The Joy of Genuine Revival

Four Signs of the Holy Spirit

I gave my first sermon eight thousand miles from my home, through a translator, to a room full of pastors twenty or thirty years older than me in Vijayawada, India. The text, I’ll never forget, was 1 Thessalonians 1:4–6. I was the rookie, the intern, on a team of more veteran teachers — and I was sweaty nervous.

The message got off to a rocky start. I was going too long without a break for translation, and I was clearly using words the translator either didn’t know or couldn’t translate. After a few long minutes (which felt something like a benevolent wrestling match), the poor guy had to quit and ask an older, more experienced brother to step in. The tap out certainly didn’t help my young nerves. Fortunately, I had run out of sweat by that point.

The second translator and I slowly found a rhythm together. His confidence and patience gave me greater peace and courage, and, by God’s grace, I survived the message. And the brothers, I believe, were encouraged in their faith and ministries. (As yet another mercy, preaching a sermon back home in English suddenly felt far less intimidating.)

I’ll remember that day for many reasons, but as much as anything, I’ll remember their eyes. We had been told for months leading up to the trip about all the obstacles these men were facing where they served — intense opposition, even malice; little training or support; false teaching even among Christians; grave poverty. Then we got to witness, firsthand, just how hard it was for some. And yet their eyes told a different story.

Smile of Genuine Revival

Standing in that pulpit so far from home, I began to read the sermon text: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” How could the apostle Paul possibly know that these people had been chosen by God? He doesn’t leave us in the dark:

We know . . . that [God] has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5)

He feels confident in their election because he’s seeing the signs of true revival — of God coming with supernatural power by his Spirit, through his word, to inspire sincere conviction and heartfelt worship. But how could he see the Holy Spirit? How could he know that God himself was actually moving in this church?

Paul says more in the next verse: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). He sounds the same warm note in Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” What gave Paul such confidence that the God over heaven and earth, without beginning or end, who created all things and will judge the whole world, had reached down and actually chosen this little group to be his children, his ambassadors, his future kings and queens of glory? Their extraordinary joy, especially through hardship. This joy was like a sun rising over all the dark horizons around them, declaring that they now belonged — body, soul, mind, and delight — to Jesus.

This joy wasn’t just any joy, though. The apostle goes on to sketch something of a portrait of Spirit-filled joy for us — a joy that gladly submits, that stubbornly endures, that steadily spreads, and that eagerly waits.

1. This Joy Submits

First we learn that this miraculous joy is under authority. “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). This joy wasn’t a follow-your-heart joy, but a kneel-and-obey joy.

We actually get to watch the Thessalonian church receive the word in Acts 17:1–5. When Paul came to Thessalonica, he went with Silas into the synagogues and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2–3). In other words, he preached the Bible. And how did the people respond? “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas” (verse 4). They didn’t reject the word of God, or give lip service to it, but they received it. They were persuaded by Scripture in their minds and hearts, and so they submitted themselves to whatever they found there.

2. This Joy Endures

Their glad obedience to the word of God was all the more beautiful because they suffered for their faith. “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

“The fullest joy in the universe is, for now, an incomplete joy — an anticipation of what will be.”

Again, we get to see how they suffered in Acts 17. As the word began to take hold, as they were persuaded by what Paul taught them about Jesus, “the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring [Paul and Silas] out to the crowd” (Acts 17:5). The mob was so violent that the church rushed Paul and Silas out of town (verse 10). But many Christians stayed behind and withstood the mob.

And they didn’t merely stay and keep gathering, keep preaching, keep praying, keep making disciples, but they endured much affliction with joy.

3. This Joy Spreads

When God does this kind of work, when he brings spiritual revival and exalts his Son in the hearts of a people in such a dramatic and countercultural way, news of that work inevitably spreads. Again and again, this is how God presses his fame into the hard-to-reach, often hostile corners of the world: through forgiven people rejoicing through suffering.

You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:6–8)

Words didn’t travel easily in those days. Wherever they went, they went slowly and at some significant cost. But even then, the story of this church’s joy spread far and wide beyond their region.

This means, at one level, that widespread revival is all the more possible when our circumstances turn bleak, when opposition heats up and the costs climb, because of the testimonies that spring up from such battlefields. The book of Acts is a testimony to how the word runs through suffering (see Acts 5:41–42; 6:7), bearing the fruit of joy wherever it’s planted.

4. This Joy Waits

What specific report was sent out everywhere, though? “They themselves report . . . how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10). So, they’ve already found their treasure hidden in the field — they’ve found God their exceeding Joy, a joy strong enough to brave the mob — and yet they’re still waiting for their full reward. The fullest joy in the universe is, for now, an incomplete joy — an anticipation of what will be.

Waiting is all over this letter (see 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 5:23). And what are they waiting for? Paul paints a picture of that coming day:

The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17)

The happiest people on earth are those who have their eyes set beyond this earth to the one who will one day bring heaven down to earth.

Beaten, Bruised, and Happy

I have many memories from that trip to India. Taking a plane, train, and automobile (literally) to get to the city where we were serving. The unbelievably warm hospitality everywhere we went, with amazing dishes I’d never tried (and still love). Almost all of our team getting seriously ill at some point during the two weeks. What I remember most, though, was how happy those embattled pastors were. I remember the brightness and warmth in their eyes.

I met men who had been beaten for sharing Jesus, and still bore the cuts and bruises. They had experienced hostility from every direction — from Muslim zealots, from neighbors on their street, even from within their own homes. Jesus warned us, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother. . . . And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:35–36) — and he wasn’t lying. I saw the scars.

Yet as these battered men told their harrowing stories, their eyes sang with joy. It really was the closest I’ve been to a 1 Thessalonians 1 church. They received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, relishing the chance to suffer for Jesus and eagerly waiting for his return.