Did the Holy Spirit indwell OT believers?

Dr. David Murray, is the Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Shona, and four children.

I found the following articles by Dr. Murray to be very helpful concerning the question “did the Holy Spirit indwell believers in Old Testament times?” He wrote four short articles on this theme and I will put them all together here. That makes this a lengthy post, but I think its best to have all the information in the one place. You can find the original articles at his blog site here.

Did the Holy Spirit indwell OT believers? By David Murray

A huge amount of ink and electrons have been devoted to answering that question. Personally, I can’t understand why this is deemed such a complex issue. It all really depends on our answer to this simple question: Were Old Testament believers believers?

If the Old Testament believers were real believers, the Holy Spirit indwelt them. No one can be born again, believe, or repent without the inward work of the Holy Spirit. And no one can stay a believer for one second without the ongoing internal work of the Holy Spirit – neither in the OT nor the NT. Without the Holy Spirit constantly in and at work in our hearts, we will immediately apostatize.

So, here are the options:

1. Old Testament “believers” were not real believers.

2. Old Testament “believers” believed by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit but kept believing without the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Old Testament believers, like New Testament believers, believed and kept on believing as a result of the Holy Spirit’s initial and ongoing indwelling work in their hearts.

If #1 is true, then the Bible is not true (Jn. 8:56; Heb 11).

If #2 is true, then Old Testament believers were not as depraved as we are, as they did not need the ongoing indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. (And in some ways, this debate really is a debate about the nature of human depravity in the Old Testament. Could anything less or other than the indwelling of the Holy Spirit keep a believer believing, repenting, hoping, obeying, etc?)

If #3 is true, then the question that’s left is: “In what ways did the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit differ in the Old Testament compared to the New, especially post-Pentecost?” Everyone accepts there was a difference. But what was it?

That’s a question I’ll return to in coming days (there are some difficult texts to deal with that seem to contradict #3), but in the meantime let the weight, significance, and consequences of the three options clarify our thoughts.

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10 ways that believers experienced the Holy Spirit in the OT By David Murray
Further to our discussion about the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, John Piper takes us to the Aswan High Dam in Egypt to answer the question: How did OT believers experience the Holy Spirit?

I’ve put Piper’s 10 answers below… please pay special attention to his exposition of #2 and #3.

1. The Spirit as Creator and Sustainer of Life

2. New Birth and Indwelling of the Spirit

Second, the OT believers experienced the new birth and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When Nicodemus was bewildered about Jesus’ demand for new birth by the Spirit, Jesus responded (John 3:10), “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?” In other words, I’m not teaching or requiring anything new. Any Israelite who has ever been saved had to be born again by God’s Spirit. Otherwise how would they ever overcome their natural hostility to God? How could they have ever submitted to God’s law and pleased him—as many did, like Abel and Noah and Abraham and Moses and Rahab and Ruth and Deborah and David? Paul says in Romans 8:7–9, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed, it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God really dwells in you.” There are two groups of humans: those in the flesh (born of the flesh) and those in the Spirit (born again of the Spirit). Those in the flesh are devoid of the Spirit and cannot submit to God’s law or please God. Those in the Spirit are indwelt by the Spirit and are enabled by him to fulfill the just requirement of the law.

This means that all the saints of the OT who trusted God and followed his ways in the obedience of faith were born again by the Spirit and indwelt by the Spirit. For example,Numbers 14:24 says of Caleb, “My servant Caleb, because he has a different Spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into this land.” And Numbers 27: 18 says, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him.’” The OT believers were saved the same way we are: they were born of the Spirit, they trusted in God’s promises, and they followed his commandments in the obedience of faith.

3. The Constant Presence of the Spirit

Third, the OT believers enjoyed the constant presence of God’s Spirit. Psalm 139:7–10says, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” Old Testament believers enjoyed the presence of God’s Spirit wherever they went. It gives me a lot of encouragement, when I am called to go places where I feel insecure, to know that the Spirit is within to give me the words I need and that he is also already in the place where I am going to prepare the way and to hold me when I get there.

4. The Spirit as Counselor and Teacher

5. The Gifts of Craftsmanship and Artistic Ability

6. Power to Denounce Evil and Declare Righteousness

7. Victory over Fear

8. Extraordinary Feats of Power to Help God’s People

9. The Ability to Interpret God’s Revelation in Dreams

10. The Gift of Prophecy

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Here’s how I would illustrate the similarities and the differences between the Spirit’s indwelling of believers in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.

The Spirit’s indwelling in the Old Testament: a water dropper continually dripping a little water on to sponge on a hot summer day.

The Spirit’s indwelling in the New Testament: a pressure washer jetting water into a sponge with excess water pouring out everywhere.

Now turn to John 7:37-39 for Scriptural support for this illustration. There Jesus is watching the Festival-goers at the Feast of Tabernacles. But He isn’t joining in the festivities; because He’s sad. He’s sad because He sees so many thirsty and narrow hearts; but that’s about to change. He offers to pour water into thirsty hearts, and He promises to produce water out of overflowing hearts.

Water Into Thirsty Hearts

The Feast of Tabernacles reminded the Israelites of God’s provision of shelter, food, and water when the nation wandered in the wilderness. The Jews added the custom of filling a golden flask of water from the pool of Siloam, and pouring it out beside the altar as the people chanted Isaiah 12:3.

In this “watery” context Jesus stands in their midst and shouts, “If any man thirst let him come to me and drink!” He’s saying, “I am the fulfillment of the Scriptures you are remembering and chanting. I am God’s provision for your thirst. I am the well of salvation. Come, draw, and drink my water with joy. Come and be personally satisfied with my all-sufficient pardon, peace, joy, love, and hope.”

Water Out of Overflowing Hearts

But Jesus goes on to speak of something more than personal satisfaction, personal thirst-quenching. He says that whoever comes to Him and believes on Him will have rivers of living water flowing out from his heart, “as the Scripture has said.” Jesus was already fulfilling the Scriptures by being their thirst-quencher, but He says, “More fulfillment is near. I will also become your river-maker.” That’s another dimension altogether.

But what are these rivers? John says that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit. And that raises the question: “What Scriptures predicted this?” Some have pointed to Isaiah 58:11. Others point to the numerous OT texts that herald a new day of spiritual blessing that would flood the boundaries of Israel and bless the world (e.g. Ezekiel 47).

However, what’s crystal clear is that such a day has not yet happened. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel remained very inward looking; fiercely and proudly and prejudicially patriotic. They had been specially blessed by God, but they certainly were not going to pass on these blessings to others. In fact, even in the verses just before this incident, the Jews were suspiciously accusing Jesus of wanting to teach the Gentiles (vv. 35-36)! What wickedness!!

Jesus looks at these narrow, bigoted, nationalistic hearts and promises a new day, when not only will individuals be filled with the Spirit, but they will overflow with multiple cleansing, refreshing rivers of the Spirit’s graces and gifts, becoming a blessing to those outside their borders.

But yes, this is a future day, for as yet the Holy Spirit had not yet been given in this way (lit. it was not yet Spirit). With very few exceptions, the Old Testament church, and even the New Testament disciples up until this point, continued in their narrow-minded, narrow-hearted ways. And the reason for this inner problem was was an inner lack of the Holy Spirit. Does that mean that neither the disciples nor OT believers had no indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Well hopefully previous posts (here and here) will have begun to dissuade you of this idea. So let me return to the sponges to illustrate the similarities and differences between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the OT and the Nt.

Sponges and Spirit

Think of a dry sponge on a hot day. Now imagine a water dropper. The dropper drips water so slowly on to the sponge that while it gets wet, it never fills it up so much that the water begins to run out of the sponge. This was the OT believers and NT disciples experience of the Spirit up until now. Christ kept them supplied with a continual “dripping of the Spirit” that kept them spiritually alive and fruitful, but rarely so much that their spiritual life overflowed into the lives of others. The same would be true of the Old Testament Church as a whole.

But now imagine I come along with a pressure washer and start jetting the sponge. Almost immediately it would not only fill with water, but water would be flowing out of it in every direction. Welcome to Pentecost. Welcome to what Jesus was predicting in this verse. Out of the New Testament Church and out of the New Testament believer would flow rivers of living water. No longer, “It was not yet Spirit.” Now, “Spirit-filled rivers of living water.”


But why the delay? Why not now? John says, “Because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39). Prior to the New Testament, the Spirit had relatively little truth to work with; it had but pictures, poems, and predictions of Christ. Shadows. But when Christ was glorified – when he died, rose again and ascended – then the Spirit had much, much more truth to work with. Sunlight!

When the fullness of God’s revelation of Christ had come, then the fullness of the Spirit could be poured out. At Pentecost we see a new plenitude, perpetuity, pervasiveness, and publicity about the Holy Spirit. We see His work more intensively, extensively, and obviously. Narrow Jewish hearts would be so filled with Christ and the Spirit that they would burst their banks and overflow out into the nations with spiritual blessing (e.g Peter in Acts 2).

Five conclusions

I’ll post some quotes tomorrow from ancient and modern commentators to support this interpretation of this passage. But in the meantime, here are some conclusions:

1. All Old Testament believers were born again from above, had faith in the coming Messiah, and were continually indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit was given to Old Testament saints prospectively, just as pardon of sin was given in view of Christ’s future atonement.

2. Old Testament believers’ experience of the Holy Spirit was usually limited to a degree of personal filling, but rarely a filling full, and even more rarely an overflowing to others in witness, evangelism, and mission.

3. The reason for the more limited experience of the Spirit’s indwelling was because of their more limited knowledge of Christ’s person and work.

4. Once Christ’s person and work and reached its apex of revelation, the Holy Spirit’s power was fully manifested in overflowing power.

5. The more we are filled with Christ, the more we will be filled with the Spirit, and the more we will overflow into the lives of others in witness, evangelism, and witness.

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Two Mistakes in Bible Interpretation By David Murray

Further to my posts in support of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers, I’d like to highlight two common mistakes in Bible Interpretation.

1. Confuse the unfolding of truth with the existence of truth. Just because a truth had not been revealed (or clearly revealed) at some point in biblical history, does not mean that it did not then exist. One of the reasons that Rob Bell’s Love Wins fell into error was by concluding that just because the Old Testament did not reveal much about eternal punishment, that it did not exist.

But even the orthodox can fall into this trap. Maybe those with a passion for tracing the gradual unfolding revelation of God in the Bible (often called Biblical Theology), are especially susceptible to this tendency. That’s why Systematic Theology is often called the Queen of the Sciences; it is to be the controlling influence in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Of course, both Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology buttress one another, but Systematic Theology must have the last word.

2. Start with the “hard” texts: One of the principles of hermeneutics is to start with the “easier” or clearer texts, and then go on to interpret the more “obscure” texts in the light of the clear. If we get this back to front, we can get things upside down!

I’m afraid that some who have argued against the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers may have inadvertently erred in these two areas.

Just because the Old Testament did not clearly unfold the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers, does not mean that such an indwelling did not exist.

And to start with “hard” texts like John 7:37-39, or at least to let such difficult texts be determining texts, is very likely to mislead us.

Yesterday I tried to present an interpretation of John 7:37-39 that would be consistent with the Bible’s teaching about the necessity and nature of the Spirit’s indwelling of all believers. Today, let me give you a sampling of quotes from commentaries on John 7:37-39 just to demonstrate that such an interpretation of these verses has been common throughout Church history.

Of course, other commentators can be found to argue on the other side, but, generally speaking, they tend to arise from more dispensational writers in the last 120 years or so. Having said that, it’s interesting to note John Piper’s and John Macarthur’s support for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of Old Testament believers.


But without the Spirit we can neither love God nor keep his commandments….We should therefore understand that whoever loves already has the Holy Spirit, and by having him he becomes worthy of having even more of him. And the more he has the Spirit, the more he loves. The disciples already had the Holy Spirit whom the Lord had promised…But they did not yet have him in he way the Lord promised. They had Him in a more limited sense. He was later to be given to them more fully. They had him in a hidden way, but he was yet to be given to them more openly (Tractates on he Gospel of John 74.1-2; cf. 32.6 and On The Trinity 4.20.29-21.30).

John Calvin

And indeed he is speaking comparatively, as when the New Testament is compared to the Old. God promises His Spirit to believers as if He had never given Him to the Fathers. At that time the disciples had undoubtedly already received the firstfruits of the Spirit. For where does faith come from if not from the Spirit? The Evangelist then does not simply deny that the grace of the Spirit was revealed to believers before the death of Christ, but that it was not yet so bright and clear as it would be afterwards.

Martin Luther

He that cometh to Me shall be so furnished with the Holy Ghost, that he shall not be merely quickened and refreshed himself, and delivered from his thirst, but shall be also a strong stone vessel, from which the Holy Ghost in all His gifts shall flow to others, refreshing and comforting and strengthening them, even as he was refreshed by Me. So St Peter, on the day of Pentecost, Acts ii. 41, who, by one sermon, as by a rush of water, delivered three thousand men from the devil’s kingdom, washing them in an hour from sin, death, and Satan.

J C Ryle

Before our Lord died and rose again and ascended, the Holy Ghost was, and hall been from all eternity, one with the Father and the Son, a -distinct Person, of equal power and authority, very and eternal God. But He had not revealed Himself so fully to those whose hearts He dwelt in as He did after the ascension; and He had not come down in person on the Gentile world, or sent forth the Gospel to all mankind with rivers of blessing, as He did when Paul answers” sent forth by the Holy Ghost.” (Acts xiii. 4.) In a word, the d­ispensation of the Spirit had not yet begun.

The expression, “the Holy Ghost was not yet given,” would be more literally rendered, “the Holy Ghost was not.” This cannot of course mean that the Holy Ghost did not exist, and was in no sense present with believers in the Old Testament dispensation. What the expression does mean is this. The Holy Ghost was not yet with men in such fulness 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 xiv. 16, 17, 26; xv. 26; xvi 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. It is a simple matter of fact, indeed that after the ascension the Apostles were quite different men from what they had been before. They both saw, and spoke, and acted like men grown up, while before the ascension they had been like children. It was this increased light and knowledge and decision that made them such a blessing to the world, far more than any miraculous gifts.


When therefore we read” the Holy Ghost was not,” we need not be stumbled by the expression. It simply means “He was not fully manifested and poured out on the Church.” Peter, and James, and John, no doubt, had the Spirit now, when our Lord was speaking. But they had Him much more fully after our Lord was glorified.


The difference, relative in itself, is uttered in an absolute form: because the advancement in the Spirit’s influence is so important that the earlier does not enter into consideration, and the word holds good, ‘The former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind,’” Isa. .vxl 17. All that was said upon ch. i. 17 is true here likewise. That the Holy Ghost comes so much more abundantly into mention in the New Testament, points us to the fact that a great change in this respect had taken place.

Leon Morris

But there are references to the Spirits activities among people in earlier days. … So it is clear that the Spirit was active in people before this time. When John has said things like “So is everyone who has been born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), he surely cannot mean that the Spirit has not yet been given. He goes on to say that the reason for his statement about the Spirit is that “Jesus was not yet glorified.”

Putting all this together, we can see that what John is saying is something like this. It is true that the Spirit was active in some measure in Old Testament days and in the days when Jesus was on earth. But he did not come in all his fullness until the work of Jesus had been done. In the providence of God the work of the Son preceded that of the Spirit. The era of the Spirit, the time when the full scope of the Spirit’s work would appear, was “not yet.”

John Macarthur

His enhanced role under the New Covenant is more intimate, more personal, but still similar in character to the way we see him functioning in the Old Testament…

We have just seen that He (the Holy Spirit) graciously and sovereignly regenerated individuals during Old Testament times. It logically follows that, in the lives of those in whom He brought new life, the Spirit would have been busily engaged in the significant ministry of preserving and perfecting….A New Testament perspective definitely makes it clear that God, through the Holy Spirit, draws us to Himself and preserves us in that relationship (Rom. 8:29-30, 35-39; Jude 24-25). But we tend to overlook or be unaware of the fact that the Spirit also preserved Old Testament saints in their relationships with God.

See also John Macarthur’s sermon on John 7:37-39 where he interprets the promised Holy Spirit here as power to witness.

And so Jesus says, “You can believe now and have your thirst quenched now, but you shall seven and a half months away, all of a sudden find inside of you are going to be turned loose rivers of living water.” You know, that early church in the book of Acts, they just gushed all over everywhere, didn’t they? Man, they were just drowning people in the living water. But it can’t happen till Jesus goes away. And when He comes, the Holy Spirit, He’ll turn on the rivers. And that’s the story of the church, rivers of blessing….

…Now I want to draw a footnote out of this verse very quickly. Verse 39, there are some people who teach that there are Christians who don’t have the Holy Spirit. That is absolutely anti-Scripture, but it’s very common. Notice verse 39. “But this spoke He of the Spirit whom they that believe on Him should receive.” Who receives the Holy Spirit? They that believe on Christ. Part of them, some of them? All of them! Romans 8:9 if you don’t have that scribbled somewhere in your Bible or in your brain, you’re missing it, it says this, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” Turn that around. If you belong to Him, you have His Spirit.