It is common today to hear this term used to describe everything from someone who read their bible that morning and was really blessed by it to those who would start new cults by insisting their “revelations” were on par with Holy Writ. Let’s dissect these terms and come to an understanding that will help us rightly discern error from truth.
General revelation can be defined as what God has revealed to all men as is stated in:
Romans 1:19-20 ESV
(19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
(20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
God has revealed Himself to mankind in such a way that morally they are accountable to Him for their acts.
Supernatural or special revelation is when God reveals something otherwise unknown to a man. This is often accompanied by the inspiration to write that down to be preserved as Scripture. Moses was given both revelation and was inspired to write the Torah. Pharaoh was given revelation in coded form in a dream and Joseph was needed to interpret it while Moses was charged with writing it down.
In the sense that revelation and inspiration are used to write Scriptures and we know that the canon of Scripture is closed (Rev 22:18-19) there is no more special revelation or inspiration today.
This is what happens when God makes His word “alive” to the reader through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Many times in Scriptures we are told that only those who are saved can rightly understand His Word.
1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV
(18) For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For the vast majority of people, when they say God spoke to them or they heard God, what they mean is that the Holy Spirit illuminated a portion of Scripture to their spirit – in a sense making it come alive.
Extra Biblical Revelation
Any supernatural knowledge that cannot be directly attributed to Scripture may be called extra biblical revelation. This may range from someone who believes God lead him to take an alternate route to work only to find out his usual route had a bad car wreck to someone like Joseph Smith who started the Mormon religion who wrote an entire book that Mormons hold parallel to the Holy Bible.
Where do we as discerning Christians draw the line? We draw it right along with the Bereans:
Acts 17:11 ESV
(11) Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Any teaching whether given by supernatural revelation or by man’s reasoning that does not line up with the full weight of Scripture must be rejected.
There are some of the cessationist camp, who believe that all spiritual gifts have ceased and that God does not reveal new information but rather illumines the bible to believers. John MacArthur sums up this position well:
Contrary to the teaching of many, neither special revelation nor inspiration are occurring today. The Bible contains God’s final and complete written revelation to man (cf. Jude 3 and Rev. 22:18–19). Currently the Holy Spirit instructs and guides a believer, not by revealing newly inspired data, but by bringing illumination to God’s already revealed Word.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (105–106). Dallas: Word Publishing.
To those in the charismatic camp who believe that God continues to operate through the agency of the Holy Spirit such gifts as word of knowledge and prophecy, what standards are given to judge such revelations?
1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV
(29) Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
Those who are spiritually mature should judge the words given as to whether they are given at the right time, the right place, in the right manner and to the right audience as well as whether or not it lines up doctrinally with Scripture.
Such prophecies or words of knowledge do not carry the authority of Scripture. It would be more helpful to consider them in the same light as sermons. No one claims when preaching that their words should be written down and considered Scripture. Sermons can be judged as to whether the preacher was faithful to the biblical text and the bible’s overall message. So it should be with spiritual gifts – they should be judged and never accepted as being on par with Scripture. Prophecy today is defined as:
1 Corinthians 14:3 ESV
(3) On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
It would be helpful to realize that not everyone who believes in the gifts of the Spirit is a heretic. We should quit using that term so broadly and reserve it for those who are speaking outside of the bounds of solid biblical doctrine. Judge all things by the Scriptures.
Isaiah 8:20 NKJV
(20) To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.