The Role of the Holy Spirit in Understanding Scripture

Written on: February 1, 2023

Article by: Leslie Williams

The scriptures provide a fairly clear picture of the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of inspiration. He was involved in revealing God’s will to Man. He helped those who received God’s message to understand what was said and guided the preservation of what was revealed so that the written record lost none of its content or clarity.

We must remember that Christians in the first century enjoyed ‘spiritual gifts’ which they received directly from the Holy Spirit at the instigation of the apostles who prayed for them while laying their hands upon them. Some received the gift of prophecy, some the gift of interpretation, the gift of wisdom or the gift of interpreting tongues (I Cor 12-14). The scriptures make it clear that these ‘gifts’ ceased with the passing of the apostles and those upon whom they had laid their hands.

The question for us is:

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  • Does the Holy Spirit assist our efforts to understand the scriptures as he did those who first received the message by revelation and were guided when they shared it by inspiration and preserved it through inscripturation?
  • Does he provide support on the same level as he did those in the church generally, who had received ‘spiritual gifts’ in the first century?
  • Or is there some third way, some means or measure whereby we are helped by God’s Spirit to understand what has been written and to comprehend the implications of what God has said? Do the scriptures say anything about future generations who apply themselves to God’s word?

The first century experience:

Regarding those to whom God first revealed his will – the apostle Paul discusses the connection between the Holy Spirit and human understanding in I Corinthians 2.

Paul recognized that the wisdom which he proclaimed to the Corinthians was not his own, but from God. It was a hidden wisdom that was ordained by God before the world began. God revealed this wisdom to Paul, and the church in Corinth, by His Spirit. This allowed Paul to state that his words were those taught by the Holy Spirit, so that he was in fact teaching spiritual truths in spiritual words. (I Cor. 2:6-13).

Paul claimed to be inspired of God. He then, followed up with a profound statement in I Cor. 2:14 “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Over the years, this verse has led to various interpretations.

  • It was suggested to me on one occasion that only people baptized into Christ could ever understand scripture, since it could only be understood if one had the Spirit. If this was true, then evangelism would not be possible. Paul himself had delivered “wisdom from God” to the Corinthians through his preaching. While some rejected his message as ‘foolishness’ and others his demonstration of the Spirit’s power, there were also those were saved by it. Therefore, at least some of the wisdom of God can be understood by those without the Spirit and for the purpose of being saved.
  • Another interpretation of I Cor. 2:14 is that some are gifted with a divine understanding that comes in a rather mystical way, where the Spirit allows certain ones to see past the plain reading of the text to a deeper understanding. Like Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation, the text of any scripture allowed for different levels of meaning. It also allowed the same text to mean different things at different times. Those who read I Cor. 2:14 in this way value the freedom of personal insight over those methods that seek to understand Scripture within the boundaries of the author’s intent.

However, the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests that he was describing the special relationship that an inspired writer has both with the Holy Spirit and with passages of scripture authored by the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s day, part of what the Holy Spirit revealed was the meaning, application and fulfillment of what He had had preserved in the Old Testament.

To write under the influence and control of God’s Spirit included inspired interpretation. It was a case of the author of a previous work (the Holy Spirit) appearing later in time to explain that which had been formerly written. The apostle Peter makes it clear that elements of what had formerly been revealed and written by inspiration remained for a time unfulfilled and unexplained (1 Pet 1:10-12). Not even those who wrote by inspiration, fully understood what God intended to say or how his plan would be fulfilled. Therefore Paul put himself and other inspired writers of the first century in a category by themselves.

Regarding the first century church, Paul certainly finds the Spirit’s role significant when he prayed for the church in Ephesus, asking God to give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” He also prayed for the “eyes of their understanding to be enlightened” to know the riches of God’s glory in the saints. (Eph. 1:17-18).

Yet given that this was written to people with ‘spiritual gifts’, Paul may be indicating that ‘spiritual gifts’ do not always result in understanding and comprehension. It was certainly true that the church in Corinth was ‘gifted’ by the Holy Spirit but not ‘led’ by the Holy Spirit. Access to God’s word frequently does lead to insight or to obedience. All of which means that what Paul prayed for was perhaps more a change of heart for his readers than a special eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that it was those who seek, who find, and those who knock, to whom God’s word is opened. It is our own choices that produce eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts that are receptive. This remains true today.

The scriptures however were written to be understood and no genuine fault may be found in them. The problem in I Cor 3:1-4 lies with the church and not with God.

Paul wrote: “I cannot address you as spiritual, but as worldly…You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”

Christians in Corinth had been baptized into Christ and were both indwelt by God’s Spirit and “gifted”. In at least some cases, the problem was not a lack of knowledge but of obedience. Nor was theirs a lack of special knowledge ‘mystically received’. They resisted the Holy Spirit by persisting in sin, closing their minds and hardening their hearts.

There has always been a difference between knowing and doing. You can know about someone, or you can truly know someone because you have lived with them and experienced life with them. I thought that I knew my wife when I asked her to marry me, and indeed I did know some things . After living with her for almost 40 years, I know her in ways that were impossible in the beginning. Sharing life together and staying in constant communication has given me insight and understanding that goes beyond words. It is richer and deeper than ever before.

I believe this is the knowledge that Paul is referring to in I Cor 3. The person who is not indwelt by the Spirit of God cannot begin to walk with Him. And those who resist the Spirit fail to practice God’s will. True insight into the person of God can only be had by obeying God’s will. His will is available to us through a studied and proper handling of God’s word and the reshaping of our inner person into the image of God through the obedience of faith.

The more we experience life in Christ, the more we discern the wisdom of God. There is knowledge, understanding, and discernment, that only comes through our experience of obedience to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Coming back to our original question, it is perhaps answered by Jesus himself who taught that a proper handling of scripture was all that was needed for insight and understanding (Mt. 7:7) Consider how often he asked: ‘have you never read?’. Jesus knew that his audience had ‘read’ the passages to which he referred. What he was asking, was, ‘given that you know of these scriptures, how is it that you have missed what they mean to say?’ Do the things written in scripture and then explained by the inpired writers of the N.T. require further explanation. Or do they more correctly call for greater effort on our part to properly understand them?

As to the full adequacy of God’s word, Jesus answered each of Satan’s temptations with a quote from scripture. Human failure to resist Satan has never been due to some fault on the part of scripture. Human failure to understand and or unwillingness to apply what God has written lies at the root. Given that the New Testament is God’s full and final revelation, there is surely no fault in it, or for that matter, special assistance needed.

The apostle Paul urged Timothy to diligently apply himself to a proper handling of God’s word (2nd Tim 2:15). Leaders in the first century church exercising ‘spiritual gifts’ still had to engage in due diligence in their interpretation of scripture. The apostle Peter warned against the tendency to distort of God’s word for the purpose of doing what we wish to do instead of following and honouring the will of God (2nd Peter 3:16).

The principle remains that God rewards those who seek and who knock, who worship and obey. Someone has correctly observed that ‘our knowledge ought never outstrip our obedience. God adds to those who put into practice that which they know to do from his word. It is always right and proper to ask God to help us understand his word and to receive it with humility. We may also be certain that the abilities that God gives to us through His providence is sufficient without miraculous assistance.

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