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Paul Says to ‘Be Filled with the Spirit.’ How Do We Obey a Passive Verb?

Perhaps a sailing analogy will help clear up the confusion.
Paul Says to ‘Be Filled with the Spirit.’ How Do We Obey a Passive Verb?
Image: Martin Steinthaler / Getty Images

Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), and we all nod approvingly. It sounds like the sort of thing we should do. But think about it for a moment, and it can sound rather strange. How on earth do you obey a passive verb?

If someone tells me, “Phone your mother,” I can do that. But what if someone says, “Be phoned by your mother?” Now I’m stumped. Not only is it unclear what I am supposed to do next, it’s not even obvious what the instruction means. Yet Paul simply tells the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit.” It can be confusing.

As a result, many Christians aren’t entirely sure what being filled with the Spirit is. Is it an experience we are supposed to have—and, if so, what kind? Is it a series of habits we are supposed to develop—and, if so, which ones? Reformed and conservative believers will often emphasize the habit side, based on the parallel instruction in Colossians to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (3:16). Pentecostal and charismatic types will usually emphasize the experience side, invoking the baptism in the Spirit in the Book of Acts. So which is it: a habit or an experience?

This is where speaking English doesn’t help us. In the biblical languages, there is just one word for Spirit, breath, and wind (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Paul’s Greek). But in English, we have three different words: breath (from the Old English braet, meaning scent), spirit (from the Latin spiritus, meaning spirit or breath), and wind (from the German wind). So we don’t necessarily see a connection between being filled with the Spirit, filled with breath, and filled with wind. In fact, many ...

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Spirited Life
Spirited Life is a collision between biblical reflection and charismatic practice, aiming to make people happier in God.
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King's Church London and author most recently of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Follow him on Tiwtter @AJWTheology.
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