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Ezra & Nehemiah

Anatomy of a Revival

Nehemiah 8-10

Lesson audio

Reading the Law

To avoid copyright complications, we will ask that you read Nehemiah 8 at this point.

Revival — Concept

One of the great difficulties that the typical board of elders has is the measurement of a pastor’s performance. The church which your author attends makes this relatively simple. There are three criteria; if all three are increasing, the pastor is doing a great job. Those three criteria are offerings, attendance and baptisms.

You will note that all three of these criteria are easy to measure. They are simply a matter of counting things. But one must ask whether or not they are an accurate measure of success. The difficulty with these measurements is that they are easy to use. They are easy to understand, they are also easy to obtain. The growth of a Christian congregation, however, is a much more complex thing. Teachers will be familiar with the problem of “teaching to the test.” If you tell a teacher that their performance appraisal depends upon the ability of their students to pass a standardized test, the teacher has the temptation of teaching exactly what’s on the test — which might not be what you really want the students to learn. Most of us have been through class where we memorized enough information to pass the course — and promptly forgot the material after the exam was over. True learning does not occur using this model. Similarly, the true growth of a Christian congregation is not just a matter of offerings, attendance and baptisms. Those are indicators of the growth of the congregation, but not true measures. The problem, of course, is that you are trying to measure the impact of the Holy Spirit on the congregation; that’s a very difficult thing. It’s easy to slip into the logical fallacy that the indicators are in fact the objectives.

It’s fairly easy to see how these criteria can go astray. Let’s take attendance, for example. You can increase attendance by turning your worship service into a dazzling show. People like to be entertained, especially when the admission is free. A little hype and some implied shame will increase your offerings. You can increase baptisms by offering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace — the grace of God given without the repentance of man. Almost any system of measurement can be deceived. So how do we know, then, when our church is experiencing a true revival? It’s a difficult question; but I submit that in these passages of the Scripture we have an example of how it’s done. So let’s see what they did, and then we can compare it to what we are doing today.

Step One — the Scriptures

You will notice that the starting point of this revival is the reading of the Scriptures. The greatest example of the power of reading the Scriptures comes from the Protestant Reformation. The concept of Sola Scriptura is indeed a very powerful one. But it is not sufficient just to tell people to read the Bible. In this time the Scripture would have been read aloud to the people; remember, this is well before the advent of the printing press. So let’s see how it was read.

It was read with respect. It is obvious and plain to all of the people standing around listening to this that their leaders consider that the reading of the Law of Moses is of primary importance. It is the most important spiritual thing that they can do. This sense of respect has declined greatly in recent years in our congregation; indeed, there is a great difference in the respect for the Scriptures held by those of the older generations as opposed to those who are younger. That’s not a question of youthful stupidity; it’s just that they have never had put to them the concept of respect for the Scriptures.

To do this, you will see three aspects of their view of the Scriptures:

·         First, the Scriptures are read with a sense of awe. It’s the kind of thing that when you hear it your eyes tend cloud with tears, because you know you are dealing with something of ultimate importance.

·         Second, the Scriptures are treated as being sacred. They are not “just like any other book.” These are the very words of God, set apart and delivered to man. Considering that we’re talking about the Law of Moses, delivered amidst thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, this is not an unreasonable reaction.

·         Finally, the Scriptures are treated as being of full authority. The idea is that God commanded it, and therefore it should be done — no excuses accepted.

It’s interesting to note that as Ezra reads, there are various teachers (who are now nothing but names in the list to us) who are explaining what is being read. We may take from this the idea that it is not necessarily obvious to everyone just how to interpret what the Scripture say. The church must provide teachers who are acquainted with sound doctrine and who can explain what the Scriptures mean. Those teachers are honored not for their own brilliance but for how faithfully they interpret what God said.

As a side note, you will notice that the Scriptures are being translated as Ezra reads. When not entirely certain what language or languages the people spoke, but this would seem to imply that Hebrew was no longer their first language. We can draw a parallel from immigrants to the United States today. Your author lives in the community where there are a large number of Korean immigrants. The grandparents tend to speak nothing but Korean; the parents speak Korean as a first language and English as a second; the kids speak, well, whatever it is that kids speak that passes for English. Something similar probably happen to these exiles as well. Note that Hebrew is not treated here as something special. A parallel may be drawn to the King James Version of the Bible; for many years the English of that version was considered somehow sacred. As one author put it, “if the King James Version was good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me.” That’s not what’s happening here. But also note that the translation carries with it no loss of authority. The Scriptures are meant to be used and implemented by man, not kept on a special shelf on display.

Revival — a Joy

You can understand the first reaction of the people. They probably had a firm suspicion that they and their ancestors had not behaved properly in God’s eyes, but when the full measure of their sins is laid out before them in the reading of the law they react with tears. They wept for their sins. These people exhibited what St. Paul once called “godly sorrow.” It is the sign of repentance which should precede baptism.

The temptation for the preacher at this point is to lay it on thick and make sure everybody understands what miserable sinners we all are. But that’s not what they do here. God tells them that they have arrived at a time of the year in which they are to celebrate; they are to be joyous. Why? The time of year is that of the Feast of Tabernacles — a memorial to the first Exodus. It is a celebration of God’s deliverance. To put it in modern terms, they are to react to this revival with joy because it gives them the grace of God. Grace abounds — let man celebrate!

As a side note, we might take a look at what the feast is all about. Here is one author (Easton) explaining it:

The third of the great annual festivals of the Jews (Lev_23:33-43). It is also called the “feast of ingathering” (Exo_23:16; Deu_16:13). It was celebrated immediately after the harvest, in the month Tisri, and the celebration lasted for eight days (Lev_23:33-43). During that period the people left their homes and lived in booths formed of the branches of trees. The sacrifices offered at this time are mentioned in Num. 29:13-38. It was at the time of this feast that Solomon's temple was dedicated (1Ki_8:2). Mention is made of it after the return from the Captivity. This feast was designed

(1.) to be a memorial of the wilderness wanderings, when the people dwelt in booths (Lev_23:43), and

(2.) to be a harvest thanksgiving (Neh_8:9-18). The Jews, at a later time, introduced two appendages to the original festival, viz., (1.) that of drawing water from the Pool of Siloam, and pouring it upon the altar (Joh_7:2, Joh_7:37), as a memorial of the water from the rock in Horeb; and (2.) of lighting the lamps at night, a memorial of the pillar of fire by night during their wanderings.

“The feast of Tabernacles, the harvest festival of the Jewish Church, was the most popular and important festival after the Captivity. At Jerusalem it was a gala day. It was to the autumn pilgrims, who arrived on the 14th (of the month Tisri, the feast beginning on the 15th) day, like entrance into a silvan city. Roofs and courtyards, streets and squares, roads and gardens, were green with boughs of citron and myrtle, palm and willow. The booths recalled the pilgrimage through the wilderness. The ingathering of fruits prophesied of the spiritual harvest.”

 

We do not know whether or not Nehemiah planned the timing of this event to correspond with the feast, or whether it just “happened.” Either way, the symbolism is very significant.

How to Run a Revival

(This section is based on Nehemiah 9).

Preparation

Nehemiah 9:1-3 NASB  Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them.  (2)  The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.  (3)  While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.

 

There have been many books written on the subject of conducting a revival. Most of them do so from the point of view of the speaker who will conduct the revival meetings. I am not particularly aware of any which address what the congregation should be doing to prepare for a revival. We may take the example of these people. Here’s what they did:

·         Separation. Despite the modern tendency to hold that Christians are no different than anybody else, it is clearly taught in the Scripture that the people of God are to separate themselves from the people the world. We are in the world, but not of the world. The first thing these people did was to implement that principle.

·         Confession. If there is no sin in your congregation’s life, why would you need a revival? If you need revival, therefore, then there must be sin in the congregation’s life. The first thing you need to do about sin is to confess it. And that’s what they did.

·         Reading the book. Again, the central nature of the Scriptures to the godly life is here proclaimed. If the word of God is not exalted, how then can anyone know that they are indeed a sinner? And what to do about it?

·         Worship. It is not sufficient to let God know that you know you’re a sinner. You also have to let him know that you know who he is, acknowledging his true nature.

Acknowledgment of God

It is extremely important that you acknowledge who God is. It is very tempting to talk to the God who is in your head — a nice guy, who would never hurt a fly, has no intention of disciplining you and otherwise resembles Santa Claus. Like Santa Claus, that God doesn’t exist. So just exactly which God are they talking to?

They first acknowledge the greatness of God:

·         They begin by acknowledging him as the creator. It is the first thing we know about God from the opening passages of Genesis. It sets the stage for everything else to come — and it proclaims the uniqueness of God.

·         They then acknowledge him as the life giver. There is no particular formula applied as to how God did this, but they acknowledge the fact that without God there would be no life. And that includes ours.

·         Then they acknowledge him as the Lord of hosts – the sovereign God, ruler over all creation.

They amplify this by reciting the most important points of their history with God. They are not searching for the historical God; they know him.

·         They know him as the God of Abraham. This calls back to mind all the promises made to Abraham concerning the creation of the Jewish people and the Messiah to come.

·         They know him as the God of Moses, the God of the Exodus. This is the God whose mighty hand led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. The parallel to the Christian is very clear; this is the God who leads you out of sin and into salvation.

·         They know him as the God who is compassionate to Israel, despite all of the sins, the idolatry and the wickedness that they have displayed. He is God the merciful.

Who We Are

If you’re going to acknowledge who God is, the obvious next step is to acknowledge who you are. What is unusual about this passage in that regard is that they acknowledge the concept of national sin. Understanding that they are ruled over by Kings and princes, you might think that they have an excuse to say that they are not responsible for what’s going on in their society. But they clearly understood that they did. And if people who are members of a hierarchical society understand that, how much more should we in a democratic society understand that? Here’s what they confessed to:

·         First, they admitted to being idolaters. The nation of Israel has chased after every little God of wood, stone and silver and gold. Today we might pull the mental of tolerance over this, but I would submit to you that it was fairly obvious to them that something was wrong. Some of these gods required you sacrifice your children by burning them in a fire. This is not trivial.

·         They admitted to being rebels against the law — which is practically the definition of sin — to the point that the nation of Israel had murdered the prophets that God had sent to her. Where we would excuse ourselves, they accused themselves.

·         Then they admit that they have been justly punished for it. The reason they are slaves in the land that God gave them, the reason they are slaves to a King who is not one of themselves, is that God has risen up in wrath and punish them for their sins. They acknowledge that they earned it, and that God was just and righteous in doing it.

In short, God is good, just and righteous — and we are sinners. We have no merit except that we are sinners coming home. As they say in the military, “no excuse, Sir.”

Do Something!

The human species has a very distinct tendency when put under pressure: we want to do something. If we feel guilty, we really would prefer to do something rather vague than something specific. After all, specific might include confession of one’s sins. Doing something vague feels good; but doing something specific means that you really intended to do something, not just talk about it.

It appears that the way human beings start to do something specific is to put things down in writing. As Samuel Goldman once said, “a verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Winston Churchill put it this way:

Let it be very clearly understood that all directions emanating from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards confirmed in writing, and that I do not accept any responsibility for matters relating to national defense on which I am alleged to have given decisions, unless they are recorded in writing.[1]

That was the first directive he put out after becoming Prime Minister in 1940.

Specifically Pledged

So, just what that these people pledged to do?

·         They pledged to stay separate from the people around them. This is an example to the Christian of being in the world but not of the world. It’s not something that happens automatically, or easily. You have to work at it; you have to plan to work at it.

·         They pledged to obey the commandments. For the Jew of this time, this would’ve been the Mosaic Law. For us, we would begin with the New Testament.

·         They promise to bring their tithes and offerings, as specified in the Law.

Separation, obedience and putting your money where your mouth is — that sums it up. But what about the Christian today?

Parallel for Christians Today

The Christian today has a similar set of duties, for which we can take this pledge as an example.

·         The Christian is to be in the world, but not of the world. Your conduct and your speech should reflect the fact that you are not ordinary. You are bought with a price; you belong to Christ. Do your words and actions show this?

·         Do you obey the command of Christ? In its simplest form, this is simply “love one another.” Is your conduct distinguished by the fact that you love your Christian brethren? Indeed, is that you’re feeling and attitude towards the rest of the world? Hate the sin and love the sinner sounds difficult to do — until you realize you been doing it to yourself for quite some time.

·         They promise to bring in tithes and offerings; you still need to put your money where your mouth is.

Revival, it seems, is a serious business. If America is to experience a revival, the church must experience it first. If the church is to experience a revival, it must start in the pews, not in the pulpit. The role of leadership is very important, but if the people in the pews are not willing than there will be no revival.



[1] Churchill, Winston. Their Finest Hour. 1st edition. 2. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1949. 17. Print.

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