Jesus’ spiritual perception made it possible for him to see things that other people were unaware of. Sometimes this capability came through in subtle, somewhat ambiguous ways such as when Jesus told a parable about the tenants of a vineyard that killed their master’s son in order to steal his inheritance. Afterward, Mark tells us the chief priests and the scribes and the elders knew that Jesus’ parable was about them. Mark said, “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away” (Mark 12:12). At other times, Jesus’ spiritual perception was revealed in an open and direct way so that there wouldn’t be any confusion about what he meant. On one occasion, Peter began to rebuke Jesus after he told his disciples he was going to be killed by the Jewish religious leaders and Matthew recorded their conversation. Matthew said, “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man’” (Matthew 16:22-23).
Jesus’ awareness that Satan was speaking through Peter wouldn’t have been possible if Jesus hadn’t kept his attention focused on the spiritual realm. Typically, our primary objective is to look at things from a factual, objective basis, but from a reality standpoint; what is apparent on the surface of things, the physical manifestation of our circumstances, is only a small part of what is actually going on in our world. Jesus indicated that some things are intentionally hidden from our physical perception so that only those who have faith in God will be able to discern them. Jesus explained it to his disciples this way:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:10-17)
“Jesus spoke in parables to explain spiritual truths, but those who had already rejected Jesus did not have divinely enlightened minds with which to perceive these truths, and no amount of explanation would make them understand (1 Corinthians 2:14). They could watch and hear Jesus with their physical eyes and ears, but they were not capable of understanding the truth in their hearts because they had rejected him (2 Corinthians 4:3, 4). Those who accept the true light they have been given will receive even more light, while those who turn away from the light will continue to be increasingly shrouded in darkness (Matthew 13:12). The word ‘for’ at the beginning of Matthew 13:15 should be understood as having the same meaning as ‘because.’ People do not hear and see because their hearts are full of wickedness; consequently, they fail to understand the truth that has been given them. They are so opposed to God’s message that they harden themselves against it, lest they should understand it and ask forgiveness of God. Once they reject Jesus, they also reject the possibility of understanding the parables that Jesus told (Isaiah 55:6-8)” (note on Matthew 13:10-17).
Jesus used the phrase “see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14) to show that physical and spiritual perception are independent of each other and also indicated that spiritual perception is connected with the heart (Matthew 13:15). The Greek word that Jesus used that is translated perceive, eido (i´-do) implies “not the mere act of seeing, but the actual perception of some object” (G1492). Metaphorically, eido is “spoken of the mind: to perceive by the senses, to be aware of.” Therefore, it can be assumed that spiritual perception is a type of heart knowledge that is associated with being born again (Ezekiel 36:26-27). The Apostle Paul talked about spiritual perception in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). “The ‘natural spirit’ is a translation of the Greek psychikos (5591), referring to the man who is governed by his fallen nature (Romans 5:12). This man is unable to fully understand and apply spiritual truths because he does not possess the indwelling Spirit of God” (note on 1 Corinthians 2:14).
Before Jesus came to the earth and it was possible for a person to be born again, spiritual perception was limited to a select number of individuals that were anointed or temporarily gifted with the power of the Holy Spirit. An example of temporary spiritual perception being granted to an individual in the Old Testament appears in Numbers 22:31 where it says that “the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam.” Balaam was a prophet that had been hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:7-21). While he was on his way to meet with Balak, Balaam was confronted by the angel of the LORD who “took his stand in the way as his adversary” (Numbers 22:22). Then, it says in Numbers 22:23-27:
And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
The donkey that Balaam was riding on was able to see the angel of the LORD standing in the road, but Balaam was not able to because he didn’t have any spiritual perception of what was going on right in front of him. Rather than immediately giving Balaam the ability to see what he was missing, the LORD allowed his donkey to communicate with him. Numbers 22:28-30 states:
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”
At the point that Balaam began to realize that something was going on that he wasn’t aware of, the LORD gave him spiritual perception. Numbers 22:31-35 states:
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.
The reason why Balaam bowed down and fell on his face when he saw the angel of the LORD was because he knew he was standing in the presence God in the form of the preincarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. Once his spiritual perception was turned on, Balaam was able to spiritually discern the purpose behind Balak’s desire for him to curse the people of Israel and realized that he needed to stop what he was doing.
Jesus used his spiritual perception to stay one step ahead of the Jewish religious leaders that wanted to kill him. After they perceived that Jesus had told the parable of the wicked tenants against them, the religious leaders tried to get Jesus to say something that would justify him being arrested. Luke 20:19-26 states:
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
The scribes and the chief priests had spiritual perception, but they were using it for their own benefit instead of its intended purpose which was to minister to God’s people. Jesus was able to turn the tables on these hypocrites because his awareness of what they were doing went beyond their human comprehension into the spiritual realm where Satan operates.
In addition to being aware of what was going on around him that was a threat to his ministry, Jesus’ spiritual perception made it possible for him to see what was going on in the hearts of the people he came in contact with. John’s record of Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria focused in on the way Jesus was able to get people to see the sin that was at work in their lives. John said:
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:7-18)
Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria began with a physical need that she could relate to. In the same way that we all have physical hunger and thirst, we also have spiritual hunger and thirst and Jesus wanted the Samaritan woman to become aware of her need for spiritual nourishment. As their conversation continued, Jesus pinpointed a specific spiritual need that the Samaritan woman had: unconditional love. The Samaritan woman wasn’t open to accepting Jesus’ gift of salvation right away, so he went on to explain to her how a relationship with God works. Jesus said:
You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:22-26)
Even though the Samaritan woman didn’t receive salvation herself, she told others about her encounter with Jesus (John 4:29) and John said, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Eventually, many more people believed and there was a spiritual awakening in Samaria. John 4:42 states:
They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
The Greek word that is translated know in John 4:42 is eido (i´-do); the same word that is translated perceive in Matthew 13:14, indicating that the Samaritans had spiritual perception of Jesus’ true identity. The important thing to note about the Samaritans’ experience is that the only people who believed in Jesus were the ones that had a spiritual awareness that he was who he claimed to be.
Jesus pinpointed the problem in his own disciples of why their spiritual perception wasn’t working properly. They were discussing among themselves the fact that they had no bread. “And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’” (Mark 8:16-17). A hardened heart is a spiritual condition that makes it impossible for spiritual truth to get past the exterior surface a person’s being. Jesus illustrated this point in his parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-8) when he said, “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root they withered away” (Matthew 13:5-6). In his explanation of this parable, Jesus went on to say, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:20-21). According to Jesus, a person that has a hard heart is someone that has believed the gospel at some point and perhaps has even made a commitment to follow the Lord, but his or her faith didn’t develop properly and it wasn’t able to be sustained over time.
The Apostle Paul dealt with the issue of spiritual complacency in his second letter to Timothy. Paul encouraged Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you” (2 Timothy 1:6) and then, instructed Timothy to “follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 13-14). Paul indicated that it’s the believer’s responsibility to keep his or her spiritual perception in working order. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, but we must guard our hearts against the evil influences of the world and the devil so that our faith can be developed and mature over time. Paul warned Timothy that times would be difficult in the last days and that some people would have the appearance of godliness, but would deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5), “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). The Greek word that is translated knowledge, epignosis (ip-ig´-no-sis) means “recognition, i.e. (by implication) full discernment” (G1922). The reason why we need our spiritual perception to be working properly is so that we can recognize the truth when we see it.