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.

OT Illustration

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

NT illus

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.

  • Jared O.

    Isn’t this again where the important distinction of redemptive history and redemption applied has to come in? John 7:39 indicates that the Spirit had not been given *because* Jesus was not yet glorified. So Jesus’ resurrection in history was the catalyst for the Spirit’s NT apostolic work, but I hesitate to make implications from this verse to the application of those redemptive events where the Spirit works any less in individual believers in the OT than in the NT. The Spirit worked differently in the OT than in the NT in terms of redemptive history of course, but I’d love to hear the argument drawn out more that this also applies to soteriological individual application.

  • Faythe

    This is a very helpful article….thank you!