Warmongering. Bloody. Idolatrous. It was not at the top of a list of cities where one would expect to see the Holy Spirit move in a mighty way. In fact, it probably wouldn’t make such a list at all if we were compiling it. It was a pagan city with no discernible interest in the living God. It was a city without a preacher of the Word. The one man raised up by God to proclaim His Word in this city had chosen to sail across the Mediterranean instead. A spiritual awakening here? Impossible—or so it seemed. For when Jonah finally did proclaim God’s Word to the city of Nineveh, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They repented. Jonah wasn’t happy because he hated the Assyrians, but he also wasn’t surprised because he knew God was merciful and worked to turn the hearts of the wicked (4:1–2). He knew this because God had done it so many times in the history of Israel.
Awakenings in Biblical Times
Mighty outpourings of the Spirit resulting in large numbers of conversions have happened since biblical times. Historians and theologians sometimes refer to such outpourings as “revivals” or “awakenings.” Before we look at some of the awakenings that have occurred throughout history, it is important that we define our terms. Other articles in this month’s issue of Tabletalk will explain the difference between true and false revival. Suffice it to say that not everything that Christians have called “revival” is revival in the sense we are using the term. The terms “revival” and “awakening” properly refer to works of the Holy Spirit that cannot be coerced or brought about through emotional manipulation. They cannot be scheduled. True revivals are sovereign works of God, and He chooses when and where they occur.
Much of the story of Israel in the Old Testament is a story of rebellion against God and rejection of His Word. The stories of the downward spirals that occurred at the time of the judges and in the years after the division of the kingdom are well known. From time to time, however, we see the people of Israel repent and return to the Lord, even if only for a short time. Under the leadership of Samuel, for example, the people of Israel turned from idols and served the Lord (1 Sam. 7:3–4). The people briefly turned to the Lord in the wake of Elijah’s defeat of the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:39). In 2 Chronicles 29–32, we read another beautiful story of the people’s return to the Lord under the reign of Hezekiah.
All of the Old Testament stories of revival have a few major points in common. First, there is a lengthy period of spiritual decline. Second, one or more persons recognize Israel’s sin and call the people to repentance. Third, the people recognize their sin and cry out to God. Fourth, God responds and turns the hearts of His people back to Himself. There are many examples of this pattern in the Old Testament, but sadly, there is one other thing that all of these Old Testament “revivals” have in common: they are short-lived. They do not have long-lasting effects. The nation again and again turns away from God. The prophets, therefore, look forward to a day when God will pour out His Spirit and give His people a new heart (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 11:17–20; 36:24–28; 39:29; Joel 2:28).
With the coming of Christ in the New Testament, all of these Old Testament promises and prophecies begin to be fulfilled. John the Baptist tells Israel that Jesus is the one who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; John 1:33). It is through Him that the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Joel will be fulfilled. In His Upper Room Discourse, Jesus instructs the disciples about many things, including the person and work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15–17, 26; 15:26; 16:7–15). They may have been surprised to learn that the Spirit would come only after Jesus had departed, but that is what He told them (John 16:7). Forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead and walked out of the tomb, He did depart. He ascended to the right hand of God. Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on His people, and the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled (Acts 2:16, 33). Filled with the Spirit, Peter proclaimed the gospel to the people in Jerusalem, and what was the result? “There were added that day about three thousand souls,” and day by day the Lord added to this number (Acts 2:41, 47). Pentecost is the first truly great awakening in the Bible.
Awakenings in Church History
Over the next few centuries, this small band of believers spread throughout the Mediterranean, and even beyond. The number of Christians increased exponentially. Eventually, the Roman emperor himself was converted (in name, at least), but with the good came the bad. True conversion became more difficult to discern, as realms became officially “Christian.” As history progressed, the bishop of Rome gained more and more power, eventually demanding to be preeminent among other bishops. This led to what we know today as the papacy, along with a steady decline from adherence to biblical norms and even the gospel itself. There were, of course, attempts at reform during the Middle Ages, and missionaries such as Patrick (389–461), a missionary to the Irish; Columba (521–597), a missionary to the Scots; and Boniface (672–754), a missionary to the Germans, continued to go to pagan lands and share the gospel. Nevertheless, as the years progressed, the gospel became more and more obscured. By the late Middle Ages, much of the West was shrouded in spiritual darkness, not to mention the rest of the world.
After darkness, however, comes light. The greatest awakening since the time of the early church occurred in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation. The pope and most bishops had reached a low point, and they had effectively lost their grasp on the gospel. Martin Luther stood up in the midst of this situation and proclaimed the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Under the leadership of men such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin, the good news of the gospel spread through Europe once again as many were converted to Christ.
The gospel spread both east and west, to Asia, to Africa, and to the Americas. In its history, North America has witnessed several awakenings, the most famous of which is the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. This awakening began in 1734 under the preaching of the Calvinist Congregationalist pastor Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Mass. It soon spread to other towns in New England. The awakening was spurred on in other colonies by preachers such as the Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent and the Pietist Theodorus Frelinghuysen. Moravian missionaries had an impact on the awakening through their most famous convert, John Wesley, and through the impact they had on the itinerant preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield had traveled from England to Georgia in 1738, but it was his return to America in 1740 that truly had a lasting impact. Whitefield traveled from city to city and preached in the open to tens of thousands of listeners. While rejecting his friend’s message, Benjamin Franklin claimed that the positive effect of Whitefield’s preaching was obvious in the towns Whitefield had visited.
In the late eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards’ grandson Timothy Dwight sparked a revival at Yale University. This event is considered by some to mark the beginning of the so-called Second Great Awakening, which lasted until the 1840s. The most famous evangelist of the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney, whose theology was very different from the Reformed theology of Edwards and Whitefield. Finney was an unabashed Pelagian; he rejected original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith alone. He also invented several manipulative revivalist techniques that continue to be used in many churches today.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the West is once again in a period of darkness as various forms of secularism have come to the fore, and yet the church continues to advance. We are witnessing massive numbers turning to Christ in Africa, Asia, and South America. According to some estimates, China is on course to have the highest population of Christians anywhere in the next two decades. In 2010, Protestants in China numbered approximately 60 million. By 2030, some estimate there will be 250 million.
God sovereignly moves when and where He wills, and just as He brought the light of the gospel into the darkness of pagan Rome, medieval Europe, and communist China, He can bring light into places currently shrouded in darkness. He can bring an awakening to the Islamic world. He can bring an awakening to the secular West. And as He did many times in the Old Testament, He can bring an awakening to unbelieving Jews. If you are a Christian, He has awakened you by bringing you out of darkness and into the light. Pray that by His Spirit He would move mightily to awaken many more.