Our familiarity with the last book in the New Testament, Revelation (apokalupsis), hides the fact that the use of this noun as the title to describe divine revelation first occurs in the writings of Paul and Peter. This does not mean others prior to them never used it for this purpose, but if so, no record survives. Yet it is this word that Paul chooses to describe how Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road with such impact that he became one of his followers. So why does Paul use this term to define Jesus’ revelation when other terms would be quite suitable? Or in the case of Peter, why does he employ apokalupsis to characterize the second coming of Jesus “in glory?” What are the implications of its employment for these purposes?
The cognate verb (apokalupsein) occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Initially (in the Pentateuch) its use matches the usual sense found in non-biblical sources, namely to uncover or reveal something. Often the sense is to reveal something shameful, i.e. human nakedness. In Exodus 20:26 Yahweh commands the priests not to climb up on an altar “so that you do not reveal (apokalupsēis) your shame on it.” The forbidden incestuous and other sexual relations discussed in Leviticus 18 and 20 are translated as “revealing shame.” God uncovers (apekalupse) the eyes of Balaam so that he sees what his donkey sees (Numbers 22:31). The spies sent to Jericho require Rachab to swear an oath that she will not disclose (apokalupsēi) their presence (Joshua 2:20). When David dances before the ark of God, Michael his wife scorns the fact that he has uncovered (apekaluphthē) himself in the eyes of his own slaves (2 Samuel 6:20-22).The use of the noun in 1 Samuel 20:30 aligns with these meanings.
Another frequent sense is to disclose the secrets of a person. In Sirach 27:16 we are told that “he who reveals (ho apokaluptōn) secrets (mustēria) has destroyed trust and will never find a friend for his soul.” This is how the cognate noun is used as well, warning against revealing the secrets of another person (Sirach 22:22; 42:1).
So in many contexts when humans are involved, the verb and the cognate noun have a decidedly negative connotation – disclosing something that should not be seen or known, and doing it for the wrong reasons.
When God is the subject of this verb, it describes the way He disclosed (apokaluphtheis apekaluphthēn) himself to Israel in Egypt (1 Samuel 2:27), but there is no specificity as to the method of disclosure used in that context. In the course of Samuel’s call to be a prophet, he does not know what is happening because “it was before Samuel knew God and a word of the Lord had been revealed (apokaluphthēnai) to him” (1 Samuel 3:7). Samuel’s relationship with God as prophet rests upon the fact that “the Lord had revealed (apekaluphthē) himself to Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:21). The idiom “uncover the ear” describes the disclosure of secrets (God to David 2 Samuel 7:27; people to other people (1 Samuel 20, 22)). The Psalmist prays that God will “uncover (apokalupson) my eyes” so he can study God’s laws (Psalm 118(119):18). God “has revealed (apekalupse)1 his righteousness” before the nations (Psalm 97(98):2). What God does for Israel becomes evident to the surrounding nations.
God also discloses the shameful sin of his people to the nations (Hosea 2:10; 7:1; Nahum 3:7(8); Micah 1:6). This particularly is the usage in Ezekiel (16:36-37; 23:10,18,29). But in the midst of these occurrences we also discover that God “reveals (apokalupsēi) his instructions to his slaves the prophets” (Amos 3:7). And in Isaiah 52:10 Yahweh promises that he “shall reveal (apokalupsei) his holy arm before all the nations” and they will know that salvation has its source in him alone (cf. Isaiah 53:1). So there are occasions when the verb describes God’s disclosure of his power, his just actions, and his plans – sometimes for salvation and sometimes for judgment. Normally these disclosures are transmitted through prophets. However, anyone can study the law of God and to that person God will disclose wisdom through his law. But God also uncovers human sin and evil so that people see it for what is truly is. When God does this, usually it presages his judgment.
In the Greek translation of Daniel (the one attributed to “Theodotion”), the verb describes how God discloses to Daniel “deep and hidden things” (2:19) and “mysteries” (mustēria) (2:19,28,29,30,40) and in each case the accompanying verb is apokalupsein.2 All of these occurrences in Daniel occur in the story where Nebuchadnezzar demands that the Babylonian wisemen tell him what his dream was and its significance, upon threat of death. God discloses the dream and its significance to Daniel in a vision at night (2:19). For Daniel this is a sign of God’s favour and praises God in 2:22 because He “discloses deep and hidden things.” In 2:28,29,30 Daniel reports to the king how God disclosed these secrets to Daniel, “things that must happen.” In response Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that God is “God of gods and Lord of kings and a discloser of secret things” (2:47).3 The same verb is used once more in Daniel 10:1 to describe how “a word was disclosed to Daniel by God” in a vision.
In several contexts the disclosures, particularly those from God, come as a surprise. Consider the experience of Samuel to whom God disclosed himself and how it took some time for Samuel figure out what was happening. Prophets sometimes become the disclosers of these divine surprises, but in other cases God does this directly. In the case of Paul, his experience on the Damascus Road certainly fits the category of surprise! He had no sense that God was about to disclose this “mystery” that Jesus is Messiah to him in this remarkable way. One question that arises is whether Paul viewed this disclosure as God’s assignment to him of a prophetic role, as was the case with Samuel and other Old Testament prophets.
There is one Old Testament passage where the cognate verb does occur and which Paul cites, at least partially. As we noted above, Isaiah 53:1 asks to whom God “shall reveal (apekaluphthē) his holy arm?” This seems to echo the assertion in Isaiah 52:10 that “the Lord shall reveal (apokalupsei) his holy arm before all the nations and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation that comes from God.” Paul quotes the first part of Isaiah 53:1 in Romans 10:16, which indicates that he was aware of this text. Further, in Romans 15:21 Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15, which also talks about God’s use of the servant to enable the nations to see and understand the ways of God. And Paul used this text to ground his mission in the program of the Messiah. It is probable that Paul saw his conversion and call to ministry in connection with the mission of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant. Paul was one of those to whom God “disclosed his arm” and demonstrated that Jesus Messiah is the one through whom God was bringing salvation to all nations. Both the method of disclosure and the content of the disclosure by God to Paul was a complete surprise.
It is also the case that Paul talks about his conversion in terms similar to those used in Daniel 2. For example in Ephesians 3:3-6 he wrote:
“…that is, the mystery (to mustērion) made known to me by revelation (kata apokalupsin)….In reading this, then you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery (en tōi mustēriōi) of Christ which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed (apekaluphthē) by the Spirit….This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel….”
Similarly in Romans 16:25 he affirms that his gospel incorporates “the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery (kata apokalupsin mustēriou) hidden in long ages past but now revealed (phanerōthentos) and made known (gnōristhentos)…so that all nations might believe and obey him….” While it cannot be proven that Paul is dependent upon the Daniel narrative for this language, it is interesting that only in Daniel 2 do we find the expression “disclose the mysteries” in connection with a disclosure from God (the expression occurs in Sirach but in reference to human beings disclosing secrets). In the Daniel narrative God chooses to disclose his purposes to a Gentile monarch, Nebuchadnezzar and then uses a Jewish leader to explain what this disclosure means, with the result that the king acknowledges Yahweh as “God of gods and Lord of kings.” The possible parallel with Paul’s mission is interesting.
So in Galatians 1-2, when Paul describes his conversion, his calling, and his action to confer with the leaders of the Jerusalem church about the Gospel, he attributes it all to God’s disclosures (1:12,16; 2:2). The use of the verb in Galatians 3:23 describes the disclosure of “the faith” to those “who are locked up” and “walled about by law”. Paul characterizes the way of faith as surprise disclosure by and from God for human salvation. Galatians 4:4-5 demonstrates how God’s plan and timing were perfect, but from the human standpoint, these disclosures of the Messiah came as an astonishing surprise.
The use of this noun and verb by Peter (1 Peter 1:7,13; 4:13), most likely with reference to the second coming of the Messiah, similarly emphasizes the sense of a surprising disclosure by God of secret things. Jesus emphasized that he would return, but indicated that time and context were unknown, except to God the Father. Peter’s choice of this language expresses the same spirit of uncertainty as to the timing of God’s next disclosure of the Messiah.
- God has secrets, some of which he has disclosed to humans, but others he keeps to Himself. We live in between two of these disclosures, namely the incarnation of the Messiah and his second coming. Salvation in Christ is only possible because God decided to disclose this Messianic secret. When one of your friends has secrets that he or she will not share, how does that make you feel? How does the fact that God has secrets, some of which He has not disclosed, shape your relationship with Him?
- Why does God keep some things secret? Is it in the very nature of deity that God must know things that humans do not, otherwise He would cease to be God? When we get to heaven will God disclose all of his secrets to his people or will He still keep some things to himself?
- If the presence of the Spirit give us access to “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthian 2:16) and “God’s secret wisdom” (2:7), what does this mean in practical terms?
- 1In this verse it is used in parallel with a verb meaning “make known.”
- 2The alternative Greek translation of Daniel used ekphainō (2:19,30,47) which means “bring to light, disclose, reveal” or anakaluptō (2:22,28,29) a similar verb meaning “uncover, expose, make bare.”
- 3In these contexts in Daniel the Greek verb is rendering the same Aramaic verb which means to uncover, reveal.