Revelation: The starting point of theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 March 2023
REVELATION rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən noun. A previously unknown fact [about God], often surprising or dramatic.
2. An act [usually God’s] of making the unknown known.
3. [capitalized] Christ Jesus’s apocalypses of the future, given to John of Patmos; the last book of the New Testament.
[Reveal rə'vil verb, revelator 'rɛ.vəl.eɪt.ər noun, revelatory 'rə.vɛl.ə.tɔ.ri adjective, revelational rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃ(ə)n.(ə)l adjective.]

When I first taught theology, I found whenever I spoke about revelation, Christians nearly always assumed I’m talking about the book. And half the time they think the book’s called Revelations, with an -s. And half that time, when they write it out, they put an apostrophe on the -s, for no reason. Don’t get me started about the overuse of apostrophes.

But revelation, without an -s, refers to anything God reveals to us humans. That’s all revelation is: If God tells you something—and you didn’t already know it, or couldn’t have deduced it on your own; you needed him to reveal it to you—it’s revelation. God revealed something to you.

Yeah, you couldn’t have deduced it on your own. If the weather forecast tells you, “Bring and umbrella,” and God tells you, “No really, bring an umbrella,” that’s technically revelation, but big deal. It’s not gonna stretch and grow your faith when God repeats what your Echo Dot just said. Now if the forecast says, “Sunny and 80 degrees,” and God says, “But bring an umbrella,” and later that day you find yourself in the middle of a thunderstorm nobody predicted: Okay, now it’s more obvious you heard something from the Almighty.

That’s the thing about revelation: It’s obviously a God-thing. “Natural revelation” isn’t so obvious—because every religion tries to deduce what God is like by looking at nature, and all of them get him wrong. Read Job sometime; all Job’s friends had a lot to say about what they saw in nature, and what they concluded about God from it, and the LORD bluntly stated all of them got him wrong. Jb 44.7 Christians try to deduce God-things from nature all the time, and likewise get him wrong; I’ve heard the sermons. Our logical deductions might be pretty good, and impressive… and woefully inaccurate. Because they’re no substitute for God revealing and explaining himself to us.

That’s why good theology has to be based on revelation. We humans are just making guesses about God; some of them wild, some of them reasonable, but they’re still just guesses. Whereas Jesus knows God, ’cause he is God—so we need to follow Jesus. And the Holy Spirit knows God, ’cause he is God—so we need to listen to the Spirit. And the Spirit inspired the bible, so we oughta read the bible. And the Spirit speaks to fellow Christians, so we need to bounce the ideas we think are God-ideas off these fellow Christians, and make sure. But all of this threads back to revelation: We hear from God, and that’s the basis of our theology.

Simple, right? But of course we humans gotta overcomplicate the idea.

Too many of us assume revelation is always a big profound mind-scrambling experience. With lights, visions, seizures, euphoria, and Hollywood-style special effects. This is why people assume God’s never given ’em any revelation, or even claim he doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore: They’re still waiting for the light show. They expect to have Isaiah- or Ezekiel- or John-style visions of God’s throne room. Or see Jesus in glory like Simon Peter, James, John, Stephen, and Paul did. Or at least have some glowing angels or burning bushes or something like that.

Nah. Most of the time, revelation is so ordinary-looking, you’d never realize it’s God talking till he tells you it’s him. Kinda like what happened to the prophet Samuel. He kept pestering his guardian, the head priest Eli, like any other little kid who “just wants a drink of water,” i.e. won’t go to sleep.

1 Samuel 3.1-10 NLT
1 Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
2 One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. 4 Suddenly the LORD called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” 5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go back to bed.” So he did.
6 Then the LORD called out again, “Samuel!”
Again Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you, my son,” Eli said. “Go back to bed.”
7 Samuel did not yet know the LORD because he had never had a message from the LORD before. 8 So the LORD called a third time, and once more Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
Then Eli realized it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, ‘Speak, LORD, your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went back to bed.
10 And the LORD came and called as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel replied, “Speak, your servant is listening.”

Quite a few stories in the bible consist of God showing up to talk to someone, and their first reaction is, “Wait… is that… God? Holy crap, am I talking to God?” Frequently followed by sheer terror, ’cause most people assume if you encounter God, he’s too holy to abide sin, so you’re gonna die. Ge 32.30, Dt 5.24, Jg 13.22 Or you’re already dead.

But no: God wants you to know him, so he’s making contact. Don’t listen to the cessationists: He does this. A lot.

He has to. How else are we gonna get to know him?

The reason cessationists, and other anti-supernaturalists, balk at the idea of God talking to people or otherwise revealing himself to people, is because their concepts of God (or their lack of belief in him) don’t permit the idea. God’s too different. Or too holy. Or just doesn’t work like that. Or doesn’t work like that anymore; he used to, but chose a cut-off point where he no longer will, so we’re on our own.

If God doesn’t talk, then how on earth are we expected to find out about him? Well, here these folks present us with all sorts of unsatisfactory, problematic answers.

  • We’re never gonna find out. We’ll die wondering.
  • We might finally make contact with God in the afterlife. Till then, all our questions are gonna have to wait till we’re dead. (And maybe we can make contact with ghosts. They might know something. Bust out that Ouija board!)
  • When God spoke back in ancient times, holy scriptures were recorded, and we’re gonna have to make do with them. Good luck figuring out which of them are valid. We Christians point to our bible, but we still debate how many books are in it, or or which translation’s best, and these things tend to alienate people who are obsessive-compulsive about their scriptures, or bore people who don’t read. Plus the Jews say we Christians have one testament too many, the Mormons say one testament too few, the Muslims say ditch it in favor of the Quran, and the Hindus and Buddhists have their own scriptures.
  • There are other spirits. Like angels, or beings on other celestial planes, or nature gods, or spirit animals. Talk to them.
  • If we look at nature, or study science, maybe we can deduce God, or figure out what he’s like. Fr’instance, animals in our biosphere fight each other for supremacy and survival, and nature is unforgiving and harsh. Maybe that’s what God’s like, right? He doesn’t want us to work together in peace and harmony; he’s a war God who wants us to fight to the death and come out on top in this cold, cruel world.
  • Various gurus think they have God figured out. Which one do we wanna follow? How about that church in Hollywood all the celebrities are into? …Too expensive and cultlike? Okay, how about that temple all the other celebrities are into? Maybe the church whose beliefs already match ours; that’d be convenient, ’cause we won’t have to change our lives much, if at all.
  • Turn off our doubts and our brains, and just cling to happiness as best we can.

These are the many problems with trying to learn what God is like, without ever actually talking to the Big Guy himself. We gotta deal with a whole lot of guesses. Doesn’t matter how educated these guesses are: If God is in fact significantly different than we are (and it turns out he is!) the very best of these guesses, pitched by the very smartest of our people, is gonna be riddled with flaws. Speaking for myself, I think Siddhartha Gautama came up with a downright clever philosophy, and is probably the very best we can do apart from God’s revelation.

But with God’s revelation, you’re gonna make contact with God himself. And if that’s a real option, it’d be downright stupid of us to ignore it.

Of course, there’s no shortage of stupid on earth. But I would encourage you to ignore all that and ask God for revelation. He invites you to.

Luke 11.9-10 NLT
9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Acts 17.26-29 NLT
26 “From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.”
Hebrews 11.5-6 NLT
5 It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.” Ge 5.24 For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. 6 And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

Special revelation.

There are all sorts of things we humans call revelation, but when theologians wanna talk about God revealing himself to us, we use the term special revelation: God specially telling us about himself.

I find people tend to assume special revelation only consists of God directly telling us about himself—no intermediaries, like prophets and bible. But that’s not so. The intermediaries are included in special revelation. They help confirm all the stuff we get directly. Don’t dismiss them!

We reduce special revelation to five types. They are:

  1. GOD-APPEARANCES. Where Jesus (or God in some other representational form) makes a personal appearance in some visible form. No, not as a toasted pattern on a tortilla, or a neat cloud formation; it’s not an inert appearance. He’ll talk, or otherwise do stuff.
  2. MIRACLES. Stuff which can only happen if the Holy Spirit did or empowered it, ’cause there’s no other reasonable explanation. Not that skeptics won’t struggle to find one.
  3. PRAYER. When we talk with God; namely the part where he talks back.
  4. PROPHECY. When another person legitimately hears from God, and shares that message.
  5. SCRIPTURE. The writings of ancient prophets and apostles who recorded their God-experiences and special revelations.

Some Christians claim there’s a sixth type, general revelation, humanity’s built-in knowledge that God exists. I discuss that topic in more detail elsewhere, but I’ll briefly say this: It doesn’t provide us enough useful information to count as special revelation.

Pretty much every form of God revealing himself you can think of, falls under these five types. The Old and New Testaments count as scripture. Meditation is a form of prayer. So’s speaking in tongues, most of the time. Dreams and visions are forms of prophecy.

And yeah, some of these types overlap. If you have the ability to supernaturally translate one language into another, it’s both a miracle (it can only be done by the Holy Spirit’s power) and a form of prophecy (God wanted this message shared). Really, all of these types are kinda miraculous.

True, two of them can appear to not be miracles. If you’re one of those Christians who believe prayer only communicates in one direction, you’re barely gonna get any revelation out of it. If you figure the bible is just an old thick book, and don’t figure God teaches you anything out of it, same problem.

Each of these types of revelation merits a whole article—and I wrote ’em, so click on the appropriate links for more info.