Regeneration and Indwelling in the Old Testament

Dear Reggie,

I have some questions concerning the regeneration of Old Testament saints. First, if they were regenerated, which as you write means that they were united with the Spirit of God, then why does Jesus breathe on his disciples and tell them to ‘Receive the Spirit’ in John 20. It seems to me that there is a difference between receiving revelation (you are the Christ, the Son of the living God) and receiving the Spirit. Is this not why Paul asked the disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19) if they had received the Spirit? I guess I am trying to understand the distinction between NT living and OT living beyond simply bring freed from the covenant of Moses. Is not the inauguration of the New Covenant in fact a receiving of the “promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13)?”

Thanks Reggie for your thoughts.

Good questions, and while I can’t begin to enter now into all that pertains to this discussion, it’s definitely a good opening.

I believe we must make a careful distinction between vital regeneration (which I am arguing is a theological necessity for all salvation in both testaments), and the special ‘coming upon’ of the Holy Spirit available to all believers since Pentecost. Even things that were to some extent experienced by an Old Testament believer is now seen in a whole new light. Let me explain.

The powerful new incoming of the Spirit in connection with the glorification of Jesus and the revelation of the mystery of Christ and of the gospel of His atoning work must not be confused with essential regeneration, which is common to all times and dispensations. It is true that after His resurrection, Jesus breathes on His disciples and commands with decisive authority, “receive ye the Holy Spirit!” Does this mean that this is the first time anyone had ever received the Spirit? Obviously not, since the scripture speaks of many who had the Spirit (at least in some sense) before this. Another relevant passage of interest and one that is much exploited by dispensationalists to argue that the Spirit did not indwell Old Testament believers is Jn 14:17. But observe its context: “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor know Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (14:16-18).

The part of special interest is the words, “for He dwells WITH you and WILL be IN you.” Does this mean that only with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost that Holy Spirit has indwelt any saint other than Jesus? A simple concordance study will show the Spirit indwelling Old Testament believers. Peter is especially clear to identify this as “the Spirit of Christ who was IN them” (i.e., the prophets; 1Pet 1:11). But in the interest of maintaining a new point of departure at Pentecost, it is argued that such indwelling was only true of the prophets, and that it was never permanent. I do not agree. Not only because it is contrary to what seems to me a few very clear texts, but it violates the over all theology of scripture, particularly the New Testament, which must be consistent with the Old.

So are we to understand that the Spirit maintained only an external, “coming upon” kind of relationship to the Old Testament faithful? We can show in at least one other example that John’s language of WITH and IN cannot be taken to mean that the Spirit is now only WITH the disciples but that at some future time He will begin to take up residence IN them. In 2Jn 1:2, we find the same words, only this time inverted: “For the truth’s sake, which dwells IN us and shall be WITH us forever.” If it is impossible to take such language to mean a movement form within to without in the believer’s relationship to the truth, how can such a meaning be necessarily assigned to the same distinctively Johannine phraseology in 14:17? The disciples were being instructed in their developing knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s relationship between the believer and Jesus as the incarnation of the Spirit and the Truth. The knowledge is indeed new, and will continue to mature in the days ahead. But this is not to suggest that the Holy Spirit, who is now only WITH them, will not be IN them until Pentecost.

This is not to suggest that the Spirit did not come in some new and unique way after Christ’s post-resurrection glorification; for indeed He did. “But this He spoke of the Spirit, which those that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; BECAUSE that Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:39). But can this be taken to mean that the Spirit had never been received by anyone in any sense before? Obviously not. So the question is manifestly more nuanced than first appears. If the Lord’s gesture of breathing with the command to receive the Spirit signified an immediate transaction, then here is an example that the Spirit was “received” by the disciples on more than one occasion. However, it seems possible to see the Lord’s gesture and command more in the sense of a prophetic announcement or decree of what would come in fullness of power “not many days hence” (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5). Not only so, but Acts 4:31 uses the precise wording of Acts 2:4 to describe another ‘re-filling’ of the Spirit (attended by the same phenomena as at the first) sometime well after Pentecost.

If it can be taken without all the hypothetical qualifications supplied by the commentaries, there is a key passage in Acts 8:5-17 that casts great light on this discussion and the distinction that must be made between vital regeneration and the unique sense in which the Spirit was “given” only after Pentecost. In this passage, a city of Samaria receives with “great joy” the testimony of Christ through the preaching of Philip. As many as believed were baptized. Now significantly, according to the precedent established later in Philip’s ministry to the Ethiopian eunuch, baptism was not administered apart from confirming evidence of saving true faith and the fruits of repentance [”If you believe with all your heart, you may” (be baptized); see also Mt 3:8; Acts 10:47]. So it is evident that this largely believing and now baptized city has reason to rejoice in the confident assurance of salvation through Christ. Therefore, it is most especially significant for our discussion that the scripture says of such baptized converts, “for as yet He (the Spirit) was fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16). What should be especially noted is that the “receiving” of the Spirit referred to in the preceding and following verses is here described as a “falling upon.” Therefore, unless we are to deny vital regeneration to rejoicing baptized believers, we must subscribe to a special endowment with power described, or a ‘coming’ or ‘falling upon’ of the Holy Spirit that is clearly NOT synonymous with regenerating faith.

Another key example is the account of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28. Here is a man, “mighty in the scriptures” proving that Jesus is the Messiah. Furthermore, he was “fervent in the spirit” (it is an open question, but the locative case in Greek can be legitimately translated “fervent in the Spirit”). But the real point is that here is a believer turning others to faith in Christ who, until more perfectly instructed by Aquila and Priscilla, knew only the baptism of John. It would be a stretch to suggest that Apollos was unregenerate until baptized in Jesus name and filled with the Holy Spirit. No, it is better, and far more consistent with the over all theology of scripture, to distinguish vital and essential regeneration of the Spirit through faith, and the power and fullness of the Spirit that comes in baptismal measure with the laying on of apostolic hands, or when the baptism of the Spirit is earnestly sought upon knowledge of its availability. Though most often assumed to go together in the NT, regeneration and the baptism of the Spirit are not identical. But something quite dramatic did change in time which made this new experience of the baptism of the Spirit available to every believer.

If we know that the Spirit did indwell some, and did ‘come upon’ and empower at least some throughout the OT period, in what new sense is He now given that was not possible before? I believe part of the answer is in beginning to understand something of the background of the Jewish understanding. The revelation of Jesus, not only as Messiah but the incarnate Son, Word, and Lord of glory, who atones for sin through death and rises, not at the ‘last day’ but in the very midst of history to come again at the end. This constituted the “mystery” of the kingdom, of Christ, and the gospel hid from other ages. These were days of great revelation and transition, as so much was coming freshly to light. For example, the question asked only days before Pentecost (“will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel”) would be answered with the coming of the Spirit in power to reveal the gospel that was not till then known to consist of two comings (Acts 2:33-35; 3:18-21).

At Pentecost it became clear that the Spirit promised in connection with the coming day of the Lord had come ‘already’ in unexpected advance of that day. Now it could be seen that the Spirit and the new baptism of power and life is inextricably bound to the new revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and mediator of the everlasting righteousness. It could now be seen that only the righteousness provided through the cross of Christ can avail for an everlasting justification (But how then were Old Testament saints justified if not by same precious blood?). Hence, the Spirit becomes the sign that seals and vindicates God’s once and for all acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice, who is now shown as the exalted Servant and Lord over all. [As an aside: It was particularly radical for Jews to see gentiles receive the manifest evidence of the promised Spirit by faith alone without the qualification of having kept the law. This was God’s statement intended to make Israel jealous.]

So one aspect that I believe has been most neglected in our understanding of Pentecost is the transforming power that came in particular connection with the revelation of the mystery of the gospel (1Pet 1:10-12). This transformed the church’s theology as it transforms hearts. The revelation of the gospel that first came with power at Pentecost opened up everything. It threw back the veil. It was radical and earth shaking beyond our farthest ability to grasp. The very nature and means of Israel’s promised salvation had now come to light in the gospel. It could now be seen that Israel’s ‘everlasting salvation’ (Isa 45:17) would be accomplished not in one, but in two great installments. It was the revelation of the nature and means of the very righteousness of God, “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer 23:5). “For therein is the ‘righteousness of God’ revealed” (Ro 1:17). The gospel reveals the righteousness, “which He promised afore by His prophets in the Holy Scripture (Ro 1:2 w/ 16:25-26). It accomplishes the “bringing in” of the promised “everlasting righteousness” (Jer 32:40; Dan 9:24) in unexpected advance of “the restitution of all things.”

So that now, the Spirit who came upon His servants, the prophets, and who was acknowledged to be “IN” certain of the saints of old, can be seen to be the very Spirit of Jesus, the eternal Word. Not only now, but at any time, the Spirit of regeneration could not have been given except on the basis of “the blood of the everlasting covenant.” Not only so, but now the powerful “coming upon” of the Spirit would no longer be a distinction applying to only a few specially anointed servants and saints, but would belong to ‘all’ the eschatological community of saints “from the least to the greatest,” according to Jeremiah’s promise of the New Covenant (31:31-14). [Note: As I’ve shown elsewhere, it is not that Jeremiah did not know himself as regenerate and circumcised of heart, but that he knew that a mere remnant (as when Paul speaks of “the remnant according to the election of grace”) could never fulfill the everlasting covenant that promises the regeneration and circumcision of heart for “all” Israel without the exception (Isa 4:3; 54:13; 59:21; 60:21; Jer 31:34; Ezek 39:28; Zeph 3:13 et al). Only when ‘all’ Israel (in this particular sense) would become irreversibly righteous with the ‘everlasting righteousness’ of covenant promise could the Land (no less an inalienable part of the ‘everlasting covenant’, see concordance) be forever secure of a sure and undisturbable inheritance. That’s another whole discussion. But in any event, the revelation of the mystery of the gospel also lights up the ground of all past as well as future salvation.]

Finally, I believe we have to see that the NT pronounces on many things not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament that are self evident for both testaments. That is why we are NOT to rely only on the New Testament to construct a theology of the Old Testament believer’s relationship to the Holy Spirit. When the NT says, “For the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit,” we may be sure that the truth of that statement obtains for all time. When the NT speaks of children of the flesh and the Spirit, we may safely infer the presence of the new nature in the OT, though it is not expressly described under such terms. For example: “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (Gal 4:29). However, as I’ve shown many times in other places, there were terms that were well suited to describe the distinguishing characteristics of regeneration in the OT, since the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was still in its infancy. According to Paul, not even the righteous conceived of all that would come to light in the mystery of the gospel and of Christ’s incarnation as the Word and the amazing truth of Christ’s personal incarnation in the believer by the same Spirit. Such light and language obviously belonged to the future. Hope this at least makes a first installment on what could become a very long conversation.

In loving appreciation of a long and cherished friendship, Reggie

P.S. Knowing that there are some who might want to pursue this discussion further, let me suggest two important titles. I especially recommend Leon Wood’s, “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.” Also, you might want to get “Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation,” by Henry Virkler. He has an insightful discussion of this question on pgs. 146-151. As many have also asked for a recommended aid in interpretation, this is also my personal favorite text for that purpose.

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