The Sevenfold Spirit of God: Seven Truths About the Doctrine of Illumination -DAVIDSSCHROCK

In the book of Revelation John speaks of the “seven spirits of God” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). While enigmatic, the symbolic use of the number seven in Revelation gives credible explanation: The seven spirits are God is a reference to the Holy Spirit, who is the perfect and complete Spirit of God. In no way does the number represent something contradictory to the triune nature of God (three-in-one), nor does it crassly suggest there are seven spirits who represent God. Rather, as with so many images in Revelation, the numeral seven represents the fullness of the Spirit abiding in God’s throne room and dwelling with the churches. Wonderfully, the same Holy Spirit who dwells in God’s heavenly temple (1:4) has been sent to dwell in local churches (5:6).

At the same time, the sevenfold spirit of God may also refer to Isaiah 11, where the Spirit of the LORD is said to “rest upon” the shoot of Jesse (i.e., the forthcoming king from David’s tribe). Greg Beale affirms the plausibility of Isaiah 11 (and Zechariah) being in the “background of the ‘seven spirits.’”[1] In that passage, which “shows that God’s sevenfold Spirit is what equips the Messiah to establish his end-time reign,” the prophet writes,

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (11:1 –5)

Verse 2 is where the seven descriptors of the Spirit are found, in that the Spirit is

  1. Of the Lord
  2. Of wisdom
  3. . . . and understanding
  4. Of counsel
  5. . . . and might
  6. Of knowledge
  7. . . . and the fear of the Lord.

This sevenfold description locates the work of the Spirit in the realm of wisdom and knowledge. While Lordship and might (גְּבוּרָה) are mentioned, the primary emphasis is cognitive. Significantly, this stands behind much of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel (see 14:26; 15:26; 16:13–14). As mentioned in a previous essay, the working of the Spirit is not seen primarily in visible acts of supernatural power, but in granting spiritual life and mental receptivity of God’s work of salvation. While the Spirit has power to restore creation (Isaiah 32:15) and raise the dead (Romans 8:11), the primary way he works today is in the granting spiritual understanding, what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 2:10–16.

The Sevenfold Spirit of God

With passing reference to the Isaiah and Revelation, I want to suggest seven truths about the Spirit of God in 1 Corinthians. The seven truths are not meant to suggest Paul aligns his teaching with the seven spirits of God. Rather, the pneumonic device serves to help us get a handle on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians, especially as it relates to the Spirit’s ministry of illumination.

1. The Spirit is the one who knows God.

The first thing Paul says about the Spirit is that he searches. Verse 10 reads, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” The word speaks of rigorous research or exhaustive examination. And what he searches is everything in creation. To put it colloquially, Google has nothing on the Holy Spirit.

Man can build the largest computer system, but he can’t mine data like God. The Holy Spirit searches everything, meaning he knows everything, even the mind of God. Now, this doesn’t mean the Spirit has to run an algorithm to determine what God is thinking.

Men run algorithms because they don’t know, the Spirit knows because his knowledge is perfect, exhaustive, absolute. This is what theologians call the doctrine of simplicity.[2]

The Spirit does not learn by taking courses or adding layers of knowledge like we do. He doesn’t learn things after the fact; his knowledge is eternal and unchanging! God’s knowledge is qualitatively different than our knowledge. And so Paul’s point is not to explain the method of how the Spirit knows all things, it’s more simple: The Holy Spirit knows everything—even the depths of God—because he is God. Which leads to the second truth.

2. The Holy Spirit is God.

Don’t miss this simple but profound truth! The Spirit who knows God is God. He is not a thing, an ‘it,’ or anything created by God. The Holy Spirit isn’t a force that comes from God, nor is he a power less than God. He is God. And the argument Paul makes in verse 11 is this: Just as the spirit (lower case ‘s’) of man knows the thoughts of that man, so the Holy Spirit knows the thoughts of God.

Don’t misunderstand. He’s not making a statement about the makeup of the Holy Spirit or of mankind; he’s not saying, “Just as man is made up of a body and spirit, so God is comprised of God and his Spirit,” or “the Holy Spirit is part of God.” That’s not his point. God can’t be divided.

Paul is not making a statement about ontology, but epistemology. The Spirit of God knows all things because he is God. This leads to the third truth.

3. For man to know God, the Spirit must make it known.

This is the main point of the whole passage: If we have any spiritual knowledge of God, it is because the Spirit who is God has made him known. Verse 11: “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

By nature, you can know yourself and you can even know many things about God. But you can’t know God, the one you were created to know! Only by his Holy Spirit, can you come to a true (read: saving) knowledge of God.

Such an affront to human wisdom and rational knowledge reminds us that natural theology is a failed project from the start. Natural theology is “the attempt to attain an understanding of God and his relationship with the universe by means of rational reflection, without appealing to special revelation such as the self revelation of God in Christ and in scripture.”[3] Due to the noetic effect of sin (i.e., the blinding effect of Adam’s fall), mankind is not able to ascertain an understanding of God apart from his self-revelation and the gracious, illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.

For man to know God, the Spirit must open his eyes. In 1 Corinthians 2:10–16, this main point is developed under four subheadings, or what follows as truths 4–7.

4. The Spirit grants understanding of gospel grace (v. 12)

After categorically denying man’s ability to comprehend the thoughts of God, Paul continues in verse 12, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

Born in Adam every man is devoid of Holy Spirit. While mankind was made to be “the temple of the Holy Ghost” and to live in union with the Holy Spirit, Adam’s primeval sin brought spiritual blindness to all of his children.[4]

In one sense mankind retains its original design; the Spirit gives physical life. Job 33:4 reads, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (cf. Job 27:3). But in another more crucial sense, there is no life or light without the gift of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, man has no ability to perceive spiritual realities. And so, without the Spirit, man is entirely defenseless against the spirit of the world.

This is the terrible plight of the non-Christian: They have no true knowledge of God; therefore, they are liable to fall for any lie.

Imagine a blind man, sleeping in the dark room, of a sinking ship. He has no idea of his peril. And worse, he has no faculties to see his danger. Such is the case of the natural man. The sinking ship of his life might wake him from sleep, but without eyes to see, he cannot find his way to safety. And worse, the spirit of the world is any number of creaking voices inviting him to find safety by plunging deeper into the belly of the ship.

To such a blind man, Paul says: “we have received the Spirit of God, that we might understand.” And what does the Spiritual man understand? He continues, “the things freely given us by God”—the grace of the Lord Jesus ChristWhat the Spirit grants is understanding into the gospel of grace.

The Corinthians, in their penchant for knowledge, have forgotten this gospel of grace! In our fast-moving, complex, information age, we too are inclined to forget it. We can mistake true knowledge of God for information about God. We can mistake spiritual communion with God for theological facts. We believe we can improvement in religious works counts as spiritual grace, when all the while we are learning to trust in ourselves and polish our flesh.

These are not the marks of life. True life comes through clinging to God’s grace, and it is the Spirit of God who grants such understanding of grace.

5. The Spirit equips and sends gospel messengers.

Verse 13 continues, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” The “this” refers to the “things freely given.”  “Impart” would be better rendered “speak” (cf. 2:6). So together Paul says: “We speak about the gospel of free grace not with the wisdom given to us by human reason or man’s systems, but through the wisdom that comes from the Spirit.”

The same spirit who grants gospel understanding also empowers gospel ministers to speak of God’s free grace to those whom the Spirit is teaching through their message. Three times in this verse “Spirit/ual” is referenced.

  1. In the apostle, the Spirit informs the words that he speaks.
  2. In the teaching, the apostle “interprets” the Spiritual truth, so that . . .
  3. In the audience, the Spiritual (= those w/ the Spirit) might understand.

As he will explain in verses 14–16, there are two kinds of people in every audience. Those who are devoid of the Spirit and cannot accept the things of God, and those who are enlivened by the Spirit and who walk in the truth. The latter do not come into existence ex nihilo. They are created by the Spirit when the Spirit brings them to life by means of the Word of God.

In other words, as gospel truths are communicated, God brings men and women to life. This truth stresses the importance of the Spirit working in the preaching. As Paul laid out before, the Holy Spirit demonstrates his power in raising the dead through the preached word (1 Corinthians 2:5; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5).

At the same time, this truth stresses the importance of the Spirit working in the preacher, whether that gospel witness is a traveling evangelist, a stay-at-home mom, or a high school sophomore.

When Paul says, “And we speak this [free gift of grace] in words,” he stresses that only as you share the Spirit’s inspired Word does God work. God has bound himself to his Word, and Spiritual people will only come to life by means of spiritual truth—i.e., the Word-centered Gospel of Jesus Christ!

To be sure, there have been rare occasions when a personal witness is not involved in a person’s salvation. But by and large, the way in which the way sheep are saved is through a person—a mother, friend, pastor, or Christian stranger—sharing the gospel. The pattern is for Spirit-filled believers to proclaim a Spirit-inspired message, so that the Holy Spirit can grant life as the Father ordained and the Son appoints. This is the fifth truth about the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.

6. The Spirit hides himself from (the pride of) the natural man.

In verse 14, the action is in the natural man, not the Spirit: “The natural person [who is without the Spirit] does not accept the things of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

 In his graceless state, the natural man disapproves of the message of free grace. This is the case for every person without the Spirit. No one moves from darkness to light apart from God’s illuminating Spirit. You are more likely to fly to the moon on the back of an imaginary ostrich than to lift yourself out of spiritual darkness.

In other words, the woman without the Spirit looks at the wisdom of God and gags—or yawns. To her, there is nothing beautiful, winsome, attractive about Christ’s death. She is repulsed by a crucified Savior and the thought of dying to self. It’s not that such a woman can’t understand the logic of the cross; it’s that she can’t love it!  She cannot divest herself from the love of herself. And hence she remains spiritually blind.

Only the Spirit can open blind eyes and creates spiritual taste buds, which humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble(d).

7. The Spirit reveals the grace of God to God’s elect.

In his final push for trusting in the work of the Spirit, Paul makes a strong contrast between verses 14 and 15. In both verses he uses the word ἀνακρίνω, a word translated “discerned” in verse 14 and “judges” in verse 15. The word is a legal term, often found in court room scenes.

So the meaning may be expressed: In the court of his opinion, the natural man can’t cross-examine God (v. 14). He may judge God to be foolish, but it is he who is foolish and under threat of judgment. Whereas, the spiritual man is able to judge all things, even while no accusation can stick to him (v. 15; cf. Romans 8:33).

This is what it means to have the mind of Christ. As Paul quotes the rhetorical question of Isaiah 40:13 (“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”), the reader is expected to hear a negative answer. That is how it is used by Isaiah. But rather, with the Spirit, the spiritual man has been given spiritual ability to understand the mind of God revealed in Scripture. Succinctly, the Spirit gives grace to God’s elect to understand the grace of God.

Such a reading protects us from the many speculative and misguided approaches to having the “mind of Christ.” To have the mind of Christ

  • Does not mean we know everything Christ knows.
  • Does not mean Christians are always right about the affairs of this world.
  • Does not mean Christians have some mystical knowledge about or access to God. You cannot say to another, “Well, you have the Bible, but I have the mind of Christ.” It doesn’t work that way.

Rather, the mind of Christ is the Spirit-given ability to understand the free grace of the gospel. The mind of Christ

  • Judges the cross of Christ as my greatest good / God’s best wisdom!
  • Judges itself rightly, as a sinner desperately in need of forgiveness.
  • Judges the world as paltry and puny, compared the surpassing knowledge of God

In short, the mind of Christ is the spiritual perception to understand and love the God of the gospel. And it comes not by human invention, human research, or human intuition’ the mind of Christ comes by the Holy Spirit.

We Need the Sevenfold Spirit of God

In sum, Paul points to Spirit of truth as the only means by which wisdom and understanding may be found. All other sources of wisdom are folly. In addressing divisions in the church, it is the Spirit who frees the church from carnal attachment to teachers, leads the the church to know and love God, and conforms the church to be like Christ. And therefore, it is this Spirit of God who unifies a diverse people to the unity and diversity of the triune God.

In Corinth, this doctrinal truth was desperately needed. The same is true for us today. May God give us his sevenfold Spirit as we labor to see Christ formed in our local churches.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds