The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the work of the Holy Spirit specifically in the illumination of believers. It is not my intention to give an exhaustive treatment to the subject matter. The doctrine of illumination must be understood within a balanced biblical frame work or one will run the risk of becoming a mystic and/or an almost-Christian who is self-deceived. It is through illumination the Holy Spirit unifies the entire body of Christ strictly through the sola scriptura principle. Therefore illumination is that work of the Holy Spirit which gives to the believer the recognition of an absolute confidence in Scripture, the ultimate God given authority and unifying reality for faith and practice. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination is of absolute necessity for one to walk in obedience to God from a pure heart.
A Brief Overview of Illumination
The word illumination or the idea thereof is found in the Old Testament in very clear form in Daniel 5:11 and 14. The Aramaic word נַהִירוּ (nahiru) translated as illumination or insight is used to simply refer to illumination of the mind from a spiritual source. In context 5:1-30, the word is used by the queen of Belshazzar to refer to Daniel as one who possessed “a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days or your father, illumination, insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him” (v. 11, NASB).
King Belshazzar’s need for Daniel came through his error in using the “vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem” to drink from during an extravagant and immoral dinner party (5:2). Belshazzar is a like representation to the youth in modern western culture. Belshazzar had no reverential treatment toward the God of Israel or possessed any respect for those who were well versed in the Holy Scriptures. Daniel was nearly forgotten about and stored away like a relic. Daniel was nothing more than an old man who held to archaic traditions.
As a result of Belshazzar’s flagrant sin, a finger suddenly appeared floating in the room near the king and wrote words on the wall before his eyes. The king and all of his wise men could not interpret the words. So he summoned Daniel to interpret the message. Daniel attributed the source of his wisdom directly to God Himself. It was God who provided Daniel with intimate knowledge that came from the depths of God’s hidden counsel. From the simple basic reading of the text one can conclude that illumination refers to the wisdom of God given to men for His self-disclosing revelatory purposes (prophecy).
Illumination also refers to that which comes immediately after the Spirit’s work of regeneration in each believer. Illumination in the Old Testament was not reliant upon regeneration as in the case of Balaam in Numbers 22. However, illumination in the New Testament cannot be given apart from regeneration. After regeneration or in conjunction with regeneration, illumination can also operate as one of the many gifts given by God to each Christian. Paul asserts a similar idea in Romans 12:3, “as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” In the Greek text the verb μερίζω (merizo,) means to portion out or disperse. In other words God has dispersed out a measure of faith (μέτρον πίστεως) to each of the brethren according to God’s purposes, not the believer’s ability. For this reason Paul urged the believers in Rome “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (12:3). Illumination therefore was purchased for believers by Christ through His work of reconciliation on the cross and distributed to every believer through the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart (Eph 4:7-16).
Paul asserts in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (NASB). The verse brings about the understanding of the doctrine of regeneration through reconciliation by asserting that the new birth / creation (καινὴ κτίσις) is that which occurs neither by man’s will, knowledge or understanding, volition, actions, deeds, social standing, economic ability, nor any other internal or external accoutrement he possesses; but only through God’s personal work in the heart by His Holy Spirit illuminating the sinner to a true spiritual reality. Galatians 6:15 employs the same idea about the new creation (καιναὶ κτίσεις). Illumination in the work of salvation is as John MacArthur puts it, “when the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truth.”
Illumination can vary from one Christian to another. While it is true that every Christian is illuminated by the Holy Spirit to receive and/or accept the wisdom and knowledge of God which is necessary for salvation, it does not always follow that every Christian will each possess the same depth of working knowledge about God and His Word (Eph 4:7). In Ephesians 4:7 Paul states (κατὰ τὸ μέτρον τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ) that there is a measure of Christ’s gift given to each person (this verse complements Paul’s words in Romans 12:3).The word δωρεᾶς (doreas) is understood to mean, “that which is given or transferred freely by one person to another [τὸ μέτρον] to the measure that Christ has given.” Harold Hoehner similarly concludes, “It conveys that Christ not only gives each believer a gift but he also determines the amount of the gift.”
Paul goes on to further explain in Ephesians 4:11 the gifts of Christ includes different offices of teachers who each receive a differing authority and revelation such as: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Even the Apostle Peter commented regarding Paul’s writings stating that they were “hard to understand” for the untrained or unstable, but not necessarily for those who are born of God (2 Pet 3:15-18). For the Christian trained in righteousness and growing in grace, the Word of God is opened to their understanding. But once again, one’s comprehension of the word of God varies from person to person. In part there is an implication by Peter that he had to work at understanding those things God had revealed to Paul. John the apostle is another great example of one who received a great deal of illumination through direct revelation about the work of God throughout history as recorded in Revelation. Today each believer must labor in understanding God’s Word, but some appear to labor with difficulty while others appear to labor with ease. It is also important to remember that to the measure of grace each person receives, much is required (Luke 12:48).
1 Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 443
2 John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Dangers of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2013), 117.
3 John -Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1960), 1:78. Calvin identified the illumination of the Holy Spirit as, “the secret testimony of the Spirit” which is regarded as a “higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures.”
4 William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill, 1988), 413.
5 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol, 12, Ezekiel 13-20 Daniel 1-6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 325.
6 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 1996), 121. Ferguson writes in regards to illumination saying, “[regeneration] implies intellectual illumination: the kingdom of God, which before stood unrecognized, now becomes clearly visible.”
7 Robert D. Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2005) 695-97. Culver demonstrates more clearly that illumination is immediately at work in the moment of regeneration.
8 BDAG, 632.
9 Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 523.
10 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol, 20, I Corinthians II Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 233.
11 John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Dangers of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2013), 117.
12 BDAG, 266.
13 Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 522-23.
14 Ibid., 545-46.