Is the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit only for New Testament Christians or did Christians living before the coming of the Messiah also have this indwelling presence? If you object to my use of “Christians” to describe those believers living before Christ, I already know how you are going to answer this question (a Christian is someone who follows Christ). I would affirm that all regenerate believers in all ages experience the Spirit’s indwelling work and I would like to explain why.
Let me start off by answering the common objections to this position based on John 7:39 and 14:17. The story of Joshua in the Old Testament gives us a paradigm to differentiate between the indwelling work of the Spirit and his subsequent work of filling and gifting. In Numbers 27:18 we read, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him.” The parallel in Deuteronomy 34:9 also says, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.” Notice that Joshua was already indwelt by the Spirit before Moses laid hands on him, but after he did, he was filled with the spirit of wisdom. This distinction between being indwelt by the Spirit in Numbers 27:18 and being filled with the spirit of wisdom in Deuteronomy 34:9 (the receiving of new gifts from the Spirit – in the case of Joshua, a gift of wisdom for leadership) is key to interpreting the falling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. The way that I interpret the Spirit’s coming in Acts 2 is that the Christians were already indwelt by the Spirit, but the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is the receiving of new gifts from the Spirit that had never been given before. This being “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) is the receiving of the New Testament ministry of the Spirit with new gifts such as apostleship and speaking in tongues which marked the beginning of this new era. It is in this sense that his disciples received the Spirit (John 7:39). To receive the Holy Spirit is simply another way of speaking of receiving gifts from the Spirit. The receiving of the gifts of the Spirit in Scripture is spoken as a receiving of the Spirit himself. King Saul received the Spirit in the sense that he received the gift of prophecy but did not have the saving indwelling work of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:6-11; 19:20-24).
Just as Joshua received the spirit of wisdom (which I interpret to be the Holy Spirit based on the parallel to Numbers 27:18) from Moses, even though he was already indwelt by the Spirit, the disciples received the Spirit of New Testament gifts and power, even though they were already indwelt by him. Hence, it is a kind of “second blessing” after the initial indwelling which is spoken of as a receiving of the Spirit to mark the dramatic change which takes place due to the new gifts which are given. In John 7:39, the Greek text lacks the word “given” and I think it should be left that way. I would agree with Sinclair Ferguson’s interpretation that when John says “the Spirit was not yet” he is saying that the differences between the Old and New Testament work of the Spirit are so dramatic that it is as if the Holy Spirit did not exist yet. Translators are afraid that if they don’t insert “given” into the text for clarity, people will mistakenly deny the eternality of the Holy Spirit not recognizing John’s exaggerated language to describe the new age of the Spirit.
When Jesus says that the Spirit “dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17), he is not denying that the Spirit is in them now any more than he is denying that the Spirit is with them now when he says that the Spirit will “be with you forever” (John 14:16). If Jesus can speak of the Spirit being with them in the future and yet not deny that the Spirit is with them now, can he not also speak of the Spirit being in them in the future without denying that he is in them now? The future tense is used to describe the certainty of the action, not denying a present reality. The present tense verb that is translated “dwells with” in John 14:17 to describe the work of the Spirit among the disciples before Pentecost is also used in 1 John 3:24 to describe the indwelling work of the Spirit now: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” Dwelling or abiding with and being in are two different ways of describing the same work of the Spirit in the life of believers. And now that Christ is in heaven, the Holy Spirit takes on the additional role of being the representative of Christ on earth who has been sent by the Father to communicate Christ’s words to his followers through the inscripturation of the New Testament canon and enlightening our minds to these truths (John 14:26).