I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation by recognizing him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
This weekend on the Seedbed Daily Text, JD Walt has provided a series of devotionals on Ephesians 1.17-19, encouraging people to seek after and pursue revelation and epiphanies from God. Calling us to prayer for revelation, it is an important reminder that we as Christians are seeking God’s active leading to form our understanding.
In the midst of reflection, I came to this question: how is it that we receive this “spirit of wisdom and revelation?” Certainly, we should pray for God’s provision in this matter, but how we come about to receive this revelation? In asking this question, this isn’t trying to turn our role into some effort to acquiring revelation, but more so the attitude and mindset in which we receive and comprehend God’s wisdom and revelation as God makes His will known.
The motivation behind this question is that I have witnessed and heard of people who have talked of having received “revelation,” but yet have gone down some tangent that dovetails far from what we know of God in Jesus Christ and what the Scriptures testify to. I am reminded of an instance where a person privately telling me they had revelation began to make bold claims about theological and spiritual matters that seem to contrast with Scripture and engaged in multiple manipulative behaviors as this came to light. On the one hand, I want to be cautious about such “revelations.” Yet, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, being open to revelation as it comes, having myself been the recipients in my life of what I took to be wisdom and revelation.
The answer to this question can begin to emerge when we compare Ephesians 1.17-19 with a similar prayer of Paul in Colossians 1.9-10:
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the recognition of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
There are similar and synonymous words that appear in both prayers. ἐπίγνωσις (recognition/knowledge), σοφία (wisdom), and πνευματικός (spirit/spiritual). Furthermore, the verbs δίδωμι (Eph. 1.17: receive) and πληρόω (Col 1.9: filled) can be considered to be different words to refer to the same epistemic reality, with the former describing the relation to God’s giving and the latter describing the outcome of reception. Additionally, both the phrase “spirit of wisdom and revelation” and “spiritual wisdom and understanding” echo LXX Isaiah 11.1-2:
And a rod will emerge from the root of Jesse, and a flower will come up from the root. God’s spirit will rest on him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and piety.
Altogether, it seems that Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1.17-19 and Colossians 1.9-10 are Paul asking for the same thing for his audiences. The prayer has different “pragmatic” purposes in that Paul wants the Ephesians (and likely, as a circular letter, various churches) to come to a deeper understanding of the inheritance God has given to them as Gentiles (cf. Eph. 3.6), whereas he expresses the desire that the Colossians move towards a spiritual growth in which they become fruitful and fully pleasing to God.
This slight difference in purpose may explain why Paul switches the verbal object and the object of the prepositions between recognition/knowledge and the spirit of/spiritual wisdom and revelation/understanding. In 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, God’s wisdom and revelation is ultimately connected to the comprehension of the eschatological future made known in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15), aligning with the Ephesians’ prayer to give insight into the riches that God is bringing for the Gentiles to inherit. Meanwhile, in emphasizing being filled with knowledge to the Colossians, Paul highlights the moral understanding and insight that enables their living their life pleasing to God. In 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Paul highlights that the lack of moral control by living in the flesh inhibits the ability to understand God’s wisdom, thereby putting the moral transformation that recognition/knowledge of God’s will provides as a prerequisite for receiving God’s wisdom and revelation described in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16.
So, we are left with an approximate sequence of spiritual development: recognition of God and His will is the spiritual prerequisite for wisdom, revelation, and understanding. Unfortunately, some translations of Ephesians 1.17 obscure this relation by how they translate the prepositional phrase ἐν ἐπιγνώσει αὐτοῦ. The NRSV reads “as you come to know him, while the NIV reads “so that you may know him better,” both of which seem to suggest wisdom and revelation is either concurrent with coming to know God or the cause of knowing God. The NET treats ἐπιγνώσει as a deepening knowledge, making it also seem to treat knowledge as a consequence of wisdom and revelation.
Yet, the problem is that none of these options makes the best sense of the lexical data. The function of the preposition ἐν is not generally used to describe a purpose or outcome. A better translation of it should be consistent with the verbal action that Paul mentions of reception. It makes better sense to take the prepositional phrase to describe either the cause or means of receiving the spirit of wisdom and revelation, not the purpose. Furthermore, Paul does not use ἐπίγνωσις in his epistles to describe a deeper form of knowledge. Its cognate ἐπιγινώσκω is principally used to refer to the mental phenomenons of awareness and recognition. Overall, it would seem better to understand the prepositional phrase to describe the recognition of God as the cause/means by which people may come to receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation.
This is consistent with the order Paul presents of spiritual maturity in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4. Coming to faith in God’s power (2.1-5) is to lead to a moral transformation (3.1-4) which prepares people to receive God’s wisdom (2.6-16). When one recognizes and trusts God’s power, one is in the place where they an understand deeper understanding about God’s wisdom and purposes. It is analogous to learning calculus. One has to understand the basics of arithmetic and algebra so that they can recognize these mathematic algorithms before they can comprehend calculus. Yet, if you want to understand the basics of mathematics, calculus will never make sense to you. Similarly, you have to be motivated to learn calculus to actually learn. If you think math is useless and boring, then you won’t progress much further, even if you understand the basics of mathematics.
Similarly, one does not comprehend God’s wisdom until one learns to recognize the power and purposes of God. You have to get the basics of who God is and what God desires before you can understand what this God is bringing about. As such, it is necessary to also be motivated to receive this eschatological wisdom, which is evident when one’s own life conforms to God’s purposes. As one learns to love as God loves, one can understand and will be motivated to understand what God’s love is bringing about.
At this point, we can begin to recognize that God’s revelation is something that is consistent with what God has made known about Himself. For instance, you don’t come to recognize God’s powerful love that is transforming us from our old way of life and then get a “revelation” that one should not be concerned about one’s moral life (this is a piece of what the previously mentioned person’s “revelation” was pointing towards). Similarly, you wouldn’t come to know of God’s faithfulness and then come to a deeper “revelation” that God has rejected those whom He is being faithful to. Some people practically believe that God gave Israel a false way of works of salvation and that the Church has supplanted and replaced Israel, thereby contradicting God’s faithfulness. God’s wisdom and revelation is consistent with what God has made known about Himself.
Now, you might have heard something similar to this in Christian circles. For instance, Scripture interprets Scripture, further revelation should be interpreted in light of Scripture, etc. Yet, we don’t get the picture from Paul that the Scripture texts are the foundation of knowing God. While Scripture is necessary to our understanding of God, the New Testament nowhere puts forward the idea that Scripture is the foundation for knowing God. Rather, Paul points to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus in Ephesians 1.20 as the basis for coming to a deeper comprehension of God’s power mentioned in 1.19. Those who believe in the working out of God’s power in the resurrection can then come to understand the deeper, immeasurable greatness of God’s power. The person of Jesus and the power of God demonstrated through the cross is the foundation for recognizing God and His power that can then allow those who believe to a deeper understanding of what God’s power is bringing forth. Jesus, not the Scriptures in and of themselves, is the foundation of knowing God.
Certainly, we come to know Jesus through the Scriptures. Just as the apostles testifying to the ministry and cross of Jesus, so too do the Gospels serve that purpose today. Just as the apostles made clear God’s purposes in Jesus Christ is attested to in (Old Testament) Scriptures, so too does the Old Testament serve to clarify our understanding of who Jesus is. Furthermore, just as the apostles themselves would help people to understand Jesus’ purposes through their teaching, so to do the NT epistles serve that purpose. Then, as various people in the early church would receive revelations from God, so we have a revelation/apocalypse of John. The Scriptures as we have them function in the way that the Old Testament, the apostles, and prophets would have functioned in the early Church.
Yet, we need to understand, it isn’t the Scriptures in and of themselves, but Jesus who is the fountain of wisdom and insight. Only in knowing the person of Jesus do we come to recognize God and His will. One can know the Bible inside and out, but yet one can miss the entire point of it (cf. John 5.39). One can read the Bible as a source of rules we use to direct, if not control, people with. One can read the Bible as a source of abstract, theological knowledge one can use to build a theological system. One can read the Bible to figure out how one gets to go to heaven. One can accumulate a series of ideas and “knowledges” that the Bible apparently seem to speak to. Yet, one can miss the very One through whom God has shown and demonstrated Himself. When our reading of the Scriptures is coherent with the Gospel witness to Jesus, the Scriptures clarify our understanding of God. However, when we try to build systems of knowledge from the Bible, ethical and theological, that cohere around specific abstract ideas, specific moral ideals and goals, we don’t come to grow in our recognition of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, the Scriptures are inspired to testify to God’s purposes known in Jesus Christ. While this will entail theological, ethical, and eschatological understandings, it isn’t our knowledge of those things themselves that serve as the foundation for receiving God’s wisdom and revelation, but our understanding of Jesus Christ.
However, the way we sometimes approach knowing God is much like using a textbook in algebra to teach us about something other than algebra itself. If you were to look in an algebra textbook, you might find various examples of algebra in real-world applications and problems that use hypothetical, real-world circumstances to test people’s knowledge of algebra. Yet, the purpose of the algebra textbook is to learn algebra, which will then enable someone to understand other fields of math like calculus. But if you scour an algebra textbook for understanding things other than algebra, you might get a bit of information here or there, but you won’t comprehend the intended subject matter in such a way that one can then learn calculus. Similarly, if one reads the Scriptures to understand something other than knowing God Himself as He has made Himself clearly known in Jesus, you won’t be prepared to comprehend God’s wisdom and revelation.
The point of this is this: to receive a spirit of wisdom and insight, we have to understand the foundations for such understanding. This means that we have to look to Jesus and understand Him as a person and what God did in and through Him, rather than look to Him as a means to some other ends, such as eternal, ethical knowledge, theological knowledge, etc. Jesus is THE way, the truth, and the life, not simply someone who delivers to us some knowledge about the way, the truth, and life through. Yet, the temptation is so often for us to divert our focus to these other forms of knowledge because they serve the purposes and goals we have in mind.
This doesn’t mean we are somehow obtaining wisdom and revelation by ourselves by our learning about Jesus. Knowledge of the basic principles of algebra are not sufficient in and of themselves to acquire a knowledge of calculus (at least for those of us who aren’t math super-geniuses like Isaac Newton). We have to rely on someone who knows calculus to teach us calculus, even as we need algebra to comprehend what they teach. Similarly for God’s wisdom and revelation: we have to recognize God and His will in order to be able to comprehend the depths of wisdom and revelation, but we can only learn this as God who teaches us through His Spirit, both directly to us and indirectly through others. Wisdom and revelation remain a gift given to us out of God’s gracious initiative and purposes. Yet, we have to do the prerequisite learning about God as He has made Himself known to learn further about Him.
Put simply, it is those who are seeking to know God in Jesus Christ who can receive the spirit of wisdom and revelation from God. When we recognize the powerful love of God manifest and revealed in Jesus, we can comprehend God’s further revelation of His love for us. Yet, what we learn in this further revelation is coherent and consistent with what the Triune God has revealed of Himself and His will. It is perhaps more appropriate to think of further revelation as analogous to the change from an HD televsion to a 4K television. We have a higher definition comprehension of God’s love as powerfully demonstrated through the cross, yet we have the same basic understanding of God’s love. So, in this way, we have a basis to discern between various claims of revelation, much like Paul and John takes the basic confessions about Jesus to be a basis to discern what spirit a person is speaking by (1 Cor. 12.1-3; 1 John 4.1-3).