Q&A: The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
1. How is the old covenant different from the new covenant?
The Old Covenant is different from the New Covenant in that Jesus is the hinge – he is the substance of which the Old Testament is the shadow. By that I mean that everything in the Old Testament points to Jesus and tells us about him. From Genesis 3:15 on we see that Christ is present and echoes throughout the Old Testament. We also see that the Law given to Israel in Exodus points to Christ (priests, sacrifices, a temple, etc. – Hebrews talks about this, especially chapters 3-10), and that he is their fulfillment – see Galatians, Hebrews, etc. We also see in Romans 3:21-26 that under the Old Covenant God’s grace is seen in forbearance of sins – that is, he put off judging them until Christ so that they would be holy and in heaven, and also so that their sins would be punished in Christ on the cross. The New Covenant is realized in Christ – there is no forbearance… Our sins are already atoned for. There are many differences, but just like the Bible they all point back to Jesus in some way shape or form.
2. In the old covenant, did people receive the Holy Spirit?
> If people did receive the Spirit, then how is that different from how we receive the Spirit now?
> If people did not receive the Spirit, as Ezekiel 36:26-27 seems to hint, then how did they have faith to believe in God? How were they able to follow God apart from his Spirit?
They did receive the HS temporarily, but not in a lasting way. We see the Spirit of God on his prophets, David, some of the judges (Samson), and Moses – but the Spirit doesn’t stay with them. In the New Testament we see that the Spirit of God is sent by Christ (see John 14-16) and is our helper, our teacher, the one who rebukes, convicts, encourages, intercedes for, and leads us. While both Old Testament believers and New Testament believers were regenerate believers in Christ (the work of the Spirit), I believe that the Spirit was sent to dwell in humanity after Christ sent him following his death and resurrection. So in the OT we see the Spirit at work around and through humans, in the NT we see the Spirit at work in us as well. I believe that regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit are not necessarily one and the same. This doesn’t mean that I believe in a second baptism, etc. But what it does mean is that I believe that in the Old Testament before the Holy Spirit is sent by Christ to dwell in God’s people, the Spirit regenerated believers and helped them, but not from within – not from dwelling in believers. I don’t know that I’d die on that hill, but that’s the best answer I’ve got for right now.
I guess I don’t understand how the people in the OT were able to follow God if they didn’t have the Holy Spirit inside them. Do you mean that for certain tasks God filled them with the Holy Spirit, but not for daily life? For example, God gave his Spirit to those who were building the temple for that specific task. But, after they had built the temple he took his Spirit away?
Did God give his Spirit only to some special people, like prophets, for certain tasks, but then took his Spirit away?
I guess, I don’t really understand what you mean by, the Spirit “helped them, but not from within”, what do you mean?
If God regenerated them, but then didn’t permanently give them the Holy Spirit, how could they follow him in daily life?
If they were regenerated they would want to follow God, but without his Spirit wouldn’t they be powerless to actually follow him?
That’s a great set of questions. Remember that we Christians walk by faith and that’s how we please God. Now at regeneration God gives us the faith to follow him, so that’s how we walk with him. The Spirit is definitely at work and present in NT Christians’ lives, but people in the OT still followed God and not necessarily by the Spirit (think Abraham with Isaac and the almost sacrifice). So in the OT we can see that God gives the Spirit for brief periods for certain tasks (prophets, etc.), but it’s not in a lasting way as though the Spirit was indwelling them like we see in the NT. What I mean by the Spirit helping but not from within is that the Spirit came upon them and gave them the supernatural power to do something great for the glory of God, but it was not from a permanent indwelling – it was a temporary help or enablement.
3. When the Bible talks about doing something in the flesh versus doing something in the spirit, what does that look like practically speaking? For example, what would it look like to repent of sin or to read the Bible in the spirit versus in the flesh?
> What is the difference between doing something in your own strength versus in God’s strength?
We walk in the spirit, but we are tempted in our flesh; we make decisions based on our will which is a mixing of the two… We are led by the spirit, but we are also tempted in our motives. I think it all boils down to motive – are we obeying for God’s glory or because of a sinful tendency? Are we reading the Bible so we can look awesome at home group or on our blog, or are we doing it so that we can know him more deeply and commune with our God on another level? Are you repenting for others to see or are you repenting to be nearer to God and put away your sin? I believe that it all boils down to motive – whatever is good in us is the Spirit at work in us, but we can definitely screw that up by letting our flesh take over and give in to temptation.
Can I have good motives, like wanting to be closer to God, but still be doing that in my flesh?
Absolutely – think legalism here. In a legalistic mindset we have a great desire to please God and to obey, but it if all we do is ‘white-knuckle’ it and redouble our efforts without prayer, dependence on the Spirit, or even acknowledging God’s role in bringing himself glory through us, we’re going about it in all the wrong ways. So we say ‘I will be sinless in X way so that I can bring glory to God’ and then we completely ignore the Spirit working in us and we deny the cross by trying to circumvent it – we essentially say ‘the cross is not enough – I must do more to please God.’ Do you see the good motive (wanting to please God) and the sinfulness of trying to do so in the flesh, rather than relying on God to lead and leaning wholly on the cross?