What does revival look like? The Spirit Speaks (application)

(picking up after last week’s post)

What did revival look like in 1 Samuel? First, it affected even the wider culture, even those who would not have been seeking God on their own.

Second, there can be times when the corporate presence of God is so strong that it affects even those around us. That is, its effects are not exclusively individualistic, though it begins with individuals whose hearts are for God. In terms of personal responsibility, we want to live our individual lives in the light of God’s presence. But sometimes God’s Spirit impacts even those around us through what we do or even how we worship.

I never visited “the Toronto Blessing,” and my illustration here need not reflect on everything that happened there. But I had a friend who visited it to check it out. He tells me that as he was approaching the entrance of the building he spoke to someone beside him, whom he didn’t know. “Do you think this is for real?” he asked. The other man shook his head. “I’m just coming to prove how fake it is.” The moment their feet touched the threshold, the other man dropped flat on his face, and my friend jumped back. “Is he dead?” he asked himself, terrified. Anna Gulick, a neighbor who participated in the Asbury Revival of 1970, said that even a block away from the campus, one could feel the presence of God so strongly that one could barely speak, so in awe was one of God’s holiness.

Third, we can see one of the ways that hearing from God spread from one boy, Samuel, to many others over the course of a generation. In a time when few were hearing from God (though some were—cf. 1 Sam 2:27-36), God sovereignly reached out to a boy consecrated by others for his service. Samuel began hearing from God and became widely known for this as he grew to be a young man (3:19-21). Still, Israel was following its institutional leaders, who were either corrupt (Eli’s sons; 2:12-17, 22, 25) or compromised and ineffective (Eli himself; 2:22-25, 29), and they led the entire nation into judgment (1 Sam 4). After twenty years, Samuel was in a position to summon Israel back to the Lord (7:2-6).

But many were thereafter drawn to Samuel, and learned from his experience of God. As we see in 1 Sam 19, Samuel was mentoring many younger prophets. Although God’s Spirit speaks perfectly, we humans do not always hear perfectly. Samuel, who had a perfect batting average in prophecy (3:19), could oversee younger prophets and help guard against them going astray. (In the first-generation churches of the Pauline mission, Paul has to appeal instead to peer review; 1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:19-22.)

Was this generation a one-off? Or did God work this way at other times? In a generation when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord (1 Kgs 18:4, 13) and replaced them with her prophets of Baal (18:19), Elijah thought that he alone was left a prophet of the Lord (18:22; 19:10, 14). (Technically, 18:4, 13, suggest that he was wrong, though he was probably the only one still speaking for God publicly.)

But by the time that Elijah is about to be taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, the land abounds with prophets (2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 7; cf. 1 Kgs 20:35). Although 1-2 Kings does not specify Elijah’s time mentoring these prophets, we do see his successor Elisha leading them (2 Kgs 4:38; 6:1; 9:1; cf. 2:15; 4:1).

I believe that this suggests that God can raise up leaders who not only experience the Spirit but who lead others into this experience, who over the course of a generation transform their generation by the spreading of the Lord’s message.

We shall see something similar or related in the Book of Acts, in (hopefully) future installments on this theme. Prophetic revival is not, however, the only way that God works, as if he is limited to a single method. God also works through societal transformation through godly leaders, as we see through King David or King Josiah or William Wilberforce. (I will take Josiah as my example for this.) God also brings revivals of worship, as we shall see in 1-2 Chronicles. God also works in other ways than what we might call revival in any sense—e.g., through promises of progeny to patriarchs (Abraham and Sarah) or through preserving people in famine (Joseph).

What does revival look like? And who gets to define it as such? There have been times in my life when I experienced such a deep spiritual connection with certain brothers and sisters that when we encountered each other even in a casual situation we began to overflow with worship and soon prophesying. Sometimes in a small group we would take turns prophesying. (Apologies to my cessationist brothers and sisters here, but with some of you I have experienced the same joy of us excitedly discussing Scripture; we all agree that God speaks through that, at least!) Essentially, we worshiped God, experienced his Spirit strongly, and I shared what I felt that he was speaking and encouraged others in the group to do the same. We sometimes kept going for a couple hours. Of course, in that small setting we could also offer course corrections without embarrassment if the others felt that someone went off biblically or said something that interfered with the sense of the Spirit’s approval (cf. 1 Cor 14:29). But it wasn’t something we worked up; it flowed naturally from the overflow of the experience of God’s Spirit among us. Whether you want to call that prophecy, as I would, or just worshiping and listening for God’s voice, seems to me just a matter of semantics.

I don’t think that a small group experiencing God’s voice together is what people mean by revival. But what happens if it spreads?

When I came here to teach at Asbury Seminary I learned more about the two twentieth-century revivals at Asbury College (now University), which of course impacted the seminary as well. When Anna Gulick shared with me her own experience of the 1970 revival, it triggered my memories of experiences I had at a Pentecostal Bible college (now part of a university) maybe ten years later. More than once the Spirit so moved us during worship in chapel that we couldn’t stop worshiping without neglecting his awesome presence (and who would do that?) Classes had to be canceled, and the Spirit of worship and prayer settled on the campus for days. Through Spirit-led leadership, we regularly sent out mission teams. We didn’t know to call that “revival.” But we cherished it, and expected that it would happen periodically.

What is the long-range impact? That’s much harder to measure. Out of the Asbury Revival did come a generation of servants impacting the world for Christ, such as Ajith Fernando. I have kept up with a couple of my friends from those small, usually spontaneous prophetic prayer meetings; one went to share Christ with an unreached people group, and the other facilitated training for over a million believers in a closed country. Not all my colleagues from Bible college even persevered in the faith, but many are now doing ministry all over the world and leading in cutting-edge mission. While we’re called to evaluate fruit, however, only God’s perspective in eternity will show us the fruit that comes from the true moving of God’s Spirit.

Whether we want to call something revival or use some other terminology, may we embrace whatever God’s Spirit wants to do among us. When our hearts are so tender before him that we want what he wants, willing to interrupt our otherwise-appropriate schedules when he invites us into special times of intimacy with him, when we refuse to limit what God might do if he wishes … call it what you will. Just welcome, embrace, and passionately desire his presence.

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