Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spirits and Spirits

The original Greek New Testament consists entirely of capital letters. It has no spaces, no punctuation, no accents or diacritical marks.

Before this morning I knew most of that, though not the bit about the capitals. There was, apparently, no functional equivalent in ancient Greek to our lower case letters, which leaves us at the mercy of translators when we try to make distinctions between concepts like “Spirit” (as in “Holy Spirit” on the many occasions when the word “Holy” is not supplied) and “spirit” (the human spirit, or possibly a spirit of another sort entirely).

I’m indebted to Tertius for many of the following thoughts …

Being Filled

Understanding Greek in the absence of upper and lower casing is not a huge problem in most instances: phrases like “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit,” for instance, are comparatively easy to parse without it.

Not so with the following passage, where the question of whether the apostle Paul is speaking of our human spirits or of the Holy Spirit is less obvious. He tells the Ephesian believers:
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit …” [or, alternatively, “... be filled in spirit”]
Paul has framed this as a command, so naturally the question arises, “Is it up to me then to be filled with the Spirit?” It would seem so, wouldn’t it? Scripture doesn’t direct us to do things of which we are incapable.

That, and the evidence that follows, lead me to believe that the New Testament speaks of more than one sort of “filling”.

Luke and the Filling of the Spirit

Would it surprise you to know the expression “filled with the Spirit” (and its variants) may well have originated with Luke? (I’m speaking of its human origin, obviously.) Of the 15 occasions on which I find it used in the New Testament, 14 are from Luke and Acts (which Luke wrote). The fifteenth time, Paul employs it in Ephesians as quoted above. Of course, since Ephesians, Luke and Acts are all estimated to have been written (very approximately) between AD62 and AD64, and since Luke travelled with Paul, it’s impossible to say which of them coined the expression, but it is certainly Luke who makes use of it most freely, and he uses it two different ways.

 Situational Filling

There would seem to be a sort of “filling” of the Holy Spirit that took place throughout the books of Luke and Acts in exceptional circumstances. It was a supernatural infusion that occurred for a given period of time for a specific purpose, then appears to have ceased once its purpose had been accomplished:
  • When Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) was filled with the Holy Spirit, she prophesied. The same was true of her husband Zechariah.
  • At Pentecost all the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. He manifested his presence by miraculously enabling them to speak in other languages. Peter addressed the council of the Jews in Jerusalem and is said to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he did so. Again, when the believers gathered to pray after Peter and John’s release, they were “all filled with the Holy Spirit”, this time evidenced by the fact that they “continued to speak the word of God with boldness”.
  • Just before he was murdered for his faith, Stephen is said to have been “full of the Holy Spirit”. Again, he was addressing a crowd of unbelieving and hostile Jews.
  • When Ananias went to see a blinded Saul, it was so that he would be “filled with the Holy Spirit”, immediately following which Saul began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, and prove Jesus was the Christ. Later, in addressing Elymas the magician and blinding him, Paul is said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”.
  • Finally, the Gentile converts in Pisidian Antioch were said to be “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”.
All but the last of these situational “fillings” is linked in its immediate context to public speech and several of them would seem to fulfill the Lord’s promise to his disciples in Matthew:
“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.”
Situational filling with the Holy Spirit would seem to be a miraculous infusion of the Spirit’s power in special circumstances that is displayed in exceptionally persuasive oratory. This is obviously something no Christian possesses the power to control. It happens when it happens, and thank the Lord when it does. It is unlikely most of us will ever experience such a thing.

 Characteristic Filling

On the other hand, it was said of John the Baptist: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”. This seems to have been true of John whether or not he was preaching at the time (the “mother’s womb” being our first clue). John may have been the only person prior to Pentecost (not counting the Lord Jesus) of whom this could be said to be true.

After Pentecost, the seven men chosen to minister to widows on behalf of the early church in Jerusalem were required to be “full of the Spirit”. In order for the church to note such a thing, it would have had to be characteristic of them. It was certainly true of Stephen. Barnabas also was said to be “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith”.

This sort of “filling” was evidently not situational at all, but rather an ongoing display of Spirit-directed character. Choosing to be filled with the Spirit in this way would seem to be within the scope of the ordinary believer.

A Special Case

Luke also records that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness”. Context makes this sounds awfully situational (it follows immediately upon the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan in chapter 3), but you can understand my reluctance to contemplate the Lord being at any time in any other state.

I’ll leave the reader to reflect on that one. As always, our Lord was a special case.

The Fifteenth Filling

“Be filled,” commands the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5. It is the only time in the New Testament that we find the filling of the Spirit commanded. Obviously Paul is not referring to situational filling. The prerogative for unleashing such a display of verbal spiritual power is God’s and God’s alone.

It is possible Paul is referring to the sort of “filling” that regularly characterized Stephen and Barnabas, and for which they are commended in scripture. Note how this sort of Spirit-controlled character is displayed:
  1. Singing — “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”. Spirit-filled people are happy people, and it comes out naturally, not in a contrived way.
  2. Being Thankful — “Giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Spirit-filled people are thankful people, no matter what circumstances they may find themselves in.
  3. Submitting — “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (which leads in to the next section, which shows us that the submission described is not of every Christian to every other Christian, but involves submission of certain types of believers to believers in other roles). Spirit-filled people are like their Master: they do not act on their own initiative or merely in their own interests. They are submissive to the appropriate authorities in their lives and churches.
The Christian is to be characterized and animated by the Spirit of God within him at all times. I suspect there are other ongoing character-based evidences of such “filling”, but these are the ones listed by Paul.

The Other Possibility

In Two Hundred Bible Questions Explained, Charles Hogg floats another possible interpretation of Ephesians 5:18, and here we circle back to the difference between “Spirit” and “spirit”:
“The Christian is to ‘be filled in spirit,’ so literally (see R.V. Margin), there is no article [the]. This is a unique expression; it does not occur again in the New Testament ... in my judgment, the capital S is misleading.”
In Hogg’s view, it is the human spirit of the Christian that is transformed as to its direction and its intensity. We are, as he translates it, to be continually “filled in spirit”.

It should not surprise us that the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the heart of Christian men and women produces a transformed spirit, one capable of choosing consistently to please God. In that sense Hogg is not wrong.

So whether it’s “Spirit” or “spirit”, does it really matter in the end? What does matter is that we be filled, and that the result of that filling produces character pleasing to God. That’s not something we have to wait around for like the disciples at Pentecost, hoping against hope that it finally happens.

It’s something we choose every day of our lives.

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