Holy Spirit in the Old Testament: Upon or Within People?

I have heard it often taught that the Holy Spirit only came “upon” people in the Old Testament. This supposedly changed in the New Testament, specifically after the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit now coming into and dwelling within us. Before the Spirit was upon, and now the Spirit dwells within.

Unfortunately, this teaching is a theological old wives tale. Over time, it’s been repeated over and over, from preacher to preacher, without anyone actually verifying its accuracy.

However, when we look at scripture, it becomes clear that this distinction has no basis in fact. Although the Holy Spirit wasn’t universally given to the people of God in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit did dwell within many godly individuals, just as the Holy Spirit dwells within us as Christians.

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
It’s understandable that many believe that the Holy Spirit only came upon (or rested on) saints in the Old Testament. If you were to do a survey of all the verses that mention the Holy Spirit, you would find that many verses do use this language to describe the giving of the Holy Spirit. (For a few examples, see Numbers 11:25; Judges 3:10; 1 Samuel 16:13)

Yet, there are also instances when scripture describes the Holy Spirit filling people. Several examples of this can be found in Exodus, where God fills individuals with the Holy Spirit in order to construct the tabernacle:

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. (Exodus 31:3)

Joshua, commissioned by the Moses to lead the Israelites, was also filled with the Holy Spirit when Moses laid his hands on him:

Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deut. 34:9)

The Apostle Peter, referring to the Old Testament prophets, specifically states that the Holy Spirit was within them:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (1 Peter 1:10-11)

Although the Old Testament does indeed describe the Holy Spirit coming on or upon individuals, this is just a different way of describing the Holy Spirit entering or filling a person. In 2 Chronicles 24:20, we read that “the Spirit of God came on Zechariah.” However, 1 Peter 1:11 indicates that the Holy Spirit was within the prophets, which would include Zechariah. So while the Old Testament commonly (although not exclusively) describes the Spirit coming upon, the New Testament clarifies that this meant the Spirit was also within them. It’s simply two different ways to describe the same phenomenon.

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament
Most everyone agrees that the Holy Spirit dwells in us as Christians. Paul makes this clear in Romans 8:9, writing that for true Christians, “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” When the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, all the believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:4) Again, language describing an indwelling of God’s Spirit. (Other examples include Acts 4:8, 31; 9:17; 2 Timothy 1:14)

Interestingly, there are also New Testament examples where the Holy Spirit is described as coming “upon” people!

We read the following in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism:

Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

The Greek word here for “upon” could also be translated as “on” (epi, ἐπί). The ancient translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), used this same word (epi) for the Hebrew equivalent of “upon” (al, עַל) when the Spirit came upon various persons.

Jesus, foretelling the gift of the Holy Spirit, told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come “upon” (epi, ἐπί) them:

“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:7b-8)

Still more examples would include Acts 10:44 and Acts 19:6, both of which use “upon” when describing the giving of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit is only “upon” us now in the New Covenant. As I’ve shown, the Bible uses different terminology to describe the same interaction between the Holy Spirit and humans. When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, it also filled them and dwelled within them. All are simply different ways of describing the same event.

Although the Holy Spirit was more selectively given in the Old Testament, the manner in which it was given does not differ at all from the New Testament. The Holy Spirit filled individuals both before and after Christ. The difference in terms is simply alternate expressions used when describing the same functional event.

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