It was spring in 1630. A few ladies were traveling through the Scottish countryside near Shotts when their carriage broke down. Thankfully the minister of the Kirk of Shotts, John Home, was able to assist them in their predicament.
Struck with the poor condition of his manse, these wealthy Christian ladies determined to build another one for this kind man. Naturally, the grateful Home asked if he could do anything in exchange for their generosity. The ladies asked if they might suggest the names of the preachers for the next communion season.
Communion seasons in Scotland often gathered large numbers of people from the churches. Days would be given to various biblical concerns in preparation for Sunday when the believers among them would take communion, often in the open air. But in this particular season there was an arresting spirit of prayer, some people praying through the entire night. So much joy and appreciation was felt that the people asked if, on Monday, they might have an additional service of thanksgiving.
On Monday the appointed preacher was ill and John Livingston was asked to preach in his place. He was reluctant, probably because he was young and was among so many veteran preachers. While alone in the field meditating, he seriously thought of bolting. Yet, God stopped him, and he proceeded to the natural amphitheater that the rolling hills provided to the west of the church building.
His text was Ezekiel 36:25, 26, a gospel theme. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you . . .” After an hour and a half, he was preparing to close, when the Spirit of God moved him to exhort the people further, which he did with tears. During this final hour it began to rain. The people drew their cloaks up around their necks.
“What a mercy it is,” he cried, “that the Lord sifts that rain through these heavens on us, and does not rain down fire and brimstone as He did on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
There was soon a remarkable “motion” among the people described in the various accounts. God had come and the people were staggered by His presence. To the amazement of all, the ministers discovered that approximately five hundred were born into the family of God because of that one sermon!
This famous account of revival illustrates the connection between visitations of God and the gospel, a connection that needs once more to be welded together in our thinking.
Sadly, some have forgotten this union. One young man said to me, “I’m not an evangelist; I’m a revivalist.” He meant by this term that he was not focused on the gospel, but on the work of sanctifying Christians. Of course, he misunderstood the gospel in its implications and extensions. The gospel is about sanctification and about holiness.
I understand how he might want to run from the manipulation that some exercise in evangelism. Christianity has many embarrassments in this regard. But his reaction has gone too far. He does not stand in the mainstream of great revival preaching. Revival preaching historically and biblically is about the gospel—the depravity, sin and judgment that lead up to it, its relation to law, what it commands and calls us to, its grace and obedience, repentance and fruit, its varied effects, its life of faith, its unfolding in the church and ordinances, its spread throughout the world, its exaltation of Christ and the magnificence of God, its ultimate victory and glorious summation in Christ. Romans, for instance, is the gospel. Gospel preaching is all of this, with a fervency and call to a response. It is definitely not mere orthodoxy.
Among the books in my library on revival are numerous biographies of such men as Bruce, Welsh, Whitefield, Wesley, Rowland, Edwards, Davies, Dwight, Nettleton, Evans, Duncan, and a hundred others—all names of men whose supreme interest was the gospel. Many of these would be known as itinerant evangelists, others as gospel-centered pastors and laymen. The history of revival is all about the gospel.
Like a paddle ball attached by a stretchy band, the gospel preacher may extend out in his preaching, but he always remains tethered to Christ and the cross, striking it often in his preaching.
There were perhaps as many as twelve revivals in the long period of the Old Testament. These appear to the eye more like reforms, reviving the centrality of God as law-giver and potentate in the theocracy of the Israelite community. However, if they were more than mere reforms (that is, if the repentance involved was evangelical and saving), then these revivals must be considered evangelistic because the people were coming out of persistent idolatry and immorality, sins characteristic of unconverted people. Like Abraham and David, they looked beyond the Law to grace and faith. In this view, our connection between revival and the gospel is founded upon the Old Testament accounts.
When we preach on the Old Testament revivals, we must “Christologize” them because Christ has now come; and we must “Pneumatologize” them, because the Spirit has come in a new way. To fail in this is to leave us with something very unproductive. Such preaching may seem strong and it may produce tears and resolve, because it is about the Law and our failure, but it will not ultimately be effective, because it forgets the hope and the solution, “built on better promises.” “For even what was made glorious [the giving of the Law] had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels [the coming of Christ and the promise of the Spirit].” (2 Cor. 3:10)
We come to the archetype of revival, however, at Pentecost. We will look back to Pentecost as a model, not so that we might imitate the uniqueness of the manifestations, but for its essence, as I will explain. Pentecost carries within it the indispensable elements of all true Christian revivals. When God revives, He stirs up and carries forward what was begun at Pentecost.
There were three symbols present at Pentecost: the fire, the wind, and tongues. These are what we are to seek in revival—not the symbols themselves, but what the symbols symbolize.
What did the fire above the heads of the 120 represent to the Jewish mind? I am not going to be dogmatic about this or about the next symbol, “the mighty, rushing wind,” but I think I have the biblical view in mind when I say that fire represents the presence of God.
Fire symbolized God’s presence when Moses encountered the burning bush, when the pillar of fire guided the children of Israel across the wilderness, when the tabernacle was dedicated, and when the temple was consecrated to God. In these and other cases, fire meant that God was in their midst. God is everywhere, but we are saying that the people recognized the manifest presence of God in the fire.
The manifest presence of God is the one essential aspect of all revivals. You simply do not have revival without God being manifest in a new and more profound way. It is about “God coming down.”
Wind represents the regenerating work of God. In the Ezekiel 37 passage on the dry bones we see this dramatically. There are prophetic elements to the passage about which we cannot now speak, but the clarity of the connection between regeneration and wind is unmistakable. “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live . . . . I will put My Spirit in you and you shall live.” Jesus used the same symbol for regeneration is John 3:8 when he said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
In regeneration, the Spirit acts upon the dead unresponsive soul. There is much hope in this because many times the most hardened of people are born again in revival. As the Great Awakening pastor/itinerant William Grimshaw stated: “Families in which sin had made the most miserable havoc, and in which all the comforts of life were destroyed, now were made happy in the fear of God.”
But what about this third symbol? I do not pretend to exhaust the meaning of tongues in this brief article, but do wish to uncover its meaning related to my subject of visitations from God.
Whatever the Pentecost passage is about, it must be in answer to Christ’s prophecy about it in Acts 1:8. Note that Pentecost must be about the Holy Spirit coming upon believers, receiving power for proclamation, and the spread of the gospel.
“And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost part of the earth.”
So what could the tongues heard in Acts 2 mean? After dismissing the suggestion that the 120 were drunk with wine, Peter quotes Joel to answer this important question. The remainder of the book of Acts answers it also.
17. And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
18. And on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days;
And they shall prophesy.
19. I will show wonders in heaven above
And signs in the earth beneath:
Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.
20. The sun shall be turned into darkness,
And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.
21. And it shall come to pass
That whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:17-21)
Note that the passage divides time. The first two verses explain what has just commenced; the next two verses explain the events taking place at the end of the last days. And then there is a summary verse meant to highlight what is new about this age. The passage frames out the last days from Pentecost to the Day of the Lord.
The most prominent feature of what has just begun at Pentecost is found in this statement, mentioned twice: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . . And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.” This is Peter’s explanation for the tongues just witnessed.
Some scholars suggest that the most general meaning of prophecy is in mind here. In other words, what Peter is saying is that the Spirit has now come upon all flesh (meaning all kinds of people, as illustrated by the variety at Pentecost) and they will speak forth the things of God under this new power! That is precisely what Christ prophesied would happen in Acts 1:8, and it is what the book of Acts so vividly portrays.
It is hard for us to realize the full impact of this symbol. Until this point the Jews were internalized. Though they stood as an object lesson to the world, they were not concerned to reach the world for the coming Messiah. But a new day has come and men and women will from now on speak out to all kinds of people, not just Jews, with the power of the Holy Spirit who was poured out.
This is what the summary verse 21 declares: “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The nations of the world will now be the inheritance of Christ (see Ps. 2:7-8)
And so, the presence of God, the regenerating work of the Spirit, and the powerful presentation of the gospel accompanied by the unction of the Spirit will be part of true revival. God will over and over again revive what He began at Pentecost.
His interest therefore should be ours. We should turn again to a recovery of the true gospel, prayer for the presence of God, and an appeal that the Spirit would come upon “his menservants and his maidservants” for the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the uttermost part of the world. Or, put another way, that God would “revive His work in the midst of the years.”
By the time Asahel Nettleton of the Second Great Awakening died in 1844 over 25,000 people had been converted through his preaching, equivalent to 600,000 if compared to our current population. Like others before him, he had preached the gospel straightforwardly and honestly, doctrinally and passionately. What was remarkable about him? Only this, the Spirit came upon him. We see in him and all those people of revival through the years that precious union between the presence of God, the gospel and the unction of the Spirit. And this is, in the main, what revival is about.