“Do not be drunk on wine which leads to debauchery; instead, be filled with the Spirit.”
William Wilberforce, the British social reformer, says in his book, A Practical View of Christianity, that nowhere is the difference between nominal Christianity and the true faith more apparent than in a person’s awareness and experience of the Holy Spirit. What struck him as he read the New Testament is that it is our experience of the Holy Spirit that is the dividing line between true and false religion. As Paul says, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9).
Clearly, it is the possession of the Holy Spirit that sets true Christians apart. And that’s why Paul’s statement, “be filled with the Spirit,” in a sense is one of the critical statements in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, because without it, Christianity would be nothing more than a set of rules without the power to fulfil them. It would be like engine with no fuel. Without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life goes precisely nowhere.
Now, what exactly does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Does it mean that we begin the Christian life with an ecstatic experience of tongues-speaking? Or does it mean that we can just relax and let God do everything? We should notice, first of all, that Paul draws a distinction between “being filled with the Spirit” and “being drunk with wine.” Why does he do this?
It was characteristic of religion in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world that people sought to have heightened ecstatic experiences of God through various rituals and artificially induced states of mind. This is where alcohol came into the picture and why Paul mentions the possibility of being drunk with wine. People believed that they could achieve a higher state of religious consciousness through such things as self-hypnosis, wine, frenzied sexual behaviour and suggestive music. This kind of behaviour was characteristic of Greek mystical religion that was associated with the religious worship of the god, Dionysius. People used alcohol and drugs, wild music, eating raw flesh and drinking blood as well as sexual orgies to achieve a spiritual ‘high.’
The important thing to note here is that Paul is not simply making a moral point about the use of alcohol. He’s actually telling us the truth about how we are meant to commune with God. “Don’t use pagan means to seek an experience with the Lord,” he’s saying, “you won’t find true spiritual enlightenment or fulfilment that way. Sex, drugs and suggestive music won’t bring you close to God – you need to be filled with the Spirit.”
In other words, being ‘filled with the Spirit’ is the way to commune with God and experience Him. However, if we don’t initiate this experience with drugs, or other means, how do we make contact with God? “Well,” Paul says, “we establish contact with God through his Word.” A genuine experience is always based upon the word of God. This explains why Paul says, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (5:19). Elsewhere he tells the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another, with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (3:16). It is through the Word of God that we establish communion with the Lord, and it is through meditation upon it and submission to it that we are filled with the Spirit.