The Bible does teach the need for God’s grace intervenes to change the spiritual apathy in His people: sometimes individually, and sometimes corporately. Revival is the reawakening of God’s people, the repentance of spiritual dullness and laziness and disinterest and renewal of love for God. It is needed because of inevitable decline, because of sins that have become habits, because of a growing and deepening worldliness.
I remind you of some examples of this in Scripture. Some of the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 needed this kind of revival and awakening. The church at Ephesus had right doctrine and right discernment, but had left their first love. Their heads were clear, but their hearts were cold. The church at Pergamos had allowed the world and false teaching to infiltrate the church. The church at Thyatira had gone further, and the compromise had become corrupting and had corroded their values. The church at Sardis had become a corpse. Most were spiritually dead, and only a few remained who were loyal to Christ. The lukewarm church at Laodicea had so allowed wealth and luxury to blind them, that they could not tell that their self-righteousness and self-sufficiency had locked Christ outside the door of His own church. Their Lord’s Supper did not have the Lord. Those churches needed revival and reawakening.
But the mistake that Finney made, and that of many others, is that because they misdiagnose the disease, they prescribe the wrong remedy. Revivalists see people are bored in church, so they conclude the remedy is to make church exciting. That’s like a consulting a doctor because you have an itch, and then the doctor simply reaches over and scratches you.
Revivalists notice people don’t seem as moved by God as they do by movies and pop music. So they make pop music and movies about Jesus. This is like the doctor noticing that the child is fixated by the lollipops on his desk, and giving him the lollipop and sending him on his way. Revivalism treats symptoms, scratches itches, gives spiritual lollipops, but does not deal with the disease.
Sometimes revival seems to have been a great sovereign move of God, invasive, punctuated, sudden. But other times it also seems to have been persistent, continual, ongoing renewal.
What Scripture does is give us accounts of great events of great religious fervour and enthusiasm. Some of them were true worship, some of them were not. So, to clear the ground, one of the things to do is to go to an event in Scripture that we know was not a revival, but seemed like one. We can then look at the elements that were present there, and learn that those things are not the essential marks of true revival or renewal. They may be present in both true or false revivals, but because they are there in a false revival, we know they are not essential to a true revival. We then can go to biblical accounts of real renewal and see what is unique to true revival: what was present in the true that was missing in the false?
Consider the scene in Exodus 32:1-7.
Israel has left Egypt, done the miraculous Red Sea crossing, experienced God’s provision. They arrived at Mount Sinai three months after leaving Egypt, and there God, as it were, has a kind of wedding ceremony with Israel. He announces the Ten Commandments with His own voice. The glory of God appears in fire on Mount Sinai, causing the Israelites to ask that Moses become their intermediary. Moses and the elders go up the mountain, and there see an actual manifestation of God. The God calls Moses to come up higher, with his assistant Joshua, while Aaron and his sons and the other elders of Israel, return back down. Moses is up there with Joshua for forty days and nights, as God gives Moses the plans for the Tabernacle, and the priesthood.
So after this forty-day wait, the people decide that they need to do something religious. They can still see the glory cloud and fire on top of Mount Sinai. But no one has permission to just approach and climb the mountain and see what has happened to Moses. But they want to go on and enter the promised land.
So they decide to conduct a worship service. They want to symbolise the God who brought them out of Egypt and will lead them into Canaan. If they cannot have Moses leading from the front, then at least they can have a kind of statue, a great emblem of Israel’s God, Jehovah. When the text says, make us gods, it is the word Elohim which is sometimes translated gods, but is also used for God. And the context tells us that what they wanted Aaron to make was a physical representation of Yehovah.
To make the symbol to lead the whole nation is not something you make out of sticks and rocks and fur. So Aaron asks for gold. And soon there are enough earrings contributed to have raw material. Aaron decides to make the image of a calf. These represented strength to the Hebrews; you’ll often read about “the horn of my strength” in Scripture. The ox also meant progress, transport, movement. This is the strong god transporting Israel from Egypt to Canaan.
But you don’t just get a golden calf out of nowhere. It is not like he will say when Moses asks him later “What were you thinking?” Aaron is going to reply with one of the worst excuses for sin ever, “I put the gold into the fire and out came this calf”. That’s not what happened. This was likely several day’s work, creating the smelter, the mould, and then still fashioning it, as it says with an engraver’s tool.
Now, the day comes for its dedication. The nation sees it and proclaims, “This is your god, that led you out of Egypt”. Aaron sees the enthusiasm, and he builds an altar in front of it. He then makes a pronouncement, an official declaration: Tomorrow will be a feast, a festival to Jehovah. Tomorrow will be a worship service, a dedicated day of worshipping Yehovah. The next morning, people wake up unusually early, and they bring costly animal sacrifices. They eat and drink, and we read they got up to play.
Now, let’s take stock of all that is present at this scene.
First, this is done for God, and to God. It is dedicated to God, it is aimed at God, it is a feast to Yahveh. They haven’t got the wrong god here.
Second, we have what could be called good motives. They need spiritual direction, they want to make progress into the land; they don’t know where Moses is, so they want to go on, not back to Egypt.
Third, they appear to be united and unanimous. There don’t seem to be voices stopping this. This is spreading across thousands of people.
Fourth, they are led by a respected spiritual leader. Aaron is Moses’s brother, and soon to be High Priest.
Fifth, they exert effort, and sacrifice. They give up their gold. They sacrifice their animals. They rise up early.
Sixth, they are extremely zealous, extremely passionate, and highly emotional.
Why is this not revival?