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Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 3 – Revelation

According to the basic outlines of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought, because human beings are trapped within the evil (material) world of sin and darkness, it is necessary for a divinely appointed savior-figure to bring knowledge of salvation. In customary theological language, we would refer to this as divine revelation—that is, something made known specially to believers by God Himself. In the New Testament, there are a number of specific words and concepts which refer to revelation, of which I list the three most important here:

  • gnwri/zw (gnœrízœ), “make known”—this verb is derived from ginw/skw (“know)”, on which see Part 1 of this series.
  • fai/nw (phaínœ) and fanero/w (phaneróœ), “shine, make (to) shine (forth)”, specifically of light, but often figuratively in the sense of “appear, be/make visible, (make) manifest/apparent”—this includes a variety of compound and derived words.
  • a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ), “take (the) cover from, uncover”.

Each of these carries a different image or nuance, and will be discussed in turn. Following this, I will discuss two distinctly Christian aspects of revelation which are vital for a proper understanding of the relationship between knowledge and salvation (cf. Part 2): (a) the proclamation of the Gospel, and (b) the person of Christ.

gnwri/zw (“make known”)

This verb occurs 25 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline Letters (18 times). It refers to the aspect of revelation which is directly connected with knowledge. Before one can know something, it first has to be made known by some means, all the more so when dealing with divine and heavenly matters. The verb is rare in the Gospels and Acts, but it occurs in two important contexts which are seminal to the Gospel message, and which specifically frame the (Lukan) narrative:

  • The Birth of Jesus:
    Lk 2:15—God makes it known to the shepherds through an Angelic announcement
    Lk 2:17—The shepherds, in turn, make the news known to others
  • The Resurrection of Jesus:
    In Acts 2:28, Psalm 16:11 is applied to Jesus—”you have made known to me the ways of life

Elsewhere, in Paul’s letters, the verb is used more precisely in reference to the proclamation of the Gospel; two key passages in Romans express this in slightly different ways:

  • Romans 9:22-23—God has worked to make known: his power (v. 22), and the riches of his glory/mercy (v. 23). The eschatological (Judgment) setting here reflects a two-fold aspect of the Gospel which Paul expresses more directly in 1 Cor 1:18ff and 2 Cor 2:14-4:6—the Gospel for those perishing and for those being saved.
  • Romans 16:26—the secret hidden by God is uncovered (cf. below) and made known, through the Scriptures (Prophets), and, by implication, the proclamation of the Gospel (in which the Scriptures are interpreted).

In Col 1:27 and also Eph 1:9, the verb is again used in a similar context. Paul himself, as an appointed, authoritative minister of the Gospel, is said to make known this “secret” of the Gospel—cf. Eph 3:3, 5, 10; 6:19. The verb becomes part of Paul’s rhetorical and didactic approach in his letters:

Similarly, in 2 Peter 1:16, the apostles are described as eye-witnesses making known the power and presence of Christ. In the Gospel of John (15:15; 17:26), it is Jesus (the Son) who has made God the Father known to his followers (cf. the recent notes on Jn 8:32 and 17:3), who (like the Lukan shepherds) will do so in turn for others.

fai/nw, fanero/w, etc (“shine [forth]”)

The verbs fai/nw and fanero/w are related to the word fw=$ (“light”), and are often used (figuratively) to refer to revelation under the image of shining forth light. This motif goes back to Old Testament tradition, including the creation narrative (Gen 1:3ff), the Exodus narrative (Exod 10:23; 13:21), the priestly blessing (Num 6:25), and frequently of God in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and Prophets. God’s word is described as light in Psalm 119:105, 130, and light is associated with God’s salvation for his people in Ps 27:1; Isa 9:2; 49:6; 60:1ff; Mic 7:8-9, etc. This Old Testament imagery was applied to Jesus in the Gospel tradition—cf. Luke 1:79; 2:30-32 (Isa 49:6; 52:10); and Matt 4:16 (Isa 9:2). Christ is the light (or sun) shining on those in darkness; by implication, the message of Christ (the Gospel) is also to be understood as light shining in the same way. Light is an especially important motif in the Gospel of John, where Christ (the Son and living Word) is identified with the divine, eternal light, and where there is a strong (dualistic) contrast between light and darkness—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, etc.

fai/nw, e)pifai/nw, e)pifanei/a

Here we have the straightforward image of light (or the sun, etc) shining; the compound forms with e)pi specifically refer to light shining upon someone or something. In its more concrete sense, fai/nw is used in the Gospel for the appearance of a heavenly being (Angel), especially in the context of the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:20; 2:7ff) and at the resurrection (Mark 16:9). Similarly, it is used of the end-time heavenly appearance of the “Son of Man” (Matt 24:27, 30), while the compound a)nafai/nw refers to the eschatological appearance of the Kingdom of God in Luke 19:11. For the appearance of a wondrous, miraculous event in general, cf. Matt 9:33. Throughout the New Testament, these words tend to be used in a metaphorical, figurative sense in several primary ways:

In Rom 7:13, the verb is used (uniquely) in the sense of gaining knowledge and awareness of sin; while in Titus 2:11 and 3:4, the compound e)pifai/nw refers more abstractly (in Pauline language) to salvation coming through the appearance of the grace and love of God, the person and work of Christ being understood. The related noun e)pifanei/a came to be used specifically for Christ’s future appearance on earth (i.e. his return)—2 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13. Eventually, it was used in early Christianity as a technical term for the incarnation of Christ (i.e. his first appearance), suggested already in 2 Tim 1:10.

fanero/w, etc

The verb fanero/w more properly means “make (light) to shine forth”, i.e. “make visible, cause to appear, make manifest”. It is frequently used in a revelatory sense in the New Testament—that is, of something coming to be made visible, or made known, by God. For the general sense of making known something secret or hidden, cf. Mark 4:22 par; Eph 5:13-14; in the Gospel tradition, there are the notable reference to the so-called “Messianic secret”, whereby Jesus wishes to keep his identity (as Anointed One and Son of God) from being made known publicly, until after the resurrection (Mk 3:12; Matt 12:16; cf. also Jn 7:10). For the verb fanero/w, and the related words fanero/$ and fane/rwsi$, we can isolate the same three ways it is applied in the New Testament as mentioned above for fai/nw, etc:

Somewhat unique is the idea of natural revelation expressed in Rom 1:19—that is, of the knowledge of God which is evident in creation, but which humankind, in bondage to sin, cannot truly recognize.

Other words

There are a number of other similar verbs and terms which describe revelation in terms of light, vision, seeing, etc. The most significant will be mentioned briefly here:

  • fwti/zw (“give light”) and la/mpw (“give a beam [of light]”), which are related to the words fw=$ and lampa/$ (cf. also lu/xno$) respectively [to distinguish between these, verses with la/mpw or its compound forms are marked by an asterisk (*)]. These words can refer:
    • To the heavenly appearance of God, Christ and Angels (Lk 2:9*; Acts 12:7*; Rev 18:1; 21:23; 22:5); with which we should include the transfiguration scene (Matt 17:2*), and the future appearance of the Son of Man in Lk 17:24*.
    • Figuratively, in a theological/christological sense, to Jesus as light (Jn 1:9); for other light-references in John, cf. above.
    • To the revelation of God/Christ in the Gospel, with its proclamation (Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 10:32); cf. especially 2 Cor 4:4-6 (which uses both verbs) and my earlier note.
    • To the heart, etc., being enlightened by God (1 Cor 4:5; Eph 1:18; Heb 6:4)
    • To the shining forth of believers (and their works), cf. Matt 5:15-16*; 13:43*
  • e)mfani/zw (“shine forth in”)—there are two important references to this compound verb which are relevant here:
    • John 14:21-22—of Christ’s manifestation in/to the believer
    • Heb 9:24—of Christ’s appearance in heaven before God
  • o)pta/nomai (lit. “look with, use the eyes”, “perceive, see”)—the (aorist) passive of this verb is used frequently for something that comes to be seen, i.e. made visible to the eye, especially in the case of a divine/heavenly being, such as an Angel or the resurrected Christ. Of the many references, cf. Mk 9:24 par; Lk 1:11; 24:34; Acts 9:17; 13:31; 1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 Tim 3:16. The future form can also be used in the context of a promise to see the heavenly/divine (cf. Jn 11:40), and several occurrences are significant in connection with the Gospel message (Matt 28:7, 10; Lk 3:6). Note also the important use of the verb in John 3:36 and Rom 15:21.

a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover”)

This verb literally means “take the cover (away) from”, and represents the third aspect of revelation to be discussed in this article—that of uncovering something hidden or secret. I have dealt with the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament in an earlier series of notes, which ought to be consulted, since the passages are relevant to the idea being discussed here. For the verb and the related noun (a)poka/luyi$), we may isolate the way they are used in the New Testament as follows (passages with the noun are marked by an asterisk):

The Gospel and Christian Identity

Careful study of the references cited above, will show, as I have demonstrated in several places, that there are three main aspects or strands which relate to the idea of revelation, and which may be labeled as follows:

  1. The proclamation of the Gospel
  2. The person of Christ, and
  3. The religious identity of believers in Christ

The last of these is closest to a gnostic point of view—that is, of our religious (Christian) identity being defined in terms of knowledge and revelation. However, it is in the first two aspects that any aberrant or exaggerated gnostic tendency is checked. These two points require a bit more explanation:

(a) The proclamation of the Gospel

A large percentage of the passages listed above are connected to some degree with knowledge and revelation that is expressed and determined by the proclamation of the Gospel. This especially the case in the Pauline letters, where salvation is directly connected to the Gospel message (and its proclamation)—cf. 2 Thess 2:14; 1 Cor 1:21; 9:14-23; 15:2; Gal 1:6-9; Rom 1:16-17; 10:14-21; 15:18-20. I have discussed the important passages 1 Cor 1:18ff and 2 Cor 2:14-4:6 in earlier notes. Paul had a very definite sense of what the Gospel was, and what it was not (cf. Gal 1:7-9ff), and, especially, how it could be distorted or rendered ineffective in its proclamation (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1-5). For early Christians, it was unquestionably the death of Christ (and his subsequent resurrection/exaltation) which was the central element of the proclamation (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:10, 26-28; 5:30, etc). In Paul’s letters, one may say that the crucifixion (the cross) of Christ receives even greater prominence. In 1 Cor 1:18 the Gospel message is referred to specifically as “the account [i.e. word] of the cross”. It is just at this point—the death and crucifixion of Christ—that many Gnostics struggled with the Gospel, as Paul surely would have predicted. He understood well the difficulty of this message, for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike (cf. Gal 3:10-13; 5:11; 6:12, etc). In 1 Cor 1:18ff, he sets up a direct contrast between the cross (as an expression of the wisdom of God) and the wisdom of the world—that is, of human wisdom, which includes religious knowledge and wisdom, apart from Christ. Moreover, in several places, Paul centers the (Christian) religious identity of believers squarely on the death and crucifixion of Christ. This is expressed most powerfully in Gal 2:19-20; 6:14-15, and also in the baptismal symbolism of Rom 6:3-11, as well as in other key passages (cf. Rom 8:3-4; Col 2:11-15).

(b) The person of Christ

The centrality of Christ in the New Testament and early Christian thought scarcely requires comment. However, believers often struggled (and continue to struggle) with exactly how one is to understand: (1) the special (divine) nature of Christ, and (2) the believer’s relationship to him. We may look to the Pauline and Johannine writings for powerful and distinctive teaching on both counts. Interestingly, both branches of early theology (and Christology) have a number of key points in common.

  • The parallel concept of believers being “in Christ” and Christ being in the believer
  • Both express the idea of believers in Christ as reflecting a “new birth” or “new creation”, including the expression “sons/children of God”, “sons of light”, etc
  • Both give strong emphasis to the role of the Spirit as the abiding presence of Christ in and among believers, and the point of union with God in Christ
  • Christ is seen as manifesting and embodying the character and nature of God—his love, truth, righteousness, power, etc.

This will be discussed further in Part 4 of this series, as well as in a separate article discussing knowledge and revelation in the Gospel of John.

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