Awakening: How Revival Comes Part IV

Sermon by David Strain on November 15

Isaiah 52:7-12

These past few months we have been thinking about the important subject of revival. Lately we’ve focused on what is probably the most important precondition and precursor of revival, the urgent, repentant, persistent, importunate, pleading prayers of the people of God; that the Lord would once again rend the heavens and come down. When God is pleased, however, to answer that prayer and bring widespread and sustained revival, He does it invariably through the means He has ordained in the Holy Scriptures. And in particular He will do it through the means of the preaching of the Word of God.

That pattern isn’t difficult for us to see in the revivals we find recorded for us in the Scriptures themselves. Think for example of Jonah’s solemn preaching of coming judgment in the pagan city of Nineveh. Yet forty days,” he said, “and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:5 tells us, “The people of Nineveh believed God, they called for a fast, put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” Or think of the preaching of Ezra the scribe in Nehemiah chapter 8. He read from the book of the Law, he gave the sense, he expounded the first five books of Moses so that the people could understand from morning till night – you think my sermons are long! Nehemiah tells us in the wake of the preaching of the Word the congregation was overwhelmed with a sense of profound conviction of sin.

Or think about the revival in Samaria in John chapter 4 when Jesus led the woman at the well to faith in Him. She went immediately and reported to her neighbors in the town and they came out. When they came out, you remember, they came out en masse to hear Jesus for themselves. They begged Him to remain behind. Many believed His message. And they said to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believed, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Then there’s the preaching, of course, of Peter in Acts chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost. The great assembly listened to Peter preaching Christ and they were cut to the heart and they cried out, “What must we do to be saved?” And as Peter applied the Gospel to them, three thousand were added to the church that day. Paul, when he preached in Corinth, reminded them, “My speech and my message were not implausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and in power so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Likewise at Thessalonica, he could remind them, “Our Gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

The Scriptures demonstrate that when revival comes, it comes in the same way that new life comes into the human heart. And lasting spiritual growth and renewal comes to the Church, it comes through the ordinary, primary means of the proclamation of the Word of God and in particular of the Gospel.

And one of the places that makes the connection for us between preaching and spiritual renewal is Isaiah 52, verses 7 through 12 – the passage printed in your bulletins. If you have your own Bibles, please turn there with me. If you’ll look at the passage very quickly you’ll notice the theme of preaching stands out clearly in verse 7. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace,” and so on. There’s the theme of preaching. But what will this preaching produce? What will its effects and its results be when it is attended by the blessing of heaven and the demonstration of the Spirit of God and power? Two things are highlighted. First, verses 8 through 10 – Gospel preaching blessed by God produces praise. It makes the heart sing for joy at the Gospel. The voice of the watchmen, they lift up their voice together; they sing for joy. Preaching leading to praise. Then, verses 11 and 12, Gospel preaching blessed by God produces purity. “Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing!” And so those are the three themes that we will be considering together this morning. Do you see them in the text? Preaching leading to praise and to purity. Or put another way – the preaching of the Gospel in the blessing of the Holy Spirit produces revival and renewal and awakening. And that said, let’s pause and pray and then we’ll read the passage and consider those themes together. Let’s pray.

O God, would You open our hearts now? We don’t just want to learn about preaching that is blessed by Your Spirit; we want preaching blessed by Your Spirit. So please, pour Him out anew upon us to illuminate our understanding, to lend conviction and force and power to the Word. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Isaiah 52 at the seventh verse. This is the Word of God:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ The voice of your watchmen – they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”

Amen, and we praise the Lord for His holy, inerrant Word.

Now many of you will be familiar with the name of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Perhaps you use his daily Bible reading plan or perhaps even you have read the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, his biography by his friend, Andrew Bonar, which is really a classic of reformed spirituality and devotion that I would commend to you most warmly. M’Cheyne was called to be the minister of the new Church of Saint Peter’s in Dundee in 1836. When he arrived, he found the parish to be in a very poor spiritual condition and so for the next two years he preached and visited and evangelized and labor incessantly for the salvation of sinners. And to be sure, the Lord really blessed his work and the church grew, but the revival for which M’Cheyne longed never came.

Eventually, overwork and disease compelled him to take a break and during his absence he arranged for a young man who had recently been licensed to preach the Gospel by the name of William Chalmers Burns to fill the St. Peter’s pulpit. And not long after M’Cheyne stepped away and Burns began to preach, the revival for which M’Cheyne had so longed and prayed finally came. One historian says that “At this time, Burns’ preaching was noted for its great fullness, its freedom, and its rich Scriptural content as he expounded the Word and applied it with a melting and persuasive unction.” A contemporary colleague of Burns said his preaching was distinguished mostly for its zeal for the glory of Christ. “I do not say he lacks the other motives to ministerial fidelity, but I do say that every other is with him subordinated to that noblest of all, the exaltation of Christ in the salvation of souls.” That’s what drove him; that was the burden of his preaching – the exaltation of Christ in the salvation of souls. And under preaching like that, revival spread rapidly throughout the city. Countless people were led to seek Christ under deep conviction of sin and very many found refuge in Him.

And for his part, Burns’ explanation of the extraordinary effectiveness of his preaching had to do in no small measure with M’Cheyne’s labors before Burns arrived. In fact, Burns wrote to M’Cheyne to say to him whatever fruitfulness had attended his preaching ministry in Dundee, he ascribed in no small part to M’Cheyne’s “sickbed prayers.” M’Cheyne was pleading with God and Burns was preaching the Word of God and revival came. The point is that preaching that is full of Christ, zealous for the salvation of souls, preaching that is watered by the faithful prayers of the people of God is God’s ordained means for the renewal and revival of the Church.

The Theme of Preaching

And that is part of the point of the passage we have read together – Isaiah 52, verses 7 through 12. Would you look at verse 7 with me first of all, where I think that is especially clear. The first six verses of the chapter are predicting a coming salvation, a great reversal for the people of Judah that they will be delivered eventually from Babylonian oppression and restored to the land. And in verse 7, Isaiah pictures the message of that coming deliverance arriving at the people of God; the news coming to them. And here, therefore, in the first place, is the theme of preaching. “How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says, ‘Your God reigns!’” There was no Facebook, no Instagram, there was no 24-hour cable news, no email, no text. News came the hard way. Right? So a runner was sent to deliver the message. And in verse 8 the prophet imagines the watchmen stationed on the city walls looking out from their posts and seeing the herald in the distance running toward the city carrying the message. “What is the news?” they call down to him with anxiety, anxious to hear what he has to say. “Is it good news or bad news?” And, “It is good news,” comes the reply; news of peace and happiness and salvation. And so the watchmen declare, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”

Isaiah isn’t commenting on the footwear of the preacher, as if a snazzy pair of fashionable shoes had any bearing on the quality of the message. That’s not the point. When he says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him,” the beauty of the message beautifies the message. That’s the point. The feet that carry this news, the mouth that preaches this news, the person that brings this news is beautiful only because the news is so glorious. That’s what he’s really highlighting – the glory and beauty and wonder of this message. Twice it is called “good news.” It is good, Isaiah says, because it is a message of peace and a message of salvation. God has acted for His people to establish us – we were hearing so beautifully a few moments ago – His shalom, His peace. He has become their Deliverer. “Your God reigns and His victory has become clear,” they say.

But how has it become clear? What has He done? How has He acted to bring this all about? Upon what foundation has He secured His reign amongst them and overcome their oppression? Well had the prophet ended his message at verse 12, we might have concluded that the salvation in view was nothing more than the liberation of the Jews from beneath the bootheel of their Babylonian overlords. The good news that the herald is bringing, we might have concluded, had to do only with their return from exile. But then we read verse 13. “Behold, my servant shall act wisely. His appearance was so marred beyond human semblance, His form beyond that of the children of mankind. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” Where does this peace come from?

Suddenly now the full scope of the good news that Isaiah is thinking about becomes clearer, doesn’t it? The runners approach the city walls and the watchmen are there waiting for the news. And what shall the runners call up to the watchmen? “Good news! Peace secured! Salvation won! Your God reigns because we all like sheep having gone astray and turned each to his own way, the Lord has laid upon His servant the iniquities of us all.” This is what makes the good news, good. God has acted in the Lord Jesus Christ and Him crucified to secure liberation from bondage, not merely the bondage of a Babylonian oppressor but liberation from the bondage of sin and death. “Your God reigns,” they say, and nowhere do we see His sovereignty more clearly displayed than when He acted to give His people life by the death of His Son. That’s why Paul quotes this passage in Romans chapter 10 in the context of his urging and promoting the need for Gospel preaching. “How will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How are they to believe Him whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? How are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news.’” And so he says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.”

The good news is the message about Christ. This is God’s way to life; God’s means of salvation. God’s instrument of renewal and revival – the preaching of the good news. Peace. Salvation. Your God reigns because Jesus Christ was given for you. We often suppose, I think, that the engine that will drive church growth will be some new technique we’ve discovered, some fresh methodology that will revolutionize how we do things and draw people in. We’re even tempted, aren’t we, to think that when it comes to our own Christian lives our struggle with sin will be so much easier if only we could learn the right strategy. Maybe we’re missing some technique, some clever discipline that will get it done. But Isaiah is reminding us that the hope for our hearts, the path for deliverance and peace, the avenue open to the church for lasting revival and renewal is the straightforward proclamation of “the old, old story of Jesus and His love.” You don’t need a silver bullet methodology. You don’t need an inventive new strategy. You need, I need, Jesus Christ and Him crucified preached to our hearts, applied to our lives, and received by faith alone. That’s what we need. So first, of all, the theme of preaching. Do you see it in the text?

Gospel Preaching Leads to Praise

Then, having laid that foundation, Isaiah wants to show us some of the implications of such preaching? What will it do in the life of the people of God under the blessing of heaven? First of all, he says it will result in praise. Look at verses 8 through 10. What do the watchmen do when they hear the good news? What is their response? They “lift up their voice; together they sing for joy.” They’re overcome with gladness. And that is what the Gospel always ought to do in our hearts. Yes, there is a vital place for the conviction of sin. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said. That’s crucial. But in the end, the result of the good news, the Gospel, is to make the hearts of grieving sinners rejoice; it’s to make our hearts glad. It’s to help us sing, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin not in part but the whole, was nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul!”

And notice in verse 8 the reason for their joy. “For eye to eye, they see the return of the Lord to Zion.” When we use that expression, when we talk about seeing “eye to eye” with someone, what do we mean? We mean that we’ve come to complete agreement; that we share the same conclusions, we see things the same way. That’s not what the Hebrew idiom means here. Here, to see eye to eye meant not so much interpersonal agreement but absolute clarity. That’s the force of the expression. A contemporary equivalent might be something like, we see the truth with 20/20 vision. That’s the force of the expression. And what is it that they see so very clearly? They see right on the heels of the message reaching their ears the Lord Himself coming to Zion. It is the Lord coming back to Zion that they see. That’s why the preaching of the Word is mighty. It’s got nothing to do with the skill or the oratory or the rhetoric of the preacher, but rather it is in the preaching of the Gospel through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit the Lord Himself comes to Zion. Jesus comes to us.

Did you hear in Romans 10 when I read it, “How shall they believe in Him whom they have never heard”? Not “about whom they have never heard;” that’s how our English transitions put it. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek says, “How shall they believe Him whom they have never heard and how shall they hear unless someone preaches?” In the preaching of the Word you hear Christ. Christ comes to you. The Lord Jesus is addressing you. Preaching is much more than just the impartation of information understood like that. Isn’t it? It’s not just news. Rather, as we embrace the news, we embrace Christ. You get Jesus in the ministry of the Word. No wonder their hearts rejoiced.

And notice the fire spreads from their hearts to the hearts of the people. In verses 9 and 10, it’s infectious. And they’re songs, likewise, are full of the theme of God’s saving grace. Do you see that in the text? “Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all nations and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” The comfort of divine redemption – the holy arm of the Lord laid bare for you and your salvation. What is the message? Isn’t it simply that salvation belongs to the Lord? That it’s His work from first to last? That the Lord has done it is and it is marvelous in our eyes. When we remind ourselves with the heralds running back to Zion in verse 7, “Your God reigns,” this is what we are really saying. We mean that He presides over the redemption of men and women, boys and girls. He seeks and He saves the lost. He gives life to dead sinners. He keeps them by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Of all those whom the Father has given to Christ, the Lord Jesus has lost none. You are in His hands, your salvation secure in His sovereign keeping. He has laid bare His holy arm for you. No wonder they praise the Lord and so ought we to join them. So first, preaching leading to praise.

Gospel Preaching Leads to Purity

Then finally, notice Isaiah mentions purity as another result or consequence of this message arriving at the gates of Zion. Look at verses 11 and 12. The preaching of the Gospel brings Christ to us. The Lord returns to Zion, so we praise Him for His sovereign salvation. But the grace that saves demands action. We are passive slaves in bondage to sin and then God breaks in and sets us free in the Lord Jesus Christ. And then having been set free, we no longer remain passive. We have work to do. We are to get to work. And so the prophet issues a divine summons. Do you see it? “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord.” It’s an interesting exhortation. You would think the people wouldn’t really need it. After all, remember when they were in bondage in Egypt they were eager to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh. But now it seems that they have been in Babylon and while there have become rather assimilated. Perhaps they’ve begun to accommodate themselves to life in Babylon. Some of Babylon has begun to wear off on them and the prophet sees the need to exhort them, to come apart and to leave both Babylon and Babylonianism behind them forever.

And notice that odd language at the end of verse 11. “Go out from the midst of her; purify yourself, you who bear the vessels of the Lord.” It’s odd language but Isaiah’s talking about the priests and the Levites who carried the sacred implements for temple worship. And he’s saying, “You must purify yourselves and be clean that you might be fit for the Lord’s service.” Now there are no longer Levitical priests, nor will there ever be again, but because of the Lord Jesus Christ we are all a kingdom and priests to our God, “to declare the praise of Him who brought us out of darkness, into His marvelous light.” We are the people of God and the priesthood, the royal priesthood and a holy nation. And therefore, we are addressed here in this summons. And it’s a call not just to gratitude for what Christ has done but new obedience resting upon Christ who has secured our deliverance. It’s a call to a life of radial, spiritual separation from the values and the behaviors of the world.

“Depart. Go out from there. Touch no unclean thing.” So when we participate in the party scene where alcohol flows freely and drunkenness is an acceptable sin, when we curse and blaspheme without a second thought, when we trample the Sabbath Day underfoot in pursuit of our own pleasures, when the Bible is neglected but we binge watch perversity on Netflix for endless hours – what has happened? We have assimilated, haven’t we, to the values of Babylon. We have forgotten we have been redeemed by Christ to be a kingdom and priests to our God. We carry, as it were, the sacred vessels. The name of the Lord, the praises of His glory are entrusted to us. Shall we handle such sacred things with filthy, unclean hands and wicked and guilty hearts? We need the call, I dare say, of this text to go out from the midst of her and to purify ourselves.

And just as we close, notice the two encouragements to purity here in verse 12. There are two encouragements to purity in verse 12. First of all, negatively Isaiah makes it clear there are no circumstantial excuses we can offer to justify accommodating ourselves to the values of the world. Look at verse 12. “You shall not go out in haste. You shall not go out in flight.” You’re going to leave Babylon, but you’re not going to leave in a hurry so you won’t be able to claim that you couldn’t help touching unclean things, that you had no chance to divest yourself of the prevailing culture in which you have immersed yourself. Alec Motyer says this. “There will be no unwelcome pressure in the situation and nothing to distract the mind from calm commitment to walk with God in holiness. They will experience neither the panic flight of sinners under condemnation nor the opportunist’s escape of those whose master might change his mind, but rather, every favorable circumstance.” In other words, we can’t point to our circumstances and claim an excuse and say, “I just can’t help it. It’s just the world we’re living in. Everybody else is doing it.”

So no excuses. You don’t get to say, “Everybody else is doing it.” Nor can you say, “God has sprung these expectations of holiness on me. Things were moving just a bit too quickly and I didn’t know God wanted me, now that He’s redeemed me, to be godly. I would have been obedient if only He’s given me a little more notice.” You shall not go out in haste. You shall not go in flight. God will deal with us deliberately, carefully, in patience, affording us every opportunity to make progress and to depart from the ways of the world.

And more wonderfully still, notice positively all the resources of divine grace will be provided to help us walk in obedience and holiness. God doesn’t call us to a purity He will not also help us to embrace. Look at the last clause of verse 12. “For the Lord will go before you and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” What a precious promise. Here’s a promise to plead before God’s throne. “Lord, You said You would go before me and You would back me up and fight for me. I need You now. I’m locked in a deadly struggle with besetting sin. Fulfill Your promise.” Here’s the promise. He will be with you and He will defend you, never leaving you nor forsaking you. His presence and power resting upon you. Holiness is our work, yours and mine; it is our work but it is our work to be done in the strength of the grace of our great God.

And look, it’s the recovery of these realities that define what we mean when we talk about revival. Do you see that? Grasping and experiencing the power of the preached Gospel again, the joy that comes in the wake of the good news that we preach, and the purity that ought to mark our lives as we leave behind the ways of Babylon because the Gospel has had its way in our hearts. That’s what happens when the Lord rends the heavens and comes down – preaching with the effect of praise in our hearts and purity in our lives, that we may bear a distinctive witness before the watching world. Brothers and sisters, it’s been the burden of these messages to stir our hearts to seek the Lord that He might do exactly that again through the preaching of His Word even amongst us. So let’s do that together now as we pray.

O God, would You take the preaching of Your Word, with all its flaws and weaknesses, and do a mighty thing, that it would not be in persuasive words of human wisdom but indeed in demonstration of the Spirit and in power. Break the chains that hold us shackled to Babylon and Babylonian ways. Help us to be men and women of holiness. Ignite in our hearts joy as we believe the Gospel anew. And may Your Word bear much fruit in us and through us in our community, for Jesus’ sake, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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