The term revelation deals with how God has revealed himself to humanity, how He has made Himself and His truth known. God’s revelation can be divided in two parts: general revelation and special revelation.
General revelation (also known as universal and natural revelation) deals with how God can be understood through creation (Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-2), common grace (Acts 14:16; Psalm 65:9; 104:14; Matthew 5:45), and the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15; John 16:8-11; Matthew 7:11). General revelation is for the general public, believer or not. General revelation does not impart truths that are necessary for salvation (sinfulness of humanity, the atonement, etc.). However, general revelation does give mankind a general knowledge of who God is. It makes people aware of God’s existence, eternality, power, goodness, and self-sufficiency.
Special revelation gives us the details and more information that general revelation could not do nor was intended to do. General revelation tells you God exist, while special revelation tells you how to relate to this God who exist.
Suppose you attend a concert of your favorite band with thousands of other people. Everybody in the audience gets to see the performers on stage at a distance and hear the beautiful music they create, but the general audience can’t interact with the musicians or have personal interaction with them.
But in addition to your ticket, you also have a backstage pass that allows you to go behind the scenes and meet the singers, band, and writers of the music. You learn their names and all about their families, hear them explain how the songs came into being, and learn in detail about the songs they are writing now and their plans for future concerts. Your backstage pass as opposed to just a general admission ticket is the difference between general and special revelation. Special revelation takes us from being in the “audience” at God’s creation to intimate, personal fellowship and interaction with Him.
Special revelation takes up where general revelation ends. Special revelation has come to us in two forms we can see and read and understand – Jesus, the Son of God, and the Bible, the written Word of God.
People often refer to Jesus and the Bible as the living and the written Word. But both are actually the living Word, because the Bible is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). So it would be more biblically and theologically accurate to say that the Bible is the living written Word of God, and Jesus is the living incarnate Word of God – referring to Jesus’ coming to earth when “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
These two revelations agree as one, for the written Word testifies to the truthfulness of Jesus, and Jesus testifies to the truthfulness of the written Word. Jesus is the visible display of God, and the Bible is the verbal display of God. Both are heaven’s answer to the questions: Who is this God of creation? What is He like? And how do we interact with Him?
In summary, special revelation is where God reveals specific truths through Christ and the Scriptures. The truths revealed by special revelation could not be known through looking at tradition, nature, providence, history, our conscience, or any other reasoning process. God must reveal directly and specifically to us.
The following observations will help you further understand special revelation. Since what we know about Jesus Christ comes through the Scriptures I will focus my comments on God’s Word and its relation to special revelation.
Special revelation is multifaceted
God has revealed Himself and His ways in many different methods. The writer of Hebrews put it this way, “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” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NLT). Some of those ways included the following.
- God spoke to people directly by voice alone (Gen. 3:8-9; 13:14).
- Theophany (a visible manifestation of God’s presence) and voice (Gen. 7:1; 18:13).
- Dreams (Gen. 28:12-13)
- Visions (Gen. 46:1-4)
- Angels (Dan. 9:21; Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2)
- Human agents/prophets (Deut. 18:18; Jer. 18:18; 2 Peter 1:21; Heb. 1:1)
- High priests of Israel (Num. 27:21)
- Certain wise men (Dan. 5:11; 1 Kings 3:5-12).
When you take a look at all the ways God specifically revealed himself through special revelation you can compile it under two headings: Jesus Christ and the Bible. Even though God revealed himself at different times, in different ways, and to different people they all can be joined together in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9, NLT). Jesus perfectly reveals what God the Father is like. Jesus was God in the flesh who walked among us. In Jesus’ actions and words the Heavenly Father reveals His love, compassion, grace, mercy, power, wisdom, truth, judgement, and wrath.
In addition, God is continually revealing Himself in and through the Bible. In the Bible God reveals specifics about his nature, attributes, salvation, sin, Jesus, heaven, hell, relationships, the purpose of people, and a host of other important things He wanted us to know. When God completed the Bible He ended the need for any more special instructions to be included in the Scriptures. God’s final special revelation is both the incarnate Word in Jesus and the written word in the Bible.
Special revelation is direct
Special revelation is distinguished from general revelation in that it is direct revelation from God. This is where God directly speaks to or through someone. Examples would include God’s direct speech to prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21), Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2) and the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:12). God would directly appear or speak to an individual like Moses, Isaiah, or the apostle Paul. God would usually give the person a message or task to deliver or accomplish.
Special revelation is specific
As God moved people to speak or write for Him, the Holy Spirit would guide them to specifically say exactly what the Heavenly Father wanted to be said (2 Peter 1:21). When it came to eternal life, John was guided to write, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT). When it was time to address the role of the husband the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write, “For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word” (Ephesians 5:25-26, NLT). When God decided He wanted us to know something about the troubles in life the Holy Spirit moved James to write, “When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (James 1:2-3, NLT). Special revelation is specific. It will give you the details of what general revelation cannot.
Special revelation is truthful
You can trust the Bible. When God revealed Himself and His truth through the Bible He made sure it was truthful and accurate. You can have confidence it. God’s special revelation, the Bible, will always tell the truth because God cannot lie and He would not allow His Word to tell lies. Titus 1:2 tells us that God “does not lie” (NLT). Because God is a God who does not lie, His words can always be trusted. Since all of Scripture is spoken by God, all of Scripture must be “unlying,” just as God himself is: there can be no untruthfulness in Scripture. Hebrews 6:18 tells us that “it is impossible for God to lie” (NLT). As God spoke His words to people to give the Bible, God spoke truth and because of His sovereignty He was also able to oversee the writing of the Scriptures in such a way as to make sure we received exactly what He wanted us to have. In the end we can say with confidence what David said, “For you are God, O Sovereign Lord. Your words are truth…” (2 Samuel 7:28, NLT).
Special revelation is authoritative
All the words of Scripture are God’s words, to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God. Therefore, God’s special revelation – regarding His Scriptures – have authority over our lives. Being God’s Word, the Scriptures inherently possess the right to command and to enforce obedience to their revelation of God’s will for mankind, both unsaved and save people. This right is the Bible’s authority. This authority can be seen in several ways: (1) Through the divine character of the Bible. Being God’s Word, the Bible possesses many divine attributes (Psalm 19:7-9; 119:39, 43, 62, 86, 89; John 17:17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Peter 1:25) and is involved in God’s works (Psalm 33:6, 9; Heb. 4;12; John 5:45; 12:48; 2 Tim. 3;15; 1 Peter 1:23). (2) Through the divine inspiration of the Bible. Being the divinely inspired Word of God, the Bible is God’s authoritative communication to man (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1-2). (3) The submission of Jesus to the Scriptures. Although the Lord possessed all authority (Matt. 28:18), exercised authority (Luke 4:33-36), and taught with authority (Matt. 7:28-29), He appealed to the authority of the Scriptures (John 5:45-47; Matt 23:23). He also submitted Himself to their authority during His earthly lifetime and in His messianic work (Matt. 5:17; 26:52-56; Luke 18:31-33; 24:44). (4) The recognition of the Lord’s Apostles. The Lord’s apostles recognized the authority of the Scriptures, both of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:16; Acts 2:14-36; Rom. 3;9-22) and the New Testament (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Peter 3:2).
The authority applies to all the areas of which the Bible speaks. It is the final authority in matters of history and science as well as belief and conduct. Since the Scriptures authoritatively express God’s truth and His will for everyone, it is your duty to learn this truth and to submit yourself to His will by believing and obeying His Word. This response to God’s Word demonstrates your love for Him (John 14:15, 21, 23).
Special revelation is progressive
Instead of Columbus “discovering America,” suppose the American Indians had journeyed east to tell us about themselves and about the marvelous land to the west where they lived. The Bible is like that: it is not the account of a human voyage of discovery, searching for God, but of God coming to tell us about himself.
Hebrews 1:1 tells you that God revealed himself at “many times and in many ways” in the past. Adam received a bit of God’s truth, and so did Noah; God spoke more fully to Abraham, unveiling more of Himself and his purposes. He revealed Himself supremely in the Old Testament through Moses. Progressive revelation is a movement from truth to more truth and so to full truth.
Progressive revelation is not a movement from error to truth but from truth to truth, the lesser to the greater, the provisional to the permanent, the inadequate to the perfect. It may be better to call this cumulative revelation. Someone once said that “the Old Testament is Jesus foreseen, the Gospels are Jesus come, the Epistles are Jesus explained, and the Revelation is Jesus expected – one great, eternal, age-long, developing, and climactic purpose with Him as its beginning, middle, and end.
Progressive revelation means God did not reveal all truth about Himself at one time but revealed Himself gradually, little by little to different people throughout history. Hebrews 1:1 expresses this, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors though the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (vs. 1-2, NLT). Good theology traces that progress of revelation, noting the revelation concerning Himself that God has given in a particular era or through a particular writer. Therefore, God’s self-disclosure was not as advanced to Noah and Abraham as it was to Isaiah. The apostle Paul had more revelation and understanding than Isaiah due to the progressive nature of special revelation.
Special revelation is useful
God’s Word was never intended to be studied for academic knowledge only. It is a practical book given to you for application to your life. Paul makes this clear when he wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, NLT). This is a key verse regarding the doctrine of Scripture. It introduces the inspiration of Scripture (“All Scripture is inspired”), the authority of Scripture (“by God”) and the usefulness of Scripture.
I want us to focus in on the usefulness of Scripture. To get the most out of the God’s Word you need to understand that it is very practical. Even though it is a heavenly book it is also a down-to-earth book. It meets us where we are and gives divine instruction about our daily lives. God’s Word is designed to reveal God to you, but also to help us deal with the realities of your everyday life. Notice Paul says that God’s Word “is useful.” The word “useful” (ophelimos) carries the idea of being beneficial, productive, and sufficient. It is profitable and useful to teach you the truth you need to know and to train you how to live out that truth. It is designed to point you to Christ and to help you connect your life with Christ.
God’s Word is useful in four ways.
- God’s Word is useful to counsel you. God’s Word is designed “to teach us what is true.” The word “teach” didaskalia) refers to divine instruction and doctrine. It refers to the content of what is taught rather than the method of teaching. The Bible tells you what you need to know. God’s Word tells you what is right and true about salvation, God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, yourself, money, marriage, ministry, leadership, parenting, attitudes, sin, getting older, the devil, purpose in life, creation, and end times and a host of other subjects. The Bible counsels you by telling you the truth. As you study the Word of God you will find yourself learning new truths that will challenge what you think is true. This takes you to the next observation.
- God’s Word is useful to convince you. God’s Word is fashioned “to make us realized what is wrong in our lives.” That phrase is the meaning of elegomos, which is often translated rebuke. It carries the idea of reproving, admonishing, and warning for the purpose of convicting and convincing. This is where God’s Word convinces us of our wrong beliefs and behaviors. As you think about what God’s Word says you may be convicted about how you treat your children, spouse, or other family members. You may be convicted about the immorality, pride, greed, or doubt in your life. Even though this may be uncomfortable and you try to avoid it, it is profitable and useful for your growth and maturity.
- God’s Word is useful to correct you. God’s Word was put together in such a way as to “correct us when we are wrong.” God’s Word is going to teach you what is right and true, convince you of what is not right and true, and then correct you in those areas. To “correct” (epanorthosis) means to set upright an object that has fallen down or to help a person back on their feet when they have stumbled. Correction in Scripture is positive provision for those who accept its negative reproof. Whether you know it or not, you currently have some beliefs and behaviors that need correcting. God’s Word is designed to do that very thing.
- God’s Word is useful to coach you. God’s Word was designed to “teach us to do what is right.” The word “teach” (paideia) means instruction similar to what a coach does for his players. It carries the idea of instructional training to stay in shape. Once the corrections are made it’s important to keep those corrections intact. If you are not careful, the solid beliefs you have today could weaken over time if you do not stay in the Word of God. The Scriptures act as your personal trainer to help you stay spiritually, mentally, and emotionally fit.
This is what having solid doctrine does for you. It is useful and practical in your life. So watch your life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16).
Special revelation sufficient
Through special revelation (Jesus and the Scriptures) you have all you need to live the life that God would have you to live. The Bible’s sufficiency means that God’s Word is comprehensive in its ability to speak to every area and every need in life. There is no issue you will ever face that is not addressed either by direct command or by general principle in the Word of God. You do not need any other revelation from Him. What God has given to you is sufficient. He has given you exactly what you need and all that you need.
Peter said it this way, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3, NLT). Immediately following, Peter begins talking about God’s promises and His Word that will help you to be “productive and useful” in your knowledge of God (vs.3-8). God’s Word is sufficient for your every need.
Paul put it this way, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT). God’s Word is sufficient to get you ready for everything God would have you to do. It is sufficient and complete. There is nothing inadequate about God’s Word.
Special revelation is final
One of the traits of almost every cult is the claim to have extra-biblical revelation from God that supposedly explains the Bible more fully, or more often contradicts what the Bible teaches. But those claims are absolutely, categorically false. God illumines Scripture to us, but He has said His final Word in the Person of Jesus, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says so eloquently. Be careful of people who claim that God told them something He hasn’t told anyone else in the two thousand-year history of the church. If it isn’t in the Bible, it is not God’s Word.
This does not mean that God’s special revelation has ceased. God still speaks to people and groups, albeit not in apostolic, inspired, canonical revelation. Examples include such things as predictive prophecies, dreams, visions, angelic visits, and the like that Scriptures itself speaks of.
Jude 3, “But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people” (NLT). The faith (the doctrines, teaching, gospel) has now been once and for all delivered. Nothing needs to be added to it and nothing should be subtracted from it.