February 9, 2017

Were OT believers indwelt with the Spirit?

by Jesse Johnson

Were believers under the Old Covenant permanently indwelt with the Holy Spirit? Was Spirit baptism an Old Testament reality?

Image result for Israel's temple

No. While the Holy Spirit regenerated sinners in the Old Testament, the indwelling of the Spirit in the hearts/lives of believers began at Pentecost. I am a dispensationalist, and I see the church as beginning in Acts 2. I am a progressive, leaky, modified dispensationalist, but even in my compromised form, I cannot imagine any understanding of the uniqueness of the church that simultaneously rejects the uniqueness of Spirit baptism and indwelling.

In the Old Testament, God dwelt corporately with his people in his temple. This changed under King Manasseh’s reign, when the glory of the Lord left the temple. In the New Testament the glory of the Lord returns, but not to a temple made by human hands. Rather, he returns to the a new temple consisting of every believer. This is a radical change from the Old Covenant, as no longer is the glory of the Lord in manifest form confined to a nation, but under the New Covenant there is one body (both Jew and Gentile), and one baptism, and one Spirit.

Obviously the Holy Spirit is necessary for sanctification. But sanctification in the Old Testament was radically different than it is in the church. The basic problem with the Old Covenant was that the people did not have the law on their hearts, thus they not only needed others to teach them, but they consistently broke the Old Covenant. In fact, this is the main point of Hebrews 8:6-12:

But Jesus…is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been legally enacted on better promises. ..For if that first covenant had been faultless, no opportunity would have been sought for a second one. But finding fault with His people, He says: “…I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And each person will not teach his fellow citizen,and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them.

The Old Covenant simply did not entail the writing of the Law on the heart and the mind that is evident in the New Covenant. John says that this is exactly what the Holy Spirit corrects in the New Covenant: “The anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him” (1 John 2:27). This anointing is the filling and indwelling of the Spirit under the New Covenant, and is the correction to the deficiency of the Old Covenant.

At this point, my argument has already become more convoluted than necessary. The main reason that I believe the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a New Covenant ministry is because there is not a single verse that teaches it as an Old Testament reality. In fact, every biblical description of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Bible is either in the New Testament, or—if it is in the OT—laden with future hope over present experience. Obviously the Holy Spirit came upon people to empower them for service, and equally obvious is that this temporal empowering often left people and had nothing to do with personal salvation.

There was conversion in the OT, and this conversion is of course caused by regeneration; after all, total depravity and the necessity of regeneration for repentance and conversion are both clearly taught in the OT. I also grant that the Holy Spirit came upon many of the prophets, metal workers, and the occasional King and donkey–these were supernatural and unique exceptions. But the idea of the Spirit indwelling the least and the greatest in the Covenant is purely a post-Pentecost concept.

The reality of the Holy Spirit indwelling every believer’s heart is new to the church, and would have sounded strange to an OT saint. If you would have asked one of the Levites under Solomon’s reign where the Spirit of the Lord dwelt, he would have pointed at the temple. If you would have asked a priest that same question after Manasseh (if you could have found a priest without a Baal statue on his dashboard), he would have looked around timidly and shrugged, as if he did not understand the question. If you would have asked the sons of the prophets that question before Elijah went up in a whirlwind, they would not have pointed at their hearts, but at Elijah. In fact, Elisha did ask the question (2 Kings 2:14), and he answered it by parting the Jordan, not by singing the song, “Down in my heart, down in my heart…”

Moreover, Ephesians 1-3 is distinctly New Covenant. If you take Acts 1 and John 20 seriously when it says the disciples did not yet have the Spirit, you cannot possibly say they were simultaneously bereft of the Spirit and indwelt by the Spirit. In Acts 1, Jesus told them to wait for power before they went off witnessing. They were not missing the languages, they were missing the presence of the Paraclete, because as of yet, Jesus was still with them, and the Spirit could not come until he was taken away. This does not speak to some dispensational time warp, as if they could not have Spirit between Luke 2 and Acts 1, but it speaks of something new in the economy of God: namely, that the Spirit will seal believers, and cause them have the law of God written on their hearts, rather than on those boxes tied to their foreheads.

The chief weakness of the Old Covenant is the lack of the Spirit indwelling every member of the covenant. The chief reason the disciples had to wait to act on the great commission was to wait to be Spirit-filled. The chief reason the Apostles were witnesses of the dramatic signs and wonders in the Samaritans, John’s disciples, and Gentiles was so that they would realize that in the New Covenant, every member (regardless of ethnicity) is filled with the same Spirit. This is the glory of the New Covenant.

This post originally ran in November, 2012.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Lyndon Unger

    Good post. Good point. Good thoughts. I’m curious though Jesse, what are your thoughts on the differences between regeneration in the OT vs. the NT with regards to the indwelling of the Spirit? I’m just thinking aloud about a question that’s been on my theological back burner for around 5 years but I haven’t actually tackled.

    Where I’m going is thinking about things like the seal of the Spirit that we have in the NT (i.e. Eph. 1:13, 4:30). If that wasn’t the case back then, how did they have any assurance of their inheritance (Eph. 1:14) without the seal of the Spirit? Also, I’m thinking of the idea of assurance. Without the indwelling Spirit, their regeneration was secure…but I’m not entirely sure how that worked.

    This honestly isn’t a loaded question. Just something that I haven’t worked through to the extent that I’m satisfied.

    • Jesus’ response to Nicodemus (“You’re the teacher of Israel, and you don’t know these things?!?!”) indicates that regeneration in John 3 terms was also an old covenant reality. But Jesus’ pointing forward to the coming of the Spirit (John 20:22) indicates that the indwelling was future. So I think the best place to flesh out those distinctions is in that contrast.

      • Jane Hildebrand

        Or, was Jesus referring to the fact that Nicodemus, as a teacher of the law, should have known the prophecies of the new covenant to come whereby God promised to give them a new heart, put His laws in their minds and put a new spirit in them through which they would then know Him. (Ezek. 36:25-27, Jer. 31:31-34). A future regeneration?

        I say that only because it reminds me of when Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for knowing how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but couldn’t interpret His coming.

        Just a thought.

    • Jason

      Even if believers were not sealed, there is sufficient evidence that God will save those he chooses, though not that we are among them (much less remain there). Before Jesus, however, it seems like it was common to just assume that inclusion.

      In fact, many in that time thought that their natural lineage was sufficient to prove that they were chosen by God(John 1:12-13). An assumption that Jesus also challenged (John 8:31+). Paul was still dealing with this misconception years later as well (Romans 9:6-13).

      During most of the Old Testament, I wonder if it would have been as unnatural to question your inclusion as it would be for me to question my citizenship in the USA (as a natural born citizen).

  • Ted Bigelow

    Here’s a work I profited from that George Zemek put in our hands back in the day – Davis, John J., Regeneration in the Old Testament. unpublished ThM thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1964.

    He does come to different conclusions, making the Spirit’s indwelling distinctions under the covenants to be, individual (under the Mosaic) and corporate (under the New).

  • Ray Adams

    Thank you, Jesse. The differences between the First Covenant and the New are fascinating. That God intended differences to exist for His purposes is significant. Also noteworthy is that the obsolete First fades as the New obtains clarity (Heb 8:13). Thank you for contributing this good explanation on Spirit indwelling.

  • Paul Abeyta

    I don’t remember this post from 2012. Thanks for resharing it. I was wondering three things-
    1.would you say that those OT saints belonged to Christ – if they weren’t indwelt permanently by the Spirit?
    Romans 8:9-11

    [9] You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. [10] But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. [11] If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

    2. Does our hermeneutic mandate that we interpret the OT through the NT? If so – then shouldn’t we think that OT saints were indwelt?

    3. If OT saints were regenerated – but not indwelt, could they fall away?

  • I think it actually says in the bible that the old covenant religion only gave a temporary contact with the holy spirit at the time of the ceremonies.

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