Bible Basics: Progressive Revelation

When I was in elementary school, I learned numbers and simple arithmetic. One plus one equals two. Building on that I was later taught multiplication, division, and fractions. In later years, I was taught algebra. The algebra did not correct the basic arithmetic I learned, it built on it, becoming more specific and comprehensive.

When it comes to understanding the Bible, we have a similar concept. It is called progressive revelation, progress in revelation, or continuing revelation.

Although we may not hear much about it, it’s one of the most important concepts for understanding and interpreting the Bible correctly. We didn’t get the Bible in one complete piece. God gave us His Word progressively, over the span of about 1,500 years. Progressive revelation is a movement from one truth to another.

There is a saying about the Old and New Testaments of the Bible: “The New is in the Old Concealed; the Old is in New Revealed.” The first books written, the Old Testament, do not explain everything there is to know. These books give clear, accurate information concerning the big picture.

The New Testament books offer continuing revelation, building on the Old Testament and giving clear, accurate information concerning the details of the picture. Throughout the process of progressive revelation, the information, like elementary arithmetic, is trustworthy and useful but is moving toward a more complete form.

Second Peter 1:20–21 says, “Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.” In other words, the Holy Spirit moved the biblical authors along by inspiration as they wrote.

That movement, progressive revelation, was not random. God purposefully arranged it. As we move through the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis and through to Malachi, we see this progression unfold slowly. It is protracted, interrupted, and often slow. Additional revelation takes place in various ways and forms and through it all the body of revealed truth grows. Then it stops entirely, and after the end of the Old Testament, there are 400 years of silence.

Revelation begins to move again as we enter the New Testament. But now it is rapid and unbroken. In the Old Testament, progress took centuries. In the New Testament, we see this progression from the gospels, to Acts, to letters to the churches and finally to the Apocalypse—all in a relatively short space of a few decades.

The supreme example of this can be seen in relation to Jesus, the Messiah-Saviour. A brief overview of progressive revelation regarding Him is as follows: The first promise was given in Genesis 3:15.

And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.

As we move through Genesis, the promise becomes increasingly understandable.

And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me. (Genesis 22:18) 

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor. (Genesis 49:10)

Then the historical books specified that He would be a descendant of David.

I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. He is the one who will build a house—a temple—for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. (2 Samuel 7:12b–14a)

Moving into the Psalms, we find many messianic prophecies. For example, this snapshot of Christ’s crucifixion: “They have pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing” (Psalm 22:16b–18).

The picture of the coming Messiah becomes even clearer with the prophets, “But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

This progression continues in stages in the New Testament beginning with the appearance of Jesus Christ in the flesh. He is presented to us in the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—as the fulfilment of all that has preceded in the Old Testament. Jesus is the source of biblical revelation as He speaks and presents the Gospel of the kingdom and its principles of life and truth. Christ is also subject of the biblical revelation as His words and deeds are foundational to our faith and form the basis for continuing revelation that follows in the rest of the New Testament.

In the gospel of John, we progress from seeing Christ in the common paths of life to seeing His glory, as we go back to “In the beginning” (John 1:1). John continued, “And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14b). Jesus Himself said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b).

Leaving the Gospels, we move to the book of Acts, where Luke progresses on from “everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 1:1b–2, emphasis added). Acts is welded to the past and the foundation Jesus laid in His teaching as He moves to the next stage of progression in which He builds His church through the Apostles.

The book of Acts also serves as an introduction to the letters to the churches. In those letters, the nature of the church is clarified, and what it means to be a follower of Christ is expanded.

They fulfil the promise Jesus made in John 16:12–13: “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.” They reveal more about the person and work of Christ, the new covenant, how to live as a believer, as well as revealing more about the conflicts and suffering believers experience and how to respond to them.

Finally, in the book of Revelation we see the culmination of conflict and the full disclosure of progressive revelation as the Lord Jesus as the Head of the church, the Judge of the world and Satan, and the sovereign Master of time and eternity.

Even though much has been revealed progressively in the Bible, giving us all we need for godly living in this world, there is more to come when Christ returns.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Through continued progressive revelation, all will finally be revealed.