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Lesson 2: When God Brings Revival (Luke 1:5-17)

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Have you ever prayed for something over and over again, year in and year out, but God has not answered? I hope that you can answer yes, because if you say no, it only shows that you are not a praying person. If you pray, you have prayed for things that God has not yet answered.

One unanswered prayer that every committed Christian should be praying is that God would send revival to our country. It is as of yet unanswered because nothing that is being described as revival today even comes close to the many examples of true revival that God has sent in times past. True revival is not a matter of hanging a banner in front of the church that announces, “Revival This Week, 7 p.m.” True revival is not a superficial, emotional response that results in a temporary experience, but no long-term fruit of righteousness.

True revival is when the living God sovereignly and powerfully breaks into human history with the good news of His salvation. It invariably begins with His people coming under deep conviction of sin and turning from that sin in genuine repentance. It always involves a recovery of biblical truth, especially the truth about how sinners are reconciled to a holy God. Therefore, it also involves a recovery of the centrality and authority of God’s Word over all of life. The renewed sense of God’s presence, power, holiness, and truth then inevitably spills out of the church and into the world, resulting in many genuine conversions. If you want to read two excellent books on the subject, I recommend Revival, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Revival and Revivalism, by Iain Murray.

Our text records God breaking into history with the greatest revival ever, since it involved the coming of the Savior into this world. If our nation is to be spared God’s awful judgment for our many sins, we desperately need true revival. Therefore, these verses deserve our careful attention.

Most students of the history of revivals acknowledge that God is sovereign concerning when and where He sends revival. We cannot plan and orchestrate such a powerful moving of Almighty God. As John Blanchard has put it, “Man can no more organize revival than he can dictate to the wind” (in “Reformation & Revival” catalog, p. 10). Yet, at the same time, there are certain conditions that are common to most revivals. While meeting the conditions does not guarantee revival, not meeting the conditions surely prohibits revival. Our text is no exception. It shows us,

While God is sovereign in bringing revival, we must be prepared to receive His sovereign grace.

God is sovereign in bringing revival.

Zecharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were faithful, believing Jews, both from the tribe of Levi. Luke sets the scene for what follows by informing us that they had no child and that they were both advanced in years (1:7). As a priest, Zecharias would serve at the temple for two one-week periods each year, apart from the three great festivals (Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke [Eerdmans], p. 52). Because of the great number of priests, estimated at between 18,000 and 20,000, they used a system of lots to determine which priests got to offer the incense on the altar in the holy place. This was a once in a lifetime privilege (Mishnah, Tamid 5.2), and so it would have been the high point of Zecharias’ priestly ministry.

The incense offering pictured the prayers of God’s people rising up to Him in a pleasing aroma. While the priest offered incense inside the holy place, outside the worshipers were praying. The most common prayer was that God would visit His people with salvation through the Messiah. As Zecharias was offering the incense, suddenly an angel appeared to him and announced that his prayers had been heard. He and his wife would have a son, and he would not be an ordinary son, but the very one predicted by Malachi, the forerunner who would prepare the way for the Lord. Walter Liefeld states, “God was breaking into the ancient routine of Jewish ritual with the word of his decisive saving act” (Expositors Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 8:826).

There is debate about whether Zecharias would have been offering prayer for a son at this sacred moment in his priestly ministry. Most likely he was praying with everyone else for the deliverance of Israel, but in His grace, God answered his prayer for the Messiah to come and at the same time answered his prayers of many years for a son. But the angel’s sudden appearance with this great news, not only of a son for Zecharias and Elizabeth, but of the soon coming of the Messiah, shows us how …

A. God sovereignly takes the initiative in revival.

It had been 400 years since God’s people had heard a word from God. As in the days just before Samuel’s ministry, “word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent” (1 Sam. 3:1). All this while, a faithful remnant among God’s people was praying that He would fulfill His longstanding promise of sending salvation through His Messiah. Then, suddenly, without advance notice, God broke into history and announced what He was about to do in the birth of John the Baptist.

Although Luke does not explain the meaning of any of the Hebrew names for his Gentile readers, I cannot help but think that there is a divine significance to each of them. John means “God has been gracious,” and that was certainly fitting. Liefeld states, “That the child was named before his birth stresses God’s sovereignty in choosing him to be his servant” (ibid.). Commenting on verse 15, Howard Marshall states, “The language expresses divine choice and care of a person from his very birth, but here in connection with 1:41-44 a pre-natal sanctification of John is implied; even before he was born, the hand of God was on him to prepare him for his work. Thus in the strongest possible way the divine choice of John for his crucial task is stressed” (p. 58).

The name Zecharias means “God remembers,” and it shows us that no matter how long it may seem to us, God has not forgotten His covenant promises. The meaning of the name Elizabeth is not as certain, but it probably means, “My God is an oath,” pointing to God’s absolute faithfulness to His sworn promises. Together, these three names, John, Zecharias, and Elizabeth, point us to God’s sovereign grace toward His chosen people. In the matter of salvation, God sovereignly and faithfully takes the initiative in His time in accordance with His covenant of grace.

B. God often waits until times are dark and hopeless before He sends revival.

It was “in the days of Herod” that this word of hope came to Zecharias. Herod was an immoral, violent king of Edomite descent who claimed to be a Jew in his religion, but was such in name only. He reigned as king of Judea from 37-4 BC. He held onto power by murdering numerous family members over the years, including one son just five days before his own death. He was the same tyrant who slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the newborn king of the Jews. It was near the end of this evil reign that the Lord broke into history with His gracious message to Zecharias.

Herod’s reign followed the 400 silent years from the time of Malachi, years when Israel had been oppressed by various foreign powers. Even religion in Israel was corrupt. The high priests and members of the Sanhedrin vied for power and prestige. They made a healthy profit in the business of selling animals for sacrifice in the temple precincts. It was a bleak situation spiritually and morally. Perhaps in spite of his name, “God remembers,” Zecharias often wondered if God had forgotten His people.

But it’s often at such bleak times that God breaks into history with true revival. His power is made perfect in our weakness. Both personally and nationally, God’s salvation is revealed to those who are helpless in themselves, who have no hope but God Himself. It was not a coincidence that when God wanted to raise up Samuel as a prophet for Israel, He caused a godly woman, Hannah, to be barren. Even so here, when He wanted to send His forerunner before Messiah, He withheld children from Elizabeth, and waited until she was too old to produce a child. Then, unmistakably, the resulting blessing came from His almighty hand.

If things seem spiritually dark in our day, and they certainly do, we should be encouraged to pray for true revival. As Isaiah reminds us, “the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear” (Isa. 59:1). What applies nationally to our need for revival also applies personally to you. If your situation seems spiritually hopeless, if your sins have overwhelmed you, cry out to God to save you. The theme of the Gospel of Luke is that the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost (19:10). If you feel lost and in despair, then you are a candidate for His gracious salvation.

Thus God sovereignly takes the initiative in sending revival and often waits until things are hopeless so that no one will glory in himself, but only in the Lord.

C. God brings revival through His faithful remnant.

Even though the times were spiritually dark, here were Zecha­rias and Elizabeth, “righteous in the sight of God” (1:6), going about their lives in obscure faithfulness. When Luke states that they were “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord,” he does not mean that they were sinlessly perfect, which no one is. Rather, they walked consistently in the fear of the Lord, seeking to obey Him in all their ways. Mary and Joseph were another godly couple in Israel. It was through such obscure people, quietly living in godliness, going about their normal duties, that the Lord brought about this great breakthrough in salvation history.

If God brings revival in our day, it will be because His ordinary people walk in obedience before Him, seeking His kingdom and glory. You may think, “Who am I? What can I do? I’m not particularly gifted. I’m unknown in the Christian world.” But look what God did with these unknown but faithful people! You may not be able to preach like John, but John wouldn’t have been there had it not been for his faithful parents. If you walk in daily obedience before Him, entreating Him to pour out His grace on our land, He could use you as the mother or father of a great Christian leader who would turn our country back to God. That leads to the second point. While revival is a matter of God’s sovereignty…

We must be prepared to receive His sovereign grace.

As I said, we can’t orchestrate a true revival, but we can thwart one. We need to be the kind of people that Zecharias and Elizabeth were, so that God can use us if He chooses to do so.

A. We must be righteous in His sight.

John Calvin comments, “In ordering our life, … therefore, our first study ought to be to approve ourselves to God; and we know that what he chiefly requires is a sincere heart and a pure conscience” (Calvins Commentaries [Baker], 16:10). Men may look at our deeds, but God looks first at our heart. This means that we must trust in Christ for forgiveness of all our sins and for His righteousness in place of our own. We must judge our sins on the thought level, because “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). We can fake it before the church and the world, but we can’t fake it before God.

It is ironic that Herod was called “Herod the Great” by his contemporaries, but here John is called great by God (1:15). It would be the wicked son of this wicked tyrant who put John to death. But in the final court of God, both Herods will not be great, but John will be highly esteemed. The true estimate of any life is not what others think, but what God thinks. So we must guard against living for the approval and applause of others. With John and his godly parents, we must live to be approved unto God.

B. We must be set apart to God and filled with His Spirit.

John, the man God used to spark this great revival, was set apart unto God while even in his mother’s womb. There is debate over whether he was a Nazirite (Num. 6:3), since there is no mention of his hair not being cut. But clearly, God wanted John to be distinct from the culture around him, even from the common religious culture. Rather than being controlled by wine, he was to be controlled by the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 5:18). He was to go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” (Luke 1:17), to “turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God” (1:16). While John did not do any physical miracles, as Elijah did, he was powerfully used of God, as Elijah was, to turn many back to God. Conversions are a far greater display of God’s mighty power than physical miracles are.

While God has gifted us all differently, and the results of His working through us will differ, we all should seek to be used by Him in the process of turning sinners back to God. To be used in this way, the first requirement is a life that is distinct from our evil culture. People will read our lives to see if we are truly different or whether we’re just putting on a show. Then, as we live under the control of the Holy Spirit, He will use us to bear witness to others of the hope that is within us. As Peter wrote, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). If we live righteous lives, set apart unto God, filled with His Spirit, then God can use us to bring revival.

C. We must be repentant of all sins.

John would be used to “turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God” (1:16), and to “turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous” (1:17). These are the two great commandments, to love God and to love others, beginning in the home. In times of spiritual declension, people invariably forsake these two great commandments. They turn away from God in self-willed disobedience, and they selfishly disregard love for others. Therefore, in times of revival, the process must be reversed: People must turn in repentance toward God, seeking to obey His holy commandments; and, they must turn in repentance toward those they have wronged, beginning in family relationships and begin to practice biblical love.

One reason I am so strongly opposed to the psychological approach that has flooded into the church in recent times is that it does not focus on these two great commandments by dealing the deathblow to self. In fact, quite the opposite, psychology seeks to affirm the self. One of the basic assumptions of the “Christian psychology” movement is that at the root of many, if not most, of our problems is low self-esteem. So the counselor’s job is to help the counselee see how worthy she is and to teach her how to be more assertive so that she can deal with her abusive spouse or with her rebellious children.

This mentality is pervasive in the Christian world! I read an article stating that one reason pastors fall into adultery is low self-esteem. I recently saw some literature from a ministry that seeks to help homosexuals. It stated that one cause of homosexuality is low self-esteem. The same philosophy lies behind so-called “Christian” treatment of anorexia and bulimia.

In direct opposition to this, the Bible clearly asserts that at the root of all of our problems is the love of self. The adulterous pastor does not love Christ or His church or his own family or the woman he defiles. He loves one person more than all others--himself! The homosexual is not loving God or other men. He is loving himself, seeking to gratify his own lust. The woman with an eating disorder is self-absorbed. She is vainly trying to find love and acceptance by having a slender body. Her focus is not on how she can daily love God and serve others. She loves herself, and most “Christian” counselors feed the flame by teaching her how to love herself even more!

Self-love is also at the root of our relational problems. Why are fathers and children angry and alienated from one another? Perhaps the dad has neglected his children because he is pouring himself into his career in the hopes of being a success. Who is he loving? Or the children are defiant and disrespectful toward their parents, whom God has told them to honor and obey. Who are they loving? Or a wife decides that being a homemaker is not fulfilling, so she goes off on the career track, neglecting her husband and children. Who is she loving? The sins in families often escalate, so that the ones sinned against sin in response, leading to a chain reaction of sin. At the heart of the whole relational breakdown is the love of self.

If we want God to send revival, God’s people must humble themselves, confess their wretched love of self, and seek to obey God and serve one another in love. Rather than blame others, we must point the finger at ourselves in genuine repentance. We must go to God first, and then to those we have sinned against, and ask forgiveness for our self-centered attitudes and sinful behavior. In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans] (1:136), Alfred Edersheim describes the home of Zecharias and Elizabeth:

Such a household … would have all that was beautiful in the religion of the time: devotion towards God; a home of affection and purity; reverence towards all that was sacred in things Divine and human; ungrudging, self-denying, loving charity to the poor; the tenderest regard for the feelings of others, so as not to raise a blush, nor to wound their hearts; above all, intense faith and hope in the higher and better future of Israel.

If we want God to send revival, we must be righteous in His sight, set apart to Him, filled with His Spirit, and repentant of all our sins. Finally,

D. We must be prepared for the Lord Himself.

John’s ministry was to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). Since it was Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, for whom John was preparing the way, it is clear that Jesus is the Lord, eternal God in human flesh. But the point is, it is the Lord Himself who visits us in revival. If the presence of the angel was an awesome thing, causing Zecharias to be gripped by fear, how much more awesome is a visitation from the Lord Himself! Many Christians in our day are flippant toward the Lord. John MacArthur tells of a pastor friend of his who told John that the Lord often appeared to him while he was shaving. John’s incredulous response was, “And you keep shaving?”

Whenever in the Bible people encountered either an angel or the Lord Himself, there is one uniform response--reverent fear! If we want the living God to visit us with revival, our hearts need to be prepared. As Paul put it, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men” (Acts 24:16). If we are daily judging our sin on the thought level, seeking to live as those set apart for the Lord, filled with His Spirit, repentant of all our sins, we will be prepared for that awesome event, should it happen, that the Lord Himself would visit us in revival.

Conclusion

When God sends revival, He also sends great joy. The angel announced to Zecharias that he would have joy and gladness at John’s birth, and that many would rejoice (1:14). They were not just rejoicing at the birth of the child, but at what this child would bring—good news of a great joy for all the people, the news of the Savior (1:19; 2:10). Sin always causes pain and destruction; God’s salvation and righteousness result in great joy and gladness as relationships are reconciled.

I wish I could read to you the descriptions of revival in Iain Murray’s excellent book, Revival & Revivalism. He reports how churches felt a sense of God that also flooded them with humility to the point that they felt that they had scarcely begun to be Christians. They had a new understanding of the greatness of the Savior and of conviction of sin (p. 30). They also were impressed by the power of God’s truth. Far from emotional excess, “Congregations were then awed and subdued and it was often the degree of silence and stillness, more than anything else, which showed that a new day had come” (p. 138).

Murray repeatedly shows that there were no extraordinary means employed, no special campaigns, but rather the normal means of prayer and the preaching of the Word. But suddenly God broke into the midst of churches so that people who before had been complacent were now gripped with the reality of eternity and everyone sensed, “that in very deed, God was in this place” (p. 139). We need to pray that God would graciously send us such a visitation of His saving grace. And, we need to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord Himself into our midst.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is God’s sovereignty in revival or salvation a crucial point?
  2. Charles Finney argued that if we employ the correct means, God is obligated to send revival. Why is this fallacious and damaging?
  3. Some say (as I used to) that we must have “proper self-esteem.” Why is this in error? Should we dump on ourselves?
  4. If God desires all people to be saved, why would He withhold revival?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Character of God