Acts 1 presents us with Christ’s promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit and chapter 2 tells us of his arrival. We get the impression that the Spirit was uniquely commissioned for the New Covenant ministry to empower Christians in ministry.
And with that, as many have presumed, his appearances in the Old Testament can be treated as unusual—ad hoc events, as in Saul’s filling and later loss, and David’s filling (1 Samuel 11&16) or in special moments of empowerment for Israel’s elders (Numbers 11) and also in some of the Judges.
It’s clear that something about the Spirit’s ministry changes between the Old and New Testaments—the book of Acts, for instance, presents him as God’s communing and guiding presence in every aspect of church life. No book in the Old Testament displays such ongoing activism by the Spirit.
Which raises the question about the Spirit’s ministry in Old Testament saints—of those deemed righteous by God—as seen in Abraham and others. Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus that the Spirit is the agent of new life—in being born again (John 3)—and Peter also affirmed new birth, presumably by the Spirit’s use of the Scriptures (1 Peter). So we need to ask whether this is a continuing biblical reality from the beginning of Scriptures and onward.
Abraham, the patriarch, offers an answer. In Galatians Paul made the point that salvation is by the Spirit—“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). It’s almost an offhanded comment, perhaps pointing to widespread 1st century Church awareness of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit’s work in new birth.
To press the point, Paul tends to mention the Spirit’s ministry as a given—a belief that everyone in the audience already grasps—rather than as a point to be expanded. In Romans 5:1-5, for instance, he anchors his comments on applied faith with a causal “because” that reveals the Spirit’s crucial role: “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” He also goes on in Romans 8 to make the Spirit’s ministry pivotal to his discourse about the applied side of faith in chapters 5-7.
What catches our attention in Galatians is that Abraham is central to this reality. And more than that, his faith is seen to be a ministry of the Spirit; and his faith, in turn, is the exemplar of faith for everyone at any time and anywhere: “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7).
Verse 7 was set up by the rhetorical question Paul raised for the Galatians that tied 3:3—“Having begun by the Spirit . . .”—to Abraham’s role in 3:7. He asked in 5&6, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you . . . do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?”
The “just as” suggests that the work in New Testament saints is aligned with Abraham’s faith: both are the Spirit’s work. So, too, later in Galatians Paul returned to Abraham in an allegorical reading of Sarah’s son, Isaac, as a divine counterpoint to Hagar’s son (Ishmael). Isaac is called “him who was born according to the Spirit” (4:29). Paul’s point may only address Sarah’s need to have her body prepared by the Spirit in order to bear a child, but the “just as” seems to suggest more.
Why raise the issue? Because, as I wrote last week, the church hasn’t done well in tracing the Spirit’s ministry through her history. And one key insight to gain and retain is that the Spirit brings life in both the Old Testament and in the New.
Without that certainty we can slip into the notion that some sort of spirituality once existed without the Spirit—and if it happened before, perhaps it can happen again.
The answer is, no: both in the Old and New, the Spirit gives life, and he uniquely brings God’s heart and life to sinners so that they and we are back to life—as in the dry bones of Ezekiel. There are certainly new dimensions in the Spirit’s New Testament role, but regeneration isn’t one of them.