I love words—the cool way, you know, you can say things with them. Sometimes the words we use make sense, and other times they don’t. Take the prefix “re” for example. Dictionary.com describes it as “a prefix, occurring originally in loanwords from Latin, used with the meaning ‘again’ or ‘again and again’ to indicate repetition, or with the meaning ‘back’ or ‘backward’ to indicate withdrawal or backward motion.”[i] This seems to make sense when we look at words like “flex” and “reflex,” which means “to flex again.” Or, “bound” and “rebound,” which means “to bound again.” Then there’s “commend” and “recommend,” which means “to commend again.” Sometimes, however, the prefix “re” doesn’t make much sense. For example, does “retired” mean that a person is “tired again?” If you experiencing “buyer’s remorse,” does that mean that first you had to “buyer’s morse?” Or, before there is a “resurrection,” must there be an “insurrection?”
It’s thinking like this that often gets me into trouble. Still, I was wondering: as my church is headed into fall revival services (and as many other churches are doing the same) what does it mean that have already experienced “vival,” that we might now go through “revival?” If there really were such a word as “vival,” what would it mean?
“Revival” means “renewed life,” or “life again.” So a word like “vival” (if it existed) would mean simply “life.” 1 Timothy 6.19 (NIV) says that believers “will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” That makes me think—is there a difference between life and true life?
Science says that a living thing must be able to breathe, ingest, excrete, grow, adapt, and reproduce. We know we’re alive because we can do these things. We’ve been looking for signs of life on other planets now for decades. In Other Worlds, Carl Sagan writes:
A story making the rounds concerns a Biology I examination in which the students were asked: "Suppose you could take to Mars any of the laboratory equipment used in this course. How would you determine if there was life on Mars?" One student responded: "Ask the inhabitants. Even a negative answer would be significant." The student got an A.
Just like we’re looking for signs of life on other planets, I wonder if God is looking for signs of life in our churches. Fall revivals are in full swing, implying at least at some point before we have revivals, we must have had vivals. If we’re looking for renewed life, then we must think that on some level that we’ve had life. Nicodemus came to Jesus one night to inquire about the life that Jesus possessed. Our Lord told him, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he (John 3.3-4 NASB)?’” That old teacher of the law was thinking of physical birth, or even physical re-birth. He thought that being born again meant being born—again! He was thinking of vival, not revival. Jesus had something different in mind.
In the beginning, life came into the world supernaturally. God spoke and the earth teemed with living creatures. God made the first man, breathed into him, and the man became a living creature. Since then, life has been a very natural thing. We’re born, we live, we reproduce, we die, and the cycle continues. Yet this isn’t the kind of life that Nicodemus needed to hear about. Instead, the teacher of the law needed to hear about the life that truly is life. So Jesus told him more about being born again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again (John 3.5-7 NASB).’”
Vival is the water birth—which crudely refers to the water of amniotic fluid. Revival comes from spiritual birth. Flesh gives birth to flesh, and everybody experiences that. Spirit gives birth to spirit, but not everyone will receive that second birth. Some people are only vived but never revived. For someone like Nicodemus, or possibly like you, to experience revival, they have to realize that the first birth isn’t enough, and will never give them eternal life. They have to receive God’s gift of the Savior, who gives them eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (John 3.16-17 NASB.” When a person does that, they lay hold of the life that truly is life.
For a church, there’s a difference between vival and real revival. Churches experience vival during the first years of their ministry, when everything is new and exciting—when they first organize, when they call their first pastor, when they first discover their ministry in the community. I’ve worked with new church plants like this—and it’s always an exciting ride. But that kind of energy doesn’t last forever. Life normalizes, the cares of the world choke out the church’s enthusiasm. We get into a rut, doing things the same way we’ve always done before and not looking for anything different to happen. That’s when a church needs revival—new life.
Stephen Olford said, “Revival is an invasion from heaven that brings a conscious awareness of God.” We need this kind of invasion in order to drive out the death wrought by sin in our lives. Revival rekindles the fire in our hearts that we doused with polluted waters of disobedience, laziness, and apathy. The question is whether we really want revival, or whether we’d rather let our faith comfortably smolder. In the May, 1982 issue of One World we read:
A U.S. Lutheran bishop tells of visiting a parish church in California and finding a stirring red and orange banner on the wall. "Come Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!" it declared in words printed under a picture of a fire burning. The bishop was also interested in the sign directly underneath the banner which said: "Fire extinguisher." So much for that parish's commitment to spiritual renewal.
Like that congregation needed to do, we must take seriously God’s call to revival, and not make efforts to dampen the flame. Like Nicodemus, we must make a choice as to whether we’re content with vival or whether we really want revival. We can settle for natural physical life which all creatures share, or we can enter the supernatural life of almighty God. We can allow our churches to settle into disobedience, laziness, and apathy, calling ourselves alive yet lacking the power of God. Or, we can ask God to bring true revival to His people. The choice is up to us. So as you drive past the church signs that advertize revivals this Fall, I hope you’ll stop in and receive the new life of Christ. I hope you’ll be born again, that you’ll see the church born again and again, and that God will fill you not just with vival but with revival!