I love the story about the young lad who went upstairs to his bedroom to write a letter to God about what he wanted for Christmas. “Dear God,” he wrote, “I’ve been very good over the last twelve months. Please send me a bike.” Then he thought about that and figured it wasn’t quite truthful, so he screwed the letter up and started again. “Dear God, I’ve been very good these last few months. Please send me a bike.” But then he thought, ‘No, I can’t even say that’. So he screwed it up again and paced up and down thinking what to write… he really wanted a bike! Finally, he went downstairs to the sitting room where there was a Christmas tree, and beside it, a model of the nativity scene complete with figures and animals. He picked up the Virgin Mary and went back upstairs to his bedroom, took a fresh piece of paper, sat down again as his desk and wrote: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again…!”

Clearly, here was someone who was desperate for a bicycle and would go to any lengths to get one… but does God need to be persuaded like that, or will God withhold the Holy Spirit from those who want to be filled? No, He will not.

In our last session we looked at ‘What the Holy Spirit Does’ and I stated that every single Christian has or is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.’ Paul says, if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). So every Christian has the Spirit and yet not every Christian is filled with the Spirit. Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus saying, ‘be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). It needs to be said that the Holy Spirit is already present in every believer’s life, but there are levels of indwelling. Some people live at home just a few days a month, others all the time. There are levels of indwelling. And Paul uses the present tense: ‘be filled with the Spirit’ to indicate the infilling of the Holy Spirit is not a once for all experience, but that we are to go on being filled, over and over again. In this session we will look at how we can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So what is the difference between someone who is a Christian and someone who is a Christian and is full of the Holy Spirit? There’s a good illustration that might help us understand. Years ago most gas boilers had a pilot light that was on all the time – some still have pilot lights! But the boiler is not always giving out heat and power. Some Christians have only got the pilot light of the Holy Spirit in their lives, whereas when people are filled with the Holy Spirit it’s like the gas is released and then WHOOSH!, they begin to fire on all cylinders (if you will forgive my mixing metaphors!). When you look at them you can almost see and feel the difference. Citation

The problem with a lot of Christians is not that they don’t have the Spirit; it’s that the Spirit doesn’t have them. The instruction Paul gives to the Christians in Ephesians 5:18 is ‘be filled with the Spirit’. It is a passive command in the present tense, meaning it is a continuous action. You don’t get filled today and expect it to cover you tomorrow, just like you don’t eat Sunday dinner and expect it to carry you over to next Sunday. [Why do we need to be continually filled? Why? Well, because we leak!] Being filled with the Spirit is a dynamic and ongoing experience – it’s what talking to God, reading your Bible, fellowship and prayer is all about. Citation

In the book of Acts, we see five different occasions where people were filled with the Holy Spirit; five categories of people, if you like. Are you one of these five categories?

Longing (Pentecost – Acts 2:2-4)

Before Jesus ascended to heaven he told the disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to stay and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). For the next 10 days they waited, prayed and longed to be baptised with the Spirit. And then on the day of Pentecost it finally happened. We read in Acts 2v2-4: ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’ Do you long to receive the Holy Spirit? Have you been waiting and praying and longing to experience or encounter with God? The second category of person, we find in Acts are those who were…

Receptive (Samaria – Acts 8:14-17)

You recall that Jesus, the twelve disciples and the earliest believers were all Jewish. Christianity in the very beginning was exclusively Jewish. But the people from Samaria who were gentiles, non-Jewish, they too received the gospel and became Christians. We read:

14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. [These Gentiles, at this point, were only pilot light Christians.] 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.’

The believers in Samaria were receptive to receiving the Holy Spirit and they did receive Him. The third category, are those who were…

Hostile (Paul – Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-2)

No sooner had Christianity begun, a great persecution broke out against the fledging church and many of the Jews, especially those in the religious establishment, were hostile towards the followers of Christ, including Saul (whose other name is Paul).

8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison…

‘In the next chapter (Acts 9) we see one of the most remarkable conversions of all time. When Stephen the first Christian martyr was stoned, Saul approved on his death (Acts 8:1) and afterwards began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged men and women off to prison (8v3). At the beginning of chapter 9 we find him still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.’

He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

‘Within the space of a few days, however, Saul was preaching in the synagogue that Jesus is the Son of God (9v20). He caused total astonishment, with people asking, ‘Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name [Jesus]?’ What happened in those few days to change Saul so completely [from A to Z: from Antagonistic Atheist (when it comes to Christ) to a Zealous, Zappy Christian]? First, he had encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. Secondly, he had been filled with the Spirit (Acts 9v17). It sometimes happens that people who are not Christians, or who were even strongly anti-Christian, have a complete turnabout in their lives when they come to Christ and are filled with the Spirit. They can become powerful advocates of the Christian faith.’ Citation That’s something of my own story…

I was hostile in the beginning. For months prior to my becoming a Christian I had fought tooth and nail against making a decision for Christ. I was carrying a lot of baggage – heavily laden – and the truth be told, I was frightened of making a commitment. I knew Jesus was real and I could feel him drawing me to himself, but I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let go. Stubborn Pride! I desperately tried to turn away from Jesus but I couldn’t shake him (thank God). It seemed that almost every where I turned I saw ‘signs’ pointing me towards Christ… churches, crosses, Bibles, other Christians, you name it! I had absolutely no peace at all and in the end I became so miserable that I just wanted to quit, throw in the towel and surrender.

Some time later, I was interested to read that the night C.S. Lewis made a decision for Christ he described himself as ‘perhaps, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’ I felt much the same way! I was hostile and relectant but… when I received the Holy Spirit, boy, did my life change overnight! The fourth category of person we find in Acts are those who were…

4. Uninformed (Ephesus – Acts 19:1-6)

‘At Ephesus, Paul came across a group who believed but had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. They were uniformed. Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:1:6). There are people today, churchgoers some of them, who are in a similar position. They may have ‘believed’ for some time or even all of their lives. They may have been baptised, confirmed and gone to church from time to time or even regularly. And yet they remain uniformed and know nothing or little about the Holy Spirit.’ Citation

Like the story about a Sunday school who had been learning the Apostles Creed and then one morning they came into church to recite it in front of the whole congregation. The teacher motioned to the first child who walked up to the microphone and said in a confident voice: ‘I believe in God the Father.’ The second child continued, ‘I believe in God the Son.’ But then there was a prolonged and awkward silence until eventually a small voice piped up from the back, ‘Please Miss, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.’

Unfortunately, this story about sums up the current situation in many churches today… pilot light Christians who practice religion rather than relationship.

And the fifth category of person we find in the book of Acts, who were filled with the Holy Spirit are those who were…

5. Unlikely (Gentiles – Acts 10:44-47)

In Acts chapter 10, Simon Peter (the disciple) went to speak to a gathering at Cornelius’ house. Cornelius must have heard about Jesus – because he sent for Peter with instructions that Peter should come to his house so that he could hear what Peter had to say. So, Cornelius knew about Jesus… but then, after listening to Peter explain the gospel, Cornelius received the Holy Spirit and came to know Jesus as his own personal Lord and Saviour. Cornelius, by all accounts, was an unlikely candidate to become a Christian and receive the Holy Spirit. Why? What do we know about Cornelius?

Well, he wasn’t Jewish for a start. He was a Roman centurion in charge of a 100 Roman soldiers; whose job it was to maintain law and order. You may recall that Israel was a conquered nation. The Roman forces occupied their land and ruled over the Jewish people with an iron first. It’s fair to say, then, that the Jews did not like their Roman oppressors very much! In fact, they were considered to be unclean Gentiles and the Jewish law did not permit them to even associate or mix with Gentiles.

Earlier, however (in Acts 10v1-2), we are told that Cornelius was a devout and God-fearing man who gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. And a few verses further on (in Acts 10v9-16) we read that Peter had a vision of something like a large sheet being let down to earth full of all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. In the vision God told Peter to kill and eat but Peter declines saying, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” But God insists that Peter not call anything unclean that God has made clean. Referring to the fact that Jesus’ death has opened the way for all to come to God.

So, Peter is summoned to go to Cornelius’ house and speak to those who are gathered about Jesus and what He accomplished for us on the cross. And halfway through Peter’s talk something remarkable happens: (Acts 10:44-47)

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’

I want us to look at this story in a little more detail, and examine three particular aspects of what happened, because their experience can also become our experience: Firstly, then…

1. They Experienced The Love Of God; They Experienced The Power Of The Holy Spirit

‘…the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. Then Peter said… They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have’ (Acts 10:44-47). If you throw a damp piece of wood in the fire it sizzles as the dampness is burnt off and evaporates, and that, if you like, symbolises the purifying of God. The experience is different for everyone… when people receive the Holy Spirit there is often – not always but often – some form of physical manifestation. The Holy Spirit is predictably unpredictable. It’s not one size fits all, and for each person the manifestation can be a different experience. When people are filled with the Holy Spirit…

  • Some people have felt warmth or heat in their hands.
  • Some shake like a leaf in the wind or they quake (it’s how the Quakers got their name.)
  • Others rock to and fro as the ruach of God, the breath or wind of the Spirit ministers to them.
  • Some experience the ‘weightiness’ of God’s love, maybe in their hands or feet. Often people feel the need to sit or lie down and just bathe or drink in the love of God.
  • Some have experienced what they call a glowing feeling all over; a liquid heat or a mild burning sensation in my arms when I wasn’t cold – often it coming in waves.
  • Tears are another regular manifestation, even though people may not feel particularly happy or sad… and sighing or breathing deeply; like breathing in the Spirit.
  • If someone has been profoundly troubled or wounded they can sometimes moan or wail as they receive the Spirit, and He minsters to their pain.
  • Another frequent manifestation is a sort of tingling sensation in shorts bursts, similar to a mild electric current passing through your body.
  • Or an overwhelming sense and assurance of God’s love.
  • And very often the manifestation is the holy presence and peace of God resting on us.

Sometimes critics have suggested that explaining how the Spirit manifests Himself to people is autosuggestion; that people are psychologically conditioned and so that’s why they experience what they do. Well, all we can say about that is… autosuggestion or not, the fact is it happens; people encounter with God the Holy Spirit and the end result is that people’s lives are changed forever and the proof of this can be seen in the fruit of the Spirit.

In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul writes: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ The fruit of the Spirit is the crop or the produce; the result of the Holy Spirit’s presence and working in the lives of maturing believers. People who receive the Holy Spirit (whether they experience manifestations or not) produce the fruit of the Spirit. How can you tell if someone is a Christian? Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognise them.” (Matthew 7:16)

Again, when it comes to receiving the Holy Spirit it’s not one size fits all. For each individual receiving the Holy Spirit it is a different, unique experience. God is not in the business of off the peg. He is in the business of tailor made. And asking the Holy Spirit to fill you doesn’t always bring about a physical or emotional manifestation… some people are not touchy-feely… but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been filled. The most important thing is what happens in your heart.

It’s like failing in love: What matters is not the manifestations of falling in love – I felt flutters in my tummy, tingling down my spine; my heart was pounding, I felt love-sick and off my food – what matters is not the manifestations. It’s falling in love that matters!

In asking to receive the Holy Spirit, people don’t always feel different straightaway; they don’t always begin to change immediately… BUT it does happen. Paul prayed for the Christians in Ephesus; that they would be filled with the Holy Spirit and that they would know the full measure of God’s love for them. God’s desire is for the believer to overflow with Himself; that we might… ‘Be filled with all the fullness of God.’ A glass is only full when it overflows. Fullness can only be measured by overflow. God wants us to be filled, and to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can overflow the love of God to others. That’s why we need to keep coming back to be refreshed and replenished, so we overflow.

So the people at Cornelius’ house experienced the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, Secondly…

2. They Expressed Their Love For God; They Were Released in Praise

(Acts 10v46) ‘For they heard them… praising God.’

Picture a £20 note that has been crumpled and torn. Whatever state it is in, it is still worth £20. In God’s eyes, you are worth a whole lot more than £20 – to him you are priceless. Regardless of your behaviour in the past, present or future, your value can never change in God’s eyes. He is love, and he created you in and for and through his love. Citation These believers recognised that; they received the Spirit and praised God.

In Psalm 103 (v1) the psalmist opens with these words: ‘Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.’ To “praise the LORD, my soul,” means to delight God’s heart by expressing love and gratitude for all He is and all He does. True praise comes from a grateful heart that sincerely wants to glorify and please The Lord.

Christianity is about relationship and our relationship with God involves worship, which absolutely should include the whole of our personality, mind, heart, will and emotions. So the people at Cornelius’ house praised God; they expressed their love for Him. Thirdly…

3. They Received A New Language; A Love Language

(Acts 10:46): For they heard them speaking in tongues…

We saw earlier (Session 8: Who is the Holy Spirt?) that at Pentecost: ‘All the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:4). ‘The word for ‘tongues’ is the same word as that for ‘languages’ and it means the ability to speak in a language you have never learned. It may be a recognisable human language, such as happened at Pentecost where different nationalities within the crowds recognised their own languages being spoken, or it may be an angelic language, which presumable is not recognisable.’ Citation Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13v1: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels…’ It appears there are two types of tongue or language: the tongues of men, which are recognisable, and the tongues of angels which are not – or at least, not without the spiritual gift of interpretation.

The gift of tongues, that is speaking or praying in tongues, is one of the gifts of Spirit. It is not the only gift, nor is it the most important gift. Not all Christians speak in tongues, nor is it necessarily a sign of being filled with the Spirit. It is possible to be filled with the Spirit and not speak in tongues. I received the Holy Spirit in 1993 when I became a Christian but it wasn’t until 2008, fifteen years later, did I receive the gift of tongues. Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, said he spoke in tongues more than all of them. ‘But in the church [he said] I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (1Corinthians 14v18-19). So where did Paul practice speaking in tongues? In private.

‘Speaking in tongues is a form of prayer (one of the many different forms of prayer found in the New Testament). According to Paul, ‘for those who speak in a tongue do not speak to people but to God’ (1Corinthians 14:2). It is a form of prayer that builds up the individual Christian (v4). Obviously, the gifts which directly edify the church are even more important. The benefit of tongues is that it is a form of prayer which transcends the limitation of human language. This seems to be what Paul means when he says: ‘For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful (1Corinthians 14:14). When he says ‘my mind is unfruitful’, he does not mean ‘mindless’; it is unfruitful because it is not going through the process of translation into intelligible language.’ Citation The spirit prays in tongues and the mind doesn’t need to think about it.

I had been a Christian for fifteen years before I received the gift of tongues. Paul says (in 1 Corinthians 14v1) that we are to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, but for the first fifteen years of being a Christian, I didn’t eagerly desire or even ask for the gift of tongues; I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what a blessing and how useful it is as a form of prayer… I had to persevere and keep practicing. Like a child learning to talk, language takes time to develop. A child starts with one or two words and gradually the vocabulary increases. Tongues is like that: It takes time to develop the gift – like praying aloud; people usually start praying short prayers and their praying develops with confidence.

Would you like to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Would you like to turn with me to Luke 11:9-13. Jesus said:

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

There are three barriers to people receiving the Holy Spirit; three common hindrances: The first is Doubt:

There are many doubts people have in this whole area [of being filled with the Spirit], the principal one being: ‘If I ask will I receive?’ Jesus simply says: ‘I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you.’ Jesus must have seen that they were a little sceptical because he repeats it in a different way: ‘Seek and you will find.’ And again he says a third time: ‘Knock and the door will be opened to you.’ He knows human nature and so he goes on a fourth time: ‘For everyone who asks receives.’ They are not convinced so he says a fifth time: ‘He who seeks finds.’ Again a sixth time: ‘To him who knocks, the door will be opened.’ Why does Jesus say it six times? Because He knows what we are like. We find it difficult to believe God would give us anything – let alone something as unusual and wonderful as his Holy Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit. Citation

The second hindrance is Fear: Do I want to receive? Will something terrible happen to me. Jesus said:

‘You parents know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

And the third barrier is Inadequacy: people feeling, I am not worthy enough? It’s not about being worthy or holy enough – we’ll never be that – it’s about asking… ‘your Father in heaven… gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So shall we ask Him?

‘If there were a thousand steps between us and God, He will take all but one. God will leave the final step to us. The choice is ours.’ God is a gentleman; He won’t force his Spirit on us. He wants us to ask and willingly invite Him into our hearts. So let me ask you: Are you willing to do that?

(Conclude with prayer of commitment and then pray for people who want to receive the Holy Spirit.)