If Jehovah is the God the Bible reveals Him to be (and He certainly is), and if man is what the Book describes him as being, the distance between them is so great that for the lesser to ever know the greater requires that the Lord make Himself known to His creature. Only He can bridge the gap between he two. Dockery observes, “God is the source of knowledge about Himself, His ways, and His truth. By God alone can God be known. The knowledge of God is revealed by His self-disclosure.”
Without His initiative, all would be hopeless. The Apostle John came to realize this and as a believer worshipfully exclaimed, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Since the Creator knows all this better than anyone, He has gone to great lengths to make Himself known to man. That disclosure of Himself includes revelation, inspiration, and illumination. This article focuses on these phenomena. Through these the Almighty exerts everything within His power to make Himself known to man. Nothing but the height of rudeness leaves one without a desire to respond by reading the Bible to receive the message God has for human beings in its pages.
Distinguishing Among Revelation, Inspiration, and Illumination
The several aspects of revelation make it a broad area for discussion. It obviously needs definition. Though revelation, inspiration, and illumination are included under it as a category, it must be distinguished from inspiration and illumination. This, then, leads to a study of the various types of revelation.
Through the centuries theologians have attempted to explain the differences among the terms of revelation, inspiration, and illumination. Their writings seek to remove any confusion among the concepts.
Revelation: Among the many who offer a definition of the theological term revelation is Thiessen. He writes, “By revelation we mean that act of God whereby He discloses Himself or communicates truth to the mind which could not be known in any other way. The revelation may occur in a single, instantaneous act, or it may extend over a long period of time; this communication of Himself and His truth may be perceived by the human mind in varying degrees of fullness.” Presenting their definition of the term revelation, Fretheim and Froehlich declare, “The basic understanding of the term here and elsewhere in theology is ‘the self-disclosure of God’—in nature, in human experience, but preeminently in history—the history of Israel, of Jesus Christ, and of the church.”
The original languages in which Scripture was written, Hebrew and Greek, provide information on the meaning of the term revelation. The Hebrew word Gala means “to uncover,” as of the eyes and ears. God is not creating something new in revelation, but rather He is uncover¬ing truth about Himself so man can see it with true perception and hear it with clear understanding.
The New Testament uses more than one word to convey what revelation involves. The Greek word apokalypto means “to reveal,” an internal disclosure, an otherwise invis¬ible thing, including certain knowledge. The Greek phaneroo also means “to reveal” but suggests an external manifestation, a visible thing, as the manifestation of Christ at His second coming. Then the Greek kramatizo means “to impart a revelation,” including an injunction or a warn-ing.
Inspiration and Illumination: With this understanding of revelation, the term needs to be distinguished from inspiration and illumination. As the disclosure of truth by God to man which could not be known in any other way, revelation has continued throughout time. The term does not specify the mode or the particular way in which God reveals Himself. On the other hand, inspiration relates directly to the writing to Scripture. God's revelation was inscripturated only during the period from 1500 B.C. to 95 A. D. Illumination, then, sheds light on the revelation that has been recorded in the inspired Word of God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit by which He enlightens, helps to understand the Bible.
Peter experienced the miracle of illumination when he declared that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Immediately upon that confession Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). The two who walked with the Teacher on the road to Emmaus on Resurrection Morning experienced a similar thing. Luke reports that following serious discussion after some distance in the journey, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Commenting on the emotion accompanying the event, the two declared, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
Obviously, there is no illumination without Scripture. Man has experienced this since 1500 B. C. The reader of Scripture to this day may know the wonder of those of Bible times as the Holy Spirit aids him in understanding its pages. To shy away from studying the Word of God for fear one cannot understand it, then, is sheer folly.
Biblical writers also sometimes experienced inspiration without revelation. Luke makes no claim that God revealed to him what he recorded in his gospel. Rather, his information came from written records and his interviews with eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1-3). At the same time other scriptural authors knew the miracle of inspiration which included that of revelation. The source of what appears in the Book of Revelation was direct revelation from God. The work declares that its contents are, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1, 2).
Sacred writers also experienced inspiration without receiving illumination. Peter declares, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Yet, some biblical authors knew the miracle of inspiration which included illumination. Speaking of truth which had previously been kept concealed, Paul wrote, “But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).
One can also know the miracle of revelation without experiencing that of inspiration. John heard the seven thunders utter their voices and yet was not permitted to write what they said (Rev. 10:3, 4). Paul declared that what he saw in the third heaven he was forbidden to share on earth He said that while in Paradise, “He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4).
Finally, one can gain insight with the aid of the Spirit in illumination and still know nothing of the miracle of inspiration by personal experience. Paul told the Ephesian believers, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:17, 18). Nothing in the apostle’s prayer requested that they be inspired to record the understanding that the Spirit’s illumination provided for them.
The Progressive Nature of Revelation
During the course of history revelation has been progressive in nature. The kernel of the doctrine of salvation appears in the Garden of Eden. After the sin of Adam and Eve in eating of the forbidden fruit and the consequent guilt in experiencing shame at their nakedness, they tried to cover the results of their disobedience by making themselves loincloths of leaves. When Jehovah appeared on the scene He made for them a more adequate covering of tunics from the skin of animals (Gen. 3:6-21). This required that the innocent animals must die to cover what their sins had brought them. From that day on throughout Scripture the Lord gradually elaborated on the necessity of the atonement (covering) for man. The climax came when His Son died in substitute for the sins of the world.
Yet, as Dockery explains the progressiveness of revelation, “The development is not contradictory in any fashion. It is complementary and supplementary to what has been previously revealed. We should think of the progress not from untruth to truth, but from a lesser to a fuller revelation.” As the writer of Hebrews says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2).
Types of Revelation
During the course of history revelation has appeared in the forms of both the general and the special. God has revealed Himself to man in more general ways through nature, history, and conscience. Special revelation comes through what the Lord manifests of Himself in miracles, prophecy, Christ, Scripture, and personal experience.
General or Natural Revelation
Among the most obvious things in the world to one who searches for answers to the great questions of life is that fact that God had revealed Himself to man through nature. Dockery says, “General revelation is universal in the sense that it is God’s self-disclosure of Himself in a general way to all people at all times and in all places.” It occurs in nature, conscience, and in history.
The Revelation of God in Nature:
Regrettably, not all agree that the Lord reveals Himself to man through nature. Naturalists see no revelation of God in nature. For them, nature is all there is. There is no God behind it. Pantheists likewise see no revelation of God in nature. Nature is God, not His handiwork. However, The Bible teaches God reveals Himself in nature. Dockery writes, “God manifests Himself in the wonders of the heavens—sun, moon, stars—skies and seas, mountains and forests, grass and flowers. Whether in the smallest atom or in the largest galaxy, the simplest form of life or the most complex, God reveals Himself through His works.”
Paul declared, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). In a moment of warm-hearted, poetic worship David exclaimed:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world (Ps. 19:1-4).
However, natural revelation has its limitations. It is sufficient to condemn man. Because God reveals His existence and many of His attributes through nature, Paul told the Romans that those who reject him “are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). However, natural revelation does not proclaim enough of the gospel to save man. Petersen writes, “If there is any revelation outside of the canonical Scriptures, it is only sufficient to condemn us.”
Others agree with Petersen’s conclusions. For example, Edwards says, “In spite of this clear revelation by God of himself through nature, the spiritual blindness of everyone is apparently so great that no one will ever find God by this means.” Warfield declares, “Without special revelation, general revelation would be for sinful men incomplete and ineffective, and could issue, as in point of fact it has issued wherever it alone has been accessible, only in leaving them without excuse.”
The Revelation of God in History:
God has also revealed Himself through the events of history. Reading its pages concerning the rise and fall of nations shows clearly the work of His hand in the affairs of man. Indeed, there is a sense in which history is HIS-story! The psalmist took note of His influence in the selection of the leaders of the countries of the world. He wrote, “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another (Ps. 75:6, 7). Daniel also acknowledged, “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan 4:25b).
Then, Dockery says, “All of history bears the imprint of God’s activity and thus has a theological character. Primarily, God is revealed in history through the rise and fall of peoples and nations. The history of nations reflects some manifestation of God at work.” In the 0ld Testament the Lord dealt specifically with Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The greatest revelation of God in history, though, appears in His dealings with Israel. He revealed Himself to them and through them to all the nations of the world.
Again, though, history does not afford a sufficient revelation of God to produce salvation in man. As Edwards concludes, “. . . because of the tragic results of sin, not all parts of history equally reflect the goodness and justice of God, because so much of it reflects, instead, the cruelty and greed of men. For this reason, although history is a reliable guide, it is not always understood as such.”
The Revelation of God in Conscience:
The third way in which the Lord reveals Himself to man in a general way is through conscience. The Greek word for conscience is suneidasis, referring to that which accompanies knowledge. It constitutes that ever present sense of right and wrong in man. In a way it is the echo of God in the soul. Its purpose is to provide man with a generally reliable moral witness by which to determine his conduct. Paul emphasized this in his letter to the Romans when he declared of those who know not the Bible that “their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:15). The apostle spoke of the “testimony” of his conscience in approving his conduct in a letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:12).
However, experience indicates that conscience is an educable creature. It will judge, to some extent, according to what it has been taught. Following conscience, then, is like following one's nose; just make sure it is always pointed in the right direction. Certainly to declare, "I don't feel condemned," is no argument for continuing in clearly revealed sin. It can even be rendered ineffective by the actions of an individual. Paul speaks of hypocritical liars as those whose “consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” 1 Tim. 4:2).
Accordingly, “Let your conscience be your guide,” is hardly sound advice. A person experiencing neurotic symptoms finds that it is not a dependable guide. He wrestles with feelings of false guilt. He cannot trace his strong emotions to any known sin.
Then, only when conscience has been properly educated is it a dependable guide. Under such conditions one can say with John. “Whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:20, 21). Further, only when the conscience is kept tender by the Holy Spirit does it constitute a safe standard for conduct. To the Romans Paul wrote, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 9:1). With such he could declare, “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16).
At the same time, the conscience is not something which is self-imposed. It seems reasonable to conclude that otherwise man would rid himself of it. Further, though it is an educable creature, it appears clear that it is indestructible. It is possible that it is underdeveloped in the newborn bade, imperfectly developed in an uninformed pagan person, or lies dormant in the hardened sinner, yet never totally destroyed in any man. Edwards says some, such as Solomon at one point in his life, may try to rid their conscience of any concept of God like a dog shaking himself to remove the water from its fur after being in a stream. However, he declares, “The dog may shake himself dry, but the river is still there.”
Since the degree of revelation of God in nature, history or conscience is not sufficient to accomplish the salvation of man, he obviously needs more help from heaven. Accordingly, the Lord has further made Himself known through special revelation. This refers to those acts of God whereby He discloses truth about Himself at special times and to specific peoples. He has granted this through miracles, prophecy and human experience as well as in Christ and Scripture.
The Revelation of God through Miracles:
Someone has suggested that if one wishes to demonstrate the validity of the Bible, rather than start with Balaam’s talking donkey or the whale in Jonah, he would be better served by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. After all, it is without doubt the greatest miracles of all time and the best attested fact of history. It had sufficient number of witnesses of the right kind to attest the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. They possessed uprightness of character so that their credibility could not be successfully questioned. They were consistent in their testimony, even under cross examination. They agreed so that the stories of the various witnesses are basically the same. Further, the evidence is ample enough to give irrefutable proof that Jesus arose from the dead. It demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus died on the cross. Without question, then, Jesus rose from the grave, though Jehovah's Witnesses and others try desperately to discredit the account of it.
The Resurrection of God through Prophecy:
Prophecy involves the foretelling of future events, not by here human insight, but by direct communication from God. Generally speaking, prophecy is given far enough away from its fulfillment to pre¬clude the possibility of mere human insight or human intervention to influence its fulfillment. It is not so ambiguous as to leave it capable of many ex¬planations. It does not employ fortune-telling terms. It is detailed enough to preclude mere guess work. For example someone has estimated that there are more that three hundred prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ. Each of these was fulfilled to the letter. Since that is a fact, it provides a sure foundation for having confidence that all other prophecies of the Bible will be fulfilled. Persons interested in what is to come, then, will certainly search the Scriptures for their insights on the subject.
The Revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture:
Neither general nor special revelation referred to above were sufficient to fully manifest God to men. The lack of understanding and response from men showed the need of a fuller revelation. The Father provided exactly that through the sending of His Son into the world. He then supplied a trustworthy record of His visit to earth, an explanation of what his birth, death, burial, and resurrection meant, and an account relating His coming again to earth through the Bible. It constitutes the clearest and only inerrant revela¬tion of God. It includes a true record of the other forms of revelation, including that of Christ.
Accordingly, the books contained in the Bible constitute a complete canon. Theirs is the message of Jesus from beginning to the end. As Edwards observes, “Far from its being a jumble of ancient legend thrown together haphazardly, we have a perfect plan that is pressed forward a little further with each book in the library that makes up our Bible.”
Regrettably, some take this truth to speak against trusting in the Bible as an inerrant Book. They contend that only Christ could provide that kind of witness of the Father. Certainly, to speak of Jesus as the Living Word is biblically correct. Still, to hint that there could be any contradiction between that and the Written Word, the Bible, is not Scriptural. Indeed, reason teaches that without the dependable, written testimony of His coming into the world man would not know for certain anything about Him.
In the first place, the purpose of the entire Old Testament is to tell mankind about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. This is exactly what the Lord explained to the two on the road to Emmaus. On the day of his resurrection He journeyed with them in part of their trip. Following a period of discussion as to the significance of the death and resurrection, Luke wrote of Jesus, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). His reference to Moses and the Prophets as well as to “all the Scriptures” was to what men call today the Old Testament.
The Gospels, then, record details concerning the coming of Jesus into the world. The event provided the greatest of all possible revelations of God to man. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being . . .” (Heb. 1:1-3).
The major means of communication between man and man is through their speech. Jesus served the Father in that same way as His Word (John 1:1). John explains, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Thus the Lord could declare, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
To complete the transmission of God’s message to man, Acts and the Epistles explain the meaning of Jesus appearance on earth. Finally, the Book of Revelation focuses on the events surrounding His return to the world. With that, the revelation of God to man is complete. What more does He need to say in order to provide the information necessary to secure the salvation of those who believe?
In the paragraphs above I have argued that God has gone to great lengths to make Himself known to man. That disclosure of Himself includes revelation, inspiration, and illumination. This article focuses on these phenomena. In it I distinguished among them. Then I presented information on the various types of revelation. The conclusion was that general revelation contains enough information to condemn man but is not sufficient to save him. The final and most complete revelation of God to man came through Jesus. Yet, only through the written Word of God can man understand the significance of that event. Through all of this the Almighty exerts everything within His power to make Himself known to man. Nothing but the height of rudeness leaves one without a desire to respond by reading the Bible to receive the message God has for human beings in its pages.
Dockery, David S. Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.
Edwards, Brian H. Nothing But the Truth. New York: Evangelical Press, 2006.
Fretheim, Terence E. and Karlfried Froehlich. The Bible as Word of God in a Post modern Age. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998.
Petersen, Rodney L. “To Behold and Inhabit the Blessed Country: Inspiration, Scripture, and Infallibility.” In Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspectives. Ed. Douglas Moo. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997.
Thiessen, Henry C. Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956.
Warfield, Benjamin B. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948.