Let us continue our analysis of the role and work of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that since the Spirit represents one of the Persons of the Godhead, much is unknowable about Him. Nevertheless, we can strive to understand what can be understood through the revelation He has provided us.
Previously we considered the relationship of the Holy Spirit and the believer. Let us continue by considering the role of the Spirit in the revelation of God’s will.
Preliminary Consideration: The Word of God
Before we begin considering the Spirit and God’s revelation, we must make clear what has often been confused. We read constantly about the “word of God,” and normally equate that with God’s revelation. Since the Spirit is the one responsible for revealing God’s message to mankind, many have equated the role of the Spirit with that of the Word.
But the Word of God is not, preeminently, the book revealed by the Spirit. John 1 is quite clear about the Word of God: He is with God and is God (John 1:1), all things were made through Him (John 1:3), and He became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus the Christ (John 1:14). Therefore, when God said, “‘let there be light’, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3), that is the Word of God coming forth from the Father and creating. Later on, the Spirit reveals the information regarding the Word to inspired authors, which becomes the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:21).
Therefore, the word is really about the Word. The Scriptures are there to provide the contours of the Word of God so that we can understand about God and His work, but the Bible is thus not an end to itself: instead, it points to the substance of what is revealed, to the Word of God and His interaction with men (John 1:1-14, 1 Corinthians 10:1-5), and how one can “abide” in the Word (cf. 1 John). It points you to faith in Jesus Christ; it is up to us to have that faith (Hebrews 11:6).
The Spirit and His Revelation
While Jesus is the Word personified (John 1:1-14), Jesus is neither a book nor a letter. Instead, when God communicated to mankind through various persons, He did so through the Holy Spirit:
For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
We see here the process: men did not prophesy by their own will, but God “moved” them by the Holy Spirit to speak. Thus we have the common phrase in the Old Testament, “the word of the LORD that came to x prophet.” The communication is spoken by the prophet or person according to their own language yet the substance is guided by the Spirit for God’s ends.
In this way countless persons have spoken God’s will, from prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah to kings like David and even people like Caiaphas (cf. John 11:49-51)! For many generations, such is the only way that people would hear a message from God!
But there were always people who pretended to speak a word from God, but God did not inspire them to do so. Such is why God intended for all prophets to be tested: they were truly from God if their message came true (Deuteronomy 18:19-22).
Meanwhile, many of the inspired statements uttered by those prophets were collected and written down. God was also inspiring other people through the Spirit to write history and prophecies that would eventually make up the Scriptures, as is revealed in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.
As the Kingdom of God was inaugurated through Jesus Christ, He promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, would be given to them so that they could teach the people regarding the new covenant (Matthew 18:18, John 14:16-17, John 15:26-27, John 16:12-14, Acts 1:8). This was powerfully fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out on the disciples, and they spoke in tongues and testified regarding Jesus (Acts 2). Through the laying on of hands, the Apostles could provide similar abilities to those who believed (Acts 8:14-17, Acts 19:1-6). It was through these means that the Christians of the period of the New Testament spoke regarding Jesus and encouraged each other.
It was also through these means that God inspired the creation of the New Testament, written by the Apostles and their associates by the Spirit’s direction (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Such was the situation in the first century. After this period, there is a marked difference in the attitude of Christians toward their own abilities and that which came before them. They no longer testified by their own authority; they preached and spoke in the name of what the Apostles and others had revealed in the New Testament. No one was claiming the same prerogatives of inspired revelation. There were clear distinctions between what came before and what existed then.
Such was predicted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.
For the purposes of the new covenant, God’s revelation was complete. The Spirit was not going to be revealing any new information. The focus of the Christian was now to understand what God had previously revealed through the Holy Spirit and apply it to his life.
But does the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of His revelation end with the end of the first century and the completion of the New Testament?
Based upon what Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16, it would seem that the Spirit does still have a role in assisting the believer in understanding that which has already been revealed:
But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
Many might say that Paul is writing to a first century audience, and because the Spirit is not providing the gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, this passage is not applicable today.
This view, however, is problematic. Yes, it is true that “knowledge” is listed in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, but this by no means can mean the abolition of all knowledge. We still have the repository of that which has been previously revealed, and God would certainly still have us to know of it (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, therefore, indicates that the Spirit is not providing new knowledge. This is not a hindrance to the Spirit helping the Christian understand that which already has been revealed.
Many of the promises enumerated in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 still apply today. Christians receive the gift of the Holy Spirit today (Acts 2:38-39). As we have seen previously, Christians still receive “spiritual gifts” from God through the agency of the Spirit, as seen in Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Galatians 5:17-24, and 1 Peter 4:10-11. And, from 1 Corinthians 2:12, we see that by having the Spirit, we may understand the things God seeks to reveal to us in His word.
Some may protest and say that since God has revealed all things to us in the Bible, the Spirit does not actively assist in understanding the Bible. Yet this view would seem to get Paul’s logic backwards. Paul says that by having the Spirit we understand God’s revelation, not that we understand God’s revelation because of what the Spirit did.
We again return to the issue we spoke of beforehand. We recognize that it is sheer folly and presumptuousness to say that everything we have we have gained by our own power and strength. We saw previously how it would be sheer arrogance to say that we, by our own power alone, have inculcated all the character attributes that God would have us demonstrate. Is it not the same to say that we have understood the Bible based entirely on our own intelligence, insight, and understanding?
Some may say that the Bible is so straightforward that we do not need any help in understanding its message: it is plain as day, and that is sufficient. If it were so straightforward, why is it that many sincere people entirely disagree on how to interpret it in many instances? Yes, I recognize that many times it is based in one’s own lust and to justify oneself, and there are times when people have distorted perspectives based on deceptive teachings, but that does not answer every disagreement that has ever existed. As Paul himself said, God’s message is not comprehensible to those with carnal mindsets– to have the mind of Christ you have to have the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). To have spiritual understanding, it must be guided by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Galatians 5:17-24)!
Human beings, according to their own designs, are led into all kinds of error (cf. Jeremiah 10:23). Why, then, would we presume that we understand God’s revelation entirely based upon our own insight, wisdom, and understanding?
Objections likely abound. If the Spirit does guide people in some way, why do so many people disagree? To this we must recognize that the Spirit is not accountable to us, and that the Spirit is working according to the will of God. After all, Paul says that God’s truths must be discerned spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:10-16), and one must have the Spirit in order to be led by Him (Galatians 5:17-24, Romans 8:1-10). Perhaps those who disagree either do not have the Spirit or do not heed His voice. The Spirit, after all, will not coerce someone to believe anything they refuse to accept.
Perhaps the biggest objection and concern involves how “Spirit guidance” is abused among denominationalists. We must recognize that truth is truth, and if truth is abused, that does not mean that in our reactions we should forsake truth. It is true that the idea of the Spirit guiding the believer is abused among many in denominations. Many will make statements about how “God spoke to them” and “God said this to me” and “the Spirit told me this.” Did God speak to them? Only He would know.
Yet, in the New Testament, we see how the Spirit works, and the Spirit does not work in this way. The New Testament authors do not make a statement and say that it is true because “the Spirit says so.” Such a claim is not falsifiable and not inherently persuasive. Instead, in Acts 2, Peter stands up and proclaims Jesus as the Christ by his own personal testimony to the resurrection, the common knowledge of the works of Jesus Christ, and by demonstrating from the Scriptures how it was so. He even quotes Joel to demonstrate why it is that they are filled with the Spirit! In Acts 13, Paul stands up in a synagogue and proclaims Jesus as the Christ through the Old Testament Scriptures. In Acts 17, Paul stands up before Athenians and uses their own literature to attest to the One True God. Throughout the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and others, truth is spoken forth freely with proofs and demonstrations. “Do this because the Spirit says so” is not seen.
This is because God’s truth is open for examination. God’s truth stands on its own merit, and does not depend on subjective appeals. The Spirit would not all of a sudden change and act differently in the modern era.
Therefore, anyone who would say that a particular claim is true “because the Spirit says so” represents a red flag that something is seriously wrong. If the Spirit is aiding Christians in understanding that which He previously revealed, He will show that truth in ways that can be sensibly and persuasively proven on the basis of the text itself, just as He did through the Apostles and others so long ago. The Spirit will not require mentioning.
It should also go without saying that the Spirit is not going to compel us to understand without us engaging in the pursuit of God’s truth. Just as the fruit of the Spirit is not manifested solely by the Spirit’s work, but by the believer striving to obey God and thus assisted by the Spirit, so the Spirit, if He is going to assist in our understanding, will only do so based upon our study and deliberation on His revelation (Deuteronomy 6, 2 Timothy 2:15). The description of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, or Helper (parakletos, John 14:26), is apt, and on what basis can we say that He still does not provide comfort and help to believers today?
Believers should always have a good dose of humility in regards to their lives and how God works with them. On the one hand, if God indeed is working in our lives, or if we are gaining understanding by the Spirit, we should glorify Him for it. On the other hand, we do not know exactly how God operates, and we ought not presume that we understand a given truth because of the Spirit or that certain events that took place definitively did so by God’s hand. We do not know exactly how God is operating today– but we firmly believe that He still does work in our lives.
We ought to thank God that He has revealed to us His will through the Scriptures by the agency of the Spirit. We also should be open to the possibility that our understanding is not based merely on our own knowledge and effort but might be assisted by the Spirit. This ought not become a prop for an argument, and it should not provide an opportunity for an inflated head in the belief that a given idea “must be right” because we are “sure” that it came from the Holy Spirit. We must always “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), to see if what we are believing is from God, from our own lusts, or from the evil one. The humble servant of God (Luke 17:7-10), diligently striving to be approved (2 Timothy 2:15), in the midst of study of and devotion to the Scriptures, might just have an idea pop in his or her head that makes good sense of the passage. Is it possible that said idea just bubbled forth from their unconscious? Of course. Yet why is it impossible for the Spirit to be the one behind that thought? According to 1 Corinthians 2:10-16, it is not impossible in the least. It is, in fact, part of the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
It is quite inconsistent, and perhaps even blasphemous, for us to recognize our dependence on God for our position in life but to deny that He has any active role in how we understand His revelation to mankind. Let us at least be open to the idea that we can be guided by the Spirit to a better understanding of that which He has revealed.
Ethan R. Longhenry