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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: God Has Spoken to Us

Don Stewart :: What Is Progressive Revelation?

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What Is Progressive Revelation?

God Has Spoken to Us – Question 21

Revelation is not only complete; it has also been accomplished in stages. It is important that we appreciate that God has given His Word at various times, in various places, and through various spokesmen. This is known as “progressive revelation.”

Progressive Revelation Means That God Has Not Revealed Everything at Once

The various things that God revealed to humanity were not all given at once. His revelation was given in stages. This is progressive revelation.

The Apostle Paul wrote the following to the Romans:

Praise God! He can make you strong by means of my good news, which is the message about Jesus Christ. For ages and ages this message was kept secret, but now at last it has been told. The eternal God commanded his prophets to write about the good news, so that all nations would obey and have faith. And now, because of Jesus Christ, we can praise the only wise God forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27 CEV)

Paul made a distinction between the revelation which God formerly gave, and that which He was presently giving.

Some Important Points about Progressive Revelation

There are a number of points we need to understand about progressive revelation. They include the following:

1. The Old Testament Is Incomplete

Progressive revelation means that God did not unfold His entire plan to humanity in the Book of Genesis or, for that matter, in the entire Old Testament. The Old Testament revelation, though accurate, is incomplete. The fullness of certain teachings cannot be found in the Old Testament.

2. There Are Predictions in the Old Testament That Remained Unfulfilled

In addition, the Old Testament records predictions that were to be fulfilled. For example, the Old Testament ends with the promise of the coming of Elijah who will prepare the way for the promised deliverer—the Messiah.

We read about this in Malachi. It says,

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5, 6 NRSV)

This means more revelation from God was still expected.

3. The Old Testament Is Not Less True than the New Testament

Progressive revelation does not mean to say that the Old Testament is somehow less true than the New Testament. The New Testament is not “new” in the sense that it is different than the Old Testament, but rather it gives new, or further information from God. The progress was not from untruth to truth—it was from less information to more full information. It merely states that the revelation found in the New Testament is complete. Jude wrote,

Dearly loved friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the truth of the Good News. God gave this unchanging truth once for all time to his holy people. (Jude 3 NLT)

The faith has now been once and for all delivered. Nothing needs to be added to it, and nothing should be subtracted from it.

While the Old Testament is not less true than the New Testament, because the New Testament contains fuller information about God and His plan, the later developments should be given more weight and consideration than the earlier things which He revealed. The earlier forms of God’s revelation anticipated, or looked forward to the later things. The later forms reveal what was predicted.

The clearest example of this would be the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The Old Testament anticipated His coming with the various sacrifices and laws which God put in place. The New Testament records the fulfillment of this God-given system of sacrifice.

4. The New Revelation Did Not Contradict the Old Revelation

It is important to understand that progressive revelation does not contradict previous revelations but rather amplifies, clarifies and develops the things previously revealed. Jesus said the Law would be entirely fulfilled, not broken. We read the following words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” (Matthew 5:18 NET)

Jesus did not contradict the Old Testament law—rather He fulfilled it.

5. A Distinction Is Made of Events Before and After Christ

The Bible makes a distinction between the time before and after Christ. John wrote,

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1:17 KJV)

The writer to the Hebrews said that God had progressively spoken through the prophets in the past but now has spoken through a Son. He wrote,

After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1, 2 NET)

This is another indication of the progressive nature of the Bible.

6. There Was Limited Knowledge before Christ Rose from the Dead

Before Jesus Christ died and came back from the dead, the things He revealed to His own disciples were limited. It would have been impractical for Jesus to give a full explanation of His death and resurrection before they actually occurred. After His resurrection the meaning of His death became more and more clear. God continued to explain the meaning of the cross and the resurrection to His people in the remainder of the New Testament era. Paul wrote,

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5 ESV)

The reason that Christ died and rose again is now clear.

7. Jesus Promised More Revelation Was to Come

Because Jesus did not explain everything to His disciples when He was here upon the earth, He promised them that more revelation from God was to come after He left this world. On the night of His betrayal He said the following:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12 NKJV)

It would be the Person of the Holy Spirit who would reveal these truths to them.

Jesus then made the following promise to them:

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.” (John 16:13-15 NET)

The Holy Spirit is now living inside believers and guiding them into the truth of Jesus Christ.

8. Jesus’ Disciples Would Give Testimony Of Him After His Ascension

Jesus told His disciples that they would bear witness of Him to the world; they would be His witnesses. Before He ascended into heaven, He told them the following:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 TNIV)

The message today is same message that Jesus’ first disciples were to preach; the tomb is empty.

9. Christianity Is Now the True Faith

In the past, Judaism was the true religion. Today it is not. It is through Jesus Christ that God speaks to humanity. The Bible says,

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18 NIV)

Jesus Christ, God the Son came to this earth to show us what God is like and to tell us what He requires from us.

10. The Old System Has Faded Away

The Apostle Paul wrote about the old system fading away. The old system, with its laws and ordinances, has been replaced. He wrote,

But if the ministry that produced death—carved in letters on stone tablets—came with glory so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory which was made ineffective), how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. For if what was fading away came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! (2 Corinthians 3:7-11 NET)

Because Jesus fulfilled the old system, a person cannot know God the Father without believing in God the Son; Jesus Christ. John wrote,

No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23 TNIV)

Therefore, one can only know God the Father today through the person of Jesus Christ. There is no other way.

The Bible Would Seem Contradictory If Progressive Revelation Is Not Understood

If one does not recognize the progressive nature of God’s revelation to humanity, then they will be forced to admit contradictions in Scripture. There are a number of passages that are at odds with each other if they are not understood in their historical setting. We will provide a few examples.

1. The Old Testament Says Abraham’s Descendants Were Commanded to Be Circumcised

In the Old Testament period, all the newborn males of Abraham’s descendants were to be circumcised. The Lord gave the following command:

“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10 NIV)

However, in the New Testament we are told that circumcision is of no value. Paul wrote the following to the Galatians:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. (Galatians 5:2 TNIV)

Obviously, there was a change between the Old and New Testament era.

2. Israel Was Commanded to Observe the Sabbath

The Lord told Israel to observe the Sabbath, the seventh day, as a special day to Him. In the Ten Commandments we read the following:

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8 NLT)

In the New Testament age, the believers met on the first day of the week, Sunday. In the Book of Acts we read the following:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. (Acts 20:7 TNIV)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

On the first day of the week, we gathered to observe the Lord’s Supper. Paul was preaching; and since he was leaving the next day, he talked until midnight. (Acts 20:7 NLT)

In addition, the laws connected with the Sabbath are not something that believers are commanded to observe. In fact, Paul made it clear that believers are not at all obligated to observe the Sabbath.

He wrote the following to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16, 17 TNIV)

Therefore, we find new commands for believers in this new age.

3. Jesus’ Message Was to Go to the Jews Only Not to the Gentiles

There is a progression in the message of Jesus. At first, Jesus told His disciples to only go to the Jews with His message—they were not to go to the Gentiles.

We read the following in Matthew:

Jesus sent the twelve disciples out with these instructions: “Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (Matthew 10:5-7 NLT)

Jesus also told a Gentile woman that He was not sent to their people. We also read in Matthew:

Then he [Jesus] said to the woman, “I was sent only to help the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep—not the Gentiles.” (Matthew 15:24 NLT)

Later, however, He told them to preach His message to all nations. The gospel of Matthew ends with the following command of Jesus to His disciples:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NLT)

Obviously, there was a change in the mission.

4. Jesus Sent Out His Disciples with Limited Resources

When Jesus first sent out His disciples, He told them to go out with limited resources. Luke records the following command:

He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey“no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, and do not take an extra tunic.” (Luke 9:3 NET)

Shortly before His death, Jesus told them something different. He told them to be prepared for what was to come:

He said to them, “But now, the one who has a money bag must take it, and likewise a traveler’s bag too. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36 NET)

If a person rejects progressive revelation, then these passages will have to be considered as contradictory. However, when the progressive nature of God’s Word is recognized there is no problem.

We Are Not Told Why God Did Not Reveal All of His Truth at One Time

Finally, we must note that the Scripture nowhere tells us why God chose to reveal His Word in sixty-six separate books over a fifteen hundred year span. Since He has not told us why He has revealed Himself in this manner, then we cannot really know why this is the case.

While progressive revelation is a fact, the Bible does not explain why God chose to reveal Himself over time and through a number of different people.

Summary – Question 21
What Is Progressive Revelation?

The Scriptures testify to a progression of God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. He did not reveal the fullness of His truth in the beginning, yet what He revealed was always true. Each portion of Scripture was built on the previous one.

In the Old Testament, God was saving people through the testimony of the nation Israel. It is through the descendants of Abraham that the Lord brought His Word to humanity.

However this is no longer the case. Only through Jesus Christ can a person now be saved. Christianity is now the true faith.

If one does not understand the progressive nature of God’s revelation, then the Scripture will seem to be contradictory at a number of points.

Once progressive revelation is understood, then the so-called contradictions disappear.

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What Conclusions Can We Make about Divine Revelation? Next Section →
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