Old Testament,  Theology

Were OT Believers Indwelt by the Holy Spirit?

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? Were Old Testament saints indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Some of those who are influenced by Covenant Theology would say that Old Testament saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. However, I think there is evidence that the Holy Spirit did not permanently indwell Old Testament believers.

picture of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit
“He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove…” (Matt 3:16)

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).

The difference between the Old Testament and New Testament activity of the Holy Spirit seems to be in the permanence of that activity. The Holy Spirit seems to come and go in the Old Testament. For example, the Holy Spirit departs from Saul (1 Sam 16:14), and David asks God not to take away “your Holy Spirit” (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.

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, but not in the permanent and abiding way that New Testament believers are. Believers today ought to be blown away by the privilege of having God indwell us. This is 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).

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

2 Comments

  • Adam Lambdin

    I have wrestled with this issue of the H.S. in the OT because I have always struggled with my wonder at how anyone can be saved in any era without the H.S. Can you elucidate more on this? How can a person be saved without Him? Johnny Mac has always said that if I could lose my salvation, I would.

    How does this relate to Romans 7? If A person interprets Romans 7 as applied to the “Paul under the law” interpretation like Mr. Jay Street’s article does in the TMS journal, then is that a saved person in the OT? So, does that mean that a saved person in the NT doesn’t live like that? What about the Corinthians? I have so many questions. Thank you.

    • Peter Goeman

      Hey Adam, James Hamilton wrote a good book entitled, “God’s Indwelling Presence” which goes into more detail. I believe he also has a couple articles written on the issue that summarize the implications of this view as well.

      In essence, nobody would argue the Holy Spirit is not active, or fully involved in saving an individual in the OT. However, the activity of the Spirit is described being different. I would affirm the Holy Spirit drawing and opening the eyes of an individual, but would say that the “Follow up” activity of the Spirit is different between OT and NT.

      This concept may or may not apply to Romans 7. It really depends on what view you take on Romans 7. If Romans 7 is talking about Paul’s past life or the life of an unsaved Jew, perhaps this plays into it, but if it talks about Paul’s present experience then the passage could be simply talking about the flesh’s influence on his current experience. I have not yet read Jay’s article, but it is on my reading list for soon! :) I look forward to reading it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.