As believers, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit within us (1 Cor 6:19). The Holy Spirit indwells us as part of the new covenant (2 Tim 1:14; cf. Ezek 36:26). But what about Old Testament believers? Did the Holy Spirit indwell Old Testament saints? There are many that would argue that the Holy Spirit did indeed indwell Old Testament saints. Others, like Jim Hamilton, argue that the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit is a New Testament phenomenon. How should we think about this issue?
The Temporary Empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
The Holy Spirit was very active in the Old Testament. For one thing, the Spirit inspired the prophets as they wrote holy Scripture (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). The Spirit also uniquely gifted individuals like Bezalel from Judah to construct the Tabernacle (Exod 31:2-5). The Spirit also was very active in the lives of individuals like Joshua (Num 27:18), David (1 Sam 16:12-13), and Saul (1 Sam 10:10).
However, looking at how the Holy Spirit was active in the Old Testament demonstrates a variety of differences between the new covenant age and the ministry of the Holy Spirit experienced by those under the old covenant. First, the coming of the Spirit upon an individual in the Old Testament was apparently unrelated to his or her spiritual qualities. For example, the Spirit empowered Saul in 1 Samuel 10:10 and 11:6, even though Saul’s character was highly questionable at that point. Similarly, the Spirit of God came upon wicked Balaam to prophesy blessing upon Israel (Num 24:2).
Second, the times we see the Spirit’s activity, the situation is a unique empowerment of a political leader or prophet. It was certainly not the typical experience for old covenant members to have access to the Spirit, and as Hamilton notes, “each time the Old Testament describes someone as having the Spirit, it does so precisely to mark that person out from other old covenant believers” (God’s Indwelling Presence, 26).
Third, the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit was often temporary in the Old Testament. For example, the Holy Spirit leaves Saul (1 Sam 16:14), and David asks God not to remove the Holy Spirit from him (Ps 51:11). The Holy Spirit also “comes upon” people so that they act a certain way for a short while (cf. Num 24:2; 1 Sam 19:20, 23; 2 Chron 15:1; 20:14). This all seems to be distinct from the New Testament ministry of the Holy Spirit which is defined as a permanent indwelling ministry.
The Transition to the Permanent Indwelling Ministry of the Holy Spirit
We also have a strong indication of a transition between the Old Testament and New Testament ministry of the Holy Spirit in 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.
This verse seems to indicate that there was a definable difference between the Holy Spirit’s ministry pre-ascension of Jesus, and post-ascension. It is important to note that this verse is talking about those who were already believers. But these believers were to receive the Holy Spirit only after the glorification (ascension) of Jesus.
This is why Jesus told His followers, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
Earlier in the upper room discourse, Jesus described the Holy Spirit as the one whom the disciples knew, “For he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:17b). In other words, at that current time, the Holy Spirit was with the disciples helping them, but in the future, the Holy Spirit would actually reside in the disciples.
Putting all of this together, it seems that the Old Testament believers were impacted and helped by the Holy Spirit. We can also say that believers in the Old Testament undoubtedly were saved through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But, the activity of the Spirit was not the permanent and abiding existence that New Testament believers experience. Believers today ought to be blown away by the privilege of having God permanently dwell within us. This is one of the reasons why the believer can be confident that God has indeed “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3).