What is Illumination? 1 Corinthians 2:6-9



Do you remember that great passage in John’s gospel where Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night seeking to find answers to his unanswered questions regarding heaven?


One statement that Jesus made which stands out from the entire chapter is found in John 3:3. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In order to see the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said one must be born again. The word used for “see” in the passage is from one of possibly two words in the Greek: 1. εἶδον (a mental understanding) or 2. ὁράω (to see spiritually) and in this context Jesus is referring “to be…spiritually perceptive.” So the question naturally raised is, “what does it mean to be spiritually perceptive in regards to being born from above by the Holy Spirit?” Once again we find ourselves looking into the doctrine of illumination.


In 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Paul provided insight to understanding the doctrine of illumination: 1) What it is (vv. 6-9), 2) The Holy Spirit as the means of transmission (vv. 10-11), 3) Its purpose (vv.12-13), and 4) Its exclusivity to those who are born of the Spirit (vv. 14-16).

Peering Into verses 6-9


“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Paul referred to the very words which he had spoken, both verbally and through written communication, to the Corinthian church as God’s wisdom (vv. 6-9). The word σοφία (Sophia) is translated wisdom. Wisdom often comes from experience combined with a learned or book knowledge. In the sense that Paul is speaking of wisdom, the Apostle is referring to the knowledge and experience of God. Paul asserted that God’s wisdom is mysterious, hidden, and immutable (v.7).2 


The word μυστήριον (mystery) appears eighteen times in the LXX and its Aramaic equivalent is used numerous times in Daniel.3 The Aramaic word רָז (secret)4 is used to refer to Nebuchadnezzar’s inner meditations or matters of the heart, namely his dream that brought him distress (Dan 2:1-3).5 The word רָז (secret) is closely tied to פְּשַׁר (translated meaning, explanation, interpretation) in Daniel’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and interpretation.6 The idea in context of the passage could be explained further as: secrets about reality (i.e. future reality) communicated by God to men through dreams / visions that cannot be understood apart from authorized spiritual interpreters resulting in the glorification of God alone.7 


Paul’s use of “mystery” has four possibilities in how it could be understood: 1) Unpredictable situations within the present that seem contrary to what should have happened (Rom 11:25); 2) Hidden plans of God that are now revealed in part or in full to all people and not exclusively to certain communities or individuals of elite status (Rom 16:25); 3) Special illumination of believers by the Holy Spirit to perceive those mysteries that have been plainly shown to all, but are understood and accepted as fact only by believers (1 Cor 2:7, 6, 10; 13:2; 14:2; Col 1:26-27; 2:2-3; 4:3; 1 Tim 3:9, 16); and 4) God’s apocalyptic plans (2 Thess 2:7; Rev 1:20). 8


Based on the context, Paul’s use of μυστήριον in 1 Cor. 2:7 is referring to supernatural and/or special revelation. 9Therefore it is understood that illumination is the Holy Spirit making known to regenerate man the immutable and salvific wisdom of God found only in special revelation. Such special revelation has only come through the prophets and Apostles, written down in manuscript form for all believers’ edification, the manuscripts gathered together and compiled into a book known as the Bible, and handed down throughout the ages to all believers as revelation from God.


Prior to the canon of Scripture the wisdom of God was communicated to man through historical-progressive prophetic revelation (i.e. special revelation).10 Special revelation is recorded in Scripture and is the means through which the Holy Spirit works in birthing people anew / illuminating men to the knowledge of God. Illumination is the action and revelation is the substance and/or product or result of that action in the heart of the new believer. Through the Holy Spirit believers are illuminated to Scripture and God’s perfections are made known to them by Scripture. It is important to note that illumination is not wisdom in the earthly sense as truth gained from experience; rather, it is the ability to spiritually perceive God’s wisdom as recorded in the Bible. God is spirit and, therefore, man must be illumined spiritually to understand the mysteries of God.11 Illumination is one of God’s heavenly treasures lavished graciously up men through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit otherwise known as regeneration (Eph 4:4-7; Titus 3:5).


     1. BDAG.

     2. BDAG, 662.

     3. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 429.

     4. HALOT, 2:1980.

     5. D. Bornkamm, “μυστήριον” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoggrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 4:814.

     6. HALOT  2:982.

     7. Philip E. Satterhwaite, 7354 “פתר” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, edited by Willem A VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1997), 3:721-25.

      8. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 432.

      9. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed publishing co., 1948) 74.

      10. Ibid., 79.

      11. Committee for Christian Education & Publication, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Together with the Larger Catechism and Shorter Catechism (Atlanta, GA: PCA Bookstore, 1990), II:5.