenient circumstances – at least a chair on which to sit! – yet they come, and their numbers have not decreased.”

The work which Baruch is describing is the fruit of the work of the Spirit isn’t it? The New Testament is full of clear directions on the subject of establishing and maintaining a close relationship with the Holy Spirit, and our text is one of the most comprehensive, “Be filled with the Spirit.” It is addressed to the whole congregation; to the people as a body and to every single individual in the church. It is not at all that Paul is saying that there are those in the church who are full already and they can switch off at this point because they’ve got it. He is speaking to the most holy members, to the church leaders, and he is directing his exhortation to them too. He is saying this to those who were the founder members of the congregation as much as to the novices. “I want all of you to go on being filled with the Spirit.” That is the thrust of his exhortation.

You will see that this is one of a series of basic principles of conduct which began at the opening of chapter four. In the first three chapters he has expounded a series of doctrinal statements concerning all that God has done. He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ. Then as a sequel Paul turns to the principles that should mark our conduct. Orthodox belief must lead to godly practice. Orthopraxis follows from orthodoxy. So Paul tells this congregation to walk worthy of the vocation with which they were called (Ephs. 4:1), and then he exhorts them not to behave as the other Gentiles behave (Ephs. 4:17). He directs them all to be imitators of God (Ephs. 5:1), as dear children. Soon he is going to tell them about distinctive Christian family life, and how they are to work as bosses and workmen, and to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ. This commandment, to be filled with the Spirit, is in this same strain. He is not going into a wholly different realm here and exhorting them to have mystical experiences and euphoria. He is talking about the power that enables the church to face up to the ethical rigours of the Christian life. Let us first of all clear away some confusion from this text.


i] They are not being asked to drink a new wine which they had never drank before.

The New Testament knows nothing of believers who are strangers to the Spirit. The Christian life begins in the Spirit. The strength to put one’s foot on the first rung of the Christian ladder is sourced by a heavenly energy. If any person doesn’t have the Holy Spirit he is not showing that he is a carnal Christian, he simply does not belong to Christ. He cannot bear the name of Christian. The pattern is set in Acts chapters one and two where the Christian life is initiated by the work of the Spirit convicting, giving faith, occasioning an intellectual and moral revolution, creating a spirit of worship and love centred on the Lord Jesus Christ, enabling men to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayers. The founder members of the Ephesian church way back in Acts 19 when Paul first came to their city were asked the most basic of all questions: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” In other words, were they normative Christians, were they ordinary believers. No, they were followers of the teaching of John the Baptist and they had moved west to Ephesus taking John’s message with them. They had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s response was not to instruct them in the Holy Spirit, he preached to them about Jesus. When they believed in the Saviour they were baptized and when the apostle laid his hands on them the sign gifts of Pentecost, speaking in foreign languages and bold preaching, were immediately evident. The Holy Spirit was there, on the first day they believed in Jesus and were baptized.

So Paul says to them in Ephesians 1:13, “You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of the promise.” He is looking back to something that had happened in the lives of them all. He does not say, “Some of you have been sealed,” does he? Regeneration is the Spirit of God sealing us as belonging to God, not for the years of time alone but for eternity. All the church of Jesus Christ has the seal, the down payment and deposit, of the living Spirit. He is the confirmation of God’s intention to complete the work he has begun in the believer. The sealing is part of the great initiatory experience of the Holy Spirit; it is part of the very meaning of being a Christian. So they were not being invited to take a drink of new wine which they had never taken before.

ii] They are not being exhorted to take one single drink of God’s new wine.

When Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” he is not referring to a single, definitive experience. The very grammar of the language used prohibits that interpretation. He is using the present continuous: Go on being filled with the Spirit. Go on drinking the new wine from heaven. Don’t go on Empty any longer or you will stop. You see the warning light flashing on the dashboard. You see the needle right down on ‘E’ – you are getting empty. You are leaving your first love. You have lost your warmth for God; you are lukewarm. You are quenching the Spirit. Stop going on like this, but go on being filled with the Spirit. Keep drinking God’s new wine from heaven. Drink of him the fountainhead; slake your thirst with the Holy Spirit, and do it each day. Let me expand that by a third clarification:

iii] They are being reminded of a duty not an experience.

Paul is not saying, “Wait for God the Spirit to do something to you.” You have to do something yourselves. Paul does not say to the Christian, “Be justified,” because every Christian is perfectly justified. Justification is not a process; it is an once-and-for-all action of God whereby he declares the believing sinner righteous in Christ. We cannot be more justified than we are already, any more than an expectant mother can be more pregnant than she is. Paul does not say, “be adopted into the family of God,” because all who have received Christ have been given the right to be called the sons of God. We cannot become more the sons and heirs of God than a boy can become more the son of his parents. And neither does Paul say to us, “Be united with Christ; be in Christ,” because every Christian at the new birth is given the privilege of union with Christ and we spend the rest of our lives working out the immense privileges of this status. Justification, adoption into the family of God and union with Christ are all perfect works of God, but being filled with the Spirit is a command we have to obey like all the commands in this section; “live a life of love,” “have nothing to do with the fruitless works of darkness,” “make the most of every opportunity,” “do not get drunk with wine” – all such commandments are duties to be obeyed. So too is this commandment, “be filled with the Spirit.” We must see to it that we are, just as we take steps not to be drunk with wine. We don’t spend hours to God simply crying to him, “Don’t let me be drunk with wine,” rather we avoid pubs, we dodge ungodly drinking companions, we never call in at the off-license and we hurry past the alcohol section in the supermarket. We take steps to ensure that we don’t get drunk with wine, and so too we take steps to ensure that we go on being filled with the Spirit. I am saying that being filled with the Spirit is a duty we must fulfil.

This commandment about the Spirit is not unique. Paul tells the whole Galatian church to walk about by the Spirit, to live for the Spirit, and to keep in step with the Spirit. They are Christian duties as much to be obeyed as honouring your father and your mother, or loving your neighbour. Again Paul tells the Ephesians not to grieve the Spirit (Ephs. 4:30). What do we see here? Our relationship with the Holy Spirit is not like your relationship with the speed camera. That camera is not grieved if you do 35 mph in a 30 mph zone. It might be situated in the most beautiful valley in Wales but it never takes photographs of sunsets and lakes and swans flying across fields. It simply snaps your car breaking the speed limit. It is a programmed machine. Your relationship with the Holy Spirit is not like your relationship with a cash dispenser. You feed in your card and you punch in your number and out comes your money. That’s all it does. You can be in the foulest mood imaginable; you can be muttering and complaining under your breath and shouting at your children to stay still but the cash-point is utterly indifferent; it will simply give you what you want if you have sufficient credit. My relationship with a cash-point is inert. It is not like that with the Spirit. He is a living person who groans and loves and prays and can be grieved and blesses. If I am not maturing, and not loving, and not witnessing, and not praying, and not worshipping as I should then the fault does not lie in a breakdown in the divine machinery. It lies in our own personal failure to maintain a living growing relationship with the Lord who is the Spirit.


Peter was filled with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost along with every other Christian: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). Not one Christian in the church, not one Christian in the whole world who was not filled with the Spirit. But this same Peter, a few days later, was filled again. How can you explain this? I find it useful to give two answers:

i] In times of crisis we are filled.

There are fillings of the Spirit for special seasons. Peter had already been filled with the Spirit to preach the Word of God to thousands at Pentecost. That was indispensable; he needed the Holy Spirit’s enabling, illumination, guidance and courage. Then a few days later he is again facing another crisis. The Sanhedrin which a few months earlier had condemned Jesus to death held a special meeting. They seized Peter and John and put them in prison. Luke records the scene like this in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 4:5-8, “The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them . . .” Peter was given extraordinary courage and wisdom to confront this impressive court of evil. He was filled with the Spirit to do this.

This filling of the Spirit is exactly what the Lord has promised us in Luke 12:11ff, “When they bring you before magistrates, take no thought how or what you shall answer; for the Holy Spirit wil teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” That was fulfilled in Peter before the Sanhedrin. The Spirit filled his mind and his will and his emotions and his judgment so that he was strengthened to stand erect and lift up his voice and look them in the eye and tell them, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

The same thing happened to Paul when he was on the isle of Paphos. The incident is described in Acts 13; Elymas the Sorceror was trying to dissuade the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, from becoming a Christian. Then Paul was filled with the Spirit (Acts 13:9) and he confronted this sorcerer and delivered a rebuke so solemn and effective that we are told about the proconsul, “when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.”

I am saying that there are crises that come into our lives, as pastors face difficult meetings of officers and church members, as a family goes through a time when one of their members has a terminal illness, when a husband loses his job and the stream of income is dammed, then, at such periods, we are under an obligation to be filled with the Spirit to face that providence. God’s answer to the suffering and the nervousness and the ignorance and poverty is to fill us with his Spirit.

Let us know this, that we are the recipients of the loving ministry of the Spirit, who spreads his gentle wings over us and hovers there yearning for our good. We are to venture forth in humble dependence on him confident that he will enable us to cope with any emergency, climb any mountain, carry any burden, overcome any temptation, endure any pain, go on through any difficulty. We cannot rely on any past experiences. Every crisis creates its own need and the Spirit meets that need. He fills us time after time as we’re challenged about keeping trusting, and keeping praying, and keeping counting it all as joy, and keeping looking unto Jesus. So there is a filling ministry of God the Spirit at times of crisis in our lives. But there is a second way in which we are filled with the Spirit:

ii] In spiritual maturity we are Spirit filled Christians.

I am thinking of the way in which Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” I appreciate what Principal Macleod once wrote on this in the Free Church Record, January 1984, “This is not a description of something instantaneous and momentary but of an abiding condition. Here is a man who never lapsed, who never declined, who never fell away. He remained, habitually, full of the Spirit. His whole character — his relationships, his emotions, his ambitions, his reactions — remained under the Spirit’s control. That is the Christian ideal and it cannot be secured by any single experience. It can be secured only by an unending succession of replenishments, very much along the lines suggested in John. 1: 16, “From his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace.”

“The Lord’s words in Mt. 7: 7ff. are also relevant: “Ask and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” These words are not addressed to the unconverted. In their original setting they have nothing to do with a man seeking Christ for the first time. They have to do with established Christians seeking the Holy Spirit: “If you, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” These people are already saved. They are already Christians. They already have the Spirit. Yet they are to ask for him. They are to seek him. And they are to do so with all the earnestness and importunity of a child seeking food. The Holy Spirit is not something God’s children can do without. He is indispensable. Nor is he something they can store up. They need more and more. They need again and again. And the only way they can ensure that they are always full is to be always asking.”

So we could describe Stephen as a very mature Christian, which he was. We could use the other great metaphors of the New Testament to describe him; he was someone who was clothed in all the armour of God. We could describe him as someone who had presented his body to God as his spiritual worship. We could describe him as someone who had denied himself and had taken up his cross and followed Christ. Or we could go to the passages from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus which describe for us the character and behaviour of an officer in the church, and Stephen would fit the bill for all those descriptions, but Luke simply abbreviates maturity to the very minimum and says, “he was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

Think of the exhortation of Jesus in John 15, “Abide in me.” We come to Christ and trust in him, and we find ourselves joined to him by faith. We’ve got to stay there in that relationship, married to him. Make sure in all your conduct you keep your love strong, you stay committed to him, adoring him, having him alone as your husband and your friend, abiding in him alone. In a marriage the wife can’t pretend one night a week she’s single and go off with her girlfriends and chat up men and try to forget she ever said, “I do.” Abide in your marriage. Similarly a husband has to do the same. In his work, as he meets members of the opposite sex, let him abide in his marriage. He reenacts his commitment repeatedly and continuously.

Think of the cross of discipleship and self-denial which we take up when we start to follow Christ. We don’t take it up once and for all. We constantly are taking it up. Think of the Lord Jesus himself the great example of a perfect believer. He didn’t make one decision to become a man, he made constant decisions to say no to self, and humble himself. He drank the cup his Father set before him. He went into the darkness deeper and deeper, constantly humbling himself. He abode in the Father and in his love and we must do the same. Go on being filled with the Spirit. Go on presenting your body to Christ. Go on abiding in Christ. That is how you become fruitful, not by once coming to Christ but clinging to him through thick and thin, by earnest application to the public and private means of grace. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, no more can you, unless you abide in me. There must be that grafting in of the branch to the vine if the sap is to flow and there is to be fruitfulness. So you continue to be filled with the Spirit by special anointings in times of crises, and also by constantly asking the Lord to mature every part of you.


What does this passage say? A couple of things:

i] It is the very opposite of being drunk!

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” There’s the great contrast; drunkenness will lead to extravagant behaviour, to violence, and lack of self-control and exaggerated self-confidence. Being filled with the Spirit does not lead to these things. Think of the charge laid against the disciples on the day of Pentecost that they were drunk. But you look at them there in Jerusalem; the sermon Peter preaches is filled with fiery logic and profound biblical theology of the Scriptures; it has courage, insight, application. Drunks never speak like that; they only imagine they are speaking like that. There was also great enthusiasm in the Corinthian congregation and so again people tended to criticize but Paul said that God was a God of order not chaos, and that the spirit of the prophets was subject to the prophets. Men could not claim that they “couldn’t help’ interrupting and shouting out and standing and praying and singing or whatever. “That is not the case,” said Paul. The spirits of the prophets are under the control of the men who speak. Those spirits don’t take them over as the influence of alcohol takes over a drunkard and he becomes a rambling idiot.

As Principal Macleod writes, “There is nothing at all destructive in the experience of the Holy Spirit, and Christians should be exceedingly careful lest the language they use give any impression to the contrary. It is utterly misleading to speak of men and women as God-intoxicated or Spirit-intoxicated, as if the acme of spirituality were that men lose their inhibitions, their self-consciousness and their self-control and manifest their ‘liveliness’ by swooning, chanting, clapping and stamping their feet. Such thinking has lost all connection with Scripture, which expects us to present our bodies to God in reasonable service, to behave with decency and order and to practise a love which is always aware of other people and their needs. Far from overriding men’s capabilities, the filling of the Spirit sharpens our minds, strengthens our self-control and disciplines our emotions. The very last thing it does is to unfit us for life in this perplexing and bemusing world.” (Macleod op cit ) So it is not by extravagant behaviour that you can tell, “He is a Spirit-filled man!”

ii] It leads to godly moral and spiritual features.

See how Paul describes the Spirit-filled life in Eph.5:18-6: 9. It means, to begin with, that the Spirit-filled man sings and makes melody in his heart. Such singing, says Paul, is directed specifically to the Lord. “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds . . . Crown him with many crowns . . . O could I speak the matchless worth, O could I sound the glories forth which in my Saviour sound . . . Praise him, praise him Jesus our blessed Redeemer . . . Jesus the name high over all . . . O Jesus Christ grow Thou in me and all things else recede . . .” It is the man filled with the Spirit whose heart and voice goes out to his Saviour: “Unto him be glory in the church through Christ Jesus, world without end. Amen.” That is the spirit of Pentecost where men filled with the Spirit were heard proclaiming the mighty deeds of God. They are not singing ditties – “If I were a bumble bee” – or singing to create an atmosphere or for the sake of self-_expression. They are magnifying their prophet and priest and king; they are rejoicing in the finished work of Christ; they are singing of a grand free redemption accomplished and applied. And they are conscious of others as they sing – they speak to one another; they even teach and admonish one another in their singing. So, for example, on those rare occasions when they sing Newton’s, “I asked the Lord that I might grow in faith and love and every grace” and they recount how God answered by blasting their hopes and bringing them low, admonishing one another as they sing these words,

“Lord why is this, I trembling cried.
Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?
‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.” (John Newton, 1725-1807)

There is doctrine and admonition in our singing. There is a concern to edify others in our hymns. That is why there has been concern about the plethora of new hymns and new styles of singing hymns and new hymnbooks. Do these hymns faithfully reflect the biblical dynamic of sanctification? Will we find in them the tensions, griefs, joys and assurance of the men of God in the Bible as reflected in the psalms and also in Romans 7? It is not are they rhythmic and tuneful with a good beat, but think of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 40; “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.” (Psa. 40:3). There is melody in the heart, but it is on the lips too, and the song is directed to man as well as God. The spiritual man wants the world to hear his song, as the early church was heard singing God’s mighty works at Pentecost.

Again, the Spirit-filled man is characterised by gratitude. He is always giving thanks to God the Father for everything. He is full of the Spirit and so he can thank God always and he can thank God for everything. He can cope with unanswered prayer, with the bad news, with totally unexpected events. David could cope with the valley of the shadow of death; he could cope with a table spread in the presence of his enemies because God was with him. Job could cope with personal grief almost unbearable, the death of his children, the loss of health and the bitterness of his wife. “The Lord gave and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Paul was locked to a soldier in prison facing a very uncertain future and yet he could say that he had learned in whatever state he was in to be contented. Spirit filled men can cope with loneliness, imprisonment, hunger, the absence of books, hearing nothing but bad new from beloved churches. So here he writes so awesomely, “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.20). In other words, there will be always something for which to give thanks to God. In the worst of all circumstances you must crane your eyes and take out your binoculars and search the horizon and you will find some things, even many things, for which to thank God, even if it is only to thank him for where you are not today. The Spirit-filled man is fearless, resigned, contented and more than that he is thankful always and in all things. “Every day will I bless you. Every day will I praise your name.”

Again, the Spirit-filled man is characterised by love and justice and submission in his relationships. “Submit!” is the great mark of the Spirit-filled life. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21). I don’t see a lot of that in churches. People have to get their own way and if they don’t they’ll quit. The Spirit-filled man is constantly willing to submit his own interests to those of others. Do we see that? I don’t think we do. We see threats of discipline and resignation and complaints and letters are written. Paul is constantly calling us back to the Lord who was filled with the Spirit, and he didn’t look on the things of himself but the things of others. He made himself nothing because he put others before himself.

Think of marriage and the Spirit-filled husband, how he treats his wife the way Christ treated the church. The Spirit-filled parent treats his children in the way God treats his children. He cannot use his religion as a pretext for sternness or inhumanity, or use the claims of God to excuse arrogance or discourtesy. Paul says nothing here about rights, not husbands’ rights, or wives’ rights, or servants’ rights, or masers’ rights. All the emphasis falls on duties. The Spirit-filled man is not interested in his rights. His concern is with his responsibilities and duties. What other men owe him does not matter. What does matter is that he himself should discharge what he owes to other man.


This verse is a door to the experiential aspect of the Christian life. The church today is full of religious experience. Many Christians have known deep spiritual experiences. There was a revivalist preacher in the early 19th century called Finney who wrote his autobiography and he chronicled the experiences of God he had had, so that it became necessary afterwards for all the revivalist preachers who followed him to do the same. It was no longer enough to claim that Almighty God had called you to be a preacher you also had to describe the experiences you had had as confirming to your readers, “You’d better listen to my preaching and beliefs because God himself has authenticated them by these experiences.”

Of course, religious joy is the easiest emotion for the devil to counterfeit. Listen to this testimony; “We were in a constant state of worship. These were the happiest days of my life. We were floating, swimming in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity. We had no doubts.” These are the words of a Muslim suicide bomber who failed in his mission when the bomb did not explode and so neither he nor others were killed. He had been taught that the first drop of blood he shed during jihad would wash away his sins instantaneously, and he would face no reckoning on the Day of Judgment (The Times, July 14, 2005). Immediate high assurance in cults and religions is very common, but preaching the gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven is not.

There are very real and precious experiences which a Christian can know who is contantly measuring his life by the demands of Ephesians 5 and 6. The heart can be flooded with assurance; the beauty of God’s righteousness can be overwhelming; a new spiritual strength can transform a man’s ministry for some years. Different labels are attached to such experiences, some more helpful than others. Here our text is encouraging us to go on being filled with the Spirit. Never stop being filled with the Spirit; never stop hungering for God and thirsting for the Spirit. Some Christians do not know within a period of a year the actual time when they were regenerated. In such cases their later experiences are bound to be more vivid and traumatic than their secret inward conversion, but those experiences, memorable as they are, will never be as important as the new birth. I believe that there are no heights a Christian cannot know of ecstasy and joy unspeakable. I also believe there are no depths a Christian cannot plumb. A Christian can cry to God to end his life for he is no better than his fathers. He says, “O wretched man that I am who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” I believe that genuine experiences of God leave their mark on all who receive them. O that I had more and more of them! How blessed would we be to see something of the glory of God that Isaiah had in the temple .Wouldn’t that enrich and strengthen us for many years of challenging service?

Again these words of Paul are the clue to the low level of spiritual impact and attainment in the church today. No doubt we can blame the church’s weak theology and the inroads of modernism and humanism and materialism in Europe, but where are the ranks of growing Spirit-filled Christians? Why do so many professing believers rarely get out of Junior School? They remain immature, ignorant and worldly. Others begin so promisingly and then stagnate. Their early promise is never realised. What’s wrong? They are not obeying what Paul says in our text, “Go on being filled with the Spirit.” Don’t be satisfied with memories of what you once were. Ask and seek and knock at God’s door. Be like Oliver Twist, Please Sir, I want some more! Master give me more! More of Thy gracious self impart to me. Fill me Saviour or I die!

14th August 2005 GEOFF THOMAS