The Filling of the Spirit: what it is

Cell Basics

By Joel Comiskey

Taken from the book The Spirit-filled Small Group: Leading Your Group to Experience the Spiritual Gifts (Chosen Books, 2005). Available here or by calling 1-888-344-CELL.

For two years, I lived in Pasadena, California, the home of the famous New Year’s Day Rose Parade. One year during the Rose Parade, a beautiful float suddenly sputtered and quit. It was out of gas. The whole parade was held up until someone could get a can of gas over to the float and get it moving again. The amusing thing was that this float represented the Standard Oil Company! Even with its vast oil resources, the company’s truck had run out of gas. In much the same way, Christians often neglect their spiritual maintenance, and although they have been filled with the Holy Spirit, they need to be refilled. When the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century, D.L. Moody, was asked why he needed to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit, he replied, “Because I leak!” Like Moody, we all run out of gas, and we need the power of the Holy Spirit to daily recharge our lives. This chapter will clarify how to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul wrote: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

The Power of the Holy Spirit

In Ephesians 5:18, Paul wrote, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” In the original Greek, the phrase be filled is actually a present-tense verb. To signify a “one-time filling,” Paul would have used the past tense or a future verb tense; instead, he chose the present tense to denote that the filling of the Holy Spirit is not a one-time event, but a continual experience. The Scripture says that we must be continually filled with the Spirit, not just once or twice.

The word filling seems awkward when referring to the Holy Spirit’s entrance into our lives. The Spirit of God is not a liquid, like water. He doesn’t fill a person the way cold milk fills a cup. The Holy Spirit has all the attributes of a person. He knows; He feels; He wills. Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit’s mind, His love and His instruction (note 1) Like a person, the Holy Spirit helps, searches and guides (note 2). In Ephesians 4:30, Paul wrote: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” The only way we can grieve someone is if the one we’re grieving is a person.

Besides His personhood, the Holy Spirit is God. He’s one in essence with the Father and the Son, but He’s also a distinct person. We call the Holy Spirit the “third person of the Trinity.” A great multitude of scripture passages point to this fact (note 3). Because the Holy Spirit is a person, it makes more sense to talk about the Holy Spirit’s control or compulsion in our lives, rather than His filling of our lives.

Holy-Spirit-driven is a good way to look at the Holy Spirit’s control in our lives. A person who is filled with the Spirit is driven by the Spirit—driven in a gentle, loving way. A Spirit-driven person allows the Holy Spirit to direct and guide every decision, plan and activity. Because the world, the flesh and the devil oppose the Spirit-controlled lifestyle, we need to be filled and renewed continually.

Personal testimony

I was first filled with the Holy Spirit in early 1974. In September 1973, approximately four months earlier, I had received Jesus by praying the prayer of salvation in my bedroom, yet I lacked power in my life. During those initial months as a Christian, I was afraid to proclaim to others my newfound faith in Christ. I was in my last year of high school and desperate to become more bold about my faith. My lack of spiritual power led me to attend a miracle service of Shekinah Fellowship that gathered in a Foursquare church in downtown Long Beach, California.

Although I responded to the general altar call after the service, I knew exactly what I needed. I longed for power and boldness so that I wouldn’t be ashamed of my Christian faith. The elders at Shekinah prayed for me to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They hoped that I would immediately receive the gifts of tongues as a sign that the Holy Spirit had fallen upon me.

I didn’t speak in tongues that night. But I do remember what happened the next day. My mom and I went to Pastor Chuck Smith’s church, Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa, California. All I could do was talk about Jesus—I had witnessed about Jesus to everyone I saw that day. I even grilled my mother repeatedly about her faith. (She graciously overlooked a lot of zealous behavior in those days!)

My life was totally transformed from that night onward. I began to carry my Bible with me everywhere, setting it down on the right corner of each classroom desk at Millikan High School. I wanted people to know that I was a believer—and I had the confidence to prove it. The Shekinah experience, however, wasn’t enough. I needed repeated fillings of the Spirit’s grace and power.

Later, I did speak in tongues as I stepped out by faith and spoke in an unknown prayer language to God. Speaking in tongues wasn’t a grand emotional experience for me, but it has helped me greatly during times when words could not express my yearnings and petitions to God. I am thankful for the gift of tongues.

Some would call what happened to me at Shekinah Fellowship that night in 1974 “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Other would classify it as Joel Comiskey’s “first filling after conversion.” The most important point, however, is that I desperately needed His fullness in 1974, and I need it just as much today. I believe that my first filling in 1974 was not sufficient—it was only the first in a long line of subsequent encounters with the Holy Spirit.

Fresh wind, fresh fire

Even in the book of Acts, those who experienced the Pentecostal outpouring with tongues of fire in Acts 2 still needed a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit in chapter 4. Only two chapters later, those same apostles prayed to the Lord and the place was shaken: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31).

It seems to me that our debates over terminology have often prevented us from seeking the Spirit’s continual fullness. All Christians can come together under the banner of eagerly desiring the Spirit’s fullness, even though not all believers label that experience in the same way. Craig Keener, a Southern Baptist professor at Eastern Seminary who had an experience of Holy Spirit similar to my own, said:

If we could get past some semantic debates in our discussions about the timing of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we would have more time available for the more practical questions surrounding the Spirit’s empowerment. Nearly all Christians agree, for example, that all Christians have the Spirit by virtue of being born again. We also agree that we all should regularly experience a Spirit-filled life, walk in the Spirit, depend on the Spirit’s power in our behavior and witness, and be open to experiences from God’s Spirit subsequent to conversion (note 4).

Before doing a small-group seminar for Southern Baptist missionary leaders in Prague, Czech Republic, in 2003, one of the missionary leaders approached me and said, “The only way to reach Eastern Europe with the Gospel is to seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit and operate in all of the gifts of the Spirit.” This missionary leader understood that heathen, demonic forces were too powerful to effectively do ministry apart from yielding completely to the Holy Spirit’s working. He wisely guarded his terminology, but he was speaking the same language that I hear repeatedly around the world. This Southern Baptist missionary wanted what other hungry believers across Christendom have desired throughout the ages: the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in life and ministry.

God is raising up an army of believers today that hunger after the Spirit’s empowering, regardless of denonimation or background. These believers realize that without Him, we can do nothing.


  1. See 1 Corinthians 2:11 (knowledge); 1 Corinthians 12:11 (will); Romans 8:27 (mind); Romans 15:30 (love); Nehemiah 9:20 (instruction) and Ephesians 4:30 (grief).
  2. See 1 Corinthians 2:10 (searching); Romans 8:26 (helping) and John 14:26 (teaching).
  3. The Holy Spirit is called God (1 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Acts 5:3–4); and He possesses divine attributes, such as omniscience (1 Corinthians 2:10–11), omnipresence (Psalm 139:7) and omnipotence (Zechariah 4:6); He’s the third person of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19). For more on this topic, see René Pache, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1954), 14–19.
  4. Craig Keener, Gift Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today ( Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 147–148.