What Does It Mean to be Filled With the Holy Spirit?

Thabiti Anyabwile
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A lot of confusion exists about what the Bible means when it refers to being filled with the Holy Spirit. Some people imagine a “second work of grace” in the believer’s life, so that some people have this “filling” and others do not. Some people think of being “filled with the Spirit” the way they think of filling a glass with water or punch. The Christian was “empty,” and now a new “filling” happens.

When the Bible speaks of being “filled with the Spirit,” a different picture comes to mind. Being filled with the Spirit means being controlled by the Spirit the way a boat’s sails are filled with the wind and blown on its course. The Spirit gives power to the Christian so that the Christian may witness for Christ. That’s the promise of Jesus in Acts 1:8—“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (italics added). And when we read through the book of Acts, the activity most frequently associated with the Spirit’s filling is speaking with boldness.

Consider the following:

  • In Acts 2:4, the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Peter explains that the miraculous gift of tongues fulfilled Joel’s prophecy of a day when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and people would prophesy. Peter preached the gospel boldly to his Jewish audience, and about three thou- sand souls were saved that day.
  • In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested for teaching the resurrection of the dead. When they were brought before the rulers, elders, and high priest, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke to them of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and their guilt in the Lord’s death. Verse 13 tells us that the religious leaders “when they saw the courage of Peter and John

. . . they were astonished” (italics added).

  • Later in Acts 4, when Peter and John are released from prison and share their story with the other disciples, they prayed that God would “grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (v. 29 ESV). “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v. 31 ESV, italics added).
  • In Acts 6, Stephen defended the faith against a number of opponents of the gospel. While they resisted Stephen, “they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (v. 10). Though alone, Stephen spoke boldly in the power of the Spirit, as Acts 7 records.
  • On his first missionary journey, the apostle Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit. He and Barnabas were opposed by a magician named Elymas (Acts 13:8). “Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’” (vv. 9–10).

For the Christian, divine boldness comes from communion with and the filling of God the Holy Spirit. That’s how the apostle Paul—a man gripped with the fear of death—could speak so boldly in the face of persecution and resistance. That’s how he could be stoned, left for dead, and still drag his broken body back into the very place of his persecution to continue preaching the gospel of our Lord on the next day (Acts 14:19–20). He was filled with God the Holy Spirit, who gives boldness and power to witness. He didn’t flip a switch; God took over. This is what we need in our efforts to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors: we need God the Holy Spirit to take over.

For Further Reading:

The Gospel for Muslims

by Thabiti Anyabwile

There are over three million Muslims living in the United States today. Soon, if not already, you will have Muslim neighbors and coworkers....

book cover for The Gospel for Muslims