By faith we believe that Christianity is a revealed religion. We believe that God has revealed God’s Self in nature, in a series of mighty acts that reached its apex in the incarnation, ministry, death for us, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. We wait only Christ’s return in glory, or our being called home to him, which are but “two sides of the same coin.”
Revelation in Nature: We Can All See It.
The Bible teaches that God reveals himself in nature for all to see. Early man saw God’s revelation of himself in the natural phenomena: the storm, wind, lightning, thunder, and power of the rain and flood. This attitude is preserved in Psalm 97, etc.
Psa. 97:1 The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! 2 Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 3 Fire goes before him,and burns up his adversaries roroundabout 4 His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. 5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.
The Psalmist equates the “mud” of the mountains as wax. Though this attitude toward natural phenomena endures in other cultures, in the Biblical religion, this understanding of God was eventually displaced. God is behind the storm, but not, strictly speaking, in it. In 1st Kings 19, we read about the experience of Elijah the prophet:
11 And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
It was after this that God spoke directly to Elijah, granting him a special revelation. But let us not turn too quickly to special revelation.
In the Bible, God also reveals something of himself and his method in the natural order. In Psalm 19 we read:
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
And in Romans 1, the apostle adds:
20 Ever since the creation of the world (God’s) invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
It has been said, “If you find a watch in the woods, you naturally assume a watchmaker. If you find a world, you naturally assume a world maker.” This is no longer strictly the case. There are scientific reasons for the existence of the world. Still, the person of faith marvels at the intricacy and precision of the world that we inhabit. That fact that the world is, and that we are a part of it–we seem to be at its center, all seems miraculous beyond words, despite any scientific explanation.
This conviction of God’s revelation in nature is especially prevalent among people of faith because God has added special revelation to revelation in nature. Revelation in nature is not enough. Nature reveals God’s order, but not necessarily God’s character. Mark Twain famously demonstrated too little Bessie that the common housefly, the bearer of so much misery and disease, testifies against God’s justice and mercy. It is only in God’s special revelation that we see the heart and character of God revealed.
As in the case of Elijah, the prophet, in the Bible, God reveals himself to a series of special witnesses. He called Abraham to leave his country, his kindred, and his Father’s house, and promised him a land, a seed, and a blessing. And the angel of the Lord wrestled with Jacob (Israel) at Jabok. In the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, the apex of God’s revelation takes place in God’s revelation of himself to the people of Israel in the deliverance from Egypt, especially in the miracle at the Yom Suph, and in the giving of the Law through Moses at Sinai. Of course, this whole story of God’s revelation through Moses is highlighted in the episode of the bush that burned with fire, and was not consumed. In Exodus 3 we read:
1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” 4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In the New Testament, God does something more. No longer content with just speaking through his prophets, and showing himself in a series of Mighty Acts, such as those surrounding the exodus, God makes his revelation more personal. In John chapter 1, we read:
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. 15 (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) 16 And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
In the first epistle of John, the apostle looks back over the experience of the apostles whom Jesus appointed to be with him in the days of his flesh.
1st John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life — 2 the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.
St. Paul was not a disciple of Jesus in the days of his flesh, but he enjoyed a special revelation of his own. In 1st Corinthians 15, he recounts how the Risen Jesus appeared to him, “last of all, as to one untimely born, because I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.” In his letter to the Galatians Paul speaks of that revelation in terms of his vocation as apostle to the Gentiles:
11 For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…
In 2nd Corinthians chapter 5 , St. Paul nicely sums up the content and effect of his preaching:
17 if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation… 19 in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
God reveals himself in nature, and in the special revelation of himself on the plane of human history, especially in the “Christ Event.”
We must now point out that, in the Bible, all revelation is progressive:
Revelation in nature is progressive, or at least progressively understood.
When David wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” he had been looking at the night sky with the naked eye. He could see tens of thousands of stars. Imagine his surprise if he could have looked through the Hubble Telescope. In 1609, when Galileo made his first “spyglass” and turned it on the moon, he saw that it was not smooth, but “full of cavities and prominences, being not unlike the face of the Earth.” And when Galileo looked at the Milky Way, he saw “innumerable stars,” more than his tired hand could draw. He wrote, ““I give infinite thanks to God, who has been pleased to make me the first observer of marvelous things.”
Revelation in nature is progressive, and special revelation is progressive: The apostles knew more of Jesus and his work than the Old Testament prophets. For example, Peter and the twelve, and even Paul, knew more of Jesus than Moses and Isaiah. In 1st Peter chapter 1, the apostle seeks to explain this:
10 The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; 11 they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Some people fight against the idea of progressive revelation, despite the clear acceptance of it in the Bible. These people want to treat the Bible as if it is the primary revelation of God. There is a sense in which the Bible is a primary revelation of God. When we read it, it draws us in, and lays claim to us in a remarkable way. It authenticates itself as a Word from God. This is why when Charles Haddon Spurgeon was asked why he did not defend the Bible, he answered, “Defend the Bible? Why I had sooner defend a raging lion!”
The Bible is a Word from God, but it is only the Word of God in a secondary sense. Like the creation, the Bible bears witness to the revelation of God, but it is not the revelation, it is an inspired witness to the revelation. The Bible is not the Word of God, for the Word of God is Christ. As we read in Hebrews we read:
12 For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
“And before ‘him’, no creature is hidden.” “Before him!”
While I was at Princeton, I had occasion to enjoy a meal with T.F. Torrance. He taught theology at the University of Edinburgh. He was teaching a class in which Carl F. Henry a noted Evangelical had enrolled. Dr. Torrance said that each time he said the Bible was “a word of God” or “contained the word of God, or “witnessed to the Word of God, “Dr. Henry would object, and say, “No, it is the word of God.” Do not cheer Henry too quickly.
Torrance said, eventually, when he was tired of the argument, he simply asked Carl Henry, “Carl, do you expect to have your Bible in heaven?”
Henry responded, “No, of course not. We will no longer need it.”
Torrance said, “But Carl, do you expect to see the Word of God in heaven.”
And Henry hesitated, then responded, “But of course, Jesus will be there.”
And Torrance said, “I rest my case.”
People ask me what I believe about the Bible. I would suggest the following.
1. I believe that the Bible will do all that God requires of it. Thus in Isaiah 55 we read:
11 …my word …that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
2. I believe that the Bible we have is the Bible God wants us to have. I say that knowing that the New Testament texts we have contain more variations than there are words in the text. Yet not one of these variations affects a major Christian doctrine, one of the Essentials. I think God intends us to learn from the Bible as we have it, including all those variations. We are God’s partners. Remember, the Old Testament did not create Israel, but Israel created the Old Testament. Likewise, the New Testament did not create the church, but the church created the New Testament. Those who exalt the Bible at the expense of the church do not understand the authority which God has given to his church “in the power of the Spirit.”
3. I believe in the vital inspiration of the Bible. “Holy men and women of old, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God.” I say that I believe in vital inspiration, not verbal inspiration because the idea of verbal inspiration goes out the window the minute the Bible is translated from the original languages. Yet it is surprising how many people maintain that the King James Version alone is verbally inspired!
God reveals himself in one more way that must be mentioned. God speaks directly in the human heart. As we have seen, God does this through Scripture, but sometimes, God does this even without Scripture. In Acts 17, we read that:
“…God made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, 28 for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Augustine said, “There is a God-shaped space in each of our hearts, and our hearts are restless until they find repose in God.”
I believe in God’s revelation. It is one of the wonderful words of life.