Preparing For Divine Visitation
The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2006 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A.At the end of Psalm 73 is the moving phrase – "…the nearness of God is my good." Throughout my life I have learned that the most precious seasons, the most wonderful days, even the most splendid moments are those moments of nearness, when God Himself draws nigh. There is no time in the history of the Church more wonderful than in a season of divine visitation when God is near. This is the craving of our hearts, is it not? And is it not the need of our land and of the nations of the world? The subject that now occupies my heart is preparation for such a divine visitation.
We’re going to use a passage in Luke chapter 3:
"Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every ravine shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."’
"He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father," for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
"And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them, ‘Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.’ And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’
"Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’" (vv. 1-17).
John Draws a Contrast
In this passage in Luke chapter 3 John purposely draws a contrast: first, a contrast between himself and Christ; second, a contrast between his baptism and the baptism of Christ. In the first aspect, the contrast between his person and the person of Christ, John said to the people who came to him, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire" (v. 16). Observe John’s humility. Humility is not denying the truth. Humility is being well aware of the truth and deliberately choosing to take your rightful place.
One of the most outstanding problems in the American church is sheer pride. No matter how great you may think you are, or some other person may think concerning himself, our Lord made it clear that "Among those born of women, there is none greater than John..." (Luke 7:28). But as important as John was, as vital as was his ministry, he understood that in comparison with Christ he was as nothing. You don’t have to undervalue the truth to be humble.
In fact, the more realistically you face truth, the greater the prospect of humility. Self-effacing is another form of pride; it is pride in reverse of its normal pattern. We pretend ourselves less than we really believe ourselves to be. There is no sham, no hypocrisy, no pretense in John the Baptist. He knows who he is. But he also knows who Christ is. And knowing who Christ is enables him in comparison to say that he is nothing.
Few American Christians have any idea how to draw close to the subject of humility. Pride is puffed and maintained by comparison with the indifferent and the inadequate around us. The only real cure for pride is to maintain the comparison not with your fellow wretched sinners, but with the Savior, and to whatever degree your eyes are fixed upon Christ, you will discover you are nothing. I happen to be a man called of God. I know that. I’ve known that since I was a boy. But I also know that I’m but a servant of the Most High, and if ever I should attain even slight stature it would be as nothing in comparison with Him.
Many of us misuse the Bible. We go to the Bible to get sweet little tidbits to puff up our ego, to sustain us so that we can get through another difficult day. We use the Bible as if it is written about us, as if we were the prime characters. If you have not done so, I would suggest you declare that the next solid year you will fix your eyes on the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Scripture. Keep the focus on God until you’re utterly overwhelmed with His greatness and have felt deeply your foolishness and inadequacy. John was a man of humility because he knew better than to turn his eyes from the One who really mattered.
In the above passage there is also the contrast between John’s baptism and the baptism of Jesus Christ. There are multitudes who put far greater emphasis on water baptism than the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. We doom ourselves to mediocrity by our failure to realize that as important as water baptism is, it cannot be compared with the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. I plead with you to concern yourself greatly with John the Baptist and his declaration: his contrast in terms of his person with Christ, and his contrast in terms of his baptism with the baptism of Jesus Christ.
The Work of John the Baptist
There is a list embracing the work of John the Baptist recorded in Luke 1:16-17; 76-77:
1) To turn
back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.
2) To go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and the power of Elijah.
3) To turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children.
4) To turn the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous.
5) To make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
6) To go before the Lord and to prepare His ways.
7) To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
That is John’s work, and thank God he did it and did it well. Would to God there were some forerunners today. Maybe God wants you to prepare to be a forerunner. What is the sense of praying for revival and not preparing? If we really believe that the Lord is going to visit us once again, do you think that the situation today is ready? Think of what might happen if Christ came in a dramatic and powerful visitation to America at this time.
Think of the millions of those in the Church who believe the Gospel consists of their own health and wealth. Think of those persons who consider themselves Christians who actually suppose that Christ came to save them from hell and then to leave them in the grip of their sins. Have you ever considered the absurdity of teaching and preaching that Christ will save a person from hell and leave them in their sins? Imagine a God who has such hatred of evil that He prepares a hell in which to incarcerate forever the unrepentant. Then He sends His Son and commands His Son to die for the unrepentant and He leaves them in their unrepentant state and delivers them from the hell prepared for them. Something like that is what is taught in many churches today. Too many people who think themselves Christians have only one interest and that’s a fire escape from hell. They love their sin. They intend to remain in it. They don’t even like a preacher who speaks against their sin.
A Highway of Holiness
We read in Luke chapter 3 a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5: "A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’"
The preparatory work that is needed is like road building. A highway of holiness needs to be prepared so that the Lord can journey to us and we can journey to Him. If you were involved in road building, what kind of thoughts would be in your mind? Do not road builders concern themselves with issues like drainage and durability and capacity and strength and safety and speed and accessibility? There’s a lot of work involved in building a road. Say to your heart, "I’m a road builder. I’ve got a task. I’ve got to prepare the way of the Lord."
There is a series of specifics here. Number one is, "Make His paths straight" (Luke 3:4). The Church today is pursuing a very crooked course. It winds in and out and around the great truths of Scripture, but there’s no straight path. Our task is to make the paths straight. We’re commanded in this passage that every ravine or valley shall be filled up. The valleys of doubt, of unbelief, of self-pity, of treasured hurts, of shame, of fear, of disordered passions – let every valley be filled up. We need to begin with ourselves. Have I filled in the valleys of my life? If not, get busy! How can we hope to be used of God when our own hearts are disordered?
Not only is every valley to be filled up, but every mountain is to be brought low (v. 5). The mountain of pride must come down. The mountain of secret imaginations must be destroyed. The mountain of stubbornness and rebellion must be given a fatal blow, and surely the mountain of dead works.
Through a period of a number of years, it was my joy to associate with J. Edwin Orr in what we called the Oxford Conferences. Year after year we met in Oxford, England, and talked with one another and exhorted one another and encouraged one another in revival. One night following our regular service, many of the men were praying together in an upper room of Regent’s Park College. There were men from all kinds of places and backgrounds. Some of these brethren knew how to really let loose in prayer, and we were calling upon God to do wonderful things. It was a lovely time, and I was enjoying every moment of it.
Then suddenly impressed upon my heart was the question, "Do you believe that I am going to move the mountains?" I don’t think I cried out audibly but I cried out within my heart, "What mountains, Lord?" And I thought of where I was – Oxford in the heart of England, and oh, the mountains there: the mountains of doubt, the mountains of inordinate desire, the mountains of dead works, and it all became vivid in my mind. And then the question pressed on my heart: "Do you believe I will move these mountains?"
My heart was rebelling and I was saying , "Lord, we were having such a wonderful prayer meeting. Why did you destroy my enjoyment of it by pressing these matters upon me?" But still the question was there, and I finally said, "Why, Lord, it’s no distance from Oxford to the sea. Yes, I certainly do believe that these mountains through prayer will be moved into the sea."
And then the question became much more personal: "How about Chicago and Wheaton? Do you believe I will move these mountains?" And I gasped, "Lord, it’s a long ways to the nearest ocean from Chicago." The question, "Do you believe?" And then finally in faith I said, "Yes, Lord, I believe," and I did and I do. But we’re going to have to get to work to fill in what valleys we can and bring level what mountains we can by the grace of God. We’ve got to prepare the way of the Lord.
"The crooked shall become straight" – crooked doctrines, crooked practices, crooked relationships, crooked thinking, crooked self-appraisals. And all the rough roads must be smoothed out, matters such as our inconsistencies, our ups and downs, our hots, our colds, our openness, our closedness, our trusting, our suspicions. Many of us are loaded with inconsistencies.
Recently I laid hold of one of J. Edwin Orr’s books that I hadn’t read before. It was about the revival that began in 1790, and there were some beautiful accounts in it. Then he started to talk about a visit he made to Wheaton, Illinois at the time of that blessed stirring of the Holy Spirit in the 1950’s, when Jim Elliot and the other men who sacrificed their lives before the Auca Indians were deeply moved. A host of other men at Wheaton College when God came in that great visitation became missionary leaders.
In his book Orr gave an extract from the diary of Jim Elliott. Elliott acknowledged that he hadn’t been very careful about keeping a diary, but he had heard Orr talk about its importance and also about the importance of establishing a daily time early in the morning with the Lord. And so Elliott wrote in his diary: "I have been deeply moved to do this and I’m going to do it with the greatest possible integrity. The first thing I must set down is the gross inconsistency that has accompanied my time with the Lord over the years, and now by God’s grace, I’m going to deal with that." And all who know his story know that indeed he did. God moved and blessed wonderfully. Every crooked place made straight, every high place brought down, every low place filled in, every rough road smoothed and "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (v. 6). Is that not what your heart beats for?
Fruits in Keeping with Repentance
Look now at verses 7 and 8: "He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father," for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’"
How deeply do you concern yourself with fruits appropriate to your repentance? If one were to read this passage carelessly, he might gasp when he realizes that multitudes were coming and he might even envision these whom Jesus labeled scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites. It would appear they were there seeking baptism. Long ago when I was pondering that I suddenly realized that there was a passage in Luke that made it clear that John didn’t baptize those hypocrites, and I felt tremendous relief.
But some pastors have been baptizing scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites. Some time ago I asked a pastor if he had ever knowingly baptized an unconverted person, and he acknowledged that he had. When I asked him why, he said, "You’ve got to understand I’ve committed myself to build a mega-church." "Yes," I said, "and you need to understand that the blood of every one of these people is on your hands, you hypocrite."
But I ask again, "Is there fruit in keeping with your repentance." Let’s go beyond ourselves. Do you preach repentance? If you do, do you demand fruit appropriate to the repentance? How are we going to prepare the way of the Lord if we neglect repentance or if we speak fervently of repentance and make no demands in terms of appropriate fruit? But there’s another issue here I want you to look at in verse 9, and what an important issue it is. "And also," said John to those who came for baptism, "the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." We need to concern ourselves with the Gospel axe. Many of us, if we apply the axe at all, are applying the axe to the twigs of the tree. We’re fussing around with the fruits of sin. We haven’t come anywhere near the roots of sin. John took the Gospel axe to the root of the tree.
There is a difference between serving God with gifts and serving Him with grace. I pause and ask you, "Is your service that of gifts or that of grace?" It takes a great deal of time and serious prayer and thoughtful concern to be certain that on every occasion of service our gifts are bathed by divine grace. It is never to be the flesh but always the Spirit that is ministering. My dear friends, if we are going to prepare the way of the Lord, we’re going to have to see to it that our gifts are saturated with divine grace just as John the Baptist did.
Can you imagine a more gifted man than John the Baptist? Or can you imagine a more gracious man? His message: "…bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance." As we were reading the passage, you noticed the three different groups who came to John: verse 10, the multitudes; verse 12, the tax-gatherers; verse 14, the soldiers. John spoke an urgent word to each of those three groups.
And then finally, in terms of the message, the very significant words of verse 17: "And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." What if the Lord came with His winnowing fork this moment? How much would be pure chaff that had to be consumed in the fire?
Certainly many of us who are not guilty of wild and awful sins of the flesh may very well be guilty of awful sins of the spirit. Surely pride is the very ultimate in sin against God. So I plead with you again to deal with pride and to do so in a very biblical fashion.
Sins of omission – oh, how the Church needs to seek repentance in terms of its prayer life! What a tragic day in which to live when prayer has been thought of so lightly in the typical church. We are also required to repent of our dead works. How can we do so if we have no notion what constitutes a dead work. Number one, a dead work is anything we do where we hope to gain merit from God in what we do. For a high percentage of church membership, their accepting Christ is nothing but a dead work. They hope to gain some merit – a fire escape. They don’t care anything about living for God, but the possibility of a hell to which they might be sent concerns them sufficiently so they do what an unwise and ungodly preacher encourages them to believe constitutes salvation. This is the dead work of decisional regeneration, the dead work of doing something in which we hope to gain merit with God.
A dead work is also something we do that has no capacity to be made alive by the Holy Spirit. For instance, we read, "If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear [me]" (Psa. 66:18). Thus, prayer can become a dead work. There is no capacity for prayer out of a sinful heart to be quickened by the Holy Spirit, to be made alive, to be made effective. A man can preach beautiful sermons and sway multitudes by his words, and yet all his preaching can be nothing other than dead works because he has no capacity to be touched by the Spirit of God because he harbors some sin in his heart. Any ministry that cannot be set afire by the Holy Spirit is nothing but a dead work.
Not only are dead works anything we do to gain merit with God, not only are dead works anything we do that cannot be made alive and powerful by the Holy Spirit, but a dead work is any action in which we engage in the power of the flesh and do not seek the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Many men preach Sunday after Sunday and have spent no time at all wrestling in prayer and pleading with God for a fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
There is also the issue of erroneous doctrine. The American Church is plagued with false doctrine. We have made an error in equating as if they were synonyms such terms as conversion, salvation, regeneration and justification. Preparing the way of the Lord means we must deal with sin, with dead works, and with false teachings, and we must also deal with false practices. When our Lord said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer" (Isa. 56:7; Matt. 21:13), what do you think He meant? Do you think He meant there would be some praying people in it? I believe He meant that every believer would be praying with every other believer.
Have you stopped to think of this fact: our Lord made it clear that a house divided against itself cannot stand? (Mark 3:25). In the typical church the general feeling seems to be that some people have the gift of prayer, and some have the gift of teaching, etc., so let the people with the gift of praying do the praying and let those with the gift of teaching do the teaching, etc. Any church where a portion of the people pray and a portion do not, is a house divided against itself. And one of the major reasons why tens of thousands of men are leaving the ministry these days is because the house is so badly divided they cannot see their way to continue in the ministry to which God called them. Even more sadly, many are not just turning aside to other occupations, but many are falling morally.
Our Lord gave the story at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about the two men building, the one building on the sand and the other building upon the rock (Matt. 7:24-27). The church that has a portion of its people praying and a portion not praying is a house built upon the sand. Christianity requires that all within a given fellowship be men and women of prayer. Pastors, why should you not determine that under God every single believer will participate regularly in the prayer life of the church? We need some holy and high goals, and I can’t conceive of anything more urgent than turning a house of God into a house of prayer.
I want to speak for a moment about children. The Church as a whole is lowering the intellectual level of the Gospel message to the children. It is important to treat children for what they are – intelligent human beings with great capacity to embrace divine truth. If given opportunity, we could hear from dozens and dozens of people who thoroughly embraced the Gospel of Christ as children and understood many of the deepest things of the Christian faith. Oh, that the Church might begin to seize the potential of these lovely children! In some of the mighty revival movements of the past, it has been the prayer meetings of the children that have had such profound impact.
True Christian Fellowship
Let me speak as well about the matter of Christian fellowship. We regard Christian fellowship as being neighborly, being friendly, being kindly toward one another. Not many churches practice what I would think is genuine Christian fellowship. How long has it been since someone stepped up to you and in an obvious spirit of love said, "Brother, I’m concerned about you. How are you doing spiritually?" You could be a member of a typical church for twenty years and never once in those twenty years have anybody really extend Christian fellowship to you. What’s wrong with the old Methodist class concept, where every individual was personally shepherded and cared for with great diligence?
My wife Maggie and I had an experience along these lines. I was teaching at that time in one of the large churches in our area, and I had been giving a series on Christian hospitality and what it really meant. Then suddenly it came to our attention that an elderly couple in our church who had been faithful members had gone home after the Sunday morning service, and by pre-arrangement had a lunch together and then he took a gun and shot his wife through the head and then shot himself through the head.
I said, "We call this a Christian church and we say we practice Christian fellowship. Yet there is a couple in our church who are sunk so low that they enter into a pact of suicide, and nobody has the slightest notion that they are in such desperate circumstances. We need to get serious about Christian fellowship." The elders summoned me in the next week and ordered me to cease all that type of teaching and preaching, and when I refused, they arranged for my easy departure from the church. I was only there as a volunteer teacher.
The afternoon of the Sunday when I spoke so clearly on the issue of Christian fellowship, I got very agitated in my spirit and I just couldn’t get out of my mind the young African college student whom Maggie had met and had invited home to dinner. It dawned on me that the boy had been in our home maybe five or six times, and all we ever did was to extend American hospitality to him with a little Christian flavor.
I went to Maggie and said, "Maggie, I’m very agitated about this boy, T_____." "Why," she said, "So am I."
I said, "You must get on the phone and reach that boy and get him here quickly."
She called him and he came on Tuesday for dinner.
After dinner together he and I went to sit in easy chairs, and I said to him, "T___, first, I must apologize to you. We’ve shown you American hospitality but we’ve never really offered Christian fellowship. Tonight I must ask you how you are doing spiritually." Suddenly he erupted into the most awful wail that was ever sounded in that room. He was in a swivel chair and the whole chair shook and vibrated with his sobs. It was quite a long time before I could distinguish a single word he spoke. But eventually it became clear that he was crying out, "No man cares for my soul! No man cares for my soul!" – over and over.
Eventually he got control of himself and said to me, "You are the first man since I came to America who asked how I was doing spiritually. In my own country I had memorized 500 hymns and I was constantly singing and whistling and humming. I had four stated seasons of prayer every single day. I walked and talked with God, but since being in America I have forgotten all the hymns. I haven’t been able to pray at all for months. In fact, when Mrs. Roberts called me I had made my plans to commit suicide, and if it had not been for her telephone call I would be dead tonight!" God in His grace reached out and touched that boy and restored him.
We need to be alert and ready! The Church must take these matters seriously and get down to business helping one another along the way into the kingdom of God.
I understand as you do that John’s role was wonderful and special. None of us will be called to be the forerunner in the exact sense that John was. But today we are in desperate need for another divine visitation and we need to prepare the way of the Lord. Will you do what you can and what you must, and do it in wonderful expectation that the Lord Himself will soon be among us, manifesting His glory and advancing His kingdom?