Is God’s Spirit a minor character until the New Testament? This is a common misconception. Myk Habets in The Progressive Mystery insists that the Spirit is highly active in the Old Testament. Yes, there is a “fuller revelation of his identity in the New Testament,” but the Spirit “is a person, fully at work, and fully God” in the pages of the Old Testament (p. 2).
How then does the Old Testament speak of God’s Spirit? Habets summarizes the Spirit’s work under three categories: creation, community, and consummation. These areas of the Spirit’s activity are prominent in the Old and picked up and developed in the New.
As early as Genesis 1:2, the Spirit is present in the very act of creation. In this verse, “the Spirit of God is not merely the ‘wind’ of God blowing across the cosmos, but rather the personal, creative, and very active presence of God awaiting the proper time to begin the creation process” (p. 25). Isaiah 40:13-14 reveals that the Spirit is more than simply a creative force. Rather, he is the creative mind. The Spirit’s creative work is repeated in the re-creation after the flood (Gen 8:1) and the creation of Israel (Ex 14:19-20; 15:10).
This foreshadows the new creation which begins with Christ’s coming and is completed when He returns.
God’s Spirit is “clearly the active agent in bringing about Israel’s deliverance” in the Exodus (p. 29). The Spirit “is [God’s] abiding presence with the people” (p. 30) and becomes the means by which Israel experiences this covenant judgment (Isa 4:4) or blessing (Isa 32:15).
In addition to dwelling with his people, “he bestows gifts upon certain members of the community” such as “strength, energy, courage, and wisdom” (p. 30). The Spirit enables the building of the tabernacle (Ex 35:34; 36:1ff), the deliverance of Israel (Judg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25), and the success of her kings and leaders (1 Sam; Zech 4:6). Also, “one of his most pervasive activities” in the Old Testament is inspiring the prophets as special mediators of God’s revelation (p. 34). Though powerful and effective, these abilities “were temporary gifts from God” (p. 35).
The work of the Spirit in the community of Israel forms a platform for understanding his work in the community of Christ’s body, the church.
The Old Testament prophetic hope prepares us for a new work of the Spirit. This is seen in the Messiah, the community, and the individual.
First, the prophets looked beyond the exile and anticipated an ideal king ruling over Israel. Unlike the failures of Israel’s judges and kings, this ruler would be divinely chosen and empowered to establish a truly righteous rule. His qualification was a “special endowment and association with the divine Spirit of God” (p. 37) as seen in Isaiah 11:1-15, 10.
The prophets also anticipated a new work of the Spirit in the community. Isaiah 63:7-19 predicts God’s “Holy Spirit” being specially present with his people. Joel 2:28-29 anticipates a corporate outpouring of the Spirit that is “not to be confined to ecstatic, prophetic utterance but with the wider hope for the renewal of the ravaged land, of the nation, and of its relation to God” (p. 39).
Finally, the individual will experience the Spirit’s internal work. Each one must experience forgiveness, as seen in Psalm 51. Isaiah 54:21 shows how the Spirit will dwell in the individual. In this context of personal indwelling, “the New Testament doctrines of regeneration and sanctification are to be found” (p. 40).
Far from obscure or overlooked, God’s Spirit is present and prominent in the Old Testament. The Spirit is especially seen at work in creation, community, and consummation. These areas are important in themselves but also prepare one for the fuller revelation of the Spirit’s person and activity in the New Testament.
This post is inspired by chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5 of The Progressive Mystery: Tracing the Elusive Spirit and Scripture and Tradition by Myk Habets (Lexham Press, 2019).