Hank made some interesting points in a comment.
What’s the point of dwelling in someone if God is a spirit?
I actually believe that God can operate directly upon me according to his will to either make me remember, cause me to forget, strike me dead in my tracks or whatever he so desires.
I just don’t think he must first get inside me personally to do so. After all, God is spirit.
As is so often true, it’s best to look back at the Old Testament background. In the Garden, God walked with Adam and Eve. He did the same with Abraham. He wrestled with Jacob.
But he appeared as a column of fire to the Israelites and then chose to “dwell” in the tabernacle among his people.
(Exo 25:8 ESV) 8 And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.
(Exo 29:45-46 ESV) 45 I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.
Could God have dwelt among the Israelites by other means? Of course. Could they have known that he is their God by other means? Absolutely. But that’s the way God chose to do it, and being God, he gets to have his way.
Later, the same thing happened with Solomon’s temple –
(1Ki 6:11-13 ESV) 11 Now the word of the LORD came to Solomon, 12 “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. 13 And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”
(1Ki 8:10-11 ESV) 10 And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
And yet Solomon well understood that God’s dwelling in the temple was not all of God –
(1Ki 8:12-13 ESV) 12 Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” …
(1Ki 8:27 ESV) 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
(1Ki 8:30 ESV) 30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
Solomon said that God’s dwelling is both heaven and the temple — and all the earth. But God chose to have a special presence in the temple for his own good reasons.
Yes, God is bigger than the Holy of Holies. Yes, God could have accomplished his purposes by other means. But this is how he chose to do it.
And that’s how it is today.
And there are reasons for the indwelling –
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The activities of God prophesied by Jeremiah and confirmed in Hebrews 8 are all about God’s activities within the Christian. It’s not our reading a book and being persuaded — although that happens, too. This passage is about God working by inward action.
Just so, Deuteronomy 30:6 and passages in Ezekiel such as –
(Eze 36:27 ESV) 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
(Eze 37:14 ESV) 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
– prophesy that the Spirit will be “within” us. Why? So that we’ll “know that I am the LORD”! Where did we hear that before? In Exodus 29:46, quoted above! That’s the same reason he dwelt among the Israelites in the tabernacle! (Don’t you just love it when these things all tie together across the centuries?!)
The idea of the Spirit being within each one of God’s people is not a new concept in the New Testament. For example –
(Eze 2:2 ESV) 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
(Eze 3:24 ESV) But the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and he spoke with me and said to me, “Go, shut yourself within your house.
When Ezekiel speaks of God’s people having the Spirit within them, we cannot ignore the antecedent verses that speak of the Spirit being “within” Ezekiel.
Now, yes, God is spirit. And he was spirit in the Garden, during the Exodus, and during the dedication of Solomon’s temple. He’s still spirit. And yet he clearly can have a special, located presence — and this has been true since Adam.
What’s the advantage of having the Spirit?
Basically, why would we require something today in order to obey God that our brethren did not need to have back in the day? Do you believe that you and I are more able to fully obey God today than were, say, Joseph and Zebedee?
Well, what does the Bible say? According to Jeremiah (just quoted), God will –
put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
According to Ezekiel –
(Eze 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Plainly, the nature of the new covenant is that God will cause his Spirit to dwell within his people and an effect of this indwelling will be greater obedience to his commands. That’s what the prophecies say. And that’s true whether or not I understand how that works. In fact, I’m confident that I don’t understand because my brain is physical and the Spirit is spirit. These things can be at best glimpsed by mortal men and women. But I believe it.
Now, you ask why this matters, since obviously there were Old Testament characters who obeyed without the presence of the Spirit. Well, Joseph surely had the Spirit — as he had the gift of interpreting dreams and great wisdom. And the Bible confirms this conclusion –
(Gen 41:38 ESV) 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”
Moses, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and the prophets all had the Spirit. But I’m no Calvinist, and so I’m not willing to say that obedience is utterly impossible without the Spirit. In fact, we can find plenty of examples of obedience in people who likely did not possess the indwelling.
Neither does the Spirit makes us so obedient that we earn our salvation. No, we’re just more obedient than we otherwise would be.
You see, if you view the world through legalistic lenses, then obedience is either good enough or it isn’t. But if you view the world through the eyes of Moses, you realize that it’s about the state of our hearts — which is evidenced by obedience. Remember Deuteronomy –
(Deu 10:16 ESV) 16 “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
Now, God expects our circumcised hearts to produce fruit of obedience — but the obedience is of no value at all if our hearts are wrong. For someone very ill, an obedient heart may be all he can manage. Actual obedience may be impossible. And yet his heart will be sufficient. But for someone who obeys but not from the heart, his obedience is worthless.
Because the heart is so very important to God, and because he so wants us saved and engaged in mission for him, he takes it upon himself to change our hearts. But this isn’t a deprivation of free will. Rather, we can resist God and his Spirit. But those with the Spirit are better equipped and better enabled to obey — because God is working on their hearts to change them.
(Deu 30:6-8 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. … 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the LORD and keep all his commandments that I command you today.
One last point. You see, I’ve seen this in action. I’ve seen dramatic changes in people’s lives as God has worked on their hearts through the Spirit. I am amazed at how very much God can change us and shape us so that we can come closer to obeying this passage than seems humanly possible –
(Deu 10:12 ESV) 2 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
We will never get there perfectly this side of Judgment, but I’ve seen changes that are beyond amazing.
Yes, people can obey without the Spirit, but they can obey much, much more with the Spirit, because their hearts will be all-the-more shaped by the Spirit. The Living Water can do astonishing things when we submit to him.