A half-day of preaching by Ezra wasn’t enough for the hungry Israelites. They wanted even more of God’s Word, so they formed groups, with seventeen elders besides Ezra leading them in Bible studies the rest of the day. “[They] caused the people to understand the law . . . so they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
As these people grasped God’s law, they began to mourn over their sin. “All the people wept, when they heard the words of the law” (8:9). Picture the scene: Fifty thousand people lay scattered on the ground, mourning their sin in unison. Like a hammer, God’s Word had broken their pride. And now their weeping echoed over the hills for miles.
Is this what revival is all about? Is it a word so piercing that people are driven to their knees, weeping and repenting before God?
I have experienced such holy gatherings myself. When I was a child, our family attended “camp meetings” at the Living Waters Campground in Pennsylvania. Jesus’ Second Coming was preached with such power and authority that everyone was convinced He would return within the hour. A holy fear fell, and people were driven to their faces. Some cried as if they were hanging over hell by a thread—wailing, broken, sorrowing over sin.
Often, God’s Word was preached all day and into the night. Early the next morning, people could still be found lying prostrate in the prayer room, grieving over their sin. Some even had to be carried out.
It was on such a night that the Lord called me to preach, at the age of eight. I was in the Spirit for hours, broken and weeping, God’s Word coming alive in my heart. Christ’s return burned within me as an imminent reality and I will never forget that wonderful experience.
God’s testimony is never that His people are lying on their faces, crying rivers of tears. No, the testimony He wants to bring forth in His people is joy—genuine, lasting joy. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). This joy—which results from biblical preaching and true repentance—brings true strength to God’s people and draws sinners into His house.
Most Christians never associate joy with repentance. But repentance is actually the mother of all joy in Jesus. Without it, there can be no joy. Yet, any believer who walks in repentance will be flooded with the joy of the Lord.
You may have heard the phrase “sermon tasters.” This term is almost 200 years old, originating in London during the mid-1800s. At that time, the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon delivered sermons to five thousand people every Sunday at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Across the city, Joseph Parker also preached anointed messages and other fiery pastors preached throughout London, delivering deep, revelatory, prophetic words.
It became a popular sport among wealthy Londoners to hop into their carriages and race across the city from one church to another, sampling the preaching of these ministers. Each Monday in Parliament, exclusive meetings were held to discuss which preacher delivered the best sermon and who brought forth the deepest revelation.
These gadabouts were dubbed “sermon tasters.” They always wanted to lay claim to some new spiritual truth or revelation, but very few practiced what they heard.
At the water gate in Jerusalem, however, there was no eloquent preaching, no sensational sermon. Ezra, the priest, preached straight from the Scriptures, reading for hours on end. And as the people stood and listened to God’s Word, they grew excited.
At times Ezra was so overcome by what he read, he stopped and “blessed the Lord, the great God” (Nehemiah 8:6). The glory of the Lord came down powerfully, and all the people raised their hands in praise to God: “The people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands” (8:6). As the Word was read, “they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (8:6). The people humbled themselves before God, in brokenness and repentance. Then, after a while, they stood up to experience more.
Please note that this meeting did not include any exciting stories to stir up people’s emotions. There was no manipulation from the pulpit, no dramatic testimony. There wasn’t even any music as yet. These people simply had an ear to hear everything God said to them.
I believe the Lord desires to move among His people in the same way today. I see His Spirit stirring up churches wherever there is a hunger for His Word.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). At the time these words were proclaimed, the Israelites had just returned from captivity in Babylon. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people had rebuilt Jerusalem’s ruined walls. And now they set their sights on reestablishing the Temple and restoring the nation.
Nehemiah had called a special meeting at the city’s water gate, within Jerusalem’s rebuilt walls. “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate” (Nehemiah 8:1). Some 42,360 Israelite men were on hand for this meeting. Standing alongside them were 7,300 servants, including 245 singers. Altogether, about 50,000 people were gathered.
First came the preaching of God’s Word. Scripture says the people were hungry to hear it: “They spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses. . . . And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding” (8:1-2).
These people didn’t need to have God’s Word pushed on them. A consensus of hunger had developed among them and they were fully prepared to submit to the authority of His Word. They wanted to be governed by it, to make their lives conform to its truth.
Amazingly, Ezra preached to this crowd for five or six hours—“from the morning until midday” (8:3). Yet no one even noticed the time. “The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” (8:3). These people were totally captivated by God’s Word.
What an incredible scene! You simply would not see such an occurrence in any American church today. Yet, I tell you, true revival can never take place without this kind of all-consuming hunger for God’s Word. Indeed, when God’s people grow weary of hearing His Word preached, a spiritual death begins—and the joy of the Lord departs.
Scripture tells us that at the wedding in Cana there were “six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6, ESV). Obeying Jesus, the servants filled up the large pots with water, which miraculously turned into a rich, tasty red wine.
That wine represents Christ’s redeeming blood. In the Old Testament, God used Moses to turn a river of water into blood as a sign of His judgment. Now, in contrast, Jesus turned water into wine to introduce God’s New Covenant. Through this miraculous act He was signaling, “Your purifying rituals will only cleanse your outer self, not the deepest core of your heart. My cleansing blood is needed to accomplish that in you.”
In short, the old way was passing into history as Jesus ushered in the new. The host at the wedding literally tasted the new wine wrought by Jesus’ miracle. He marveled, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (2:10).
Yet it wasn’t just the host who was blessed. Everyone present benefited from this amazing work, including the disciples who accompanied Jesus: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (2:11). If Jesus’ disciples needed final proof that He was the Messiah, this miraculous act provided it. It persuaded them to follow Him with their all.
What a beautiful picture of our service to the world in Christ’s name. The world is desperately in need of His redeeming blood, poured out for us and flowing freely in our lives through His sacrifice. And the gift is meant to be poured out to others in turn, blessing the world as we have been blessed.
Many Christians today are content only to receive God’s blessings, limiting their devotion to Sunday services. Others are so eager to experience His blessings that they travel from one revival to another, crying, “Pour it out on me, Lord!” All their energy, focus and resources are spent on receiving God’s blessings, not pouring them out to others. That isn’t the point of the blessings. Don’t misunderstand—it’s right and good to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. But as Christ’s living Body, we are called to do more than taste; we are commanded to serve His rich blessing to others.
Unfortunately, seeking the Lord wholeheartedly does not exempt us from outside attack. After ten years of peace, Asa’s corner of the world was suddenly invaded by a huge Cushite army for no apparent reason. Asa was Solomon’s great-grandson but his godliness did not guarantee a smooth road for the rest of his life.
In such a moment, seekers after God have built up a reservoir of ready faith to meet new problems. They know exactly what to do:
“Asa called to the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you’” (2 Chronicles 14:11).
Asa’s faith was not some kind of instant cake mix stirred from a box. He and the people had already been calling out to God for a decade. Hence, there was no panic. They cried for the Lord to arise—and He did. The Cushites (Ethiopians) were decisively wiped out, despite their overwhelming numbers, “for the terror of the Lord had fallen upon them” (verse 14).
This is a classic example of a principle of God’s dealing with humanity. Hebrews 11:6 expresses it best: “Anyone who comes to [God] must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” I cannot say it strongly enough: When we seek God, He will bless us. But when we stop seeking Him . . . all bets are off, no matter who we are. It doesn’t matter how much talent we have, how many diplomas hang on our walls, what word of prophecy was proclaimed over us, or anything else.
On Asa’s way home from the battle, a prophet stopped him and his army along the road to reinforce what had just happened: “Listen to me. . . . The Lord is with you when you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chronicles 15:2).
Jim Cymbala began Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn and longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson, Cymbala is a frequent speaker at the Expect Church Leadership Conferences sponsored by World Challenge throughout the world.