What is Revival?
As Christians, we are constantly being challenged to pray for revival. Books and pamphlets proliferate on the subject, and speakers from every corner of Christendom preach and lecture on the theme. For some, revival is here already, while for others it is as frustratingly distant as ever. Differing views abound. Many associate revival with signs and wonders, some with a renewed emphasis on the Scriptures, most with an upturn in moral standards, and probably all with an increase in conversions. None doubt it is needed, but few can agree on what it is.
There have of course been many revivals in the history of the Church, some local and some more general. The character of these has varied tremendously, such that what to one is a divine work, to another is nothing of the sort. However, all would agree that even the best revivals have been tainted by the flesh or the Enemy, and their outcome mixed. This means it is a futile exercise to attempt to define revival by historical experience. There is only one way to arrive at a sound definition of revival according to God, and that is to seek that definition in the Word of God. Many balk at this, and insist on defining ‘revival’ by their own preconceived ideas. It is sad, but unless there is an acceptance of the absolute authority of Scripture, writer and reader must part company.
The word revive, as used in the Greek NT, means to flourish anew, or to live again. Thus the apostle’s word to the saints in Phil. 4: 10: “ye have revived your thinking of me” and the Father of the prodigal in Luke 15: 24: “this my son was dead and has come to life”. A similar usage can be found among the equivalent Hebrew words in the OT. What ought to be obvious from this definition is that you cannot revive that which has not been alive in the past. Thus the supposed revival in Jonah 3: 5–10 was not a revival at all, since the Ninevites had never had life (even professedly) towards God before. It was an entirely new life, not a living again.
Some speak of the need for a national revival, but this presupposes that England was ever a Christian country in the first place. Search the Bible from end to end, and you will always find that revival is among the people of God––and no nation, save Israel, has ever been recognised by God as His people (see Deut. 14: 2). There certainly needs to be a revival among English Christians––a turning back on their part to the Lord––but the English nation is as dead towards God as it has always been. The Greek word used in the Bible for Church means a calling out of, and rather than nations being saved, we are called out of them to a heavenly citizenship (see Phil. 3: 20). As God’s people we can be revived (comp. Rev. 3: 2), but there is no such thing as a national revival––the nation has nothing about it to be revived. What the nation needs is for its citizens to be converted, and called to a higher citizenship. This is evangelism, not revival.
It is important that this point is grasped. What many understand by ‘revival’ is an outbreak of mass conversions. However, without wishing to depreciate the desperate and pressing need for Gospel work, it ought to be pointed out that the word ‘revival’ cannot correctly be applied to the conversion of sinners! There is nothing in the natural man to revive. A man may be very near to death and be revived. While one spark remains, a fire may be rekindled. But you could not speak of reviving a stone just taken out of the quarry. It is dead. It has never lived. Only by divine power can dead stones become living (comp. 1 Pet. 2: 5)––the unregenerate sinner is “dead in … offences and sins (Eph. 2: 1). Revival takes place among God’s people, not among the lost. Of course a revival in the souls of the converted is almost always accompanied by an awakening interest in evangelism––but we should not mistake the effects of revival for revival itself. Revival takes place where there is life already.
Among the first revivals in Scripture are those in the book of Judges when the people of God had turned away from Him. However, these were, at best, only outward, since “it came to pass when the judge died, that they turned back and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down to them: they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way” (Judges 2: 19). There was no moral and spiritual change in the people––only an outward reformation.
Perhaps the greatest revivals were those under Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah. Even here, however, there was much that was artificial. The Passover that Josiah celebrated eclipsed every Passover for hundreds of years before (see 2 Kings 23: 22) but despite this the divine comment was that “Judah hath not returned unto me with her whole heart, but with falsehood” (Jer. 3: 10). For proof of this we only need to look at the nation’s rapid descent into evil following Josiah’s death, and its chaotic collapse not long after.
What of Hezekiah? Despite his evil father, he “did what was right in the sight of Jehovah, according to all that David his father had done” (2 Kings 18: 3). However, he was followed by Manasseh, a king whose reign was marked by wickedness that could only be compared with “the abominations of the nations that Jehovah had dispossessed from before the children of Israel” (2 Kings 21: 2)!
Again, under Ezra and Nehemiah, God granted his people “a reviving” (Ezra 9: 9) and brought a remnant back to conditions not enjoyed for centuries (see Neh. 8: 17). However, the conviction of many was shallow, and it was not long before God was chiding them for their coldness: “A son honoureth [his] father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? … Since the days of your fathers have ye departed from my statutes, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith Jehovah of hosts” (Mal. 1: 6; 3: 7). There was, however, to be no return, and four hundred years pass by before God speaks again to His people through John the Baptist.
The prophecy as to John was that “many of the sons of Israel shall he turn to [the] Lord their God” (Luke 1: 16), and under his ministry, and later, that of Christ Himself, there was indeed a measure of revival. The crucifixion of the Messiah, however, signalled that the setting aside of the nation was near, and with the rejection of Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7, all hopes of a national revival were extinguished. Not until God gathers them from among the nations, and gives them a new heart (see Ezek. 36: 24–32) will Israel know again the joy of revival. A pious Jew might to exclaim “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost” but the divine reply is “ye shall live” (Ezek. 37: 11, 14).
Some have supposed that Acts 2 was a revival––imagining the Church to be a kind of continuum of Judaism. This is a mistake. Christianity was not a revival of the nation, but a new beginning (though converted Jews themselves struggled to appreciate this fact). It was always the divine purpose for Gentiles to come into the Church, not as converts to Judaism, but as equals in one body (comp. Eph. 2: 16). This was foretold by the Lord’s words in John 10: 16 where He indicated that the fold of Judaism was to be superseded by the flock of the Church, a body distinct from both Judaism and the Gentile world (see 1 Cor. 10: 32). Rather than the Church being a revival of Israel, it was exactly the opposite––a witness that the nation had been set aside by something new.
As with Israel, the Church soon left her first love. That revival in the Church was to be expected is hinted at in the prophetic addresses to the seven assemblies (see Rev. 2, 3) but significant revival does not feature in the actual NT history. When Paul writes to Timothy, things are very bleak (see 2 Tim. 1: 15), and he warns the Ephesian elders that “there will come in amongst you after my departure grievous wolves, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20: 29). John, writing years later, gives the stark warning that “now there have come many antichrists, whence we know that it is [the] last hour” (1 John 2: 18). The testimony of Peter and Jude are along the same lines, and we are driven to the conclusion that, though periodic revivals are not excluded, what we are to expect as the dispensation progresses is generally an ever deepening departure from the Lord, until at the end what professes His name is fit only to be spued out of his mouth (see Rev. 3: 16).
It has often been noticed that the further away Israel got from God, the brighter the revival that followed (comp. 2 Chron. 30: 26; 35: 18; Neh. 8: 17). This is very encouraging. If we live in a dark day, that is no reason to throw up our hands in despair and say that all is lost. Yet if God grants us revival, how are we to recognise it, and how are we to distinguish the true from the false?––for false there certainly will be. Answer? By studying the things written “for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4). If we do this, it will be readily seen that the great revivals among the people of God––Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah––were marked by three striking characteristics––and these characteristics will surely mark every true revival:
• A return to the God’s Word.
• Separation from the world.
• A rejection of idolatry and a rekindled interest in the service of God.
Such things are not popular today. God’s Word, for example, has been more or less set aside in much of the professing Church. Its function has been reduced to more a decorative than a directive role, and human opinions and ideas elevated into the place it ought to occupy alone. Can we really expect revival in such a state of things? In the OT, revival was accompanied by a heart for God’s Word: “For Ezra had directed his heart to seek the law of Jehovah and to do it, and to teach in Israel the statutes and the ordinances” (Ezra 7: 10). If there is ever to be a collective revival, then each of us individually needs to direct our hearts. But direct them to do what? To seek God’s Word, then to do it, then to instruct others according to our ability. Of course, a return to God’s Word means more than outward observance. To Ezra were assembled “every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel” (Ezra 9: 4, see also Ezra 10: 3). Where is this fear today? Replaced by a ‘pick and choose’ theology that irreverently rejects anything that does not fit our view of things! When Josiah was presented with the Word of God, he was far from lackadaisical in his obedience: “he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which had been found in the house of Jehovah. And the king stood on the dais, and made a covenant before Jehovah, to walk after Jehovah, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all [his] heart, and with all [his] soul, to establish the words of this covenant that are written in this book” (2 Kings 23: 2, 3). Again, what did he do when he first “heard the words of the law”? He “rent his garments” (2 Chron. 34: 19). Why? Because he had found the Word of God to be “living and operative” (Heb. 4: 12). Not for him the dry exchange of views in the Bible–reading, the half–hearted listening to the sermon, or the dull recital of Scripture. His heart was “tender” (2 Chron. 34: 27). Would to God that more of our hearts were tender when we come into contact with the Word! How marvellous if, in our day “all the people were [attentive] to the book of the law”, and if those engaged in public ministry “gave the sense, and caused [them] to understand the reading” (Neh. 8: 3, 8)!
Of course, if the Word of God is “living and operative” in our hearts it will affect us practically, and turn us away from the world to God. Thus we read that “the seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of Jehovah their God a fourth part of the day; and a fourth part they confessed, and worshipped Jehovah their God” (Neh. 9: 2, 3). Yet what do we see today? The Church wedded to the world, and professing Christians giving every impression to their worldly companions of running with them “to the same sink of corruption” (1 Pet. 4: 4)! They don’t want to be different or to ‘miss out’ and they want to get on down here. They may be upright citizens, but that is precisely where they have gone wrong. They act as citizens of this world, not the next, with the same ambitions and interests as those around them. What is the reaction of the apostle? “What participation [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness? or what fellowship of light with darkness? … or what part for a believer along with an unbeliever? … Wherefore come out from the midst of them, and be separated, saith [the] Lord, and touch not [what is] unclean” (2 Cor. 6: 14, 15, 17). Again, “know ye not” says James “that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4: 4). It seems that many of us do not know it! What was the effect of the mixed marriages of Nehemiah’s day? Children who “spoke half in the language of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language (Neh. 13: 24)! Terrible state of affairs! And if we allow the world into the Church what can we expect but worldly Christians––persons who can converse at length on politics, sport, and fashion, but who have little or nothing to say when the Lord’s things are raised with them? How can Christians even think of praying for revival when their lives are a blatant denial of what they profess to believe? If we wish to have God among us, then the word is “be separated”.
Perhaps the most obvious feature of all these OT revivals is their return to the true service of God. The extraordinary character of the Passover celebrated by Josiah has already been noted, but Hezekiah’s was only slightly less striking: “And there was great joy in Jerusalem; for since the time of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, there had not been the like in Jerusalem. And the priests the Levites arose and blessed the people; and their voice was heard, and their prayer came up to his holy habitation, to the heavens” (2 Chron. 30: 26, 27). If revival does not lead us to worship God, then one must question whether it is revival at all. What occupied the hearts of those who returned from the captivity? To build a house where God could be worshipped (see Ezra 3). And when the enthusiasm waned, what was the prophetic message given? “Is it time for you that ye should dwell in your wainscoted houses, while this house lieth waste?” (Haggai 1: 4; see Ezra 5: 1). God was neglected and self was indulged––and this, as we shall see, is the essence of idolatry. Where the service of God is neglected it will always be replaced by the worship of another.
Paul warns the saints to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10: 14), and this word has a living voice for us today. As modern–day Christians we have become deluded into thinking that idolatry is only a question of carved images, and is thus only a problem for the less enlightened parts of the world. Of course, such flagrant idol worship is incompatible with the worship of the true God––which is why Josiah’s purging of the land of its “graven images” (2 Chron. 34: 3) must precede the celebration of the Passover. However, the NT definition of idolatry is not so confined. The apostle writes “Neither be ye idolaters, as some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10: 7). This is a reference to Exodus 32: 6, but there is no mention of the golden calf here - only a sitting down to eat and drink and a rising up to play. So how is this idolatry? Moses had gone up the mountain, and left the people on the plain––a type of Christ going up into heaven while His people are left here on earth. Thus idolatry is seeking my own personal gratification while Christ is absent from this scene. Self is the idol. As we look around us we see that Western society is driven by the pursuit of self gratification, and sadly, the Church is actively trying to ape it. It seems that the modern Church must not only edify, but entertain. People choose a particular ‘church’ because it suits them. Everything revolves around having a good time. The fact that we are to be the bond slaves of Christ in the short time left to us seems to weigh very little with many. We hear of worship groups, worship bands and worship songs, but whatever the merits or otherwise of these, unless the focus is on God and not man, there can be no worship at all. Protestantism may have abandoned the old style idolatry, with its images, its prayers to the saints and its ‘Hail Mary’s’, but it has eagerly embraced the more subtle form where self is god. There can be no revival until our hearts are turned to God and God alone. Almost one of the last books in the NT to be written gives an explicit warning against idolatry: “He is the true God and eternal life. Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5: 20, 21).
Revival then, will not come without far–reaching changes in our attitude to the Word, the world and our worship. We delude ourselves if we imagine we can simply ‘pray it up’. Yet if we humble ourselves before our God, there is no reason to suppose that He will not open the windows of the heavens and pour us out a blessing until there be no place for it (see Mal. 3: 10)!
As the night grows darker in Israel’s history, so the revivals that pierce the gloom seem to grow ever brighter. Each fresh awakening of God’s people is outwardly weaker, yet marked by a depth in advance of that which had gone before.
The revival of Hezekiah’s day was such that “there was great joy in Jerusalem; for since the time of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, there had not been the like in Jerusalem” (2 Chron. 30: 26). The nation was rent in two, and the national glory long departed, but despite all this, the Spirit of God takes delight in recording that what Hezekiah set on bore comparison with Israel’s most illustrious days.
When we come to Josiah, we are much further into the night. The ten tribes have gone, and what remains of the nation will shortly be carried away too. Amidst all this gloom, it is recorded of the Passover held in Josiah’s day that “there was no passover like to that holden in Israel from the days of Samuel the prophet; neither did all the kings of Israel hold such a passover as Josiah held” (2 Chron. 35: 18). This was far in excess of anything that Hezekiah did, great as that was. Indeed, even the days of David and Solomon do not bear comparison: “For there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah” (2 Kings 23: 22). The greater the outward ruin, the deeper the revival that God brings in.
In Nehemiah 8 there the night is darker still. Like Ephraim, Judah has gone into captivity, and only a feeble few have struggled back to the land. Things are very small outwardly. “And they found written in the law which Jehovah had commanded through Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month” (v14). As with all true revivals, we see here an accompanying revival of interest in the Word of God. Not only that, but they were prepared to obey it: “And all the congregation of them that had come back from the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths. For since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun until that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness” (v17). The comparison is now pushed back much further––beyond Solomon, beyond Samuel––right back to the days of Joshua. It almost seems as if the darker the night, the brighter must be the revival. In a dark and evil day, the temptation is to be overly taken up with our limitations, and to pitch our expectations too low. The lesson here is that however weak things might be outwardly, God is able to bring about a response to Himself of a richness we would not think possible.