Leading Question: If one turns to the Word of God to find the “how” of reformation and revival, where would we turn?
As we noted in last week’s study, the Bible gives us very little by way of a “how-to” manual for prayer. Similarly, it hardly provides us with a “how-to” manual for revival and reformation. But what it does provide are some marvelous examples. Here we will focus on three of those: 1) Hezekiah’s reform (2 Chronicles 29-31); 2) Josiah’s reform (2 Chron. 34-35); and 3) the Day of Pentecost in the days of Peter (Acts 2).
But first we should note that it would probably be wise to reduce our expectations of revival. None of the three great “sample” revivals lasted long. In short, God’s people have never had their act together for more than a few minutes at a time. John Wesley, who led out in the great Methodist revival of the 1700s, made this sobering observation:
“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this–this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.” – John Wesley, cited by Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Scribner edition (1958), p. 175, citing Southey, Life of Wesley, ch. xxix (second American edition, II, p. 308).
Now to our three revivals.
It may be worth noting that none of the three great “revivalists” in our sample stories were devout, stable, multigenerational believers. Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, was a wicked idolater; the same was true of Josiah’s father, Amon, who only ruled 2 years but was known only for his great wickedness. And Peter was a converted fisherman. He had only followed Jesus for three years: Question: Should we maybe expect less “experience” among those who lead out in revivals?
- Hezekiah’s Passover. The story is only told in Chronicles – a book that is very keen on religious revivals because the temple in its day was so puny (see Ezra 3-4). Note these marks of the revival:
- It was unexpected, especially given the history of his family. Immediately, in his first month of his first year he opened and repaired the gates of the temple that had been closed (2 Chron. 29:3).
- Substitutes stepped in when the “leaders” were not ready. In this case, there weren’t enough priests to handle all the sacrifices, so their relatives, the Levites, stepped in until the priests had properly purified themselves. Scripture is candid: “the Levites were more conscientious than the priests in sanctifying themselves” (29:34).
- A good heart trumped the rules. As the people streamed toward Jerusalem to keep the Passover, many were not properly sanctified. But the Lord heard the cry of their heart:30:18 For a multitude of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “The good Lord pardon all 19 who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” 20 The Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people.
- Thanksgiving doubled the blessing. The people were so excited by the renewal of worship that they agreed to keep the festival for another week. The Chronicler adds his own exuberant comment: 30:26 “There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem.”
- Josiah’s Revival and Passover (621 BC). Some 100 years after Hezekiah, Josiah’s reform reveals how a reform can disappear almost without a trace. In just 100 years Israel had fallen a long ways, and the slow road back is illustrated in 2 Chron. 34. Hezekiah had opened the doors of the temple right at the first of his reign. But here is Josiah’s record:
8 years old – began his reign
16 years old – began to seek the LORD – who was his God during those 8 years?
20 years old – began to clean out the idols in Jerusalem – not until 4 years of Bible study?
26 years old – began to muck out the temple and the workmen found a copy of law
The king was horrified as he heard the words of the law – probably the book of Deuteronomy. He was hearing the law for the very first time!
When the prophetess Huldah was asked about the fate of the king and his kingdom (2 Chron. 34:22-28), she said that by his great revival he had postponed by one generation the destruction of the kingdom, a destruction promised in the book of Deuteronomy.
Josiah responded with a call to re-commitment by the people and he held a passover that apparently rivaled or surpassed that of Hezekiah, 100 years before, at least the Chronicler couldn’t resist this exuberant summary in 2 Chron. 35:17-19:
17 The people of Israel who were present kept the passover at that time, and the festival of unleavened bread seven days. 18 No passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; none of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah, by the priests and the Levites, by all Judah and Israel who were present, and by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 19 In the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah this passover was kept.
Does Scripture allow us to say that if Josiah’s son had been as faithful as his father, the threatened destruction could have been postponed further? In the words of Ellen White, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional” (Ms 4 1883, 1 SM 67, 1958). Jonah had learned that “truth” the hard way, even though he claimed that he already knew it – he just didn’t like it! (cf. Jonah 4:2).
But in spite of good king Josiah, his reform, and his passover, he was killed in a foolish confrontation with Pharaoh Necho in 608 (see 2 Chron. 35:20-26). And the kingdom kept sliding away from God. The city Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by Babylon in 586, the “official” beginning of the Babylonian exile. In short, Josiah’s reform did not last.
- Peter and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Two striking features are represented by the revival at Pentecost: First, its glorious climax, with 3000 being converted in a day (vs. 41). Second, its wildly erratic nature. By Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira die for telling lies. Yet the signs and wonders continue with “great numbers of both men and women” (vs. 14) being added to the church; the apostles were arrested and locked in prison by the authorities. But an angel unlocked the gate and told them to preach again in the temple which they did. They were warned and flogged but kept on preaching. Then in Acts 6, the community is torn apart again by internal disputes as the Hellenists complain that their widows were being neglected by the Hebrew Christians. That led to the selection of seven deacons and a further spreading of the Gospel. Acts 6:7 summarizes: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (NRSV).
Question: Is that what it takes to have a revival and a reform? If the Word of God is our guide, that’s what we learn about revival and reformation.