Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ephesians 5:18--Be filled with the Spirit?

Long ago, when I was a young MDiv student, I needed to resolve for myself a theological question concerning Ephesians 5:18. My theological question arose out of the popular appeal to Ephesians 5:18 by a major Christian campus evangelistic group as its key biblical passage concerning living the Christian life. Appeal to Ephesians 5:18 called for Christians to become "filled with the Holy Spirit," one of numerous versions of teachings concerning the need for a "second blessing" leading to sanctification.

Since I had received two years of instruction in biblical Greek in college I puzzled over whether Ephesians 5:18 actually provided support for the "second blessing" teaching because the Greek grammar simply did not seem to support the usual translation of the verse. So, during my middler MDiv year I decided to write an essay for the second semester Christian Theology course, Salvation and the Christian Life, on Ephesians 5:18 to see if I could resolve my questions.

Crucial to my study was whether Paul's command of Ephesians 5:18 and Luke's narrative descriptions of "filling with the Holy Spirit" and "fullness of the Holy Spirit" throughout Luke-Acts correlate and concern the same phenomenon. At the time that I researched for my essay I found no published work that had tabulated the lexical work that was necessary for me to do. Because I was not so well skilled in linguistic research I essentially did all the ground-work research for myself only to discover after the fact that various grammarians and linguists who long-predated me did have brief helpful and instructive notes that confirmed my own discoveries. What were those discoveries? The following table shows what I discovered. True to form, Greek words of filling and fullness take the genitive case to indicate the content or the thing with which something is filled or full.

Consistently Luke-Acts uses the genitive case (πνεύματος ἁγίου; Holy Spirit) following verbs of filling and adjectives of fullness. Ephesians 5:18, as shown, not only does not use the genitive case as one should expect, if Paul is speaking of the same phenomenon as does Luke-Acts (πνεύματος ἁγίου; Holy Spirit), but Paul uses the dative case with the preposition (en pneumati; ἐν πνεύματι). 


Verb or Adjective

Noun Case
Luke 1:15 πλησθήσεται (he will be filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Luke 1:41 ἐπλήσθη (she was filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (see above)
Luke 1:67 ἐπλήσθη (he was filled) πνεύματος ἁγίου (see above)
Luke 4:1 πλήρης (full)πνεύματος ἁγίου (of the Holy Spirit)
Acts 2:4 ἐπλήσθησαν (they were filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Acts 4:8 πλησθείς (filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Acts 4:31 ἐπλήσθησαν (they were filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Acts 6:3 πλήρεις (full)πνεύματος (of the Spirit)
Acts 6:5 πλήρης (full)πνεύματος ἁγίου (of the Holy Spirit)
Acts 7:55 πλήρης (full)πνεύματος ἁγίου (of the Holy Spirit)
Acts 9:17 πλησθῇ (filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Acts 11:24 πλήρης (full) πνεύματος ἁγίου (of the Holy Spirit)
Acts 13:9

πλησθείς (filled)
πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)
Acts 13:52 ἐπληροῦντο (they were being filled)πνεύματος ἁγίου (with the Holy Spirit)

Ephesians 5:18 πληροῦσθε (be filled)ἐν πνεύματι (in the Spirit)

Consequently, it became readily evident that what Luke-Acts has in view with its grammatical constructions, Paul has something different in view. Since I did my research I have discovered that many others have confirmed my findings on Ephesians 5:18. I refer to published studies, including commentaries. In fact, unbeknown to me I initiated a series of studies on the passage that built upon my essay, an essay that was supposed to be twelve pages but turned out to be sixty-five pages. A doctoral dissertation used my essay and from that dissertation several other studies were birthed at various theological schools. 

Paul's admonition should not be taken as it is routinely translated even to this day as "be filled with the Spirit" (NIV, NRSV, ESV). Clearly, Paul is not commanding the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit in the sense that Luke describes various individuals as "filled with the Holy Spirit" such as in Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:31. Not everyone who challenges the mistranslation of Ephesians 5:18 agrees with me concerning how I translate the passage. Nevertheless, I offer the following as my translation of the verse tied inextricably with the following verses. Given Paul's uses of the various words for filling and for fullness throughout Ephesians, I translate the verb not as "be filled" but as "be brought to completion."

And do not become intoxicated with wine, in which is debauchery, but be brought to completion in the Spirit by speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, by singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, by giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to God and the Father, by submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.
I take the imperative verb of 5:18 (πληροῦσθε; plērousthe) as the main verb upon which the sequence of participles hangs. I translate the verb as "be brought to completion." Hence, I translate each of the five present participles in the series as instrumental participles, expressing the instrumental means by which the being brought to completion is to be accomplished, by speaking . . . (λαλοῦντες), by singing and making melody . . . (ᾅδοντες . . . ψάλλοντες), by giving thanks . . . (εὐχαριστοῦντες), and by submitting (ὑποστασσόμενοι). It is rather apparent that the thing commanded in 5:18 is accomplished neither privately nor independently but corporately, as members of the church, within the congregation of believers. This is no "Lone Ranger" activity. This is true no matter how one syntactically connects the series of five participles to the imperative verb of 5:18, even if one takes the participles as expressing results rather than instrumental means.

You will also notice that many modern translations disconnect verse 21 from verses 18-20 and make it the head verse of a new paragraph connected with verse 22. This has been a modern and recent adjustment to the text after the third United Bible Societies' third edition of the Greek New Testament. This adjustment coincides with the modern feminist movement and its impact upon all things Christian. Not only is there no textual warrant for this; there are textual reasons to read verse 21 as the final verse of the paragraph.

As to all the theological implications and ramifications of my study, I leave that for now. Likewise, I lay discussion aside concerning other exegetical, syntactical, and text-critical decisions reflected in my translation. One this should be evident: Ephesians 5:18 is not commanding us to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" in the sense that early believers were "filled with the Holy Spirit." Rather, Paul's admonition entails the normative Christian experience of life and fellowship within the body of Christ, the church. The "being brought to completion in the Spirit" is none other than being filled with the fullness of God (cf. Ephesians 3:14-19).

Additional Note: Andy Naselli's book, Let Go and Let God? is a superb critique of the theology that my long essay on Ephesians 5:18 critiqued. From my earlier reading of Andy's material I am fully confident that his book will be superb. Read Andy's blog entry on his book, Let Go and Let God? here. Read Tom Schreiner's foreword to the book here.

Purchase Andy's book here at pre-publication special price. I ordered my copy today (6/11/10).

You may access significant elements of Andy's book by listening to his series of lectures based upon his dissertation here.

Additional Note #2: I just stumbled on to Andy Naselli's article, "Being Filled By the Spirit." Andy takes the five participles following the imperative πληροῦσθε in Ephesians 5:18 as expressing the results of "being filled by the Spirit." The expression "by the Spirit," of course, does not indicate the content. In fact, as Andy states and as my own study shows, the content with which we are to be filled is not expressly stated in the passage. As I suggest, the content is "the fulness of God," as inferred from the remainder of the letter to the Ephesians. I notice that Andy agrees with this.

Postscript: As I have indicated in my entry above, I have no substantial quibble with those, like Andy, who take the participles as expressing results of being filled by the Spirit. I take the participles as expressing instrumentality by which the command (πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι) is carried out. The reason I take the participles as instrumental rather than as resultant is that I take the command (πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι) to mean "be brought to completion in the Spirit." I take it this way for a variety of reasons. I will offer only two, here. One is that I take ἐν πνεύματι (en pneumati) as a locative, meaning, in the Spirit. This is influenced by the frequent use of  multiple uses of ἐν πνεύματι (en pneumati) in Ephesians, including some slight variations. Second is that I take πληρόω (plēroō [I fill, fulfill, complete]) in 5:18 in the sense "be fulfilled, be made complete" in conjuction with its other uses in Ephesians (1:23; 3:19; 4:10) and with use of πλήρωμα (plērōma [fullness]) in Ephesians (1:10;, 23; 3:19; 4:13). Ephesians 3:19 is decisive for me with the combination of the two words in the purpose clause, ἵνα πληρωθῆτε εἰς πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ θεοῦ (in order that you might be made complete unto all the completeness of God or in order that you might be fulfilled unto all the fullness of God).


  1. Perhaps the point is "let the Holy Spirit satisfy you; do not rely on wine for fulfillment." Just a thought. I'm glad you fleshed out the idea of verse 21 not starting its own discourse unit. I've thought about it myself, but I'm not skilled enough to elaborate as well as you have.

    Thank you.

  2. Ardel

    Thanks for this post and indeed all your posts. I have been thinking about this passage in relation to Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3:14ff. It seems significant to me that in Paul's chapter 3 prayer begins with the Spirit and ends with being filled (with the fullness of God).

    Basically: he prays that the Spirit may strengthen his readers with "power" that comes via the Spirit (3:16). And with this "power" he prays that they might know the "love of Christ" (3:18). The end result or goal of this prayer is: "that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" (NIV).

    Based on this I have the following relationship in mind between Ephesians 3:14-19 and 5:17-21ff.

    The Spirit is the AGENT who fills believers with the CONTENT of the fullness of God by MEANS of knowing the love of Christ with the RESULT that believers speak, sing, give thanks, make music and submit to one another.

    Does this make sense? What do you think? I am taking the participles as result whereas you are taking them as means. Apart from that do you see synergy between what I have said and your post.

    Thanks again Ardel,



  3. Alan,

    I think that the connection with 3:14-19 is on target. As for the content, I would fully agree that it is the fullness of God. Whether the connection is as you propose, as do some others, taking the five participles as expressing result or as the means by which the fullness of God is made ours by the Spirit is the only point of small debate.

  4. This is an excellent work here. I have been looking for the interpretation of this verse as to understand the place of the Spirit there. I concur with the fact, that the Spirit masks available the fullness of God to the believer who in turn, is filled by speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, by singing and making melody in is hearts to the Lord, by giving thanks always.


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