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Strength in seismic times

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Acts 4:23-31

These were the headlines one day last week:

  • Pakistan quake kills 170, leaves thousands homeless
  • Paterson calls for federal rescue package for states
  • Fighting in Congo approaches Goma
  • Suicide attacks kill dozens in Somalia
  • China investigates tainted eggs in new food scare
  • Boy is 23rd child abandoned at Nebraska hospital
  • Market motion sickness to continue
  • Panel rebukes FDA on plastic bottle safety

It makes you want to throw away the paper before you read it and refuse to open the Internet, doesn’t it?

Sixteen years ago, historian Francis Fukuyama spoke of the times as “the end of history.” He meant that history defined as the clash between nations and cultures was at its end. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and would bring democracy to Russia and Eastern Europe. The technological revolution would create a new global economy, one in which progress was inevitable. “The world is flat,” Thomas Friedman wrote—the Internet would make the world smaller and the nations more cooperative and synergistic than ever before.

How different things are today. Russia has turned to autocratic leadership; the rise of radical Islam and the war on terror has embroiled America and the West in protracted armed conflict; the dot.com bubble burst, then the housing bubble burst, and now we are dealing with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Anxiety abounds.

We’ve been here before. Believers in the first months of Christian history were facing a challenge even more dire than ours. We are not on trial for our lives, but they were. Our families are not facing systemic persecution and even annihilation, but theirs were. What they did then, we can do today. If we do, the God who helped and blessed and empowered them will do the same for us. Here’s how to find strength in seismic times.

How to turn to God

When we left them last week, Peter and John had just experienced the first healing miracle in Christian history. Crowds had run to hear the gospel; multitudes were brought into the Kingdom. But it didn’t take long for the enemy to strike back. The two apostles were quickly arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the assembled Supreme Court of ancient Israel. This body had the power to confiscate their homes, to flog and imprison them, even to ask Rome to crucify them.

Prior to this time, the fledgling Christian movement was not on the authorities’ radar. Jesus had been executed; with his death, they assumed his movement would die out. They had done nothing to seek or persecute the first Christians. But now all that has changed. Now their group is out in the open, their lives threatened, the future of their movement in doubt.

Peter preached the gospel fearlessly before them; the fisherman who had cowered before a serving girl proved again that the Holy Spirit can empower anyone to do anything. But the authorities were not persuaded. They “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:19) and let them go. If they broke the law again, the consequences would be severe.

Now Peter and John have returned to their Christian family and reported all that they had heard (v. 23). What would the movement do? They could tremble before the threats made by the Sanhedrin, abandoning their Great Commission and even their faith commitment to Jesus. This was the safe route to take, to be sure. Christian history could have ended here. The New Testament could have become just another ancient religious book describing a bygone spiritual movement, now interesting only to historians of antiquity. Everything was hanging in the balance.

Rather than retreat, these brave Christians advanced.

First, they sought God in prayer. They raised their voices together in prayer to God (v. 24a)—nothing private or secret about this.

Second, they trusted God’s providence. They announced that their God is the One who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them” (v. 24b). Not Caesar, not the high priest. They refused to recognize the authority of the Sanhedrin or anyone else before that of their God. Quoting King David and Psalm 2, they chose to see this as yet another time when “the kings of the earth” and “the rulers” stood against the God.

Third, they asked for God’s provision. They described their specific challenge: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (v. 27). Someone said that when a person persecutes your faith, “tell God on them.” They gave their struggle immediately to their Father, as nothing surprises him (v. 28).

Fourth, they experienced God’s power. In direct violation of the Sanhedrin’s order, they asked God to do two things:

Enable them to speak his word “with great boldness.” They knew that continuing to preach could cost them their lives and families, so they asked God for the “great boldness” they would need. Then confirm their message with his own power—heal, perform miraculous signs, and do great wonders. But they wanted him to do them “through the name of your holy servant Jesus,” so that no one could misunderstand the Source of this power.

With this result: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). In seismic times, they had seismic power. And the movement continued; the word of God spread; the Kingdom marched; and today two billion people name Jesus their Lord.

The pattern continues

Was this prayer meeting an isolated event, something which happened on the other side of the world but bears little relevance for our lives and times? Absolutely not. There have been four Great Awakenings in American history. Every one of them followed the pattern we have seen this morning. Every one of them shows us that what God did in Jerusalem, he wants to do again today. When there is a crisis, if we will seek God in prayer, trust his providence, and ask for his provision, we will experience his power. He will shake the meeting, and fill his people, and glorify himself. Always.

The First Great Awakening came in 1734. The crisis in the colonies was severe. Moral conditions were dire. Not one in 20 people claimed to be a Christian. Samuel Blair, a pastor of the day, said that religion lay as it were dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in the visible church.

But Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister who had come to the colonies from Holland in 1720, would not give up on his adopted homeland. He began praying fervently for revival to come to the colonies, first with himself and his church, and then with his larger community. Others began joining his fledgling prayer movement. The Spirit began to move.

Then Jonathan Edwards, an intellectual recluse who studied 12 hours a day and read his sermons, face buried in the manuscript, experienced the anointing and power of God. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God shook his church and then the young nation. The preaching of George Whitefield gathered and galvanized thousands. The First Great Awakening was the result. As much as 80 percent of the colonial population became identified with a Christian church.

It started with a group who prayed, trusting God’s providence, asking for his provision and experienced his power.

The Second Great Awakening began in 1792. After the War for Independence, social conditions became even more deplorable than before.

Drunkenness became epidemic; out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed alcoholics; 15,000 died of the disease each year. Women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote to James Madison, Bishop of Virginia, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.” A poll taken at Harvard University found not a single believer. Two were found at Princeton. Tom Paine claimed that “Christianity will be forgotten in 30 years.”

But he was mistaken. In 1784, a Baptist pastor named Isaac Baccus gathered together a number of ministers. They wrote a circular letter, asking believers to pray for awakening. Prayer groups spread all over New England. In 1972, revival broke out on college campuses, where hundreds were converted. “Camp meetings” spread across the frontier; eventually more than a thousand were meeting annually. Churches doubled and tripled in membership. One Baptist church in Kentucky with a membership of 170 baptized 421 during a single revival meeting.

In that year, William Carey began the modern missions movement. The American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and a variety of missions organizations began as a result of this Awakening. All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Third Great Awakening is dated to 1858. The Gold Rush of 1848 had led to a booming economy which crashed in 1857. If it were not for the Great Depression of the 1930s, the collapse of 1857 would have that title. Fear of civil war was increasing. Turmoil was everywhere.

In the midst of such fear and anxiety, a group of laymen began meeting for prayer on Wednesday, September 23, 1857 at the Old North Dutch Church in New York City. They were led by a Presbyterian businessman named Jeremiah Lamphier.

The first day, six people came to his prayer meeting. The next week there were 14; then 23; then the group began to meet daily. They outgrew the church and began filling other churches and meeting halls throughout the city. The movement spread across the country.

The result was one of the most significant movements in Christian history. More than a million were saved in one year, out of a national population of only 30 million. 50,000 were coming to Christ every week. The revival continued into the Civil War, where more than 100,000 soldiers were converted. Sailors took the revival to other countries. Thousands of young people volunteered for mission service.

All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Fourth Great Awakening began in Wales in 1904 in the heart of a coal miner named Evan Roberts. He became convicted of his sins by the Spirit, and turned to God in prayer and repentance. He then began preaching to the young people in his church, calling them to prayer and repentance.

Prayer meetings broke out all over Wales. Social conditions were affected dramatically. Tavern owners went bankrupt; police formed gospel quartets because they had no one to arrest. Coal mines shut down for a time because the miners stopped using profanity and the mules no longer understood them.

The revival spread to America, where ministers in Atlantic City, NJ reported that out of 50,000 people, only 50 adults were left unconverted. In Portland, Oregon, more than 200 stores closed daily from 11 to 2 so people could attend prayer meetings. In 1896, only 2,000 students were engaged in missionary studies; by 1906, 11,000 were enrolled.

Conclusion

Do you see the pattern? God’s people seek God in prayer, trust his providence, ask for his provision, and they experience his power. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). All God has ever done, he can do today.

You have discovered today the secret to the power of early Christianity. Why do you need to join their movement this morning?