Previous blogs and miscellaneous articles
This page will have all previous blogs on it. It will also have longer pieces that are too long for a blog, and miscellaneous items such as prayers and poems and reviews of books and other blog sites.
Initially, they will appear in a random order, but when they begin to accumulate – probably around the beginning of 2020 – we will begin to categorise them and also include our book titles within the category as well.
God’s relationship with people is based on covenants – that is agreements where both parties understand the terms and conditions. Even the two sections of our bibles are called the Old and the New Covenants (testament is simply the word for covenant that has come to us via Latin).
Many Christians find it comparatively easy to come to grips with the concept of the Old Covenant. It was national – that is it was made with the nation of Israel. It was territorial – that is it involved a specific area of land with identifiable boundaries. It was liturgical – that is it involved specific aspects of worship; a priesthood, a temple, acts of sacrifice and feasts. And it was relational – it had instructions for life and living. Any person living at the time of Jesus would have known whether or not they were part of the Old Covenant.
Few have a similar clarity about the New Covenant. Disagreements in respect of baptism in water and Spirit, communion, the nature of the Church and basic Christian living are nearly all rooted in a lack of clarity about the nature and terms of the New Covenant. Some of the issues are covered in my booklet “Understanding God’s New Covenant in Jesus Christ” (which can be read or printed off from the book section of this website), and I am not going to go over that ground again in this blog. However, I do feel it worth restating some of the comparisons between the Old and the New Covenants in order to stimulate you look at them again.
Whilst emphasising that it was quite definitely glorious, Paul said that the Old Covenant was of the letter, engraved on stones, resulting in a ministry of death and condemnation (II Cor Ch 3). In spite of this, many Christians seem to gravitate toward this old, glorious yoke, declaring themselves to be under its terms and conditions (especially the ten commandments). But whilst not denying its glory, Paul emphasises the greater glory of the Spirit, where the laws of God are written directly onto the fleshy tables of our hearts, not mediated via lumps of granite.
The priestly ministry and Solomon’s earthly temple were similarly glorious; to such an extent that at the dedication of the temple, the weight of God’s glory was such that the priests could not stand before God in the temple (II Chron Ch 7). However, the book of Hebrews makes it quite clear that neither priests nor temple have any place in the New Covenant, and with the demise of the priesthood, the Law is also done away with (Heb Ch 7 v 12). In spite of this many Christians hanker for both a priesthood and a temple environment.
One of the issues is that Jesus said that he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil, and that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law until all was fulfilled (Mat Ch v 17-18). His declaration can be taken one of two ways. Either, he was reinforcing the Mosaic Law in its entirety, and every Christian is under an obligation to keep every precept of it (including stoning anyone found working on the Sabbath), or he was referring to fulfilment in a similar way to how a loaf of bread fulfils a recipe for the bread. If Jesus meant that he was re-emphasising the necessity of keeping the Old Mosaic Covenant, then Paul and the other apostles all misunderstood him, because the New testament preaching and letters clearly break radically from that. So what about the alternative?
The parallel of the two covenants with that of a recipe and a loaf of bread is so simple, that some of us draw back because it just seems too good to be true. So let’s think about it. Many of us find our mouths watering when we look at glorious pictures in colour recipe books. We read the ingredients, hover over the pictures and imagine what such a feast might be like. When presented with an actual loaf of bread, we may feel some initial disappointment – it lacks the vividness and, in particular, the preciseness of the recipe (two loaves made from the same recipe will vary in shape and appearance and never be identical). So what is the relationship between the recipe and the loaf? It is simply that the bread is the result (fulfilment) of following the recipe. The recipe points toward the bread, and the bread contains everything that was in the recipe. Someone has to follow the recipe, but we cannot do it: only God Himself can fulfil every aspect of it. The recipe cannot be eaten and the recipe cannot give life, but the loaf can be eaten and the loaf will give life.
Jesus said that he is the bread of life. He is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, and not one aspect of its detail is missing from him, but having fulfilled it, he does not tantalise us by saying “this is what it looks like, now you copy me and fulfil it yourselves”. Rather, he acknowledges that no person other than himself was ever able to follow the recipe, so he offers us the finished loaf instead.
In the New Covenant, we are given the finished work of God in Christ Jesus. The bread of life is available fresh every day and all we have to do is eat and live, and the bread will give life to us. Who wants a recipe, carved on stone and impossible to eat, when the fresh bread is freely available? The essence of the New Covenant is eating and drinking Jesus. All the promises of God are yes and Amen – in him.
The angel that appeared to Joseph told him to name the child which Mary was expecting, Jesus, which means God with us. That was of course totally appropriate, for when he lived on earth he was fully divine as well as fully human. However, before he was born on earth he had existed for all eternity as fully God, together with his Father and Holy Spirit.
John’s gospel introduces him as being as the Word, who was in the beginning and through whom the world was created. The Word does not have a great deal of meaning for those of us who have English as their first language. We rarely use it outside of the context of literature, and in that context, it simply means a group of letters formed to communicate something either verbally or in writing. However, John’s gospel was originally written in Greek, and the Greek word that we translate as Word, was Logos.
Although logos is a Greek word, we do not have to look very far before we find it cropping up in English, often coupled with other Greek words in order to give us technical terms for many of our areas of study and science. Psychology is the study of the psyche or soul, biology is the study of the bios or life and geology is the study of the geo or earth (geography is writing about or drawing the earth). If we thought about it for a few minutes, most of us would be able to come up with loads of other examples. When we use the word logic, we think of patterns or laws which give a form to our thinking, and if we say something is illogical, we infer that it is not based on reason or good sense.
As far as we know, John wrote his gospel in Ephesus, and that would give an even clearer insight into the use of Logos to refer to Jesus. David Pawson mentions a very famous man named Heraclitus who lived in Ephesus some six hundred years before John. He was considered one of the founders, if not the founder, of science. He emphasised the need to discover ‘the reason why’ that lay behind everything and the term he used for this was logos. When Heraclitus sought to understand the psyche (soul), bios (life), geo (earth), or any other part of our world, he sought the logos (the reason why) behind it, and his terminology remains with us to this day.
I am not suggesting that God the Father referred to his Son as Logos before he came to earth, but we can certainly believe that John was inspired to choose the term Logos as the most appropriate way to refer to him as being the reason why behind creation and everything that God intended to accomplish through eternity.
Apparently, there is an old Japanese proverb, which relates an incident when everyone praised the peacock’s beautiful tail. Some of the other birds cried out “Sure, but look at its legs and listen to its voice!”
When someone has a beautiful appearance or an outstanding ability, it is tempting to ignore their flaws.
This can often be true in respect of church leaders. A genuinely gifted charismatic leader can be a great asset to the church, but it is a rare bird that has no bad points. Unless these are acknowledged alongside the good, problems will inevitably surface at some point and may cause great harm.
Praise where praise is due is no bad thing. However, when praise becomes indiscriminate and is served up regardless of ongoing merit, it becomes mere flattery and flattery will always demean the giver and puff up the recipient.
It is salutary to remember that God humbles the proud and exalts the poor, and we do well if we ensure that we make space for our weakest and perhaps less attractive members to play their part in God’s work among us. Of course we need those who have leadership responsibility; leadership gifts are foundational for the church; but it is surely healthy to acknowledge that God can and does give wisdom through those who are least esteemed in the world’s view in addition to those who have positions of authority.
Prior to and during the period when the Communists came to power in China, a church called the Jesus Family sought to embrace the simple principles found in the New Testament. In one situation a whole village agreed to live in this way and as part of that, all the elders took on the task of being the team that dealt with and transported all the dung produced by the animals in the village.
In a secular situation over fifty years ago, the newly appointed CEO of Avis Rent a Car decided on a radical turn around. At that time, the switchboard operators were considered to be at the bottom of company’s staffing structure, but they were the company’s front line with the public. The new CEO decreed that all the senior managers spend half a day a month on the switchboard dealing with customers and their problems.
I am not certain how these sort of principles might translate into our culture, but it seems worth taking a long hard look at how we function as the people of God. Jesus’ practice of sitting down to eat with all classes of people seems a good place to start; especially if those of us who are leaders muck in and serve the food or do the washing up from time to time.
It is a few years now since I have been aware of local councils appearing to panic over the danger of falling conkers and placing warning signs on some trees. One school however did go so far as to cut down a chestnut tree because of the danger, and another was reported to have banned children from playing conkers unless they wore goggles.
Restrictions on conkers probably has very little effect on most of us, but the increase of other restrictions because of health and safety or safeguarding concerns is surely being felt by all.
Understandably, the Government has brought in a variety of laws in an effort to contain the spread of the covid virus, but some of us struggle to make sense of many of them. A relative of mine lives in a tiny village with a handful of residents, none of whom have reported any symptoms. The nearest town – so called because it has a shop – is five miles away. It is now illegal for more than six villagers to stop and have a chat with each other, unless of course they all troop down to the local pub and do it there.
Many youth groups or organisations providing activities for young or old are now finding it difficult to recruit helpers because of the insistence of safeguarding training. If three families who have been neighbours for years set up a youth club for their kids, the adults have to undergo training in order to supervise their own children playing together.
An elderly friend of mine with nearly sixty years of front line experience in Christian ministry in this country and on the mission field, is having to sign up for a safeguarding training course because he has agreed to be a trustee of a local church.
I am sure that all of us are in favour of sensible health and safety precautions and safeguarding measures, but once regulations are imposed in a blanket fashion without regard for differing circumstances, it is understandable that some of us find them silly instead of sensible.
Apparently, Henry Ford said, “Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
University professor Steve Mason goes a step further: “To say that history teaches us lessons is a misleading and dangerous statement”
During the Second World War, C.S. Lewis spoke at many gatherings of those in the armed forces. He was always a popular speaker, but he sometimes found the response he received to be limited. When asked what he found the most difficult aspect of addressing these gatherings, he replied “A lack of a sense of history”.
I am not certain what Steve Mason has achieved (and as that is history, perhaps I should ignore it), but it I do acknowledge that Henry Ford transformed the motor industry and built an awful lot of cars.
As far as I am aware, C.S.Lewis’s chosen method of transport was walking whenever possible and he never built a car in his life. What I do know, is that in a survey at the end of last Century, a couple of hundred leading Christian thinkers and speakers were asked to list the people who had been most influential in their life. There were a couple of categories, but Lewis was rated in the top three in both of them.
Henry Ford and Steve Mason are probably both closer to the present trends in thinking in our society, but I believe they are both wrong.
One thing that history teaches us, is that the view of history as unreliable and unworthy of note, is of comparatively recent origin. It is not that I wish to infer that the present cannot teach us anything, but it does sometime seem that those who disdain the lessons of the past often ignore the possible lessons of the present as well. It is surely not a question of choosing between learning from now or then, and in any case, by tomorrow, now will be then as well. Those who set their hearts and minds to learn, can generally do so from any situation; past present or even in some circumstances, future.
For a follower of Jesus, who takes the bible seriously, it is not possible to ignore the fact that not only is most of the bible itself history, but that within it, it includes a good deal of reference to earlier historical events as well. It is also hard to ignore the fact that most of the great Christian thinkers have done their thinking within an historical framework of reference. Nor should we overlook the fact, that in sharing with others what God has done in our lives, we are simply recounting history, albeit on a small and personal scale.
The history of the Church offers significant opportunities for learning, and through that, developing our faith. Most revivals have been stirred by the record of previous revivals, and many potential dangerous mistakes have been avoided by recognising the mistakes that others have made in the past.
If C.S.Lewis was able to identify a lack of a sense of history as one of the barriers to the reception of the claims of Christianity, it might be worth reflecting on the spiritual condition of those who emphasise the now, as having far more significance than the lessons we might learn from the past.
In a recent skype conversation with Anna, one of my daughters in law, I mentioned that I was re-reading ‘The Four loves’ by C.S. Lewis which unpacks the meaning of the Greek words in a way that helpfully shows both the similarities and the differences between mere human love and the love of God. He does not belittle the love that is purely human – a love for a pet dog can be enriching and a true expression of our humanity – but it does not parallel God’s love toward us nor the love that is a vital aspect of Christian fellowship with fellow believers. But some of the great strengths of Lewis – his immense learning and astonishing breadth of reading – can sometimes be a barrier to those (an increasing number in our time) who struggle to read and engage with books such as this, which seriously stretch and challenge the mind.
When Anna asked me whether it might be possible to summarise Lewis’s book in one of my blogs, I considered the task well beyond my capabilities. However, I do confess that I struggle when I hear Christians proclaiming that a key element of the good news is ‘God loves you’ when they do not go on to explain what they mean by it. I do not disagree with the statement as it stands, but I find myself wondering whether the speaker actually knows what it means, or, even more crucially, what the hearers understand by it. Love is a catch-all word, which so lacks definition in our language, that anyone hearing it used in relation to God, might be excused if they fail to grasp the enormity of what it means in that context.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek, both in its classical and everyday varieties, has four separate words for love. We could of course also use a variety of words to distinguish what we mean when speaking about love of various things in English. I am fond of my pet dog, I like fish and chips, Lancaster is my favourite town, this is a great little gadget, my mum is the best and I adore my wife would all serve instead of saying that I love them. Unfortunately, in practice, we often neglect to utilise other expressions and make love to serve in all circumstances.
So, recognising that I am not up to summarising Lewis, I nonetheless decided that I might try and set out something on the same theme, drawing on his and other writings on the subject. I realised that this blog would have to be longer than those I normally write, so this time I am only sending out one rather than the four I usually do.
Of the four different words in use at the time, the New Testament writers only made extensive use of two of them, agape and phileo. One, storge they only used occasionally, and that was in compound words, and the other, eros, they did not use at all.
The reason the last two, storge and eros, were used minimally or not at all is understandable. They express the most human or natural aspects of love. That does not imply that those loves are wrong, far from it, but they are expressions of love that relate to anyone and everyone regardless of whether they are a Christian, or whether they have any belief in God or not.
Storge is the word that expresses affection and in particular a natural affection that might be based on many things. It could be used of a man and his dog or horse, of a parent and their child, or of comradeship between two old soldiers. It could embody the concept of two people standing side by side in mutual affection as they share an interest. There is no indication whether the shared interest might be good or bad or indeed, whether the people themselves are good or bad. In that sense, it is a neutral word. Two people who share this love may be crooks, murderers, or the most benevolent and kind persons in their community, but storge gives no indication of their values nor passes any judgement on their morals. It does indicate a clear affinity and affection, but not anything that necessarily arises out of the people themselves.
When it is used in the New Testament, storge is used in compounds to emphasise the presence or absence of this basic human love. In His letter to the Christians at Rome, Ch 1 v 31 Paul includes the negative, without love or natural affection, as one among a long list of attributes of those who have rejected the revelation and knowledge of God. Similarly, In 2 Timothy 3 v 3 he again uses the negative to describe one of the terrible signs of the last days. Many of those who persistently reject the love of God, will ultimately find themselves even unable to express the most basic of human affections. On the one occasion he uses storge positively, (Romans Ch 12 v10) it is again in a compound but this time, instead of with a negative, it is joined to one of the other words for love, phileo. It is included in a list of positive attributes that Christians are to manifest – a love that includes both affection as friends and love as family.
Eros, though in common use in both classical and everyday Greek, does not occur at all in the New Testament. As with storge, eros denotes a love that is rooted in our humanity, but whereas storge focusses on a shared interest or something where two companions might stand side by sideor be members of the same family, eros expresses the love and attraction between two people who are face to face where the focus is on each other.
It is the love between a man and a woman, which finds its highest fulfilment in giving and receiving between each other. The word is frequently found in Greek tragedies or romantic poems. The Greeks had a delight in physical human beauty and also in the sexual and sensual desires that could be aroused by that beauty. As such, the word eros was employed to express every aspect of that. The absence of it in the New Testament does not indicate disapproval, for the Bible is clear that God created man and woman to embrace, enter into and continue in a relationship that is described as becoming one flesh – the highest fulfilment of eros.
Its absence is explained when we realise that in addition to the natural, good, human expression of love between a man and a woman, eros also came to express a more mystical understanding of love, which incorporated a union with the gods. This was sometimes linked with fertility cults, some of which paralleled those practiced by the heathen nations in the Old Testament and which were consistently condemned by the prophets. The love between God and humanity was a long way from the eros of the mystery religions, and other words needed to be found.
The first of the Greek words that the New Testament writers take up and use extensively in a Christian sense is phileo. It is used both to show affection between natural family members and those who are spiritually related through having one Father in heaven. Its most simple and perhaps most expressive translation is ‘brotherly’ love (though of course equally valid as ‘sisterly’ love as well).
Whereas storge may be used to express an affection that grows out of mere familiarity where there is little that may actually be attractive in the one we love, phileo tends toward a love that incorporates an attraction to something of value (either good or bad) in the object of our love itself. So it is used (1 Tim Ch 1 v 8) for loving what is good, or (1 Tim Ch 6 v 10) for loving money. It is used commonly both within and outside the New Testament to express love of a family member, where there is a relationship already in place. On occasions when it is used in a very general sense such as Titus Ch 3 v 4, to express the love of God toward humankind, it clearly indicates that this was not based on the righteous things that we have done, but on the mercy of God.
The word used more usually in the New Testament to convey the love of God is agape. In the King James version of the Bible this was sometimes translated as charity. Whilst that may jar a little to the modern mind, it was not a bad translation, for at the heart of the meaning of agape, is the thought of action, where one person carries out a generous move for the sake of another. It is possible to be charitable, to send money for the benefit of total strangers and to do so without emotion or feeling, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Of course, emotion, sometimes very deep emotion, may be involved, especially compassion, and that may be the driving force of our action, but that is not what is described by agape. Compassion and tender feelings are conveyed by splagchnizomai or eleeo, meaning to have one’s innermost being moved, or to have mercy.
God is not passionless. When Jesus ministered on earth, he was repeatedly described as having compassion on a person, and compassion involves real feelings. However, compassion is not the principle word used of God’s attitude toward humankind, that is love, agape, and that type of love is ultimately expressed by action rather than feeling. So when John writes that God so loved the world (John Ch 3 v 16) he continues by describing the action of God – He gave His Son – rather than describing the feeling of God.
The meaning of agape as gracious action rather than good feeling, is clearly seen in the command of Jesus (Luke Ch 6 v 27 ff) to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. We are told to bless them and pray for them, not to like them or have affection for them. God is concerned for generous actions not merely positive feelings. (The amazing thing is that when we obey Jesus and bless and pray for enemies, our attitude to them may often begin to mellow into affection as well.)
Agape, was little used in the Greek outside of the New Testament, and so the biblical writers were able to make it peculiarly their own in order to express and explain the love of God; a love which led Him to give His Son as a sacrifice for the world. The action of God is in stark contrast to mere human loves, which are often driven by the attractiveness of the one loved or the inner feelings aroused by that one. God’s love is rooted in the decision to love, which arises out of the goodness and grace of the one who is loving, not the one being loved.
Any person who is fortunate enough to be in a mature, loving marriage, will know that such a relationship can combine all the loves. So too, in our relationship with God, we may dare to believe that affection, friendship and attraction may develop, but that is not the starting point. In the beginning, it comes down to choice. God chooses us and demonstrates that He has done so through the actions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross must always be central in the proclamation of the good news. The cross is God’s love in action. Our response must also be demonstrated through action. Regardless of how we feel, the appropriate response is to leave everything, change our priorities and become a follower, a disciple. The choice to love God and demonstrate that in action is agape. It demands priority over all other forms of love and, as such may sometimes involve forsaking family, friends and those who are the objects of our affection.
It is only when we understand the distinction between aspects of loving, that the teaching of Jesus will make sense. We are to love Him more than mother or father or wife and children (Matthew Ch 10 v 37) and take up our cross and follow Him. It is not that love for family is wrong, far from it; one of Jesus’s last acts from the cross was to make provision for His mother (John Ch 19 v 26). Whilst choosing the course of action driven by the agape love of God, Jesus accepted that it involved the deepest pain of separation from His Father in heaven, and that it overruled the phileo love for His mother. However, by entrusting her into the care of His cousin John, He lessened the pain and heartache involved in such a decision.
Because agape love is the greatest of loves, it will often involve pain, as choices for right action take priority over the loves based on relationships, affections, feelings and desires. But agape love is not opposed to the other loves, and though it has priority, it will often also incorporate those other loves. At such times, right action may be infused with great joy and all the very best of our emotional being as well.
When we talk to those whom we are seeking to bring into faith in Christ, it is crucial therefore, that we make it quite clear what it means to be loved by God. We are the cause of His sacrificial love that chose the way of the cross for His Son. The only possible appropriate response to that love, is to receive it as the gift that it is intended to be, and to make our own offering of love in return by choosing the way of the cross for ourselves.
Declaring the love of God without rooting that love in the act of the cross of Jesus and our incorporation into it, will ultimately breed discontent and disappointment. People will inevitably become disillusioned if they try to live on the basis of how God might feel about them and how they might feel in return, instead of living on the basis of what God has done for them and how they should respond to that.
From time to time, the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean experiences changes that affect significant areas of the globe. These are called La Nina (cold) and El Nino (warm). Around the time of the beginning of the 1904 Welsh Revival, one of those writing about the work of God in Wales, noted that a recent El Nino had caused a period of exceptionally warm torrential showers along the west coast of South America. Apparently, some dessert areas received their first outpourings of rain for around 350 years. In an incredibly short time, the barren land was transformed into a paradise of lush flowers and vegetation. Millions upon millions of seeds, which had lain dormant in the parched earth, drank in the life-giving rain and burst into life.
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the future Messianic age that “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35 v 1-2). When John the Baptist sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask if he was ‘the Coming One’ (another term for Messiah) Jesus replied by saying “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear” (Mat 11 v 4 -5), a quote from the same passage of Isaiah. Jesus clearly understood himself to be the Messiah and that his coming was the beginning of the new period of God’s working.
So we are in the Messianic age that the prophets foretold. We are in the age of the Spirit’s outpouring. We are in the age of miracles. We are in the age when apparently barren land can bring forth fruit in abundance.
Why then are these things the exception rather than the rule in the experience of so many of us?
There are at least two discernible reasons
The most obvious, is that just as rain cannot cause growth if there are no seeds in the ground, the Holy Spirit does not bring forth life if the word has not been planted in human hearts. The Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum, but he affirms and confirms the word of God.
Secondly, it is observable in nature that there are times and seasons of growth and times of fallow when the ground rests. Several of Jesus’ parables likened the way that the Kingdom of God works, to the way that seeds grow. We sometimes feel that we are doing well if we manage to organise our churches in a consistent, unvaried way, but we would be hard put to show a biblical basis for that, and even harder to demonstrate it from history. Neither consistent rain nor consistent sun will produce a harvest; we need seasons of both.
When the Church experiences revival, it experiences a period of ingathering and fast growth, however, that growth needs to be consolidated and tested:
There must be periods of testing in order to establish the genuineness of what God has done.
There must be periods of study –sheer hard work when we search the scriptures to understand the mind and workings of God. We need to spend time in the word so that the Holy Spirit can teach us to discern between his work and the elements of flesh, soul and the demonic that might have crept into our churches during revival times.
And there needs to be periods when we concentrate on putting into practice the fusion of spiritual energy, understanding and endurance.
God knows, we desperately need revival. However, unless we are using the time when we do not have revival to learn from testing circumstances, immerse ourselves in the word and to put into practice what we already have, then we will not be ready for revival when it comes.
As any student of revival will know, persistent believing prayer is essential, but that prayer must be intermingled with God’s refining work in our lives that will bring us to a place where we despair of ourselves and look to Christ alone. Effective prayer arises out of an understanding of the will of God discovered in his word and written on our hearts by his Spirit, and bold, importunate prayer, can only come from hearts that walk in obedience to the level of light that we have received already.
Reading about revival can be one of the ways to stir ourselves afresh to seek God. We are offering a free copy of a short book that we have produced.
This brief introduction to Revival aims to raise questions in our hearts and minds. Most of us will at least have heard of revival, some of us will have read accounts of it, and a privileged few will have experienced it first-hand.
For all of us, the challenge is to understand whether it might fit into the future purposes of God.
This booklet will not fully answer that challenge for you, but perhaps it might just stimulate you sufficiently to read, pray and study toward that end.
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This saying does not come from the bible and careful reflection will show that it is not true as a total principle. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and he did so out of his free sovereign choice with no involvement through prayer, or any other means, of the people he created.
However, once we put the saying in context we will see that it does highlight an important principle for the Church. It was John Wesley who gave us the first recorded use of the phrase when he wrote:
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”
Wesley was not simply calling for more prayer, nor was he suggesting that any sort of prayer can move the hand of God. Some of the first teachings of Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of prayer that comes from a self-righteous heart or from a belief that mere repetition will persuade God. Jesus did stress the need for both perseverance and faith, but rooted these in the natures of people and of God. In people insofar as we are utterly helpless of ourselves, and in God, insofar as he is all-powerful and he has care, concern and love for the world.
Wesley set the focus for the prerequisites of effective prayer as a fear of sin and an exclusive or total desire for God. He was particularly stating that these were the foundational requirements for preachers, but the principle extends to the whole people of God.
We understand why some of us puzzle over why God should seem to limit himself to the degree that his people involve themselves in what he is doing. However, it is the difference between creation and pro-creation. As we said above, the first act of creation was out of nothing but the sovereign word and will of God, but everything that God made in that first creative act, contained within it the seed necessary to pro-create. Since the beginning, every generation – whether of plant, humanity or animals – brings forth the next generation.
The Church is no different. Every generation of Christians must be those who give birth to the next generation. True, they cannot do it without God, but also, God will not do it without them. It is a spiritual truth as well as a natural one that ‘except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains alone’. Pro- creation always involves a change of priorities – a denial of self in order to bring forth the life of another. All of Christianity is based on this principle which permeated every action of Jesus Christ in both life and death, and which finds its highest expression in fervent prayer for the next, as yet unborn, generation of believers. It can be seen historically, in a study of the major moves of God, which we call revivals.
Whenever people are born of God in large numbers, their births will have been preceded by concentrated, prevailing prayer. The basis for that statement is simple. In most cases, the prayer can be traced back afterwards. This is not fanciful. Some students of revival, such as J. Edwin Orr, completed a Doctorate at Oxford on the subject, and many have compiled newspaper records clearly detailing what happened. It is no secret, that before the 1858 Great Awakening, in which both the United States and Great Britain each saw around a million people added to the churches, prayer meetings were rampant. At one period in New York, 10,000 people met daily for prayer*. If we compare like with like in terms of the population ratio, that would be the equivalent of over 2000 people meeting for prayer in Northampton every single day.
Let us make no mistake about the matter. Human effort or better methods, however well intentioned or well motivated, will accomplish little more than a superficial human response. Nothing less than fully surrendered hearts gathered for sacrificial, believing prayer will see a new ingathering of people into the Kingdom of God.
*For a brief summary of what happened visit: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/577
Walking past a church building recently, I noticed a large banner that included the announcement ‘Revival Meeting 7.30 Fridays’. One dictionary definition of revival suggests that it is the bringing back of something from a depressed, inactive and unused state. I am pretty certain that the church notice was not indicating that such a thing happened to their spiritual life once a week on a Friday evening. As with many words, revival has tended to lose a clear, defined meaning, which evokes a constant understanding in all those who hear it.
As I write about revival, I believe it is sensible to give some definition of what I mean, and equally important, do not mean, by the term. The word revival does not occur in the New Testament, and even the concept is lacking there, except perhaps to some extent in the Revelation letters to the seven Churches. The concept is clearer in the Old Testament where the people of God moved through cycles of disobedience and falling away and then repentance and restoration. So whilst it is a useful word, it is not a biblical word.
It came into Christian use in the years following the Reformation, when the condition and fortunes of the Church experienced more defined periods of ebb and flow. It came into regular and focussed use during the eighteenth, nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, especially as people recorded events and circulated them through newspapers and pamphlets. Looking back, it seems possible to identify similar events of varying degree and frequency throughout the whole history of the Church, but it is not always possible to establish their exact nature or whether they were referred to by particular terms.
However, it is possible to establish the exact nature of some events which took place during the past three hundred years. Due to the extraordinary things that happened, many people kept careful records that we can still refer to. Reports on revivals were often characterised by a focus on three things:
1. The very large numbers of people affected. Meetings, both for prayer and preaching, were sometimes huge, not merely thousands, but tens of thousands.
2. The transformation of lives. Some of the most ungodly people later testified of God’s transforming power. And also there were large number of converts, sometimes recorded by name in column after column in secular newspapers.
3. The impact on society. For instance, during and after the Welsh Revival, some police cells were empty and court sessions were cancelled as there were no cases to try.
Within the context of these three things, the predominance of prayer was also highlighted, together with the powerful, biblical preaching, which brought people to their knees in repentance under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
These are the sort of things that come to mind for me when I refer to revival.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to shift the focus away from the things above, toward physical phenomena such as people falling, jerking or otherwise manifesting unusual actions. There has also sometimes been a looking for miraculous phenomena such as the presence of gold dust or feathers, the appearance of spiritual beings or miraculous healings.
There is no doubt that there have been occurrences of some of these things during times of revival, though it is worth noting that some revival leaders actively discouraged excessive physical responses to spiritual happenings. What is clear, however, is that there was a total absence of them in many revivals, including some of the most powerful and long lasting, and, in themselves, they cannot be considered as evidence of revival.
Personally, I regularly pray for God to manifest himself in healing power in the church, and I do believe that will happen in considerable measure again, but whilst it may coincide with revival, it will not in itself denote revival.
Unless there are regular gatherings of praying people, widespread conviction of sin, large numbers of often astonishingly changed lives, and a noticeable impact on society, whatever other good may be happening, it is not revival.
Lord! Revive your people again!
The practical problem that many of us encounter when responding to God, is that we get discouraged because we do not see how we will manage some of the steps further along the journey, when we should be concentrating on taking the first steps, without which we will never get to those later steps anyway.
This is perhaps particularly true when confronted with the need for revival in our churches. Anyone who has read about the revivals that God has wrought in the past, will be painfully aware that all revivals have been preceded by months and even years of prayer. For those of us who have struggled with a ten-minute prayer time, there is just no way that we can contemplate the heartrending hours of prayer that consumed believers’ lives before outpourings of the Holy Spirit.
The fact of the matter is that we cannot do it. There is no way that we can simply move from a tepid form of Christianity to one that is white-hot. It is like trying to move from first to fifth gear in a car. And revival prayer is like fifth gear, it is the place where the Spirit engages all our faculties to speedily accomplish the purpose of God in the Church and the nation.
Students of past revivals, and those committed to future revivals, will know that there are steps (or gear changes) that must be made before God will bring his people to persistent, prevailing prayer. Whilst there might be some adjustment to the order in different circumstances, essentially the first steps are:
A forsaking and confession of all known sin.
Restitution, or putting right those things where we have offended others.
Forgiving all those who have wronged us, and, where possible being reconciled to them.
A total surrender of every area of our lives to Jesus Christ.
Ongoing obedience to the Holy Spirit and a confessing of Christ.
Few of us will make any real progress until we come to grips with these things. It is worth remembering, that in one of the most quoted passages of scripture on revival, II Chronicles 7 v 11 – 14, when the people are told to pray, they are first told to humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways.
The fact that we take these first steps does not mean we have arrived; there may be much that God still wants to do in our lives, and also there is no guarantee that we will not subsequently fall or fail and need to retrace those steps again. What is certain however, is that revival will not come – however much we pray, plead, sing or dance about it – unless the people of God first make these steps foundational in our churches.