In John 7:39, it states that there were already people believing in Him before being given the Holy Spirit. How can this be since the Holy Spirit needs to be indwelling in a person in order to regenerate a believer?
To provide context here is the passage in question:
while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
A note in the NAB version online version says:
In this gospel, the sending of the Spirit cannot take place until Jesus’ glorification through his death, resurrection, and ascension; cf.
Other gospels speak of the Holy Spirit differently, as it was already active in the conception of Jesus (Mt. 1:18), filling people such as Elizebeth and Zechariah (Lk. 1), in Jesus' ministry (Mt. 3:11), driving Jesus forth into the wilderness (Luke 4:1) etc.
But even in John's Gospel, people could believe before they were regenerated. Indeed, this is the case in each of the gospels, as well in the writings of Paul, where belief is the prerequisite to regeneration, not the other way around.
...If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (1 Cor. 10:9-10)
To answer the OP directly, people do not need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit in order to believe. On the contrary, it is through belief (through faith) that they are regenerated. But the Gospel of John does have a different understanding of the Spirit than the synoptic gospels do. In the 4th Gospel, the Holy Spirit is sent only after the resurrection. In the other gospels it is very much present in the lives of God's people even prior to Jesus' birth.
Let us be very clear that the Holy Spirit was quite active well before Pentecost in Acts 2. Here are some examples.
In the OT the Holy Spirit was active many times in the following ways:
- Involved in creation, Gen 1;2 (compare Deut 32:10, 11), Ps 104:30
- Empowering leaders such as Saul, 1 Sam 10:10, 19:21-24; Joseph, Gen 41:38; Othniel, Judg 3:10; Gideon, Judg 6:27-30, 34:7; Jephthah, Judg 11:29-32; Samson, Judg 13:24, 14:6, 19, 15:14; 70 leaders, Num 11:17, 26, 29; Joshua, Num 27:18; Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9, 15, etc.
- Inspiring craftsmen like Bazaleel, Ex 31:3, 35:31
- Inspiring prophets like Ezekiel, Eze 11;24; Balaam, Num 24:2; Azariah, 2 Chron 15:1-7; Zechariah, 2 Chron 24:20; Elijah, 1 Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16; etc.
- Involved in the everyday lives of ordinary people to make them Godly, Isa 63:10, 11, Ps 51:11, Gen 6:3, Neh 9:30, Zech 7:12, Ps 106:33, 41, Joel 2:28.
- The Spirit is given personal and divine attributes: “good” (Ps 143:11); “generous” (Ps 51:12); facilitating what might and power cannot (Zech 4:6); grieved by human rebellion (Isa 63;10); etc.
- Involved in final judgement: Isa 4:4, 32;15, 42:1, 44:3, 48:20, Prov 1:23, etc.
Even in the NT before Pentecost (Acts 2) the Holy Spirit was active in several places such as the
- The conception of Jesus in Mary, Matt 1:18, 20, Luke 1:35
- John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:15
- Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:41
- Zechariah filled with the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:67
- The prophet Simeon instructed by the Holy Spirit, Luke, 2:25-27
Thus, the Holy Spirit was working among people well before Pentecost. Indeed, we are told that no one can come to Jesus and God without divine prompting:
- Phil 2:13 - For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good purpose.
- John 6:44 - “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.
- Rom 2:4 - Or do you disregard the riches of His kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?
- John 12:32 - And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to Myself.”
- 1 Cor 12:3 - Therefore I inform you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
See also Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Tim 2:25. Therefore, since God, Jesus and Holy Spirit draw all people to repent and be converted, we must make a distinction between:
- The Holy Spirit working "on" a person to draw them to Jesus and conversion.
- The Holy Spirit as a divine gift working "through" people for the good of all.
Thus, the Holy Spirit is always active (never idle) and works in a different way before and after a person's conversion.
In other words, no one can come to conversion except by the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit - we are drawn to God by the working of the Holy Spirit. After conversion, the Holy Spirit provides supernatural talents for the benefit of the church.
Let's review 2 Thessalonians 2:13
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as first fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (NIV)
The word "God's chosen" echoes in the scripture, from the time God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Israelites, as seen in Isaiah 41:8...
8 “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, (NIV)
We also see Jesus chose His twelve disciples, John 6:70
70 Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”
We see a lot more that Paul called his brothers (Christians) are being chosen. Being brothers in Christ are already believers in Christ. So how are the believers being chosen? Acts 1:2 read;
2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Paul said in 1 Cor 12:3b;
...and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Being chosen (to believe in Jesus) was initiated by the Holy Spirit, but salvation also require the Holy Spirit dwells in us. Paul gave a warning in Galatians 3:3
3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (NIV)
Paul concluded in Galatians 6:8
8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (NIV)
And therefore, Christians are chosen by the Holy Spirit to believe in Jesus, keeping the faith (Holy Spirit dwells in) we receive eternal life. Paul described it as
...a righteousness that is from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17 NIV)
No, but they can believe before receiving the baptism of the Spirit.
People made in the image of God have a portion of His Spirit, even unbelievers. This is why people have a conscience to convict them of sin, judgement, and righteousness. It's Him, in them.
then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
However, faith in Christ is required for a total spiritual rebirth and cleansing from sin to avoid being lost. This is the beginning of the Christian life.
Finally, though debated strongly in the Western world, the majority of Christians worldwide believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the beginning of the supernatural Christian life. Jesus baptizes any christian with the Holy Spirit who asks Him (Jesus).
but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
The spirit empowers believers to be a witness for Christ. Not just to be a nice religious person and try to persuade with man's wisdom, but real power.