Revelation has to do with disclosing, uncovering, or unveiling what previously was hidden, making known what had been secret. Sometimes the biblical terms for revelation have common usages (Ezek. 13.14; 16.36, 57; Isa. 47.3; Exod. 20.26). When used theologically, however, revelation refers to God's deliberate manifestation of his plans, his character, and himself.
The Israelites were not alone in their desire to discern divine mysteries. Other ancient Near Eastern peoples sought to discover the wills of their gods, and many diverse methods were employed to this end. Looking for omens in the universe, astrologers considered the movements of sun, moon, and stars when making predictions. Significance could be found in ordinary positions of heavenly bodies, but extraordinary occurrences such as eclipses were especially noteworthy. Similarly, usual natural phenomena like the movements of birds, animals, or clouds could be interpreted, but so could the unusual, like floods, plagues, or babies born with defects. Animals were cut open so that their entrails might be examined, the livers of sheep being subject to special scrutiny. Distinguishing features such as the shape of the liver would portend future events. Certain individuals were trained to read and analyze these omens. Others were skilled in the interpretation of visions and dreams. Sometimes people consulted the deity by casting lots: they threw bones or stones on the ground as dice are thrown today. The way they landed signified certain things. Prophecy also was practiced; gods would give oracles through human messengers, whether cultic functionaries or otherwise. Mediums were consulted to summon spirits from the underworld. Similar practices are attested in the Greco‐Roman world. (See Magic and Divination.)
Some of the above were allowed in Israel, while others were not. The God of the Bible is one who hides himself (Isa. 45.15). There is a boundary between God and humanity, and between what God knows and what humans may know. Some things are to remain secret while others are revealed (Deut. 29.29). This line cannot be crossed, nor should humans attempt to cross it. Therefore, certain occult avenues to the transcendent were closed. Witchcraft, necromancy, augury, soothsaying, and sorcery were forbidden to the Israelites (Lev. 19.26, 31; Deut. 18.10–12). Sometimes God revealed to his messengers secrets that could not be transmitted to others (2 Cor. 12.4), and sometimes knowledge was given which was to remain sealed until a later time (Isa. 8.16; 30.8; Dan. 12.4, 9); otherwise, the revelations were transmitted to successive generations in perpetuity (Deut. 29.29).
Knowledge of God may be gained from the natural world. Creation implies a creator; therefore, something of the existence and power of God can be grasped by observing the universe (Ps. 19.1–6; Acts 14.8–18; 17.16–34; Rom. 1.18–32; 2.12–16). But this means of information is limited, and other ways are therefore required.
Sometimes revelation is through God's actions in history. This might involve direct intervention, as when he delivered his people from Egypt (Exod. 3.20; Deut. 26.5–9; see Exodus, The), or it might be more indirect, as when he used the Assyrians (Isa. 10.5–6) and Babylonians (Hab. 1.5–6) to punish them. In either case, the history can be ambiguous—hence the need for someone to interpret the ways of God to the people, a need filled in part by prophets. God communicated verbally to his prophets (Deut. 18.15–19), and, according to Amos 3.7, he would not do anything without first revealing it to his human messengers.
Concerning the content of revelation, God makes known his plans, as when he told Noah he was about to destroy the world in a flood (Gen. 6.13–14); or when he disclosed to Abraham that he was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18.16–33). He gave Daniel and John visions of the end of the world (Dan. 10.14; Rev. 21.1–5). He also reveals his nature, as when he declared his name to Moses, proclaiming that he is Yahweh, merciful and compassionate, yet holding the guilty responsible (Exod. 34.6–7); or as when he revealed himself to Isaiah as the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 6.1–5).
Regarding modes of revelation, sometimes the casting of lots was employed: to choose a king (1 Sam. 10), or to choose a disciple to replace Judas (Acts 1.24–26). A special type of lot was the priestly Urim and Thummim (Deut. 33.8; 1 Sam. 14.36–42; 28.6). God also communicated through visions (1 Kings 22.17–23), auditions (1 Sam. 3.1–14; Isa. 22.14), dreams (Gen. 28.10–17), the interpretation of dreams (Gen. 40–41; Dan. 2; 10.1), and angels (Judg. 13.15–20). Sometimes the text simply says that God revealed himself, as when he appeared to Jacob (Gen. 35.7, 9) or Samuel (1 Sam. 3.21). While some passages assert that no one can see God and live (Exod. 33.20), it seems that God appeared in human form to Abraham (Gen. 18.1–19.1), and Jacob wrestled with God (Gen. 32.24–30). One tradition has it that Moses only saw the back parts of God (Exod. 33.21–23) but others aver that God spoke to him “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12.8) or “face to face” (Deut. 34.10). Sometimes one can prepare oneself to receive revelation by waiting in a holy place (1 Sam. 3.2–4) or by playing music (2 Kings 3.15).
In the New Testament revelation centers on Jesus Christ. For Matthew, Jesus controls the knowledge of God absolutely: “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11.27). While many opinions abounded about who Jesus was, Simon Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. In response, Jesus told Peter that this insight did not have a human source; rather it came to him by divine revelation (Matt. 16.17).
Jesus often taught in parables. This was partly, no doubt, to use common things around him such as plant seed and different types of soil to illustrate the truths of the kingdom of God. But another reason may have been to conceal those truths from those who were not serious about following him. He offered the parables publicly but explained their meanings privately to his inner circle of disciples (Matt. 13.10–17, 34–35; Mark 4.10–12). (See Messianic Secret.)
John calls Jesus “the Word” because he is the complete revelation of God (John 1.1; see Logos). The word of God came to the prophets, especially Moses (John 1.17), but now the Word has become a human being (John 1.17). Only Jesus, the Son of God, the very Word of God, has seen God; now that he has taken on flesh, he has fully explained God to the rest of humanity (John 1.18). To know Jesus is to know God (John 14.9). Likewise, the letter to the Hebrews acknowledges that God previously revealed himself in various ways, but that history of revelation has culminated in Jesus (Heb. 1.1–2).
When Jesus departed from the earth, according to John, the Holy Spirit was sent to the Church to continue the revelatory function of the Son (John 14.25–26; 16.12–15; 1 John 2.20, 26–27; 3.24). Paul concurs. Things never before known have now been revealed by the Spirit to the church. The Spirit of God, who fully comprehends the depths of the knowledge of God, lives inside the Christian believers so that it may be said that they have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.9–16).
In the early church, certain individuals were considered to be endowed with spiritual gifts, such as utterances of knowledge, utterances of wisdom, revelation, and prophecy (1 Cor. 12.8, 10; 14.26). When the New Testament canon was completed, these special charisms became less important. Emphasis shifted to the interpretation of existing revelation. Sporadically throughout the history of Christianity, there have been those who claimed to have personal revelations. The orthodox churches have always tested these by and subordinated them to scripture. The Roman Catholic church has allowed that new revelation also exists in the form of church tradition and is as binding as scripture, while Protestants consider the Bible to be the sole authority.
In Judaism there have been similar developments. Toward the end of the biblical period, the Jewish community came to be less interested in new revelation and more interested in studying the books that had already achieved authoritative status. There was a belief that when the messianic age arrived, it would be accompanied by new revelation, but in the meantime prophecies, visions, and dreams were not to be trusted. The oral law in Judaism is somewhat akin to church tradition in Catholicism in that it is a later elaboration of the Bible yet is also a form of revelation and hence authoritative.
See also Inspiration and Inerrancy.
William B. Nelson, Jr.