Importance of the Old Testament in New Testament Study: The Holy Spirit
Importance of the Old Testament in New Testament Study
Whenever we come to a study of the New Testament the first thing to keep in mind is that the writers were steeped in the Old Testament and looked to it as the divine revelation of God’s truth. It was their source of knowledge about God, and the place from which they obtained their ideas.This will be abundantly obvious from any study of Paul’s letters. Indeed we must even reverently apply this dictum to Jesus. He was brought up on the Old Testament, and used it for direction and guidance, quoting from it regularly and asserting its authority. Furthermore he was speaking to people who held the same view.
Thus in interpreting ideas in the New Testament we must look to the Old for guidance. This is an important principle of interpretation, and if observed would prevent many wrong doctrinal positions. Nowhere is this more true than with regard to the Spirit of God.When it comes to the question of the Spirit of God there is no shortage of material in the Old Testament.
The Holy Spirit in Creation
The Spirit is seen from the beginning as present at creation in Genesis 1.2, “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”, like a bird watching over its nest, and then God speaks and the process continues. The Psalmist conjoins these ideas of spirit and word when he describes the creation in these terms -
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made,and all their hosts by the breath (spirit) of His mouth” (Psalm 33.6).So when God spoke, the Spirit acted. God is seen to be at work through His divine breath (in hebrew the word ‘ruach’ means spirit, breath or wind ).
The Holy Spirit Strives with Men
In Genesis 6.3 He is seen as having ‘striven’ with men by His Spirit, something he will now no longer do because of their wickedness. This would therefore suggest at least an attempt by God to battle with their consciences. (However, the same word can mean either ‘strive’ or ‘abide’, so it possibly means He will withdraw His revealed presence from among men. Either way it refers to a known activity of God.)
The Holy Spirit Empowers God’s Servants for Service
In Numbers 11.25-26 the helpers appointed by Moses to assist him in his work are to receive the same ‘spirit’ as he enjoys – ‘the Lord took some of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders, and when the spirit rested upon them they prophesied’. The activity of the Spirit is revealed in prophesying, but in this case as a sign of permanent enduement with the Spirit of wisdom..
When the ark of the covenant, the throne of the invisible God, is to be made, God inspires a man for the task. “Behold — I have filled him with the spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship –”. God enables His servant and the Spirit is revealed in perfect workmanship.
In fact we later learn that God’s whole deliverance of His people is by His Spirit, the angel of His presence (Isaiah 63.7-14). It should be noted that apart from in creation God’s Spirit only works through and enters into people. He is never said to enter or fill a place, even the Tabernacle. His presence is known by His activity through people.
When Moses has finally to be replaced it is by a man ‘in whom is the Spirit’ (Numbers 27.18), probably linking him with the seventy elders previously mentioned.
The Holy Spirit Inspires Deliverers
When Israel is in danger of being annihilated or absorbed into the surrounding nations, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes upon various leaders to enable them to deliver them from their enemies – for example, Othniel (Judges 3.9), Gideon (Judges 6.34), Jephthah (Judges 11.29), and Samson (Judges 14.6, 19; 15.14), the latter being first “stirred by the Spirit” (13.25). In all these cases the presence of the Spirit is seen in the successful outcome of events. There is no reason to think that they experienced any special emotions that they connected with the Spirit. It is true that Samson was aware that he had lost his strength, but this was because something he was trying to do made this obvious. These experiences would appear to have been temporary for the task in hand.
When Saul is chosen to be ‘king’ ( the term here means warleader) of Israel, the Spirit of the Lord comes on him and he prophesies (1 Samuel 10.10), and the same Spirit comes on him to give victory in battle (1 Samuel 11.6). Alas he did not maintain his obedience to God and the Spirit of God leaves him (1 Samuel 16.14). He is no longer God’s empowered leader, and this is revealed by his future failure. Here there is the idea of a more permanent presence of the Spirit, as with the elders of Moses, in contrast with the more temporary experiences of the Judges. (The Spirit leaving him refers to His special empowering. The thought of the Spirit’s indwelling, as mentioned in the Psalms, is not in mind).
In the case of David ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ came on him “from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16.13) as is revealed by his continual success, until he has finally established God’s people firmly in the Promised Land.While he was a magnificent fighter and leader, his success is attributed to the Spirit of God.
The Future Hope
It is significant that no king after David is described as having received the Spirit. All of them failed, even Solomon in spite of his glory, so that it is recognised that they lack the ‘Spirit of God’. The hope thus springs up of a new king, another David, who will arise from David’s line some time in the future, on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest to make him a ruler fit to rule God’s people (Isaiah 11.1-2). Until he comes with the Spirit’s enabling, Israel will languish in failure.
We can see from these examples that the Spirit is evidenced by His activity through selected people, and one of the proofs of His presence is final success. The idea is present of the invisible, yet powerful, personal activity of God through chosen men to carry forward His purposes. Sometimes it is temporary, at others more permanent, depending on necessity, but it is always at God’s initiative.
The Rise of the Prophets
The kings having failed to carry forward God’s purposes, the mantle now falls on the prophets. The spirit of Elijah falls on Elisha, and this is evidenced by the fact that Elisha reveals spiritual sight by ‘seeing’ the taking of Elijah (2 Kings 2.9-10). The presence of the Spirit is shown by Elisha’s new ability to see what others cannot, and this is then confirmed by his subsequent activity.
When the people of Judah refuse to listen to the true prophets,they are told that their actions are ‘not in accordance with the Spirit’ (Isaiah 30.1), (they are refusing to listen to the Spirit speaking through the prophets). This is why their situation is so hopeless, and will continue to be so until “the Spirit is poured forth from above” (Isaiah 32.15), producing righteousness and blessing, a hope yet in the future.
In Micah 3.8 the prophet declares himself to be “filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, with justice and with might” so as to declare to the people their sins, while in Nehemiah 9.20-30 the Spirit who spoke through the prophets is likened to the Spirit who instructed Israel in the wilderness (presumably through Moses and the elders).It is clear from all this that the ‘history of salvation’, whether by ruler, warleader or prophet, is carried forward by the Spirit of God. This is why there will always be hope. In the end the Spirit must prevail.
The Exile in Babylon
The refusal of the people to listen to the voice of the Spirit through the prophets results first in their leaders carried off into exile in Babylon, followed by the destruction of Jerusalem and the exiling of all its inhabitants. It is this fact that results in the unusual experiences of Ekekiel who, during the interval, has to prophesy in both places.
Thus Ezekiel, uniquely, is carried about by the Spirit (wind) (e.g. 3.14 and often), but in his case the source of his message is that “the word of the Lord came to me”. However, in 11.5 he does say “the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me”, causing him to speak God’s word. The latter seems to stress a sudden inspiration, but the ideas of the word of the Lord coming to him, and the Spirit of God upon the prophets, would seem to be almost parallel. Micah can say “filled with the Spirit of the Lord”, while Ezekiel says “the word of the Lord came unto me”. Once again we have the Spirit and word acting together.
After the punishment of exile in Babylon God seeks to restore His people, and Haggai assures those who return to a desolate country that, just as God had promised in the deliverance from Egypt under Moses, His Spirit would now “remain among them” (Haggai 2.5) as He had then. At the same time Zechariah assures their leader Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, that he must not be afraid of rebuilding the Temple, for God’s Spirit is working through him. What appears a great mountain in front of him will be flattened down, “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of Hosts”(Zechariah 4.6).
After the failure of the kings of Israel and Judah, God is now again active in history, carrying forward His purposes. The Temple will be rebuilt and the people established in the Promised Land. (Unfortunately after this they will fail again through disobedience).
Having acted in creation the Spirit is continually mentioned in the carrying forward successfully of God’s purposes. Failure comes when the Spirit departs.
He is always invisible but known by His effectiveness. We are never told of people experiencing particular feelings. His presence is known by success, or the proclamation of God’s true message.
Sometimes He comes on people temporarily, sometimes more permanently. People do not seek the Spirit, He comes as God wills. Elisha is not really an exception, for he is already the appointed successor to Elijah and knows that for this he will need the same Spirit.
The overall idea behind the use of the term is that of the invisible, powerful presence of God carrying forward His purposes in history.
The Future Work of the Spirit
A second aspect of the work of the Spirit described in the Old Testament is that of His future work. The continual failure of God’s people showed that only by an act of divine power could God’s purposes be fulfilled, and all the prophets hold out the vision of such action. However, the connection with the Spirit is mainly brought out by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
Isaiah is aware that before this action there must be purging. The Spirit must first visit Israel and Judah as a Spirit of judgment and of burning (Isaiah 4.4), presumably through foreign armies advancing and torching the countryside.
He will then ‘gather the wild beasts’ to wander among its desolations (Isaiah 34.16), and the nation will be withered with God’s searing wind, ‘when the Spirit of the Lord blows upon it’ (Isaiah 40.7).
The Future Pouring out of the Spirit
But once the purging is over He will once more, as of old, guide those who administer justice (Isaiah 28.6). His very purpose in judgment has been to destroy the wicked so that the righteous might be refined and purified, and enjoy the reality of His presence (Isaiah 4.4-6), and now he will act on their behalf..
Then the Spirit will be ‘poured out from above’, the land will flourish and the desert will become fruitful, and justice and righteousness, peace and confidence will abound (Isaiah 32.15-18). It is clear here that the pouring out of the Spirit includes the thought of the pouring out of rain producing fruitful harvests, but there is no doubting that it also includes a life changing activity in the hearts of men. This is confirmed by Isaiah 44.4-5. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground. I will pour My Spirit upon your children, and My blessing upon your offspring”. The people will flourish “like the grass at the coming of the rainy season, like willows planted by flowing rivers”. Once again we have the pouring down of life-giving rain, but here the pouring out of ‘the Spirit’ is on the people, who will thus each declare strongly ‘I am the Lord’s’ (v.6).
There will be nothing temporary about all this. The Lord will come “like a rushing stream which the Spirit (or wind) of the Lord drives” i.e. with divine force and power. To His enemies He will show His anger, but to those who turn away from sin He will come as Redeemer, His Spirit will be on them, and His words which He will put in their mouths will never leave them, but will be with them for ever (Isaiah 59.17-21). His people will become His witnesses (compare also Isaiah 43.10 and often) as they affirm their confidence in God and obey His demands.
Notice the interesting changes in metaphor. When the rain is part of the picture the Spirit is ‘poured out’ like the rain, producing fruitfulness, but this soon changes to the Spirit likened to a mighty wind, a powerful force in action
The Great Prophet Yet to Come
This is then connected with the coming of a great prophet. When he comes he will be able to declare, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to announce deliverance to those who are held captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are bruised” (Isaiah 61.1-2). He will prepare the way for the blessing by his compassionate acts and declaration that God’s time has come.
The Life-giving Spirit
Ezekiel takes up the idea of this future work of the Spirit. In a vision he sees a valley full of dry bones. Then, even though they become covered with flesh, they are still unresponsive to the prophet’s message, for there is as yet no life in them (Ezekiel 37.1-10). So he is told to call on the ‘Spirit’, likened to wind and breath (the same word in Hebrew), commanding that the Spirit breathe life into them so that they might live (v10). The result is that the lifeless corpses become a great army, ready for action. This is then likened to Israel, who are dried up spiritually, and unresponsive to God’s messengers. But it is God’s intention that He will “put My Spirit within you, and you will live” (v.14). Thus the dry bones will come to life by the action of the Spirit.
This reviving process is explained more fully in Ezekiel 36.25-27. There the work of the Spirit is likened to the sprinkling of cleansing water. The idea of the sprinkling of water which cleanses comes from Numbers 19.17-19, where it is water made clean by use of the ashes of sacrifice. (Water by itself never cleanses in the Old Testament. Even in Psalm 51.7 it is connected with the purging with hyssop i.e. sacrifice).
“Then will I sprinkle clean (cleansed) water upon you, and you will be clean. From all your filthiness — I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you. I will take away the stony heart from your flesh, and I will give you a fleshy heart. I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments” (vv. 25-27). They are thus to be cleansed by sacrifice, and given life by the Spirit. He will “pour out His Spirit” upon them (Ezekiel 39.29). This is all linked with fruitfulness and blessing, for the land will become “like the garden of Eden” (36.35), “I will call for the corn and increase it — I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field” (36.29-30). From now on there will be no more famine. Once again rain and Spirit are linked, even though Ezekiel the priest has used a priestly metaphor in vv. 25-27 rather than Isaiah’s picture of abundant rain.
Not Just a Future Blessing
However it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this benefit was available in part in Ezekiel’s own day, for in Ezekiel 18.31-32 he makes it clear that if the people will respond and turn from sin they will have a new heart and a new spirit. It is not the working of the Spirit which would be new in the future, but the extent of His working.
The Prophecy of Joel
An added dimension to the work of the Spirit is brought out by Joel. “I will send you corn and wine and oil, and you will be satisfied with it — I will cause to come down for you the early rain and the later rain — and the floors will be full of wheat — I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten — and you will eat in plenty and be satisfied — and it will come about afterwards that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions, and also on the servants and maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2.18-29).
Notice once again the close connection between the fruitful rain and the coming of the Spirit.
Sadly the fact that the outpouring will be on ‘all flesh’ does not indicate that every single person in the world will benefit. Men who will not respond to God cannot be so blessed. The point being made is that every type of person will be included, master and servant, bondman and free. None will be left out. It will not be restricted to the important and mighty, for it will be available to every class of person. Even the humblest will be able to partake, and become proclaimers of God’s word.
So the prophets consistently point forward to a day when the Spirit will be active as never before, like abundant rain producing a harvest in the hearts of men, resulting in obedient hearts and changed lives. Men will become witnesses to Him, and even the humblest will be partakers of His blessings.
The Holy Spirit in the Psalms
Finally we must look briefly at the Psalms. In Psalm 51 the psalmist can pray expectantly that ‘a new spirit’ will be put within him, a ‘willing spirit’ obedient to God (vv. 10 – 12). Such an idea is related to God’s Spirit as we have seen in Ezekiel 18.31-32; 36.26 and 37.14. The righteous can thus enjoy the blessing of the Spirit in any age.
He goes on to pray ‘do not take Your holy spirit from me’ (v.11). What this means is clear from the context. It is put in parallel with ‘do not cast me from Your presence’ which suggests that what the psalmist is afraid of is that he deserves, because of his sin, to lose the sense of the presence of God. To become as one who has been cast off. This is what his disobedience deserves, but in his repentance he is confident that God will not do it to him.
Psalm 139.7 confirms this. “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?” The answer is nowhere, for God has him under control (v.13). He therefore prays that God will show him any wrongdoing in his life, so that he may be led in the way everlasting (vv.23-24). Being secure in God does not make him spiritually careless.
Lastly in Psalm 143.10 the psalmist, overwhelmed by a sense of his own weakness, prays “teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Your Spirit is good. Lead me into the land of uprightness.” Here we have the Spirit at work within him to lead him in the right way.
These Psalms are important because they stress the quiet work of the Spirit going on in men’s hearts through all ages. They are aware that in their weakness they are being kept in the right way by the Spirit, and that their hope is in His working. God never deserted those who trusted in Him, or left them to struggle on their own.What, however, was lacking was the wider work of the Spirit, the ‘pouring out of the Spirit’ which would turn the few into the many.