Catalysts for Revival - Part 1 of 6 by Dr. Charles Harris
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The question of a starting point in seeking a heaven-sent revival in the land is a critical one. On the surface it might seem that the Bible is the place to begin. Yet, Baker declares, “. . . I do not know of any book which attempts to deal systematically with the Biblical testimony. Revival being of God, it seems to me, the first thing required is a study of the Revivals of the Bible” (Ernest Baker, The Revivals of the Bible [London: The Kingsgate Press, 1906], p. v.). Understandably, his words are a part of the Preface to his own work on the subject. In his book he records his observations on a list of eighteen revivals in the Bible.
Writing recently and many years later, Kaiser offers a similar observation. He says, “I have been able to find only five volumes (two of which are quite slender) that treat the subject of revivals in the Bible. He then presents a list of those books.The one which Baker authored is among them (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Revive Us Again: Biblical Insights for Encouraging Spiritual Renewal [Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999], p. 3). Again, lack of material on the subject serves as a catalyst for his writing a book on biblical revivals.
Smith counts a total of seven revivals during Old Testament times. However, in a 1954 revision of an earlier work he identified sixteen in all of Scripture. He lists nine things which accompany genuine spiritual renewal in the Old Testament (Wilbur M. Smith, The Glorious Revival under King Hezekiah [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1937], pp. 7-8).
1. A preceding time of moral declension and despair.
2. A stirring in the heart of some individual who then serves as a catalyst for revival.
3. Spirit-anointed proclamation of the Word of God.
4. A return to the genuine worship of God.
5. The removal of idolatrous worship.
6. A separation form sinful activities.
7. A return to the offering of blood sacrifices in Old Testament times.
8. A new sense of joy.
9. A time of productivity and prosperity following.
Kaiser devotes a whole book to a study of the sixteen revivals in the Bible (p. 15). In it he writes, “If the spirit of God did not periodically send revival, this world would be in extremely sad shape.It is alarming to see how frequently the lessons learned by one generation are totally forgotten in another.But thanks be to God, he will not let his fallen children roam about in spiritual fatigue forever” (p. 131).
Definition of Revival
But just what does one have in mind when he speaks of “revival?” A commonly used definition of the term in religious circles describes it as an evangelistic or soul winning campaign. While focusing more on its role in the renewal of believers, Finney views the conversion of sinners as an effect of revival. He writes, “It presupposes that the Church is sunk down in a backslidden state and revival consists of a return of the Church from her backsliding and in the conversion of sinners” (Charles G. Finney, Revival of Religion [Chicago: Fleming H Revell Company, 1868], pp. 14-15).
Olford defines revival as “. . . the sovereign act of God, in which He restores his own backsliding people to repentance, faith and obedience” (Stephen Olford, Heart-Cry for Revival: Expository Sermons on Revival [Westwood, NJ: Revel, 1962], p. 33).
Following a discussion of the definition of others on revival, Kaiser concludes, “In short, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, revival consists of ‘breaking up fallow ground’ that once had been tilled and was mellow and suitable for growing an abundant harvest but is now hardened and overgrown with weeds and all sorts of spontaneous vegetation, none of which pleases or is useful to the former” (p. 7). Elsewhere he writes, “A revival is a time when believers witness an extraordinary work of God enlivening, strengthening, and elevating the spiritual life and vitality already possessed, but which life is now in a state of decline and is feeble, mediocre, and dull in its outworkings” (p. 21).
Then, if revivals are a periodic phenomenon, what brings them about? Do they come as the results of earnest prayer from God’s people? Or, are they simply spontaneous acts of the sovereign Lord of the Church? Kaiser writes:
Few would deny that God is sovereign in this whole work of revival, but many will doubt whether men and women have any necessary part. Yet most, if not all, will agree that people are not just robots, without any fault or responsibility in this affair. And surely confession and repentance, even though they are aided by the special work of God, are nonetheless also the responsibility of individuals (p. 17).
Finney held that revivals follow certain laws just as the law of the harvest determines the produce from the farmer’s field. However, Whittaker writes that Dr. J. Edwin Orr holds “. . . there is no technique that can guarantee revival” (Colin C. Whittaker, Great Revivals [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1984], p. 192).
Indeed, Scripture indicates that both God and man have a part in producing revival. In several instances God sends or allows specific events which serve as catalysts in stirring men to seek His face for spiritual renewal. These include the threat of an enemy invasion; the immanence of judgment from the hand of God; the prevalence of idolatry and its sinful aftermath; the recognition of the goodness of God; the suffering of physical and spiritual deprivation; and the preaching of the Word of God.
The Threat of an Enemy Invasion
The threat of an enemy invasion provoked Jacob’s call for spiritual renewal in his household (Gen. 35:1-15). The patriarch had returned to his homeland following years of absence because of his difficulties with his brother Esau over the family birthright. He not only had found favor with his estranged family, but other tribal groups showed him kindness. However, when one of the neighboring tribes defiled a daughter of Jacob, two of his sons deceitfully raided their town, murdered all of the males in its population, and took its possessions for themselves as spoils of war.
For their act Jacob rebuked his sons saying, “You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed” (Gen. 34:30). Under such a threat the patriarch readily responded to a call from Jehovah to return to Bethel where he first met the Lord in a personal encounter as he was leaving the land of his birth. At that he issued a call to his household of perhaps as many as one thousand people to a revival of the worship of the one true God. The report of his summons declares:
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem (Gen. 35:2-4).
The Lord responded immediately to their service of rededication. The threat of an enemy invitation immediately ended.Scripture records, “Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them” (5).
The Immanence of Judgment from the Hands of the Lord
The threat of judgment from the hand of the Lord can also provoke efforts toward revival. For example, early in the history of Israel shocking evidence of the depravity of man appeared. Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai for a time of special communion with Jehovah. During those days the Lord gave his servant the Ten Commandments carved on two tablets of stone. In the forty-day absence of their leader, the people of Israel pressured Aaron to sculpture for them a god which they could see with human eyes. The vice-leader of the nation yielded and molded a golden calf. He then called for a feast to provide an opportunity for the citizens of the new nation to worship this god.
As with idolatry in ancient days, their celebration included lewd activity. The Bible says, “So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (Exod. 32:6). As to the meaning of the word “revelry” Kaiser explains, “It means the people began to indulge in sexual prostitution” (p. 47). Following their pagan neighbors, they likely thought to experience union with their god through engaging in immorality with “sacred” prostitutes.
When Moses returned from his trip to the mountain in the middle of their festivity, his righteous anger raged red-hot within him. He broke the sacred stones, ground the golden calf into powder, threw the dust into the water, and forced the sinning people to drink it. Jehovah also was so disturbed over the hasty backsliding of the nation that He said to its leader, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Exod. 32:10). Scripture reports that in response, “Moses went back to the LORD and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold.But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (31, 32).
The Lord always responds to such unselfish and desperate prayers. The psalmist takes note of the power of this petition saying, “So he said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them” (Ps. 106:23). In connection with his prayer, though, the man of God exercised appropriate disciplinary action as part of his efforts to renew true worship of Jehovah. The details of this revival in Israel under Moses appear in Exodus 32:1-34:7.
"The Lord always responds to such unselfish and desperate prayers."
The Prevalence of Idolatry and Its Sinful Aftermath
Following a period of near anarchy in Israel, the prophet Samuel led the nation into a time of revival (1 Sam. 7:1-13). Under the judges spiritual and moral conditions in the country sank to the bottom. Concerning the generation following the one of Joshua’s day, the Book of Judges contains the sad observation:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths (Judg. 2:10-13).
For their sins Jehovah repeatedly punished the people of Israel.The Book of Judges contains a series of several cycles when there was sin, servitude, sorrow, supplication, salvation, and then spiritual slumber as the next cycle began. Obviously, in each case their sorrow, repentance, and supplication were short-lived. There was no depth to result in genuine revival in those days.
The aftermath of such spiritual backsliding was catastrophic. By the time Samuel arrived on the scene conditions in Israel were at a low ebb.Kaiser describes them in the words:
Rarely has immorality, injustice, and corruption of every sort achieved greater freedom. Samples of all of these sins could be found in the priest’s own office and home. The high priest Eli had failed both as a leader of the nation and as a father. The offerings of the Lord were polluted, and Eli’s sons exceeded every boundary of good taste, morality, and common decency (p. 62).
Along with all of this the people suffered mercilessly at the hands of their oppressors, the Philistines.The nation had even lost the Ark of the Covenant to their enemy, as they foolishly took it into battle one day.
At last, thankfully, the prophet Samuel appeared with a challenge for the nation to turn from its idolatry to serve Jehovah as their fathers had done. As he addressed the people he declared, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:3, 4).
As to the response of those in the assembly, the report follows, “So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only” (4). Before the day was over Jehovah granted a mighty deliverance to Israel from their bondage to the Philistines.The writer then concludes, “So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again.
Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:13).
Of course, little idolatry of the literal variety exists in many parts of the world today. Still, as is frequently said, anything that a person puts before God in his life is an idol. Kaiser notes, “Some people’s gods are their bellies, others, their jobs, families, books, friends, leisure time, vacation homes, television programs, sports teams or ambitions” (p. 126).
Recognition of the Goodness of God
Kaiser draws attention to the fact that the recognition of the goodness of God was the basis of the plea for revival by the sons of Korah in Psalm 85 (pp. 19-22). First, he recounts that these men themselves had been the recipients of special grace from God. Their father placed himself at the head of a rebellion against the leadership of Moses (Num. 16:1-50). As punishment for his defiant act, Jehovah caused the earth to open and swallow him, his family, and all of their possessions (33).
Yet, stemming solely from the heart of a merciful God some of the sons of Korah were spared. Later Scripture records, “The line of Korah, however, did not die out” (Num. 26:11). As Levites, then, these descendants of a wicked ancestor continued to serve in the ministry of the Old Testament priesthood (1 Chron. 9:19). A part of their service must have been leading in the area of worship through music. The Bible names them as composers of the songs in Psalms 42-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88. Kaiser concludes, “How appropriate, then, that the family that had experienced generously of the grace of God should be used by God to call their generation and ours back to that same God of grace!” (p. 20).
Not only do the sons of Korah recognize the goodness of the Lord in their own lives in calling for revival in their country, but they begin their plea for a national return to God on the basis of Jehovah’s mercies to His people. Their song declares, “You showed favor to your land, O LORD; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger” (Ps. 85:1-3). That provoked a prayer for revival in their hearts as they write, “Restore us again, O God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us” (4).
In a concluding remark of application on the psalm, Kaiser writes, “It is not always necessary for God to send trouble to get our attention. Sometimes his very goodness forces us to realize that we are the recipients of abundant favor that we do not deserve. In times like these we are ripe for the persuasive work of God’s gracious Holy Spirit” (p. 91). Paul rebuked the Romans for not recognizing the goodness of God is intended to lead to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
The Suffering of Physical and Spiritual Depravation
The Bible’s “golden text” for preaching on revival comes from God’s response to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple he had erected for Jehovah’s glory. The Lord declared, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). The immediate concern of the passage is that of God’s people in a time of physical distress. Jehovah describes the conditions for His coming to their rescue saying, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people,” if they turn to Him He will “heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:13, 14). However, His greater concern is that they “turn from their wicked ways” so that He could “forgive their sin.” It is this that makes the verse a genuine revival text.
The first of the specific steps to revival for Israel was to humble themselves. Jehovah declared, “For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15). To recognize one’s need is the first step to humility. As long as one feels self-sufficient, he is not humble.Scripture constantly calls on man to humble himself. Peter reminded his readers that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:5, 6).
"To recognize one’s need is the first step to humility."
The second step was to pray. Explaining that the Hebrew word for prayer in this passage refers specifically to intercession, Kaiser exhorts, “Mark it well: where intercession goes thin or ceases altogether, there the saints and the churches drift into spiritual lethargy, and the forces of evil have a field day in the culture” (p. 235).
The third requirement was to seek the face of God. The focus must remain Jehovah. He alone can help, not idols or those with familiar spirits. Sadly, in times of trouble some today seek fortune tellers and the like. It is a marvel that the Lord must urge “my people who are called by my name” to seek Him instead of other sources.
The final step was to turn from their wicked ways, the last step in genuine repentance. At the same time they must return to the Lord “with all their heart and with all their soul” (2 Chron. 6:38, 39).
The Importance of the Preaching the Word in Revival
When the pulpit fails to declare the whole counsel of God and turns, instead, to pop psychology, self-realization talks, and identity types of searches in sermonettes, be sure that the populace both inside the church and outside it, will see all hell break loose just as Moses witnessed after a mere forty day hiatus of his presence and preaching while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments” (p. 29).
However, obviously Kaiser has more in mind than just proclaiming the Word. The end result of preaching the gospel must be the people’s positive response to it. As Kaiser says further, “The sin question must always be dealt with first, or the quest for renewal and reviving of life among God’s people will be dead in the water, even before it starts” (p. 33).
True revival, then, produces specific actions for the good of man and the glory of God. Listing the results of revival during the course of history Kaiser writes
". . . slavery was abolished, child labor laws were ended, work hours shortened, missionary societies were formed, the YMCA was begun in many cities of the world, slums were cleared, the Sunday school movement began, homes for unwed mother were provided, abortion was condemned, and similar reforms were enacted by revived consciences of restored believers moving out into the marketplaces of the world and our society at large” (p. 28).
He observes further, “Leviticus 26:4 had predicted that ‘the ground will yield its crops’ when God’s people obey him. Generally the most prosperous times in English and American history were directly connected as aftermaths of revivals from God” (p. 28).
In the above discussion, then, I have shown that both God and man have a part in producing revival. In several instances God sends or allows specific events which serve as catalysts in stirring men to seek His face for spiritual renewal. These include the threat of an enemy invasion; the immanence of judgment from the hand of God; the prevalence of idolatry and its sinful aftermath; the recognition of the goodness of God; the suffering of physical and spiritual deprivation; and the preaching of the Word of God.
While believers direct their efforts for revival toward God, their greater emphasis should be on meeting the conditions for His response. As Kaiser recognizes, some parachurch organizations and noted national evangelists have taken up the cause of revival and evangelism where the local church has tended to default in these matters.
However, he concludes:
"The ball, as it were, is being bounced back again into the court of the local church. True, it was the local church, or at least many of its members, who cheerfully and extravagantly gave funds for the success of these parachurch and evangelistic ministries. But it would appear that the next decade will belong to the gathered church in accordance with God’s original design" (p. 128).
Kaiser writes further, “. . . one would hardly need the skills of a prophet to conclude that the current pace of evil in America has accelerated to such a rate that it is almost a foregone conclusion that God must intervene with unusual punishment, if an immediate repentance to God and revival from God is to prevent such judgment from falling on any of the modern nations of our day” (p. 232).
Baker, Ernest.The Revivals of the Bible.London: The Kingsgate Press, 1906.
Finney, Charles G.Revival of Religion.Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1868.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr.Revive Us Again: Biblical Insights for Encouraging Spiritual Renewal. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999.
Olford, Stephen F.Heart-Cry for Revival: Expository Sermons on Revival.Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revel Company, 1962.
Smith, Wilbur M.The Glorious Revival under King Hezekiah.Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1937.
Whittaker, Colin C. Great Revivals [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1984.