“True revival is not preached up. It’s prayed down.”
H. B. Charles delivered a message at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 Arizona Regional Conference on “The Necessity of Prayer in Revival.” From the prayer recorded in Acts 4:23–31, Charles examined the manner through which churches experiences spiritual breakthrough and revival—when believers pray with confidence in the sovereignty of God. He detailed what moved the Jerusalem church to pray, what the church prayed, and what happened when the church prayed.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
H. B. Charles: Grace and peace be multiplied to each of you this evening and the knowledge of God and of Jesus, our Lord. It’s a joy to be with you tonight. When I was a boy, we did not have “revivals” in the church where I grew up. My father served there as pastor. But he would regularly travel to preach revivals. And I was a boy preacher, and because of my father’s ministry, I was often invited to preach these “revival” services. I could relate to Sam’s sentiment that you cannot schedule revival.
But, as I preached them, I was often moved for pastors to call their congregations to these seasons of renewal and revival. I read the story of Billy Sunday, a professional baseball player turned evangelist, who would go about preaching revivals and on one occasion he was confronted by someone who told him, “You know that those ‘revivals’ don’t work and you have to know they don’t work because you keep going back to the same places doing them over and over again. They don’t work because they don’t last.” In his own way, he responded by saying that, “Baths don’t last either but I hope you keep taking them as well.” So I get that notion.
But as I would preach them, I’d be encouraged that the pastors would call their churches to those seasons of revival or seeking revival. The world at its worst needs the church at its best. But I would hear them talk about the importance of revival and then say, “We have a guest speaker here,” and then invite me to the pulpit to preach. And I would just feel the pressure of that and quickly remind the congregation that true revival is not preached up. It’s prayed down.
I have two assignments over our weekend together. I will start tonight with the priority of prayer as it relates to revival. And I just want to take a text and show you God’s people praying together corporately for a spiritual breakthrough. And yes, I have a manuscript. Acts chapter 4 is where I want us to spend our time together this evening. Let me pray first.
Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I do pray now that you would open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things you have stored up in your word for us concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, help us to lay aside tonight all malice, deceit, envy, hypocrisy, and slander so that, as newborn infants, we may crave the pure spiritual milk of your word and grow thereby, having tasted of your goodness. We pray for physical strength and spiritual energy to speak your word tonight with faithfulness, clarity, authority, passion, wisdom, humility, and freedom. And as the seed of the word is planted and watered, we know that only you can make it grow. So we reserve for you, as always, the highest praise and full credit for the fruit that shall come from this time. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Acts chapter 4. I want to begin reading at verse number 23. When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priest and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed,’ for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Amen.
The Acts of the Apostles give us a snapshot of the life of the early church. From these pictures we see that the church was devoted to prayer. Acts chapter 4, verses 23 through 21, is the first prayer actually recorded in the book of Acts. It is also the longest prayer recorded in the book of Acts. This prayer, I believe, teaches us that the church experiences spiritual breakthrough and revival when believers pray with confidence in the sovereignty of God. The church experiences spiritual breakthrough when we pray together with confidence in the sovereignty of God. That’s all the introduction that I have.
I just want to spend the rest of the time in the text. Three questions. What moved the church to pray? What did the church pray? What happened when the church prayed?
Question number one, what moved the church to pray? The impromptu prayer meeting recorded in the text is the aftermath of a miracle performed in Acts chapter 3. Remember, Peter and John were on their way to the temple at the hour of prayer when a crippled man asked for money. Acts chapter 3, verse 6, Peter replied, “I have no silver or gold but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” Taking this invalid by the right hand, Peter lifted him up. The crippled man stood up for the first time in his life. The amazed onlookers wanted to know how this grown man, crippled for life, was now healed. Peter simply responded by proclaiming to them the name of Jesus, whom they had crucified by God raised from the dead.
Acts chapter 4, verse 2 tells us that the religious leaders were, I love this, greatly annoyed. Only a few months had passed since Jerusalem was in an uproar over the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. To ensure that the name of Jesus did not consume the city again, they arrested Peter and John. The next morning, Peter and John were brought before the religious leaders. They, too, wanted to know how this crippled man was healed.
Again, Peter simply proclaimed Jesus, whom they had crucified but God had raised from the dead. Verse 13 says, “Now, when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. The religious leaders could not deny the obviously miracle that had taken place, yet they did not want to give glory to Christ for this miracle. So they commanded Peter and John not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore.
Versus 19 and 20 read, But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Seems then that the religious leaders just tried to diffuse the situation for the time being. They threatened Peter and John again and then let them go.
Verse 23, the beginning of our text, picks up the story. When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. Peter and John returned to their friends. Literally, the text says, they went to their own. They went to church after they were released. The group was comprised of the other apostles and some of the members of the church, which numbered at this point somewhere over 5,000 people. They possibly met in the very upper room where the Holy Spirit had descended upon them on the day of Pentecost.
Note, this is an essential mark of true faith. Genuine love for the people of God. You can test faith by where you turn for support and encouragement and companionship in difficult times. Peter and John went back to the believers and told them about the threats of the religious leaders. Verse 24 says, “And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God.” Notice what they did not do at this crisis moment in the life of the early church. They did not give in or shut up or lay low. They prayed.
Further note that prayer was their first response, not their last resort. They prayed with spiritual unity. They were not just together. They were on one accord in prayer. And I submit to you this should be our battle plan if we want to see true revival.
I need not tell you we, too, are in a spiritual warfare. We live in a day and time where there is a conspiracy against the name of Jesus in the media and classrooms, in the courts, in politics, in all of the various aspects of the false value system of this God-ignoring, God-denying, God-hating culture. Unfortunately, this conspiracy is even at work in the church.
Notice in the text of Acts 4 that the religious leaders did not command Peter and John to no longer teach or to no longer minister to the sick. They just commanded them don’t do it in the name of Jesus. The spirit of the same man-centered religion easily infiltrates the church today. It shows up when maintaining the way we do things takes precedence over glorifying the preeminence of Christ.
There is still a conspiracy against the name of Jesus. How do we respond? Follow the example of the text, is what I submit. They did not quit or scheme or fight or organize or protest. They prayed. Have we trials or temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged. Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Question number two, and this is where I want to spend most of my time. What did the church pray? Verses 24 through 30 records the prayer. It is one of the most dramatic prayers in the New Testament. It begins by addressing God as sovereign Lord. This title translates the Greek term from which we get our word despot. It was used for a master of slaves, the Lord of the house. Here, it affirms God’s total control, complete authority and unimpeachable jurisdiction over everything.
After the authorities gave them commands, they got together and prayed to a sovereign Lord. The prayer falls into two major sections, invocation and supplication. The invocation is longer, much longer, than the supplication. But know first, this invocation. This invocation praises God for his sovereign acts. They begin the prayer by telling God what God had already done. They don’t pray like this out of fear that God has forgotten his own works. The invocation exalts his glory and builds their faith. This is a good way to pray for a revival. A good place to start is just tell God about what God has already done.
This invocation declares three ways God has put his sovereignty on display. Three ways they pray about how God had put his sovereignty on display. First, the creation of the world. Verse 24 says, “And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.'” Creation is the first theater in which God has put his sovereignty on display. God made the heavens above us, they said. God made the earth around us. God made the sea below us. The emphasis on God as creator in scripture consistently is recorded to affirm the sovereignty of God. The theological assumption is that the one who creates the thing, reigns over the thing he creates.
Psalm 22, verses 1 and 2 says it this way. The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. For he has founded it upon the seas and he has established it upon the waters. Everything in the sky and on the land and in the waters belongs to God. He created it and it is here, and therefore, no rebellious creature can withstand the creator. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And in the end, God reigns over the heavens and the earth.
And so they first declared the creation of the world to God in their prayer. And then they addressed the revelation of scripture. Verses 25 and 26 point to God’s sovereignty on display through biblical revelation. First, God’s sovereignty was at work in the manner of biblical revelation. They affirmed God is in charge by the way scripture is revealed. Verse 25 says, “It’s God who, through the mouth of our father, David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit.” What a statement. It is a succinct statement of the divine inspiration of scripture.
2 Timothy 3:16 declares that all scripture is breathed out by God. The Bible is not man’s word about God. It is God’s word to man. Yet, it is God’s word to man through man. Verse 25 says that God spoke, listen to the language, through the mouth of David. God used David’s intellect and personality and convictions to write scripture, but the Holy Spirit superintended the writing of David.
2 Peter 1:21 says it this way, that, “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” As a result, what David wrote in Psalm 2 is in complete harmony with what Luke wrote in Acts 4. Furthermore, what we find here is an affirmation of the trinity. Of course, the theological term trinity is not found in scripture and no specific verse explicitly states that God is one in essence, three in person. But the triunity of God is evident throughout scripture. It’s here. In this New Testament reference to an Old Testament Psalm, note that God the father speaks through man by God the Holy Spirit to proclaim the work of God the son.
If you need assurance of the sovereignty of God to bring revival, read the Bible. God’s sovereignty was at work in the manner of biblical revelation and God’s sovereignty was at work through the message of scripture. Verses 25 and 26 quote Psalm 2 verses 1 and 2. Psalm 2 is about rebellion against God’s anointed king and God’s chosen people. But the Psalm is considered a prophesy of the coming messiah. Acts 4 affirms that. Verse 25 asks, quoting Psalm 2, why did the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? These rhetorical questions address humanity’s futile attempts to overthrow divine authority.
The word rage here was used for a neighing horse bucking in rebellion. Verse 26, the kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed. What’s pictured here is this United Nations meeting, if you will, of kings and presidents and prime ministers, all strategizing to get rid of God.
On the grassroots level, the people and the nations and on an authoritative level, the kings and the rulers of the Earth are all trying to conspire to overthrow the government of God.i’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there so I can’t veer off into Psalm 2 further, but I cannot resist that Psalm 2 verse 4 tells us that while the entire Earth is conspiring in rebellion against divine authority, God is not in his throne room pacing, figuring out what to do next. He is not sitting in his briefing room determining a military response, and he has not been rushed to some undisclosed location for his safety.
But whatever’s going on among rebellious creatures, God is right now where he’s always been. Psalm 2 verse 4 says he is sitting on his throne. And what is he doing there? Psalm 2 verse 4 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” Human rebellion is divine comedy. When God laughs, it’s not funny. God is amused by humanity’s attempts to get rid of him. And in Psalm 2 verse 6, God says, “I’ve already set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” This is why we can pray with such confidence. Listen to what God says to rebellious mankind. It’s too late. Jesus reigns.
Psalm 2, verses 10 through 12 says, “Now therefore, oh kings, be wise; be warned, oh rulers of the Earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.” All of this is still invocation. They just begin their prayer praising the fact, exalting the fact, rejoicing in the fact that God is in control. He’s proven it in the creation of the world, he’s proven it in the revelation of scripture, and he’s even proven it in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Verses 27 and 28 directly apply the quotation of Psalm 2 in verses 25 and 26 to the crucifixion of Jesus. “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” The parallel between these verses and the messianic Psalm quoted in verses 25 and 26 are obvious, I trust.
Just a few months before this impromptu prayer meeting, a confederacy of forces came together against Jesus. Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, conspired together against Jesus. Luke 23 verse 12 says, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day. For before this, there had been enmity with each other.” The conspiracy of Jesus against Jesus did not just take place in the courts of human authority. It was also a grassroots movement. Verse 27 says, “The Gentiles and the peoples of Israel were in on it together.” Scripture rarely links the Jews and the Gentiles, but here Jews and Gentiles are mutually indicted for the assassination of Jesus. Individually and corporately, sinful humanity plotted to execute Jesus.
Notice what verse 28 says. Notice what it doesn’t say. It does not say that Herod and Pilate and the Gentiles and the Jews fulfilled their plots and conspiracy against Jesus, and they did. Nope. Verse 28 says, “They came together to do,” listen to these saints praying together to God. “They came together to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” The language here is not trying to acquit those who are responsible for the death of Jesus. It, in fact, declares all humanity guilty. Yet, here we are shown emphatically that Jesus did not die as a religious non-conformist to the Jews or a political nuisance to the Romans. He died according to the eternal plan of God. The crucifixion happened as God predestined.
Maybe the key word you need to get, the big word in verse 28 you need to take note of is this, whatever. They did whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. Sinful men did what the Lord permitted them to do. Nothing more, nothing less.
In John 19 verse 10, Pilate asks Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” In verse 11, Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above.” Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. The enemy can only do what God allows.
Just a footnote. This text is on my heart because we are living in a period where we are watching the culture increasingly turn in hostility against the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. And in too many instances we are panicking because we’re losing the home court advantage we thought we had. We just have to remember 8:31. What shall we say to these things? Yes? If God be for us, who can be against us?
There is the implication and then there is the supplication, and I would suggest that maybe we don’t see revival because we don’t play like this. We pray with preoccupation with ourselves and our goals and our circumstances and not God. This prayer is recorded in seven verses. The first five verses exalt the sovereignty of God. Then in two verses you get the prayer requests. They’ve got some stuff to talk to God about. They spend the bulk of the prayer talking to God about God and his greatness and his sovereignty and his authority. This is how we should pray when burdens crush and threats arise and enemies attack. Talk to God about what he is doing more than what the enemy is doing. Focus on God and not the situation. Gaze at God and only glance at Goliath.
After exalting God’s sovereignty in this prayer, the saints made two prayer requests. There is first a prayer of personal resignation. It’s verse 29. “And now, Lord, look upon their threats.” What a prayer. Look upon their threats. They did not ask God to stop the threats. They did not ask God to prevent the threats from coming to pass. They did not even ask God to convert the ones who made the threats. They just said, “Lord, look upon their threats.”
For the record, these are no idle threats. In Acts 7, they stoned Stephen for preaching the resurrection. In Acts 12:2, Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword and then he arrested Peter, planning to put him to death after Pentecost. The church prayed and the Lord delivered Peter from prison.
It’s evident, however, that these religious authorities meant business when they warned them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Yet, the church responded by saying, “Lord, look upon their threats.” It’s just a prayer of resignation. They’re just giving it to God. They’re doing what Hezekiah did. The king of Assyria sent a letter warning Hezekiah not to trust in his God for deliverance. The gods of the nations had not saved them, and Judah’s god could not save it form the power of Assyria. Remember what Hezekiah did? He read the message, took it to the house of the Lord, and then spread it out before the Lord.
Isaiah chapter 37 verses 16 and 17, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, “Oh Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone. Of all the kingdoms of the earth, you have made heaven and Earth.” Verse 17, Isaiah 37. “Incline your ear, oh Lord, and hear. Open your eyes, oh Lord, and see, and hear all the words of Sennacherib which he has sent to mock the living God.” You missed it. Let me try it again. The messenger brought Sennacherib’s threatening letter to Hezekiah. Hezekiah read it, and when he read it, he said, “He ain’t talking about me. He’s talking about God.” So he took the letter to God and said, “Lord, look at this. I just thought you would want to know what the enemy is saying about you. Handle your business.”
And with the same sense of resignation, the church prayed, “Lord, look upon their threats. It’s not about us. It’s about you. Handle your business, Lord.” This is the essence of prayer. Give it to God. Give it to God. The papal envoy threatened Martin Luther with what would follow if he persisted in his course and warned him that his supporters would desert him in the end. “Where will you be then,” demanded the envoy. “Then, as now,” replied Luther, “In the hands of God.”
Then there’s a prayer for spiritual boldness. There’s a general request in verse 29. “And now, Lord, look upon their threats.” And then there is a specific request. “And grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” This prayer for boldness reflects the priority of these believers. They were more concerned about pleasing God and exalting Christ than their own safety. It didn’t matter if they lived or died. It only mattered if the word of God was proclaimed. And so they asked God for boldness to proclaim the word even if it put their wellbeing in jeopardy.
Could this be why the gospel is not advancing in your city? Could this be why the church is not considered relevant by so many? Could this be why so many in the church just go through the motions without experiencing true change?
To some degree, the problem starts with leadership. We who lead are not as bold for Christ as we should be. We are too comfortable, at times, with the status quo. We suffer from the fear of man. We are more concerned about being criticized or persecuted or rejected than pleasing God. We choose the path of least resistance. We claim the word of God as our final authority, yet we act or react in unbiblical ways in a crisis. We put the success of the institution of the church ahead of the glory of the head of the church. We are prone to ignore the threats of moral failure, doctrinal compromise, and spiritual deviciveness and fight about things that have nothing to do with making disciples. The church cannot be strong if it is following weak leaders. May we repent of our self-reliance and pray for holy boldness.
Note this one further thing before we get to the final question. This prayer for boldness is a request for something they already had. Verse 13 says the religious authorities were astonished with the boldness of these common, uneducated men, that they prayed to continue to speak the word with boldness. Why did they feel the need to pray for what they already had? They recognized what we need to recognize. Yesterday’s grace will not work for today’s challenges. There are times when you need to look back and remember what the Lord has done. This is the significance of historical works of God’s grace among us.
There are also times, Paul will tell us, where you need to forget what’s behind you. If you’re not careful, yesterday’s success can become today’s complacency that becomes tomorrow’s failure. No matter how bold you’ve been in the past, don’t stop praying. Thank God for yesterday’s grace. But we need what John Piper would call future grace to face what’s before us.
Even Paul, Ephesians 6:19-20, in his warfare text, asks the saints to pray for him that, “Words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly as I ought to speak.” We will only say, “Do what we ought,” if God gives us boldness.
Very quickly, what happened when the church prayed? Verse 31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” When they prayed, God did something around them and in them and for them. God did something around them when they prayed. It says, verse 31, the place in which they were gathered was shaken. Acts 2 verse 2 says that on the day of Pentecost God made his presence known with a sound from heaven like a mighty, rushing wind. Here, God makes his presence known by shaking the meeting place. As with an earthquake, God shook the place as a sign to the church that he was with him. And the more he shook the place, the more the church became unshakeable in their confidence in God.
Oh, God is able to still move to show that he has everything under control. It doesn’t have to be an earthquake. It may be a still, small voice. Either way, we should pray that God would be obviously present, actively in charge, and dynamically at work among us. Obviously present, actively in charge, and dynamically at work among us.
God not only did something around them, God did something in them. Verse 31 says they were also filled with the Holy Spirit. This is not another Pentecost or second baptism of the Holy Spirit. It was a fresh infilling of the spirit’s enabling power for them to resist temptation and live obediently and serve faithfully and witness boldly and even suffer joyfully. Here, we are reminded that the infilling of the Holy Spirit is no one-time occurrence. 120 original believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 verse 4, Peter was filled with the spirit in Acts 4:8 to respond to the religious authorities and here, all the believers in the prayer meeting were filled with the Holy Spirit. This historical record here is a divine command for every believer in Ephesians 5 verse 18. Is it not? “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery. But be filled with the spirit.” It’s a divine command. Not for some group within the body of Christ, but for all believers to be filled with the spirit.
What would your church be like if every member was filled with the spirit? When the Chicago evangelist D.L. Moody was asked if he was filled with the spirit, he would answer, “Yes, but I leak.” So do you. So do I. We need God to continually do a work in us by his wonderful Holy Spirit. God did something around them, God did something in them, and then God did something for them.
As these believers were praying, the Bible says, “They continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” In verse 29 they prayed specifically for boldness to continue to pray, to proclaim the crucified and resurrected Christ. God answered their prayer by enabling them to speak the word of God with boldness.
It happens after prayer. There is much we can do to help the situation after we pray. There is nothing we can do to help the situation until we pray. When we work, we work. When we pray, God works. Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we could ask or think according to the power to work within us, to him alone be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
Our father in heaven, we thank you for the wonderful privilege of believing prayer. We give you thanks and praise for the blood and righteousness of Christ that opens for us a new and living way to you, and that he is our all-sufficient high priest who has passed through the heavens so that we, through him, may draw near with confidence to the throne of grace and receive mercy and find grace to help us in the time of need. Thank you that as we will hear, have heard, and will hear over the course of this weekend about the priority of prayer in the work of revival, help us to remember that we don’t have to pray as some desperate beggar going to a wealthy stranger, asking for a big favor.
We can pray as confident children to a loving father, no matter what’s going on in the world around us, no matter what’s going on in the churches in which we serve and worship and study, no matter what’s going on in our own lives. You are the sovereign Lord. There is nothing too hard for you. And if we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will you send good things, even the Holy Spirit, to those who ask? We ask in the name of Jesus, send revival, Lord. Let it begin with us, we pray. Amen.