We are told to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Embedded in this command is a metaphor.
Unfortunately, many Christians today are uncomfortable with metaphor, thinking that if something is metaphorical, it is somehow not entirely truthful. Big mistake.
Our point of reference for being filled with the Spirit is an actual physical filling like a glass being filled with water. Because such a physical reality exists, by comparison, we can understand our persons being “filled with the Spirit.” Apart from this kind of physical reality, there can be no spiritual comparison or comprehension.
One God, Three Persons
Speaking of “one God in three persons” is similarly metaphorical, because, when we think of a person, the thought of a man or woman is our primary point of reference. This is humorously illustrated in the song, “American Pie” written by Don McLean, about the accidental death of rock n’ roll pioneers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. One of the lines is “three men I admire most … the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost … caught the last train to the coast … the day the music died.”
Funny as the line is, it illustrates the misconception that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are persons like men. Yes, in some respects, but no in many, many respects.
What often happens with this metaphor is, in comparing human attributes to the divine, we inadvertently apply human limitations to God, especially in our understanding of the Holy Spirit.
John 14:26 describes the Spirit in “personal” terms as counselor and teacher.
However, at Jesus’ baptism, Luke 3:22 tells us, “the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove.”
In John 7:38ff, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. By this He meant the Spirit …”
In Acts 2, the Spirit appeared as “tongues of fire” and with the sound of a “violent blowing wind.” These and other significant Scriptural references portray the Holy Spirit in non-personal terms.
The point is this: The Holy Spirit is not less than a person, but is far more than a person. When appropriate, the Spirit appears as flame, wind, water and even in animal form as a dove. However, the Spirit is not just a person disguised as one of these.
In Isaiah’s vision, the angels called “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) The earth is full of His glory because the Holy Spirit is appropriately present at every level of creation, personal and impersonal, physical and spiritual.
In Ephesians 4:6, Paul describes God as “over all and through all and in all.” God the Spirit is not only above the entire created order, but is present in the created order, too.
As an Olympic skater must visualize her entire routine before skating it well, being filled with the Spirit first requires visualizing God’s glory, God’s Spirit filling the earth, filling all, as Isaiah and Paul did.
Make No Mistake!
Dividing the one real world into separate spiritual and material categories is mistaken. Dividing the gospel into a spiritual gospel, divorced from the material response it demands, is mistaken. A gospel that emphasizes going to heaven after death— over the working of the Spirit in response to human neediness, poverty and injustice here and now— is mistaken.
Syria, South Sudan, Philippines, Congo … each is desperately in need of the working of the Spirit through God’s people responding to God’s call. Do you hear it?