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Illumination and Interpretation of God's Word

Posted by Ian Rush on May 7, 2023
Illumination and Interpretation of God's Word
Photo by Joe Jackson on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why the truths of God’s Word are so compelling to some people, while to others they couldn’t be more crazy? You could say the exact same thing to identical twins who have had the same upbringing, and one of them will joyfully agree while the other angrily rejects the truth. The answer to this is found in the doctrine of illumination.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14 he says, “The natural person does not 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.”

In this section of 1 Corinthians, God reveals to us the reason some people don’t believe the Bible. Though they may understand what the Bible says and be able to articulate it, the Holy Spirit has not illuminated their understanding and brought them to believe it. Biblical things “are spiritually discerned.”

While illumination can refer to a person’s salvation, it can also refer to a believer’s need for greater understanding regarding the Bible: that the Lord would take them beyond the surface of the words and lead them to understand its spiritual depth. “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

MacArthur and Mayhue (Biblical Doctrine, pages 389-90) provide six helpful things that illumination does not do:

  1. It does not function outside God’s Word (Psalm 119:18; Luke 24:45).
  2. It does not guarantee that every Christian will agree doctrinally, because the human element can cause false doctrine (Galatians 2:11-21).
  3. It does not mean everything about God is knowable (Deuteronomy 29:29).
  4. It does not render human teachers unnecessary (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2).
  5. It is not a substitute for dedicated, personal Bible study (2 Timothy 2:15).
  6. It is not a one-time experience (2 Timothy 2:15).

Believers, we must thank the Lord that He has graciously chosen to reveal to us the important spiritual truths contained within His Word, and that through these truths He has brought us to salvation. We must pray for unbelievers that we know. Pray that they would come into contact with God’s Word, and that God would illuminate their hearts with His Holy Spirit. And, when we come to read or hear from God’s Word, we must always pray that the Holy Spirit would illuminate the words in such a way that we would understand them in the way God intends, and then apply them to our specific situations.

“What does this verse mean to you?”

You may have heard that question (or one similar to it) asked at a Bible study, or maybe you’ve seen it in a daily devotional book. I know I have.

“When we come to God’s Word, rather than asking, ‘What does this mean to me?’ we should be asking: ‘What was God’s intent... What does God mean?’”

We live in a relativistic and subjective age where people believe truth is not fixed, and that it can change based upon popular thought, feeling, scientific discoveries, or other cultural trends. What people consider true this year may not be considered true next year. What I believe is true may be completely different from what my neighbor believes is true.

This should not be the way we approach God’s Word. God’s Word is His message to us. The truth of God’s Word is unchanging, as God is unchanging.

“The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” - Psalm 119:160
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” - Isaiah 40:8

The meaning of a passage does not shift depending on what generation, nation, or culture you live in. Truth from God is fixed. When God speaks, He is communicating something definite. It’s like when you receive a water bill. The water company is communicating something definite with you, and it is in your best interest to receive and respond to that communication.

When we come to God’s Word, rather than asking, “What does this mean to me?” we should be asking: “What was God’s intent when He first delivered this passage? What does God mean?” Our task is to discover authorial intent.

Discovering authorial intent

There is a science to interpretation; this is called hermeneutics. All this big word means is that there are rules to interpreting anything. And if we follow those rules, we can discover the authorial intent of a passage. The following practices will enrich your time reading God's Word:

  1. As you read the Bible, remember that it is God’s Word and is therefore perfect, clear, authoritative, and sufficient.
  2. Seek to understand the cultural setting of the human author and recipients of the passage you are studying. For example, it is helpful to know that Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy for Israel during their wilderness wanderings: after they were freed from Egyptian slavery, but before they had entered into the promised land. Any good study Bible or overview of the Bible can provide this type of information. Please contact any of the pastors for recommendations.
  3. Seek to understand the words and sentences. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic. We live in an age where we are blessed to have several excellent English translations of the Bible (we recommend the ESV and Legacy Standard Bible). These translations have been put together by trustworthy Bible scholars who are attempting to keep as close to God’s original communication as possible, while making the sentences understandable in our own language. While usually we can just read our English Bibles and understand the words, at times there are words that need a little more study and thought, such as steadfast love, grace, justification, or gospel.
  4. Remember that there are different genres within the Bible (for example, historical-narrative, and poetic). Within these different genres, we should consistently interpret in a literal way. Within a literal interpretation, we still expect to see figures of speech, like metaphors and euphemisms.

These rules highlight the importance of having a good Bible translation, taking time to study God’s Word, and being in a church that faithfully proclaims the depths of it.

Finally, whenever we come to the Word of God, we must anticipate that the Lord wants to teach us something. Having gone through the steps above to arrive at the authorial intent of a passage, the last but by no means least important task we have to accomplish is application. In this step, we must identify the timeless principles in a passage – those truths that apply to every tribe, tongue, and nation, no matter what period of history they live in – and live by them.

As James 1 says, 

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. … The one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
Ian Rush

Ian is the Youth Pastor of Faith Bible Church. He and his wife, Claire, have 5 kids and recently spent a few years serving in a small church in England.

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