The Holy Spirit is active during the Old Testament. At creation, we find that the Spirit of God is hovering above the waters. During the exodus from Egypt, the time of the first kings, and most notably during the ministry of the prophets, the Holy Spirit is active. But despite the wide ministry of the Holy Spirit during all of this period, what the Old Testament believers saw was just a small deposit of what was to come.
For example, in Numbers 11:17 we read that “God will take of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put the spirit on them.” (The “them” are Israel’s elders.) God did exactly what he promised, and “when the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again.” (11:25) The narrator goes on to tell us that two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not with the others. “Yet the spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp.” Moses, brushing aside Joshua’s concerns, exclaimed, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (11:29)
This vignette from the Pentateuch illustrates perfectly the nature of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Old Testament. 1) The event is exceptional: the Holy Spirit came on little more than a few hundred men in the thousands of years than encompass the Old Testament. 2) The event is transitory: the Holy Spirit came, then went.
And yet there was a hope (you might say a prophecy), that one day all of the Lord’s people would be prophets and the Lord would put His Spirit on them.
Here today, gone tomorrow
The historical books continue these themes. We read of the Spirit of the Lord coming up on selected leaders of God’s people, such as Othniel (Judges 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and others. Each time the spirit came, it came on just one man who immediately went on to complete a mighty act requiring power or wisdom, or to speak a prophetic word. Occasionally the spirit would come on the same individual on more than one occasion. Samson had such an experience on at least three occasions (Judges 14:6, 14:19, 15:14), as did Saul (1 Samuel 10:10, 11:6, 19:23).
In the Psalms, the Holy Spirit is just fleetingly described. But we learn that the Spirit is synonymous with the presence of God (51:11, 139:7), and His work involves re-creation (104:30) and guidance (143:10).
It’s not until we get to the major prophets that we start to discover more. Isaiah speaks of the Spirit resting on Messiah (11:2). God confirms “I will put my Spirit on him” (42:1, cf. 61:1), and later “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth…” (59:21). The Spirit also linked to the end of judgement and the beginning of blessing, as Isaiah prophesies of judgement which will continue “till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” (32:15, cf. 44:3). All this is a far cry from what’s gone before. Just look at the terrifically powerful verbs Isaiah uses. The Spirit who came and went from a handful of Israel’s leaders will rest on Messiah, and be poured out on God’s people.
Ezekiel tells us that under the new covenant God’s people will have a new spirit (11:19, 36:26). We soon find out this is actually God’s Spirit (36:27) who will bring holiness, and even life itself (37:14). Again God promises that “I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel” (39:29).
This cry is taken up by Joel (2:28-9) who adds more detail. This pouring out will produce prophecy, and will impact young and old, and even both male and female. Again, this is a long way from what has been experienced until then – tiny drops of the Spirit’s blessing impacting men (no women are explicitly said to have experienced the Spirit in the Old Testament), and only elders and leaders.
Clearly, God is going to do something big. But not yet. We must not rush into the New Testament without reminding ourselves that there is a four hundred year gap between Malachi and Matthew. Four hundred years characterised by one thing above all others: the complete absence of the Spirit. In the words of the Jewish Midrash “With the death of the last prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the holy spirit departed from Israel”.
When the Holy Spirit returned after 400 years of silence, He did not come quietly. He bursts onto the scene. The Spirit overshadows Mary so she conceives a child (Luke 1:35). John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), his mother (1:41) and father (1:67) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and both parents prophesied as a result. The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon in the temple (2:25). When John began his ministry, he did so speaking of the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit (3:16), and testifying of the one on whom the Spirit descended (John 1:32f).
The Holy Spirit’s activity in the early chapters of the gospels was remarkable. For the first time the Holy Spirit was described as having filled a person. For the first time we are told explicitly that He visited women. But it was after all only two women, and only half a dozen people in all – and all of them Jews. Remarkable and unexpected as it was, this was not a pouring out on all people. The promises in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel were not yet fulfilled.
But that does not mean the Spirit stopped working – His work can be clearly seen in the life of Christ. When Jesus began his ministry, He did so full of the Spirit (Luke 4:1, 4:14. 10:21), given ‘without limit’ (John 3:34). Jesus cites Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me’ (Luke 4:18). He explained that all must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8), who gives life (6:63). He claimed to drive out demons by the Spirit of God (Matt. 12:28).
Yet the experience of Jesus’ disciples was somewhat different. Under the guidance and presence of Christ the disciples grow into a band of useful, confident servants. But there were many times when the disciples’ usefulness and confidence left them. When Christ was asleep, they thought they would drown (Matt. 8:23-27). In His absence they feared ghosts (14:25-6), lacked the strength to pray (26:40, 43), and even denied Him (26:69-74). Without Christ, they could not understand even the simplest parable (15:15-16, 16:12), nor believe in His resurrection (Luke 24:11, John 20:29).
In other words, Scripture shows us that rather than being consciously dependent on the Spirit of God, the disciples relied on Christ Himself. They could not imagine life without Him (John 6:68), and when they were apart from Him, things quickly fell to pieces. Given that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, that was hardly surprising.
It’s better if Jesus goes
More surprising is that Jesus tells them that they would be better off without Him: ‘It is for your good that I am going away’ (John 16:6). It is a remarkable thought for a group of men who have spent the best part of three years living with God Himself. What can be better than the physical presence of Jesus Christ? Jesus answers that question clearly and unequivocally. It is better for us to have the Spirit with us than to have Christ present: ‘Unless I go away the Counsellor will not come to you’.
But isn’t Christ pre-eminent? Are the Scriptures teaching that the Holy Spirit is more important, more valuable than Christ Himself? Certainly not. Scripture makes it clear to us that when the Spirit is present Christ is present. That is why Jesus can say, ‘Surely I am with you always’ at just the point when He leaves our planet (Matthew 28:20), and why He can promise His disciples that, ‘I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.’ (John 14:18). It is why Paul and Peter can speak of the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:19, 1 Peter 1:11).
The presence of the Spirit is better than the physical presence of Christ because it is only by the Spirit that Christ can promise ‘I am with you always’. During His time on earth, when Christ was with His disciples in Jerusalem, that meant He wasn’t with Lazarus in Bethany, nor with John in prison.
That is no longer true. We are experiencing the totality of the promises and blessings of the Holy Spirit. Whilst we wait for Christ’s personal return and long for His appearing, we lack nothing of the Spirit’s presence in our day.
How can I be so sure? Simply because the Scriptures are.
Peter took the clearest and boldest Old Testament promise (Joel 2:28f) and declared confidently that it was fulfilled at Pentecost. And he was right! In those few hours it is likely that the Spirit came to more people than had experienced Him in the whole of human history until that point. Men and women, young and old, to them the Spirit came just as Joel had predicted. The pattern is repeated throughout Acts and into the present day. Every time we see a man or woman converted we are seeing the Spirit being poured out.
In contrast to Old Testament days, since Pentecost we know of no-one on whom the Spirit came again. Why? Because to come back, the Spirit would have to go, and He does not. He comes at conversion and He dwells in the believer.
In the Old Testament the vast majority of references to the Spirit were in the past tense – what the Spirit once did, or the future tense – what He will do. But there is not a single promise of the future work of the Spirit anywhere in the New Testament. There are a few references back to the initial work of the Spirit in a believer, but otherwise all the verbs are present continuous – the Spirit will continue to do what He is doing, He will not do anything new because we have received what was promised.
Does this mean that there is nothing to strive for in this life? Far from it. We have received the Spirit that has set us free from law and death. Because Christ has won salvation, and because the Spirit has been given, we cannot fail to be confident in our God and energetic in our evangelism. We must pray that the Spirit who is being poured out would fill each of us that we might declare Christ boldly.
What a glorious privilege to be a New Testament believer! Thank God that He is pouring out His Spirit!