What has taken place at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY has a lot of people talking about revival right now. For those who may not have heard, following a routine chapel service on February 8th at the school, 20 students remained there to sing, pray, and share testimonies stating that they felt prompted by the Spirit to do so. A few hours later, the president of the college sent out an e-mail encouraging other students to join this impromptu continuation of the worship service. The number of students at the chapel service grew and kept everything going. This has now continued for the past couple of weeks with people from all over the country making a trip there to check out what is occurring or to participate in it. Some are quickly claiming that this is a genuine work of God being witnessed while others are expressing doubts and wondering if it might be no more than a mere emotional frenzy. It is not my intention to weigh in on that discussion here but I do think that it would be good for us to look at what Scripture says about revival and what one looks like when God in His good pleasure seeks to visit us with it.
The Bible does not anywhere provide for us a clear definition for “revival” but we do have a prayer for it in Psalm 85 and several examples of it occurring throughout history. We witness some type of revival with the nation of Israel specifically under the reigns of godly kings Asa (2 Chronicles 15:8-16), Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29-30) and young King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23), the returned exiles following the reading of the law by Ezra and the Levites (Nehemiah 8-9), even the wicked city of Nineveh in response to the preaching of judgment by the reluctant prophet, Jonah, and perhaps, what has rightly been known as the greatest of revivals on the day of Pentecost when 3,000 were brought to the Lord in one day and the church continued to grow and thrive in the days afterwards (Acts 2). In fact, it has been said that the entire history of the church in the New Testament is itself an account of revival. In our own nation’s history, we have what is referred to as “The Great Awakening” in New England influenced by the powerful preaching of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield. Basically, a revival appears to be a special work of God’s Spirit where the sanctification or spiritual growth of God’s people is greatly increased or heighted all at once and conversions of unbelievers are brought about in a greater number than usual. I’ve heard it described as a time when God accomplishes in a moment what He typically does in a much longer stretch of time.
One thing we notice with all of the past revivals that I have mentioned is that they stemmed from the preaching of the Word of God. I pointed this out in the list of revivals in the last paragraph. Revival broke out among the returned exiles upon hearing the law being read and explained by Ezra and the priests (Nehemiah 8-9) and the revival in Nineveh came as a result of Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3). Those 3,000 added to the church on the Day of Pentecost came right after hearing Peter’s sermon and having their hearts pierced by the Word he proclaimed (Acts 2:37). And I mentioned the preaching of Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield which fueled “The Great Awakening”. While it wasn’t the preaching of God’s Word, the rediscovery of it in Josiah’s day is what led to the revival that occurred then (2 Kings 22:8-10). There has never been and cannot be a revival without the Bible. It is clearly the instrument that the Spirit of God uses to bring one about just as it serves as the instrument through which He always does His work. No one can be born again and brought to Christ without encountering the word about Christ somehow (Romans 10:17) No one is able to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ without continually reading, studying, and hearing the Word of God.
Another thing we see about revivals is that they are all characterized by repentance. There is a genuine sorrow over sin that leads to an “about face” to turn away from it and live holy to the Lord. The moment that Josiah heard the lost book of the law read to him, he tore his clothes recognizing how much he and the people deserved God’s wrath due to their failure to be obedient to God’s Word (2 Kings 22:11-13). The entire city of Nineveh was so serious about expressing remorse for its sins that they even had all the animals of the kingdom fast and wear sackcloth to demonstrate such (Jonah 3:7-8). Weeping ensued when the exiles heard God’s law read to them (Nehemiah 8:9) and confession of their sins followed (Nehemiah 9:1-3). A clear mark of a revival is such repentance.
People recommitted their lives to the Lord as a result of the revivals as well. They dedicated themselves to walk in obedience to God’s Word yet again, acknowledging that they had been failing to do so. In the case of the revivals which occurred for the people of Israel, this was demonstrated with a renewal of their covenant made with the Lord (2 Chronicles 15:12-15; 34:31-32; Nehemiah 9:38-10:39).
One sure way to know if something is a work of God or not is who the focus is on. You can be certain that God’s Spirit is involved if the emphasis is on Jesus. A revival is always centered on Christ. Jesus says that the role of the Holy Spirit is to continually point to Him. He seeks to testify of Jesus (John 15:26) and glorify Him (John 16:14). The Spirit has been described as having a floodlight ministry, consistently illuminating the Lord Jesus Christ, drawing attention to Him away from Himself. This is why the Holy Spirit is more of a supporting character to Jesus as the main actor in the Scriptures He inspired to be written. If supernatural signs and wonders take center stage and are what are talked more about, then the movement being of God should be suspect. But if it is all about Jesus instead, it is a good sign that the Spirit is working.
A fifth element of revivals that we see in the ones that God has brought about is a reformation of life and worship. When such a work of God has taken place, idols have been torn down and important practices that have been neglected have been reestablished (2 Chronicles 15:8; 29:20-30:1-27; 2 Kings 23:4-24). There is a notable difference in the lives of those affected. The effects of the revival go much further than an intense worship service lasting for a number of weeks. The returned exiles separated themselves from unbelievers they had covenanted with (Ezra 10; Nehemiah 9:2) and the believers in Ephesus burned their magic books (Acts 19:19). The community in which the revival takes place is impacted as well. A silversmith in Ephesus could testify to this as he as well as others dealt with loss in their business due to less people wanting to purchase the idols that they had been making (Acts 19:24-26). It is due to the revival occurring with the early church that it could be said that the believers were “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
The last thing that needs to be pointed out about a revival is that it is determined and driven by God. In none of the accounts that we are looking at was the revival planned or orchestrated by man. It wasn’t placed on the calendar by the church or its leaders. There were no gimmicks or anything done to bring it about. Just the presentation and proclamation of God’s Word which God always uses to convict men of sin, convert unbelievers, and further conform believers into the image of Christ. It was clearly and completely the work of God to bless that in such an extraordinary way. Jonathan Edwards even described what took place in New England in his day as being a “surprising work of God’s Spirit.” It was certainly something that he never saw coming. In fact, I read that one of the sermons that was so influential in that “Great Awakening” was his famous “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and the first time that he preached it to his own congregation, there were little to no response. The second time in another church had people literally hanging on to the seats in front of them for fear of God’s wrath and judgment on account of their sins, crying out before the message was finished, “What shall I do to be saved?”. (And supposedly Edwards delivered the message monotone without much inflection or emphasis at all!) What made the difference must have been the Lord Himself.
While we certainly should long and pray for revival in our day, let’s not minimize or neglect the ordinary work of God’s Spirit that occurs every Lord’s Day when His people come together to praise Him and hear His Word proclaimed. We don’t need to flock to a college hours away where a revival is purported to be taking place to be revived spiritually. Such can and does happen every week, just not on as large of a scale. And what God continues to do in our lives as we participate in the means of grace such as praying, reading and studying Scripture, corporate worship, attentively listening to the preaching of the Word, and partaking of communion is just as important. And if the Lord would see fit to grant a revival, it is more likely going to be through an extraordinary blessing of the ordinary means that He uses. So, let’s be sure to continue to in those as we wait to see Him do an ongoing work in our lives.
Love in Christ,