This week’s question comes from my mom in California—and it just so happens, as this hits the newsstands, it’s her birthday. “I suppose the Holy Spirit has always existed, but was the appearance at Pentecost the first time it was revealed?”
Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, which is considered the birthday of the Church. The story of Pentecost goes like this: Jesus’ death and resurrection was history. His final 40 days on earth had come to an end. On his last morning on earth, Jesus told his disciples that it was up to them to testify to the world about him. He also told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for “the gift the Father has promised…the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1.4-5). A week later, the disciples were in a house in Jerusalem when the sound like a “violent rushing wind” filled the house and “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated came to rest upon each of them” and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.2-4). The disciples spilled out into the street where a crowd had gathered. There Peter preached a rather simple message that resulted in 3,000 people turning their lives around and choosing to follow Jesus and his teachings.
But the question remains, “Is this the first time the Holy Spirit appears?”
Actually, no. Although the Spirit doesn’t gain much prominence until the book of Acts, there is much written about the Spirit in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit, as a title and entity, is mentioned three times (Psalm 51.11, Isaiah 63.10 and 63.11). The Spirit of God is mentioned 38 times. There has been some question whether the Holy Spirit is synonymous with the Spirit of God, but as we shall see, the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament seems to be identical to the work of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament.
The first mention of the Spirit is in Genesis in the creation story. There we read that the Spirit of God hovered above the dark waters of creation (1.2). Then God says, “’Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (1.3)—which seems to be, if nothing else, a metaphor for the events at Pentecost when Peter and the gang brought the “light” to the mob in Jerusalem.
Later, in Exodus 31, we read God telling Moses that he has filled a particular craftsman with his Spirit so that he had all the “skill, abilities, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts” so that he could build all the accoutrements of the Tent of Meeting.
Then in Numbers 24.2 the Holy Spirit comes upon a “prophet for hire” named Balaam who had been contracted to curse the people of Israel. But with the Spirit’s intervention he began to prophesy and gave a blessing instead (Numbers 24.2ff).
There are many other mentions of the Spirit in the Old Testament, but probably the most profound experience is found in 1st Samuel 19. The story opens earlier when God rejected the lineage of King Saul as the rulers of Israel and chose David to replace Saul. Saul was unhappy about this turn of events and he spent years trying to hunt David down and kill him. Then, “Word came to Saul: ‘David is in Naioth at Ramah’; so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied. Finally, he himself left for Ramah and went to the great cistern at Secu. And he asked, ‘Where are Samuel and David?’
“’Over in Naioth at Ramah,’ they said.
So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night. That is why people ask, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” (1 Samuel 19.19-24).
The implication of this powerful manifestation of the Spirit upon these men is in many ways likened to that in Acts. The power of God was shown in both accounts and the work of God was able to continue unimpeded by those who might oppose the work.
Finally, the Old Testament speaks, by way of instruction, of the Holy Spirit in similar ways as the New Testament. Isaiah writes of the consequences of “grieving the Holy Spirit,” sentiments we read from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4.30.
So clearly, Pentecost is not the first appearance
of the Holy Spirit. But the closing of the book
of Acts wasn’t the last appearance either. Indeed,
God is yet working powerfully in the lives and hearts
of those who are willing to be obedient and open
to God’s Spirit.