In this first post in a series of five about the doctrine of Scripture–bibliology–I’d like to introduce you to general revelation and special revelation. In later posts I want to look at the Trinity, sin, salvation, and the church. But before discussing those topics I want to describe for you general revelation and special revelation. Here are a brief outline and definition of those terms.
Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab
General Revelation and Special Revelation
I. GENERAL REVELATION
The phrase “general revelation” means that God’s revelation is available to all people at all times. It is something seen in creation and our everyday lives. Here are a few other definitions of general revelation:
“General revelation includes all that God has revealed in the world around us, including man.” (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 31)
“General revelation comes through observing nature, through seeing God’s directing influence in history, and through an inner sense of God’s existence and his laws that he has placed inside of every person.” (Gruedem, Systematic Theology, 123)
In King David’s 19th Palm he speaks about God’s general revelation through creation. C.S. Lewis called Psalm 19 “to be the great poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1958], 73). Let’s take a look:
The heavens proclaim the glory[ref]”God’s glory here is the visible manifestation in the creation of his otherwise invisible character” (Mark Futato, “The Book of Psalms” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 7, 89)[/ref] of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak;[ref]”The verb yabbia’ is quite colorful and means ‘bubble’ or ‘gush.’ The picture is that of words bubbling up, gushing up from a spring.” (Futato, “Psalms,” Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 89).[/ref] night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.[ref]There are two different interpretations of this line. In one the point is that the speech of the heavens is inaudible (NLT, NASB). The point of the other is that the speech of the heavens is unlimited: ‘There is no speech or language where their voice is not head’ (NLT mg, NIV, NKJV). The latter is more likely for two reasons: (1) The next verse unpacks and amplifies this very point, and (2) when beli (without) is used elsewhere with a passive participle, it subordinates the following material to the previous (see 2 Sam 1:21 and Hos 7:8; see DHC 2:177), so it is best to understand 19:3b as a subordinate rather than coordinate clause” (Futato, “Psalms” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, pp. 89-90).[/ref]Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world. God has made a home in the heavens for the sun. It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding. It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race. The sun rises at one end of the heavens and follows its course to the other end. Nothing can hide from its heat. (Psalm 19:1–6, NLT)
In this passage it is clear that God’s creation testifies that there is a God. The skies display God’s craftsmanship day after day and night after night. While someone might not have been told about God directly, God’s creation testifies to everyone about him.
An important couple of verses that I have memorized are Romans 1:19-20. I have included verse 18 below to provide a better context.
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (Romans 1:18–20, NLT)
Many people ask, “Is general revelation enough for salvation?” This verse it seems to indicate that people have no excuse for not knowing God (and that’s the context: knowledge of God, not salvation). Yet, there is another area called “special revelation” that also needs to be looked at within the topic of God’s revelation. In my view, special revelation is needed for a person to be saved. Let’s look at special revelation.
II. SPECIAL REVELATION
Special revelation is when God uses supernatural ways to tell people about himself, specifically to share knowledge we cannot learn through general revelation. Here are a few other definitions:
“Special revelation as now recorded in the Bible furnishes the content of God’s message to the world.” (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 74)
“Special revelation refers to God’s words addressed to specific people, such as the words of the Bible, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the words spoken in personal address, such as at Mount Sinai or at the baptism of Jesus.” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 123)
There are a few different forms of special revelation. This list is not exhaustive and does not include every single time that method is used, but I hope it shows you how God uses special revelation.
In chapter two of the book of Daniel ,the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, had a dream (Dan 2:2). He wanted one of his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, or astrologers to interpret the dream, yet none of them could (Dan 2:2-11). A young Hebrew man named Daniel was in Babylon at that time and went to Nebuchadnezzar and told him that the God of heaven could tell the king what the dream was. He told the King,
“There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and he has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the future. Now I will tell you your dream and the visions you saw as you lay on your bed. “While Your Majesty was sleeping, you dreamed about coming events. He who reveals secrets has shown you what is going to happen.” (Daniel 2:28–29, NLT)
There are several forms of special revelation and the powerful one that God used in the book of Daniel was revelation by dreams. Many other dreams are also written in Scripture.
There are so many prophecies in the Bible it would be hard to list them out. Books have been written about the prophecies told and fulfilled. In his book, Why I Believe, Chip Ingram explains that three hundred Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus (pp. 72-79). In the book of Hebrews the book starts out with the author stating,
“Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1–2, NLT)
The New Testament contains fulfillment of many of the prophecies that God gave to the Old Testament prophets. Also see 2 Peter 1:19-21.
C. From Angels
God uses his angels as messengers. The Hebrew (מַלְאָךְ, malak) and Greek (ἄγγελος, angellos) words for angels mean, “messenger.” The book of Revelation is an extensive revelation from an angel to the apostle John about the end times. The book of Revelation starts out,
“This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John.” (Revelation 1:1, NLT)
Angels are the primary ones who reveal the end times events in the book of Revelation to the apostle John. They are messengers sent to reveal God’s Word to his people.
D. The Bible!
The Bible is the product of God’s special revelation to us. It is sacred and should not be altered in any way or fashion. The book of Revelation ends with these firm words to God’s holy people,
“And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18–19, NLT)
The Bible is God’s direct revelation to us. We should not add anything to it nor should we remove anything from it. Let’s keep it as is and focus on figuring out how to live as God’s holy people.
III. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
A. It’s good to admire God’s beauty in nature.
As a kid I remember riding in the car with my parents and getting on the 99 freeway in northern California. As we followed the on ramp there were some people on the side of the road wearing orange and picking up litter. I saw them and remembered learning in Sunday School that God said not to worship nature but only to worship God. I saw those people wearing orange vests picking up litter and righteously thought, “They are sinners! They are worshiping God’s creation by picking up litter!”
Now I know better. One, they were probably out there doing their community service requirement. Two, just because someone picks up litter does not mean that the person worships creation over God. Third, we should admire God’s beauty in nature. I love to read Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:19-20 because they remind me that evidence of God’s creative hand is all around me, especially living in California with the majestic mountains and the beautiful ocean. As I write this it is still dark outside (4:30am), but when the sun rises I will be able to look out my office window toward the amazing mountains that make up the Sequoia National Forest.
God has given us this world and we should be fortunate to enjoy it.
B. Allow God to speak to you in different ways.
Often I have heard people say that God speaks to them and they feel closest to God while in nature such as on the beach, in the mountains, or at a lake. Each person is different so find out how God speaks to you and allow him to speak to you in that way.
I remember hearing the testimony of a well known pastor who said that while he was in college God spoke to him in the small woody area near his college. Every day he would walk there and couldn’t wait to spend time with God. He would take a Bible, hymnal, and journal knowing that God would speak to him and minister to him during his quiet time there.
Experiment with time outside, time reading God’s word, using a devotional, in the early morning, late at night, or other ways and see God how speaks and ministers to you.
C. Study God’s Word.
God has given us sixty six books filled with stories, wisdom, and direct counsel for living a life dedicated to Him. Let’s take the time to actively and passionately study God’s Word. Do it actively by yourself in your own quiet time, in the context of a small group, or do both! This includes memorizing Scripture.