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Q277 : Regeneration in the Old Testament

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Q277 : Regeneration in the Old Testament

While discussing with a group of believers, I mentioned that the Holy Spirit regenerated men prior to Pentecost and that people were born again before the cross. I further mentioned that what was unique about Pentecost was the forming of the body of Christ and sealing by the holy Spirit of believers from Pentecost forward. Everyone appeared shocked and countered that it was impossible for people to have been born again before the cross and that what Jesus said to Nicodemus about the new birth could not be possible until Calvary.

Could you kindly help shed light on this matter? Was regeneration a ministry of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost? Were OT saints born again before Jesus came? Did the Holy Spirit indwell people before Pentecost (or John 20:22 as is sometimes contended by charismatics)?

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on these issues.

A277 : by Tony Garland

If there is one aspect of Scriptural interpretation which is fraught with misunderstanding leading to errors in interpretation, it seems to be the issue of understanding continuity and discontinuity.

  • Continuity — Which things remain the same between the Old Testament and New Testament?
  • Discontinuity — Which things change in the transition from Old Testament to New Testament?1
Only by carefully handling the text while using a consistent interpretive approach (hermeneutic) will we derive a correct understanding of which things changed and which things remained the same between the Old Testament and New Testament economies of God. I believe this is a key aspect of Paul’s admonition to the young Timothy to rightly divide the word of truth.2

A careful study of the work of the Holy Spirit in both testaments will show that He has a number of differing ministries (e.g., convicting, regenerating, baptizing, sealing). Some of these ministries, such as Spirit baptism, are discontinuous: they never occurred in the Old Testament, but only during the New Testament. Other of His ministries, such as regeneration, are continuous: all who are ever saved—throughout history—are saved by being "born again" (or "born from above") through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5). As Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “Whatever salvation was wrought in Old Testament times was wrought by the Holy Spirit...”3

Although the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is not explicit in the Old Testament, every indication of Scripture is that this is a ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout salvation history: being the only means by which a person comes to have divine spiritual life.

Some other New Testament designations of this transforming event are: to be ‘born again’ (1 Peter 1:3), ‘created ... in true righteousness and holiness’ (Eph. 4:24), to be given life by the Son (John 5:21), to be ‘called ... out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9) or ‘brought from death to life’ (Rom. 6:13), or ‘a new creation’ (2 Cor. 5:17), ‘born again’ or ‘anew’ (John 3:3, 7) becoming partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) or God’s ‘workmanship, created in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:10). There are others. This idea is pervasive in the New Testament patently and, as we shall see, latently, in the Old Testament.4

I’m surprised that anyone would appeal to Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus (John 3) to support the idea that the new birth was not possible in Old Testament times, but only after the cross. In that conversation, Jesus appears to chide Nicodemus, as an esteemed teacher in Israel, for not having properly understood the way of entry into God’s kingdom—requiring being born anew (or born from above, born of God [cf. John 1:12-13; 1Jn. 3:9; 4:7; 5:1]). Why would Jesus challenge Nicodemus on this point unless Jesus expected Nicodemus to already have understood this need based on the work of the Holy Spirit as recorded by the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament)—far in advance of the cross?

Culver brings this same point home:

Jesus did not rebuke His visitor’s idea of a second or again-birth, but wished Nicodemus to understand what the Old Testament clearly teaches, that the prophesied new birth of the nation of Israel and necessarily of the individual people who would then compose the reborn Israel would be spiritual not physical. It would be caused by the Spirit of God, who is sovereign in method, means and timing.5

A statement of Jesus to Nicodemus, the inquiring night visitor to Jesus during His first public ministry at Jerusalem, suggests that a good place to start the discussion of the idea of regeneration (renewal, spiritual cleansing and rehabilitation), is the Old Testament. Jesus had said, ‘unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’. To which the shy, aristocratic night visitor responded, ‘How can this be?’ (John 3:9 RSV). To this the Master teacher rejoined, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (John 3:10). The clear implication is that any good teacher of the Hebrew Scriptures should know that Messiah’s kingdom would be preceded by Israel’s repentance and purification, that the nation would be purified in the hearts of its members as an aspect of the restoration of ‘the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1:6) [emphasis mine].6

These are features of Old Testament prediction of and preparation for the New Testament teaching of regeneration [Jer. 31:17-20,32-34; 32:38-40; Eze. 11:19-20; 36:24-30]. These Old Testament verities are without a shadow of a doubt, it appears to me, what Jesus had in mind when He sent Nicodemus back to his lodgings in a mood to rethink all his pharisaical presuppositions about the true religion of Israel as opposed to the official Judaism of the Palestinian synagogues. ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know about the necessity of being born again to enter the promised Messianic kingdom?’7

Although the content of saving faith has changed with time, according to God’s progressive revelation, the object and means of saving faith have remained the same. For helpful charts which contrast continuity and discontinuity in relation to the ministry of the Holy Spirit between Old and New Testaments, see my article which answers the question, Does Dispensationalism Teach Two Ways of Salvation?a (It doesn’t—something which appears to need repeating ad-nauseum.)

As for the Holy Spirit indwelling people prior to Pentecost: although He was with them, occasionally filled them, and came upon them—enabling individuals in unique situations,8 He never baptized nor permanently indwelt anyone (Ps. 51:11). These unique ministries of the Holy Spirit, which the Church now enjoys, could not take place until after the required death and ascension of Jesus. Spirit baptism never occurred prior to the Day of Pentecost and is the unique ministry which accompanies salvation in this age where individual believers are permanently joined to the body of Christ, the Church (1Cor. 12:13). These ministries of the Holy Spirit were not possible in Old Testament times because of preconditions which were only met shortly before the Day of Pentecost (John 7:38-39; 16:7). For more on this, see my presentations on The Promise of Pentecostb and Actsc (especially chapters 1 and 2).

These are matters of special significance for me: I was saved in the Pentecostal movement and initially taught a charismatic interpretation of Scripture. It took some time for me to gain a more Scriptural understanding of the significance of the events which transpired on the Day of Pentecost. This brought me out of the Pentecostal movement. Still, I remain perplexed how few "Pentecostals" seem to grasp what God really accomplished on the Day of Pentecost (the birth of the Church) and the required prerequisites which had to take place in history prior to the unique baptising and indwelling ministries of the Holy Spirit which have only been available since, during the Church age.


Endnotes:

1.The phrase "Old Testament to New Testament" is somewhat of an oversimplification since things that changed are tied to specific events related by the New Testament (e.g., John the Baptist’s ministry, the cross, the Day of Pentecost).
2.The Greek word translated rightly divide in the NKJV is ὀρθοτομουντα [orthotomounta], from ὀρθοτομεω [orthotomeō], meaning to cut a straight path. The word is variously translated: rightly handling (ESV); accurately handling (NASB95); correctly handling (NIV84); correctly teaching (HCSB).
3.Ref-0195, 6:74
4.Ref.0195, 689-690
5.Ref-1251, 690
6.Ref-1251, 691
7.Ref-1251, 693
8.Nu. 11:17-29; 27:18; Jdg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14; 1S. 10:1,6,11; 16:13; 18:10; 19:20,23-24; 1Chr. 12:18; 2Chr. 15:1; 20:14; 24:20; Ne. 9:30; Luke 1:67.


Sources:

Ref-0195Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, c1948, 1976).
Ref-1251Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005). ISBN:1-84550-049-0d.


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