The Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant

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Hovering Over Waters (AI generated image)

This is Part 10 in a series about the timing and precedent of receiving the Holy Spirit.

And now, in Part 10, I examine the role and function of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant.  

What is the Holy Spirit’s main function in the Old Covenant? Does he empower people like he does in the New Covenant? Does he dwell in them, as in an indwelling? Or does he just give spiritual power for moments at a time as necessary from a position exterior to the human?

The Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant does everything he does in the New Covenant, except for what is only applicable to the New Covenant, about which the Old Covenant prophesies. In this regard, his Old Covenant ministry is a kind of foreshadowing of his New Covenant ministry. What this means is that the kinds of things he does in the Old Covenant continue into the New, and even more so.

It is important to consider that just as everything the Spirit does in the Old Covenant serves as a foundation and expectation for what he does in the New, everything he does in the Old is founded on his nature as God. The Spirit is an agent in creation, because he is God (Genesis 1:2). The Spirit supernaturally empowers people to help fulfill the will of God, because he is God. He is the Spirit of prophecy by whom the prophets speak, thus revealing the will of God, because he is God. The Spirit represents the supernatural, divine presence of God who works directly with and among Old Covenant saints.

Old Covenant Role and Function

Here is a summary of the Spirit’s activity in the Old Covenant:

  • Agent of creation (Genesis 1:2; Job 33:4)
  • Accomplishes the greater purposes of God (Zechariah 4:6; Isaiah 34:16)
  • Empowers non-supernatural abilities (Exodus 31:1-5; Exodus 35:30-35)
  • Empowers prophecy (Numbers 11:28-29; Numbers 24:1-9; 1 Samuel 10:5-10; 1 Samuel 19:23; 1 Chronicles 12:18; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 2 Chronicles 20:14-15; 2 Chronicles 24:20; Nehemiah 9:30; Isaiah 59:21; Ezekiel 11:5; *empowers all Old Covenant prophecy)
  • Empowers leadership (Numbers 11:16-30; Numbers 27:15-23 & Deuteronomy 34:9; Judges 3:10; Judges 6:34; Judges 11:29; Judges 13:24-25; 1 Samuel 10:1-8; 1 Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 30:1; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 48:16; Isaiah 61:1-3; Isaiah 63:10-14)
  • Empowers leadership with miraculous feats of power and strength (Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19; Judges 15:14-15)
  • Serves as the presence of God (Numbers 27:18; 1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Samuel 16:13; Judges 13:24-25; Nehemiah 9:20; Psalm 51:11; Psalm 139:7; Isaiah 59:21; Isaiah 61:1-3; Isaiah 63:10-14; Haggai 2:5)
  • Provides instruction (Psalm 143:10; Nehemiah 9:20)

It is by the Spirit of God that God accomplishes his will on earth. The Spirit’s emphasis of activity includes three main areas: empowering leadership; empowering prophecy; and serving as the presence of God among the people. This activity serves as the foundational precedent for how the Spirit empowers the two highest gifts in the New Covenant, apostles and prophets (leadership and prophecy; 1 Corinthians 12:28-31), as well as his indwelling ministry (presence of God; John 14:17; Ephesians 2:22).

Indwelling or Ondwelling?

While the Old Covenant prophesies the Spirit’s later New Covenant indwelling ministry, does the Spirit indwell saints in the Old Covenant? The prophecies of the Spirit’s coming indwelling ministry emphasize the Spirit’s presence for all people, not just the select few Old Covenant saints (Joel 2:28). However, if he indwells people in the Old Covenant, it will only apply to the select few leaders he empowers for leadership.

Similarly, the Spirit’s New Covenant indwelling ministry includes the specific purpose of inner sanctification for all saints (see Part 9). Just as the Old Covenant prophesies this coming function (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Ezekiel 37:14), this does not mean that the Spirit could not do this in the Old Covenant for a select few.

But did he?

Although Old Covenant saints were ultimately justified by faith, they were still under the Law of Moses, which was their guide for life. It is only in the New Covenant where life by the Spirit replaces life by the Law of Moses, which is the fulfillment of the Ezekiel 37:14 prophecy. Therefore, it is a bit premature to suggest that the Spirit would supersede the Mosaic covenant and do what he comes to do in the New Covenant in working salvation and indwelling saints with the purpose of progressive sanctification. The Spirit’s main function in the Old Covenant is not for the individual’s justification and personal sanctification, but to empower the select few for leadership and prophecy.

But what about the language that seems to suggest that certain saints had the Spirit permanently upon them or in them?

While this is a kind of foreshadowing of the Spirit’s New Covenant indwelling ministry, it is not quite the same. The permanent remaining upon, with, or in is better described as an ondwelling presence.

The Spirit came to both Saul and David to remain with them in a permanent capacity for their time as king.

The case of Saul is very informative concerning the role and function of the Spirit. Samuel anoints Saul with oil to be king (1 Samuel 10:1), a symbolic action that correlates with representing the presence of the Holy Spirit, given for such a task. God’s confirmation of Saul as king finds its expression in various signs, culminating with the Spirit rushing upon him in the presence of the prophets, and Saul prophesying (1 Samuel 10:6; 1 Samuel 10:10). This is similar to the Spirit resting upon the 70 elders, showing his presence in a prophetic utterance (Numbers 11:28). With Saul, the Spirit rushes upon him and manifests in prophecy, confirming God is now with him: “Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:7). Saul’s anointing to be king is tied to receiving the Spirit. It is likely that Saul receives the Spirit when Samuel anoints him with oil, and the Spirit confirms his presence when Saul prophesies. God’s presence in the Holy Spirit remains with Saul through his time as king, and when his time as king is over, the Spirit departs from him (1 Samuel 16:14). It is not until God rejects Saul as king that the Spirit departs from him.

Similarly, Samuel anoints David with oil as king, and the Spirit comes to him:

And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. (1 Samuel 16:12-13)

This language of the Spirit that “rushed upon David from that day forward” is characterized as the Spirit being permanently present with David, not in an indwelling way, but in an ondwelling way. This means that the Spirit was with him, or as could be said, he had the Spirit. While this is the Holy Spirit’s ondwelling presence, it is not the same as the Spirit’s New Covenant indwelling function. I hesitate to use the terminology “gift of the Holy Spirit” to describe Old Covenant saints receiving the presence of the Spirit, because of all it means in the New Covenant. However, it indeed is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but just that the nature of his presence and function is different from what he does in the New.   

We also find this same kind of language and concept with other Old Covenant leaders, such as Joshua (Numbers 27:18), Othniel (Judges 3:10), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Gideon (Judges 6:34), and Jephthah (Judges 11:29). Old Covenant judges, leaders, and prophets are rightly assumed to have the presence of the ondwelling Spirit with them for their task of leadership and prophecy.

Samson also had the Spirit as he judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 13:24-25; Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19; Judges 15:14-15). When his wife cut off all his hair, he got up to defend himself against an attack, “But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). God left him, meaning that the Spirit left him. This is similar to how the Spirit left Saul. This shows the nature of the Spirit’s continual, ondwelling presence in Samson’s life as a judge, particularly illustrated by the fact that the Spirit leaves him when his time as judge is over.

In the paradigm of the Old Covenant, a spirit can influence a person by coming to him and affecting him in some unseen way:

And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

Just as the harmful spirit comes upon Saul and affects him negatively, the Holy Spirit operates similarly in coming upon a person for some kind of empowerment. The Holy Spirit has the ability to empower anyone at any time in any way for any reason. Sometimes it is a one-time empowering (1 Samuel 19:23), other times it is more of a permanent, ondwelling presence.  

At times, the Bible characterizes the Spirit’s presence with a saint as being “in” the saint, as is the case with Joshua (Numbers 27:18) and Daniel (Daniel 4:8-9; Daniel 4:18; Daniel 5:11-14). However, this characterization should not be confused with a proper indwelling like we see in the New Covenant. This characterization refers to the Spirit’s general ondwelling presence with the saint.

The terminology of “rushed upon” describes the Spirit’s moment of empowerment, which enables his subject to do something outside his natural ability. “Rushed upon” is similar to Luke’s New Covenant terminology of “filled with the Spirit,” which refers to the same kind of moment of Spirit empowerment for some task. Both the Old and New Covenants also use this language to characterize the continual presence of the empowering Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, such as with David (1 Samuel 16:13) and the seven chosen to serve in Acts 6:3.

Old Covenant Prophecy of the Spirit’s New Covenant Role

When the Jews hear Peter at Pentecost speak about the Holy Spirit, and more importantly, that God has now poured out the Spirit for everyone to receive who calls on the name of Jesus, they would have been flabbergasted. They would have understood the immensity of it. They also would have been surprised in a good way, as this was finally fulfilling what God had promised in the Old Covenant. For the Jew, both the coming of the Messiah and the Spirit would have been the two best things that they could ever imagine as coming true in their lifetime.

One way to grasp this significance is that God gives the Spirit in the Old Covenant only to a select few saints. But in the New, it is for everyone, and includes even greater benefits. It is the presence of God in the people.  

A handful of Old Covenant prophesies exist that foretell the coming role of the Spirit in the New Covenant, including his indwelling ministry and availability not just for a select few, but for everyone:

“I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” (Isaiah 44:1-5)

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. 21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 59:20-21)

Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ 18 And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 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. (Ezekiel 11:17-20)

Ezekiel 36:24-29: (see below).

And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:13-14)

Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore. 29 And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 39:28-29)

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28:29)

Quite strikingly, in Ezekiel’s famous prophecy, Ezekiel 36:24-28 includes the main functions of the Spirit’s coming New Covenant work:

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. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28)

We have here the calling of the saints back to God, which is the Spirit of evangelism (24). We have the cleansing from sin with water (25), which foreshadows water baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We have the removal of the heart of stone and creation of a new heart and spirit (26), which foreshadows the Spirit’s work of the circumcision of the heart, regeneration, and new birth. And we have the indwelling Spirit (27), given specifically for the purpose of progressive sanctification. And all this in totality represents the presence of God in and among the people (28).

Further, Jesus confirms the totality of all Old Covenant prophecy of the Spirit when he tells his disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 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). In the Old Covenant, the Spirit’s presence is with a select few saints. In the New Covenant, he is not only with, but in, or indwells, all the saints.

Synthesis of the Spirit’s Coming Indwelling Ministry

As is a running theme through this series, I contend that the biblical paradigm concerning the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant is that the Spirit’s work in salvation is of a different scope and timing than what it means to receive the gift of his indwelling presence, or the baptism in the Holy Spirit. In light of the Spirit’s role and function in the Old Covenant, I would like to point out that everything the Spirit does in empowering and affecting people in the Old Covenant does not require that he indwell them. His work in the Old Covenant serves as a precedent for everything he does in the New Covenant, including his function in the salvation process, specifically his role in working justification and regeneration. Nothing about the Spirit’s work of justification and regeneration requires his indwelling presence to do so. The doctrine that the Spirit must indwell a repentant believer in order to work salvation for him has no correlative precedent in the Old Covenant; nor is there a prophecy of such. According to Ezekiel 36:27, the main purpose of the indwelling Spirit is for the individual’s progressive sanctification, and not for working justification and regeneration.

What is new in the New Covenant for the Spirit is that he comes to indwell saved believers for the purpose of their progressive sanctification (which includes both inner empowerment and external manifestation) leading to eternal life, thus fulfilling Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Ezekiel 37:14. The progressive sanctification of believers is the main purpose for the Spirit’s New Covenant indwelling ministry, for it is from this position of indwelling in the hearts of the saints that he encourages and causes them “to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). And it is from this indwelling position that the Spirit encourages the spread of the gospel from one to another, so that out of the hearts of the saints “will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38-39).

In Part 11, I examine the Old Covenant language describing the activity of the Holy Spirit, and compare it to the New Covenant language of the Spirit.  


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