Awakening: What Is Revival?

Sermon by David Strain on October 4, 2020

Acts 1:1-14

Do please keep your Bibles open and turn to the New Testament scriptures and to the book of Acts. As I said at the beginning of the service, today we begin our new teaching theme for 2020-2021 and we’ve chosen the theme of “Awakening: Preparing Our Hearts for Revival.” David Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in 1959, “The greatest problem confronting us in the church today is that the vast majority of professing Christians are not convinced of the reality and desirableness of revivals.” It was true then; I believe it’s still true today. We urgently need the Lord to “rend the heavens and to come down” in a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, but many of us are unsure what a revival is. We may have wrong ideas about revival and we’re not sure we really want one, even were God willing to send one. And so for the next few months we are going to think through the topic of revival together, beginning today with the question, “What is revival?” And to help us answer that question we turn to what is probably the most famous revival in history – the day of Pentecost – about which we read in the first two chapters of the book of Acts. You will find them printed in the bulletin. We are only going to read Acts chapter 1, 1 through 14, but you have the first fourteen verses of chapter 2 printed there as well for your reference.

Before we read the Scriptures, let’s pause once again and pray and ask for the Lord to give us ears to hear what His Spirit is saying to the Church. Let us pray.

O Lord, we want to be teachable now before You. We pray that our hearts would be good soil, receptive to the seed of Your holy Word, that we may produce a mighty harvest. So hear us. Pour out the Spirit on the ministry of the Word for the blessing of Your people, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts chapter 1, verses 1 through 14. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy and authoritative Word.

About twenty minutes or so outside of my hometown stands the small town – my hometown is Glasgow in the west of Scotland – there’s a small town called Shotts. “S-h-o-t-t-s.” And on the hill overlooking the M8 Motorway, which is the main artery between Glasgow and Edinburgh, stands the parish church known as the Kirk O’Shotts. And every day, thousands of busy commuters between Glasgow and Edinburgh zip past the church, completely ignorant of what took place there almost 400 years ago on June 21, 1630. The custom in the church back then – it’s still practiced, actually, in some portions of the Scottish Presbyterian Church today – was to hold a series of services over the course of the weekend in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. On this particular communion season, the main preacher was the renown, Robert Bruce. And there was such a sense, a palpable sense of the presence of God, that by the end of the Sunday evening service nobody wanted to leave. Now can you imagine that? We’re all so eager to get to the buffet, aren’t we? But imagine after the sermon is done, nobody moves. There’s an air of something sacred; the atmosphere of heaven resting upon the assembly. People are quietly praying, some are weeping, everyone is seeking the Lord together, talking quietly with one another about the things of God. And that’s what happened on this occasion. And so another service was quickly arranged for the next morning.

And a relatively unknown probationer – that means he had been licensed by his presbytery to preach but he had not yet been called to a congregation, and so he was still unordained – a relatively unknown candidate for the ministry, a man called John Livingstone, was appointed to preach on the Monday morning. On the Sunday night before, “I had been in company with some Christians who spent the night in prayer and conference,” Livingstone said, “but then when I was alone in the fields in the morning before the time of sermon, there came such a misgiving of spirit upon me considering my own unworthiness and weakness and the multitude and expectation of the people that I was consulting with myself to have stolen away and declined preaching.” So he spent the night praying and the next day he’s so overcome by fear that he wants to do nothing so much as to tuck tail and run away. Every preacher I know has had that experience at some point. Livingstone, in other words, was a very ordinary man. Somehow he manages to overcome the temptation to flee, and at the appointed time for the sermon, he preached for an hour and a half. Be thankful for small mercies! And then something happened.

As he comes to the end of his sermon and he’s applying his message to the congregation, instead of ending the sermon he continued on, and on some more, and on still further, going on for at least another hour – a two-and-a-half hour long sermon with what he called “great melting of heart,” exhorting and pleading with the people. And the effect of that one sermon was remarkable. A neighboring pastor by the name of Robert Flemming wrote, “A downpouring of the Spirit accompanied the ordinances, especially that sermon on the Monday, the 21st of June, that it was known – which I can speak on sure ground – near 500 had at that time a discernible change wrought in them, of whom most proved lively Christians afterward. It was the sowing of a seed through Clydesdale. So as many of the most eminent Christians in that country could date their conversion or some remarkable confirmation in their case from that day.”

Five hundred people converted, many Christians confirmed and renewed in their faith, under the ministry of that one extraordinary long sermon. Livingstone was not an especially gifted or remarkable preacher, remember, and afterwards he indicated that he never again enjoyed anything like the experience of the presence and power of God in his preaching or that kind of usefulness in his preaching ministry as he did that day in the Kirk O’Shotts. It was a sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit resting upon and blessing with unusual power the ordinary, regular ministry of the Word. It was not the manufactured effect of manipulative technique, but the regular ministry, blessed with extraordinary effectiveness.

That’s what we mean when we talk about revival. And we could multiply stories like that from across the ages and around the world in the church. Remember, Christianity is not merely a body of teaching, a set of doctrines and propositions. It is not merely or even primarily an ethical system, a way of living morally, much less is it a set of ritual practices. Authentic Christianity, let’s remember, while it is certainly founded upon doctrine and truth and produces ethical reformation in our lives and calls us to worship formally and publicly together, is in essence a supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people. And from time to time, that supernatural work enjoys a season of unusual, widespread renewal and revival.

In the very first great revival of the New Testament era – we read about it together in the Scriptures a few minutes ago, the revival at Pentecost – there are some elements that are unique and unrepeatable, specific to this moment in salvation history, that will never again recur that make Pentecost unlike every other work of God in history. And then we have some other elements that are normative for the life of the church in every age and time. And to help us identify what we’re talking about when we talk about revival, all I want to do is parse out the events at Pentecost. What is extraordinary and what is normative? What was once and for all and what ought to be expected and prayed for and looked to God for even today and here amongst ourselves.

The Extraordinary Aspects of Pentecost

So let’s think first about the unique, extraordinary aspects of Pentecost. Before His departure to glory, we are told by Luke in Acts 1, verses 4 and 5, our Savior “ordered His disciples not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father,” which He said, “You heard from Me, for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” These verses, together with verse 8, provide if you like the inspired commentary on the events that will take place in Acts chapter 2 as the Spirit is at last given to the Church. And in verse 4, Jesus says to His disciples, “They will shortly receive the promise of the Father, and they are to remain in Jerusalem while they wait for it.” And now mark that carefully. They are to wait for something they did not currently enjoy. They were the people of God, followers of Messiah Jesus, believers, elect and redeemed by His mighty grace.

And yet there is something in their experience that belongs actually to the old covenant era that they do not yet enjoy that will come in the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s blessing in the new covenant. The gift of the Spirit that Jesus has promised will come upon God’s people in a new fullness, new depth, new measure that had not been known before. Something not previously enjoyed by God’s people in the same way in the old covenant that is now being given to the Church in the new covenant. And so already we are seeing, aren’t we, that there are fundamental components of this experience of Pentecost that are unrepeatable and unique. They stand, if you like, as the hinge of the ages; the pivot between the old and the new covenant experience of the people of God. And the reason they are so unique of course, so pivotal, has to do with the ascension and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is now reigning as sovereign Lord and Messiah the King and He is the one who gives the Holy Spirit like this to His people. As Peter will go on later to explain in chapter 2 verse 33, he told the crowds, who are all astonished at what they are seeing and hearing when the Spirit was poured out, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, Christ the Lord Jesus has poured out that which you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” So the coming of the Holy Spirit in this new way is the unique gift of the reigning Messiah, the risen, ascended, exalted Christ, having at last come into the world and accomplished His redeeming work. So this is something truly new. It is a one-off, never to be repeated event in salvation history. The endowment of the Church by the exalted Christ with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a depth and intimacy and dynamism never before enjoyed by the people of God.

And when you actually read the narrative of the event of Pentecost itself in chapter 2, you’ll see a number of extraordinary phenomena that accompany the event that are designed by God to highlight and underscore the uniqueness of what is taking place. So for example, there are extraordinary sounds and extraordinary sights. Aren’t there? Think about the sounds first. There’s a sound that comes from God, we’re told, in chapter 2 verse 2. “There came a sound like a mighty rushing wind.” That’s an echo of the moving of the creative wind or breath or Spirit of God back in Genesis chapter 1 verse 2 at the dawn of creation of the breathing of life, of the breath of life into our first parents at the dawn of history. It’s also an echo of the breath or wind of the Spirit of God in Ezekiel 37, verses 9 and 10. Remember, Ezekiel is there in the valley of dry bones and the wind of God begins to blow and the dry bones come to life – a mighty army.

So what is the message? What’s the signal that we’re being given? Simply that the new creation, that Jesus died and rose and ascended and reigns to give, was now breaking into the world in the life of the local churches as the Spirit was poured out upon His people. There were sounds coming from God.

There’s also some sounds coming from the church, weren’t there? The apostles began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. You see that in Acts 2 verse 4. They are enabled to declare the Word of God, the Gospel of God, in languages they had not themselves learned to the people before them from all over the world. You can read the list of the nations from which they came in verses 8 through 11. The symbolism though, of that list, is important. I won’t read the list here, but the symbolism is important once again. The giving of the Spirit to the Church in the age of the new covenant is the undoing of the judgement of God that fell upon the nations back, you remember, in Genesis chapter 11 at the tower of Babel. God brought division by confusing our languages. And so what is the message? Simply that the way back to unity, the way back to wholeness for a broken, divided world, is through the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel of grace. That is a message surely you would agree our society desperately needs in these days. Extraordinary sounds.

There were also some extraordinary sights. There were tongues of fire, flames, appearing over the heads of each of the apostles. Fire, you remember, was the great emblem of the presence of God in the Old Testament scriptures. When Moses met God on Mount Horeb in Exodus chapter 3, it was in the burning bush that the Lord revealed Himself. When God led Israel in the wilderness as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, His presence was displayed to them in a pillar of fire. When Isaiah saw a vision of God in the temple in Isaiah chapter 6, he saw seraphim, angelic beings. Their name literally is “burning ones.” And yet even these blazing, bright, angelic beings who shine with unfallen majesty, they have to veil their faces before the white-hot purity of God Himself. So here now is the symbol of the presence of the Holy One resting upon the Church – empowering, sanctifying, and using them for His glory. Extraordinary sounds; extraordinary sights – all of it designed to underscore the fact that something unique and unrepeatable is taking place here at Pentecost in Christian history.

But also something unique in Christian experience as well. That’s why in verse 5 of Acts chapter 1 Jesus compares the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to the baptism of John the Baptist. Do you see that in verse 5 of chapter 1? John’s baptism, remember, called the Jewish people back out into the Jordan wilderness there to pass through the waters of the Jordan River over again in a kind of new exodus. John called the religious elites of his own day to repent and to go back out into the wilderness and to start over, as it were, Israel’s story; to turn back and re-enter the Promised Land through the Jordan River and to be washed, not as the clean, righteous people they thought they were, but as the defiled, sinful people they really were. You may know that in John’s day the way a person became a Jew from a non-Jewish background was by means of a ritual baptism very much like this. It was said to be a sort of re-enactment of the exodus so that a Gentile convert could claim to belong to the same people who were brought out of slavery in Egypt all those years before and came through the Red Sea and crossed the Jordan. He’d have his own personal exodus.

John the Baptist was telling the good people of Judah – what a shocking message. They are not good enough. In fact, they are as guilty before God as the Gentiles were as unclean and as much in need of grace as the rest of the world. And so he made Jews get baptized as if they were proselytes joining the covenant community for the very first time. And now here, Jesus says that was but an outward picture. The reality that makes a person truly participate in the life of the covenant people of God, the washing that will really bring them from exclusion to inclusion, from unclean to clean, is not an outward ritual but it is the baptism of the Spirit. “By one Spirit,” Paul says – 1 Corinthians 12:13 – “we are all baptized into one body.” How do you get into the body? How do you come to belong? It is through the baptism of the Spirit.

The Normative Aspects of Pentecost

Here’s the point. You become a Christian, you come to belong to the body, by the baptism of the Spirit, which is actually what you find in passages like Acts 10:44 and following. There is an event there that is very much like a repetition of Pentecost – Acts 10:44 – only in miniature. And so we’re left to ask, “What is going on? How is it that we have what looks like a repetition of an unrepeatable event?” The Spirit falls upon a gathering after Peter preaches to them and people again begin to speak in other languages. And Peter actually himself identifies what is happening as the very same experience that he had on the day of Pentecost. “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have,” he says. But the thing to notice that’s different is that the Spirit came upon this gathering of Gentiles at the moment they were converted, not at some second stage, later in their experience. The giving of the Spirit to them, the moment of their Holy Spirit baptism, was synonymous with their new birth, with their conversion. And that remains, you know, the normative pattern today. The Spirit is given to every Christian when they are brought to Christ. And water baptism is merely the outward sign of that inner spiritual reality.

And let me pause here for a moment and say to you that if all you have is an external baptism, church membership, formal patterns of religious performance, it’s not another ritual you need. It is the Spirit of Jesus Christ that you need, baptizing you inwardly, giving you new life. It’s not revival you need; it’s regeneration you need. Revival is for people who are already alive but have become moribund and need renewal. That’s not your need. If all you have is formal religion, mere ritual performance – you’re here because it’s what you do on Sunday and you sort of turn off when the preacher starts to drone on – maybe actually what you need is the new birth. “You must be,” John 3:3, “You must be born again,” Jesus says. Baptized with the Spirit. “Unless Jesus wash you,” John 13:8, “you have not part with Him.” Or as Paul put it in Romans 8 verse 9, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.” Have you been baptized with the Spirit? It is actually the most urgent question I can ask you today. “Are you,” as the old spiritual puts it, “a Christian in your heart?” Through and through, inside out as it were. “Have you been born again?”

That’s actually what Pentecost is all about. We can never even begin to talk about revival; before we can do that, we have to search our hearts and ask first if we’re born again, if we are children of God by grace through faith in Christ; if we’re received the Spirit to make us new. We have to see if there is real spiritual life before we can talk about the revival of spiritual life. And so I hope you can see already there is a very important sense in which Pentecost is unique in history and also speaking about something once and for all in the experience of every child of God. When you come to faith in Christ you receive the Spirit once and for all, never again to be repeated.

And yet, alongside all of that vital truth, there are elements of what takes place at Pentecost that do recur, even within the book of Acts, and recur again in the history of the Church; something normative and repeatable, and I would argue something urgently needed in these days. Look at verses 6 through 9 of chapter 1 please. Upon hearing Jesus’ promise of coming power, the disciples, they all get pretty excited. Don’t they? You see what their question is to Jesus. “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” John Calvin, in a great line, says that, “That question contains almost as many mistakes as it does words.” John Stott boils their errors down to three. “First,” John Stott says, “the disciples clearly have in mind a political kingdom.” That was a Jewish expectation after all – that Israel would be empowered to rise to political dominance. Secondly, they have in mind an obviously national kingdom. They still think in terms of Israel’s geopolitical restoration; Israel will describe and define the extent of God’s kingdom in the world. And thirdly, they thought in terms of an immediate kingdom. “Will You at this time restore the kingdom?” That’s how they conceive of their mission, you know. It is political and national and immediate.

And isn’t that all too often how we think of the Church’s mission in the world even today – it’s political, it’s national, and it’s immediate. Maybe in these tense and politically fraught days more than most we think like that. But look how the conversation goes with Jesus. They’re asking about the kingdom. They’re thinking in terms first of politics – Israel’s conflict with Rome. But in verses 7 and 8, Jesus answers in terms of the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, “by whom they will be empowered,” He says – notice this carefully – not for military conquest or political success, but for mission. They will be empowered for mission. “You will receive power and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Why was the Spirit given? He was given to the Church to empower us to bear witness to Christ to the ends of the earth.

And if you survey the book of Acts, you will see, interestingly, that though the Spirit is given once and for all in this special way at Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out upon the Church again and again and again, empowering, renewing the Church to be bold and effective in bearing witness to Christ. Acts chapter 4 is a great example. Peter and John have been forbidden to preach the Gospel anymore. The church gathers immediately to pray and they don’t ask – this is so challenging, isn’t it? They don’t ask for protection from persecution. They don’t ask, “Oh Lord, take this terrible persecution away.” What do they ask for? “Oh Lord, give us boldness to keep preaching.” That’s what they pray. And as they pray, verse 31, “The place where they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the Word of God boldly.” There is it. That’s a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That is what we would call revival power for Gospel witness. Real revival, you see, brings the empowering of the Spirit equipping the Church to carry the apostolic testimony of the Gospel of grace to the ends of the earth.

In the 1920s, a group of commercial fishermen from the northeast coast of Scotland spent the fishing season in East Anglia in England. And while they were there, the Spirit of God began to work through the preaching of the Word in the local seaman’s mission halls. And a large number of those fishermen were converted. And when the fishing season was over, they returned to their villages all over the northeast coast of Scotland and the first thing they did upon their arrival was to hire a hall, call the town together – a bit like the woman at the well in Samaria in the Gospel account. You remember what she did? When she was confronted by Jesus, she went and told the town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” That’s what they did. And the revival rapidly spread and many were brought to faith in Jesus. Whatever excitement may be felt in the Church, whatever unusual experiences we might have, there is no real revival where the Church is not being propelled by the Spirit outwards toward others with the apostolic testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ with the Gospel. That’s always a mark, you know, of true revival.

Notice also the disciples are asking about Israel, thinking in terms of the kingdom and narrowly, nationalistic, and ethnic categories. But in verse 7 and 8, Jesus answers them in terms of a kingdom that will span all the nations. “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:9-11, in the ascension, “God has highly exalted Jesus and has given Him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” He’s the Lord of all the nations, and the mission of the Church must therefore be multiethnic and multicultural. It is a mission that will always stall whenever the Church excludes people on the basis of ethnicity or socioeconomic standing. “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Whoever you are, if you trust in the Lord Jesus, you are my brother and sister and you are among family and this is your place and you belong here with us. When the Spirit comes in revival, He is no respecter of class or color or education or economics. He makes people who have no reason to be together – and sometimes every reason to be suspicious of each other – into family, you see, united in Christ. And that unity becomes a powerful witness to the watching world. Unity is a mark of revival and division one of its great hindrances.

And finally, notice they’re talking about timing – the timing of the Father’s plan. “Will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They want it right now, immediately. They’re impatient like me, maybe like you. But in verses 7 and 8, Jesus – notice this – Jesus replies in terms of gradual expansion. Do you see that? “It is not for you to know the times and seasons appointed by the Father.” He’s teaching us that we are not authorized to expect immediately what God has ordained should ordinarily come gradually, in fits and starts, in phases, in times and seasons. There are times and seasons in the advancement of the kingdom of God. Winter and spring and summer and fall. Pruning seasons and disciplining seasons. Seasons of rebuke under the hand of God. There are dry times – times without much vitality or fruit. And then there are times of new vibrancy and fruitfulness, of harvest and blessing. Revival, do you see, is the work of the Holy Spirit and the gift of the sovereign, reigning Christ, empowering the Church for bold witness in deep unity, making use of the ordinary means of the preaching of His Word and the prayer of the saints for extraordinary ends, bringing many to faith in Christ. That’s a revival. And it comes, Jesus says, in times and seasons fixed by the Father’s authority.

There’s nothing, there’s nothing we can do to make a revival happen. You can’t plan it on Tuesday at 8pm. It is the gift of God alone. What we can do is what we see the disciples doing in verse 14. When they heard Jesus’ promise, what did they do? Survey history, the history of revivals, and you’ll see this again and again. Before a revival comes, what do the people of God do? What did John Livingstone and his friends do Sunday night before that amazing sermon at the Kirk O’Shotts on the Monday morning? Verse 14, “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer.” How we need to pray, brothers and sisters, that God would do again in our day what He has done in the days of our fathers in the faith and rend the heavens and come down and bless the ministry of His Word and awaken a sleeping Church with new boldness and zeal for His glory. Let’s pray together.

Father, we praise You that You are the sovereign God and the Lord Jesus, King and Head of the Church. And He has never yet forsaken His promises and He never will – to build His Church and the gates of hell to not prevail against it. Our Father, we pray that the Spirit of Christ might be given in new measure, that the place where we are gathered may indeed be shaken and we all may be filled with the Spirit and begin to speak the Word of God with new boldness. We need revival power to awaken us for Your glory and the extension of Your kingdom. Hear our cries then, O God, and do what You must to awaken us to Yourself, for Jesus’ sake, amen.

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