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A Summary of God’s Way of Revelation

Category Articles
Date September 26, 2008

The word reveal means ‘to uncover.’ Suppose there is a plate of cookies on the table covered by a towel. When the towel is removed, then you can see what’s there – a plate and cookies. You see what you could not see before.

When we use the word revelation in theology, we are talking about God’s ‘uncovering’ himself so that we can ‘see’ (know) him. How does he do that? In two ways:

1. There is natural or general revelation.

This is the revelation of God in the things he has created. It is a revelation that every person experiences. He has created the universe, and he has created human beings.

(a) It is objective, a revelation outside us (the universe). Nature includes both the ‘stuff’ of creation and what happens in nature (the ‘laws’ of nature and the unfolding of history).

(b) It is subjective, a revelation inside us. We are creatures made in the image of God. Natural or general revelation shows that there is a God who made us. It cannot, however, reveal to sinners the way of salvation.

2. There is special or redemptive revelation.

This revelation is given to man through man. God makes things known to men he has chosen as recipients of his revelation. They in turn make it known to others. The revelation has two parts:

(a) It is verbal or in words. God has preserved this revelation by having it committed to writing, preserved, and passed down to us. This is our Bible.

(b) It is personal, or in a person. That person is Jesus Christ, his Son, who makes God known by what he did, what he said, and what he is. He is God in the flesh come among us for our salvation. This revelation is redemptive because its purpose is to accomplish our salvation. The relation of the verbal and personal revelation is that we can know the personal revelation (Jesus) only through the verbal revelation which tells us what Jesus did, what Jesus said, and who Jesus is.

I want to focus on special or redemptive revelation. It consists of three things:

Redemptive Events

Redemptive events are the actions of God in history to redeem his people. The Bible contains a lot of history, but it is history of a special kind – redemptive history. That does not mean that it is not real history. It is. God controls all history, but he is not working his redemption in all history. For instance, the American Revolution is not a redemptive event. But the exodus of God’s people from Egypt is a redemptive event. God intervened to redeem his people from their Egyptian bondage. That is not the only, but it is the major, redemptive event in the Old Testament and is the predictive picture of the great saving event – the work of Jesus Christ. God was at work in Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven to redeem his people from bondage to Satan, sin, and death. The only source of our knowledge of redemptive history is the Bible. As you read the Bible, remember that you are reading history, but a particular kind of history – what God has done in history to save his people. The Bible is the record of the unfolding of God’s plan to redeem his people.

Redemptive Interpretation

One of the tasks of historians and others is to ‘make sense’ of history. They not only try to establish what happened, but also why and how events happened, and what their significance is. When it comes to ‘ordinary’ history, we do not have access to God’s explanation. For instance, if the present economic crisis deteriorates, you will hear some say that this is God’s judgment on the United States. But we do not know the mind of God. We can suggest possibilities of the significance of a recession or depression, but we can never say with certainty why God is doing something and what it means. On the other hand, we can know that the conquering and exile of Judah by the Babylonians were acts of God’s judgment on Israel, because God has told us so through the prophets who spoke by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit before, during, and after these events.

The Bible tells us not only what God has done in history for our redemption but also what these acts mean. What was the life and death of Jesus about? ‘. . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:19,21). ‘. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith’ (Romans 5:22-25). What is the meaning of his resurrection? ‘. . . his Son who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power by the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:3, 4). These are just examples of how the Bible interprets the events it records. They are by no means exhaustive of the meanings.

What we call theology involves studying the Bible and taking into account the rich and varied interpretations of these events that are found there. This is why theology is not at all ‘theoretical’ or ‘unpractical.’ Without theology we would not know what to make of the events recorded in the Bible. Redemptive events and redemptive interpretation cannot be separated from one another.

Redemptive Ethics

Finally the Bible teaches us what the redemptive events and theology mean for our character and conduct. The ‘rules’ in the Bible are not like, for instance, the rules that schools have. The school rules say, ‘Here is what you must do. Here is what you must not do. Obey these rules, and you will stay out of trouble.’ It is true that the Ten Commandments tell us the behaviour God approves and are the standard for all people. But they are much more. The Commandments are introduced with ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ Only then do the ‘thou shalt nots’ and ‘thou shalts’ begin. God is telling his people that he has redeemed them, and, because he has, this is the way they should live as redeemed people. In fact they can live in this way only because he has redeemed them.

What is true of the Old Testament Law is true also of all the ethical teaching of the New Testament. The New Testament says, ‘Here is what God has done for you in Christ. Here is who you are in Christ. Therefore, here is the way you can live and the way God wants you to live.’ As it is sometimes put with New Testament ethics, the indicative comes before the imperative. That is, the commands follow upon the facts and truths. In many of Paul’s letters we find this basic structure: (1) doctrine, then (2) ethics. The doctrinal sections of such letters explain the significance of what Christ has done and the new realities his work has brought into existence. Only then are ‘rules’ given. And the ‘rules’ are introduced by the word, ‘Therefore.’ (The clearest example of this doctrine/ethics pattern is Ephesians. Chapters 1-3 are doctrinal and chapters 4-6 are practical or ethical.) Until you understand what God has done in Christ and what all that he did in Christ means, you cannot begin to live the Christian life. In fact, only because Christ has done these things that have this significance is the Christian life possible.

We know God exists because he has revealed himself to us in nature. We know God savingly because of what he revealed to us in Jesus Christ and recorded for us in the Bible.

Rev. William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Mississippi.

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