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Holman Bible Dictionary
Revelation of God
Modern thought often questions the possibility and/or reality of revelation. Biblical faith affirms revelation is real because the personal Creator God has chosen to let His human creatures know Him. The question remains, “How can a person know God.” The Bible appears to distinguish two ways of knowing God, general and special revelation.
Biblical emphasis points to Jesus Christ as God's final revelation. God has provided ongoing generations of believers a source of knowledge about Himself and His Son. That source is the Bible.
Definition The word revelation means an uncovering, a removal of the veil, a disclosure of what was previously unknown. Revelation of God is God's manifestation of Himself to humankind in such a way that men and women can know and fellowship with Him. Jesus explained to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” ( Matthew 16:17 NIV). The knowledge of Jesus' sonship was not attained by human discovery, nor could it have been; it came from God alone.
All Christians recognize that God has acted and spoken in history, revealing Himself to His creatures. Yet, a variety of opinions seek to define what constitutes revelation.
General Revelation The physical world—nature—is not a part of God as my hand is a part of me. Yet, God might reveal Himself through His actions in that world. Besides saying or writing things, persons may reveal facts about themselves in other ways, such as physical gestures or facial expressions. Sometimes persons' actions communicate whether they are selfish or generous, clumsy or skillful. A grimace, a smile, or a frown can often be telling. Transferring these things to a theological context is not simple, because God is not visible. He does not have facial features or bodily parts with which to gesture. To say God reveals Himself through nature means that through the events of the physical world God communicates to us things about Himself that we would otherwise not know.
What sort of things might God tell us in this manner? Paul explained “What can be known about God is plain to them, for God Himself made it plain. Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made. So those people have no excuse at all” (Romans 1:20 TEV). The psalmist ( Psalm 19:1 ) saw the glory of God through the spectacles of special revelation. What the psalmist saw was objectively and genuinely there. We can rephrase these observations to say that all that can be known about God in a natural sense has been revealed in nature. This is what we call natural or general revelation. General revelation is universal in the sense that it is God's self-disclosure of Himself in a general way to all people at all times in all places . General revelation occurs through (1) nature, (2) in our experience and in our conscience, and (3) in history.
In the wonders of the heavens and in the beauty of the earth God manifests Himself. Jesus taught that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NAS), thus revealing His goodness to all. “The living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy” ( Acts 14:15-17 NRSV). God makes Himself known in the continuing care and provision for humankind. The universe as a whole serves the Creator's purposes as a vehicle of God's self-manifestation.
God also reveals himself in men and women. They are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26-27 ). Humans, as a direct creation of God, are a mirror or reflection of God. People are God's unique workmanship evidenced by their place of dominion over the rest of creation; in their capacity to reason, feel, and imagine; in their freedom to act and respond; and in their sense of right and wrong (Genesis 1:28; Romans 2:14-15 ). Especially through this moral sense God reveals Himself in the consciences of men and women. The fact that religious belief and practice is universal confirms the apostle's statements in Romans 2:1 . Yet, the creatures who worship, pray, build temples, idols and shrines, and seek after God in diverse ways do not glorify God as God nor give Him thanks (Romans 1:21-23 ). Nevertheless, because each person has been given the capacity for receiving God's general revelation, they are responsible for their actions.
God manifests Himself in the workings of history. All of history, rightly understood, bears the imprint of God's activity and thus has a theological character. Primarily, God is revealed in history through the rise and fall of peoples and nations (compare Acts 17:22-31 ).
God's general revelation is plain, whether in nature, in human conscience, or in history. Even though it is plain, it is often misinterpreted because sinful and finite humans are trying to understand a perfect and infinite God. What we have seen so far is compatible with the following:
(1) Religious belief is a nearly universal human phenomenon.
(2) Such religious belief is implanted by God.
(3) All people ought to acknowledge God on the basis of what they learned from the world around them.
(4) All people believe in God and show their belief even though they do not admit it.
(5) No one, no matter how seemingly insignificant or weak-minded can be excused for missing God's revelation.
The light of nature is not sufficient to give the knowledge of God necessary for salvation. For God's power (Romans 1:20 ), goodness (Matthew 5:45 ), and righteousness (Romans 2:14-15 ) have been revealed, but not His salvific grace. That is revealed only through special revelation. Special revelation is necessary to instruct people how to worship God rightly. God in His general revelation reveals Himself, but because of our sinfulness, humans pervert the reception of His general revelation, a revelation so plain it leaves all without excuse. It is as if a lawyer were offered the information necessary to solve a case, yet chose perversely to ignore it.
In sum, humans lack the willingness to come to a pure and clear knowledge of God. Men and women suppress God's truth because they do not like the truth about God. They do not like the God to which the truth leads them so they invent substitute gods and religions instead. The universality of religion on earth is evidence of truths discussed above. According to Paul, the act of suppressing the awareness of God and His demands warps our reason and conscience. Because of this rejection of God, He righteously reveals His wrath against humankind. God's general revelation does not bring one into a saving relationship with God; it does reveal God to His creatures and they are, therefore, responsible for their response. This view of general revelation can only be accepted through special revelation.
Special Revelation God has revealed Himself in nature, human experience, and history, but sin's entrance into the world has changed the revelation as well as the interpretation of it. What is needed to understand God's self-disclosure fully is His special revelation. Divine truth exists outside of special revelation, but it is consistent with and supplemental to, not a substitute for special revelation.
In contrast to God's general revelation which is available to all people, God's special revelation is available to specific people at specific times in specific places, it is available now only by consultation of sacred Scripture. Special revelation is first of all particular. God reveals Himself with His people. These people of God are the children of Abraham, whether by natural ( Genesis 12:1-3 ) or spiritual descent (Galatians 3:16 ,Galatians 3:16,3:29 ). Does this mean that God confines knowledge of Himself to a particular people? Not necessarily, because God's general revelation has been given to all, though perverted and rejected by the universal wickedness of humankind. He now chooses to whom and through whom He will make Himself known. As with Abraham, God said: “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ). God manifests Himself in a particular manner to His people so they will be a channel of blessing to all others.
Special revelation is also progressive . Biblical history witnesses to a developing disclosure of God, His will, and His truth in the Old and New Testaments. The development is not contradictory in any fashion. It is complementary and supplementary to what had been previously revealed. We should not think of the progress from untruth to truth, but from a lesser to a fuller revelation (Hebrews 1:1-3 ). The revelation of the law in the Old Testament is not superseded by the gospel, but is fulfilled in it.
Special revelation is primarily redemptive and personal . In recognition of the human predicament God chose at the very beginning to disclose Himself in a more direct way. Within time and space God has acted and spoken to redeem the human race from its own self-imposed evil. Through calling people, miracles, the Exodus, covenant making, and ultimately through Jesus Christ, God has revealed Himself in history.
The ultimate point of God's personal revelation is in Jesus Christ. In Him, the Word became flesh (John 1:1 ,John 1:1,1:14;John 1:14;14:9 ). The Old Testament promise of salvation as a divine gift to people who cannot save themselves has been fulfilled in the gift of His Son. The redemptive revelation of God is that Jesus Christ has borne the sins of fallen humanity, has died in their place, and has been raised to assure justification. This is the fixed center of special revelation.
Special revelation is also propositional . It includes not only those personal, redemptive acts in history, but also the prophetic-apostolic interpretation of those events . God's self-disclosure is propositional in that it made known truths about Him to His people. Knowledge about someone precedes intimate knowledge of someone. The primary purpose of revelation is not necessarily to enlarge the scope of one's knowledge. Yet, propositional knowledge about is for the purpose of personal knowledge of.
We can thus affirm that special revelation has three stages: (1) redemption in history, ultimately centering in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) the Bible, written revelation interpreting what He has done for the redemption of men and women; (3) the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals and the corporate life of the church, applying God's revelation to the minds and hearts of His people. As a result, men and women receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and are enabled to follow Him faithfully in a believing, covenant community until life's end.
The content of special revelation is primarily God Himself. Mystery remains even in God's self-revelation. God does not fully reveal Himself to any person. God, does, however, reveal himself to persons to the degree they can receive it. Special revelation is the declaration of truth about God, His character, and His action and relationship with His creation to bring all creation under Christ, the one head (Ephesians 1:9-10 ).
The proper setting of special revelation is Christian faith. God makes Himself known to those who receive His revelation in faith (Hebrews 11:1 ,Hebrews 11:1,11:6 ). Faith is the glad recognition of truth, the reception of God's revelation without reservation or hesitation (Romans 10:17 ).
For today, the Bible is of crucial importance. Through the Bible the Spirit witnesses to individuals of God's grace and the need of faith response. In the Bible we learn of God's redemption of sinners in Christ Jesus. Our faith response to God's Word and acts, recorded and interpreted by the prophets and apostles, calls for us to embrace with humble teachableness, without finding fault, whatever is taught in Holy Scripture.
In sum we can say that God has initiated the revelation of Himself to men and women. This revelation is understandable to humankind and makes it possible to know God and grow in relationship with Him. God's self-manifestation provides information about Himself for the purpose of leading men and women into God's presence. For believers today, the Bible is the source of God's revelation. In the written word we can identify God, know and understand something about Him, His will, and His work, and point others to Him. Special revelation is not generally speculative. The Bible primarily speaks on matters of cosmology and history where these issues touch the nature of faith. God has manifested Himself incarnationally through human language, human thought, and human action as ultimately demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
David S. Dockery
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Revelation of God'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/r/revelation-of-god.html. 1991.
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25