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Bible Q&A: Does the Holy Spirit get mentioned before the Day of Pentecost, and in the Old Testament?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Does the Holy Spirit get mentioned before the Day of Pentecost, and in the Old Testament?

Answer:

The Holy Spirit certainly does appear before Pentecost and in the Old Testament. There is some continuity in the way the Spirit is revealed in both Old and New Testaments, but also some differences.

Starting with Acts 2, there is a direct link with the Old Testament in Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost, straight after the disciples have burst on to the streets of Jerusalem, speaking in tongues through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Peter quotes there from the Old Testament book of Joel, which talks about the Spirit of God being ‘poured out on all flesh’ in years to come (see Joel 2.28–32). Peter claims that the sudden arrival of the Holy Spirit on that day is a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, spoken many centuries before.

The earliest mention of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, though, is found in Genesis 1.2. English translations of this verse differ, because the same Hebrew word can be translated as either ‘spirit’ or ‘wind’. The English Standard Version says that ‘the Spirit of God was hovering’ over the dark waters of the formless earth. The ESV seems to be picturing something like a large bird with wings outstretched, and there is an interesting repetition of this image at Jesus’ baptism, when the Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ (Luke 3.22). The New Revised Standard Version’s translation says, ‘A wind from God swept over the face of the waters’, and the NRSV wording is echoed in the ‘sound like the rush of a violent wind’ that the disciples heard on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.2).

The Spirit appears again in Genesis 2, this time as the ‘breath’ of God – another way to translate the same Hebrew word. When the first man is created from dust, God brings him to life by breathing into his nostrils (Genesis 2.7). We see exactly the same idea in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is shown a huge army of skeletons being brought to life by God’s breath (Ezekiel 37.1–4). Again, the New Testament also uses the same picture, when Jesus breathes on his disciples after the resurrection and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20.22).

In other Old Testament books, we see the Holy Spirit falling on people suddenly, to enable them to carry out various particular tasks for God. The judges, especially, are often described as being empowered by the Spirit of God to defeat Israel’s enemies, including Gideon in Judges 6.34 and Samson in Judges 15.14. The craftsman who led the design and construction of the tabernacle, Bezalel, is said to have been ‘filled with the Spirit of God’ for the job (Exodus 35.31). Then there is King David: 1 Samuel 16.13 tells us that ‘the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon’ him from the day he was anointed as the future king.

These appearances of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament are for special people, chosen for special purposes. But the big difference between those references and the prophecy spoken by Joel is that Joel promises a future outpouring of the Spirit ‘on all flesh’, regardless of age, gender or social status. It’s this outpouring that we see for the first time in the book of Acts. In the New Testament, the power of the Holy Spirit is available to all. As the new Church grows, the Spirit’s work is seen in ever more diverse ways, with gifts and fruit for every believer (see 1 Corinthians 12.4–11 and Galatians 5.22–23).

So the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is not a totally new event. The Holy Spirit is a powerful presence from the time of creation and throughout the history of Israel, right up to the coming of Jesus, and onward to the birth and ministry of the Church.

For further study, check out our six-session study guide on the Holy Spirit. 


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This article was written by Lisa Cherrett, our Production Editor​.

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Author: Bible Society, 28 October 2019 (Last updated: 8 November 2019)

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