The historical records of the New Testament cover approximately 60 years. Half of these cover the ministry of Jesus and half present the growth of the early church. It is not too difficult to find authentic revival within these records because it is everywhere.
For 400 years the Old Testament saints had been waiting for the coming of their Messiah King and His kingdom. First, when John the Baptist, then Jesus. burst on the scene they declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand. At last God’s manifest, dynamic, observable and powerful kingdom had come. This kingdom rule was now available and accessible and was suddenly invading the world of men. What we call ‘revival’ was simply the multi-facetted in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. It brought a sense of God’s presence, the conviction of sins, acts of awesome power that swept multitudes into the new, vibrant faith called Christianity. After Jesus' ministry the early church carried this breathtaking ministry into the known world. The Gospel was preached, signs and wonders were exhibited, conversions were realized and Christian churches began to fill the landscape. This is the stuff of revival is made of!
The entire historical record is really an account of authentic revival and because it is unquestionably Biblical, today’s church would do well to re-examine its pages, discern the process and return to the pattern of revival it portrays. It depicts a new era of the Spirit, prophesied in the Old Testament, and personified in the Person of Jesus. It was the Spirit that fell upon those early disciples that thrust them into the world to blaze a trail of revival wherever they went.
The first discernable revival in the New Testament occurred in the ministry of John the Baptist. It is as if the Holy Spirit had gone underground for 400 years since Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, had uttered the words of God. Now He re-emerged in the ministry of this strange looking revivalist. The only explanation for the awakened, spiritual fervour of the great crowds that attended his wilderness meetings was that God was on the move. Mark says, `The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him’ (Mk. 1:5). He was clothing and diet was atypical and his message was aggressively incisive and convicting. He addressed his hearers, of whom many were respected religious leaders, as `you brood of vipers’, comparing them to snakes fleeing from a forest fire (Mt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7), and called for confession of sins and repentance before baptising them in water. Even this was an affront to them as baptism was usually offered to the ‘unclean’ Gentiles who requested inclusion in the Jewish community.
In this powerful movement of spiritual awakening produced by the prophetic preaching of a man of God, multitudes had their spiritual appetites whetted as they caught the first wind of the Spirit.
Though this was a genuine move of God in reviving power John made it clear that he was only the ‘fore-runner,’ whose ministry was to ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ When He arrived He would dispense the Spirit with power for He was both the Lord and the Lamb who would take away the sins of the world. What would soon become familiar emphases in revival ministry we see in seminal form in John’s ministry: the Lordship of Christ, the call for repentance, the promise of the Spirit and the supernatural attraction of multitudes to a new spirituality.
It must be said that revival manifestations and features accompanied Jesus throughout His three and a half year ministry. The Holy Spirit was upon Him ‘without limit’ (John 3:34). Multitudes were attracted to Him and sometimes thousands gathered to hear his life-changing, hope-producing words and to experience the hand of God upon their lives. Revival scenes accompanied Him everywhere. News spread rapidly the great crowds that flocked to Him were met with supernatural power which healed their diseases and delivered their enslaved. Clearly the Kingdom of God was present and revealed itself in revival power.
One gets the idea that Jesus could have gathered such a massive following that could have swept the Romans from Palestine. But Jesus concentrated His time and His ministry on His workers, His disciples. These He trained in revival ministry in preparation for the future, international church planting role they were destined to play. Revival phenomena accompanied them as they took their first tentative steps into the ministry of the Spirit. (Mt 10:1-8; Mk 6:7-13; Lk 10:1-20). Preaching the Kingdom of God, healing the sick and casting out demons which prefigured the explosive expansion of the church and the fall of Satan are true marks of Biblical revival.
The events that occurred on the day Pentecost are often seen as the biblical pattern by which all subsequent revivals may be judged. Charles Finney said, ‘The antecedents, accompaniments and results of revivals are always substantially the same as in the case of Pentecost.’ Albert Barnes added, ‘That day which shall convince the great body of confessing Christians of the reality and desirableness of revivals will constitute a new era in the history of religion and will precede manifestations of power like that of Pentecost.’ Arthur Wallace in his ‘In the Day of Thy Power’ p.57 adds, ‘As Pentecost was the first distinctive outpouring of the Spirit, a careful examination of that great event will reveal the distinctive features of every subsequent outpouring. Let Acts 2 be the textbook.’
All the marks of authentic revival are there: Initiated by the Spirit, prepared for by consecration and prayer, the surprising suddenness of His visitation, an awesome God-consciousness, anointed and Christ-centred preaching, supernatural manifestations, terrifying conviction and divine magnetism.
The results of the revival are equally magnificent. ‘The infant Church ... was characterised by vigorous life, sustained growth, new accessions of spiritual power through new infillings of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of God experienced in an unusual way in miracles of both blessing and judgment. Problems arose, mainly caused by the large numbers of new converts from varying backgrounds; opposition and persecution occurred, but it failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the Christians.’ (Davies, I Will Pour Out my Spirit. p.50)
The first disciples in Jerusalem faced dreadful persecution but, as they moved out of their zone of fear, the revival went with them `Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8:4). There was no holding back what they had seen, heard and experienced of God’s power. When the deacon, Philip, arrived in Samaria it was as if he had lighted the blue touch-paper of revival. Many miraculous signs occurred and great numbers of people were converted as He preached Christ there. Evil spirits were expelled from victims, many experienced physical healing and the whole city was filled with the joy of salvation.
When the apostles arrived from Jerusalem there was a further outbreak of the reviving Spirit when they laid hands on the new converts. It is interesting to note that they ‘heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God.’ (Acts 8:14) conveying the idea that a large proportion of the city had come to Christ.
Peter’s short visit to a single household in Caesarea brought a revival to a single extended family, which is probably the type of revival we should all be seeking God for! This time the event was clearly initiated by God. It had to be. Whoever would have volunteered to go into the ‘forbidden territory’ of an ‘unclean’ Gentile household and deliver what had been up to this point, a Jewish message? So God took the initiative and sent an angel to a Roman centurion called Cornelius and gave an apparently grotesque vision to Peter, the prince of preachers. The unusual tactics worked and Peter arrived to speak to a prepared group of God-fearing but unconverted people.
Peter almost reluctantly recounted his vision and then briefly spoke out a bare outline of the Gospel. Before he could conclude or make an appeal, the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers. They were instantaneously converted, spoke in tongues and worshipped God! This was revival!
Peter’s subsequent defence of these events reveal that it was the arrival of the outpoured Spirit which bore such close resemblance to his own experience at Pentecost, that convinced him that this was an act of God. He also concluded, therefore, that ‘God had granted repentance unto life’ to the Gentiles there (Acts 11:15-18)
The distinct elements of this revival were:
The significance of the church in Antioch is important to grasp in order to understand the expansion of the early church. The persecution had pushed out many new and zealous converts beyond Samaria and Caesarea, to this strategic town. Josephus called it the third city of the Roman Empire, second to Alexandria in North Africa and Rome itself, the centre of the Roman world. Antioch housed at least 500,000 cosmopolitan people, having a large number of Jews because they were offered equal citizenship there. There were also Orientals from Persia, India and even China, but mostly they were Greeks.
It was a very strategic place to establish the Gospel and the Holy Spirit earmarked this place to launch the missionary thrust of the church, which would invade the nations. From here the great Apostle Paul was sent out on the first of three powerful missionary tours, winning souls and planting churches as he went. The centre of Christianity effectively shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch.
The gospel was first preached in Antioch initially to Jews only. Then some Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene broke the Gentile barrier and witnessed to Greeks as well. Great numbers of Gentiles believed and came to Christ. (Acts 11: 21)
Although there are no details recorded an amazing event had occurred – a beachhead had been captured by God from which Paul and others could invade more Gentile territories. The work continued to grow through the arrival of Barnabas from Jerusalem, as `a great number of people were brought to the Lord’ through his ministry (Acts 11:24). It was like a second wave of revival power as another ministry came in to fan the flames further. It was out of this spiritual awakening that the first planned missionary thrust began (Acts 13:1-3).
Born again in revival, then immersed in Antioch’s revival clearly had an effect on Paul. His first missionary journey with Barnabas was more than a successful evangelistic trip. It was attended by signs and wonders, apostolic preaching, deep conviction and innumerable conversions. Paul’s influence was astonishing. Government officials, Jewish synagogue congregations and ‘great numbers’ of ordinary people, responded to his message, so much so that in Pisidian Antioch ‘almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord’ (Acts 13:44) and ‘the word of the Lord spread though the whole region.’ (Acts 13:49) Churches were planted and the disciples added ‘were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.’ Acts 13:52)
In Iconium `they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed’ (Acts 14:1); in Lystra, hostilities rose and there was an attempt to kill the powerful preachers (Acts 14:8-19); in Derbe `they preached the good news ... and won a large number of disciples’ (Acts 14:21). When they returned to Syrian Antioch they had an amazing story to tell as they `reported all that God had done through them’. (Acts 14:27)
These events carry the signs of authentic revival: Divine initiation, supernatural guidance, effective proclamation of the gospel, acts of power and divine conviction and conversions.
In Thessalonica, Paul preached to them `not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction’, (1 Thess 1:4-5) as a result of which a dynamic church was established which `became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia’ and from which `the Lord’s message rang out ... in Macedonia and Achaia (and their) faith in God has become known everywhere’ (1 Thess 1:4-8). People, churches and movements that have their roots in revival often have a wide and lasting effect on their environments.
In Corinth (Acts 18:1-17) Paul spent over a year and a half regularly teaching and preaching until ‘many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised.’ (Acts 18:8) Establishing a powerful church in this strategic, if worldly, Greek port was nothing less than a supernatural act of God – ‘a grande finalé’ to the second missionary journey!
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was the high point of this mission and was outstanding in revival power (Acts 19:1-41). An awakening took place in this centre of pagan worship and occult practices, which resulted in great numbers coming to faith. The work of God was so vast and effective that ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19:10) Many miracles and exorcisms occurred (Acts 19:11-20) resulting in extraordinary growth. Acts 19:20 ‘In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.’
There is therefore undisputable evidence of widespread spiritual awakening throughout the New Testament period and which should be used to inspire faith and authenticate any claimed ‘revival’ in our world today.
R. E. Davies, I Will Pour Out My Spirit, 1992
Stuart Piggin, Firestorm of the Lord, 2000
Tony Cauchi 2009