Moses. The Old Testament Prophets. Jesus, although He is more than a prophet. The Protestant Reformation. The Methodist Revival. What do all these people and movements have in common?
You could try to draw a sociological analysis of various dramatic moves of God and revivals, and hope that by imitating these characteristics you will be able to reproduce a revival. However, there is a problem with such analysis: correlation does not equal causation. Historical analysis that can only look at broad trends can’t really tell you what the cause of great changes in the life of God’s People; since we only know history through artifacts, there is no testing to see how the factors we observed truly impacted the outcomes we notice. Unless we have some real, contemporaneous experience that show us a causal relationship between certain variables and dramatic works of God, our own assumptions can get imported into looking into what the essential ingredients of a revival are.
But if I may suggest something that is in common with the great moves of God in Israel’s and the Church’s history, then I would look towards Matthew 7:13-14, which reads as: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (NRSV) Often times, in our getting-to-heaven and avoiding-hell-mentality, we are hermeneutically predisposed to read this passage as a statement about how only a few people get into heaven, and everyone else as the vast majority stands to be judged. While certainly, the language of life and destruction overlap into eschatological concerns of God’s judgment, there is no reason to suggest that Jesus is trying to describe the spiritual reality of all human persons.
Instead, something different is happening. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is presenting His own teaching as a contrast to the popular religious teachers of the Pharisees of that day. Jesus is not merely giving some nice moral wisdom and advice; he is giving directions on a way of life that subverts the prevailing religious way of life under the Pharisee’s stewardship at the time. Jesus says one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes and then proceeds to hermeneutically interpret the significance of the Torah such that it leads people to the love of God, who loves the righteous and the unrighteous alike. This contrasts with the way of life lived in appearances of piety joined together with the hypocritical judgment that Jesus says characterizes the Pharisees. But let’s note something about this: what the Pharisees instructed people didn’t just come out of total thin air; they used the Torah, the very gift of God to Israel through Moses, to develop the ways of life that they instructed and then personally benefitted from. Jesus calls for something that exceeds and goes beyond what the Pharisees do.
It is in this light, then, that we can perhaps understand Matthew 7:13-14. Jesus isn’t talking about all of humanity and their natural predilection towards destruction, but rather talking about the characteristics of religious instruction; most people when faced with spiritual challenges, will opt to take the easy road. But true life is only had when people truly accept the pattern of life that the Torah was instructed people towards, the complete love of God. The easier spiritual routes have a way of actually making things worse, as religious can readily and easily be used to rationalize and legitimate a way of life that does not love like God does. But what Jesus does is brings forward is the ultimate thing which God is calling forth from His people. The religious instruction of the day has made cloudy what was most central and vital.
Now, I will suggest that this dynamic between a spiritual cloudiness and movement towards a true, spiritually vitalizing way of life applies to the various movements of God, but it needs to be carefully qualified. Such dramatic movements of God are not “all of Israel/the Church is apostate and we are restoring the true religion now.” Such movements like this through history have a tendency to reject the past in light of some new revelation that is disconnected from the past. Jesus didn’t engage in this sort of religious game; he didn’t go out into the desert like the Essenes and the Qumran covenanters, waiting for God to judge corrupted Israel and for them the true Israel to emerge. No. Rather, these great movements of God happened amongst the people who had some semblance of truth, but had lost their way as the spiritual challenges of what was said was smoothed out to be less rocky, thorny, and bristly.
Rather, what happens in great movements is that God sends or inspires some teacher(s) to prophetically, whether as a formal status or merely in function, bring to light the ultimate, vital principle of the traditions that have preceded. Moses came to a people who knew of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and may have known something about their God, but their knowledge had faded; then God through Moses delivers them, but as they go through the wilderness, they bristle at the difficult pathway they face. They wanted an easier route.
The Old Testament prophets engage Israel as it became regionalized through monarchical politics and economic transitions, which tempted them to understand the religious traditions differently, so that idolatry and injustice were readily overlooked: the OT prophets called Israel back to their vital principle in their love and fidelity to God, but this movement only became realized through exile and restoration.
Jesus engaged with Israel that was also engaged in the politics and economics of globalization under Roman power, leading to power politics and influence that left the people of Israel bereft of true shepherds. Jesus’ own instruction providing the right way to understand God’s instruction to Israel, but not merely in a corrective manner of the Pharisees, but the fullest demonstration of the shape of God’s love and faithfulness. Then, as the crucified one is the raised one, Jesus ministry and life brings forth a new movement of people who recommitted to the faithful God known in Jesus Christ and being manifested in the global pouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Protestant Reformation brought forth to light the spiritual importance of faith, over and against the system of moral maintenance and purgation that was prevalent amongst Roman Catholicism.
The Methodist Revival was led by a man John Wesley who observed the “Almost Christianity” of the church all around him. Wesley brought forward a renewed emphasis on love and holiness that spurred a movement that has been one of the most numerically influential religious movements in the world if we include Pentecostalism and charismaticism being under the Wesleyan umbrella.
There are other dramatic changes in religious practice in the course of our Christian history; I am only mentioning what I am familiar with. But the principle that stands behind all these dramatic changes is rediscovery through struggle and listening. This isn’t a rediscovery of a tradition, or even a set of methods from the past, but a rediscovery of what is truly most vital and central; the trusting and faithful love of God who in faithfulness and works with power. But this rediscovery doesn’t come simply be reemphasizing the tradition, because the traditions we tell as most central have had a way of being smoothed out and appropriated for other purposes; it doesn’t even come with a renewed emphasis on the Scriptures because the smoothed out and wrongly appropriated traditions have had a pedagogical influence on how we read the Scriptures. It simply happens through a rediscovery of the narrow way by recognizing the destructiveness of the broader way. It comes when persons are dissatisfied with and see the problems of their religious traditions, but rather than trekking out to discover something dramatically new as if the past is marred by pure evil and injustice and largely unredeemable (there is the inclination amongst progressive Christians toward this type of dramatic rejection of the past), they wrestle and engage with the traditions to find what is most vital, real, and important, while calling the way the sharp, bristly points of God’s lading has been rationalized away to be easy as misleading. There is a renewal from within the tradition, but it isn’t by simply reappropriating the tradition, but rediscovering what this tradition pointed to in trustingly living life before God in His faithful love, power, and holiness. The narrow way is rediscovered by being willing to see and call out the destructiveness of the way the tradition has been appropriated without rejecting the traditions they appropriated. But the attitude of this narrow way isn’t of judgment towards all who follow the broad way, but is met with judgment towards the leadership while sympathy for those under them as they have been doing as they have been lead and trained.
This revitalizes because it is God who is at work through His people who in faith are newly attuned and attentive in fresh, new ways. When His people are not attentive and attuned, however, God still remains at work but it comes through discipline, judgment, and exile. But by rediscovery, people are pointed towards the narrow way, where life happens, and away from the broad way. By rediscovery, discernment can be made, distinguishing good from masked evil, truth from veiled falsehood.