1 Cor. 2:6-13

1 Cor. 2:6-13

SERIES: Christ is the Answer When the Church is in Crisis

What Do You Know for Sure?

Introduction:  Can we know anything for sure?  Most religious people would respond, “Sure, we can know God exists.”  In fact, a recent poll showed that 74% of Americans strongly agreed that “there is only one true God, who is holy and perfect and who created the world and rules it today.”  That’s pretty encouraging, isn’t it?  Seventy-four percent!  Well, not very encouraging, because the same poll showed that fully 64% strongly agree or agree somewhat with the assertion that “there is no such thing as absolute truth.”[i]  That’s what I call spiritual schizophrenia.  How can one strongly agree there is only one true God and yet question the existence of absolute truth?  But such irrationality is all around us today.

We evangelicals know absolute truth when we see it, don’t we?  We pride ourselves on believing that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired and inerrant and our sole grounds for faith and practice.  We criticize the liberal church for rejecting the authority of Scripture and ignoring its precepts.  We rebuke the cults for adding to the Scriptures with their own holy books, like the Book of Mormon or Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.  And we even raise our eyebrows when Pentecostals claim visions and revelations that don’t come out of Scripture.  Some years ago Dave Wilkerson claimed God told him when Jesus would return.  And Oral Roberts saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus who told him to ask everyone on his mailing list for a certain contribution toward his now defunct City of Faith Hospital.  We evangelicals were generally very uncomfortable with such claims.  “Show us in the Word,” we said.  “We are people of the Book!”

Are we?  Or do we also have ways of fudging on the issue of biblical authority?  I’ll never forget an experience I had when I was a seminary student.  A learned professor was espousing a certain position on a detail of prophecy, and I voiced some disagreement with his viewpoint.  He asked me what my problem was, and I told him I didn’t think the Scriptures really supported his position.  Well, he invited me to his office and for almost two hours he tried to convince me he was right, never once appealing to Scripture but using only theological and philosophical arguments.  

Finally, with some exasperation in his voice, he said to me, “Mike, if you would just let the Holy Spirit teach you, He would reveal this truth to you.”  And with that the conversation ended.  Why? Because there’s no way one can argue with a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit, which is what this man seemed to be claiming.  Well, in the 32 years since that conversation took place, I’ve been studying the Bible virtually full-time, and the Holy Spirit still hasn’t revealed that man’s view to me.  I still don’t think it’s biblical. 

At the previous church I pastored there was a woman who attempted to straighten out my thinking on a particular passage.  It was very interesting because the particular interpretation she held was simply not possible according to Greek grammar (and, as you know, our English Bibles are only translations of the original Greek).  When I asked her where she got her interpretation, she said she had prayed for it and the Holy Spirit had revealed it to her.  Those were her exact words, and there was no changing her mind.  

Other examples in the same vein that I hear from time to time are these: “God told me to leave this church,” or “I prayed and the Holy Spirit showed me I shouldn’t teach Sunday School this year,” or “The Lord led me to take a new job” (a job that means a lot more money but less time at home and at church).  As you can see, all sorts of interpretations and actions are being justified by evangelical believers on the basis of revelation from God, or the Holy Spirit.  Maybe we aren’t such firm believers in the authority of Scripture after all.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I think a person can accept the authority of the Bible and still believe the Holy Spirit leads and guides individual believers.  But when a person invokes the Holy Spirit to substantiate a viewpoint or defend an action, I suggest we cannot automatically accept such a claim at face value. 

Well, then, how are we to evaluate these claims?  What criteria should we use?  How do we decide whether a person really has had a revelation from God, or whether he just has indigestion or not enough sleep or an overactive imagination?  How do we know when and what God is speaking to us?  Traditionally, the means of separating truth from error has been the Word of God itself, i.e., every so-called revelation was compared to the Scriptures.  If a revelation conformed to the Bible, orthodox believers were willing to accept it at face value.  If it contradicted the Bible, it was rejected at face value.  If it did neither, it was just left alone.

Interestingly, however, the examples I gave from Seminary and my previous church both involved people who believed in the authority of the Bible, or at least thought they did.  In fact, they had one thing in common–they appealed to the very passage we are looking at today, 1 Cor. 2:6-13, to support the special teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit which they claimed for their lives.  

I think a new look at 1 Cor. 2 is needed.  A new look is sometimes disconcerting, but generally I think it is good for us.  Even if I don’t change your mind, you should be stronger in your original conviction for having been forced to defend it.  If last Sunday’s message on the Cross was moving and inspiring to you, this one I suspect is going to be intellectually challenging.  So, stay with me and listen carefully to our passage, 1 Cor. 2:6-13:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. {7} No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. {8} None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. {9} However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”– {10} but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. 

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. {11} For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. {12} We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. {13} This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.”

Now the traditional interpretation of the passage we just read is this:  since the Holy Spirit understands the deep things of God and since every believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him, therefore every believer has a direct tap into the profound truths of God.  That understanding presented no major problems so long as believers were satisfied to consider something as taught by the Spirit only when it was confirmed by the Bible.  

But today we are living in an existential, experience-oriented age in which mysticism and emotionalism have a much greater influence, and the Holy Spirit is being invoked as the source of many unusual viewpoints, strange interpretations, and questionable actions.  In taking a new look at 1 Cor. 2, I have become convinced that the traditional interpretation has misunderstood this passage.  So, I ask the first question:  

What does this passage really say?

One of the absolutely indispensable principles of Bible interpretation is that “meaning is determined by the context.”  And that is true of little words as well as big words.  Even words like “we” or “us” must be submitted to the scrutiny of this principle.  

Consider a verse found in Gen. 31:49: “May the Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another.”  That’s a beautiful thought, and some people even have the reference inscribed on their wedding bands.  But if they took the time to check out the context, they would realize that it is a most inappropriate verse for a wedding band.  You see, the “me,” “thee,” and“we” in that verse do not apply to all people or even to all believers.  Those words refer to Jacob and his uncle Laban.  It is, in fact, a prayer of Laban that God would keep His eye on the two of them after they parted company so that they wouldn’t kill one another, invade one another’s land, or harm one another’s property.  On second thought, perhaps it is appropriate for some marriages, but surely it shouldn’t be.  

Similarly, when we come to 1 Cor. 2:6-13 we need to ask: 

         Who is the subject, the “we,” in this passage?  The first-person pronoun is found some 8 times in these eight verses, and it is essential that we know to whom it refers.  The most common interpretation is that it refers to all believers, or at least all mature believers.  But if you examine verse 6 closely, you see that cannot be the case, for the “we” of verse 6 is a group that is speaking a message to the “mature.”  I believe the “we” of our passage refers to the apostles who were set apart by God for the task of writing the New Testament.  (There is additional exegetical evidence for this that is too technical for us to go into this morning, but I am going to include it in an appendix to this written copy for those who want to examine the issue in more detail.  I will also share some important cross references and quote some biblical scholars). 

For now, I simply ask that you grant me this identification for the sake of argument, and we’ll see where it leads us.  If the “we” are the apostles, not all believers, the second question we need to ask is:

         What does the text say that they do?  The answer is given clearly in v. 6: “We speak a message of wisdom.”  You will recall from our study of the previous passage that Paul has just renounced human wisdom and made it quite clear that neither his content nor his style were in persuasive words of wisdom, because he didn’t want their faith to rest on human wisdom.  “Yet,” he says here in verse 6, “despite all I have said negatively about human wisdom, we apostles do speak a message of wisdom among mature believers.”  I think he is saying that when he was dealing with unbelievers, he preached a simple salvation message; when talking to established believers, he went deeper.  Milk for babies, meat for adults.  In fact, he will state that explicitly in chapter 3, verse 2.

He describes the wisdom the apostles were commissioned to impart in respect to both its characteristics and its origin.  Negatively it is not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age.  Positively, it is God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden from the world.  Its origin is revealed in a rather free paraphrase of Isaiah 64:4: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”  In other words, the normal human avenues of learning (eye, ear, and mind) are ineffective in deciphering God’s wisdom, particularly His plan of salvation.  No man has yet been able to figure out a way to God other than the one which God planned for those who love Him.  If they had understood that plan, of course, they would never have put Jesus to death on the Cross.

Now the third question we need to ask regarding the meaning of our passage is: 

         How are they able to do it?  Again, I take the “we” to be the apostles.  They communicate divine wisdom; but how are they able to distinguish God’s wisdom from human wisdom, and howare they able to communicate it accurately to others?  The answer to the first question is given in verse 10: “God has revealed it to us (the apostles) by His Spirit.”  The answer to how they communicated it accurately is found in verse 13: “this is what we speak in words taught by the Spirit.”

I believe these four verses, 10-13, are among the most important verses in the whole Bible at describing how our Bibles came to us, but they are rarely recognized as that.  You know, of course, that the Bible wasn’t deposited to us from a Gospel blimp.  It didn’t just appear in the first century, having been dictated by the Holy Spirit, nor was it recognized as God’s book because it glowed in the dark.  Rather, the Bible was the result of two great steps.  First, God revealed His thoughts to the minds of the human authors of the Scripture.  And second, He provided divine help so they could record those thoughts accurately in the Bible.  The theological term for the first step is “revelation,” while the second step is called “inspiration.”

In your outline I have provided a definition I hope is helpful: “Revelation is the supernatural impartation from God to man of truth which could be known in no other way.”  I’m talking about truths like the Virgin Birth of Christ, the atonement, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the blessed hope of Christ’s return.  These are all miraculous events with no precedent in human history.  If God hadn’t revealed these truths to us, no one would have been able to figure them out.

How was the Spirit of God able to reveal such things to the human authors?  Because He searches even the deep things of God.  To explain this, Paul uses an analogy in verse 11: “Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him.”  We often think we know another person’s thoughts, but we can never be sure.  The only one whose thoughts we know for sure is ourselves (and some of us aren’t even so sure about that!).  So also, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  But since the apostles were chosen by God to receive a special ministry from the Spirit of God, they could also know the most profound truths about Him.   By revelation the apostles discerned truth from error.  

But it’s one thing for them to know the truth themselves, and it’s another for them to be able to communicate it to others accurately.  And so Paul in verse 13 turns to the second step, namely inspiration.  The word “inspiration” does not occur here; in fact, it appears only once in the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God (the NIV reads, ‘God-breathed’and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”  That verse mentions inspiration but doesn’t define it, so let me give you a definition: “Inspiration is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, superintending the human authors of the Bible so that, using their own individual personalities they composed and recorded, without error, God’s revelation in the words of the original manuscripts of the Bible.” 

In other words, the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to write down God’s revelation without making any mistakes.  Yet they didn’t write the Bible by dictation while in some kind of trance; rather the Holy Spirit enabled them to pick just the right words out of their own vocabularies and backgrounds to communicate God’s truth accurately.  It’s a fascinating thing that when one takes Greek in Seminary, he is able to read the Gospel of John with some facility after just a couple of months of language study.  But even after years of Greek, most students cannot read the book of Luke.  The reason is simple–John was an uneducated man who used simple vocabulary and uncomplicated sentence structure.  Luke was a doctor and employed a very wide vocabulary.  Both, however, wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who helped them choose the right words from their own vocabulary to communicate God’s revelation.

Isn’t that just what verse 13 claims?  The term “speak” is broader than our English usage would indicate–it means “to communicate,” whether verbally or in writing.  “We communicate,” says Paul, “not in words taught us by human wisdom.”  The apostles didn’t figure out on their own how to share their stories about the life of Christ or how to express great theological truths, nor did they do research at the universities of their day to figure things out.  Rather the Holy Spirit helped them to “express spiritual truths in spiritual words.”  

Let’s review for a moment.  I believe the primary meaning of this passage is that Paul and the other apostles, as Christ’s representatives, proclaimed the profound truths of God that were revealed to them by God through the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, the Holy Spirit helped them communicate those truths to the Church, using just the right words to do so.  

And that, friends, is the ultimate reason I have invested the past 30 years of my life in Bible study.  It’s why I preach exclusively from the Bible.  It’s also why I urge people everywhere to study it for themselves.  I can count on the Bible because it is the authoritative, inerrant and inspired revelation of God.  Jesus said, “The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life!”  And the facts support those claims.  The Bible is unique among all books.  It is historically trustworthy beyond anything possible for the age in which it was written.  It speaks truthfully to the human condition.  It fulfills what it promises.  And it is our sole authority in faith and practice.

Well, if that is what this passage really says, perhaps it would be good for us to ask another question:

What doesn’t this passage say?  

         It does not tell us the Holy Spirit generally explains the content of the Bible to each believer.  The content of the Scriptures is learned the same way the content of any book is learned–through hard study, paying attention to details, and using all the linguistic, historical and grammatical tools available.  But I use the word, “generally,” there on purpose, because I believe that if a person has no access to study helps or reference books, the Holy Spirit may well step in and directly reveal the meaning of a passage, just as He may heal someone who has no access to medical help.  But God expects us to use the normal means He has placed at our disposal, both to find healing and to learn the content of the Bible. 

         It does not tell us the Holy Spirit “inspires” human preachers.   In fact, I think it is a mistake to use the term “inspiration” in its biblical sense of anyone today.  Only the biblical authors of the Bible received this unique inspiration ministry.  That is not to say that the Holy Spirit does not empower human preachers and convict people through their ministry, but I am certain of this much: He does not guarantee us that any preacher today will not make mistakes, as He did with the apostles and prophets who wrote the Scriptures. 

         It does not tell us that the Holy Spirit reveals normative truth to Christians today.  Normative truth is truth for the whole Church, as opposed to personal truth, which is truth for an individual.  If Oral Roberts says he has seen a 900-foot-tall Jesus, that claim may be true, or it may be false–I cannot be sure and I don’t particularly care.  But if Roberts then tells the church that the 900-foot-tall Jesus he saw wants everyone to give x-dollars to his latest project, I seriously doubt that such a revelation came from God.  I do not believe God is giving truth for the whole church to anyone directly today.

Now this is where some of you will undoubtedly part company with me this morning.  I hope you won’t leave until I’m through, and I hope you’ll come back next week even if you disagree with me, but I cannot help but tell you that I am troubled by the tremendous gullibility I see among many Christians who are willing to accept on the flimsiest of evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in so-and-so or speaking through so-and-so.  Tens of thousands flocked to the Brownsville revivals because people were laughing their heads off or barking like dogs.  Why should we expect such manifestations from the Holy Spirit, particularly when there is not a shred of evidence that He ever moved people like that even in the NT?  

Some of you may be saying to yourself, “But doesn’t this very book of 1 Corinthians talk about spiritual gifts, including words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and prophecy?  What are those if not ways in which the Holy Spirit reveals truth to the Church?”  We will examine those gifts in detail when we get to chapters 12 and 14, and I want you to know I believe all the gifts mentioned in the NT are available to the church today.  But I do not believe these particular gifts ever provide the church the same level of authoritative revelation we have in the Scriptures.  They confirm what the Scriptures say to the Church.  If they contradict or go beyond the Scriptures, I do not believe the manifestations are of the Holy Spirit.  Paul himself, who wrote more about gifts than any other apostle, warned Christians not to “go beyond that which was written” in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 4:6) in evaluating teachers and truth.

So far we have looked at 1 Cor. 2:6-13, a passage used by many Christian people when they claim the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit to substantiate interpretations or actions they have taken.  We have seen that this passage is possibly being used illegitimately.  I believe it is principally talking about the origin of God’s Word and the passing on of God’s Word, i.e., it is being used of “revelation and inspiration.”  Whether you agree or disagree with me on that point, I ask you to listen carefully as we come to our last question today.

Am I suggesting 1 Cor. 2:6-13 has nothing to do with believers today?  

Absolutely not.  To say it isn’t directly applicable is not at all to say that it is irrelevant.  I hope I can explain by means of three propositions:  

         The Holy Spirit, as the Author of the Word, is our ultimate teacher.  If the Holy Spirit revealed God’s Word to the apostles and helped them as they recorded it for us (and He did), then He is the divine Author of the Bible.  That means that every time I open the Word, study it, and learn something new, I am being taught by the Spirit.

Yet because the very words in this book are the Spirit’s words, no one can claim to have an interpretation from the Spirit if his interpretation contradicts the words in this Book.  That’s why I had to reject the claim from the lady I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, namely that she had prayed, and the Holy Spirit had revealed to her the meaning of a certain passage, for the meaning she came up with denied the very words of Scripture which the Spirit authored.  That’s also why I must reject anyone’s claim that the Holy Spirit told him when Jesus would return, for Jesus Himself said that “no one knows the day or the hour,” including Himself. 

Do you see what I’m saying?  The Holy Spirit teaches me through this book.  He never teaches contrary to this book.  And His normal way of teaching through this book is to use human teachers, study aids, and lots of hard work.  He will not do word studies for you; He will not look up cross references for you; He will not outline the Scripture for you or prepare your Sunday School lesson for you.  These things He expects you to do for yourself because He gave you a brain and a Bible and many study tools to boot.  I’m not suggesting, of course, that these tools have supplanted the Holy Spirit, for He expects us to be dependent upon Him in our study, as in everything else we do.

But there’s another point I would like to make.  Not only is the Spirit our ultimate teacher, He is also our divine motivator.  

         The Holy Spirit, as our divine motivator, helps us appreciate and apply the Bible to our lives.  Have there been long dry spells in your Christian life when you were indifferent to Bible Study?  Are there times when you understand what the Bible is saying but you fail to get excited or to really appreciate its significance?  Are there times when you read the Bible and you understand it and perhaps even appreciate it, but you fail to apply it to your life?  What you need is the work of the Spirit to light you on fire and to help you realize that you are reading God’s very Word!  You need help to live what you learn.  You simply cannot apply it on your own–you need the Holy Spirit.

I rarely pray for the Holy Spirit to teach me the content of the Scripture (unless I’m really stumped!), but I often pray that He will keep me awake, help me to be honest as I study, and, most of all, help me to live it out in my own life.  This is probably, in my estimation, the true understanding of the doctrine of the “illumination of the Spirit.”  I don’t know about you, but my greatest problem is not deciding what the Bible means; it is rather deciding to obey it and put it into practice.  I understand far more than I live.

         The Holy Spirit, as our indwelling guide, also has a ministry of personal direction in the believer’s life.  This is a wholly different issue that we don’t have time to examine in detail this morning.  It has to do with finding God’s will for our personal lives.  The Holy Spirit plays a major role in that, but that must wait for another day and another passage.  Just suffice it to say that we should be cautious about treating such subjective guidance as absolutely authoritative.

Conclusion: We are certainly not trying to take anything away from the Holy Spirit today, or to limit his influence in our lives, or to make anyone less sensitive to His ministry.  He is absolutely indispensable in every area of the believer’s life.

But (and catch this if you don’t catch anything else this morning) let us not use the Holy Spirit as a trump card for lousy Bible study habits, or as an unanswerable argument for our pet views, or as a seal of approval on our questionable actions, or as a way of establishing our spiritual superiority. 

If you desire to claim the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, then you should be prepared to open your Bible and show where that teaching came from and why it means what you say it means.  And if you get personal guidance from the Holy Spirit, make sure it is in harmony with this Book, and don’t try to foist it upon other believers.  I’d personally like to hear more Christian people say, “I believe this or that because the Bible tells me so,” instead of “I believe it because the Holy Spirit revealed it to me.”  Perhaps even better would be to say, “I believe this because the Bible, whose author is the Holy Spirit, tells me so.”

A verse in Isaiah 8 summarizes my message well.  Isaiah has been telling the people about the dangers of being deceived by those who claim to have a word from God.  And he says, “When they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the wizards who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God instead?  To the law and to the testimony!  If they do not speak according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them.”

Let me ask the question again, “What do you know for sure?”  You can know that the Bible is God’s Word and all of it is true.  That’s something upon which you can stake your life and eternal destiny!


Further evidence that the “we” refers to the apostles

Clearly the “we” in this passage is not a reference to everyone.  Verse 14 speaks of “the man without the Spirit,” and contrasts him with the “we” of verse 13.  Since the man without the Spirit is, by definition, an unbeliever, we can conclude that unbelievers are excluded from the “we.”

Second, the “we” does not include all believers, for verse 13 simply doesn’t accurately describe all Christians.  In fact, in the first few verses of chapter 3, it is made quite clear that many Christians are so worldly that they can’t even handle solid food, much less understand the deep things of God.  

Third, the “we” doesn’t even include all mature believers, for in verse 6 the “we” are distinguished from the “mature,” for the “we” speak to the mature.

Well, if the “we” aren’t everyone, or all Christians, or even all mature Christians, then who are they?  Obviously, Paul himself is among the “we,” but since it’s plural, the only possible conclusion is that it refers to Paul and his fellow apostles (and the prophets) to whom God revealed Himself.

Confirming views

John MacArthur agrees with this view: 

“The we’s and the us of verses 12-13 (as in vv. 6-7, 10) do not refer to Christians in general but to Paul himself. God’s Word is for all believers, but was revealed only to the apostles and the other writers of Scripture.  Only those men properly can be said to have been inspired….  Paul and the other writers of Scripture did not record their own ideas and interpretations.  They recorded what God gave them and only what He gave them.  We have received … that we might know.  The Spirit used words that the human writers knew and used, but He selected them and arranged them in precisely the order that He wanted.  The Bible, therefore, not only is God’s Word but God’s words.” [ii]

Gary Vanderet writes, 

“The key to these verses is understanding the meaning of the pronouns.  The ‘us’ and the ‘we’ refer to the apostles.  God has revealed to us through the apostles the deep things that are in his mind.  That change of pronouns is very clear and purposeful.  Up to verse 5, everything has been ‘I,’ and it changes back to ‘I’ in 3:1.  It is clearly referring to the apostles: ‘for to us God revealed them….’” [iii]

Parallel passages

Two parallel passages are frequently cited as further evidence of the traditional view of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit in every believer’s life, namely John 14:26 and John 16:12-15.  But I believe both of those passages have likewise been misunderstood in the same way as 1 Corinthians 2:6-13.  They, in fact, confirm the interpretation we have offered above.  The immediate audience to whom Jesus is speaking in these passages is indisputably the apostles.  The burden of proof should be on those who want to expand the referent beyond the apostles.  

The things of God which the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal to the apostles would come to them in three primary forms–history, doctrine, and prophecy–and all three are mentioned by John. 

         1.  The Holy Spirit will remind the apostles of historical truth.  In John 14:25-26 Jesus is speaking to His disciples and says, “All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  The key words here are “will remind you.”  Why was it necessary for the apostles to have the Holy Spirit remind them of everything Jesus spoke?  After all, couldn’t they just write down from memory what they heard?

No, because the time gap between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the New Testament was too great.  Jesus was crucified probably in April of A.D. 33, according to the best chronological studies.  The first NT book (the Gospel of Mark) was not written before A.D. 45.  That’s a minimum of twelve years after the events which he was reporting.  John, on the other hand, didn’t write His Gospel until at least A.D. 65, and perhaps as late as A.D. 95.  Thus, as many as 65 years could have passed between the death of Jesus, when John was a very young man, and his writing of this Gospel when he was perhaps in his 80’s. 

I believe the evidence supports the fact that the Holy Spirit did indeed remind the apostles of these things.  Skeptics, of course, are fond of alleging many discrepancies between the Gospel writers because one of them reports a slightly different chronological order than another or because one puts Jesus’ words in a different order from the others.  I think an honest reading would drive them to the opposite conclusion.  I would ask them, “Where in the world could you ever find four independent accounts, written from 12 to 65 days after the fact, much less 12 to 65 years, which agree anywhere near the extent to which the four Gospels agree?”  

The differences that exist between the Gospel writers can generally be explained on the basis of the unique viewpoints different people inevitably bring to any situation.  The only possible explanation, in my opinion, for the amazing historical consistency and accuracy of the Bible is that the Holy Spirit did exactly what Jesus promised here–He reminded the apostles of everything Jesus had said to them.

In John 16:12 Jesus develops further the Holy Spirit’s ministry of revelation: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”  Here Jesus is not speaking of the Spirit’s work of jogging the apostles’ memory of historical events and conversations; rather He is addressing the Spirit’s ministry of teaching them doctrinal truth.  

         2.  The Holy Spirit will explain to them doctrinal truth.  Jesus says there are many deep theological issues He would like to explain to His disciples before His death and departure, but their capacity to understand is too limited.  However, it will be supernaturally increased when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and begins to teach them.  Were these apostles the kind of men who neededspecial divine teaching relative to the theology and doctrine of the Bible?  I think so.  After all, none of them were scholars; none of them had formal biblical training before meeting Jesus; most of them were ordinary laborers; and frankly, they were often rather dull of understanding.  

While recognizing they are dull, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to guide them into the truth that He had begun to teach but had not yet completed.  If we ask, “Did the Holy Spirit accomplish the job of teaching them the great doctrinal truths?”  the answer is, “Yes,” and the proof of it is our New Testament.  How could someone like the apostle John, who was a fisherman by trade, become a great theologian and write a book like the Gospel of John without the help of a divine teacher?  And when one examines the intricate and complex doctrine of election as found in Ephesians 1, or divine sovereignty as found in Rom. 8, or human suffering in 1 Peter, or the Second Coming in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it becomes obvious that these doctrinal truths could not possibly have a human origin;  they must be the result of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.  But there is still another kind of truth Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will reveal to the apostles.

         3.  The Holy Spirit will reveal prophetic truth.  Here is what verse 13 says: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.”  It’s that last phrase that we are particularly concerned with.  Have you ever wondered where the apostle John got the information he recorded in the Book of Revelation?  The source of the rich prophetic truths of the Bible is the Holy Spirit.  In fact, John specifically claims that very thing in the first chapter of the Revelation, verse 9: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,” and he goes on to reveal the fantastic prophetic truths we have in the Book of Revelation.

Jesus promises the apostles that the Holy Spirit will have a ministry of revelation to them.  It is that ministry that will eventually provide them the content of the New Testament–history, doctrine, and prophecy.

Another key parallel passage relating to our subject is 2 Peter 1:20-21, where the ministry of inspiration is expanded upon.  In this passage, written about 30 years after Jesus’ death, Peter is facing his own imminent death, and he is concerned lest some converts abandon the truths he has taught them down through the years.  He assures his readers that he and the other apostles did not follow cleverly devised tales when they proclaimed the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but rather they were eyewitnesses of His glory and majesty.  But then Peter turns to something even more solid and sure than eyewitness accounts–and that is the written word of God.  Here is what he says, beginning in verse 20: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  

Now the first item we need to clarify here is that the term prophecy” does not always refer to predicting the future, or foretelling; often it refers merely to forthtelling.  A prophecy is simply a Scriptural declaration or revelation.  In other words, we could translate verse 21, “No Scriptural revelation resulted from a prophet’s own private interpretation of events or doctrine or prophecy.  In fact, biblical revelation never had its origin in the will of man at all; rather men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 

What does it mean to be “carried along” by the Holy Spirit?  The word used in the original Greek is a nautical term referring to the wind carrying a ship along.  In fact, it is used this way in Acts 27:15 where Paul is caught in a terrible storm.  It says, “the ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along.”  When the wind drives a ship, it doesn’t affect the cargo; it doesn’t change the character of the crew; it doesn’t really even affect the ship itself except to provide direction and impetus.  

In like manner, when the Holy Spirit “carried along” the prophets and apostles, He didn’t change their IQ’s; He didn’t give them all identical vocabularies; He didn’t make perfect men out of them.  He just gave them direction so they could record God’s revelation without error.

By the way, I believe there is an astounding parallel between the work of the Holy Spirit in the conception of the written Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in the conception of the Living Word of God–Jesus Christ.  When the virgin Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was to bear a child, he spoke these familiar words, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”  That word “overshadow” is quite vague, much like the term “carried along” in 2 Peter 1:21.  It tells us little about the actual process the Holy Spirit used in bringing about Mary’s pregnancy.  But we do know the result: a perfect human being, the Son of God.  

So here is the parallel:  the Holy Spirit miraculously enabled an ordinary human being, namely Mary, to produce a perfect child, namely the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ.  By the same token, the Holy Spirit enabled ordinary human beings, namely the apostles, to produce a perfect book, namely the Written Word of God, the Bible.  In the one case He “overshadowed” the Virgin Mary; in the other case He “carried along” the human authors of Scripture.  The former we refer to as “incarnation;” the latter we refer to as “inspiration.”

DATE: October 1, 2000






Normative truth

Teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit

Guidance of the Holy Spirit

[i] D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 23

[ii] John MacArthur, Jr., 1 Corinthians, 63.  

[iii] Gary Vanderet, “The Ministry of the Spirit,” Discovery Papers, Catalog No. 782, 3c.