The gift of the Holy Spirit has always been God’s means of regenerating his people to new life and empowering spiritual leaders, but since the miracle of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has been given to all believers to enable them to carry out the wide variety ministries God calls them to, to enable supernatural signs and gifts, and to guide Christians in their gospel proclamation.
The Holy Spirit is not just given in the NT; he was operative throughout the whole of the OT: the Spirit is the creative power of God, was responsible for empowering civil and military leaders in the nation of Israel, and anointed the kings of Israel to enable them to fulfill their calling. Since the miracle of Pentecost, which was the fulfillment of OT prophecy, the Christian church has received the Spirit in a democratized fashion. Now, all Christians receive the gift of the Spirit to enable them to carry out the wide variety ministries God calls them to. The Spirit also enables supernatural gifts and signs to operate, such as prophecy and speaking in tongues. The Spirit guides Christians in their faith and is the seal upon them that they will ultimately inherit all the blessings of Christ. And above all else, the Spirit is given to shine a light upon Jesus and direct the focus of our heart’s confidence and adoration on him alone.
A mistake made by many is in thinking that the Holy Spirit makes his first appearance among God’s people on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. We will never fully grasp the magnitude of God’s gift to us of his Spirit until we understand his presence and power in the OT.
The Hebrew term ruach (breath, wind, spirit) appears 377 times in the OT (only 264 of which are translated by the Greek pneuma in the LXX). 94 of these 377 instances refer to the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit is called “your Holy Spirit” three times in the OT (Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10–11). The Hebrew ruach often denotes the human spirit as a disposition or evidence of life (see Hos. 4:12; 5:4; Isa. 54:6; cf. also Prov. 11:13; 15:13; 16:18; 18:14; 29:23; Eccl. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17; 3:21; 4:4, 6; 10:4; Job 7:11; 10:12). Anthony Thiselton contends that no significance should be placed on the fact that ruach is feminine. “It is,” he notes, ‘an accident of convention that ‘spirit’ (ruach) in Hebrew is feminine, and ‘spirit’ (pneuma) in Greek is neuter. It does not suggest that Greeks viewed children as subpersonal merely because teknon, ‘child,’ is neuter” (see his The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today,121).
There are several ways in which the Spirit of God was operative in the OT. The Spirit is portrayed as the creative power of God as well as the one responsible for bringing renewal and new life to both the material creation and humanity (see Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30; Isa. 32:14–15; 63:11–14; Job 33:4). The Spirit is also responsible for empowering both civil and military administrators in the nation of Israel (Num. 11:16–17). In Judges, with the exception of Abimelech, at least seven judges receive the enabling of the Spirit to perform ministries on behalf of the whole community of Israel (for example, see Judg. 3:10; 6:34). Military commanders, such as Joshua, were empowered and enabled by the Spirit (Num. 27:18). We see this especially in the case of Samson (Judg. 14:5–6; 15:14–15; 16:20).
Kings in Israel were anointed with the Spirit to enable them to fulfill their calling (see 1 Sam. 10:1–10; 16:12–14). The Spirit also empowered and enabled some with unique skills for the sake of the people of Israel, such as those commissioned to build the tabernacle (Exod. 31:1–4). The Spirit sustained an especially important relationship to those who were called upon as prophets (see Num. 11:24–30; 2 Sam. 23:1–2; 1 Chron. 12:18; 2 Chron. 15:1–2; 20:14; Mic. 3:8). The Spirit also enabled some to excel in the interpretation of revelatory dreams and visions (Dan. 4:8–9, 18; 5:11,14). To be in God’s presence was to be in the presence of his Spirit (Ps. 139:7).
In numerous texts the Spirit of God is responsible for the future salvation and renewal of God’s people. The presence and power of the Spirit will characterize the ministry of the Messiah and will be central in the fulfillment of the new and eternal covenant.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:1–2; see also 42:1; 59:21; 61:1; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26–27; Joel 2:28–29).
These many texts shed considerable light on what David had in mind in Psalm 51:11 when he prayed: “take not your Holy Spirit from me.” This does not mean he envisions the loss of salvation or the withdrawal of divine grace. As we have noted above, aside from the saving activity of the Holy Spirit in the OT and the empowering ministry by which believers are sanctified and enabled to live holy lives, the Holy Spirit was poured out on select individuals to equip them to perform important tasks in the covenant community of Israel.
These texts indicate that there was a ministry of the Holy Spirit in the OT, unrelated to personal salvation or character, designed solely to empower, enable and equip someone for a task to which God had appointed him/her. Such, I believe, is what David has in mind in Psalm 51:11. His prayer is that God would not withdraw the enabling anointing of the Spirit that empowers and equips him to lead Israel as King. Indeed, he may well have had in mind that disturbing scene where “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Sam. 16:14) and prays that such would never befall him.
Although the OT is largely silent on what later came to be known as the trinitarian nature of God’s existence, there is no mistaking the fact that the Spirit is truly divine. We see this in Psalm 51:11, 104:29–30, 139:7, and Haggai 2:4–5.
The Gift of the Spirit in the NT
Pentecost is the day in the church calendar that typically comes on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of Passover (see Exod. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15–16; Deut. 16:9–10, 16; 2 Chron. 8:13). It was on Pentecost that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus. As we’ve just noted, this was not the inaugural appearance of God’s Spirit, but there was a decidedly new and more expansive dimension to his activity and empowering presence in believers that began on that day.
Jesus issued this promise to his disciples on the eve of his ascension: “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). This event was a singular and unrepeatable phenomenon in redemptive history. There is only one Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the people of God. However, whereas the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurred only once, the effects or fruit of the Spirit’s coming are experienced at all times throughout the course of church history.
We are told in Acts 2:2–3 that, when the Spirit came, there was “a sound like mighty rushing wind” that filled the house where they were gathered. This makes sense, insofar as the Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) is also the Greek word for wind or breath, and “wind” is a recurring symbol of the Spirit (cf. John 3:8; Ezek. 37:9–14). Others argue that not much should be made of this given the fact that the Greek word for “wind” in Acts 2:2 is not pneuma but pnoē.
Likewise, we are told in v. 3 that “tongues as of fire” appeared to everyone and “rested” on each one of them. As noted above, during the time of the old covenant the Spirit ministered corporately in Israel and was given to selected individuals (such as kings, priests, prophets), but not all. In the new covenant the Spirit now comes upon and resides within each believer individually. This is the “democratization” of the Spirit.
This point is confirmed in verse 17, where Peter cites the prophecy of Joel that, when the Spirit comes, he will be poured out “on all flesh,” that is to say, not just on kings and prophets and priests but on every child of God: every man and woman, every son and daughter, young and old (see Acts 2:17). Look closely at the extent of the Spirit’s presence: “all flesh” (2:17), i.e., irrespective of age (“old men” and “young men”), without regard to gender (“sons” and “daughters” and “male servants” and “female servants”), with no thought or special favors given to social rank (“servants”), and on people of every race (“all flesh”; cf. 2:39; i.e., both Jew and Gentile).
The Apostle Peter, quoting Joel, tells us that what is happening on the Day of Pentecost is something that is to characterize “the last days,” the latter being a reference to the entire inter-advent age spanning the time between the two comings of Christ (see 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; Jas. 5:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 1 John 2:18; cf. also 1 Cor. 10:11; 1 Tim. 4:1).
The Meaning of Pentecost
Although the Spirit was quite active during the time of the old covenant, Pentecost marks the first appearance of the fullness of the Spirit to empower and permanently indwell and encourage and enable all of God’s people individually. The events recorded in Acts are also the fulfillment of three prophetic words: first, the prophecy of Joel 2:28–32 (in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant); second, the prophecy of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11–12; and third, the prophecy of Jesus himself in John 14–16 concerning the “other Comforter.” This gift of the Spirit was itself the work of the risen Christ:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32–33).
The Powerful Work of the Spirit who came at Pentecost
But why was the Spirit given in this manner, universally to all God’s people, to indwell them permanently? There are several answers in the book of Acts itself.
First, the Holy Spirit fills and empowers God’s people to boldly proclaim the truth of the gospel. When Peter was asked by what power the man lame from birth had been healed, we read this:
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them … (Acts 4:8).
This was in fulfillment of something Jesus himself had prophesied,
When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Matt. 10:20).
The Holy Spirit was already indwelling Peter, but on this occasion an extraordinary impartation of power was needed. We read of much the same thing later in Acts 4:
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31; cf. Acts 5:32; 6:10; 9:17–19; 13:9–11; 18:25).
This was especially the case when Stephen was testifying to the religious leaders about Jesus. In the face of certain death, Stephen found courage and power and boldness to unashamedly proclaim the truth of the gospel. How did he do it? Here is what we read in Acts 7:
Now when they [the religious leaders] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:54–56).
In other words, we may be filled with the Spirit in a spiritual emergency. This is an immediate and special endowment of power to fulfill an especially important and urgent task. Thus, someone who is already full of the Spirit may experience a further/additional filling. That is, no matter “how much” of the Holy Spirit one may have, there’s always room for “more” (see Acts 4:8, 31; 13:9; Luke 1:41, 67).
Second, the empowering indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit was essential for God’s people to carry out the wide varieties of ministry for which they were responsible. One example of this is seen in Acts 6 where one of the qualifications for serving as a deacon in the local church is that a person be “full of the Spirit” (Acts 6:3; 11:23–24; 13:52). Even elders are identified, equipped, and appointed by the Holy Spirit. Paul said this to the elders of the church in Ephesus:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Third, the ability to perform signs and wonders and miracles is explicitly said to be the work of the Holy Spirit in and through God’s people. For example,
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8; cf. Acts 4:30; 10:38).
In the writings of Luke, the word “power” is almost always a synonym for the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to God’s people and provides guidance to them regarding where, when, and to whom ministry should be extended. The explanation for why Philip preached to the Ethiopian eunuch is explicitly stated:
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot” (Acts 8:29; see v. 39; 10:19–20; 11:12).
The Spirit’s role in providing guidance for missionary and evangelistic outreach is clearly seen in Acts 13:2:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. . . So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit … (Acts 13:2, 4).
Likewise, we read in Acts 16 of how Paul was re-directed into Macedonia:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them (Acts 16:6–7; cf. 15:28; 19:21; 21:22–23).
Fifth, it was by means of the power of the Holy Spirit that God’s people would prophesy and speak in tongues. We read in Acts 11:27–30 of prophets who traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch:
And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (Acts 11:28; see also 21:4, 10–11).
And when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying (Acts 19:6).
When we look beyond Acts, we see the Holy Spirit regenerating those formerly dead in trespasses and sins (John 3:1–8; Titus 3:4–7) and empowering the believer to resist the seductive allure of sin (Rom. 8:4–5, 13). The Spirit’s indwelling presence in a person is itself an indication that he/she belongs to Christ (Rom. 8:9–11; cf. Eph. 2:22). The Spirit who leads the believer (Rom. 8:14) also awakens us to our status as the adopted children of God (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6–7) and bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). The Spirit intercedes on our behalf when we are too weak or ignorant to know how to pray (Rom. 8:26–27) and supplies us with gifts so that we might serve one another to each person’s edification (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:7–11). It is in the Spirit that we are baptized by Christ, resulting in our incorporation into the spiritual organism of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13).
The gift of the Spirit to us is God’s “guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22) and “seal” that we will assuredly inherit the fullness of his promises (see Eph. 1:13–14; 2 Tim. 1:14). It is the Spirit, not the flesh, that enables us to bear spiritual fruit to the glory of God (Gal. 5:16–26). The Spirit equips us for battle with Satan and energizes our prayers (Eph. 6:10–20) and fills us with joy even in the midst of trial and suffering (1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:6–8; 1 Pet. 4:14). And above all else, the Spirit is given to shine a light upon Jesus and direct the focus of our heart’s confidence and adoration on him alone (John 14:25–26; 15:26; 16:7–15).
- Anthony C. Thiselton,. The Holy Spirit—In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today
- Craig S. Keener, Gift & Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today
- Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
- Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament Church and Today