A Picture of Revival
What was your first reaction to what is now known as the Asbury revival? I am talking about before you did any research. Was it rejoicing, excitement, skepticism, fear… or a hodgepodge of those feelings and more? I imagine for most there was a combination of reactions that culminated in research. Did you hear about the revival and immediately pray that God would save His people through the proclamation of the gospel?
I don’t claim to be an expert on all that took place in Wilmore, Kentucky. That’s not the purpose of this post. If you would like to know my views on the event, please see Jordan Standridge’s excellent article.
What I thought would be helpful wouldn’t be to rewrite Jordan’s article, he did far better than I ever could, or write and comment on what so many others have already done well. I thought it might be beneficial to pause to look at a genuine revival in the Scriptures. There are various places we could go to, but I wanted to make a few comments from Acts 13 that I think will help give us some additional perspective not only on the Asbury revival but on others like it.
To start off, the word revival is not a Biblical word. So when I say a revival in the Scriptures, I am drawing from a particular definition that I am mapping on to what I think we see in the Bible. No translators use the word in any major, minor, or paraphrase English translations that I could find (which is a good thing since it wouldn’t be the best translation). The word revival is based on the Latin word “revivere,” meaning “again,” based on the prefix “re,” and “to live,” based on the suffix, “vivere.” At which point, you can understand the word choice, for happenings like these. It means “to live again.”
While revival isn’t found in the Scripture, the word revive is. It’s used in various ways in different contexts. For example, it’s used for one’s spirit reviving after receiving good news or even food (cf. Gen 45:27; 1 Sam 30:12). At times the psalmist will plea for the Lord to revive him with His word (cf. Ps 119:25, 93, 154). It’s used to speak of restoration.
To a degree, when someone speaks of a revival be it during the time of the great awakening or even up to a few days ago when Asbury University decided to end the revival services that were taking place, a combination of the definitions above seems to be in view. There is an emphasis on spiritual awakening and restoration, both new birth, and spiritual growth through sanctification (or at least there should be if you’re seeking to stick to definitions).
This will be a highlights tour through Acts 13. I do not believe everything in it is prescriptive for the local church or normative. Having said that, there are principles we can learn and characteristics that will inform how we understand the Lord when He is at work in the salvation of many people. As an additional caveat and PSA, I realize there are other passages we could go to, and they do not all flow in this particular fashion. We’ll consider revival in Acts 13 under five headings.
Before we get to swaths of Gentiles believing in Jesus for salvation, seen in repenting of their sins and turning by faith to the risen Lord, we see the church. In Acts 13:1–3, we read, “Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” Behind what takes place in the salvation of many peoples is the church in Syrian Antioch. Leaders in the church came together and commissioned Paul and Barnabas for ministry. The ministry they were commissioned to, as we will see, was in proclaiming the gospel.
Revivals don’t happen by accident. To clarify, you don’t plan them, but they happen through intentional ministry. There will not be a revival where you do not have sons and daughters of the Lord out faithfully proclaiming truth about the Lord. In this case, Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the church in Antioch to teach about Jesus.
In verses 4–5, we read, “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. And when they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews, and they also had John as their helper.” We saw the first Gentile church send out Paul and Barnabas, here we see that the Holy Spirit sent them. Both are true. The Lord used the church to accomplish His purposes. And when they reached Salamis on the island of Cyprus, we see they were heralding the word of God. They weren’t just sitting around. They weren’t just praying for revival and not acting in obedience to their commission. They were actively engaged in the ministry of the word.
As they arrive in Pisidian Antioch, which is in the southern portion of modern-day Turkey, it becomes even clearer what the heart of their ministry centers around… the ministry of the gospel. Paul went into the synagogue and after recounting a history of Israel stated in verses 26–31, “Brothers, sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God, to us the word of this salvation was sent. For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. And when they had finished all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people.” Paul goes on to say, “Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and that in Him, everyone who believes is justified from all things which you could not be justified from through the Law of Moses.” That is clear and direct preaching.
In order for people to live again, pulling on the meaning of revival, you have to have the gospel. I recognize that Paul is speaking of Israel’s salvation in Rom 10:14–17, but there is an extended application for us. In verse 17 Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” People become new creatures in Christ through hearing the gospel. The gospel must be there.
While God uses human means and instruments, as unworthy as we are, to proclaim glorious truth, it is He alone who saves. In Iain Murray’s work, Revival and Revivalism, he does a helpful job of distinguishing between the work of God versus the works of men. It’s a bit beyond the scope of this article, but there have been times in history when men have sought to replicate a work of God. At times, this occurs through a setting aside of preaching the gospel and replacing the pure word with a substitute, emotionalism. It has happened, it happens, and it will continue to happen where people will try to pass off a counterfeit as a work of the Lord. That’s precisely what we don’t see in Acts 13. We see a genuine work of God. In Titus 3:5–7, Paul writes, “He saved us, not by works which we did in righteousness, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we would become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” It is the mercy of God seen on display in the salvation of sinners.
We see a response that was not worked up by Paul and Barnabas, of themselves. We read in verses 42–43, “And as Paul and Barnabas were leaving, the people kept pleading that these words might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.” The people were hungry. They wanted to hear more of, “these words.” The referent is to the gospel that was just proclaimed. Paul and Barnabas encouraged them to continue in the grace of God. True salvation isn’t just something that lasts for a few hours or days and then fades. It continues.
Then we see in verse 44, “And the next Sabbath, nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord.” There are more people at the synagogue than before. Those who heard the gospel told others. Almost the entire city of Pisidian Antioch came to hear the gospel. Think for a moment of the city that you live in, nearly everyone gathering together to hear the gospel. It’s the power of God on display.
Afterward, some Jewish people started to contradict and seemingly heckle Paul. Paul and Barnabas offered a public rebuke and then said in verse 47, “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles, that You may bring salvation to the end of the earth.’” The response to this is seen in verse 48, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” That’s beautiful. Many Gentiles, as many as set apart by the Lord, believed in Jesus and had eternal life. But it’s more than that, right? They are worshiping. They are rejoicing. They have true change. This, anachronistically speaking, is revival.
But it doesn’t stop there. Verse 49 says, “And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.” After many people are saved, we see that God is at work in them. Their lives are changed. Where these people once did not love God, now they are out and about proclaiming the word of the Lord. Those that God saves, He changes. Paul says in Phil 2:12–13, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We are called to live in a certain way, and we do because we love the Lord and want to honor Him. We also recognize that that new desire in us, and the good that we walk in, is fueled by the Lord Himself, the Spirit.
Finally, in verse 52, we read, “And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” These disciples, who came to be such through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas proclaiming the gospel, continued in the way. They were filled with joy and the Spirit of God. They are becoming like the One they love. It’s spectacular.
Here are some concluding observations. First, when true revival breaks out, God does it. God changes hearts. God changes lives. People are convicted of sin, they turn from it, and that’s demonstrated not over the next week or month only, but until death. There’s no such thing as someone falling in love with Jesus who doesn’t also fall in line with the call of His word to follow Him. Jesus makes that clear in John 14:15 when He says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
Second, while God is the one that orchestrates revival, He does so through human instruments being faithful to Him in preaching the gospel. I am convinced that there is no revival where there is no gospel. Where the gospel is absent you may have emotions, you may have crying, you may have all sorts of things… but where the good news of Jesus Christ coming to die for sinful men and rising from the grave is missing, you do not have by-definition, “again,” “to live.” You do not have dead men coming to life in Christ (cf. Eph 2:1–10).
While the design of this post isn’t to be a direct commentary on Asbury, it is meant to help us consider what the Bible says as a lens through which we can view events like Asbury.
Given all that’s been said, how should we respond to the Asbury revival and events like it? Pray. Pray for those who are ministering that they would proclaim the gospel. Reach out to them if you can and know them. Pray that hearts and lives would be changed by beholding the glory of Christ. Pray that those who are there would bear fruit in keeping with repentance, and join faithful Bible-preaching local churches where they can serve and exercise the spiritual gifts God has given them. And if you’ve read this far, it’s worth stating, revival or no revival, don’t just be a spectator yourself, be faithful in preaching Christ crucified that men, women, and children might truly live.
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