Holy Spirit: Is He IN us or ON us? ..and does it matter?

Holy Spirit On SaintsYou have heard it said “the Holy Spirit came on the OT believers, but is in the NT believers”. Having thusly heard for many years, I thusly taught for many years.

Now that I’m (again) studying my way through the book of Acts, I’m finding myself quite intrigued by the fact that the people who would have known first-hand of the distinction between the Holy Spirit being “in” them vs “on” them (ie, Jesus and the Apostles who were there for the Day of Pentecost) insisted on saying that the Holy Ghost came upon them, and not in them! In fact, as I skim Acts chapters 1 – 19, not once do I see Jesus or the Apostles saying that the Holy Ghost came in them. It’s always “on” or “upon”. What gives?

But 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, ESV)

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. (Acts 2:3, ESV)

‘And in the last days it shall be’, God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit
on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’. (Acts 2:17-18, ESV)

For He had not yet fallen
on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:16, ESV)

And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. (Acts 10:45, ESV)

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. (Acts 11:15, ESV)

And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:6, ESV)

If Pentecost was the great divide between the Holy Spirit being with/on people versus in people, wouldn’t the people who had that very before/after experience be the first ones to bang the drum on the difference between the two? How is it that we got it so wrong? Could it be that wishful thinking on our part is the only reason for this stark disparity between our modern understanding of the day of Pentecost and the reality of what the Bible says actually happened?

In fact, the closest reference to an in/on distinction is not even in Acts – it’s in John 14:17. Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.

To my knowledge, this is the only passage where there is any apparent distinction between “on/with” and “in”, yet rather than ask what Jesus might have meant, we immediately run to the day of Pentecost and invent a conclusion/doctrine that is directly contradicted by the words of the people who were actually there and experienced the event! Furthermore, if we insist that “on” is the operative word for OT saints and “in” only applies to NT saints, then why did Peter, the main speaker on the Day of Pentecost, say that the Holy Spirit was in the OT prophets? (1 Peter 1:10) Based on these verses (and there are many others), do we have any grounds for thinking that “in” is only applicable to NT saints, and “on” should be restricted to OT saints? It would appear that the answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’!

Where did this thinking come from? (Not from Acts!)
Why do we teach it? (Excitement over Dispensationalism?)
But in the final analysis — should anyone care? (This may be more important than you think)

This line of thinking produces four directly related questions:

– What, then, is the significance of the Day of Pentecost when comparing OT to NT …assuming the comparison is even warranted? (I think Peter answered this by quoting Joel 2, but we’ve been trained to look at the wrong words of that passage and quotation)

– Are the NT saints sealed with the Holy Spirit in some way that the OT saints are not? (We need to be careful how we answer this question as it directly affects the question of how the Holy Spirit does what He does.)

– What did Jesus mean when He said that the Holy Spirit was “with” them and would be “in” them? …and whatever in the world did He mean when He said “Receive the Holy Spirit” and then breathed on them? (Jn 20:22)

– What did Jesus mean when He said that unless He ascended, He could not send the Holy Ghost? (Clearly the Holy Ghost was already at work in the lives of OT believers. Eze 36, Eze 37 and 1 Peter 1:10 – and Jesus Himself affirmed as much in John 3:1-10; John 6:63)

The Work of the Holy Spirit

To answer these questions and properly shape our understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we need to start with the Old Testament. Since confusion is the result of misinformation, it should come as no surprise that if we list and describe the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, we might find some interesting tidbits.
(This list is not exhaustive)




A one-time change of heart resulting in salvation. This change can only be done by the Holy Spirit.
Synonymous phrases: passed from death to life; become a new creature in Christ; born again; quickened; circumcised heart.
Isa 57:15
Eze 11:19
Eze 36:26-27
Eze 37:14
John 3:5-6
Rom 8:9-11
Titus 3:5
The permanent presence of the Holy Spirit in or on the believer for the purpose of imparting knowledge, wisdom, faith, guidance, and sanctification. Unbelievers are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Synonymous phrases: sanctification; living/abiding in you; sealed with the Spirit
Num 11:16-30
Num 27:18
1 Sam 16:13
Ps 139:7
Isa 57:15
Isa 59:21
Eze 9:4
1 Pet 1:10-11
John 6:27
1 Cor 3:16
1 Cor 6:19
2 Cor 1:22
Eph 1:4
Eph 2:22
Eph 4:30
The temporary presence of the Holy Spirit in or on a person, usually for the purpose of performing an extraordinary or supernatural task. Both believers and unbelievers can be moved, filled or empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Synonymous phrases: move; empowered; powered; rushed upon.
Exo 31:3
Judges 14:6
Judges 14:19
Judges 15:14
1 Sam 10:10; 11:6
1 Sam 19:21-24
Mic 3:8
1 Cor 12:8-11
Praying to God on behalf of the believer.
Synonymous phrases: pray; groan; utter.
Zech 12:10 Rom 8:26-27
Gal 4:6
Eph 6:18
The supernatural revelation of information, knowledge and wisdom for the purpose of serving God.
Synonymous phrases: teach; show.
2 Sam 23:2
Ps 143:10
Isa 11:1-2
Luk 2:26
1 Pet 1:11
John 14:26
John 16:13
1 Cor 2:10-13
To convince of sin; to prove or convince a person’s conscience that he is guilty.
Synonymous phrases: reprove.
Neh 9:30
Ps 51
Zech 7:12
Zech 12:10
John 16:7-11
Acts 2:37
Acts 7:51
Acts 16:29

As this table readily demonstrates, each of the tasks that the Holy Spirit performs for New Testament believers is also performed for Old Testament believers. The obvious exception that is not addressed on this list is the Holy Spirit’s role in creation (Gen 1:2), but since creation doesn’t take place in the New Testament, this item has been left off the table.

This brings us back to the same question: what is different about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament?

For a chart on all verses and their relationship of the Holy Spirit to man, be sure to read the next article on the subject.

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