July 29, 2014 Broadcast

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Prior to filling the believers at Pentecost or descending like a dove at Christ's baptism, the Holy Spirit was active in Old Testament times. But what did He do? What was His role? What are the first references to His existence? In this message, Dr. R.C. Sproul looks at several appearances of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.

From the series: Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Fullness of Prophecy

  2. article

    The Breath of God

  3. devotional

    The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

The Fullness of Prophecy

When the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, Peter stood up to explain the events. He cited a prophecy in Joel 2:28–32, in which Joel said that some day the Lord would pour out His Spirit on all humanity and all the people would become prophets.

To understand this, we need to understand the Spirit's working in the old covenant. In the full theological sense, everyone who was saved under the old covenant was regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and so they had the Spirit in that sense. Only certain people, however, were anointed by the Holy Spirit to be prophets. This was because they had special access to God. Under the old covenant most people did not have the kind of special access like that which came when Jesus entered heaven and brought us with Him (though every old covenant believer had a general access to God through prayer).

Moses was the preeminent prophet of the old covenant. In Numbers 11 we read that Moses became tired of bearing the burden of all the people alone. In order to provide relief, God took the Spirit, whom He had given to Moses, and gave Him to seventy other men who would assist Moses. When they gathered around Moses, the Spirit came on them and they all prophesied. Two of the seventy, however, were not with Moses; yet when the Spirit fell, these men began prophesying in the camp. Joshua complained about this, but Moses rebuked him, saying, "Would that all God's people were prophets."

Joel predicted that Moses' wish would come true. A greater Moses would ascend into heaven and be granted immediate access to God's throne. In union with Him, all people would be given that access, and all saved people would become prophets. The Spirit given to the greater Moses would be shared with all His people. Peter said on the Day of Pentecost that a prophesied historical event had come to pass. From that day forward, all believers, in this sense have been prophets.

Protestant and Reformed Christians object to Pentecostalism for exactly this reason. Most Pentacostals say that only certain people have received the Spirit, and thus they greatly narrow and restrict the work of the Spirit in the new covenant age. Scripture teaches that all true believers have had the Holy Spirit come upon them.


The Breath of God

Derek Thomas


The ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, composed in the eighth century and part of the Roman breviary of Vespers, is a hymn extolling the Holy Spirit. John Dryden’s magnificent translation renders the opening lines this way: “Creator Spirit, by whose aid the world’s foundations first were laid.”

The activity of the Holy Spirit as Creator finds expression in the second verse of the Bible! Describing the undeveloped creation as “without form and void” and in “darkness,” the author describes the Spirit of God as “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Forming a bookend at the close of this opening chapter of Scripture comes the pronouncement of the creation of man: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The use of the pronoun “our” is a reference to the triune Godhead, which includes the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning, the Holy Spirit has been the executive of the creative activity of God. In the creation of the world, as well as the creation of man in particular, the Holy Spirit was the divine agent.


At the dawning of the new covenant era, Pentecost would be demonstrative of a similar work of creation, or, better, re-creation. Fallen humanity is to be transformed by the Spirit to a degree unknown under the old covenant.

In an action that was meant to be symbolic of Pentecost, Jesus, in an incident that followed His resurrection, illustrated Pentecost’s significance by breathing on His disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). The action is a reminder of the opening sequence of Genesis: the Holy Spirit, the “breath of God,” is the agent of the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7; John 20:22). As God breathed life into Adam, so Jesus, “the last Adam,” breathes new life into His people. Jesus becomes, in Paul’s language, “a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Pentecost was an epochal event, signifying the dawning of a new era.

Midway between creation and re-creation, Pentecost is the point after which it can be said, “the end of the ages has dawned” (1 Cor. 10:11). Historically, at nine o’clock in the morning, the Spirit gave the disciples a clear understanding of Jesus’ role in redemption and consummation, equipping them with extraordinary boldness in making Jesus known. The gift of tongues that accompanied the outpouring of the Spirit enabled folk from different countries to hear the Gospel in their own languages. In an instant, the curse of Babel was arrested (Gen. 11:7–9). Spirit empowered disciples were thus motivated and enabled to take the message of reconciliation to the nations of the world in the certainty that God would accomplish that which He promised (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:4). What appears to be a blessing for the Gentiles proves to be a judgment upon Israel. The very sound of the Gospel in languages other than their own confirmed the covenantal threat of God issued in Isaiah: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people” (Isa. 28:11).

What was to be a blessing for the nations proved to be the very instrument of hardening to Israel, until the “fullness” of the Gentiles is brought in (Rom. 11:25).

With this interpretation of Pentecost, repetition cannot be envisioned. Though history records many “outpourings” of the Spirit in extraordinary displays of revival, none of these, strictly speaking, is a repetition of Pentecost. Pentecost marked the major turning point from old to new covenantal administrations. The days of type and shadow were replaced by days of fulfillment and reality. It signaled the end of an economy largely (though not exclusively) focused upon ethnic Israel, heralding instead the dawn of a universalism strongly hinted at in the Old Testament but never realized. Its attendant signs of tongues itself was both a blessing and a curse. The very presence of the miraculous that accompanied Pentecost was itself indicative of the uniqueness of the moment. It marked the appearance of the apostles — God’s foundational, rather than normative, church builders (Eph. 2:20).

The Bible

As pilgrim-saints, regenerated, indwelt, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, on our way to the New Jerusalem, we are still in need of wisdom; this the Spirit provides. It is He who guaranteed that a sure guide to heaven be given to the people of God. Speaking of the Old Testament, Peter could say that no part of it was the product of man’s devising, “but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). And Paul could echo that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Just how the Spirit accomplished this remains something of a mystery. There are the discernible fingerprints of human authors throughout. At the same time, every part of it, down to the least stroke of a pen (see Matt. 5:18) is the product of the out-breathing (exhalation) of God. In five processes then — disclosing wisdom and truth to biblical authors, exhaling, canonizing, preserving, and translating — the Spirit exercises His Lordship in the formation of the Scriptures.

The Bible, the Spirit’s rule and guide, is what Christians need in order to ensure holiness and final redemption. By the Spirit’s illumination of the written text, God’s will is made clear. As Christians, we are currently “waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). In the state of glory, as the Dutch biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos points out, the Holy Spirit will be “the permanent substratum of the resurrection-life.” The Spirit, who has served the Father and brought glory to the Son, will then be the One who sustains the eternal lives of the saints. Until that day, when “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), we traverse a terrain filled with obstacles and adversities. We face a three-fold enemy: the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is the Spirit, the representative agent of Christ in our hearts who ensures that victory is certain. It is He who ensures who the bondage and frustration brought into the world as a consequence of Adam’s fall is reversed.

New Creation

At the other end of the Bible, the book of Revelation depicts the “seven spirits” that are “sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6; see also 1:4); the spirits are symbolic of the Holy Spirit as the immanent executive of the purposes of God. The hovering Spirit who watches over the formless creation now broods over the cosmos, seeking to bring about a new creation, thereby ensuring its formation according to the perfect plan of God.

As the divine artist, the Holy Spirit ensured the beauty of Eden as much as the rest of creation: “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). It is more than interesting to discover Moses’ observation that in the design of the tabernacle (the symbol of God’s presence with His redeemed people) its architects, Bezalel and Oholiab, were “filled … with the Spirit of God” (Ex. 31:3). Moses seems to revel in their concern for beauty and order. There was an evident aesthetic pleasure to the tabernacle — and this was demonstrative of the design of the Holy Spirit (Ex. 35:30–35). Suffice to say that the Holy Spirit lies behind every work of artistry. As John Calvin wrote, “the knowledge of all that is most excellent in human life is said to be communicated to us through the Spirit of God.”

The end in view for the Spirit is glory — the glory that Adam failed to achieve in the garden. When prophets of the Holy Spirit depict the work of the Spirit, they envision this glory restored: “… until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (Isa. 32:15–17).

The Holy Spirit of God, who first hovered over the waters of creation, spoke through prophets and apostles, and was poured out at Pentecost as a witness to Christ’s promise of another Paraclete (comforter, sustainer, equipper, counselor). Jesus continues His ministry to His disciples by means of the Spirit as His personal, representative agent. The Spirit’s work, at all times, is to draw attention to Christ: “He will glorify me,” Jesus said, “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).

From start to finish, the Spirit’s aim is to bring about the new creation in which the splendor of God’s work will be displayed. It is principally of the Holy Spirit’s work that we sing in Wesley’s words:

Finish then thy new creation;
  Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
  Perfectly restored in thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
  Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
  Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

God's own Spirit, Joel tells us, is poured out upon all of His people in the last days (Joel 2:28–29). We know that this outpouring happened on Pentecost, shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 2:1–21), but to fully enjoy the Spirit's presence in our lives, we must understand who He is and what He does. Over the next week, volume 5 of Dr. R. C. Sproul's teaching series Foundations, which covers pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), will guide us in a study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

You will note that in the preceding paragraph, we repeatedly referred to the Holy Spirit as "He," not "it." This reflects the teaching of Scripture that the Spirit is not an impersonal force or a mere attribute of God's power, but rather a person. Many sects and cults teach otherwise, yet the use of the personal pronoun for the Holy Spirit and the fact that the Spirit possesses a will, knowledge, and affections reveals His personhood (John 16:4b–11; Eph. 4:30). We have a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit just as we have a personal relationship with the other two persons of the Holy Trinity.

The best place to begin our study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit is at the beginning, for the first place we read about the Spirit is in the opening verses of the Bible. Today's passage reveals that at the moment of creation, God the Holy Spirit hovered over the primordial waters that our Creator had made ex nihilo, that is, "out of nothing" (Gen. 1:1–2). By His power in creation, He brought forth light out of darkness and order out of disorder. Thus, one of the key works of the Holy Spirit is to bring things to life and to set things in order. He is the Spirit of order, as Paul explains, for "God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33).

Throughout the Old Testament, we see the Holy Spirit working also in redemption. We have noted that the old covenant ministry of the Spirit to gift individuals for service was mainly limited to prophets, priests, and kings, although He regenerated all believers during the old covenant period. The Holy Spirit anointed prophets to speak God's Word, priests to intercede for the people, and kings to lead Israel against the enemies of God (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Chron. 24:20; 2 Peter 1:21). The Lord used all these individuals to advance His plan of redemption, pointing ultimately to Christ, whom the Spirit anointed as our Prophet, Priest, and King to secure our eternal salvation (Heb. 1:1–4; 9:14).

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