The Doctrine of Illumination in John’s Gospel

sunray through trees

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
— John 6:63–64 —

The doctrine of illumination explains how spiritual insight is given to God’s children by the Holy Spirit. The locus classicus for this doctrine is 1 Corinthians 2:10–16, where the Apostle Paul explains the difference between those with the Spirit and those without. Describing this difference, he identifies two kinds of people—the natural man (i.e., the man without the Spirit) and the spiritual man (i.e., the man with the gift of the Spirit). In Paul’s thinking, there is no third category. The only way a man can rightly understand the mind of God is to have God himself reveal himself to the man. This occurs first in conversion, but then progressively in sanctification as the Spirit continues to instruct the saints through God’s Word (cf. John 17:17).

Going further, doctrine of illumination is the personal and subjective complement to the doctrine of inspiration. Whereas the Spirit inspired the words of the biblical authors (2 Pet. 1:19–21), the same Spirit must give light to the Scripture, in order for the child of God to understand God, his world, and his salvation. Without this illumination, the sinner remains in the dark—totally lost and wholly unable to find God (cf. Acts 17:27). Continue reading

Spiritual Blindness Takes Jesus Time to Cure: A Scriptural Meditation on Mark 8

lightWhen I put glasses on for the first time, it made a world of difference. The fuzzy signs on the other side of the parking lot became clear, and instantly my ‘blindness’ was cured. The same is not true for spiritual blindness, however. As we see in Scripture, spiritual blindness is not cured with prescription lens, nor is it fixed instantly. Instead, what we find is multi-step process in the hands of our gracious God. Let’s consider.

Jesus and a Two-Part Healing

In Mark 8 Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida. There, some people brought this blind man to Jesus as he begged Christ to touch him (v. 22). By this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had already healed “a man with an unclean spirit” (1:21–28), a leper (1:40–45), a paralytic (2:1–12), and many others (3:1–6; 5:1–20, 21–43; etc.). Thus, by this time in Mark’s Gospel the body of evidence for Jesus’ power in healing is great. Still, this healing is unique because of the way it foreshadows and interprets the events that follow.

In the case of the blind man at Bethsaida, we find the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus must heal the same man twice. Verses 23–25 read,

23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Notice, after Jesus causes the man to have sight in v. 23, the man’s vision is still impaired. Jesus, in response to the man’s cloudy vision (people who look like trees), must lay hands on him again to fix the man’s vision. Only after Jesus’ second attempt is the man’s vision “restored.”

What is going on here? Did Jesus lack power on the day he strolled into Bethsaida? Was he “unable” to heal the man fully on this day? Or was something else going on? Could it be that this unique healing—again, no other healing takes two attempts—is meant to teach us something about the way God heals, especially with regards to spiritual blindness? I think so. Continue reading

Like the Breaking of the Dawn: How Faith, Prayer, and the Holy Spirit Bring Spiritual Illumination

morningIn the Gospels, the disciples of Christ often appear as experts in missing the point. While seeing, they don’t yet see. Like an untrained miner, they do not yet possess and appreciation for the jewel that stands before them. Christ is the pearl of great price, the treasure of incomparable value. Yet, it took time for the disciples to perceive who Christ was and how he was bringing the kingdom of God.

The same might be true today. Although, we do not physically see Jesus Christ, we inhabit a world where the Spirit of Christ has been sent. While Christ’s absence may constitute some disadvantage to our understanding, the gift of the Spirit is a far greater advantage. As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Thus, contrary to what we might think, to have the Spirit of Christ in this age is better than having the physical Christ. For to have the Spirit is to have Christ and the Father—for he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. And more, in having the Spirit of Truth, we have One who opens our blinded eyes, convicts our dull souls, and enables us to see and believe in the Lord. Indeed, by the Spirit-inspired Word of God we have access to knowing in ways the disciples struggled to grasp. Continue reading

The Sevenfold Spirit of God: Seven Truths About the Doctrine of Illumination


menorahIn the book of Revelation John speaks of the “seven spirits of God” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). While enigmatic, the symbolic use of the number seven in Revelation gives credible explanation: The seven spirits are God is a reference to the Holy Spirit, who is the perfect and complete Spirit of God. In no way does the number represent something contradictory to the triune nature of God (three-in-one), nor does it crassly suggest there are seven spirits who represent God. Rather, as with so many images in Revelation, the numeral seven represents the fullness of the Spirit abiding in God’s throne room and dwelling with the churches. Wonderfully, the same Holy Spirit who dwells in God’s heavenly temple (1:4) has been sent to dwell in local churches (5:6).

At the same time, the sevenfold spirit of God may also refer to Isaiah 11, where the Spirit of the LORD is said to “rest upon” the shoot of Jesse (i.e., the forthcoming king from David’s tribe). Greg Beale affirms the plausibility of Isaiah 11 (and Zechariah) being in the “background of the ‘seven spirits.’”[1] In that passage, which “shows that God’s sevenfold Spirit is what equips the Messiah to establish his end-time reign,” the prophet writes,

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (11:1 –5)

Verse 2 is where the seven descriptors of the Spirit are found, in that the Spirit is

  1. Of the Lord
  2. Of wisdom
  3. . . . and understanding
  4. Of counsel
  5. . . . and might
  6. Of knowledge
  7. . . . and the fear of the Lord.

This sevenfold description locates the work of the Spirit in the realm of wisdom and knowledge. While Lordship and might (גְּבוּרָה) are mentioned, the primary emphasis is cognitive. Significantly, this stands behind much of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel (see 14:26; 15:26; 16:13–14). As mentioned in a previous essay, the working of the Spirit is not seen primarily in visible acts of supernatural power, but in granting spiritual life and mental receptivity of God’s work of salvation. While the Spirit has power to restore creation (Isaiah 32:15) and raise the dead (Romans 8:11), the primary way he works today is in the granting spiritual understanding, what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 2:10–16. Continue reading

How the Doctrine of the Trinity Cultivates Church Unity (1 Corinthians 1–2)


paulHere is a long-form piece that came from our recent sermon series on 1 Corinthians. While many commentaries do not recognize the trinitarian nature of 1 Corinthians 1–2, Paul highlights doctrines related to each member of the trinity in order foster unity in the church at Corinth. May the Lord grant doctrinal unity to his church, as its members tether themselves to his triune gospel of grace.


What do you do when a church begins to fight? What do you say when members of the church begin to take sides and misrepresent the other? Where do you turn? What truth(s) do you recall? How do you bring peace to a divided church?

Sadly, many faithful followers of Christ find themselves in churches divided by various doctrines and competing practices. In one church I served controversy broke out concerning the doctrines of election, regeneration and faith, and the extent of the atonement. Or at least, those “doctrines of grace” appeared to be the problem. From my vantage point, those problems were merely used to protect a deeper, darker problem—the baleful commitment for various groups in the church to maintain control over what their church.

Commitment to self-interest in the church is all too common. It appears in modern churches who fracture over various worship styles, and it appears in ancient churches who sought to identify themselves with certain charismatic leaders. It appears on the pages of church history and it is found in Scripture itself, especially in the book of 1 Corinthians. Continue reading

The iBible (3): Personal Illumination and Incredible Praise

Personal Illumination: Finally, we arrive at the place where believers read the Bible today, and we must admit that the authenticity of history and the authority of Scripture is not enough to for modern readers to “get” the message. We know this because too many biblical scholars are incredulous agnostics and ardent opponents of the faith. The Scriptures which are “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), must be accompanied by the work of the Spirit in order to be believed. This is process of Spririt-wrought instruction is called illumination.

On the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples, Jesus had to open their eyes in order for them to see all things concerning himself in Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 31), and today Jesus is still opening blinded eyes. Without this spiritual illumination, no one can see to repent and believe (like Lydia in Acts 16). This is the work of regeneration (John 3:3-8) that overcomes the faith-denying blindness of sin and Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). When Paul speaks about this in relation to understanding the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16, he says, “The natural person does no accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14). However, “[Christians] have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (v. 12-13).

Consequently, the final stop in God’s process of life-giving revelation is that of personal saving faith accomplished by a divine illumination of our souls. Paul captures this re-creative vision in 2 Corinthians 4:6 when he says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In this way, illumination comes full circle. God who originated the world with a command for light to burst forth from darkness, performs the same miracle in every regenerated soul. At the sound of his voice, we who have ears to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ experience the resurrecting, illuminating experience of new creation (like Lazarus in John 11). The result of this monergistic illumination is that all who have eyes of faith to see will place faith in the message of the gospel which has gone into and is now going to the ends of the earth (cf. Rom 10:13-18). Moreover, walking in this light produces overwhelming joy in the revealed message that was initiated in heaven, sent to earth through divine intervention, inscripturated through years of inspired men preaching and recording the words of God, and deposited in hearts as the illumination of God himself (cf. James 1:18). This leads to one final “I”.

Incredible: Rumination on this process of revelation must result in praise and adoration. Remove anyone of these steps and the gospel would be neutered. Its potency would be lost. Apart from God’s redemptive intervention in space and time, there would be no historic foundation for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3); without the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament (2 Pet. 1:19-21) and the New (cf. 1 Thess 1:5; 2:13; 2 Pet. 3:16; 1 John 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19), there would be no sure word in which we could believe; and without the active work of the Spirit illuminating darkened minds, there would be no regenerative vision that induce cries of “Abba, Father.” For only as the Triune God has planned, personalized, and implanted truth in the hearts of believers, is the effect of the gospel sure to bring about salvation to all those for whom Christ died.

Indeed, the message of Jesus Christand God’s method of revelation is incredible! Accordingly, the responsibility of the church to guard this deposit is immense. From all angles, detractors who would limit the Bible’s inspiration, inerrancy, or its authority must be repudiated (cf. Tit. 1:10-16). For if the Scriptures lose their veracity or their infallibility, then the good news they impart is, at best, damaged and, at worst, destroyed. Tampering with or denying the doctrine of Scripture imperils the gospel and all those who believe it. This is the work of Satan and has been seen in every age of the church. Like all those generations who have shed blood for the Bible’s preservation, we too must fight to protect it—its history, its inspiration, its transmission, and its illumination. Only then can forthcoming generations join with us and praise God for his iBible–inspired, inscripturated, infallible, inerrant, illuminated, and incredible!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss.

A Biblical Meditation on God’s iBible (1): Illumination and Intervention

In a informational age, where “data smog” threatens to pollute the air we breathe, where iPods, iPhones, and iGoogle have become part and parcel of daily living, and where keeping up with the Jones requires 24-hour instant information, it is salubrious to be still and know that our Lord is still God (Ps. 46:10) and that His Word remains fixed in the heavens (Ps. 119:89).  Yet, God’s Word is not a static, concrete fixture of law, suspended in time and space; it is living and active (Heb. 4:12), it has taken on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and as we will consider over the next three days, it has come to God’s people over an extended period of time that has been marked by a number of progressive steps.  By means of nmenonic device, these stages included: general illumination (i.e. general revelation), historical intervention, divine inspiration, and Spirit-wrought inscripturation, transmission of information, and personal illumination.  Taking these “I” steps together, you might say that God has given us his own iBible.  Let us consider together the amazing process by which God has given us his Word:

Illumination (in General): In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). With the power of his voice he breathed life into being (Ps. 33:6; cf. Gen. 2:7) and with the command of his voice he spoke light into existence (Gen. 1:3ff). In a very real sense, the first day began with a massive burst of light, a grand illumination. From this moment in time until now God has illuminating his world with his glory and has been making himself known (cf. Rev. 22:5).  He maintains the existence of all things by the power of His Word (Heb. 1:3), and in his creation he has made his divine nature and infinite power known (Rom. 1:18-20).  As Psalm 19 says: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim his handiwork; day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge; there is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.”  In other words, God’s general revelation, or general “illumination,” has transcended the cosmos.

Intervention (in History): Throughout the Scriptures, the God of the Bible is a God who reveals Himself. This is seen in his creation (Ps 19:1-7) and in his written Word (Ps 19:8ff); this is evident in the Imago Dei and in the mystery of marriage. In every area of life and in each stage of creation he gives more light to view ponder his nature and understand His work in the world. As the author of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son, who he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb. 1:1-2)” This progressive revelation can be seen in the way that each stage of Scripture offers are more complete picture of who the Triune God is:

Pentateuch: The God who is (Ex. 3:14)
History: The God who acts in love on behalf of his people (Ex. 34; Deut. 7)
Psalms: The God who reigns and deserves all worship (Ps. 93, 97, 99)
Prophets: The God who keeps his Word; the Covenantal God (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36)
Gospels: The God who is with us (Matt. 1:23)
Epistles: The God of Glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:1-14)
Revelation: The Creator and Redeemer God; the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8)

(For a more complete discussion of theocentric revelational see Timothy George’s chapter on God in Theology for the Church, edited by Danny Akin [Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007]).

Perhaps today is the day to be still and once again know that he is God, to turn off the iPod and pick up God’s inspired Word. If that is hard, as it so often is, there is all the more reason and need to once again hear the voice of God in his eternal Word. Or perhaps, instead of opposing one against the other, download God’s Word on you iPod. Listen to it as you go, drive, workout, or whatever. In any case, wherever the word finds you, may we together make sure that we find the Word; may we have ears to hear what the Spirit of Christ is saying in God’s holy book.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss.