Reading the Law
To avoid copyright complications, we will ask that you read
Nehemiah 8 at this point.
Revival — Concept
One of the great difficulties that the typical board of
elders has is the measurement of a pastor’s performance. The church which your
author attends makes this relatively simple. There are three criteria; if all
three are increasing, the pastor is doing a great job. Those three criteria are
offerings, attendance and baptisms.
You will note that all three of these criteria are easy to
measure. They are simply a matter of counting things. But one must ask whether
or not they are an accurate measure of success. The difficulty with these
measurements is that they are easy to use. They are easy to understand, they
are also easy to obtain. The growth of a Christian congregation, however, is a
much more complex thing. Teachers will be familiar with the problem of
“teaching to the test.” If you tell a teacher that their performance appraisal
depends upon the ability of their students to pass a standardized test, the
teacher has the temptation of teaching exactly what’s on the test — which might
not be what you really want the students to learn. Most of us have been through
class where we memorized enough information to pass the course — and promptly
forgot the material after the exam was over. True learning does not occur using
this model. Similarly, the true growth of a Christian congregation is not just
a matter of offerings, attendance and baptisms. Those are indicators of the
growth of the congregation, but not true measures. The problem, of course, is
that you are trying to measure the impact of the Holy Spirit on the
congregation; that’s a very difficult thing. It’s easy to slip into the logical
fallacy that the indicators are in fact the objectives.
It’s fairly easy to see how these criteria can go astray.
Let’s take attendance, for example. You can increase attendance by turning your
worship service into a dazzling show. People like to be entertained, especially
when the admission is free. A little hype and some implied shame will increase
your offerings. You can increase baptisms by offering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer
called cheap grace — the grace of God given without the repentance of man.
Almost any system of measurement can be deceived. So how do we know, then, when
our church is experiencing a true revival? It’s a difficult question; but I
submit that in these passages of the Scripture we have an example of how it’s
done. So let’s see what they did, and then we can compare it to what we are
Step One — the Scriptures
You will notice that the starting point of this revival is
the reading of the Scriptures. The greatest example of the power of reading the
Scriptures comes from the Protestant Reformation. The concept of Sola Scriptura
is indeed a very powerful one. But it is not sufficient just to tell people to
read the Bible. In this time the Scripture would have been read aloud to the
people; remember, this is well before the advent of the printing press. So
let’s see how it was read.
It was read with respect. It is obvious and plain to all of
the people standing around listening to this that their leaders consider that
the reading of the Law of Moses is of primary importance. It is the most important
spiritual thing that they can do. This sense of respect has declined greatly in
recent years in our congregation; indeed, there is a great difference in the
respect for the Scriptures held by those of the older generations as opposed to
those who are younger. That’s not a question of youthful stupidity; it’s just
that they have never had put to them the concept of respect for the Scriptures.
To do this, you will see three aspects of their view of the
First, the Scriptures are read with a sense of awe. It’s the kind
of thing that when you hear it your eyes tend cloud with tears, because you
know you are dealing with something of ultimate importance.
Second, the Scriptures are treated as being sacred. They are not
“just like any other book.” These are the very words of God, set apart and
delivered to man. Considering that we’re talking about the Law of Moses,
delivered amidst thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, this is not an
Finally, the Scriptures are treated as being of full authority.
The idea is that God commanded it, and therefore it should be done — no excuses
It’s interesting to note that as Ezra reads, there are
various teachers (who are now nothing but names in the list to us) who are
explaining what is being read. We may take from this the idea that it is not
necessarily obvious to everyone just how to interpret what the Scripture say.
The church must provide teachers who are acquainted with sound doctrine and who
can explain what the Scriptures mean. Those teachers are honored not for their
own brilliance but for how faithfully they interpret what God said.
As a side note, you will notice that the Scriptures are
being translated as Ezra reads. When not entirely certain what language or
languages the people spoke, but this would seem to imply that Hebrew was no
longer their first language. We can draw a parallel from immigrants to the
United States today. Your author lives in the community where there are a large
number of Korean immigrants. The grandparents tend to speak nothing but Korean;
the parents speak Korean as a first language and English as a second; the kids
speak, well, whatever it is that kids speak that passes for English. Something
similar probably happen to these exiles as well. Note that Hebrew is not
treated here as something special. A parallel may be drawn to the King James
Version of the Bible; for many years the English of that version was considered
somehow sacred. As one author put it, “if the King James Version was good
enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me.” That’s not what’s happening
here. But also note that the translation carries with it no loss of authority.
The Scriptures are meant to be used and implemented by man, not kept on a
special shelf on display.
Revival — a Joy
You can understand the first reaction of the people. They
probably had a firm suspicion that they and their ancestors had not behaved
properly in God’s eyes, but when the full measure of their sins is laid out
before them in the reading of the law they react with tears. They wept for
their sins. These people exhibited what St. Paul once called “godly sorrow.” It
is the sign of repentance which should precede baptism.
The temptation for the preacher at this point is to lay it
on thick and make sure everybody understands what miserable sinners we all are.
But that’s not what they do here. God tells them that they have arrived at a
time of the year in which they are to celebrate; they are to be joyous. Why?
The time of year is that of the Feast of Tabernacles — a memorial to the first
Exodus. It is a celebration of God’s deliverance. To put it in modern terms,
they are to react to this revival with joy because it gives them the grace of
God. Grace abounds — let man celebrate!
As a side note, we might take a look at what the feast is
all about. Here is one author (Easton) explaining it:
third of the great annual festivals of the Jews (Lev_23:33-43).
It is also called the “feast of ingathering” (Exo_23:16;
Deu_16:13). It was celebrated
immediately after the harvest, in the month Tisri, and the celebration lasted
for eight days (Lev_23:33-43). During
that period the people left their homes and lived in booths formed of the
branches of trees. The sacrifices offered at this time are mentioned in Num.
29:13-38. It was at the time of this feast that Solomon's temple was dedicated
(1Ki_8:2). Mention is made of it after
the return from the Captivity. This feast was designed
(1.) to be a memorial of the wilderness
wanderings, when the people dwelt in booths (Lev_23:43),
(2.) to be a harvest thanksgiving (Neh_8:9-18). The Jews, at a later time,
introduced two appendages to the original festival, viz., (1.) that of drawing
water from the Pool of Siloam, and pouring it upon the altar (Joh_7:2, Joh_7:37),
as a memorial of the water from the rock in Horeb; and (2.) of lighting the
lamps at night, a memorial of the pillar of fire by night during their
feast of Tabernacles, the harvest festival of the Jewish Church, was the most
popular and important festival after the Captivity. At Jerusalem it was a gala
day. It was to the autumn pilgrims, who arrived on the 14th (of the month
Tisri, the feast beginning on the 15th) day, like entrance into a silvan city.
Roofs and courtyards, streets and squares, roads and gardens, were green with
boughs of citron and myrtle, palm and willow. The booths recalled the
pilgrimage through the wilderness. The ingathering of fruits prophesied of the
We do not know whether or not Nehemiah planned the timing of
this event to correspond with the feast, or whether it just “happened.” Either
way, the symbolism is very significant.
How to Run a Revival
(This section is based on Nehemiah 9).
Nehemiah 9:1-3 NASB
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with
fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. (2)
The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood
and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. (3) While they stood in their place, they read from
the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the
LORD their God.
There have been many books written on the subject of
conducting a revival. Most of them do so from the point of view of the speaker
who will conduct the revival meetings. I am not particularly aware of any which
address what the congregation should be doing to prepare for a revival. We may
take the example of these people. Here’s what they did:
Separation. Despite the modern tendency to hold that Christians
are no different than anybody else, it is clearly taught in the Scripture that
the people of God are to separate themselves from the people the world. We are
in the world, but not of the world. The first thing these people did was to
implement that principle.
Confession. If there is no sin in your congregation’s life, why
would you need a revival? If you need revival, therefore, then there must be sin
in the congregation’s life. The first thing you need to do about sin is to
confess it. And that’s what they did.
Reading the book. Again, the central nature of the Scriptures to
the godly life is here proclaimed. If the word of God is not exalted, how then
can anyone know that they are indeed a sinner? And what to do about it?
Worship. It is not sufficient to let God know that you know
you’re a sinner. You also have to let him know that you know who he is,
acknowledging his true nature.
Acknowledgment of God
It is extremely important that you acknowledge who God is.
It is very tempting to talk to the God who is in your head — a nice guy, who
would never hurt a fly, has no intention of disciplining you and otherwise
resembles Santa Claus. Like Santa Claus, that God doesn’t exist. So just
exactly which God are they talking to?
They first acknowledge the greatness of God:
They begin by acknowledging him as the creator. It is the first
thing we know about God from the opening passages of Genesis. It sets the stage
for everything else to come — and it proclaims the uniqueness of God.
They then acknowledge him as the life giver. There is no
particular formula applied as to how God did this, but they acknowledge the
fact that without God there would be no life. And that includes ours.
Then they acknowledge him as the Lord of hosts – the sovereign
God, ruler over all creation.
They amplify this by reciting the most important points of
their history with God. They are not searching for the historical God; they
They know him as the God of Abraham. This calls back to mind all
the promises made to Abraham concerning the creation of the Jewish people and
the Messiah to come.
They know him as the God of Moses, the God of the Exodus. This is
the God whose mighty hand led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land.
The parallel to the Christian is very clear; this is the God who leads you out
of sin and into salvation.
They know him as the God who is compassionate to Israel, despite
all of the sins, the idolatry and the wickedness that they have displayed. He
is God the merciful.
Who We Are
If you’re going to acknowledge who God is, the obvious next
step is to acknowledge who you are. What is unusual about this passage in that
regard is that they acknowledge the concept of national sin. Understanding that
they are ruled over by Kings and princes, you might think that they have an
excuse to say that they are not responsible for what’s going on in their
society. But they clearly understood that they did. And if people who are
members of a hierarchical society understand that, how much more should we in a
democratic society understand that? Here’s what they confessed to:
First, they admitted to being idolaters. The nation of Israel has
chased after every little God of wood, stone and silver and gold. Today we
might pull the mental of tolerance over this, but I would submit to you that it
was fairly obvious to them that something was wrong. Some of these gods
required you sacrifice your children by burning them in a fire. This is not
They admitted to being rebels against the law — which is
practically the definition of sin — to the point that the nation of Israel had
murdered the prophets that God had sent to her. Where we would excuse
ourselves, they accused themselves.
Then they admit that they have been justly punished for it. The
reason they are slaves in the land that God gave them, the reason they are
slaves to a King who is not one of themselves, is that God has risen up in
wrath and punish them for their sins. They acknowledge that they earned it, and
that God was just and righteous in doing it.
In short, God is good, just and righteous — and we are
sinners. We have no merit except that we are sinners coming home. As they say
in the military, “no excuse, Sir.”
The human species has a very distinct tendency when put
under pressure: we want to do something. If we feel guilty, we really would
prefer to do something rather vague than something specific. After all,
specific might include confession of one’s sins. Doing something vague feels
good; but doing something specific means that you really intended to do
something, not just talk about it.
It appears that the way human beings start to do something
specific is to put things down in writing. As Samuel Goldman once said, “a
verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Winston Churchill put
it this way:
Let it be very clearly understood that all directions
emanating from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards
confirmed in writing, and that I do not accept any responsibility for matters
relating to national defense on which I am alleged to have given decisions,
unless they are recorded in writing.
That was the first directive he put out after becoming Prime
Minister in 1940.
So, just what that these people pledged to do?
They pledged to stay separate from the people around them. This
is an example to the Christian of being in the world but not of the world. It’s
not something that happens automatically, or easily. You have to work at it;
you have to plan to work at it.
They pledged to obey the commandments. For the Jew of this time,
this would’ve been the Mosaic Law. For us, we would begin with the New
They promise to bring their tithes and offerings, as specified in
Separation, obedience and putting your money where your
mouth is — that sums it up. But what about the Christian today?
Parallel for Christians Today
The Christian today has a similar set of duties, for which
we can take this pledge as an example.
The Christian is to be in the world, but not of the world. Your
conduct and your speech should reflect the fact that you are not ordinary. You
are bought with a price; you belong to Christ. Do your words and actions show
Do you obey the command of Christ? In its simplest form, this is
simply “love one another.” Is your conduct distinguished by the fact that you
love your Christian brethren? Indeed, is that you’re feeling and attitude
towards the rest of the world? Hate the sin and love the sinner sounds
difficult to do — until you realize you been doing it to yourself for quite
They promise to bring in tithes and offerings; you still need to
put your money where your mouth is.
Revival, it seems, is a serious business. If America is to
experience a revival, the church must experience it first. If the church is to
experience a revival, it must start in the pews, not in the pulpit. The role of
leadership is very important, but if the people in the pews are not willing
than there will be no revival.