What does revival look like? Part I: The Spirit Speaks

Many of us pray for revival, but what are we expecting? How would we recognize that God is answering our prayer?

Since our usual definitions of revival are largely shaped by movements of the past few centuries, rather than from a particular passage in Scripture, it’s possible that we are blending together a few different biblical models of how God works. That is, God works in various ways, and we have clustered some of those ways under particular expectations of what we mean by revival.

Having said that, there are times in history when God expressed his presence in such a way as to transform a generation, and if we are praying for such transformation, these are worth looking at. We cannot determine what shape the answer to our prayers will take—Hannah was simply praying for a son from a desperate heart, not for revival. Revival was in God’s own heart when he answered Hannah’s prayers with the boy Samuel. God is sovereign, stirring us to prayer and answering prayers in ways that sometimes make us uncomfortable. Catholics were praying for a new era of the Spirit just before the Pentecostal revival broke out among ultra low-church Protestants. Many Pentecostals were suspicious when the Spirit began moving among mainline Protestants and among Catholics. And Peter was certainly taken by surprise when his sermon was interrupted by God’s Spirit falling on uncircumcised gentiles.

Moreover, keep in mind that the long-range measure of impact may take a generation—or even eternity—to evaluate. Nevertheless, those experiencing God’s presence in these dramatic ways were not waiting for such full-scale evaluations, but were embracing what God was doing in them and through them at that time. So let’s look at one example of a revival that changed a generation. Because even this part I (on 1 Samuel) is longer than most of my posts, I will divide it into two sections.

When Samuel was a boy, the word of YHWH was rare and visions were infrequent (1 Sam 3:1). But by the time that Samuel is an old man, prophets are traveling in bands, prophesying all together with their worship instruments (10:5-6, 10). The Spirit of the Lord could come on someone else who came among them so that he too began prophesying, although afterward he might act mostly the same at the beginning (10:10-13).

By “prophesying together” I do not mean that they were prophesying in unison, but that they were all experiencing the Spirit’s inspiration and were expressing this inspiration from God rather than, or more than, paying attention to each other. Or possibly they were taking their turns (if we think of something more orderly, as in 1 Cor 14:31). The point is, that the word of YHWH was no longer so infrequent. (For the sake of some readers who are accustomed to hearing “inspiration” used in a narrower, more technical sense, I add a parenthetical digression here: I do accept Scripture as inspired [2 Tim 3:16] and as uniquely canonical. But I am using the term here in the broader sense of the Spirit moving people to speak or act for God. The English term has wider usage, of course, than even how I am using it here.)

What changed between 1 Samuel 3 and 1 Samuel 10? The author may take for granted that we already know, but he nevertheless provides a window into what was happening. Later we see Samuel presiding over a group of prophets who are prophesying (1 Sam 19:20). The Spirit of God was so strong among them that when Saul sent messengers to apprehend David, the messengers, overwhelmed with the Spirit, began prophesying. This happened also with the next two groups of messengers that Saul sent (19:20-21). Finally, Saul himself went to capture David, and was so overwhelmed by God’s Spirit that he too cast off his honorable robes and, on the ground, prophesied all day and night (19:23-24).

Keep in mind that this same Saul had lost the royal anointing of the Spirit earlier, replaced by a spirit sent for judgment (16:14). Saul had been “prophesying” by this bad spirit (18:10), and had wanted to kill David as this spirit was tormenting him (19:9-10). But when he came to where God’s prophets were prophesying, the Spirit of the Lord was so strong in that place that Saul fell down and began prophesying by God’s Spirit.

This account provides us with several insights. First, just because someone can prophesy doesn’t mean they’re super “spiritual”; it might just mean that they’re in a place where God’s Spirit is moving. There may be some leaders today living in sin who experience God’s anointing not because they are walking with God but because their mission is bathed in prayer by others. Their anointing is not permanent; compare those whose gifts leave them because of persistent sin, as in Judg 16:1-20). In times of revival, even the wicked may be affected, though they may still be wicked when the anointing “wears off.”

More next week …


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