A simple and straightforward question comes to us in the inbox. “Pastor John, how can I understand revival according to the Bible? And what would we expect to see if it broke out again today?”
The idea of revival originates in the reality that, on the one hand, God is the decisive giver of all spiritual life and, on the other hand, humans, even those who are born again and part of God’s covenant family, from time to time drift into a kind of lifelessness and lethargy and backsliding and indifference and weakness. And when you put those two together — God as the giver of life and man as ever drifting towards lifelessness — what you get is the need for the hope of reviving, coming back to life — a fresh outpouring of God’s live-giving Spirit on his people. That is what revival is.
“God is the decisive giver of all spiritual life, so ask for a fresh outpouring of his live-giving Spirit.”
So, for example, we read a prayer to God in Psalm 85:6, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Or, Habakkuk 3:2, “O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.” Or, Psalm 80:18, “Give us life, and we will call upon your name!” Or, Isaiah 57:15, “Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
And alongside those passages about reviving, you read the history of Israel — and it is just one up-and-down after the other. One king is wicked and God withholds his blessing or sends judgment. Another king recovers godliness and there is a reviving and an awakening of true worship for a season. And up and down it goes. And when you turn to the New Testament, even though the period of time is really short between Jesus’s resurrection and the close of the New Testament — maybe forty years or so — we do get glimpses already of churches that were in need of reviving.
I think the book of Hebrews was written to a church like that. You hear it in Hebrews 5:12, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.” Or, Hebrews 12:12, “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint.” So, this is a church that is already drooping. It is already dragging. It has gotten tired already and needs reviving.
Then, when you read the prayers of Paul, this is where I feel it. When you read the prayers of Paul in his letters, they read just like prayers that would be made for churches that are drifting into lifelessness. There are few prayers in the Bible that have had a reviving, challenging, awakening, renewing effect on me like Ephesians 3, where Paul prays like this:
[I pray] that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16–19)
Over the years in my pastoral ministry, that prayer to have power to comprehend the height and depth and length and breadth and to be filled with all the fullness of God was a heart cry because of how short I knew I fell of being filled with all the fullness of God.
“My heart cry is to be filled with all the fullness of God because I know I fall far short of it.”
In the history of the church, the term revival in its most biblical sense has meant a sovereign work of God in which the whole region of many churches, many Christians has been lifted out of spiritual indifference and worldliness into conviction of sin, earnest desires for more of Christ and his word, boldness in witness, purity of life, lots of conversions, joyful worship, renewed commitment to missions. You feel God has moved here. And basically revival, then, is God doing among many Christians at the same time or in the same region, usually, what he is doing all the time in individual Christian lives as people get saved and individually renewed around the world.
And I will just say, if anybody wants to go further, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s book Revival would be a great read. Or, you can go to Desiring God and type into the search engine, “What is revival?” There is a whole list of things that come up there (see also the topic Revival / Awakening).