Early in 2017 I was preparing to request a ministry license through the Evangelical Free Church of America (also known as E.V.Free or EFCA). Part of the process is writing a twenty page paper that needed to be read by a group of pastors. The paper had a question guide that told me what topics to write about. One of those questions said, “Describe what the Illumination of the Holy Spirit is and why it’s important.” Well, after a Bachelor’s degree from a Bible college and a Master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, I was not sure what the “illumination of the Holy Spirit” was. Thus, my studies began!
The doctrine of “illumination” can be applied and focused to different areas of theology. A quick look at the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says there are four definitions of illumination: “(1) A general enlightening that Christ brings to all men especially through the gospel (John 1:9; 2 Tim 1:10); (2) the enlightening experience of salvation (Heb 6:4; 10:32); (3) the understanding of Christian truth (Eph 1:18); and (4) the searching character of future judgment (1 Cor 4:5)” (Ryrie, “Illuminiation” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 590-591). This blog post will focus on the third definition: the understanding of Christian truth.
If you are reading this post and you are a Christian, you have already participated in and benefited from the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But, in this post I hope to show you what it is and why it is important.
Photo Credit: Ritesh Man Tamraker
Bibliology: The Illumination of the Holy Spirit
I. UNBELIEVERS ARE DECEIVED
Before looking at how the Holy Spirit illuminates believers, it is first important to see the state of people before they become Christians.
A. Satan Has Blinded Unbelievers
One quick look at the evil and wickedness of our world makes it clear that Satan has blinded unbelievers to God’s goodness. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Christians in Corinth.
“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:3–6, NLT)
There are a few key points we need to make from this passage. First, the Good News of Christ and the Gospel is “hidden” (v. 3). Paul had said elsewhere that the Jews were hard-hearted to the Gospel and not responsive to it (Rom 11:25; 2 3:14-16). Paul was also clear that the Gentiles had no excuse for not knowing God (Rom 1:19-20). Second, Satan is the one that is actively hiding the good news (v. 4). Third, Christians are supposed to be the “light” that stands out in the darkness (vv. 5-6). Also see Phil 2:12-18.
Sadly, “The mind of the lost sinner is blinded by Satan, and fallen man finds it easier to believe lies than to believe truth. . . Satan keeps lost sinners in the dark” (Wiersbe, Be Encouraged, p. 59)
B. Unbelievers Can Be Deceived
If you are like me you know of people you dearly love who do not know God. There have been times I have shared with people about Jesus Christ and what God did to offer salvation, yet they seem completely deceived despite my best presentation, argument, or proof. They believe the Bible is a bunch of fictional stories used by a political system to suppress people. Paul writes about these deceived people.
“But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others.” (1 Corinthians 2:14–15, NLT)
This is one of the mysteries of the Christian faith: those who understand the spiritual and those who do not. It seems to be connected to the Book of Life which includes those God has elected to know him and follow him. In one of my favorite commentaries–The Bible Knowledge Commentary–David Lowery comments on these two verses, “Like a deaf critic of Bach or a blind critic of Raphael is the unregenerate critic of God’s Word” (Lowery, Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, p. 510). Sadly, those who do not know God have a hard time understanding God’s spiritual truths.
II. BELIEVERS RECEIVE ILLUMINATION
As believers we have received God’s truth and understand. At some point in time we have benefited from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. Here’s a brief survey of what the Holy Spirit does to illuminate God’s truth.
A. The Holy Spirit “Illuminates” The Light
Every person is alienated from God and lost (Rom 3:23; 2 Cor 4:3-4; Eph 2:1-3; 4:18), yet there is a ministry of the Holy Spirit that draws people to God. Again, Paul writes about this in his letter to the Corinthians.
“If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:3–6, NLT, emphasis added)
The Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ work together for illumination. In other words, Jesus Christ was the physical person on earth who died for our sins and rose back to life. The Holy Spirit uses Christ’s death and resurrection to illuminate the truth. While the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in 2 Cor 4:3-6, the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination is described in one of Isaiah’s prophecies when he talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit describing him as, “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2, NLT).
B. The Holy Spirit Is Our Guide
When I taught about the Bible as the ultimate authority I made a big deal about how the writers of the Bible were not using their own words to write the Bible, but instead they were writing God’s Word. They did not teach based on human understanding. The Holy Spirit spoke to them and they recorded that as Scripture. A key verse for this is written by Paul.
“When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths.” (1 Corinthians 2:13, NLT)
The Holy Spirit is active in the lives of believers. He (the Holy Spirit) has guided men to write the Bible and that Bible is the guide for our lives. Jesus predicted that the Holy Spirit would come to earth and be active in the lives of believers when he told his disciples, “I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:25–26, NLT). A little later, Jesus says a similar thing about the future ministry of the Holy Spirit, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me” (John 16:12–14, NLT). The bottom line is now that Jesus has ascended to the throne and is at the right hand of God, the Holy Spirit is our guide.
C. Believers Get the Spirit of Wisdom
In Paul’s letter to the believers in Ephesus he begins his letter by sharing about the spiritual blessings God has provided (Eph 1:3-8), how God has revealed his plan for salvation (Eph 1:9-14), and then Paul starts talking about how he has been praying for the Ephesians. He tells them that he prays for them everyday (Eph 1:15-16) and asks God,
“the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.” (Ephesians 1:17–19, NLT)
Paul’s prayer refers to a few things. First, it refers to believers growing in spiritual wisdom and insight so they can grow in their “knowledge” of God (v. 17). This likely refers to knowledge of the Gospel which Paul outlines earlier in the passage about the coming of Christ and salvation offered to all people (Eph 1:9-14). The Holy Spirit helps believers grow in this knowledge. Second, Paul’s prayer refers to their hearts being “flooded with light” so that they can understand the confident hope and riches that believers have through their faith in Christ (v. 18). Believers are fallen and lost in this dark world and need the Holy Spirit in order to see the light. Third, Paul’s prayer refers to the Christians in Ephesus’ understanding the incredible greatness of God’s power for those who believe in God (v. 19). This is the same mighty power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
III. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. If you don’t understand a passage and feel confused, don’t get discouraged.
Even after graduating from Bible college and Seminary, I still read Scripture and get confused. I think, “It says this here and that there. How do those match up?” Or sometimes I read a passage that just doesn’t seem to make sense at all. So I look at some of the notes in a good Study Bible or commentary. (I highly recommend the “BE” series commentaries by Warren Wiersbe.)
B. Before reading my Bible I ask the Holy Spirit to show me what he wants me to see.
The Holy Spirit has an active ministry in the lives of believers. He wants us to know him and to partner with him. He indwells us and wants to guide us. Next time you read your Bible, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, walk with you, and direct you. Perhaps you would want to memorize and recite Pss 119:18 as a prayer, “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions” (Psalm 119:18, NLT).