May 25

The Elements of Revival

With God’s help Nehemiah led the Jews to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15). In doing so he modeled the principles of leadership which every Christian leader who desires to accomplish a work for God may apply in his own life and ministry. However, in considering Nehemiah’s accomplishment, the focus is often placed upon the psychological (methodological) aspects of his leadership or the physical structure (the wall) which he built. This is a mistake. Nehemiah never manipulated people through the use of psychological methods to achieve his goal and the wall was never the end goal of Nehemiah’s efforts. Nehemiah aimed at nothing less than the full restoration of Israel to its covenant position before God; his heartbeat was for the glory of God and the blessing of His people; rebuilding the wall was merely a means to that end.

To put it another way, the walls which Nehemiah desired to rebuild were not just physical walls, but also spiritual walls. In proof of this fact, we need only note that Nehemiah devoted seven of the thirteen chapters in his Memoirs to the continuing work which he carried on in Jerusalem after the completion of the wall. The burden of this continuing work concerned (1) the spiritual renewal of the people, (2) the civil reorganization of the nation, and (3) the religious reformation of their worship system. Before any of those ultimate goals could be accomplished, however, the wall was a necessary first step that provided social, physical, and economic security as the basis of a renewed national life. The wall provided a practical means of separating and distinguishing the people of God from the surrounding Gentile nations as a preliminary to re-establishing their national identity and national responsibility before God.

Thus the great revival described in Nehemiah chapters 8-10 is not a secondary theme (in comparison to the rebuilding of the wall), but is itself the reason for all of Nehemiah’s efforts to this point. Building a city wall may produce temporary, earthly benefits but building the people of God has results that endure into eternity. The fruits of the revival and reformation that occurred in the time of Nehemiah extended all the way to the time of Christ 400 years later and made possible all of the spiritual benefits that flowed from Christ’s birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

Based on the foregoing discussion, we can draw an initial conclusion about one significant element in the revival described in these chapters. Nehemiah’s godly leadership, resulting in the completion of the wall, helped provide for God’s people the initial structure, environment, and conditions in which revival could take place. (As we will see in a moment, Ezra’s leadership also played an important role in this revival.) Godly leaders acting on biblical principles of leadership can lay the foundation of spiritual revival for God’s people. However, no leader, not even a godly one, can single-handedly cause revival; he can only prepare for it. The first element of revival, then, is preparation for revival made by godly leaders. They organize and lead God’s people to pursue significant secondary objectives which establish the conditions necessary for revival.

A second element of revival is found in chapter 8 (see Neh. 8:1). Ezra had come to Judah from Persia twelve years earlier (Ezra 7:8-9). Since then he had faithfully taught God’s Word to the people and labored for their obedience to the law of God (Ezra 7:10). Now, following the completion of the wall, the people assembled and requested Ezra to read the law of God to them. This heart hunger to know the revealed will of God reflects a people prepared for revival. From the central role of the Word of God in all of these chapters (cp. Neh. 8:1-3, 8, 13, 18; 9:3) and from the results that attended the reading of the law here we learn that the second essential element of spiritual revival is the Word of God.

The reading of the Word of God had a powerful and direct impact upon the people as they responded to it on three levels. First, they responded to it rationally (Neh. 8:1-8). Six times in this chapter it emphasizes the fact that the people “understood” what they heard (Neh. 8:2-3, 7-8, 12-13). The clear reading, teaching, interpreting, translating, and explaining of the Word of God, which produced understanding in the minds of the hearers, provided a spiritual dynamic necessary for revival. It revealed the objective standard of the will of God; it exposed the sinfulness of their national failure; it instructed and motivated them to seek forgiveness on the basis of God’s grace; and it created an inner desire for obedience to God’s will and word. Second, God’s people responded to the Word of God emotionally (Neh. 8:9-12). Initially the people responded with sorrow because the Word plainly exposed their sinful failure to obey what was written in it (Neh. 8:9, 11). This response was sincere and deeply felt but it was also clearly not an uncontrolled emotional response. They were able subsequently to also express genuine joy (the second emotional response) because “they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Neh. 8:10, 12). Third, the people responded volitionally to the Word in their obedience (Neh. 8:13-18). When they learned what the law required of them, they determined to keep the feast of tabernacles according to the law’s commands. The result was a celebration of the feast in a way which had no historical parallel since the time of Joshua (Neh. 8:17).

Chapter 9 reveals the third element of revival. After the celebration of a feast of joy came a fast of confession and repentance (Neh. 9:1-2). The Levites led the congregation in a prayer of confession which reviewed God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s unfaithfulness, sin, and chastening by God due to its failure to meet covenant obligations. This is the longest recorded prayer in Scripture and its contents are clearly based upon the reading of the Word of God which preceded it (Neh. 9:3). Thus earnest and honest prayer which is saturated by the Word of God has an essential role in forwarding spiritual revival among God’s people.

Two further observations can be made about this prayer. First, the offering of this prayer is itself an evidence that God’s work of revival had already begun in the hearts of the people. Although this was a corporate and congregational prayer led by the spiritual leaders of the nation, it also reflected the convictions and attitudes of each individual who offered his own “Amen!” in his heart (cp. Neh. 8:6; 9:1-3). Revival always occurs within the hearts of individual people. Second, the corporate nature of this prayer demonstrates that revival also involves a congregational response to God’s Word. While God can and does revive the hearts of individuals alone, what we most often describe as revival is that which affects the whole people of God as a congregation and brings positive spiritual change to their corporate—as well as their individual—life.

Finally, chapter 10 describes the crowning element of true spiritual revival: a public commitment to obey God’s will and Word. Under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites, the nation officially renewed its national covenant with Jehovah by pledging in writing to obey God’s law. While we often emphasize subjective elements in our analysis of past revivals and in our pursuit of present revival, the Bible always emphasizes the objective results of revival: a public acknowledgment of responsibility to God and a return to covenant obedience.

This public commitment involved accepting legal obligations to one another as a civil society (Neh. 9:38-10:1) and spiritual obligations to God (Neh. 10:29a). Furthermore, the terms of their covenant included three areas of obligation. First, they obligated themselves to obey the law of God in its entirety and in its particular commandments, judgments, and statutes (Neh. 10:29b). Second, they committed themselves to obedience in specific areas in which they and their forefathers had notoriously failed to obey God’s law in the past (Neh. 10:30-31). Finally, they pledged themselves to support the centralized temple worship system in accordance with God’s law (Neh. 10:32-39).

To summarize, biblical revival must be defined in such a way as to include both personal and corporate aspects. Also in desiring and pursuing revival for ourselves we must seek to implement godly leadership, God’s Word, prayer, and public commitment. But many questions remain as to how we can apply these principles in our own circumstances today. In a future posting we will examine in greater detail how these elements of revival may appear in a NT context.

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