The Scriptures indicate that God has used two major kinds of divine revelation to uncover truth to mankind: general and special revelation. General revelation, which is God’s uncovering of knowledge through means available to all mankind in general, has been examined in earlier articles. This article will address special revelation, which is God’s uncovering of knowledge through special means not always available to all mankind.
General revelation can give limited knowledge of God. It does not, however, give specialized knowledge, including the knowledge necessary for salvation. If people are to be saved, they must receive more knowledge about God than general revelation can offer.
God has used several special means to reveal knowledge to individuals or groups. Some of those means He has employed at certain times in history.
The Scriptures record many miracles that God performed Himself or enabled people to perform. God parted the waters of the Red Sea to enable the people of Israel to pass safely from Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula (Ex. 14). The walls of Jericho fell without the use of siege equipment (Josh. 6). Jesus healed many diseases (Mt. 9:35). Paul healed a lame man (Acts 14:8–10).
Miracles reveal knowledge about God to people who witness them and to those who hear or read about them. This means of special revelation has some limitations, however. Many people never witness a miracle. Oral and written accounts of miracles, unless divinely inspired, may be inaccurate.
Dreams and Visions
In Bible times, God occasionally used dreams and visions to uncover knowledge. Through a dream given to Nebuchadnezzar, God revealed the course of Gentile world dominion from the time of ancient Babylon to the Second Coming of the Messiah and the future kingdom of God (Dan. 2). By means of visions given to Cornelius the centurion and to Peter, God clearly made it known that the gospel was to be taken to the Gentiles (Acts 10).
These means of revelation uncovered knowledge to the receivers of the dreams and visions and to those who heard or read about them, but they also had some limitations. Not everyone in Bible times was given a dream or vision by God. Dreams or visions could be misinterpreted, and oral and written accounts of them, like the miracles, could be unreliable if not divinely inspired.
At times God imparted knowledge to people by speaking directly to them. Through direct speech, God revealed specific knowledge to Noah concerning the flood and the ark (Gen. 6:13–7:4) and clearly identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God (Mt. 3:17; 17:5).
This means of revelation gave knowledge to the immediate hearers of the speech and to those who were given oral or written accounts of the speech, but again, it had some limitations. God did not speak directly and audibly to all people, and oral and written accounts of His speech could still be inaccurate if not divinely inspired.
The Bible records several incidents of God sending angels to deliver specific revelation to people. God sent the angel Gabriel to reveal to Daniel His long-range program for Israel and Jerusalem and the specific time when the Messiah would be in the world to officially present Himself to Israel as its Prince (Dan. 9:20–27). God sent Gabriel to inform the virgin Mary that she was the woman whom He had chosen to give birth to the promised Messiah (Lk. 1:26–38). An angel revealed to the shepherds the birth and location of the Messiah (Lk. 2:8–12).
Revelation through angels uncovered knowledge to the people to whom angels appeared and to those who received oral and written accounts of the angelic messages. But like all other forms of revelation, it had the same limitations—those created by the reporters of the events.
The Holy Spirit
God has delivered very significant revelation through the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, God revealed to the apostles and New Testament prophets a body of knowledge that Paul called “the mystery,” which was hidden from mankind prior to apostolic times (1 Cor. 2:6–10; cp. Eph. 3:3–9). Jesus declared that the Comforter—the Holy Spirit—would make the unsaved world aware of its sin, need for righteousness, and future judgment (Jn. 16:7–11). Jesus also indicated that during the corporate lifetime of His apostles who were with Him in the upper room, the Holy Spirit would uncover to them “all truth”—all the teaching that the Lord wanted the church to have (Jn. 14:16; 16:12–15). The Holy Spirit leads believers and gives internal witness that they are God’s children and heirs (Rom. 8:14–17). The Spirit also testifies that eternal life is available through one source, Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 5:6–13).
Revelation through the Holy Spirit has come in varying degrees to believers and unbelievers. This means of uncovering knowledge also has some limitations. Left to themselves, “natural man” (those who are unsaved) does not accept the truth revealed through the Holy Spirit. That truth seems foolish to them. Unsaved people are incapable of understanding that truth because by themselves they do not have the information necessary to understand it (1 Cor. 2:14). The internal witness or prompting by the Holy Spirit also can be resisted by believers (Eph. 4:30; 1 Th. 5:19), and it is possible to mistakenly interpret a purely emotional response as the prompting of the Spirit.
In Bible times, God uncovered knowledge through prophecies. Through the prophet Moses, God revealed how He would deal with the nation of Israel throughout its history (Dt. 28–30). When the people of Israel cried out to God because of severe oppression by the Midianites, God sent them a prophet to reveal the reason for their suffering (Jud. 6:7–10). Through the prophet Agabus, God foretold the coming of a great famine in New Testament times (Acts 11:27–28).
Through prophecies, knowledge was uncovered to the prophets, to those who heard them prophesy, and to those who were given oral or written accounts of the prophecies. This means of revelation had some limitations. Not everyone in Bible times had access to a prophet or prophetess. There were many false prophets and prophetesses who misled people (Jer. 14:13–15). If not divinely inspired, oral or written accounts of prophecies could be inaccurate, just as accounts of all other special revelation are subject to inaccuracy.
The Scriptures are an extensive means of revelation of God’s truth to mankind. They present all that people need to know about God to be saved, live godly lives, and minister effectively (2 Tim. 3:15–17). It is significant that the longest chapter in the Bible (Ps. 119) is devoted to the importance of the Scriptures. God required Israel’s leaders to read and meditate on the Scriptures daily (Dt. 17:18–20; Josh. 1:8).
The Scriptures present a storehouse of knowledge to all people who hear or read them, but even this great means of divine revelation has limitations. Multitudes of people have never been exposed to any part of the Bible. People who are illiterate cannot read the Bible. The work of translating, printing, and distributing the Scriptures is long, laborious, and costly, and there are still many languages and dialects without any portion of them available. Even people who have access to the Bible in their language often ignore, misinterpret, or simply misunderstand it.
The Historic Life of Christ
The historic life of Jesus Christ on earth was an incredible revelation of God to mankind. John indicated this when he called Christ “the Word” (Jn. 1:1, 14). John’s point was that Jesus Christ had the same function as words. Just as words are the outward expression of invisible thoughts, so Jesus Christ, through His life on earth, was the outward expression of invisible God the Father to mankind (Jn. 1:18; 1 Tim. 1:17).
Jesus indicated the same thing when He said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Paul taught that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and the writer of Hebrews declared that Jesus, as God’s Son, was “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3).
The historic life of Christ revealed great truths concerning God to the people who were eyewitnesses of Christ and to those who have received oral or written accounts of His life. In spite of the greatness of this means of revelation, it too has some limitations. Multitudes of people have never heard or read about Jesus. Oral and written accounts of His life, unless divinely inspired, are unreliable. Many people misinterpret the person and work of Christ. It is difficult for finite, mortal people to understand this infinite, immortal person.
The Christian’s Life
Since Christians, as God’s spiritual children, have been made partakers of God’s holy nature (2 Pet. 1:4), they are to reveal that nature to the world through their philosophy of life, values, and lifestyle (1 Pet. 1:15–16; 2:9–12). For this reason, Jesus said concerning believers, “Ye are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:14–16). Paul told church saints that they are Christ’s letter to the world, “known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3:2). Someone has said that the only Bible some unbelievers will ever read is the life of a Christian. Another person has expressed it eloquently in a simple verse.
You are writing a gospel, a chapter each day,
In deeds that you do and words that you say.
Men read what you write, whether false or true.
Say, what is the gospel according to you?
The Christian’s life can display truth concerning God to all believers and unbelievers who come in contact with or hear or read about him or her, but this means of revelation also has some limitations. In some parts of the world people never meet a Christian. Improper conduct by a believer gives a perverted view of God to the world. Sometimes people misinterpret the life of a believer. Oral and written accounts of a Christian’s life can be inaccurate.
Believer, what is your life telling the world about God?