Revelation: The starting point of theology.

REVELATION rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən noun. A previously unknown fact (about God), often surprising or dramatic.
2. (God’s) act of making the unknown known.
3. [capitalized] the last book of the New Testament; Christ Jesus’s apocalypses of the future, given to John of Patmos.
[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 talk about revelation, Christians nearly always assume I’m talking about the book. (And half the time they think it’s 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.)

Revelation, no -s, is anything God reveals to us humans. That’s all it is. If God tells you to put a sweater on ’cause it’s gonna be chilly outside, that’s revelation. God revealed it to you. Simple, right?

And of course we humans overcomplicate the idea. We 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 a revelation, or 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 KWL
1 The boy Samuel ministered to the LORD before Eli’s face.
The LORD’s word was valuable. In those days, there was no breakthrough vision.
2 In that day Eli laid down in his room. His eyes began to dim, unable to see.
3 Samuel laid down in the LORD’s sanctuary, where God’s ark was, before God’s lamp was put out.
4 The LORD called Samuel, saying, “Heed me.”
5 Samuel ran to Eli, saying, “Heed me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call. Go back. Lie down.”
Samuel walked back and laid down.
6 The LORD called yet again: “Samuel.”
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call, my son. Go back. Lie down.”
7 Samuel hadn’t yet met the LORD, who hadn’t yet revealed the LORD’s word to him.
8 The LORD called Samuel again a third time.
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli realized the LORD called the boy, 9 and Eli told Samuel, “Go lie down.
If he happens to call you, say, ‘Speak, LORD: Your slave hears you.’ ”
Samuel walked back and laid down in the LORD’s room.
10 The LORD came, stood there, and did as he did before: “Samuel. Samuel.”
Samuel said, “Speak: Your slave hears you.”

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, and 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) can’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.
  • Back in ancient times when God did talk, 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 also have their own scriptures.
  • 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!)
  • 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 KWL
9 “And I tell you all: Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
10 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.”
Acts 17.26-28 KWL
26 “Out of one human, God made every human ethnicity dwelling upon all the face of the earth,
marking out placements, times, and borders of their nation,
27 to get them to seek God: Perhaps they’d sense him, and find him.
Really, he exists not far from every one of us.
28 ‘We live, move, and exist in him,’ Epimenides, Kritiká as one of your poets even said.
‘We’re his descendants too.’ ” Aratus, Fainómena
Hebrews 11.5-6 KWL
5 In faith Enoch was transformed:
He didn’t see death, and wasn’t found because God transformed him.
Before his transformation, he’d testified to God,
pleasing him, 6 and without faith one can’t please God:
One has to have faith—come to God because he exists, and earnestly search for him.
He becomes the one who pays your salary.

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. But God indirectly telling us about himself, through prophets and bible, tends to get included in “special revelation” as well. These other sources count. They’re definitely important too: 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.