General revelation encompasses truth concerning God that can be known by experiencing or examining what God has done, whether in the natural world or in the human conscience. General revelation is always indirect. In contrast to general revelation, special revelation always involves the direct disclosure by God to humans of truth that humans did not know and could not otherwise have known. Special revelation is God speaking.
According to the first verse of Hebrews, God spoke in different ways and at different times. In other words, special revelation has not always come in the same way and it has not always taken the same shape. God has employed a variety of vehicles to convey His message to humans.
No one knows exactly how God spoke to Adam and Eve before the fall. Perhaps Genesis 2:8 indicates that God assumed some sort of bodily form, maybe even human-like in appearance. Later on, God certainly appeared in a more-or-less human shape, as He did when He spoke to Abram on the plains of Mamre (Gen. 19). This kind of human appearance is called a theophany, and it is a mode in which God revealed Himself more than once.
God used a different means of speaking when He wanted to reveal truth to Joseph. Instead of manifesting Himself in bodily form, He spoke through dreams. These dreams were symbolic in nature: sheaves of wheat bowing down, or the sun and moon doing obeisance. God also used dreams to communicate through Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and his baker, then later on through Pharaoh himself. Similarly, God sent dreams to Nebuchadnezzar. In the latter cases, however, the dreams had to be interpreted by a prophet (Joseph or Daniel).
Besides dreams, God revealed His truth through visions. Like the dreams, these visions were often symbolic in nature. Some of the most startling passages in the Bible record visions that God granted to prophets like Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John. These men saw dry bones come together to form bodies, winged lions and leopards, riders on polychromatic horses, pipes draining oil from olive trees, and beasts rising from the sea. Each vision sent by God communicated a message about what God was doing.
God also spoke in other ways. Moses heard His voice audibly from the middle of a burning bush. Many others received divine revelation through an audible voice—for example, Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:13) or the disciples (Mk. 9:7). In these instances, God quite literally spoke. Of course, Moses was also given revelation in other ways. He received the Decalogue written in stone tables with the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). He conversed with God “face to face” in the tent of meeting (Ex. 33:11).
Sometimes God revealed Himself through mighty deeds. The flood was certainly a revelation of God’s justice. The tremendous events of the Exodus, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna, and the gift of water from the rock were not just marvels but divine statements. So were God’s mighty acts through Elijah and Elisha—not to mention the miracles of Jesus. Indeed, the cross itself stands as a mighty and irrefutable demonstration of God’s love (Rom. 5:8).
Some modes of revelation are more mysterious than others. How did God speak to Balaam through the mouth of a donkey? What is the meaning of the cryptic expression, “The word of the Lord came unto me saying…?” Moderns can guess at the answer to these questions, but those answers are far from certain or even probable.
God revealed Himself and His truth at many times and in many ways. The ultimate revelation, however, was His Son (Heb. 1:2). The presence of Jesus Christ was a transparent disclosure (literally, an exegesis) the person of God (Jn. 1:18). From eternity the Lord Jesus subsisted in the form of God (Php. 2:6). He is the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father (Jn. 1:18), the image of the invisible God in whom all fullness dwells (Col. 1:15, 20). He is the radiance of the Father’s glory and the stamp of the Father’s person (Heb. 1:3). In the incarnation of Christ, God’s self-disclosure to humans has reached its apex.
Much—though certainly not all—of God’s revelation to humans has been recorded in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible represents the complete and sufficient revelation that God intends to grant to people during this age. In terms of God’s present dealings with humanity, the written Scriptures are sufficient for teaching, reproof, correction, and child-training in righteousness. They give believers today everything they need to live the life of faith (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
In one limited sense, special revelation is still taking place—but not to human beings. According to Ephesians 3, the Church itself constitutes a revelation of God’s manifold wisdom. Nevertheless, this revelation is not directed toward humanity, but toward “principalities and powers in heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). With respect to the human race, Scripture gives no indication that God is continuing to grant special revelation.
In the future, however, special revelation will commence again. The Tribulation will involve divine communication at several different levels. This phenomenon is what Joel had in mind when he wrote that God would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh and “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28-31).
God has never been obligated to give special revelation. That He has chosen to disclose His character and His plan is purely a matter of His grace. The Holy Scriptures—the locus of special revelation for the present age—should be welcomed as a remarkable treasure, as the gift of God that they truly are.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Laden With Guilt, and Full of Fears
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Laden with guilt, and full of fears,
I fly to Thee, my Lord,
And not a glimpse of hope appears
But in Thy written Word.
The volume of my Father’s grace
Does all my griefs assuage;
Here I behold my Savior’s face
Almost in every page.
This is the field where hidden lies
The pearl of price unknown;
That merchant is divinely wise
Who makes the pearl his own.
Here consecrated water flows
To quench my thirst of sin;
Here the fair tree of knowledge grows,
Nor danger dwells therein.
This is the Judge that ends the strife
Where wit and reason fail,
My guide to everlasting life
Through all this gloomy vale.
O may Thy counsels, mighty God,
My roving feet command;
Nor I forsake the happy road
That leads to Thy right hand.