Study No. 13a: The Progress of God’s Revelation in the Bible

Holy Bible  As we saw in Study 7, it is important to recognise the diversity of Scripture when we are reading and seeking to understand it.  We will not expect to find Paul’s doctrine of justification in Proverbs, nor a full doctrine of the Trinity in Judges.  We will however expect to find material in earlier books of the Bible that will anticipate in some way, even a small way, what is much more fully disclosed to us at a later stage.

1.  The danger of anachronism

It is easy to interpret the Bible anachronistically, that is to interpret it, not in terms of its own time period but in terms of a different one, usually a later one, and most frequently our own.

A humorous story may illustrate this for us.  It is about a sermon class in a Bible College.  The college was named when I first heard it, but the story must surely be fictitious!  Each of the students was set a passage of Scripture on which to preach.  One man was given the story of the conversion of Zaccheus in Luke 19.  The Bible version used was the Authorised, and in that version the word “publican” is used of the tax-collectors.  The young preacher had a gift for story-telling.  He graphically described the consequences of the conversion of Zaccheus, using his vivid imagination.  He told how this publican had consistently cheated his customers, serving them small-measure drinks, diluting the wine with water, giving them incorrect change, knowing that most people would not bother to count it.  He pictured the day, some time after his conversion, when the public house was closed because Zaccheus had decided to make it a rehabilitation centre for those who were coming off alcohol addiction!

Everything was wrong with that story except the central point the preacher was seeking to make, that a true conversion should lead to a change in our attitudes and consequent actions.   The preacher’s first mistake was that he did not take account of the fact that language changes over the centuries so that a word may occasionally have one meaning in the Authorised Version and another meaning today.   Secondly (and this is the particular point I want to make), even if there had been no translation problem, he should have realised that you cannot just transfer a story from one time-period to another in this way.

Not only so, but we may also make a mistake by transferring a story from an earlier Bible context to a later one.  I remember once being asked a strange question, “Was King Saul a Christian?”  I knew of course what the questioner meant.  He was really asking whether Saul was a genuinely godly man.   Of course it is anachronistic even to ask, “Was Abraham a Christian?”  Nobody in the Old Testament was a Christian.  It is doubtful even if we can call John the Baptist a Christian, as he was the forerunner of Christ rather than one of his disciples.

Both Abraham and John the Baptist were godly men.  This means then that there was true godliness before the coming of Christ.  If such people were godly, there must have been a revelation of God to them.

In this study, we will see the importance of endeavouring to view the various biblical characters in the context of the stage the revelation of God had reached in their day.  This will help to give us true historical perspective.

2What “Progressive Revelation” means 

The term “progressive revelation” needs clear and precise definition, for it is widely misunderstood.

First of all, we should note that its normal application is to special revelation, which we now have in Scripture, rather than to general revelation, which is available to everybody through the natural world and the human conscience.  Of course some of this had a pre-Scriptural stage, as, for example, in the sermons of prophets and apostles, which were first heard and then recorded.  For us, this now exists only in its written form.

Then we note that it has sometimes been used to suggest that earlier authors of Scripture, in their writings, operated with ideas which were a mixture of truth and error, that these errors affected what they wrote, and that the revelation of God gradually eliminated the errors until the absolute truth came with Jesus, who said, “I am the Truth.”

This is however an idea imposed on Scripture rather than drawn from it.  Rather, progressive revelation, as properly understood, is the fact that God revealed more and more of his nature and purposes as the centuries went by, that at every point the inspired writings expressing this were true but that they lacked the fullness that finally came with the coming of Christ in whom the Word (the revelation of God) was made flesh (John 1:1-14; see also Colossians 2:9).

To take an analogy from human life, you may get to know somebody progressively over some period of time.  Perhaps you hear about her first of all from a mutual friend who tells you simply what she knows from her friendship with her.  Then she writes you a letter, introducing herself, and perhaps telling you some things that your friend either does not know or has forgotten to tell you.  Then she comes to visit you and this begins a friendship which is long-lasting and in which you get to know more and more about her.  At no time does this necessarily involve untruth.

How earlier revelation relates to the ultimate revelation in Christ is a many-sided, fascinating and rewarding study.

There is a difference between progressive revelation and progressive understanding.  The former relates to the revelation which came into written form in the Bible.  The latter will be true of us if we are regular Bible readers and are open to new truth from Scripture as the Spirit makes us aware of this.  To avoid confusion, it is wise to employ the word “revelation” only to what is given to us in Scripture and to call our own apprehension of this either “understanding” or “enlightenment”.

3.  Different stages of revelation in the Old Testament

I can only give some “tasters” of these, for the purpose of this section of our study is not to be exhaustive (that would require a whole large book or even several volumes) but suggestive and illustrative.

If you are going to study this for yourself, you could use the Big Story as a structure although of course in the gaps between the main events of this story there was continued revelation and therefore continued God-given apprehension of the nature, the purposes and the ways of God.

We will start with Abraham.

a.  Abraham

The special revelation of God did not of course start with him.  This is clear to us in Hebrews 11, where the record of the line of faith begins with Abel and continues through Enoch and Noah, all of whom were prior to Abraham.  Where there is faith, there must be revelation, for the two are correlatives, they always go together.

Did Abraham know about these earlier folk and, if so, how?  We cannot answer either of these questions with certainty.  It would be easier to do so if we knew more about the history of the composition of the Book of Genesis.  Like Exodus to Deuteronomy, it is one of the “Five Books of Moses”, but it is distinct from them because the events in those books all occurred in the lifetime of Moses, whereas the Genesis events preceded him, in some cases, we assume, by a considerable period of time.  Were many of these stories passed on orally or in some written form?  There have been plenty of theories, some much more plausible than others, but we really do not know for certain.   It does however seem likely that he knew the stories of the earlier people of faith.

If so, then he would know that there was already evidence that God could be trusted.  He will have learned from these stories that God has a moral concern and that he judges sin (Genesis 2 and 3), that he approves of blood sacrifice (Genesis 4), that he enables a person devoted to him to walk before him righteously, as Enoch did, and that he can take a believer to himself without that person even passing through death (Genesis 5).  Perhaps he knew too the promise about the seed who would defeat the devil and who would be bruised in that act (Genesis 3:15).

This may not seem much in comparison to the full New Testament revelation of Christ (although it is far more than is often realised), but it was certainly enough to furnish a basis for faith.  It is worth thinking about all this and seeing how the points we have noted anticipate Jesus, his cross and even his second advent, in some way.

So then God had spoken to earlier people and it would not be a complete surprise that God should speak to him.  How this occurred we do not know, but occur it did.

Even if he knew nothing of how God dealt with earlier believers, he would of course, like everybody else, know something of God through general revelation (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:20).  This means he would have been aware that God existed, that he was supreme and that he was powerful.

As a human being, Abraham was a sinner like everybody else, and therefore he needed the grace of God.  The religion of Ur of the Chaldees was the worship of the heavenly bodies, particularly the moon-god.  There is no sign of this in what we know of Abraham, so we can assume that the gracious revelation of the true God countered what he had been subjected to in Ur’s society.

He was of course unaware of so much that God was going to do in the future, but God made promises to him about a son, which he believed (Genesis 15:6), and he stepped out not only in faith but in obedience to God and what he knew of him (Genesis 12).

What then did Jesus mean when he said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56)?

In Genesis 22, in the supreme crisis of his life, he was prepared obediently to offer up that son in death.  God then provided a ram as a substitute.  Abraham even believed in the possibility of resurrection, as we may infer from Genesis 22:5 and as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews clearly understood (Hebrews 11:19) , when Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.  We will worship and then we will come back to you” (my italics).

All that happened that day would, in the mind and heart of God, find its fulfilment in Jesus.  A son and a sacrifice – these two terms relate for New Testament Christians to the person and work of Christ.  Here we see that the later, fuller revelation was already enfolded in the older; it came not simply by addition but by expansion.  What always matters most about faith is its object, and in Abraham’s case this was, in the mind of God, the Christ who was to come.  There was much he did not know, but he knew something of the central facts, even though in rudimentary form, for God had revealed them to him, and he trusted what God had told him.  Perhaps this is a clue to the salvation of Old Testament believers in general.

We may feel rebuked as we read the story of Abraham’s faith and obedience.  We have so much more revelation than he had, but are we as believing and are we as obedient? [1]

b.  Moses

As he came away from his encounter with God at the burning bush, Moses would know all that Abraham knew but also much more.  God had spoken to him there as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6).  This surely implies that Moses will have known, in outline at least, the story of God’s gracious dealings with these men, his establishment of his covenant with them, and the promise of the seed, now not just the seed of the woman, as in Genesis 3:15, but the seed of Abraham.

The story of Abraham will have made clear to him that his God was concerned to preserve and protect his descendants, an important lesson when it came to trusting God for the protection of Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness.   He would know he was a faithful God, repeating the promise from generation to generation.  He would learn too from these patriarchal stories that his God had his hand on Egypt, something he knew also in his own experience.   He will have known something of the power of God too, because he had enabled Abraham and Sarah to have a child in their old age.  He will have learned the seriousness of disobedience and, from the story of Abraham and Isaac, the blessing that comes through obedience, no matter how hard or even puzzling the command is.

c.  Joshua

Those going into the Promised Land with Joshua would know much more.  They would have heard of the story of the Exodus and of God’s grace to his people in thus rescuing them.  They would know, the older ones from experience, and the younger ones from hearsay, of the events that took place afterwards, especially the story of the giving of the Law, and much about the journey from Egypt towards Canaan.

From this they would learn important lessons about the character of God, his grace and his standards, and the fact that his purpose for his people was not based on their righteousness but on his mercy, and his faithfulness to his covenant.  They would also learn that God judges sin in his people, because their fathers and mothers were not allowed into the land of promise.

They knew too that being confronted with an impassable watery barrier, although an obstacle to humans like themselves, was no problem to God.  They could infer that as he had opened the Red Sea, so could he open the Jordan, a much narrower barrier.

d.   David

To all this now would be added the story of the time of the Judges.  This was a story of constant defection on the part of Israel, and of constant judgement by God.  He would learn from this something of the incorrigible nature of the human character.  He would also be amazed at the response of God to successive acts of repentance.    He still had a purpose for this people, even though they had disappointed him so greatly.

They would know too the story of Saul, his exploits and his failures, and would be thankful for David, or a godly monarch even though not one without faults.

He would know that the Holy Spirit equips leaders, for there was much about this in Judges and the story of Saul.  cf. Psalm 51

e.   Rehoboam

Now the temple had been established on Mount Moriah, and to the institutions of priesthood and sacrifice and of the prophet (Moses and Samuel) had been added kingship.  They would have much to reflect on as they pondered the stories of three successive kings: Saul, David and Solomon.

Where had things gone wrong?  Why was the kingdom divided?

Some of the psalms would perhaps by now be available and through them the importance of the spiritual life would be underlined.

f.   Elijah

A lot to reflect on.  God has promised a lasting dynasty to David and there it was in the southern kingdom, but things were so different in the north.  The godly would perhaps reflect that Israel was becoming more and more like its pagan neighbours.  The issue of apostasy was the great one and this had happened in the past – Aaron and the golden calf.

g.  Hezekiah

This was the time of the great writing prophets of the eighth century.  The country was divided between rich and poor.  At the superficial level a couple of generations back all things seemed to be going well.  Economically both Northern and Southern kingdoms were booming, and there was respect, at least for the northern kings, in the countries around.  There was however an inordinate confidence in the sacrifices but no corresponding concern for obedience to God.

But now, during the reign of Hezekiah, the Exile of the northern kingdom had taken place.  Had Judah learned lessons from this?  We wonder.   We assume they did not yet have access to 2 Kings 17.

The king was godly and he had instituted a reform, and centralised worship at Jerusalem.  The discerning though may well have noted that the seeds of later problems were still there and growing.

The great prophet Isaiah was preaching and so was Micah

h.   Daniel

The great tragedy of the Exile had taken place.  The northern kingdom had already been judged, and Daniel and his friends were exiled in Babylon.

They sought to maintain some standards in this foreign land and especially to continue the worship of their God, although now without the temple.  Perhaps Daniel’s looking in the direction of Jerusalem was his equivalent of actually going up to the temple to worship.

The Exile seems to have been a time of reflection, perhaps particularly by the priests and Levites.  The collection of the psalms, the significance of Isaiah 40-55, the prophecies of Daniel, the Book of Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah in Babylon before coming to Judah.

Think though very carefully the significance of the Exile in relation to this theme.  It is now being treated as just as important, or even more important than, the exodus.

i. Malachi

The Exile was over, although all the Jews had not returned.  The temple had been rebuilt and the normal programme of worship activities had been re-instated.

j.  The time of Christ

This is par eminence the time of fulfilment.  Some dispensationalists make a break at the cross.  There is some truth in this but it has to be handled with care.   It would suggest that the apostles lived in two different dispensations.

k.  The time of the apostolic mission

The great events of the Fact of Christ were now past, accomplished once and for all.  We are ourselves continuous with this.  But work out the implications of this – our oneness with them and yet difference from them.

l.  Our own use of this material

We need to place ourselves.  We are part of the apostolic mission, even though the apostles are all now dead.  However we, of course we live in a very different world.  Christendom and post-Christendom.  There has been a massive shift to a post-Christendom recently.

[1]  David Jackman, Abraham: Believing God in an alien world, Leicester: IVP, 1987, is a helpful biography of Abraham as a man of faith, and, for a clear theological treatment, the article “Abraham” by T.  D.  Alexander in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Leicester: IVP, pp.  367-372.

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