What Revival Looks Like – Lessons from Samuel9 min read

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Israel as a nation needed to be revived at many different times. If we want to know what revival looks like, Israel is a great place to start. After all, “The things written aforetime were written for our learning.” Specifically with 1 Samuel 7 and 8 we find a comprehensive overview of this seemingly mysterious process we like to call “revival.”

The Background of Revival

In the first three chapters of 1 Samuel we saw the exciting progress of a man of God in his new ministry. But between then and now, we have chapters 4, 5, and 6, which describe the desperate condition of Israel without the Ark of the Covenant, when it was in the Philistines’ hands. God took it away from them, because their focus was on the thing rather than God Himself. It was at this very event that Eli and his sons died. Even though a man of God was raised up at the beginning, circumstances for Israel had to get worse before they got better. This served a very important purpose for Israel, because it woke them up to their spiritual needs. They realized two things: (1) they could neither presume upon God’s blessing nor His favor (2) the heathen nations were not to be approached flippantly (they could not presumptuously assume victory over the Philistines). One could see this as a wake up call through persecution, for Israel is seen at the beginning of chapter 7 “lamenting after the Lord.” We as God’s people today need to realize that revival will never be detached from history. It is often disillusioning circumstances that snap us out of our complacency. Whether that comes from persecution or another means, a strong grip of reality is needed in our hearts before any progress in restoration can be made. Perhaps as Western society slides deeper into secularism and as real persecution starts, Evangelicals will realize something more about the cost of Christian living. Perhaps this could be our wake up call. Whatever means God uses, let us not expect revival based on emotional ambition; it will be a deep conviction of sin and of God’s truth that changes our perspective.

The Substance of Revival

Revival, while it often results in vast response to the gospel, is at its core a spiritual restoration of God’s people – or, at least those who profess to be His people. Benefits outside the community of God’s people are the overflow of true revival that happens within the community of God’s people. In 1 Samuel 7:3-6, we find five main characteristics of what this looks like.

  1. A Wholehearted Return unto the Lord. True fellowship with God is what we stray from, and this is what we must return to. We don’t return to a creed or to minimum requirements of being a Christian. No, it is much higher than that. We return to God Himself and yield to Him our all. Revival is not marked by numbers so much as it is marked by a renewal of deep spirituality.
  2. Destruction of Idolatry. We cannot live in renewed fellowship with the Lord if idols which supplant His Lordship are left unchanged in our lives. The Lord must be Lord indeed if we are to experience true revival. A low view of God simply will not do, nor will an inaccurate view. We need the true God alone to be our joy and passion. Men of God who are used in spiritual restoration are men who lived on the edge of eternity: God was sufficient for them throughout life. They didn’t need “the extra stuff” to have true joy. In true revival, God alone will have His place and be sufficient for His people there.
  3. Preparation of the Heart. The heart – the inner part of man – is always the central issue when it comes to spiritual restoration. Our call is nothing short of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Is there any part of life not covered in this command? God wants the entirety of ourselves – who we are and what we do. This can only be an outflow of a fully devoted heart. Revival always faces people with this sobering question: “Who has my heart?”
  4. Singleness in Service. In true restoration, God’s people will find no other joy than joy in His service. No other master will claim their ownership. Their cry is “I love my Master!… I will not go free.” When a heart has truly given itself to the Lord, it cannot be satisfied with anything less than full and undivided obedience. Is your life “Some for me; some for God”? Or is it as the hymn writer put it: “Make this poor self grow less and less, Be Thou my life and aim; O make me daily, through Thy grace, More meet to bear Thy name.”
  5. Worship and Confession. Worship gives God His rightful place; confession gives me mine. Revived people will not have any ambition for flowery sermons and self-esteem talks: their cry will be for true holiness and change. They will see sin as being what it is and be dissatisfied with themselves as long as it dwells in them. Ah, but God meets every need! And when there is confession, we can be free to worship, since “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In short, this is what revival looks like: a right view of God, a right view of sin, and a right view of self. Repentance gets all three of these things right, and this is what Israel is seen doing in their cry “We have sinned against the Lord.”

Collective Victory After Personal Revival

After the children of Israel repented, a battle with the Philistines immediately followed. The last time they were faced with such a battle, they looked to the Ark of the Covenant for help rather than the Lord Himself. Thus they failed. But this time they would find out the strength that comes when God is the center. So then, we find Samuel interceding on Israel’s behalf, both in prayers and sacrifices. We read after this, “the Lord heard him.” Israel won the battle and set up a stone called “Ebenezer,” which means “stone of help.” Finally Israel learned the source of their strength, and in all the days of Samuel they were protected from the Philistines. All the territory lost to the enemy was restored to Israel.

In Western society, mainstream Evangelicalism has been losing the battle with the world. Instead of looking to the Lord and the power of His unadulterated gospel, we have trusted in political security, doctrinal compromise, and marketing techniques. We don’t need God’s power anymore, because we are civilized and know what we are doing. Or do we? Because of this mentality, we have definitely lost spiritual territory. But thankfully the Lord changes hearts! And He is the great Helper of His people. When He sovereignly chooses to work restoration in our hearts, we can expect change. Change in politics? Change in culture? Not likely. But change in the paradigm of Christian living? Change in our dependence on God’s power in the gospel? Definitely! Where there is an inward change, there will be an outward consequence – both in souls saved and in disciples made. But just as it took a battle for Israel to renew God-ward dependence, one wonders what battle Christianity will have to face to refocus our attention on God and His Word.

Maintaining the Fruit of Revival

After the heart-change of Israel, after their victory over the Philistines, we read, “And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.” This man of God was used in revival. No doubt his very presence also was helpful in preserving Israel from falling back into their previous despair. The secret to Samuel’s faithfulness from beginning to end was this: his life was surrounded by altars, that is, he was a man who stayed near to the heart of God. In chapter 3 we read that the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel; here we read “there he build an altar unto the Lord.” It was really the Lord’s faithfulness through Samuel that allowed him to judge Israel in godliness until the end of his life.

If God were to grant us revival today, it would not be without some sort of lasting result. One would be hesitant to call an event “revival” if it only lasted for a month. When God’s people are truly changed, that should result in a more faithful generation, at least until that generation dies. What is the key to this? It’s actually quite simple: the standard is taught and maintained collectively. This comes by the teaching of God’s word amongst assemblies. If God chooses to bring our hearts to restoration and lost souls unto salvation, we cannot risk the loss of that progress by a lack of solid teaching. The teaching may not be dramatic. It may not be as exciting as the revival itself. But it is necessary for there to be any reality and endurance to the spiritual progress of God’s people. An assembly’s purpose does not change if God should bless it: it always remains the pillar and ground of truth. If we uphold teaching now, we are on the right track to giving endurance to what revival could produce in us.

Spiritual Decline of a New Generation

Sadly, even though revival normally lasts a generation, there is usually a lesser appreciation of the truth in the generations following. These generations did not have to fight for the truth; so they grow complacent to it. They don’t feel the need to stand for it, and they let their guard down to error. History shows us this. Why was there a need for the Puritans after the Reformation? Why was there a need for the Great Awakening after the Puritans? Why was there a need for the revivals of the 1800s after the Great Awakening? Because man degenerates far quicker than he revives. This is seen in 1 Samuel 8 in which we see both Israel’s unfaithful desire for a king as well as the godlessness of Samuel’s sons. One might not find this to be the most encouraging ending, but it is a realistic one. The only lasting revival of God’s people will be when they are glorified in heaven. Here we can only expect failure. Does that mean revival is pointless? Does that mean revival has no meaningful effects? Not at all. But it does mean this: should God bless this generation with revival, we need to be sober and diligent in passing its effects to the next. This applies to both truth and godliness. Let us not be so presumptuous to think that we can sit back when God blesses us. There will not be constant excitement. Life will go on. Real difficulties and discouragements will exist. Does this mean God isn’t working? No, but these things remind us of our need: “Be not weary in well doing, for in due season you shall reap if you faint not.” Revival will mean realistic, self-disciplined work. Let’s be ready for it, and maybe we can gain another generation to the lessons we have learned through God’s work in us.