Shining some light on the doctrine of Illumination (pt. 2)

Pt. 1

As I mentioned yesterday we will be looking at the doctrine of illumination for a few post.  When it comes to illumination there may be no richer material on the subject than Psalm 119.  The information  provided in Psalm 119 on the doctrine of illumination is significant to say the least.  Just a sampling of this data reveals the psalmist’s profound understanding of this doctrine.  The information provided by the psalmist is significant to a biblical understanding of illumination and it synthesizes perfectly with what the rest of the bible teaches about this doctrine.  As was stated yesterday, illumination is the work of the Spirit of God empowering the people of God to understand and appropriate the word of God.  This definition includes the need for illumination, the source of illumination, the content of illumination, and the result of illumination.  Each one of these aspects is also developed by the psalmist in Psalm 119.  Beginning today we will take some time to look at each one of these aspects of the doctrine of illumination.

The Need for IlluminationBroken Glasses

In Psalm 119 the psalmist clearly recognizes his need for divine enablement, particularly when it comes to the word of God.  For example, in verse 18 the psalmist prayed for God to open his eyes, and allow him to see the word of God.  This was only necessary because the psalmist’s eyes, just like all men, were closed to spiritual truth.  This is why the psalmist prayed for enablement.  He knew that apart form divine enablement the psalmist would have been blind to God’s truth, and incapable of following God’s word as a child of God.  Or, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 2:14,

A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

The psalmist was not only blind to the truth apart from divine illumination, but he was also inclined toward the vanity of rebellious ways.  Verse 37 makes this clear when it says,

Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways.

Here the psalmist recognizes his natural inclination away from God’s word, and thus his need for illumination.  Romans 3:11 similarly states,

There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God….

With respective to the doctrine of illumination, the starting point for the psalmist was his desperate need for divine enablement.  This starting point is totally consistent with what the rest of Scripture teaches on this issue, and it is the first point of emphasis of the doctrine of illumination.  We need God’s help in order to understand His word.  Sure, we may be able to understand some facts about a passage or remember stories from the bible.  However, because of our utter inability we cannot fully grasp and apply the spiritual truths of Scripture without the help of God (i.e. illumination).


Shining some light on the doctrine of Illumination (pt. 1)

wedge-reading-light-1Over the next few post I want to take some time to look at the doctrine of illumination.  I want to do this partly because the doctrine of illumination is an often overlooked area of theology.  A brief look at a few of the more recent systematic theologies will reveal that many times modern day theologians pay little or no attention to the doctrine of illumination.  This, however, is not the case in Psalm 119.  Psalm 119 is all about the word of God, including how God helps His people understand that word.  In this chapter the psalmist not only recognizes the sufficiency of Scripture, but he also recognizes his need for divine enablement in order to understand Scripture.  Or, to use the theological term, he understood his need for divine illumination.

The psalmist was not the first person to recognize his need, nor was he the last.  B.B. Warfield recognized this need when he said that man needs “a new heart, or in the confession’s language, the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.”[1] To this Calvin adds,

The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason.  For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.  The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.[2]

These men, along with the psalmist, understood the importance of the doctrine of illumination.  Their emphasis on this doctrine was not philosophical or systematic, but biblical.  They emphasized the doctrine of illumination because God’s Word emphasizes the doctrine.  For instance, a key passage on the doctrine of illumination is 1 Corinthians 2:10-16:

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.[3]

This passage contains several important truths concerning the doctrine of illumination.  First, illumination is necessary because man is unable to understand spiritual truth on his own.  Second, God, specifically the Holy Spirit, is the source of illumination.  Third, illumination is only possible for Christians because they are the only ones who have received the Holy Spirit.  Fourth, illumination allows believers to “appraise” the things of God, literally allowing them to “have the mind of Christ.”  These truths about illumination are clear in this passage, but they are not limited to this passage.  Each one of them is supported by the broader witness of Scripture.[4] Thus, the truths of this passage represent a sampling of what the Bible teaches about illumination.

With the biblical data in mind, the doctrine of illumination can be defined in this way: illumination is the work of the Spirit of God empowering the people of God to understand and appropriate the word of God.

[1] Quoted in Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 81.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol. 1, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2006), 79.

[3]  New American Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Tomas Nelson Publishers, 1960.

[4]cf. John 14:26, 16:5-15; 2 Cor 4:6; Eph 1:17-19; Col 1:9; etc.

A Helpful Proverb

Guys, especially you young guys, next time you are tempted to let your eyes “gaze” remember what Solomon says in Proverbs 11:22

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion

Just keep that mental picture in your head and it should help you to keep you eyes in the right place.

Mark 4:30-34 – The Parable of the Mustard Seed (pt. 3)

In addition to seeing this principle about Kingdom, Mark also records for us a specific example of that principle being worked out.  In verses 33-34 it says, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”  Here we see again that at this point in His ministry Jesus was teaching primarily in parables.  Specifically, Jesus was using parables to proclaim the word.  So it is the same message that Jesus has been teaching form the beginning (1:14-15), but now He is packaging it differently.  In 4:11-12 we learned that Jesus did this in order to veil the plain message of the Gospel to unbelievers, and reveal it to those who truly believed.  Here Mark adds that Jesus spoke “to them as they were able to hear.”  Some have taken this to mean that Jesus used parables to make his message simpler and easy for everyone to understand.  But this is actually the exact opposite of what Mark means.  This phrase (καθὼς ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν) actually “alerts the reader to the fact that not all have that capacity”[1] to hear Jesus’ message.  In fact, this is illustrated for us in verse 34.  Here we see that Jesus consistently spoke in parables, and yet it was only the disciples and the inner circle that came to him to learn more.  The vast majority of people were confused by Jesus’ message, and quite frankly weren’t interested in the spiritual principles that He was teaching.

Things aren’t looking all that great for the Kingdom of God.  However, God was still at work growing His Kingdom.  Mark tells us that even though the masses did not understand Jesus’ message, there were those who continued to follow Jesus.  In fact, Mark tells us the Jesus privately explained his teaching to these individuals. “The verb here means ‘to loosen, to untie, to solve,” and was used of solving or interpreting knotty problems, riddles, or dreams.  The disciples needed such help in order to understand the parabolic message.  Theirs was a high privilege….” [2]

Jesus invested in these individuals, and ultimately he used them to grow His Church and further the Kingdom of God.  Many of these men went on to become the apostles who led the church after Jesus’ ascension.  In the beginning they were only a few men, but God used them to grow something great.  The same thing is happening today.  We, as Christians, are equally privileged to have the Holy Spirit explaining the teaching of Jesus to us.  And even though things don’t always seem to be going well, as long as we remain faithful to Christ we will be used to further the Kingdom of God.


As look at the world around us it would be very easy to become discouraged and give up.  But when we are tempted to give up we must remember the principle taught in this passage.  We must understand that even though the Kingdom of God seems insignificant sometimes ultimately God is growing it into something magnificent.  Just think about the three different groups of people that this passage speaks to:

  1. Jesus’ original audience: They wondered why the crowds didn’t care about the spiritual truth.
  2. Mark’s original Roman audience: They were dealing with intense persecution, and the walls of the church seemed to be crashing down.
  3. The Church Today: Now things seem to be going backwards, but we must remember how far we have come and how much further we are going to go.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, God has grown His grown Kingdom and He will continue to do so.  As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  A wise man summarized this passage well when he said:

“Accordingly, to those who first heard it, this parable was saying, “have patience, exercise faith, keep on praying, and keep on working.  God’s program cannot fail.”  It is saying the same thing to those who have come afterward.  Only, it is saying it today with even greater force, because the story-illustration is really prophecy, and this prophecy has already been partly fulfilled.”[3]

[1]Ibid., 218.

[2] Hiebert, 122.

[3] Hendricksen, 173-174.

Book Review- Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies

start your familyThe question of when to start a family is an issue that comes up often for me in my ministry.  In fact, it is an issue that my wife and I had to wrestle with not all that long ago.  There are many factors that should be taken into consideration before having children, however I cannot help but wonder if many couple are waiting too long to have children.  It is an issue that I have wrestled with in my own mind, and I was excited to see a new book come out on the subject.

Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies by Steve and Candice Watters is book that encourages young couples make children a priority in their marriage.  Steve and Candice based much of this book on their own experiences as a young couple.  They were waiting to have children while they pursued careers and “becoming established.”  That is, until a godly couple helped them to see the biblical priority of having babies.  This book builds on the authors’ experience, and adds some helpful wisdom from God’s word.

I found Start Your Family to be a very helpful read, primarily because it addresses so many of the cultural norms that Christians have simply accepted over time.  One of the points that is made in the book is that young couples often develop an idea of what marriage should look like based on a “Pottery Barn catalogue” rather than what the bible teaches.  To this the Watters remind their readers:

The inertia of lifestyle, financial goals, and continuous birth control make it easier for couples to overestimate the flexibility they have in their timeline.  In a day when marketers and self-help gurus tell us limitations are only in our minds, we can grow unfortunately naïve about how much life, energy, and fertility we really have left for the venture of parenthood. (80)

What about the couples that want to wait “until they are established” to have children?  The Watters would give this advice:

…Many now have the mentality that getting established—a common prerequisite for having children—means attaining the standard of living that the parents spent decades accumulating. (78)

…It’s okay to start your family without having detailed answers to every question.  By saying that you don’t need a detailed plan, however, we’re not advocating that you just plow into all the logistical details of launching a family fueled by a blissful hope that everything will come together. …What we are saying is you don’t need a detailed plan, but a few timeless principles can make all the difference. (103)

What about the idea that couple need time to get to know one another before they can have children?  The Watters give this advice:

Instead of seeing children as a threat to the other blessings of marriage, we can embrace that God created all the good things of marriage to work in harmony. (40)

Such sentiments drive more and more couples to think of children primarily in terms of their cost—they way they drain their parents financially and psychologically.  In that frame of mind, the way that the Bible describes children can seem like an odd assessment.  In Psalm 127, Solomon writes: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him…. (44)

This book deal with many more common questions that couples have when they think through this issue, but there is one in particular that I especially want to mention.  Steve Watters puts it this way:

The worst mistake that I made a provider was in the early years of our marriage was when we bought a home that required both of our incomes to qualify. (114)

Candice was suffering both the curse related to the pain of childbearing as well as the thorns and thistles intended for men (115)

Based on their own experience they give this advice:

Ours is a cautionary tale for couples that have the option to plan smart from the start.  Start living like you plan to be parents—refocus your income and budget on whatever it takes to make your second income optional.  That’s not going to be easy in a day when budgets are more dependent on two salaries.  It will invariably mean sacrificing the lifestyle many of your peers enjoy.  In the moment, it can fell like too high a price to pay, but you’re investing in a family-rich future. (115)

The Watters, by God’s grace, were able to overcome the obstacles they created!  That is why I would add that their “tale” is not just cautionary; it provides hope for many who may regret previous decisions.

On a final note, I need to add that this book’s primary strength is in the area of practical wisdom.  When it comes to theology and biblical interpretation the Watters are not experts (they do not make that claim either).  They do a very good job of dealing with this issue.  However, there are a few minor points of “imprecision” that surfaced in the book.  That being said, I would highly recommend this book to anyone dealing with the issue of starting a family.

Starting Your Family – $13.99

*UPDATE*: These are some general principles that are mentioned above; principles that I think are biblical.  However, this does not mean that it is wrong for a mother to work.  Sometimes this is necessary.  The general wisdom above does not take into account all situations.

Mark 4:30-34 – The Parable of the Mustard Seed (pt. 2)

I am back from a little vacation, and some appreciated R&R…&G (golf). Today I want to get back into the book of Mark, and pick up where we left off in Mark 4:30-34.

In verses 30-32 Jesus uses a parable to explain the principle that the Kingdom of God starts “small” and grows to be “great.”  Here it says, And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” In these verses we find Jesus teaching the people again.  He begins this session with two rhetorical questions.  Jesus does not ask these questions because he doesn’t know the answer, but instead asks them to highlight the theme of the Kingdom of God.  He wants to get His listeners involved, and get them thinking about this subject.  This is why He asks them what they would compare the Kingdom of God to.  In other words, He wanted them to think about how they would describe the Kingdom of God.  I think that is a pretty good question, and so I will pose it to you.  How would you describe the Kingdom of God?  What would you compare it to?  I think that if I had to describe the Kingdom of God I would compare it to something great and powerful.  Maybe a giant army, or a huge corporation, or something like that…  But this is not exactly how Jesus describes it.

In verse 32 Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a “mustard seed.”  The particular seed that Jesus probably has in mind here comes from the black mustard plant which is commonly grown in this part of the world. These plants were, and still are, very useful.  The seeds are used as a spice and, can also be turned into the condiment known as mustard. The seeds are also pressed to make mustard oil, and the edible leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.  Jesus tells us that this seed is the “smallest seed of all the seeds on earth.”  Literally, this little seed was about the size of a grain of sand.

There has been a lot of confusion over this statement because there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed.  But really Jesus is not comparing the mustard seed to all the seeds on the planet.  He is comparing this seed to all the other seeds that would have been sown in the garden.  It is important to note that the word translated here as “earth” (τῆς γῆς) is not referring to the entire planet, but rather to the ground or soil that the seed was being sown into.  In fact, it is the same word used earlier in the verse to refer to the ground.

We have seen that this seed was very small, but in verse 34 Jesus tells us more about this seed.  Here we see that this seed is very small, “yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  Here we see the contrast.  Even though the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds in the garden the mustard plant eventually grows to be the largest plant in the garden.  This particular type of mustard plant, grown in Palestine, grows to be anywhere between 10 and 15 feet tall.  This is much larger than any of the other plants that the farmers would have been growing.  It was even big enough for the birds to make nests in the branches.

This is how Jesus chose to describe the Kingdom of God.  The question is what does it mean?  What is the spiritual principle behind this parable?  The answer is actually quite simple.  Jesus uses this parable to explain the principle that the Kingdom of God starts “small” and grows to be “great.”  One author put it this way, “The central idea of the new parable, then, is this: the kingdom of God, no matter how small and insignificant it may appear at first, will continue to expand and to become increasingly a blessing to all who enter it.”[1] This means that we must not grow impatient, or discouraged as we wait for Jesus to come back and completely fulfill the Kingdom.  This is difficult for us because we like for things done our way, and we always want to see the progress of what we are doing.  However, the Kingdom of God doesn’t always work this way. Think about the example of Elijah (1 Kings 19:9-20).  Elijah got frustrated with God.  He thought that he was the only one left who had remained faithful to God.  In His mind the Kingdom of God had fallen.  However, what Elijah did not realize was that there were 7,000 people in Israel who had not bowed to Baal.  From Elijah’s perspective things were not going well, and his work was insignificant.  But from God’s perspective the Kingdom was growing just as He had planned it.  The same is true today.  We must resist the temptation to become frustrated and remember that even though our progress may seem insignificant it isn’t.  In fact, this parable teaches us that God’s Kingdom will grow and it will be a blessing to the entire world.  You see, in the OT the image of birds nesting in branches was occasionally used as a picture for the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s redemptive plan.  Ezekiel 17:23 says,

On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.

With this parable Jesus is picking up on that prophesy to show that even through the Kingdom of God seemed to have insignificant origins it would ultimately provide benefit for the entire world.  As on author put it, “Out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eyes, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the world.”[2]

[1] Hendricksen, 172.

[2]Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, rev. ed., 149.