What Is Revival?

We’re thinking through the Immanuel playbook. We have an opponent out on the field. They don’t want us to score a touchdown. Who is on that opposing team? Their defensive line is made up of some very hefty players – Sunday morning at the lake, sleeping in, watching TV, being idle and purposeless and settling for the status quo and being religious without change. Those are formidable opponents. Their linebackers and defensive backs are unbelief, bondage, sentimentality, and social injustice. They are very well established barriers to what we want to do. But God has put us on the field, because he wants to share his victory with us. And we will win, if only we will run his plays. Here’s one way to tell when the church is not moving the ball down the field by the power of God. If reading the New Testament feels more like taking a tour through a museum than looking into a mirror, that’s when God’s team needs to go back and re-learn God’s playbook from the Bible.

What are the plays that every member of this team must and can run effectively? One, we’ve seen from Jeremiah 1 that God has handmade every one of us to be a voice for the gospel. So we’re training ourselves in our 9:00 hour to do that. Two, we’ve seen from Acts 2 that a church is a gospel-spreading community. A church is not a crowd but a community. Here is the difference. Again, think of a football game, but this time the people in the stands. You can get 40,000 into Vanderbilt stadium to watch a game. Those people experience a kind of spiritual unity, even passionate unity, during that game. Sitting right next to each other are a Baptist and a Catholic and a Jew and an agnostic and so forth, but they set those differences aside. They experience an intense bond for three whole hours. But when the game is over and they move out through the tunnels back into their real lives, the spell is broken, their unity vanishes, and they go right back, unchanged, to their usual patterns of selfishness. That is a crowd. A church is a community. A church comes together for a weekly event too. But when the event is over around noon on Sunday, they’re still united, because those people have reinvented their whole lives around a new center – Christ and his mission through their church: to experience and to spread felt union with Christ, glad love for one another, bold witness to our generation. That is what the whole world needs today. Three, we’ve seen from Luke 24 that the Bible is a gospel-displaying book, with Christ as the heroic central figure from cover to cover. Four, we’ve seen from Psalm 126 that prayer is asking God for the great things only he can do. Five, we’ve seen from James 5 that sin is refusing the love of God and confession is openly agreeing with God about that and finding a friend who will pray for powerful healing. Today, six, what is revival? The answer is, revival is the normal ministry of the gospel working with super-normal impact, impact that grows the church, impact that attracts unbelievers, impact that can be explained only in terms of God.

Why does revival matter?

I’ll tell you why revival matters in one sentence. Revival matters because God matters. It is possible to build up a church and franchise it far and wide – by the power of human smarts alone. If Wal-Mart can do it, so can we. But the best I can say about that is that it’s like a woman planning a grand, expensive, beautiful wedding and inviting all her friends but excluding the groom. Where is the one she loves? Who is she going off on the honeymoon with? The Bible says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The church is to be the display of God in the world. The Bible says, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?'” (Psalm 115:1-2). We are here to be living proof that Jesus Christ is real and wonderful. That’s why revival matters. Revival is the Holy Spirit making Jesus real and wonderful to our hearts, more real and more wonderful than all this world, and drawing in many others to join us in that worship. That is Christianity. And it’s beautiful. And God wants to pour it out on us. So let’s understand clearly what it is we’re asking him for when we pray for revival. Not everything in the Christian world is even capable of being blessed by the Holy Spirit. The fire of God will not fall on every altar. There are subnormal, defective “Christianities.” Here are three common today.

One, Christianity that doesn’t take the Bible straight. If there’s anything obvious about original, apostolic Christianity, they were Bible-people. Right here in Acts, when Peter preaches, he doesn’t question the Bible, not even its relevance. Peter relies on one thing only to make his case – the truth of the Bible and how it connects with Jesus and how that way of thinking reduces all of life to one laser-clear focal point: How can we get right with God? Any church that doesn’t take the Bible straight will eventually twist it all around to another focal point: How can God get right with us? How can he adjust to us and our changing times? The Holy Spirit will not bless that kind of church, because it doesn’t bring people to God. It can’t. It’s incapable of divine blessing. So, let’s take the Bible straight.

Two, Christianity that talks Bible but is dead, harsh, ugly. The church in Acts 2 – people ran toward it. Verse 47 says the church had favor with the all the people. But the mistake some churches make today is not in what they believe – they believe the Bible – but the mistake they make is in what they assume. They assume that “If it’s in the Bible, it’s also in us. If we have the doctrine, we also have the reality. If it was true of Paul, it’s also true of us because we accept what he taught.” But that way of thinking ends up with a Christianity that is merely conceptual and merely doctrinal and proud. It produces people with tidy minds that have no doubt about what they believe but they are personally unhappy and brittle and tense, because their Christianity has not brought them to God. Verse 43 says of the early church that “awe came upon every soul.” Only God can do that, and it’s lovely.

Three, Christianity that talks miracles but downplays Scripture. Here in Acts 2 God was performing miracles, but Peter didn’t explain it this way: “Well, I think the Lord is saying to the church today that . . . .” Or “What I sense the Lord is revealing to us today is . . . .” If that was Peter’s kind of spirituality, he missed an opportunity here at the greatest outpouring of the Spirit in history. But what do we see about how Peter thought? What mattered to him was what God had clearly established in Scripture. Verse 16: “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.” And then he expounds Joel chapter 2. Later he expounds Psalm 16. Then he expounds Psalm 110. This time Jesus would not have had to say to Peter as he did say to him once before, “The way you think is not God’s way but man’s” (Matthew 16:23, JB). True spirituality is spirituality grounded in truth. One day this week I walked past a group of people and overheard one man saying to the others, “The Lord has put it on my heart that you’re going to help me finance my new business.” That way of thinking doesn’t bring anybody to God. The Holy Spirit is not in it. Do you know one of the clear evidences that the Holy Spirit is at work? Christians walking around with their Bibles in their hands having conversations like this: “Hey man, I found the coolest thing in Romans chapter 3 this week. Listen to this. I never knew the Bible taught that. I didn’t know Christ did that for me.” I rarely hear that. We don’t live in the Bible Belt. We live in the Personal Hunch Belt. Let’s make it a real Bible Belt. The grandeur of Christ revealed in the Bible drawing our hearts toward him – that is Christianity. That is spirituality. And the more we turn from our own impressions and go back to what God has said in his eternal Word, the more revival we’ll experience.

The outpouring of blessing called revival matters, because it brings us to God.

What does Acts 2 teach us about revival?

First, in verses 1-4, revival is a miracle. God came down with a visitation of his felt presence. The Bible says it was sudden in appearance: “And suddenly” (verse 2). It wasn’t scheduled on the church calendar. It was supernatural in origin: “There came from heaven.” Nobody whipped the people up. It was overwhelming in effect: “A sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house.” It was not a still small voice. It was not the quiet work of sanctification. It was not something they had to take by faith. God made himself obvious. And it was prophetic in power: “They all began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” With “tongues as of fire,” the gospel burned in every heart and every mouth.

God doesn’t always do his reviving work this way. In chapter 4 the Holy Spirit comes down again, but there’s no wind, no tongues of fire. Instead, he shakes the building where they’re having a prayer meeting. God doesn’t use a cookie-cutter when he gives out revival experiences, no one-size-fits-all. The letters of the New Testament describe churches in revival – except the churches in Galatia. They were in reverse gear. But those revival churches look different from each other. That’s what God does. The revival of East Africa in the 50s and 60s flowed through Anglican churches. The revival in South America is mostly charismatic churches. The revival in Korea is Presbyterian. The revival in China is something I don’t have a category for, except biblical. So let’s never say, “If your revival doesn’t look like my revival, it isn’t a real revival.” God loves all his people, and he blesses them in different ways, always according to his Word. But within all the variety, every revival is a miracle of God’s presence coming down on his people, to do a new work in their hearts, to empower his cause and his glory in their generation, to move the ball down the field against any opposition.

Many of us have experienced it. We’ve been in church, with things proceeding in their usual way. We’re thankful for the regular ministry of the gospel. But then Someone enters the room. A Presence is felt. Faith becomes experience when Christ visits a church in power. It might become very noisy, or it might be very quiet. But it’s a miracle, and we can never be the same again.

Secondly, the mystery, in verses 5-13. The mystery was that Aramaic-speaking rednecks from Galilee were given instant fluency in languages they had never studied – Arabic and Latin and so forth. They found themselves declaring the gospel, the mighty works of God in Christ, in the various languages of the out-of-towners listening.

Why did God do this? It wasn’t just a stunt. What was the point? God was starting to untangle the social complications of our sin. Further back in the biblical story, back in Genesis 11, at the tower of Babel, we tried to create a perfect world without God. And God came down that time too, to confuse our language. He scattered us into the various language groups and cultures of the world. And from that judgment came all the conflict of history. Here at Pentecost God came down again, this time in mercy. He started reversing the judgment of Babel. He started remaking the human race, not with our dream of our perfect world but according to his promise of a new world in Christ. What we see here is that new humanity, the multi-national Body of Christ, united in praise. Acts 2 launched world missions and represented the joy we’ll all share in the eternal kingdom of Christ.

But these people in Jerusalem couldn’t see all that. When they heard the gospel in their own languages from these Jews, they were asking each other, “What does this mean?” (verse 12).

Thirdly, the meaning, in verses 14-36. Peter preaches a sermon to answer that question. Did you know that the book of Acts contains nineteen speeches by various Christians? We could call this book the book of Acts and Sermons. About one-fourth of this book is sermons. The Spirit works with the Word. What then is Peter saying here? He quotes three Old Testament passages to explain the miracle.

First, in verses 16 and following, he quotes Joel chapter 2: “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (verse 17). At the first coming of Christ, human history entered “the last days.” We now live in the last days (Hebrews 1:1-2). The next major event on God’s schedule for history is the second coming of Christ. But until then, he is pouring out not fire and brimstone but his Spirit. He is pouring out the Spirit to make us a prophetic witness to the gospel: “In those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (verse 18). We’ve already seen that these Spirit-drenched people were declaring “the mighty works of God” (verse 11) – what God accomplished through Jesus. They were not interested in the mighty works of themselves, but only in what God had done for them in Jesus. They were prophetic by declaring the good news with high impact. That’s the Spirit at work!

Secondly, in verses 25 and following, Peter quotes Psalm 16 to tell us more about Jesus – namely, that though our sins nailed him to the cross, God had a deeper purpose: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (verses 23-24). Then Peter quotes Psalm 16, to reveal God’s triumphant purpose in the most criminal act in human history. The messianic Son of David says, “You will make me full of gladness with your presence” (verse 28). We screamed, “Crucify him.” But God purposed that Jesus would be glad forever, and his gladness is our salvation. Christ is now in heaven, not dead any more, not tormented any more, but glad in the presence of God. And from his overflowing gladness the risen Jesus pours out his Spirit on sinful people like us, to give more and more of his enemies his saving gladness: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [the risen Christ] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (verse 33).

Thirdly, in verses 34 and following, Peter quotes Psalm 110. What is the point? The point is this. At the heart of the universe, one passion is driving everything. God has said to Jesus Christ alone, “Sit at my right hand, share in my power, take the place of supreme rule over the human race. And I will put your foot on the neck of every one of your enemies. They will either bow to you in reverence, or I will send them to hell. But you, Jesus, are the one every human being must reckon with” (paraphrase of verses 34-35). God is not using Christ, in order to bless us; God blesses us as we use our lives to honor Christ. Peter says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (verse 36). Throughout the Old Testament God told us so many times that the Messiah was coming. We longed for him to come. We complained that he was slow in coming. But when he did come, we crucified him. We made ourselves his enemies. But in radical grace this Jesus is pouring out his Spirit to draw us into his overruling gladness. That love coming down is revival.

How do we get inside (and stay inside) true revival?

Well, how did these people in the New Testament do that?

One, united, kingdom-advancing prayer: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14). Jesus had promised them the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8). So they devoted themselves to praying his promise down into their experience. The Bible teaches us to pray, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1). God didn’t give us promises and prayers in the Bible, to mock our longings but to satisfy them. That’s why we’re gathering for extraordinary, united, kingdom-advancing prayer next Sunday night.

Two, clear focus on Christ. Peter says in verse 22: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth . . . .” A church enjoying an endless love affair with the gospel – that church, whatever the denomination, is building an altar on which the fire of God can fall. Jesus said that the Helper, the Holy Spirit, “will bear witness about me” (John 15:26), “He will glorify me” (John 16:14). All we need to do, to tell the Holy Spirit to stay away, is shift our focus to a secondary emphasis. But any church that front-loads God’s good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross – that’s where the power is.

Three, surprising community, open to all: “They devoted themselves to [building attractive community]” (verses 42-47). And God looked at that church and said, “I want a lot of people to get in on that.” This part is a little tricky, because it involves both our efforts and God’s blessing, both at the same time. Churches that just sit around and pray for blessing don’t survive. And churches that rush ahead in their own strength – they might survive, they might even succeed, but it isn’t of God. And that kind of church can never be described this way: “And awe came upon every soul” (verse 43). So we have to be wise. The early church was. They worked and planned and plowed their money into the cause and took advantage of opportunities, and so forth. But they were also sensitive to the Holy Spirit and they waited on God and they were visionary and daring and they reached by faith for impossible things only God could do. Jesus said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13).

Have you ever asked your Father for more of the Holy Spirit? He is able to give you a fresh inflow of hope and life and strength and joy and holiness and wisdom. Are you asking him? Are you asking him to help you do great exploits for God? Do you believe that Jesus loves you but you don’t feel it? You need more of the Holy Spirit. Put him first in your life. Change how you pray. Pray with others here at Immanuel for more of the Holy Spirit. Doing so is costly. It means you give up your agenda and small ambitions and you humble yourself and receive newness from God. But do you really want to stay as you are? I pray that God will minister to you today. He loves you so much. He wants to make you new in Christ.