Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/31/1999
"For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of you gentiles--if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you, that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy Apostles and prophets in the Spirit. . ."
In this marvelous Parenthesis on the Grace of God, we have seen Paul as the Prisoner of Jesus Christ and as the Steward of God's Grace--both tremendous examples of God's unmerited favor that send Paul off on a 13-verse excursus on the wonder of God's Grace. Today, we come to a third manifestation of God's inconceivable goodness to the undeserving: He has revealed or made known to us the mystery of Christ. Today, we will look at the phenomenon of Revelation itself; next week, at what is revealed.
The word translated "reveal" is the Greek APOCALUPTO, which literally means to unveil or uncover what was hidden or obscured. Revelation is then the act by which God makes known or communicates to Man what would otherwise remain hidden from us. Human reason, making valid deductions from observable Nature, is capable of understanding that some kind of God must exist, that He has power and intelligence (Rom. 1:19-20). But much beyond this we could not go on our own. If we are to have any reliable knowledge of God's will, his plan, his Law, his ways, his character, his promises, his covenant, ultimately of Himself, He must act to show us or tell us. And so he has.
Revelation originates in the very nature of God himself. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel that God the Son existed eternally as the Word, the LOGOS in the bosom of the Father. LOGOS can be translated either as "word" or as "reason." The purpose of a word is to communicate or disclose that which would otherwise remain unseen or unknown: the hidden thoughts of the mind and heart. When combined with reason it implies a reasoned discourse entailing a train of thought and some fullness of content. Thus LOGOS contrasts with REMA, which means a word simply as uttered rather than as rational discourse. That is why Erasmus criticized the Latin Vulgate for translating Jn. 1:1 as "In principio erat verbum" (a bare word, REMA) as opposed to "erat sermo" (a full, thought-out oration of a disclosure, LOGOS). He was profoundly right to do so, for Christ as LOGOS is indeed the full disclosure of God's true nature in so far as human beings are able to receive it.
What Christ as LOGOS tells us is that part of the inner dynamic of God's nature is the impulse to share himself, to reach out, to have fellowship with one who understands. This was true even before the creation of finite persons with whom he could share his glory, for God has existed for all of eternity as a Unity on the high order of Trinity. Each of the three Persons of the Trinity has been open to the others, incorporating relationship and hence community (and therefore communication--do not miss the common roots) into their oneness as God, for all eternity. So powerful was this inner dynamic in God that it overflowed into the outward act of Creation. Creation is itself ultimately an act of communication, for in it God not only expressed himself artistically but also made those who could receive that expression: the Angels and ourselves. And since we were created in the image of God, we too have this drive for self expression, creation, revelation. We show it in our relationships with each other, for to find one who truly understands may well be our deepest desire. And we show it supremely in our relationship with God, once we have been restored to it by Grace. For to receive his self-revelation and respond to it with understanding is the very thing we were created for.
How then does God reveal himself? He does it in at least five ways.
First, of course, he reveals himself in CREATION. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1); we understand his invisible attributes through that which is seen (Rom. 1:19-20). This aspect of revelation is sometimes called "Natural Revelation" as opposed to the supernatural acts by which God breaks into the natural order, sometimes "General Revelation" because it is available to everyone in general, as opposed to "Special Revelation" which is given only to those who believe. This kind of revelation is also general in the sense of the kind of content it gives us. Think of one of Cindy's paintings. It is highly unlikely that such interesting shapes and textures, colors and scratchings, would end up on those large boards by mere chance. From them therefore we can rightly deduce that there is a person who is intelligent and creative, fascinated by the interrelationships of shape and line, prone to experimentation with ways to use the media of pigment, brush, and stylus. But art is in some ways a very indirect medium of revelation. The paintings by themselves do not tell you very much about who she is as a person--or even if she is a she! Once you got to know her in other ways, they might enhance that personal knowledge with some interesting insights into the way her mind works, but not until after she had spoken and interacted with you in those other ways to provide that context. In like manner, created nature tells us that God is omnipotent, omniscient, creative, intelligent, a lover of beauty, and perhaps even "good" in some sense. But it cannot by itself give us personal knowledge of him. So revelation begins with creation, but did not stop there.
Second, God reveals himself in HISTORY, particularly by intervening into it in the lives of his people. One of the most paradigmatic of those acts was the Call of Abraham. Ever since he has been known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To the knowledge we gained from creation we can add that fact that he is interested in individuals, that he is purposeful in initiating such relationships, and that he is faithful to the covenants he makes with them. Another great event that stands out is the Exodus. From those acts we learn of his wrath against oppression (the plagues), his righteousness (the Law at Sinai), and above all the fact that he is a Savior of those who trust in him. And the ultimate expression of his action in history is the Cross and Empty Tomb of Christ.
But History is very complex. How do we know where to look in it to discern God's mighty acts? And how would we know how to interpret them if we could identify them? Something further is needed if God's revelation in history is to be rightly understood. Therefore the third method of revelation is PROPHECY, which, when written down and preserved in authoritative form, becomes SCRIPTURE (2 Tim. 3:15-17, 2 Pet. 1:20-21). Revelation is now starting to come into focus, to become more clear. That is the function of Words. Think about the difference between an abstract painting and a poem or an epistle. Both testify to the existence of an Artist or a Writer, but the words give us a much more direct and articulate window into his or her mind. Which would be the better way to get to know Cindy: by looking at her paintings or by talking with her? Answer: it's a bad way of asking the question. The best way is to do both. But without the words, any kind of personal knowledge you claimed to have on the basis of the paintings alone would be speculative at best. Therefore, God's definitive Acts in both Testaments come with authoritative words from Him through his prophets and apostles that explain, interpret, and apply them. And it is well for us that they do.
But the ultimate way God reveals himself is in his Son: the ultimate revelation is CHRIST, the LOGOS himself (2 Tim. 1:9-10), Heb. 1:1-3a). The coming of Christ into the world is the culmination of revelation. It brings together into one history (in his miracles and his Sacrifice) and Scripture, for the written word was commissioned by him through his apostles and prophets by his Spirit, and it is valuable primarily for the access it gives us to the Living Word, the Son himself. For Christ is the eternal God himself put into human terms: the Invisible made visible, the Incomprehensible made knowable. In him the focus becomes as sharp as the fulcrum of a Cross.
Last but not least, there is one more way God reveals himself to human beings. It is one that Protestants have shied away from in reaction to its abuses in the Roman Catholic magisterium, but it is biblical when rightly understood nonetheless. And that is through THE CHURCH. For Ephesians 3:10 says that the wisdom of God is now to be made known through the Church to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places. The Church is Christ's Body, which bespeaks an identification as strong as can well be imagined. It is also his crowning creation, his masterpiece. It consists of individuals who are in the process of being brought into conformity with Christ's character. And it is destined to be the eternal Temple where his glory will be revealed, the Gallery in which the Trophies of his Grace--you and me--will be displayed for all of eternity. So God's revelation to us is not complete until we learn rightly how to see it in the Church.
At least two implications of the doctrine of revelation demand our attention as we close. The first is THE IMPORTANCE OF PAYING ATTENTION. We must attend rightly to all five of the modes of revelation--Creation, History, Scripture, Christ, and the Church--to get the fullness of the message. We Protestants tend to focus almost exclusively on Scripture, and its importance indeed cannot be overestimated. But we must understand its role rightly: not to be a Substitute for the other modes but to be the KEY to them. When we see this aright, we will understand what John Donne meant when he said, "Learn to see God in everything, and thou needst not then take off thine eyes from anything."
The second implication is THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CHURCH BEING THE CHURCH. If Scripture is the key to revelation being understood, the Church may be the key to whether it gets attended to at all. Our role is, through the force of spiritual reality in our individual and corporate lives, to gain a hearing for the Word of God as it comes to us in Creation, History, and supremely in Christ, as mediated and interpreted by Scripture and lived out in the Church. That is a pretty important sentence; let me repeat it. Our role is, through the force of spiritual reality in our individual and corporate lives, to gain a hearing for the Word of God as it comes to us in Creation, History, and supremely in Christ, as mediated and interpreted by Scripture and lived out in the Church. In other words, to the extent that we in our churches are not the community that Paul describes in Ephesians chapters 4-6, to that extent we will obscure and distort for our contemporaries, and thus hide from them, the whole of revelation. And to the extent that we are, we will lift Christ up so that people may be drawn to him.
What is at stake then, in whether we are built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, Christ being the chief cornerstone; what is at stake in whether our pastors are teachers who equip the saints for the work of service, causing the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (2:20-22, 4:11-16); what is at stake is whether or not lost people in darkness all around us will be able to see the light of Revelation, which is the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Let us pray that by his Grace, they will.
Here endeth the Lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams