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How Did People Know about God Before the Bible?

From the beginning, God has been displaying himself and his nature, attributes, power, and purposes to individuals. However, instead of using audible voices, prophets, angels, visions, or miracles, God now reveals himself through his Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. Contributing Writer
Aug 25, 2020
How Did People Know about God Before the Bible?

The Holy Bible is God’s revelation of himself to humankind. It describes who he is, what he is like, and what he does. Josh McDowell expounds on this in his book, God-Breathed, saying:

The Bible… is made up of living words from God himself to guide us to the very meaning of life, love, relationships, and the joy God originally intended for his children.

However, our Bibles today look much different than they used to. Not only was it originally written in languages that most people no longer speak, but it was also laid out differently and written in parts over many years. As a matter of fact, our Bible’s 66 books were not even compiled (or “canonized”) until the fourth century AD (and a few centuries earlier for the Old Testament).

So, if the Bible discloses who God is, a great question is: “How did people know about God before the Bible?”

There are several ways that God has revealed himself to humanity: By nature, with personal interactions, and through Jesus. Let me explain each of these a little further.

God Revealed Himself by Nature

As we see in the Book of Genesis, God created the universe and all that is in it. John wrote:

All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:1-5, ESV).

Then, as a crowning achievement to his creation, he made men and women in his image (Genesis 1:26-28).

But while nature does not provide information about the specific Gospel of Jesus Christ, it does provide a “general revelation” about the necessary existence of a creator as well as his transcendence and supremacy above all things, his immanence or involvement with all things, his timelessness, his power, and his goodness. These things can be conceived through our perception of nature and history as well as our innate conscience.

In addition, the complexity, beauty, and order of nature point us to better understand what our Creator is like. The Psalmist eloquently wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4, ESV).

God Revealed Himself with Personal Interactions with Humanity

From the beginning, God has been displaying himself and his nature, attributes, power, and purposes to individuals. For example, God interacted with Adam and Eve as they cultivated the Garden of Eden, with Noah as he built an ark to survive the great flood, with Abraham as his family grew into a large nation, with Moses and Joshua as they made their way into their Promised land, and with David and Solomon as they ruled over God’s people.

Sometimes God would work and speak in miraculous ways (e.g. when he spoke to Moses through a burning bush in Exodus 3), sometimes in subtle, quiet ways (e.g. when he spoke to Elijah in a “still small voice” in 1 Kings 19), and sometimes even through visions and dreams (e.g. the young boy Samuel in 1 Samuel 3).

God often spoke through human prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah that were divine mouthpieces for God’s important promises, challenges, and judgments. God also sent messengers called “angels” to speak on his behalf, such as when the angel Gabriel informed Mary about Jesus’ birth in Luke 1.

All of these words that God spoke help us discern who he is. Consider what Josh McDowell wrote:

At some point in the distant past, God spoke words. And when he did, things happened… he also used words to bring meaning to our lives and our relationships. Then, in time, he had those meaningful words committed to writing.

But before they were written down (and often still after), God’s law, the peoples’ history, the prophets’ messages, and wisdom literature were all transmitted from one generation to the next through oral tradition. For example, the Jewish “Shema” was to be kept on the peoples’ hearts and talked about “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, ESV).

When God’s people would forget his Words and bring judgment upon themselves, which was often, they would be reminded by public readings of whatever copy of the scriptures they had. One time, Ezra, the scribe, corporately read the scriptures loudly and clearly for hours until “the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8, ESV). The regular forgetfulness of God’s people was why he commanded monuments to be built — as reminders for them to teach their children about what God had done and said (Joshua 4).

The New Testament was also passed on to others orally or through letters that were read aloud many years before it was compiled into the Bible. The gospels were nothing less than the eye-witness accounts of Matthew, Peter, Luke, and John (Acts 4:20). Paul’s letters to the churches around Asia were written to be read aloud publicly (1 Timothy 4:13). Even the prophetic book of Revelation was written in order to be read aloud (Revelation 1:3).

The most important verbally taught messages of Scripture, though, were from Jesus Christ himself — who not only taught the Word but was the incarnate Word.

God Revealed Himself Through His Son, Jesus Christ

We would know very little about God without the Bible, but we would know even less without the incarnated display of God named Jesus. As the Apostle Paul explained, Jesus: the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15–20, ESV).

Jesus, himself, declared how he reflected God in unequivocally profound statements like:

If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7, ESV)

Jesus even used the significant Greek phrase “egō eimi” (or “I Am”) about himself, which mirrors the identification that God the Father used a couple of thousand years earlier when introducing himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. This is known as Tetragrammaton because of the combination of four Hebrew letters to form YHWH, the ancient Hebrew name of God, YHWH.

So, nearly three centuries before the Bible was put together, God made himself known to humanity with the clearest presentation of himself that he could: Through Jesus.

What about Today?

In our lives today, God reveals himself regularly through his written Word. The Apostle Paul taught that all of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) is inspired or “breathed out by God” for “...teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV).

But he also still displays himself through nature. As the Apostle Paul also wrote:

For what can be known about God is plain to [us] because God has shown it to [us]. 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 [we] are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20, ESV).

God also still shows himself through anthropic or ordinary events of life. However, instead of using audible voices, prophets, angels, visions, or miracles, he primarily speaks through the activity of the Holy Spirit that “bears witness” for him (John 15:26-27). As John explained, that was Jesus’ plan when he left Earth:

These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25-26, ESV).

So, not only does God want to be known by us, but he has made ways for us to know Him. May we pray along with the Apostle Paul that God “may give [us] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17-23, ESV).

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/AndreyPopov

Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.

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