There is a clarification to make here to ensure the study is well within the perimeters of the Bible: Although the Spirit is unchanging, He may have differing functions. A cursory study of the Old Testament reveals that the Spirit worked with His chosen people, just as He worked with the apostles and continues to do so with us today. This raises a question about what Jesus unambiguously said about the receiving of the Spirit after His ascension.
Old Testament Examples
Perhaps, at this point, it is appropriate to look more closely into what the Old Testament records about how the Spirit worked with the ancient saints. The Exodus highlights how God worked through Moses to emancipate His people from the clutches of Egypt. The Book of Exodus does not state that the Spirit was working with them throughout this episode. However, Isaiah, being inspired, candidly chronicled the work of the Spirit amongst them. The Exodus Generation grieved the Spirit, whom God had put within them (Isa 63:11b). Unequivocally, the Spirit was within them, though the Bible does not say explicitly that the Spirit dwelt in them individually.
In a prayer, David pleaded with the Lord not to take the Spirit away from him after he had sinned (Ps 51:11). The narrative given provides an understanding that the Spirit of God did dwell in His people on a selective basis. The fact of the matter is that the Spirit had not detached Himself completely from His people and, indeed, He was present with His chosen workers. So, it is not at all true that the Spirit only functioned with believers in the New Testament. Quite clearly, the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament was more than just covertly dwelling with the saints.
When Christ was in the Flesh
In the Gospels, there are clear examples of saints being filled by the Spirit of God. This happened prior to the downpour of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. One example is when Elizabeth was greeted by Mary; Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:41). This means the fullness of the Spirit was present in her. The coming of the Spirit was with a specific purpose: To confirm to Elizabeth that the mother of her Lord had come to her (Lk 1:43). This was an encouragement to Mary about the unprecedented task that was about to be given to her.
Not long after the Lord Jesus was born, His parents brought Him to Jerusalem where He was presented to the Lord as prescribed in the Law: “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Lk 2:23). There was a man called Simeon, just and devout, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Spirit was upon him (Lk 2:25). The Spirit revealed great things to him. In particular, the Spirit told him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Lk 2:26).
The presence of the Spirit in his life is indisputably apparent. Here, the distinct work of the Holy Spirit was to set him on a mission to attest to Jesus’ parents the works that Christ would carry out: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34). Most importantly, the coming of Christ would serve as a sword to first pierce through the soul of Christ’s mother, Mary (Lk 2:35). Through the words of Simeon, the Spirit encouraged the parents of Christ to keep faith in Jesus.
There are differences in terms of the Spirit’s functions (works) before and after Christ’s ascension. They can be divided into two parts. The first is about God’s promise, which came to fruition at the coming of the Spirit in the New Testament (Joel 2:28; Acts 1:14). In fact, all the promises about the coming Spirit point to the church age (Ezek 36:17-18; Isa 44:1–5). On the contrary, the Spirit of God coming upon His saints in the Old Testament had never been openly promised by the Lord. The Spirit came upon His workers in the Old Testament when they were needed to accomplish what the Lord had commissioned. An example of this would be when King Saul prophesied after the Spirit came upon him (1 Sam 10:6, 9ff) as Samuel had predicted.
Jesus, in affirming the promise of the Holy Spirit, states that He and the Father would make a home in those who believe in Him (Jn 14:23). This has never been said in the Old Testament nor has there been such a dramatic act of God in abiding in the Old Testament saints, though He had been with them. In the New Testament, the Spirit dwelling with His people is no longer done so on a selective basis – it is also a permanent dwelling. Every believer is promised the Spirit (Joel 2:28) and it shall become a common phenomenon amongst all those who believe in Jesus. This then becomes one of the two requirements for salvation.
The second difference is on the part of the receivers. In the New Testament, prior to Christ’s ascension, the disciples were asked to remain in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:8). This is an indication that they must be prepared for the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the disciples gathered together in one place waiting and praying for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:14, 2:1). This is in line with the teaching of Christ that we are to ask the Father for the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:13). This is something that was clearly absent in the lives of the ancient saints.
Speaking In Tongues – The Evidence of Receiving the Spirit
Jesus spells out that the Spirit is to be received by those who would believe (Jn 7:39). Being well aware of the confusion that would come upon the Christian world, the Lord provides a way to make His teaching stand against the test of time. Undoubtedly, the pentecostal experience of the coming of the Spirit is a testimony to the infallible truth that Christ teaches: “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (Jn 16:7). Here, Jesus has imposed a timeframe on the coming of the Spirit. In this light, the teaching of Peter about the coming Spirit (Acts 2:32-33) accords wonderfully well with the promise of Christ (Jn 7:39, 16:7).
He marked the receiving of the Holy Spirit with unique evidence. The evidence is speaking in tongues. This is the apostolic pattern of receiving the Spirit. The initiation is from the Spirit, who causes the movement of the tongues of those who have received the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was the first time that this unique function of Spirit was demonstrated (Acts 2:4). This has never been the experience of Old Testament saints although they had the presence of the Spirit with them.
Being Filled by the Spirit
There have been some questions raised recently in an attempt to challenge the teachings on the Holy Spirit. The challenge gains validation by casting doubts in the minds of believers. It thrives on the fact that there are individuals in the church who behave well, yet they do not have the Spirit and are unable to speak in tongues in prayer. How can the church claim that they have not been filled by the Spirit?
The challenge proposes that one is filled by the Spirit when one is baptised in water. The argument is based on the fact that water baptism is carried out by the Spirit, though a human baptist is present to administer it. The idea of “receiving the Spirit” is put aside here to further the concept and make it explainable. This argument is preemptive and is designed to evade a very important truth: Speaking in tongues is the sole evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit, which only occurred after Christ’s ascension (Jn 7:39). By this, the issue of speaking in tongues as the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit is tossed aside.
Clearly, being filled by the Spirit cannot be independent of receiving the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the former is stressed and not the latter (Acts 2:4). However, Peter equated the two when he encountered the coming of the Spirit upon the household of Cornelius, who “have received the Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47). This simply means the family of Cornelius had received the Spirit just as the disciples did from the beginning—at the day of Pentecost (Acts 11:17). The latter (receiving the Spirit) must be attained prior to the realisation of the former (being filled by the Spirit). Most importantly, the coming of the Spirit is evidenced by speaking in tongues in both accounts.
The Works of God
The argument also takes the form of questioning the work of God in the lives of believers as well. One such question is: “Are the works done by those who do not pray in tongues the works of the flesh or the works of the Spirit?” This strikes fear in those who have yet to speak in tongues in prayer. This always makes them feel bad about all their service to God, particularly the good works that they have done out of love for the church and others. This kind of argument intends to sever the connection between the good works and the Spirit, to establish the proposition.
Looking at the teachings in the New Testament, there are cases of the Spirit’s (God’s) works in the lives of His disciples. Though they had been given power to cast out demons (Mk 6:7, 12-13) while Jesus was still with them, naturally this power was from the Spirit. To follow the argument of the proponent, the miracles performed by the disciples before the crucifixion of Christ must have been done by virtue of their own strength. This is unbiblical. Here, the power they received was not a “partial power” but a complete one: they could truly trample all the power of their enemies (Lk 10:19).
Since they had already received the authority of the Spirit, why did Jesus still command them to receive the Holy Spirit? There are two points to take into consideration. The first is that the Spirit of God can work with a person even though he has yet to receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can help him do good work in his everyday life. The second is that the Spirit shall become a fountain of living water from within him after he has received the Holy Spirit, who will testify to his heart that he is a child of God (Rom 8:16-17). What is important is that after Christ’s ascension, the receiving of the Spirit (being filled by the Spirit) begins with speaking in tongues. All divine works are to be performed after the reception of the Spirit. That is why the apostles were asked to receive the Holy Spirit after the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:8).
The proponents of this argument further contend that if one is not born of the Spirit during water baptism, then what is his position? The logical deduction is that if one is not born of the Spirit, he is of the flesh. How could he who has been purged by the blood of Christ remain in the flesh, belonging not to Jesus? This is quite unthinkable. It forces one to reconsider his belief, especially if he has yet to receive the Holy Spirit; a vulnerable position to be in, especially when an answer is not readily forthcoming.
From the teaching of Christ, He uses “being born of the Spirit” to represent a process. He is making a distinction between one who has gone through the process of rebirth and one who has not (Jn 3:6-7). Bearing in mind there is no need to repeat the two requirements—to be born of water and the Spirit—at all time. This is the format that the Bible adopts. When Peter said that the onlookers at pentecost were to be baptised in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38), understandably he did not preclude the element of believing, as taught by Jesus (Mk 16:16), though he did not mention it.
It requires time for the process of rebirth to be completed. Jesus telling the disciples to wait in Jerusalem is an affirmation of this truth. If the Spirit automatically fills a person, then is there a need to wait? For Christ to teach the disciples to ask for the Spirit appears all the more inconsistent with the proposition. This is the best gift (the Spirit) that God is going to give to those who ask. One notable case is Peter and John, who were sent to help the believers in Samaria receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15-16). The new converts did not receive the Holy Spirit, nor were they filled by the Spirit, when they were baptised.
In the light of Paul’s teaching, the baptised are the children of God, waiting to receive the Holy Spirit (Gal 4:6). As long as they keep themselves in the Lord by practising the word of God, sooner or later they shall be given the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of the Lord. This is backed up by the miraculous deed of Christ when He breathed onto the disciples, commanding them to receive the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22-23). Surely, at that point in time, none had yet received the Spirit. But as for Christ, time is not an issue, and the promise would definitely come to pass.
A Common Encounter
To many of us who have received the Holy Spirit, we constantly fail to yield fully to the Spirit, reaping for ourselves the consequences of our choices, which are reflected in our sufferings and miseries. These in turn weaken our relationship with God. In such plights, we groan. This is especially so when we fail to submit to the Spirit. At times, we even feel utterly disgusted with ourselves. Sometimes, the situation deteriorates and grows out of control. We feel so helpless that we are completely consumed in our weaknesses and our inability to overcome them.
Nevertheless, Revelation clearly states that God will only be our God, and we His children, on the condition that we have overcome (Rev 21:7). What are we before we reach perfection or while we are still in our weaknesses, though we have received the Spirit? Can we say that we are not in or not belong to Christ? It requires constant pursuit of the Spirit’s guidance to attain perfection. This is a process. Similarly, for those who have yet to receive the Spirit, they must be in constant prayer for the Holy Spirit, believing that they are God’s children and entitled to receive the promise.
A Sad Case
Contenders also put forth that the teaching of Paul to the Romans supports their views (Rom 8:9). They use Paul’s conclusion claiming that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” basically summarises the view that if a person is not filled by the Holy Spirit at the point of baptism, then he does not belong to God. Addressing this issue requires us to look at chapter eight as a whole. Furthermore, we also know that the Bible does not contradict itself nor do its teachings create confusion.
Let’s look at some pointers in this passage. Paul organises and presents his message to highlight two modes of existence. One is to walk according to the Spirit, which has no condemning consequences, for this is a life in Christ. The other is to walk according to the flesh, which brings about death (Rom 8:1, 13). However, Paul is not making a distinction between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not. Rather the line of demarcation is drawn between the two types of believers.
Gauging from Paul’s deduction, one of the main messages he intended was to make the Roman members aware of their own spirituality. Evidently, he brought to attention the lives that they were living. Having believed in Jesus, they were required to live a life free from sins. A life of spiritual normalcy is one that is demonstrated by walking according to the Spirit, especially for us who have already received the Holy Spirit, and not according to the flesh (Rom 8:1; Gal 5:16). The “walk” here represents a mode of behaviour. It is dictated by our thinking and our mind.
Nevertheless, if we continue in sins or to live in the flesh, despite having received the Holy Spirit, it only goes to show that we are carnally minded: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the thing of the flesh…” (Rom 8:5). The “live” here depicts a mindset. “To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom 8:6, 13; Gal 5:17-18). If the Spirit leads us, meaning if our mind is shaped or directed or controlled by the Spirit, we shall put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13-14). On the contrary, the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be (Rom 8:7).
So, walking in the Spirit stems from a mindset, which is energised by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, a person who, having received the Holy Spirit, fails to submit to God would live according to the flesh. If the latter is true for us, it only points to one and only possibility—the Spirit of God is not in us any longer. This inevitably means we have lost the Spirit because we are now in the flesh. The Spirit must have been grieved so severely that He has chosen to depart from us. The end result is: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (v9).
The church has been given the privilege to listen and to accept the truth of God. In the end times, she has been commissioned to defend the faith (Jude 3). This is to guard against confusions that may infiltrate the church. It is dangerous to be swayed by teachings that are not consistent with biblical facts. Our belief in the receiving of the Spirit must be based on the teachings of the Bible, and indeed the experiences of the apostles, not on human suppositions or persuasions.
The truth of the Holy Spirit is central to all the teachings of the church. In the past, there have been countless attempts by many, who tried presumptuously to discredit it. In the process, many have been misled to go against the Spirit, causing great disharmony and sufferings in the church. However, the truth of the Spirit has withstood the test of time, and it shall continue to do so. For we, who hold on to biblical truths, shall be enlightened further about the wonder of this teaching, confirming that it cannot be changed nor ever will be changed.
Note on Romans 8:9:
1. “Walking according to the Spirit” and “walking according to the flesh” denote two modes of behaviour.
2. “Living according to the Spirit” and “living according to the flesh” denote two forms of mindset: the former refers to being spiritually minded; the latter, carnally minded.
3. To “walk” and to “live” are not the same (cf. Gal 5:25).
4. “In the Spirit” and “in the flesh” denote the presence of the Spirit and the absence of the Spirit respectively.
5. The second part of verse one is not found in the Chinese Bible, nor is the word “walk” explicit in the Chinese Bible.