Revelation, inspiration and illumination are three critical concepts for Christians to understand. While most believers are at least vaguely familiar with the concepts surrounding revelation and inspiration, it seems far fewer understand illumination. We will seek to remedy that today.
It is important that we keep these concepts apart in our minds. We must not confuse them, for they are in no way synonymous. We will look at revelation and inspiration briefly and then turn to illumination.
God has revealed Himself to humans in two ways. The first way is known as "Natural Revelation." The word "natural" speaks about nature, so the first way God has revealed himself is through nature - through what He has created. Since we cannot see God, to learn about Him we must see Him indirectly in what He has made. For example, if I am a being that God created, I can surely learn something about God by looking at myself. Similarly I can learn about God from nature. I see that the universe is orderly and not chaotic and this teaches me about God's character. If God created the universe, I can deduce that He is a God of order and not chaos. Similarly, I can learn from nature that God loves beauty and variety.
The second way God has revealed Himself is through "Special Revelation." This includes direct verbal communication such as Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall, prophecy, God becoming man through Jesus Christ and finally, the Bible. Most of what we learn about God is contained in The Bible. The Bible tells us much about God that natural revelation does not - who He is, what He has done and how He interacts with humans. While we may know of God's existence through natural revelation, we can only be saved by what we learn through special revelation.
The Bible was written by humans under the direct inspiration of God. To understand inspiration it is good to examine what this does not mean. First, it does not mean that it was written in a clever way or by a brilliant person. We may say that Dickens' A Christmas Carol is an inspired story, but this is not what we mean when speak of the Bible being inspired. Second, this does not mean that God gave people thoughts and ideas that they then expanded upon and wrote down. Third, this does not mean the words are the words of men and only become God's words as we read them and as He helps us understand them. Fourth, it does not mean that the people acted like robots are wrote down God's words without thought or feeling. If that had been the case we would not be able to explain the different styles and personalities that are evident in the various authors.
So what does it mean that God inspired men to write the Bible? To understand this, we must understand (as we spoke about in a previous day) that God is eternal and all powerful. God arranged and formed the lives of the people who wrote the Bible so that he was in control of their backgrounds and their personalities. It means that God used people; their thoughts, experiences, backgrounds and personalities, to write His words. If they spoke in simple words it was because God had dictated that they would not be highly educated. If they spoke in complex words and argued their points with great clarity, it was because God had dictated that they would be highly educated. The words they chose were the words God had determined from eternity that they would use. The author's words were their own, yet at the same time, because God had so directed their lives, they were His words too.
Inspiration, then, is what God used to transmit to us the special revelation contained in the Bible.
These concepts lead to one further concept which receives far less attention than the other two. Illumination refers to God's work in the lives of believers to make us able to believe and understand the words of the Bible. This does not mean the Spirit gives us new revelation - rather He applies to our lives the truths contained in His existing revelation. While illumination depends on prior revelation, it must be differentiated from it. You and I cannot expect God's direct special revelation in our lives. Instead we have the privilege of looking to his full and final revelation in the Scripture and having assurance that the Spirit will illumine those words for us. Many Christians confuse these. When they suddenly come to understand a deep truth in Scripture, they may believe that God has spoken to them, seemingly indicating a type of revelation. What has happened, though, is that God has illumined their hearts to understand a truth from His word.
We see many examples of God's illumination in the Bible. King David, in writing Psalm 119 asked the Lord "Give me understanding, that I may observe your Law." In the twenty fourth chapter of Luke Jesus, when appearing to the disciples after His resurrection, "opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures." Following His ascension, He sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide and to illumine the Scriptures for us. Paul referred to this many times, often praying that his readers would experience it. Perhaps the clearest example is in Ephesians 1:17-18 where we read "…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints…" Today we continue to experience the privilege of having the Holy Spirit work through us to bring light to the Scriptures.
Illumination is what separates believers from unbelievers when we read the Bible. An unbeliever may read the word and view it merely as a religious or historical document, much like I would read the Koran or the Book of Mormon. But when a Christian reads the Bible, the Spirit guides him to see not merely history and religion, but the very words of God. And even more important, He allows the person to apply the great truths of the Bible to his life. He initiates change through the words of the Scripture. Being a Christian, then, is a necessary prerequisite for the Spirit's illumination.
I would like to address a couple of misconceptions regarding illumination. It would be easy to think that with the Spirit's help we can understand everything the Bible contains, but this is not necessarily so. We know there are some concepts that are too great for us and that God has chosen to remain hidden to us. For example, with the Spirit's illumination we can see the Trinity in the Bible, but we can never truly understand the inner workings of the godhead and truly comprehend how three can be one. Similarly we may not ever know why God allows certain events to happen while keeping other ones from ever taking place.
We might also wistfully think that the illumination of the Spirit precludes us from doing thorough, carefully study of the Bible, but again, this is not so. While we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us as we study His word, we must still labor to fulfill the Bible's commands to "cut it straight" - to accurately handle the word. In this way we can have assurance that the Spirit has, indeed, helped us to see truth and not error. As with most other things in life, God still commands us to work hard and to dedicate ourselves to the task. Just as we would not sit back and expect God to provide for us financially when we refuse to do useful labor, in the same way we should not expect Him to illuminate the Word for us when we are not diligent in seeking the truth.
So let's make this practical. What does the concept of illumination really mean to the average layperson?
First, it gives us assurance that God can and will speak to me through His word. I do not need to rely on my own intellect, but can have confidence that God Himself is working in and through me to bring light to the words of the Scripture. I do not need to rely on experts to tell me what the Bible says, but can rely on God Himself to tell me.
Second, I must seek the Spirit's illumination when I study the Scripture. I should invite Him to guide me as I read and continually turn to Him, asking Him to help me when I am stuck or perplexed.
Third, I must be diligent in my studies. The Spirit works through my efforts, not apart from them. If I am not properly engaged in studying the word, I can not expect Him to help me.