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What does it mean to be “taught by the Spirit”?


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Have you ever wished that you could read God’s mind? Here’s the good news: you can! In 1 Corinthians 2:11-13 Paul says that we can know God’s thoughts because we are “taught by the Spirit” who knows those thoughts. John says something similar in his first letter (cf. 1 John 2:27). Before exploring what it means to be “taught by the Spirit,” though, we need to talk a little theology because sometimes even mature believers misunderstand what the Spirit does as we study Scripture.  

Have you ever had one of those “ah ha!” experiences with God’s Word—a time when you understand something in the Bible you never understood before? What, precisely, has the Spirit done in that situation? Is it revelation, inspiration, or illumination? It’s crucial that we distinguish between these three theological terms before we go any further.  

Revelation is the act by which God discloses truth about Himself and His plan of salvation.

Inspiration is the act by which God records truth in a form we can understand.  

Illumination is the act by which God applies truth to our lives.  

When we talk about being “taught by the Spirit,” we’re talking about illumination, not revelation or inspiration. In illumination the Spirit of God teaches the children of God about the Son of God using the Word of God.  

There aren’t many single passages that talk about the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the most helpful is John 16:12-15. The context of that passage is Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17), his last extended time with the twelve disciples. Within that discourse, there are five passages on the Holy Spirit: 14:16-17; 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11; 16:12-15. In John 14:16-17, Jesus describes the Spirit as “another helper” and “the Spirit of truth”; in John 16:8-11, he describes the Spirit’s ministry to non-believers. We’ll connect the other two passages (14:25-26 and 15:26-27) with 16:12-15 as we go along. In John 16:12-15 we discover three aspects of the Spirit’s teaching ministry.  

The Spirit instructs in truth (v.13a). The verb “guide” points to an instructional role and carries the idea of “to lead along a way” (cf. Ps 25:5, 9). Note, too, that the verse actually says, “in (rather than into) all truth.” Jesus isn’t saying that the Spirit will give us new truth but that the Spirit will help us with the truth we already have (cf. 2 Pet 1:3-4). Where do we find that truth? Jesus Himself tells us in John 17:17: “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth.”  

So, the Holy Spirit watches over us and helps us as we learn to walk in the truth of God’s Word. Have you ever seen a parent watching over a young child who is learning to walk? That parent is always there to encourage, comfort, and coach. If we want to be taught by God’s Spirit, we need to be willing to pay attention to His coaching. We need to take those faltering steps of faith in response to the truth of God’s Word, and we need to trust that He is there watching over us and helping us as we do so. The old gospel song says it well: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus”—or to grow in Jesus—“than to trust and obey.” Do you let the Spirit instruct you in truth?  

The Spirit applies truth to life (v.13b). The verb “disclose” means to proclaim what has been heard. It doesn’t point to prophecy or prediction of new information but to proclamation of information already disclosed. The idea here is very much the same as in John 14:26, where Jesus says that the Spirit will “bring to remembrance” all that he taught. So, what does Jesus mean when he says that the Spirit will disclose “what is to come”? Since the verb isn’t talking about prediction, that phrase can’t be talking about future events. Rather, it’s talking about the new and changing circumstances of our lives.  

What does the Spirit do with the truth of God’s Word? He teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, and instructs us in righteousness (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17). He takes truth and helps us understand how what we know applies to our lives, right here, right now. In order for the Holy Spirit to be able to apply God’s Word to our lives, though, that Word needs to be in our lives, doesn’t it? We need to spend time in it; we need to meditate on it. Paul tells Timothy that he needs to be “addicted” to God’s Word (1 Tim 4:13). Do you let the Spirit apply truth to your life?  

The Spirit glorifies Jesus (v.14). The amazing thing about the Holy Spirit—at least from a human standpoint—is that He has absolutely no ego. Three times in John 14-16 that idea is repeated. In John 14:26 we read that the Spirit reminds us of what Jesus has taught. In John 15:26 we read that the Spirit bears witness to Jesus. In John 16:14 we read that the Spirit glorifies Jesus. The Spirit keeps our focus where it should be: on Jesus. Is that where your focus is? Are you letting the Holy Spirit teach you to fix your eyes on Jesus instead or on “stuff”? That’s His job. Do you let the Spirit glorify Jesus in your life?  

The Spirit of God teaches the children of God about the Son of God using the Word of God. That statement leads naturally to four questions we should ask ourselves:

  • Am I a child of God?

  • Am I trusting and obeying the Spirit of God?

  • Am I addicted to the Word of God?

  • Am I focused on the Son of God?

Written by Dr. John Harvey, Dean of CIU's Seminary & School of Ministry

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