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The Ascending Christ, The Descending Spirit

I well remember many discussion with friends, as a young Christian, about the precise relationship between the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament era and the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament era. Many have suggested that only prophets, priests and kings received the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament economy. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Holy Spirit came temporarily upon God's anointed office bearers in the Old Covenant. In essence, the insistence is that the Spirit of God did not indwell believers from the fall to Pentecost. But, is this really what the Scriptures teach?

Clearly, the Holy Spirit was at work in the hearts and lives of his people prior to Christ coming into the world and prior to his ascension to glory. Apart from the Holy Spirit, no Old Testament believer could have had his or her heart regenerated. In John 3, Jesus speaks of regeneration as being "born of the Spirit." He then reminds Nicodemus (the teacher of Israel) that he should have known about the regenerating work of the Spirit from the Old Testament. For anyone to have the application of the prospective work of redemption in the Old Testament era, they had to have the eternal Spirit--by whom "Christ offered himself...as a perfect sacrifice to God" (Heb. 9:14)--working in his or her heart. The same Spirit who worked in the hearts of Old Testament believers was the eternal Spirit who was present at the cross with Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to God. For a believer to be regenerated, justified, sanctified, adopted and ultimately glorified, he or she must have the Holy Spirit at work in his or her heart. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this point so well when it states, "They who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation" (WCF 3.6).

There is also the work of the Spirit in the theocracy. The Spirit worked in the leaders of Old Covenant Israel at certain times and for specific purposes. The Scripture speaks of Him "breaking in upon" or "coming upon" prophets, priests and kings at special redemptive-historical moments. B.B. Warfield has noted in his article, "The Spirit of God in the Old Testament, "These representations concerning the official theocratic Spirit culminate in Isaiah’s prophetic descriptions of the Spirit-endowed Messiah." The temporality of the coming of the Spirit upon the spiritual leaders in Israel, in order to enable them to carry out the special function of the office, intimated that a final Prophet, Priest and King was yet to come. The Spirit knit Christ together in the womb of the virgin. The Spirit descended on Him at His baptism--anointing Him at the inauguration of His public Messianic ministry. The Spirit was at work in Jesus at every step of His ministry--even unto His offering of Himself up to the Father on the cross (Heb. 9:14) and in His rising from the dead (Rom. 8:11).

However, Jesus often spoke of something new regarding the sending of the Spirit after his ascension. At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus said, "'He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified." So what was this new relationship that existed between the Son, the Spirit and His people?

While the Son of God is eternally one with the Holy Spirit—each member of the Godhead being “the same in substance and equal in power and glory”—there is a special relationship that the Spirit sustains in relation to the Son and his finished work in redemptive history. By his death on the cross, Jesus purchased the Spirit in order to be able to send Him to His people throughout the world. The relationship that the glorified Christ holds in respect to the Spirit of God, after His ascension, is that of an authoritative sending of the Spirit for the application of the now-finished work of redemption in the establishment of the Kingdom of God throughout the world. Jonathan Edwards once explained this aspect of redemption when he wrote,

“The Father appoints and provides the Redeemer, and Himself accepts the price and grants the thing purchased; the Son is the Redeemer by offering up himself, and is the price; and the Holy Ghost immediately communicates to us the thing purchased by communicating himself, and He is the thing purchased. The sum of all that Christ purchased for man was the Holy Ghost.”

This means that the Holy Spirit comes to apply the finished work of redemption to the souls of those for whom Christ died and rose again. The work of the Spirit, post the resurrection of Jesus is a work of glorifying the risen and reigning glorified Son. In light of the now-glorified Son, the Spirit animates God’s people to be fruitful witnesses to him among the nations throughout the world. This is what John meant when he wrote, "the Spirit was not yet sent." (John 7:39) Sinclair Ferguson explains, "The Spirit comes to us from the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. In that sense, the Spirit had not yet been given to Christian believers. He comes to indwell the whole church of Jesus Christ...The Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus is sent by the Lord Jesus on the Day of Pentecost." This explains why Jesus told his disciples just before his ascension to the Father’s right hand, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). There is a globalization of the work of redemption when the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to accomplish that for which the Son had come into the world. The now ascended and reigning Christ has been given the right to the nations as an inheritance from His Father based on what he did in His life, death and resurrection.

In light of this truth, how ought we to be crying out to Christ to send us the Spirit to empower us to bear witness to Him and His finished work of redemption! Christ has promised to send us the Spirit for this very thing. He has guaranteed this privilege to all who believe in Him. It is one of the principle benefits of his ascension to the throne of God. May God give us grace to understand, love and pray for this blessing so that we will be fruitful witnesses to the glorified and reigning Son.

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