The Spirit in the Old and New Testament

One of the great questions that has plagued theologians throughout church history is that which concerns the role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament by way of contrast with His work in the New Testament. The Scriptures clearly teach that Spirit effects salvation in the lives of believers in both eras; however, it also seems to suggest that there is a significant difference in the way in which He worked in both eras. Some of the attempts to answer the questions have led theologians to suggest that the Holy Spirit was only given to Prophets, Priests and Kings, for a special work at special times, in the Old Testament era. Additionally, some have suggested that the discontinuity between the Spirit’s work in the two economies subsists in the way in which the Holy Spirit seems to have come and gone from believers in the Old Testament in contrast with abiding with believers in the New. However palatable these explanations may appear to be on the surface, neither stand the scrutiny of Scripture or the nature of redemptive history on the whole. So what exactly does the Scripture teach about the redemptive-historical and experiential continuity and discontinuity of the Spirit’s work in both eras?

In his 37 part Westminster Theological Seminary series on the Holy Spirit, Sinclair Ferguson explained–by means of exegetical, systematic and biblical-theological categories–the essential biblical teaching of the work of the Spirit in the Old and New Testament. Ferguson made the following observations:

1. The Holy Spirit Gives Form and Fullness to the Work of God in the Old and New Testament. In the opera ad extra (i.e. the external activity of the Trinity), the Holy Spirit gives shape and efficacy to all of God’s work in time. This is so with regard to all the major activities of God described in Scripture–namely, in the work of creation and redemption. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father creates the worlds through the Son. Likewise, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father brings about the new creation through the Son. This is seen in both the Old and New Testaments.

2. The Presence and Ministry of the Spirit is Relatively Hidden in the Old Testament. Augustine once explained, “What lies hidden in the Old is revealed in the New.” This is true of the Trinity in general. However, it is no less true of the Spirit than it is of Christ. The revelation of both the personal identity and the fulness of the ministry of the Holy Spirit takes place within the Old Testament progressively and cumulatively. Just as we can say–echoing the words of Hebrews 1–of the Son that God has revealed Himself in many fragmentary ways to the fathers by the prophets, so we can say exactly the same thing about the identity and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The unfolding of the revelation of the Spirit is commensurate with the unfolding of the revelation of the Son. Isaiah 63:9-14 provides us with a series of references to the work of the Spirit in the Exodus. What Isaiah says in chapter 63 is riding on the heals of the fact that he had received the revelation of God about the Messianic ministry and the Servant of the Lord. It is only in the light of this truth that we come to see the riches of how the Spirit was at work in previous revelation.

3. The Coming of the Spirit on Pentecost is the Visible Sign that the Last Days Have Come. The powers of the age to come have been manifested in the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. The Old Testament predicts an era of restoration. Joel 2 specifically speaks of the work of the Spirit in this regard. The coming of the Spirit on Pentecost is the visible sign that the last days have now come and that the powers of the world to come have now been released. What Pentecost inaugurates is the invasion of the last days, the Messianic age, into the present day.

4. Pentecost marks the fulfillment of the prophesied universal gift and distribution of the Spirit. By contrast with the Mosaic administration, the Spirit is now poured out on all people without distinction. What is distinctive of the New Covenant administration of the Spirit is the universality of the pouring out of the Spirit. There is no geographical or ethnic restriction with regard to the ministry of the Spirit. Acts 2 is meant to be understood as the divine reversal of Babel. Since Christ has ascended as the representative of His people into the presence of God there is not now the confusing of tongues and the separating of the nations, but the unifying of tongues and the unifying of the nations in the unity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The resurrected Jesus has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit. Peter takes us behind the scenes of Pentecost and explains it Christologically for us. The promise of Psalm 2–the Father promising the Son that if the Son will ask of Him, He will give Him the nations for His inheritance–is being fulfilled at Pentecost. The work of Christ did not finish at the ascension. He has received from the Father, the Holy Spirit who was promised. And, it is the Spirit He has received from the Father, who He has poured out on all flesh. What is taking place at Pentecost is the creation of a new humanity–by the glorified Christ breathing life into the new humanity by the Spirit.

The core promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 is that, in the New Covenant, we won’t “need anyone to teach” us–we will all know the Lord. John picks up on this in 1 John 2:27. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we don’t need teachers in the New Covenant church. John cannot be referring to the distinctive gifts God gives His people (Eph. 4:11). Rather, he is picking up the promise of Jeremiah 31 and saying that the New Covenant promise is fulfilled in Christ and given by the Spirit so that all God’s people, in this sense, prophecyi.e. that all of God’s people have access to the immediate knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. Whereas, in the Old Testament the knowledge of God was always mediated. In the Old economy, there were many mediators. In the New Testament, there is only one mediator, Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, our understanding is immediately illuminated by Jesus Christ.

5. The Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is the External Sign of the Abrogation of the Distinctive but Temporary Features of the Mosaic Covenantal Economy. The Spirit is the Spirit of Glory. The Spirit is the One who comes to us from the glory of God, brings us to the glory of God and works within us, nothing less than the glory of God. In Eden, man’s task was to express and reflect the glory of God. That expansion of Divine glory from Eden to the whole earth is anticipatory of the manifestation of the expansion of Divine glory in Adam and throughout the whole cosmos.

The gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost is indicative of the fact that the distinctive temporary features of the Mosaic economy have now fulfilled their function, having been consummated in Christ, and having been rendered obsolete. The Apostles had to grapple with this as the early church tries to get a handle with how this all works out in the New Covenant era. The boundaries of the Old Covenant economy are broken.There is a clear not-yet-ness to the work of the Spirit that is being anticipated in the pages of the Old Testament. We see this in the Spirit coming down on the 70 prophets (Num. 11:24-30). What Moses says about God’s Spirit coming down on the 70 (“I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them”) is only fulfilled in the New Covenant era. The boundaries of the Old Covenant are broken by the Spirit in the New. Moses realized that, in the Old economy, what he aspired to could not deliver. But now, what Moses longed for and could not deliver under the Mosaic administration, Christ now does by the Spirit.

6. The Gift of the Holy Spirit gives the New Covenant church the fulfillment of what was promised but not yet experienced by God’s people in the days of the Old Covenant. The work of the Spirit, now that Christ–as the second Adam–has ascended to the right hand of the Father, is to manifest the glory of God throughout the whole cosmos. As Adam was created holy, he was created with an eschatological vision. He was created as one who was to look forward to the day when the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. That expansion of glory from Eden to the whole earth is anticipatory of the Divine glory in Adam and throughout the whole cosmos. What Christ, as the second Adam and eschatological man, fulfills, teaches us what Adam, the first man, was to do and accomplish in his obedience.

All of this is accomplished by Jesus bearing the punishment due to us because of what we have done to the glory of God. But, it is more substantially so because Jesus takes to Himself the marring of humanity that is the consequence of the loss of the glory of God and then repairs it in the resurrection. These are the two elements in which the New Testament works in explaining our redemption. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage of Christ, the new man–the last Adam and second man–entering into and embodying in Himself the glory for which Adam was created. The glorified and ascended Christ now pours out the Spirit of Glory on His church throughout the world.

7. The significance of Pentecost is, in part, the coming of the day when what the Law promised and anticipated, but could not–within itself–effect, is effect through Christ by the gift of the Spirit. By this period in the first century AD the celebration of Pentecost was imbued with the celebration of the giving of the law through Moses. There are echoes of fulfillment of what is sought for and longed for in the Mosaic. Moses ascends the hill of the Lord and brings down the Law; Now Christ, the one who has clean hands and a pure heart, ascends the hill of the Law and brings down the Law–not that condemns by brings salvation, and Christ’s empowering to fulfill the commands of the Law. It is Pentecost that gives substance and body to the contrast that Paul makes in Romans 8:3-4. What the law could not effect in its own energy, is fulfilled and effected among the people of God, in the individual Christian, through the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This is the redemptive-historical element. However, there is also an experimental development that Paul will reflect on in terms of being an heir–who is functionally no better than a slave in the house–and an heir that has entered into full sonship (Gal. 4:1 ff.).

8. The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost serves the purpose of exalting the glorified Christ in His people after the fulfillment of all things. When John records Jesus as saying, “Who believes on Him, as the Scripture has said, out of His heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37) Jesus is referring to the Spirit coming from the glorified and ascended Son. In this sense, we must understand Jesus’ following statement, that “the Holy Spirit was not yet,” ties this idea together. The Holy Spirit could not be sent by the glorified Christ until the Son was glorified by the Spirit promised to the Son by the Father.

This is, clearly a redemptive historical shift between the two economies. In the words of John 14:17, John tells us that Jesus would go to the Father and would send the Spirit from the Father. Jesus tells His disciples that they already know this Spirit…He lives with you and will be in you. Jesus is teaching a redemptive-historical truth. He tells the disciples that they already know the Spirit because they had seen the manifestations of the Spirit in His own life. Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit. Now, they will know the indwelling of the same Spirit who they have seen manifested without measure in the life of the Savior.

While there is so much more to the explanation of the redemptive-historical nature of God’s work in His church by His Spirit, those outlined above serve to show the richness of God’s eternal plan in pouring out His Spirit on His people in the New Covenant. We cannot make too much of this in our Christian life. At the end of the day, just as we confess that everything depends on the work of the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation, so too must we confess that our Christian living and glorification absolutely depend on the work of the Spirit. May our God give us deeper understanding in these mysterious and glorious Divine truths.


2 Responses

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