What does it mean to be “filled with the Spirit”? Unfortunately, the work of the Holy Spirit is often misunderstood. Intense religious feelings are no guarantee that the Holy Spirit is present. What is the work of the Holy Spirit? How was the Spirit manifest in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles? How can we know that it is the Holy Spirit at work rather than “spirits of demons working miracles” (see Rev. 16:14)? A better understanding of and openness to the Spirit’s work can help us fulfill God’s purpose in our lives.
Jesus and the Spirit
John the Baptist was talking about Jesus when he said, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).1 The distinctiveness of Christian baptism is the gift of the Holy Spirit. According to Luke, when Jesus was in Nazareth He explained His mission by reading from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me . . .” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isa 61:1). So, the Spirit empowered Jesus to fulfill His mission (Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38). What did that mission consist of?
“. . . to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).
Notice the emphasis on proclamation. Jesus’ ministry was a preaching ministry—preaching in word and act. Of course, the miracles of healing got more attention, but even these were “acted parables,” teaching the spiritual healing and life He proclaimed.
We also see this emphasis on proclamation in Capernaum where people “were astonished at his teaching” (Mark 1:22). Even though the scribes were the recognized Bible experts, Jesus spoke with greater authority. Again, we see that the Spirit empowers proclamation—communicating God’s Word and enabling understanding.
The Disciples and the Spirit
We find something similar with the disciples: They proclaimed the same message Jesus did (Matt. 10:7; cf. 4:17) and with the same authority (Matt. 10:1). People could tell that these men had been with Him. They did the same work and enjoyed the same success, including miracles of healing (Mark 6:13). Yet, there was much they didn’t understand and they still had much growing to do.
They also experienced failure, seen in the complaint of the father who brought his demon-possessed boy for healing: ?“I asked Your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (Mark 9:18). Why did we fail? the disciples wondered. Jesus answered: “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, NKJV).2
Often what we need is not more power, but more prayer and more faith. If we do not feel the power of God in our lives, perhaps we should first make sure that, rather than trusting in our own talents or ability, we are praying for God’s power. Notice the reason given by Ellen White for the disciples’ failure:
“Instead of strengthening their faith by prayer and meditation on the words of Christ, they had been dwelling on their discouragements and personal grievances. In this state of darkness they had undertaken the conflict with Satan. In order to succeed in such a conflict they must come to the work in a different spirit. . . . They must be emptied of self, and be filled with the Spirit and power of God. Earnest, persevering supplication to God in faith—faith that leads to entire dependence upon God, and unreserved consecration to His work—can alone avail to bring men the Holy Spirit’s aid in the battle against principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and wicked spirits in high places.”3
Were the disciples at that time Spirit-filled? Apparently not, because their “baptism” with the Holy Spirit was still future (Acts 1:5). The path to the glorious gift of the Spirit passes first through the cross. Their hopes would be disappointed and their faith severely tested. Sometimes we may think that being filled with the Spirit is a “once-filled, always-filled experience.” But the disciples received the Spirit at least three times: (1) After the resurrection, when Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit (John 20:21, 22); (2) at Pentecost (Acts 2:4); and (3) after Peter and John were arrested and released (Acts 4:31).
Looking briefly at these three occasions, we see the Spirit given at specific times for specific purposes.
Shortly after the resurrection Jesus gave His disciples the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) to prepare them as Jesus’ under-shepherds, for their special work of caring for and encouraging the disheartened believers. Jesus put a priority on shepherding God’s “flock,” showing the necessity of keeping the “sheep” we have before going out to seek more.
Yet the disciples were to expect even more of the Spirit’s power, an outpouring that would especially prepare them for outreach: “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). This would happen at Pentecost. The disciples had already received the Holy Spirit, but still there was much they didn’t understand. Before Jesus’ ascension, they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). In His reply Jesus gently rebukes them and again promises a greater infilling of the Spirit: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7, 8).
I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t answer all of their questions. For some answers they had to wait. For others they had to dig deep into the Scriptures. That is why Acts 1:14 says that they devoted themselves to prayer—unitedly. The rest of the chapter explains how, through study of the Scriptures, they realized they needed a replacement for Judas (verses 15-20). So they prayed, cast lots, and Matthias became one of the Twelve.
Notice how Jesus described the work of the Spirit to the disciples in the Gospel of John. Three times He calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), who would guide them into all truth (16:13) and bear witness about Jesus and His work (15:26). The Spirit would remind them what Jesus said (14:26), which includes the whole Bible. The Holy Spirit declares things to come (16:13), in other words, prophecy. So the Spirit which inspires prophecy helps us understand prophecy. Here again there is an emphasis on the truth, especially the truth about Jesus and prophecy. We cannot separate the message from the Spirit who inspired the message.
At Pentecost the disciples’ reception of the Spirit was the result of their readiness to receive it. This readiness consisted of at least three elements (Acts 1:14–2:1):
• United in purpose, waiting for the Holy Spirit
• United in prayer, for the Spirit’s outpouring and for each other
• United in proclamation, understanding the message and ready to proclaim it when the Spirit’s power came upon them
We know the result: About 3,000 people were baptized that day and incorporated into the study, prayer, worship, and outreach of the early Christian community (Acts 2:41-47).
After Peter and John were arrested for their Spirit-empowered witness and released, they all prayed even more fervently. Opposition, rather than intimidating them as the Jewish leaders expected (Acts 4:17, 18, 21), drove them to pray for even greater boldness and courage (4:29), and for more miracles to show the people that their work was done in the name and power of Jesus (4:30; cf. 4:13).
Because of their fervent prayers, they were filled even more with the Spirit (4:31). How could this be? Wasn’t the Spirit given fully at Pentecost? Nowhere do we read that the disciples needed more of the Spirit because of any limitation on God’s part. They were filled with as much of the Spirit as they were willing to receive. As they emptied themselves they could be filled more.
Still, the disciples had much to understand. Peter needed to receive a vision three times, followed by an explanation and a command to evangelize Gentiles (Acts 10:9-20). Later, all were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not restricted to Jewish believers, but came also on Gentiles who believed in Christ, were baptized, and open to being Spirit-filled (Acts 10:44-46; 11:15; 15:8).
What We Can Learn
From the Gospels and Acts we learn that the Spirit comes in direct proportion to one’s openness to receive the gift. The more willing we are to receive the Holy Spirit, the more He can fill our work and our lives. Furthermore, being filled with the Spirit is not a once-filled, always-filled experience, but a growing in grace as we open more and more to the Spirit’s leading and power. Being filled with the Spirit is not a substitute for diligent Bible study. To the contrary, the Spirit was given to lead us into a greater understanding of the truth and the fulfillment of prophecy.
Finally, being filled with the Spirit is not a solitary, ecstatic experience or an end in itself, but the way God opens doors to people’s hearts to hear and respond to His Word. It is always connected with the teaching and preaching of the Word. The Spirit makes us more receptive to hearing God’s Word and responding to it, not less. Like the disciples, in order to fulfill our mission we need to be filled with the Spirit. But we need not wait for some far-off, future experience. Our life can be Spirit-filled even now—to the extent we are willing:
“It is not because of any restriction on the part of God that the riches of His grace do not flow earthward to men. If the fulfillment of the promise is not seen as it might be, it is because the promise is not appreciated as it should be. If all were willing, all would be filled with the Spirit.”4
Ultimately, while we should pray for latter-day Pentecostal power, being increasingly Spirit-filled now is a vital prerequisite to receiving this long-awaited outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The greater we realize our need, the more fervently we will pray for the Spirit’s infilling and be open to receiving Him daily. Only thus can we complete the work God has given us as a church and as individuals.
1All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 431, emphasis supplied.
4Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 50.
Clinton Wahlen, Ph.D., is a New Testament scholar who serves as an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference, Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published November 18, 2010.