How did the Holy Spirit work in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament?

holy spirit indwelling new testament old testament

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is understood as the third person of the triune God, along with God the Father and God the Son (Jesus Christ). But as you read through the Scriptures, you’ll notice that there are some differences in how the Holy Spirit is portrayed and how the Spirit's work is emphasized in the two testaments.

Generally speaking, I’m grateful that we have the privilege to live during the New Testament era. There are genuine benefits that we are privileged to experience as believers in Jesus during this season of history.

Manifestations and Indwelling: In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is seen as working primarily from the outside, temporarily coming upon certain individuals for specific tasks or purposes. The Spirit empowered prophets, judges, and leaders, enabling them to carry out their God-given roles. A couple of examples include the Spirit coming upon judges like Samson (Judges 14:6) or leaders like Saul (1 Samuel 10:10). However, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within individuals is not commonly emphasized in the Old Testament.

Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. (Judges 14:5-6)

When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. And when all who knew him previously saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:9-11)

I do find it comforting to see examples of God empowering those He calls into service. The Lord called Samson to serve as a judge in Israel and the Holy Spirit gave him supernatural strength for his task. The Lord called Saul to serve as king of Israel, and the Holy Spirit empowered him and spoke through him.

Please keep this pattern of God in mind when you’re serving in accordance with His calling. When He opens up the door for you to serve in a particular way and you obediently respond to His guidance and leading, don’t be too shocked when He gives you wisdom and strength for your new assignment through His Spirit.

In contrast to the temporary way the Spirit would come upon leaders and others who had been called to serve in specific ways during the Old Testament era, the New Testament highlights a significant shift in the operation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit to permanently indwell believers. After His resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within His followers, fulfilling this promise on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). This indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is a distinctive feature of the New Testament. He provides guidance, comfort, and empowerment to believers on an ongoing basis. He isn’t just doing His work around us, He’s living inside of us.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

Ministry and Empowerment: In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit empowered individuals for specific tasks, such as prophesying, leading, or performing mighty acts. The Spirit's ministry was often temporary and task-oriented. The emphasis was more on what the Spirit enabled people to do rather than on personal transformation or relationship with God.

In the New Testament, while the Holy Spirit continues to empower individuals for specific purposes, there is an added emphasis on personal transformation and the empowerment of all believers for living a godly life. The Holy Spirit's work involves convicting people of sin, guiding them into truth, and producing fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit also empowers believers to serve and witness effectively (Acts 1:8).

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Do you think of yourself as empowered to witness for Jesus in this world?

Not long ago my son said to me, “Dad, I have a long car ride coming up with a friend. He doesn’t know Jesus and I feel compelled to share the gospel with him. Will you pray for me that God would give me the right words to say?” I spent some time that morning praying for him, and I was grateful to hear that they were able to have a deep conversation about the message of the gospel and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit during that drive. The Holy Spirit empowered my son to be a witness for Jesus that day.

I had a similar experience several days before that. My wife and my daughter both informed me that one of my daughter’s friends really wanted to talk to me about spiritual matters, but he wasn’t sure how to bring the subject up because it wasn’t a subject he was used to talking about. So I did him the favor of breaking the ice the next time I saw him and I asked him to tell me about his spiritual beliefs. Then I asked if he would like to hear what I believe is true. He said yes, so I picked up a Bible and over the course of the following 30 or 40 minutes, I walked him through six passages of Scripture that explain how God offers us a restored relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.

In both of these personal examples, I can testify to the fact that the Holy Spirit was empowering various members of my family to tell others about Jesus so they too could experience new life and the forgiveness of their sins through Him.

Revelation and Fulfillment: In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit played a significant role in revealing God's will and communicating His messages through prophets. The Spirit enabled the prophets to speak God's word and write the Scriptures. The Spirit's work was instrumental in providing guidance, direction, and insight into God's plan and purposes.

With that in mind, do you have a clear understanding of the will of God for your life? If you listen to Him, the Spirit will reveal that truth to you, but I’m convinced we often start in the wrong place.

Usually, when we want to know the will of God, we want direct answers from Him regarding what job path we should take, who we should marry, where we should live, and what might be the best path we can take to fund our retirement years. I don’t blame anyone for asking God for direction in each of those areas because they’re all very important, but that’s not where to start when you’re trying to understand God’s will. There’s a more obvious place to begin that will offer clarity on the other issues if it’s addresses first.  When you’re trying to discern the will of God, start asking questions like...

  • How much time should I dedicate every day to prayer and reading Scripture?
  • How can I practice self-control when I’m tempted to give in to sin?
  • How can I encourage my spouse and my children with my words today?
  • What’s the best way to respond to people who irritate and anger me?

Start with the moral will of God. It’s outlined for us in Scripture. The Holy Spirit will make it all clear to your heart and help you understand it. He will grant you the guidance, direction, and insight you need as you seek to live out your faith in Jesus and follow the example of Jesus.

I believe that when you make it your pattern to abide in Christ by faith and remain in the center of His clearly communicated moral will as an expression of your genuine trust in Him, the other aspects of the will of God for your life will become clearer as well. The Holy Spirit will work on your heart to develop certain sensitivities and desires for service in specific areas. He will gradually point you in the direction you should go, and He will give you peace about the decisions even before you see the outcome of the choices that have been made.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest reasons people struggle to understand God’s will for their life is because they spend most of their life ignoring what the Spirit has clearly revealed for their day-to-day life in Scripture because His word conflicts with what they want to do. Isn’t it ironic to think that many of us call Jesus our Lord when the reality is that we spend more time ignoring His leading than obeying it? If you’re still trying to be lord of your life, don’t expect to experience a clear and definitive understanding of God’s will for you.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit continues to reveal God's truth, but there is an important aspect of fulfillment. The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit plays a central role in pointing to Him. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Helper who would bear witness about Him (John 15:26). The Spirit inspired the authors of the New Testament to write the Gospels and Epistles, providing a deeper understanding of God's plan of redemption through Christ.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27)

The Spirit bears witness about Jesus. Jesus told His disciples that they would also bear witness about Him because they had been with Him from the beginning. There’s a big difference between those who spend time with Jesus and those who don’t. Do you think it’s obvious to others that you’re spending time with Jesus?

There was a definite season in my life when I went from knowing about Jesus to spending a lot of time with Him, and the effects were felt not only by me, but by my entire family. And I mention this to encourage those of you who may be at an early season of life so that you’ll understand the kind of impact the Lord can make through you.

There was a rather dark season of my childhood when our household and family were in complete disarray. It was a season of severe conflict, court battles, financial destitution, and constant moving. It’s also a season of grace when I trace the protective hand of God at work in my life and the lives of my family.

In my childhood home, I had an abnormal amount of influence. Part of that came from how the Lord designed my personality and part of that came from the way I functioned in the midst of our family chaos. My younger siblings looked to me for guidance during those days, but in my anger over what was taking place, I spent years setting a bad example. I had a reactive temper that wasn’t very loving until the Holy Spirit got my attention and transformed me from within.

When He got my attention around age 15, He pointed my heart toward Jesus and encouraged me to spend time with Him. He gave me a desire to read His word and put it into practice. My sisters observed this transformation, especially when it came to the patience and love I showed toward them. Then they began following the example the Lord was setting through what He was doing within me. Eventually, that had an impact on my parents and their walk with the Lord as well. My mother’s faith began to reawaken and my father placed his trust in Jesus the year before I graduated from college.

While there are differences in emphasis and operation, it is important to note that the Holy Spirit remains the same divine person throughout both the Old and New Testaments, working in harmony with the Father and the Son to accomplish God's purposes. But again I say, what a blessing it is to live in this era of history when the Holy Spirit indwells believers and transforms us from within. He does His work inside us and powerfully impacts the lives of those who operate around us.

© John Stange, 2023


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