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Reflecting on the Word ‘Revival’

Photo of Karl HalversonKarl Halverson | Bio

Karl Halverson

Twenty-eight years married. Three college kids and a seventh grader. Always learning how to replace personal dreams with obedience to God’s will. Garnered enough mental fortitude to finish a B.Th. at Ozark Christian College, an MA New Testament at Lincoln Seminary, an MA Global Leadership at Fuller, and an MA Islamic Studies at Columbia Int. University. Making disciples for decades as a burger flipper, restaurant server, youth minister, cross-cultural servant in Central Europe and the US and now as the executive director of an organization that helps national church leaders and missionaries publish Christian books worldwide in dozens of languages.

At the outset, let me make this point clear: I don’t ever want to undermine what the Holy Spirit is up to. But language is important, and I do want to suggest that not every powerful movement of the Holy Spirit fits the word “revival.” I want to encourage you to reflect with me on the word “revival” in order to make sure our view of the word is grounded in what the Bible teaches.

Whom Is Revival For?

So, what does the New Testament say about “revival”? Surprisingly, revival isn’t actually a New Testament word, nor, for the most part, a prominent New Testament concept. What are New Testament words and concepts are things like evangelism, proclamation, transformation, being made alive, sanctification, and others. The word revival isn’t actually there. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways God revives His people (more on this below), but it should cause us to pause and make sure we are pursuing what God promises to give.

Why is revival not the prominent New Testament theme we would expect? Well, I don’t know exactly, but my theory is this: people without Jesus didn’t need to be revived, since they were spiritually dead. Something can’t be made alive again if it wasn’t alive to begin with. They didn’t need to be re-vived, they needed to be made alive. There have been powerful prayer-fueled movements of God throughout history which result in new disciples of Jesus and new churches planted. And, yes, the Holy Spirit stirs Christians to carry out the Great Commission in these movements. But is re-vival the best word for these evangelistic movements?

When it comes to us as Christians, when and how might we need to be revived? It’s actually a more complicated question than we might think, because most of us in the U.S. who are now Christians have grown up in a context that is partially founded on Christ (albeit imperfectly). We aren’t in the same place that the first believers were, for example, at Pentecost. The Acts 2 crowd needed to be made alive in the first place. Since we’re already Christians, we might assume that we need to be revived periodically in an Acts 2-type way. But is this what the New Testament shows?

“The Acts 2 crowd needed to be made alive in the first place.”

“Whoa! Wait just a minute; are you suggesting that our approach to revival might not be valid?” you might ask. All I’m suggesting is that, in order to find out what makes for a revival for Christians, we need to look within God’s Word. Let’s remember that everything that we do and is done around us in the name of Christ needs to be compared to the overall teachings of God’s Word and not only to specific items that might naturally feel to us like what a revival should be like.

Reviving in the Old Testament

When we go to God’s Word, we find that God did move among His people, in both Old and New Testaments, to bring about reviving. We can find some “revival”-like things in the Old Testament, although these actually look very different from what we in the U.S. tend to pray for when asking God for revival.

For example, there is the Exodus. The people of God needed to be “revived,” after so many years of living the good life and then living the slave life. So, God disrupted their lives and forced them to leave everything they knew and go somewhere they had never been (see Exodus 12). In this way, He revived them. We also see a renewing of the covenant for the next generation as they readied themselves to enter the Promised Land (see Deuteronomy 29).

Then there were the times that God needed His people to “revive” after having rebelled against Him while in the Land He had promised. For example, see the Prophets and learn about how God revived His people through long decades of exile in foreign places. The Psalmist asked, in 85:6, that the people might be revived. And even in Psalm 119:56, the Psalmist asked that God revive him personally.

“There were the times that God needed His people to ‘revive’ after having rebelled against Him while in the Land He had promised.”

These passages can provide some helpful context, yet the Old Testament isn’t the primary place that Christians can park and find relevant information on what it means for God to work in the church today. For the Old Testament didn’t have God continuously with His people. This only happened after Christ’s atoning work on the cross and His resurrection and then the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Reviving in the New Testament

When we move to the New Testament, I actually couldn’t find a time that God “revived” the people as we Americans tend to think of revival. So, what do we see when looking at the New Testament regarding how God revives His people?

Much of what we see that might at first glance look like revival is actually the first going out of and first responses to the gospel itself. So, when it came to individuals (the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8; Saul in Acts 9) or masses of people at once (Pentecost in Acts 2; Acts 13 at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13; Ephesus in Acts 19), the gospel went out from the Apostles and people came to believe in Christ for the first time. Again, in these cases, God wasn’t working to “revive”; He was working to bring alive for the first time.

An Example in Colossians

With that said, I could find two specific places that we can find what could be termed “revival.” If we look at Colossians and Galatians, we find places where Christians definitely needed reviving. Going to those two epistles, we find that in both places there was enough of a spiritual and/or doctrinal rift among believers and between believers and God that something had to be done so that they would be following Him in the way Christ intended and by the means Christ provided.

Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is very telling of what needed to be revived among them. He prayed,

“We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” (Col. 1:9-11)

“Something had to be done so that they would be following Him in the way Christ intended and by the means Christ provided.”

It is clear that they were lacking in crucial facets of what it means to follow Jesus: knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, understanding from the Spirit, lives lived worthy of and pleasing to the Lord, fruit born from good works, endurance, and patience. Paul’s pinpointing of what they were lacking and then his further revelation of the things they were being tempted with (trials relative to the worldly rules and philosophies vying for their attention and allegiance; see 2:16-23) shows us that their faith was indeed in need of being revived.

Here’s the thing, though: there is no description of how God did that work. We just know that God wanted that work to happen in them. And, we know what the hallmarks of that work of reviving would be (i.e., those things written by Paul about the hoped-for results of his prayer for the Colossians).

An Example in Galatians

We can also see that reviving was needed among the Galatians. They had been “bewitched,” as Paul described in 3:1. This word holds in it the fact of someone having become fascinated with something enticing that they ought not to have fallen for. What the Galatian believers had fallen for was this: after having put their faith in Christ, they became fascinated with the possibility that their salvation might actually come from obeying the works of the Law (of Moses; see Gal. 3:1-2). They had started out by faith in Christ’s crucifixion on their behalf but had ended up reverting back to something that was contradictory to Christ’s work on the cross. And so now they needed to be revived, which is what Paul was trying to guide them in.

Paul, therefore, guides them to what would lead them in revival. He tells them to walk in the Spirit, so as not to gratify the desires of the flesh. On the one hand, the acts of the flesh had to do with circumcision, the very thing that the false teachers were trying to get them to undergo in order to have true salvation. In addition, the acts of the flesh are vices which he describes in Galatians 5:19-21. And it is in eschewing these acts that they would show that God was reviving them. In addition, traits of revival among the Galatians would be the fruits of the Spirit of God, which Paul outlines in 5:22-23. Paul then goes a bit further in specifically describing things that will happen in the midst of relationships of those who have been “revived.” He says,

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Gal. 5:25-26)

“Traits of revival among the Galatians would be the fruits of the Spirit of God.”

Key Elements of a Real Revival

In all of this, we need to remember a few key elements regarding what we in the U.S. tend to describe as “revival.”

First, we must be willing to compare what happens in what we often call “revival” with what happened in Scripture (and again, not just a small part of Scripture in which powerful Spirit-led events happened, for example, when the Church was starting. Those events were more about making spiritually dead people alive in the first place).

Second, when revival happens, you can expect a level of discomfort among those being revived. This discomfort may be the outcome of God working out a previously started path of His will (e.g., repentance of sins that believers have committed), or it may be the outcome of God forcing believers out of comfortable situations they find themselves in.

Third, revival in Colossians and Galatians involved recommitting to the gospel of Jesus. It is in these two places that we find the greatest examples of original New Testament Christians who fell away at some level and needed to be brought back to the truth. And I suggest that it is in Paul’s descriptions of what they should be repenting of and how they should be subsequently living their lives that we should be looking for as the fruit of “revival.” (See again Colossians 1 and Galatians 3 and 5.)

“Revival in Colossians and Galatians involved recommitting to the gospel of Jesus.”

I completely understand that we all want revival. And I completely accept that in a revival, different manifestations of the power of God’s Spirit may happen. But the question we should be asking ourselves is this: do we want a revival that our culture has defined as being a revival, or do we want a revival that the Word of God describes as a revival? To ask this question isn’t to limit, control, or negate who God is or what God does. No, to ask this question gives us solid grounding of both perceiving God’s true presence and responding to God’s actual will.

May it be that the Lord revives us, as He will, according to His Word, for the sake of the gospel, the discipling of the nations, and the glory of His name!