What the Doctrine of Revelation Means for Our Lord’s Day Gatherings

Article
11.16.2021

Just as R. C. Sproul said “ Everyone’s a theologian ,” so we can also say, “Everyone’s a pragmatist, even the theologians.” You believe the theology you do both because you think it’s true, but also because you believe it works.

By the same token, we can say biblical doctrine isn’t just true, it’s practical.

Let’s test this truism with the biblical doctrine of revelation. How should the doctrine of revelation impact our Sunday gatherings?

Here are six propositions for what revelation is, and two for what it does, each of which includes a practical lesson for how it should shape your church gatherings. And here I’m restricting the propositions to God’s special revelation in Scripture. [1]

WHAT REVELATION IS

1. Divine

To start with the obvious, God’s revelation as recorded in Scripture is, well, God’s. It’s divine. In Scripture we find the record of men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

Therefore: God’s words are supreme and authoritative for what we do and for what we say in our church gatherings.

In terms of what we do, pastors should care far more about what the Bible says we should do in our church gatherings than what any church-growth book says or what your wisdom argues is the most contextually sensitive way to do church. Man’s wisdom is not God’s. Not even close.

In terms of what we say, we should always keep our focus on preaching, teaching, singing, and praying the Bible. Whether or not tongues or prophesy continue, the apostolically revealed canon is closed, and the stuff in that book is far, far worthier of our time and attention than anything else.

Or maybe you’re an amazingly charismatic or clever preacher. Fine. But make sure you don’t let your charisma or cleverness get in the way of God’s words. You’re a creature. He’s the Creator. He best knows how to interpret our lives.

2. Covenantal

God’s revelation as recorded in Scripture is covenantal. It doesn’t come to us merely as a letter or history book to inform our minds about past events, though it does that, too. It’s also a kind of constitution that binds our lives with respect to God, to God’s people, and to all humanity. And the Bible addresses Christians specifically as a covenantal family, not just as individuals.

Therefore: our church gatherings should be planned and treated as family gatherings, and not as performances in which individuals come to spectate and consume information. Our church gatherings should also make the line between the “inside” and the “outside” of God’s covenant people clear.

If it’s a family gathering, how many services should you have? If it’s a family gathering, how can you structure the room and the gathering to feel not as if it’s divided between performers and an audience, but as a room with only performers who sing to one another, pray together, and sit under God’s Word together? If it’s a family gathering, what can you do to facilitate a sense of togetherness in everything from the arrangement of chairs to the lighting to how you address one another?

Also, if it’s a family gathering, what can you do (or not do) to help non-Christians recognize that they are not a part of the family (but are invited to be!)? For one, there should be no talk of “belonging before believing.” Two, you might address non-Christians explicitly. Last Sunday, for instance, I led the service at my own church. In my welcome, I said, “If you’re here this morning and don’t understand yourself to be a follower of Jesus, we’re so glad you’re here. The most important thing you can do during our time is to listen to what we say about who Jesus is.”

God reveals himself covenantally. The Bible is not written to individuals, like most books. It’s written to a people.

3. Progressive

Through the biblical canon, God reveals himself progressively. He revealed himself in the Garden, then to Noah, then to Abraham and his descendants, then to Moses and the people of Israel, and so on. At each point, he reveals more of himself and his purposes in salvation. As such, we need the Old Testament to understand the New, and the New to understand the Old. For instance, what does it mean to say Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? What does it mean that the church is a temple? The Old Testament provides the key.

Therefore: a church’s preaching and teaching should teach people the whole counsel of God, possibly including lessons or readings from Old and New Testament every Sunday.

Furthermore, our church gatherings are bound most explicitly by the commands and practices of people who share our covenantal location. We’re not bound by the rules of the Garden or the rituals of the temple, at least not directly. We’re bound most directly by the rules, practices, and institutional structures given to the church.

Bottom line: your congregation needs the whole Bible, and they need to understand how the different parts work together, because God’s revelation is progressive.

4. Verbal and Propositional

God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, but he has also revealed himself in words. These words give us propositional truths, no matter what genre they’ve been inspired in.

Therefore: our gatherings should center on God’s words, not on accounts of our personal experiences or personal insights and not around incantation-like renderings of the ordinances that turn them into dispensers of grace.

Every human longs to live by sight and not by faith. We long to control our realities. The liberal penchant to focus on the inner-self and its feelings seeks this kind of control. So do the Roman Catholic doctrines of baptismal regeneration and transubstantiation. And while there’s a place for personal testimonies in our gatherings, and while we certainly should practice the ordinances ordained by Jesus, we must always keep the Word central.

As Mark Dever has said, in between the fall and Christ’s second coming, we live in the age of the ear, not the age of the eye. One day, we will see. In our present times, however, we listen because God has revealed himself in words and propositions. Therefore, pastors must teach their people to listen and to not insist upon visual pyrotechnics.

5. Centered on Christ

The entire Old Testament looks forward to Christ (Luke 24:27,44; John 5:39). The Gospels are about him, Acts and the Epistles build a people around him, and Revelation anticipates his return. God’s verbal revelation centers on Jesus Christ.

Therefore, our church gatherings should always involve prayers and music that focus on the gospel, and our preaching should always include the gospel.

Bring a non-Christian to church on any week, and they should learn how to get saved through the person and work of Jesus. Not only that, the members of the church, every week, should be taken back to the gospel so that they might learn what it means for their lives. Not every song and hymn needs to include the work of Christ in forgiving sinners, but several should, so with the prayers. And every sermon should include at least one view of Golgotha and the empty tomb.

If a Jew or a well-meaning and moral Muslim would be comfortable in your church service, something’s very wrong.

6. Personal, or Self-Revealing

In Scripture, God reveals not the laws of chemistry or techniques for dance or even just his moral law, abstractly considered. He reveals himself.

Charges of bibliolatry by theological progressives against conservatives for making such a big deal of the Bible fail to grasp what the Bible is. It’s an act of self-disclosure. It’s personal. The Bible speaking is God speaking. I might as well reject a list of grocery items my wife asks me to pick up at the store on the way home over text message by saying, “I didn’t want to make too big a deal over the words of a text message. It’s you I care about.” She would reply, “It was me who was texting!” Her words reveal her.

Therefore, we treat Scripture as revealing God and how to know God, and we respond personally in prayer and song.

Have you ever thought about why Christians pray and sing when they gather? Why not just gather to hear a lecture? Because a person is speaking to us in Scripture, so we speak back.

God reveals himself covenantally, and so it binds us like a constitution. But he also speaks to us personally and gives us a letter of love. So, we learn to love him in return.

WHAT REVELATION DOES

Beyond what God’s revelation is, we also need to think about what it does. What does God do by revealing himself? He acts, and he acts in at least two ways.

1. Teaches

God teaches us. He tells us things we don’t know, and specifically he tells us those things that are necessary for salvation and godliness. Natural revelation teaches many things about the world and about God (Rom. 1:18f). But it doesn’t tell us how to be saved or how to live a life fully pleasing to the Lord. Special revelation does (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Peter 1:3f).

Therefore, once again, our church gatherings must prioritize reading, teaching, praying, and singing the Bible more than anything else.

What’s most important about your church is not what’s contextually unique to it, but that which your church shares in common with every other church in the history of the world. And these things are what we find in Scripture. Both members and non-members need what the Bible says more than anything else, because they need to know about God.

2. Recreates or Transforms

God recreates our hearts and transforms them by his words (etc. Ezekiel 37:1–12; Rom. 10:9–17; 2 Cor. 4:1–6; 1 Peter 1:23). The most powerful force in the universe, we might say, is God speaking.

Therefore, build your church not on the power of psychology or sociology, but on the power of Word and Spirit.

In revivalistic thinking, pastors rely on psychological persuasion or the power of a sociological “tipping point.” Yet in biblical thinking, we give attendees a chance at real life only insofar as we re-reveal what the prophets and apostles revealed the first time. Neither our wisdom nor the power of the crowd gives life to the dead, sight to the blind, or hearing to the deaf. But God’s Word working by God’s Spirit does. Our church gatherings, therefore, should be a little boring and a little obscure to those in whom the Spirit is not working.

We should make our appeals therefore to the spirit, and not to the flesh (1 Cor. 2:6–16). If we rely on the same powers as Madison Avenue and Hollywood, we’ll build on the wrong material, and that will show itself on the final day (1 Cor. 3:11–13; 2 Cor. 10:3–4). You can draw a crowd like Hollywood does, but you won’t have a church, even if they call themselves one.

CONCLUSION

Biblical doctrine is true, and biblical doctrine is practical. This is true of the doctrines of God, man, salvation, the church, the end-times, and also revelation. What you believe about how God reveals himself to us will impact what kind of church you build.


[1] A more complete examination would also include the practical significance of general revelation as well as the ways in which God revealed himself through his mighty acts in history like the exodus or uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ. That said, everything we say about Scripture depends on the historicity of what it records as history as well as the fullest revelation of himself in the incarnation of Christ. As Steve Wellum has put it, the Bible is the Word of the Lord because Christ is the Lord of the Word.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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