Revelation is very important in the Bible. It implies that certain things cannot be discovered simply by human endeavour. However, it is not just a notion of special, progressive revelation or discovering a hidden meaning of something in the scriptures.
The word usually translated revelation is apokalupsis. It is used in a variety of ways. It essentially means to uncover. It can be used for prophetic/apocalyptic experiences like visions or even supernaturally gained information (Revelation 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 14:26.) It is also used for the imminent return of the Messiah as in 1 Corinthians 1:7 and 1 Peter 1:7. These are very specific uses of the word in the New Testament. I wish to focus on the way revelation is most generally used in the New Testament, that is, the way gospels and the Pauline epistles use it. There is connection between the way Paul and Jesus use revelation.
The counterpart to revelation is mystery (Greek musterion.) It means something hidden, particular in the case of ancient mystery religions, which are also inaccessible until you join the cult. Paul for instance mentions the “revelation of the mystery.” (“Secret” is also used synonymously with “mystery”.) Simply put it is hidden things that are disclosed. Recognizing the relatedness of these two terms, revelation and mystery, help us recognize whenever any of these two appear, a certain concept is in mind.
When we see Jesus talking about revelation it is usually about the “mysteries of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:11.) Mysteries he usually discloses in parables. These stories drew heavily on the cryptic language of apocalyptic imagery in the prophets and wisdom literature even from extra-biblical sources. Mark introduces these parables as the key to understanding the imminent kingdom that Jesus preached (Mark 4.)
The gospels function as eyewitness accounts. We therefore have to be careful not to unnecessarily project later developments in Christian theology back onto them. For instance, when Jesus told parables about vineyards he was often alluding to Isaiah’s song of a vineyard which was a parable about Israel (Isaiah 5; Matthew 20-21.) In these parables the master is always YHWH and the servants/crops are Israel (not the Church.) In the case of the wicked vineyard tenants he was saying it was the Israelites who were the wicked ones who had neglected their God given vocation. The master’s son in the parable is not just to identify Jesus “divine status.” He was the faithful servant (another strong allusion to Isaiah) making him the true Israel. Their ethnic heritage did not make them the real people of God. Persecuting and killing the true Israel was the culmination of them neglecting their mission to be a blessing to the world. They had essentially become like the Gentiles, non-covenant people who oppress the righteous covenant members. Jesus had subverted the national narrative about their ethnic superiority and was saying God was going to judge them.
John made a similar critique of the people Israel. Their racial identity could not save them. They had to repent or they would not participate in the kingdom. The coming of God’s dominion and authority meant there was going to be justice. They had to get their act together as a people.
As you can see both John and Jesus used these parables to reveal the nature of the kingdom that was coming. Though the people were expecting that God would act in the world they could not have conceived what that would truly look like. Revelation as Jesus used it was about how God was acting in the world to rescue it. For instance judging the wicked servants is a metaphor for when he will finally defeat and eradicate all evil from the world. His parables had that eschatological dimension. God is bringing about a new age but who would participate in it?
Paul continues in answering the mystery of the kingdom. What is the kingdom like, how does it come, who participates in it? Jesus and John his forerunner, clearly indicate that being an ethnic Jew is no longer the determining factor for being a member of the covenant people. Paul goes into detail in Romans 2 that it is rather faithfulness to the covenant i.e. fulfilling God’s will that makes a person a member of God’s people.
Paul continues to answer the mystery of who is in the kingdom in Ephesians 2. Since Jewishness (as defined by the Torah) was no longer the qualification requirement for inclusion in God’s family, an avenue had been opened for the Gentiles. Paul locates the cross, an instrument of evil, as the pivotal moment in God fulfilling his kingdom agenda.
The cross was a scandalous affair, a horrible evil reserved for the worst offenders. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 talked about the scandal and the folly of the cross. It was absolutely absurd in the world of the Roman Empire to imagine that it was God’s chosen means to bring his kingdom on earth. The cross was the ultimate sign of defeat but God had turned it into a sign of victory by raising Jesus from the dead, vindicating him as Lord over all. In the world Paul inhabited the message of the cross was completely inconceivable. The demagogues of the world knew death was the ultimate power and they wielded it with confident ruthlessness. How could they have known death would be the means to an indestructible life and a new world order? How could they have known they were personally orchestrating their own downfall? The revelation of this mystery was not just knowing something you were previously unaware, like a learning a new piece of trivia. It was a new kind of knowledge, something that the human mind could not have conceived. In other words it is an entirely new way of knowing.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” – these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God – 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 ESV
For Paul revelation is a new kind of epistemology, a different way of knowing by the spirit of God. The ultimate weapon of the tyrant, death, had been nullified by the resurrection. This means a seismic shift in power, where all authority belongs to the risen Lord. It is not only a change in the systems of power but in the very fabric of reality. Through the death, resurrection, ascension of our Lord and the outpouring of his spirit the world had been drastically altered. There is a new way of being, a new creation. A new ontology requires a new epistemology.
The Gospel is news, information that alters how you live in the world because something has changed in the world. The mystery of the gospel is not only that there is a new world, it provides a new kind of knowledge and a new way of knowing. The Spirit that we receive when we believe the Gospel is the same one who ushers us into this new understanding of a new age that is bursting through into the old one.
Paul’s missionary vocation was based on revelation. On one level the Lord, according to his sovereign will, commissioned Paul for the work of ministry. However, the impetus for mission is found in the nature of the message itself. The mystery that was revealed was the Gospel, the good news of the restoration of creation. Since it was such important news of cosmic proportions there was a need to spread the news to every corner of the world. God through the Christ had gained victory over death and all the forces of evil. Creation had entered new age worth celebrating because the Creator was giving true life and freedom to his creatures.
Paul sometimes spoke about the plan, counsel, will, purpose or wisdom of God. I believe they are a nod to Proverbs 8 where God’s alter ego Wisdom, is at work in the world, executing God’s plan for creation. Paul sees the grand narrative of creation as God orchestrating events according to his wise will climaxing in Jesus, the living embodiment of divine wisdom. This was something no human mind could have conceived, the breath-taking plan to sum up all creation in Jesus of Nazareth. God had worked through the course of human history, bringing the many tangled threads of human lives together into a rich tapestry depicting an entirely new creation.
Not only was Wisdom the driving and sustaining activity of God in creation, it was identified with his spirit. The same spirit at work in creation was the director of all of YHWH’s works. He was the wind directing the course of events in both human and cosmic history. The climax of all things was Jesus the Messiah. The scriptures explain that he lived and acted by that same spirit. From his birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension, all were by the Spirit’s power (Matthew 1:18, 12:28; Hebrews 9:14; Romans 8:11; Ephesians 1:19-20.) The outpouring of the spirit of God by the Messiah on his followers at Pentecost capped things off. The Church’s mission and vocation was also going to be divinely empowered (Acts 1:8.) The same one who had been acting since the beginning of creation was also in them to further the cause of a new creation. This also gave them a new way of understanding God’s plans and actions in the world. He was not simply telling them but showing them by the experience of his spirit.
They had a new, never seen before, experience of God called the fellowship of the Spirit. This new existential reality involved new ways of thinking, being, acting, knowing and so much more. The big mystery about the world was God was making a new one and it was already present in the world. God sometimes used revelation in the prophetic/apocalyptic sense to signify it. The other use of revelation meant the glorious advent of Christ to rule the world, the conclusion of the new creation project. Revelation to them was a new way of knowing by the Spirit, which allowed a person to participate in the divine new creation project, which concludes when God in Christ reigns supreme. When there is a new way of knowing which engenders service for the kingdom of God, then the light of revelation has truly fallen on a person.
All three uses of revelation are anchored together in the Christ. He is the one who brought the mystery of God’s purposes to a climax and so it is through him we know that we are in a new age. As Revelation 4 & 5 puts it, he was entrusted in fulfilling the plan of redemption and was successful. Having fulfilled the great plan of God he is therefore worthy to have access to the full divine agenda.
Through revelation we are no longer just the audience but part of the production team. Mission and revelation go hand in hand since you cannot do the work of ministry without knowing what that work actually is. We need a full scriptural understanding of revelation in all its nuances, one that is rooted in pushing forward the work of ministry and also invites participation in fulfilling the divine agenda. The mission requires a vision, a totally new vision of the world and what God is accomplishing in it.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain – 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:1 ESV