Monday, 8 June 2009

Spirit-Filled? What does it Mean?

Jesus promised his people the gift of the Spirit. On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me as the Scripture has said out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." (John 7:37-38). What a promise! Nothing less than a mighty life giving river, yet sadly for many it seems like a stream, or even just a trickle and some wonder whether he's there at all.

The promise did not die out with Jesus or the apostles, but continues to this day - Peter said it was for “everyone who the Lord our God calls to himself.” Acts 2:39. The Bible teaches continuationism not cessationism. The idea that it all ended with the apostles or the completion of the canon of Scripture has to be read into it, and when it is it is frequently from our lack of experience and a seeking to justify it. The fact of the matter is we need all that God gave to the early church in the way of the out-poured Spirit and His gifts in every part of our personal and church life today.

Paul says in Ephesians that we should “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (5:18). This is not an option, the Bible commands it. It's as essential to the Christian life as fuel in the tank of a car, but more so! Much of Paul's teaching is about the place of the Spirit in the Christian's life and that you can't live the life without knowing his presence.

The question is what is it, and does it look like?  And do we, do you, know it? And is there enough evidence to convict you/me/us of that?

Now it's not unusual to hear the question/statement, ‘if God were to withdraw his Holy Spirit from the church, would we notice the difference?’ or put to another way,‘if God withdrew his Holy Spirit everything would just carry one as before,’ the implication of both being that we don’t have the Holy Spirit or he is little involved in what we do. The question is, is that true?

I'm not sure it is.

The fact is that if the Spirit was not among us we would be in deep, deep trouble, personally and corporately - I would be and so would you, so would the church, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all we do is inspired and empowered by the Spirit, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we have the fullness of the Spirit. The fact of the matter is that Scripture (e.g. Acts 6:3; Eph. 5:18) and experience tells us that we are not all as Spirit-filled as we should be, but that doesn’t mean we do not posses the Spirit, it just means we are not as ‘filled up’ with the Spirit as we could be or should be.

The Bible speaks about receiving, or being baptised in the Spirit. This normally happens at conversion, (Acts 2:38), but by no means always, sometimes it comes later (see Acts). The baptism though is a one off experience. You do not need to receive or be baptised in the Spirit again and again.

On the other hand the Scriptures do talk about being filled with the Spirit as an ongoing activity (Eph 5:18),  something that is commanded and should be expected.

In trying to understand what it means to be filled with the Spirit it might be good to ask, what does it look like?

Here are five evidences that you can find in Scripture and in the lives who have been and are:
• Passionate – the early Christians were passionate about God, worship, prayer, the Word, the gospel.
• Power – there was a divine enabling that took them outside of or beyond themselves to speak and act for God.
• Purity – they were changed, he is the Holy Spirit, and produces his fruit in our lives.
• Purpose – there was a strong sense of purpose, it's not a self-serving end, but the blessing of others.
• Prophetic - a present experience of gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit.

I want to suggest that we make a mistake when we focus on the idea of quantity, as if we can have more or less of the Holy Spirit (of God), when the reality is we either have him or we don’t! As I said earlier, Paul says if we don't have the Spirit we are not his (Rom. 8). Thinking in terms of quantity begs the question 'does the baptism run out?' or, 'how long does a filling last?' This leads some to say that ‘The Baptism that you had ten years ago is no more use to you than the dinner you had ten years ago.’ That I'm afraid is nonsense, the Baptism and a dinner are two totally different things - one is a consumable, the other the person of the Holy Spirit! It helps to get our thinking straight.

Thinking and experience go hand in hand, the one impacting the other, so for example our experience is not helped when we sing songs that are Biblically incorrect, i.e. “O for a new anointing ...” which immediately suggests the one we had is past it's sell by date, or we've lost the one we had! Or Charles Wesley's hymn, Love Divine All Loves Excelling, which says, "never more thy temples leave." This suggests a coming and going, a possessing and a losing, whereas the Bible says that the anointing we have abides (1 John 2:20,27). And Jesus himself said that the Holy Spirit would abide with us forever (John 14:16).

The problem then is not the River! It’s there! "Out of your innermost being will flow rivers of living water..." said Jesus. He does not run out! Or to put it another way, the Gift does not melt away. The question then is not one of presence or quantity, but rather more one of flow, or his possession of us. This begs the question of grieving or quenching the Spirit, two things that are very important, but not very often talked about when it comes to the Spirit-filled life.

To return to Ephesians 5:18 the focus is not on our having more of the Holy Spirit but on him filling our lives and relationships, especially 'church.'  The problem in the West is reading these texts through individualistic eyes, thereby making it all about me and my experience, whereas this is is not Paul's focus. His focus is the church, a body of people, and so we could easily read it as "Be filled together with/by the Holy Spirit..."

The abuse of alcohol leads to abuse and disfunctional relationships. The Spirit's presence and fulness leads to unity, blessing and praise as he 'oils' our relationships, and so we experience the reality of the church becoming the dwelling place of God by the Spirit, and God revealing himself, walking in it and speaking to it - church was never meant to be a round of rituals but one of dynamic encounter.

So it’s not about receiving more of what we have already got, but discovering how he might more fully possess us and how we might live in what we have, and in doing so we will know more of his fulness.