Did the Holy Spirit Dwell in the Old Testament Saints?
by Stuart DiNenno
If we read John 7:39, where it says that “the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified” and we also read in the gospel of John where Christ says that “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost” would not come until Jesus had gone to the Father, and we do not bring other scriptural passages to bear on the matter, then we might easily come away from the Bible believing that prior to the Ascension of Christ the Holy Spirit did not indwell men — and more than a few have done so.
Of course, just as with any other theological doctrine, we have to interpret individual passages of the Bible in a way that they are harmonized with the totality of Scripture. When we do so, we see that it is an error to maintain that the Holy Spirit did not dwell in anyone prior to Christ’s return to the Father.
Let’s look at some other passages that will shed light on the matter:
When Jesus Christ was communicating with Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21), He spoke to Nicodemus about spiritual regeneration (i.e., being “born again” by the Holy Spirit). If this were a new doctrine, then the Pharisee could not be expected to know anything of it, he could not have been faulted for being without such knowledge, and Jesus surely would have imparted it to him. However, this is not what happened. On the contrary, Christ rebuked Nicodemus for his ignorance of the doctrine by saying: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (John 3:10). Being “a master in Israel,” he was expected to already possess an understand of this teaching. This is because it was not an innovation; it was always the case that a man had to be born of the Spirit to become a godly man. In his natural state, man is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), his “carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7), and he “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God…neither can he know them” (1 Corinthians 2:14). “Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). That is, without the illumination of the indwelling Holy Spirit, man is incapable of truly understanding and believing the things of God. He cannot possess true faith without this spiritual birth. Of course, the fact that the Pharisee was expected to know the doctrine already, necessarily means that it is contained within the Scriptures that were extant in his time — the law and the prophets.
One place this doctrine is exemplified is in the testimony of Genesis regarding the two sons of Abraham. In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul speaks of the difference between the godly and the ungodly, and uses the example of Isaac and Ishmael. In verses 28 and 29, Paul says: “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.” Here Paul is saying that the one born after the Spirit (Isaac) was persecuted by the one born after the flesh (Ishmael), and he was saying that the same battle between those of the flesh and those of the Spirit was occurring in his own day. From this passage alone we can see it is untrue that no one in the Bible had received the Spirit of God prior to the resurrection of Christ, we have the clear teaching that one is godly only because he is born of the Spirit, and we are told that this is true both under the Old Testament (Isaac’s time) and the New Testament (Paul’s time). The Old Testament contrast between Ishmael and Isaac is also consistent with the words of Christ spoken to Nicodemus the Pharisee when he said “that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6) and the fact that this was exemplified in Abraham’s sons at an early date in the biblical revelation is one of the reasons why a “master in Israel” was expected to understand it.
Then we have the case of David. Jesus explicitly states in Matthew 22:43 that when David was speaking in the psalms, he was speaking by the Holy Spirit. David was speaking by the Spirit because the Spirit of God was dwelling in him. To maintain that he was not regenerate and that the Holy Ghost only used him temporarily as an organ through which to communicate truth, is to either assert that David was otherwise abandoned to his own flesh and reprobate, or that he was saved through some means that differs from the means by which believers are saved today.
Prior to the Ascension of Christ, and even before his birth, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, is said to be “filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:67) and the same is said of John’s mother Elisabeth (Luke 1:41). As with David, to maintain that the Holy Ghost only filled Zacharias and Elisabeth long enough to communicate truth, but that they were not born again, is to assert either that they were not saved at all or that they were saved through some means that differs from the way of Christian salvation, because salvation comes though faith alone and salvific faith springs only from a heart that has been regenerated by the Spirit of God.
The entire Bible testifies to the fact that a godly man is one who is led by the Spirit of God, therefore to say that the Holy Spirit was not dwelling within anyone prior to the Ascension of Christ, is to say that everyone mentioned in the Bible prior to the New Testament era was ungodly which, of course, is absurd. It is also to say that there are two different ways of salvation, but the Bible testifies to the fact that believers in all ages have been saved by the grace of God through faith, and that faith is something produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit; it is not something that the natural man possesses. Only someone who is woefully lacking in biblical understanding would maintain that a man can be godly and yet not have the Spirit of God dwelling in him.
To arrive at the truth, we have to harmonize all of this together. We cannot hyper-focus on some verses which, if isolated, appear to teach that no one had the Spirit of God prior to the Ascension, and we cannot ignore those same verses as if there was no difference in the giving of the Holy Spirit before and after the Ascension.
The correct view is not that the Spirit was completely absent in prior times, the correct view is that the Spirit was not given in the same fullness in prior times, and sometimes the Spirit of God was withdrawn almost entirely from among the professing believers. It is not that the Old Testament saints did not have the Holy Ghost and that He did not dwell in men at anytime prior to Christ’s Ascension, it is that the Spirit of God had largely departed from among Israel before the time of Christ and that under the the New Testament dispensation, the Spirit would be manifested, as John Calvin put it, in a more “bright and illustrious” way. In the words of James Nisbet, there was to be “a far more full and complete outpouring of the Holy Spirit after His Ascension.”
Below are some of the comments I found from scholarly men of the past which confirm this view. These are comments in regard to John 7:39:
“That the Holy Ghost was not yet given. In the Greek it is “oupo gar hen pneuma” “for the Holy Ghost was not yet.” The Spirit of God was from eternity, for in the beginning he moved upon the face of the waters. He was in the Old Testament prophets and saints, and Zacharias and Elisabeth were both filled with the Holy Ghost. This therefore must be understood of the eminent, plentiful, and general effusion of the Spirit which was promised (Joel 2:28) and accomplished (Acts 2:1 and following). The Holy Ghost was not yet given in that visible manner that was intended. If we compare the clear knowledge and strong grace of the disciples of Christ themselves, after the day of Pentecost, with their darkness and weakness before, we shall understand in what sense the Holy Ghost was not yet given; the earnests and first-fruits of the Spirit were given, but the full harvest was not yet come. That which is most properly called the dispensation of the Spirit did not yet commence. The Holy Ghost was not yet given in such rivers of living water as should issue forth to water the whole earth, even the Gentile world, not in the gifts of tongues, to which perhaps this promise principally refers.”
— Matthew Henry
“For the Holy Spirit was not yet given. We know that the Spirit is eternal; but the Evangelist declares that, so long as Christ dwelt in the world in the mean form of a servant, that grace of the Spirit, which was poured out on men after the resurrection of Christ, had not been openly manifested. And, indeed, he speaks comparatively, in the same manner as when the New Testament is compared to the Old. God promises his Spirit to his elect and believers, as if he had never given him to the Fathers. At that very time, the disciples had undoubtedly received the first-fruits of the Spirit; for whence comes faith but from the Spirit? The Evangelist, therefore, does not absolutely affirm that the grace of the Spirit was not offered and given to believers before the death of Christ, but that it was not yet so bright and illustrious as it would afterwards become.
— John Calvin
“for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; the word “given” is not in the original text; but is very properly supplied, as it is in the Vulgate Latin, Syriac, and Persic versions. The Arabic version renders it, “for the Holy Ghost was not yet come”; he was in being as a divine person, equal with the Father and Son, so he was from everlasting; and he had been bestowed in his grace upon the Old Testament saints, and rested in his gifts upon the prophets of that dispensation; but, as the Jews themselves confess, “after the death of the latter prophets, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, the Holy Ghost removed from Israel.” And they expressly say, he was not there in the time of the second temple. [Jewish Rabbi] Maimonides says, “they made the Urim and Thummim in the second temple, to complete the eight garments (of the priests) though they did not inquire by them; and why did they not inquire by them? because the Holy Ghost was not there…”
— John Gill
“The Holy Ghost was not yet with men in such fullness of influence on their minds, hearts, and understandings, as the Spirit of adoption and revelation, as He was after our Lord ascended up into heaven. It is clear as daylight, from our Lord’s language about the Spirit, in John 14:16-17,26; 15:26; 16:7-15, that believers were meant to receive a far more full and complete outpouring of the Holy Spirit after His Ascension than they had received before.”
— James Nisbet
“For the Holy Ghost was not yet given. Was not given in such full and large measures as should be after Jesus had ascended to heaven. Certain measures of the influences of the Spirit had been always given in the conversion and sanctification of the ancient saints and prophets; but that abundant and full effusion which the apostles were permitted afterward to behold had not yet been given. See Acts 2:1-12; 10:44-45.”
— Albert Barnes