doveOne mistake many evangelicals make is to overstate the discontinuity, the change that takes place in the transition from Old Testament to New Testament.  This is most evident when it comes to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. 

How did the Holy Spirit function in the lives of believers in the Old Testament? Is the difference between a New Testament believer and an Old Testament believer a matter of one having the Spirit and the other not?
And it is easy to see how misconceptions can arise.  Certain texts, read in isolation, can make it sound as if the Holy Spirit didn’t even exist in the Old Testament.

When Paul came to Ephesus, he found believers there, upon whom the Holy Spirit had not yet come.  But it is the wording of the text that can seem problematic:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:1–2 ESV)

While such language could quite simply be a product of their biblical ignorance, we find a more troublesome statement in John 7:39.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39 ESV)

The ESV partially obscures the difficulty.  Woodenly translated, the last part of v. 39 reads, “for the Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  And yet, we know that the Holy Spirit certainly was in existence from (before) the beginning.  We see him already active in the creation of the world.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Gen 1:1–2 ESV)

So, whatever John 7:39 and Acts 19:2 mean, they certainly cannot mean that the Spirit was not yet in existence until Jesus was glorified.  The doctrine of the Trinity on this point is secure:  The Holy Spirit is God, and therefore must be eternal:

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:3–4 ESV)

He is, in fact, like the Father and Son, called the creator.

The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4 ESV)

By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent. (Job 26:13 ESV)

He is omnipresent.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (Psa 139:7–10 ESV)

We could, likewise, demonstrate his omniscience, eternality, personality, etc. but this has been done many times, and need not delay us from our main concern, viz., the change that takes place vis-a-vis the Spirit in the New Testament.  That is, How did the Holy Spirit function in the lives of believers in the Old Testament?  Is the difference between a New Testament believer and an Old Testament believer a matter of one having the Spirit and the other not?  Not exactly.

We will return to John 7:39 in a moment.  But let’s first look at the promises of the new covenant as we find them in the Old Testament.

31   “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31–33 ESV)

39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.  42 “For thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them. (Jer 32:39–42 ESV)

19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezek 11:19–20 ESV)

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek 36:24–27 ESV)

The same reality is spoken of in various ways:

  • God will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.
  • That is, God will put a new spirit within them.
  • That is, God will put the fear of Him in their hearts.
  • That is, he will write the law upon their hearts.

And as a result,

  • they will have “one heart and one way”.
  • That is, they will not turn from God.
  • That is, they will walk in His statues and keep His rules and obey them.

God will also cleanse them from their uncleanness and idolatry, and He will be their God and they His people.  These are the promises of the new covenant.  In Deuteronomy, they are expressed this way:

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut 30:6 ESV)

And Paul picks that image up in Romans 2:28ff.

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2:28–29 ESV)

But if these are the promises of the new covenant, specifically as they are expressed by Moses in Deuteronomy, and by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, then what should we make of  Deut 10.16; Jer 4.4 and Ezek 18.31?  In Deuteronomy 10:16, the Old Testament community is urged to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”  Similarly, Jeremiah, who very clearly distinguishes the new covenant blessings as being “not like” the covenant made at Sinai, urges the old covenant community to “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jer 4:4 ESV)  And what about Ezekiel?  He even explicitly brings in the Spirit.  “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 18:31 ESV)

How can they make such anachronistic appeals?  Obviously, these blessings of the new covenant were, in fact, experienced by some in the old covenant community.  Some of them, in fact, do know righteousness, and have the law in their hearts:

“Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. (Is 51:7 ESV)

Some of them are, in fact, cleansed of their unrighteousness.  The Psalmist certainly understood this:

Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (Psa 25:7 ESV)

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (Psa 32:1 ESV)

as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psa 103:12 ESV)

So it is no wonder that Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for his ignorance.  Clearly he expected Nicodemus, and Old Testament teacher, to understand the doctrine of regeneration as applying to his own, Old Testament community.  When Jesus tells him that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV), Nicodemus expresses his confusion, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).  And Jesus rebukes him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (John 3:9–10 ESV)  And since these things are the work of the Holy Spirit,

… he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5 ESV)

since this cannot be done apart from the Holy Spirit,

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:7 ESV)

14   The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. (1 Cor 2:14–15 ESV)

it follows that Old Testament saints, if there were such, were regenerated by the Holy Spirit, too.  So, were there Old Testament saints?  Of course.

We saw the David’s words in Psalm 32.  Paul picks them up in Romans 4

6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:6–8 ESV)

And this comes on the heels of Paul talking about Abraham, the father of our faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3 ESV)

The key thing to understand, as we wrestle with the question of the Spirit’s role in the Old Testament, is that salvation has always been by faith.  That is precisely Paul’s point.  And it is what the author of Hebrews is after as well.  After cataloging quite a few Old Testament saints, he says,

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Heb 11:13 ESV)

If saving faith is a product of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which it certainly is, then Old Testament saints were likewise regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  In fact, they could not have understood the saving promises of God apart from the Spirit:

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Cor 2:12–13 ESV)

and they certainly could not have truly loved one another, which is a fruit of our redemption:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7 ESV)

Since regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit, and faith is a product of regeneration, and since some in the Old Testament had faith, we know that these Old Testament saints were regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

So, what do we do with John 7:39?

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39 ESV)

Since regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit, and faith is a product of regeneration, and since some in the Old Testament had faith, we know that these Old Testament saints were regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, we should remember that, according to Hebrews 11, the Old Testament saints “saw and greeted from afar” the promise.  What changes at the New Testament is not that faith is introduced.  And the messiah does not drop into history out of nowhere.  As Jesus pointed out in Luke 24:44ff, the entire Bible is about him.  The whole Old Testament is about the suffering, resurrection, and gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ.  Of course, prior to their fulfillment in the New Testament such promises in the Old Testament were shadowy, lacking full definition.  Nevertheless, the promise that, somehow, God would be just and the justifier of the ungodly was there.  And Old Testament saints took hold of that promise by faith.  And that was the work of the Holy Spirit.  So, whatever the difference between the believer’s experience of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament and the believer’s experience of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, it is not found in the role that the Holy Spirit plays in regeneration or illumination.  Likewise, the Holy Spirit has always restrained the sinfulness of fallen men (cf. Gen 6:3 and 2 Th 2:3-8).

While we will need to take care not to confuse our Christology, or corrupt the doctrine of the Trinity, we ought to consider how Jesus identifies himself with the Spirit here. Consider Jesus’ words in the upper room:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17 ESV)

How should we understand the difference noted at the end, that, prior to Pentecost, the Spirit dwelled “with” the disciples, but that when Pentecost comes, he will be “in” them?  Take note of the next verse:  “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18 ESV)  When the Spirit is poured out, Jesus comes to them.  The Spirit is presently with them in the person of Jesus.  But when the Spirit is poured out, it will be in them.  But notice that when that happens, Jesus will come to them.  For the Spirit to come is for the Christ to come: the non-bodily presence of Jesus.

In Acts 2.33, when the Spirit is poured out, we are told that, having been exalted, Jesus received the Spirit and poured it out.  Obviously, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit. And the Spirit comes upon in in some heightened sense at his baptism in the Jordan. But when he is exalted, he comes to some permanent and climactic possession of the Spirit, so that he may said to be in control of the Spirit, and give It out.  As Dr. Gaffin put it in one my classes at Westminster Theological Seminary,

He has been eschatologically transformed by the Spirit so that it can be said of Christ — specifically the resurrected and exalted Christ — that “Christ has become the life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), and that “the Lord Christ is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17) … dating from the resurrection, the incarnate Christ and the Spirit are equated in their activity.  They are to be seen as one in their redemptive function.  More particularly, they are to be identified in the eschatological work, the work which of giving life.  “Life-giving Spirit”.  (Gaffin, Richard B. “NT223: Acts and Paul.” Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside. March 3, 1997. Lecture.)

Paul is concerned here with a transition from this aeon, characterized by sin and misery, and the age to come.  That historical transition is in focus, not essential, eternal, intertrinitarian issues.  So the Spirit and Christ are identified in terms of their activity, not their being.  So what can it mean that the resurrected Christ became the Holy Spirit? Gaffin expands upon it in another lecture:

There are two aspects to this. On the one hand, the resurrection brings for Christ an unprecedented possession of the Spirit. This goes beyond any previous possession. At the same time for Christ Himself, the resurrection involves an unprecedented transformation of the Incarnate Christ by the Spirit. Unprecedented possession by Christ of the Spirit; unprecedented transformation of Christ by the Spirit. As a result, Christ and the Spirit are One. But they are One in a specific respect. It is in the specific activity of giving life. (Gaffin, Richard B. “NT223: Acts and Paul.” Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside. April 28, 1997. Lecture.)

There are great challenges in John’s writing about the Spirit.  My intention here is not to give an exhaustive account of the Holy Spirit, nor even of the shift that occurs at the New Testament.  As stated at the beginning, my hope is only to temper the tendency many evangelicals have to radically divorce the New Testament from the Old in terms of the ministry of the Spirit, and perhaps shed a little light on one difficult text.

The best way to understand John 7:39 is not in terms of the individual application of Christ’s benefits to believers. The Spirit has been doing that for as long as men have been forgiven. Rather, we ought to clearly distinguish between the accomplishment of redemption in history, when Christ was born, lived, died, was buried, was raised, ascended, seated and poured out His Spirit … The accomplishment of redemption must be clearly distinguished from the application of redemption.
The best way to understand John 7:39 is not in terms of the individual application of Christ’s benefits to believers.  The Spirit has been doing that for as long as men have been forgiven.  Rather, we ought to clearly distinguish between the accomplishment of redemption in history, when Christ was born, lived, died, was buried, was raised, ascended, seated and poured out His Spirit … The accomplishment of redemption must be clearly distinguished from the application of redemption.  The application of redemption spans both testaments, is individual, and happens over and over as more believers are regenerated.  But the accomplishment happens once for all, in history.  When John 7:39 speaks of the Spirit ‘becoming’, it should be understood in the same way that Jesus ‘becoming a life-giving Spirit’ (1 Co 15:45) is understood.  Inasmuch as Christ had not yet become the Spirit (2 Co 3:17), the Spirit — in that sense — was not yet.  In terms of the accomplishment of redemption, the events had not yet transpired.  In terms of the application of redemption, Old Testament saints had been receiving the Holy Spirit prospectively from the beginning.

There is discontinuity.  And that discontinuity does, in a sense, center on the Spirit being poured out.  But we should guard against overstating the case.  Believers have always been saved by grace through faith.  And that has always been through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.  A better approach to grasping the difference, however, lies not in the application of redemption, but in the accomplishment of redemption.

– Clark Brooking