Have you ever heard someone say that all you need to understand the Bible is the Holy Spirit? You’ve got everything you need. Maybe you’ve heard this and not known how to respond or maybe you actually agree, but I’d like to talk today about how this is not the full truth. There is an aspect of truth to this, to where we do need the Spirit to understand the things of God, but how much of those things can we understand only by aid of the Spirit? What is the Spirit’s role? What are the roles of other, non-Spirit aids in understanding? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
The first thing to point out is that for the Christian, we understand things that the natural man, the non-regenerate man, the unsaved person cannot understand. Jesus consistently talks about those with eyes to see, in other words, from his perspective, those who certain things have been revealed to. We actually have as Christians a way of knowing where information is revealed to some and not to others. Jesus speaks this way. For instance, he says, “Those with eyes to see can see certain truths. Those with ears to hear can hear certain truth.”
Now everyone he’s talking to has ears, but they’re not the type of ears that are receptive. A lot of times this is cached out in terms of the state of their heart, but then we have to ask why is a person’s heart different than another person’s heart? That will come down to the Holy Spirit.
Now, obviously, there’s much more to be said about that to do it justice than just the previous 40 seconds or so, but, nonetheless, the Holy Spirit does make the difference in understanding the things of God and in following them. 1 Corinthians 1:18 make this fairly clear, which says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
That is one message, the message of the cross. There are two groups of people. There is no middle ground. It is either foolish to those who are perishing or the power of God to those who are being saved. In other words, to those who are Christians, who have the Spirit, it is the power of God. I think it is worth pointing out here, as with a couple other passages we’ll see today, that “saved” here, salvation in this sense, is not a one-time thing. It’s not what happened when you were justified, when you received the Spirit. The New Testament often speaks of salvation as a process, not that you can lose it, but that it is happening. Salvation in a New Testament sense is often spoken of as something that has happened, it is happening, and it will happen when Jesus returns.
There are multiple senses to that word, but Paul’s point here, nonetheless, is that there are two groups of people, those who don’t have the Spirit and those who do have the Spirit. The message of the cross, the gospel, is foolishness to those who do not have the Spirit. How do you come to understand the gospel? Well, first, you get the Spirit. I think that’s Paul’s point here or at least his assumption that he proves in other places. All of that to say the Spirit does make a difference in what we can understand about the gospel.
Now I don’t say “understand” to mean that the person cannot understand the words and their English meanings.
No. They can understand language; that’s an aspect of God’s common grace. But they can’t actually comprehend how that could make any sense. They understand the words and they don’t think the concept makes sense. A God who died on a cross and rose again, that there’s a supernatural world out there that I can’t save myself, that I need to rely on salvation from another? All of these types of things confront the sensibilities and rational aspect of the person who does not have the Spirit. I would say, in fact, those with the Spirit sometimes struggle with some of that. Nonetheless, the Spirit is the differentiating factor in 1 Corinthians 1:18.
We do understand that the scriptures are the way that we come to know about salvation. For instance, in 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul is writing to Timothy and he says that the holy writings are able to make you wise for salvation. Now that’s a paraphrase. When we go around sharing the gospel, we’re not directly quoting scripture. We are presenting scriptural concepts and ideas and paraphrases, because the truth and power is not so much in the exact individual words but in the concepts they convey.
Yes, what was originally written down in the original manuscripts by the author is the word of God, but the truths therein are an important part also. We convey those even when we paraphrase them, inasmuch as we paraphrase them correctly. The stakes are high, as this verse and the previous one in Corinthians says, Understanding the gospel is a big deal. It’s either what is leading to your future salvation or you don’t understand it and you’re left in your sins and you’re perishing.
As 2 Timothy says, The scriptures are what makes us wise for salvation. We should want to know how we actually determine what they say. What tools do we need in our tool belt? Do we just need the Spirit or do we need something else?
Now it sounds really spiritual to say, “You only need the Spirit to understand scripture,” but I think there’s more to it than that. Before we get to that, I do want to answer one question, “understand how much of it?” Do we only need the Spirit to understand scripture as in every single thing contained therein or only a certain amount of it? Now if we’re talking about the principles of the gospel and the kingdom of God and those things, yes, I think that is probably true.
Now as a baseline, you do need to understand language, and we won’t really hit on that today, but assuming you understand language, in order to understand the simple truths of the gospel, I do think you only need the Spirit. Now you do need the Spirit to understand those, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, as Jesus says in John 3, “Unless you are born again, you can’t see the kingdom of God.” In order to appreciate the truths about the kingdom, you actually have to be born again by the Spirit.
I actually place a very heavy weight on the role on the role of the Spirit in the Christian life and in the role of the person who comes to understand the gospel. That is a work of the Spirit. The Spirit has changed their heart so that they can understand and receive the things of the gospel. Nonetheless, what about other things? If we do affirm, like I’ve just said, that you certainly need the Spirit in order to understand the gospel, what about the things that flow after that? What about the role of women in the church? What about the role of head coverings and meat being sacrificed to idols or when divorce is permissible? Do you only need the Spirit to sort those sorts of things out?
I’m going to say no. You actually need more than the Holy Spirit, and here’s why. Because there are things that you are not going to be able to learn except from outside of scripture. The Holy Spirit’s job is to help us understand scripture. It illuminates scripture, but nowhere are we given the guarantee that we as Christians today will understand everything in scripture. Now when I say that, some people will go to John or Luke and say that Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will lead us to all truth. He was speaking to the disciples there. Those actually were the intended audience.
But more than that, isn’t it obvious that the Holy Spirit hasn’t led us to all truth because of the simple fact that people disagree on this issue, that Christians disagree here? If the Holy Spirit had led us to all truth, there would be no disagreement amongst Godly people, unless you’re somehow willing to say one of three things, either the Spirit isn’t doing his job, Jesus didn’t say that, or , the person disagreeing with you isn’t a Christian. None of those seem like valid options. I think it is best to understand in the context where Jesus says this, that he is speaking to the apostles. This is not a guarantee for every Christian. Once again, I think that is quite obvious by the fact that Christians disagree on things.
If that is true, and the Spirit is not a guarantee for the Christian that we will understand everything accurately, well, then what do we need in order to help understand God’s word to the fullest? Remember, I’m not saying that you need external things in order to understand the truths and simple things of the gospel. I’m saying there are other things revealed therein that we need other resources for.
Well, what are some examples of those? This past Sunday, I preached on divorce out of Mark 10. There’s a lot of context surrounding what leads to the dialogue displayed in Mark 10 that you can’t get from scripture. For instance, the disagreement at that day amongst the popular schools of thought of two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. You don’t learn of that in scripture, but that is most certainly what is behind the Pharisees’ question, because they live in this day and they had a perspective. We know that from extra-Biblical writing.
We can better understand the context of their question from things we learn from outside of scripture, or what about what some people have said is the exception for divorce in Matthew 5 and 19, where Jesus is recorded as saying, “I don’t permit divorce except for porneia? That would be the Greek word, and we translate that as immorality. Well, what does that mean? That passage doesn’t tell you, and good, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christians come to different answers. But we can try to get more accurate in the answer we come to by looking at other resources.
What do we know about that word from how it was used in that time period outside of the Bible? How is that word used in the Bible? What were some of the contextual factors in who Matthew was writing to that we know from non-Bible data that could help us understand how he might have been addressing that situation? All of that to say, other contextual information helps us better understand the scriptures.
It’s the same way with cultural customs. We might think in Matthew 1:19 it’s a mistake-I don’t actually think it is-where Matthew records that Joseph was going to divorce Mary even though they were betrothed, because we would be thinking, well, you only get divorced if you’re married. Well, no. The cultural custom was that a divorce certificate needed to be given if a betrothal was separated even if the relationship had not ended in a final marriage and consummation. We understand that through different cultural data we learn about the time period. Sometimes what we learn helps us better translate words which are in the Bible, which then help us better understand the concepts that are conveyed through scripture.
Then there are all these issues in the Corinthian letters about cultural customs too, like head coverings and when a woman can speak and when she can’t speak and what her head should be covered with or if it should be covered, and the same with men, all of that. Sometimes we can understand better what Paul’s getting at if we understand the kind of cultural situation of the day through documents that are not in scripture.
It’s interesting to me, people seem to apply different standards to the Bible than they do to anything else they read. In order to understand scripture, we have to also look at it as literature. It is written in different genres. It’s written in different time periods. If we were going to understand something written in Shakespeare’s day, and I’ll give a very simple example here, it would help to understand how language was used then, because in a Shakespearean play, if someone said their mother’s meal was awful, they weren’t being insulting. They meant it was full of awe, it was wonderful. If we used that word today, people would be insulted, “You really … You said your mother’s meal was awful?”
Well, it’s the same word, but we understand what it means when we understand how it was used at the time, and we understand that from outside of the piece of literature itself. We also learn about conventions from literature from outside of literature too. For instance, what were some common patterns in Jewish apocalyptic literature, end-times literature? Well, we understand that because there are examples of that from outside of scripture that help us understand what is in scripture.
There are many examples of this, but my point here is that people don’t apply the same standards when they come to understand scripture. They’ll read other literature, hopefully taking into account its context and its time period, but they don’t do that with scripture, but it was written in a time period. It was written to specific people who lived in a certain cultural, geographical setting and time setting. In order for them to understand it, they would have needed to understand their culture in their time.
Often, we don’t think about that because our culture and our time is kind of like the water that a fish swims in; it’s not conscious of it. But if the original audience would have understood it in a certain way, we need to try and get ourselves in the same place in terms of contextual understanding so we can hear what scripture says the same way the original audience would have heard. The Spirit doesn’t seem to do that sort of thing. It isn’t telling you about what the cultural customs were in first-century Palestine. No. It’s helping apply those words to your heart and your life and make clear the concepts related to the gospel and soften your heart to what is in scripture, but in order to understand scripture to the fullest, or as full as we can, we do need things from outside of the Bible.
My last point, and I won’t spend much time here, is simply that if all you need to understand scripture is the Spirit, why does the Spirit equip some as teachers and preachers? If we need people who teach us to do work, to understand and strive to more deeply comprehend the things in scripture and study, why do we need those if the Spirit just does all that work for us? No, I think the most common sense understanding here is that when Paul tells us that some are given as teachers and preachers and those sorts of things, that this is because we need them. We actually benefit from them as individuals and the body because they have a very necessary role, because the Spirit is not the only thing we need.
That’s not a low view of the Spirit. In fact, I might have a stronger view of the Spirit and the Christian life than some people who disagree with me in certain areas. I’m not trying to insult the Holy Spirit by any means. I’m just simply saying if we don’t do the study necessary to understand scripture and we only rely on what we think is the Spirit, oftentimes we end up substituting our own thoughts, baptized with some divine authority, when we have actually misunderstood.
I hope this has given you something to think about, and I look forward to talking with you next week on Unapologetic.