Think of the big things God has done. They didn’t just happen. They had roots. Deep roots.
The big things
A young man sits in a synagogue in Capernaum. He reads Isaiah 61 and then electrifies the room by declaring these astonishing Messianic promises will be fulfilled in him. The next few years prove it and the world is never the same again.
Another young man stands speaking to a vast crowd. Three thousand people are cut to the heart and convert to Christ. The man’s name is Peter. This powerful, transforming spiritual experience, he says, ‘is what was promised by the prophet Joel.’ That day is the beginning of a movement that turns the Roman world upside down. It becomes known as Christianity. And still it spreads.
A clergyman, clothed in black, stands in a field near Bristol. He is surrounded by a huge crowd. They are gripped and moved by the words he speaks. His name is George Whitefield. It is 1739 and these are the early days of a great evangelical awakening that will sweep across the nation, transforming the spiritual and social landscape.
A pastor boards a ship to India. He is not coming back. It is 1793 and a handful of churches are sending him as a pioneer missionary. Their missionary society is a year old. It consists of just thirteen people and has a total budget of £13 2s 6d. The pastor’s name is William Carey and he is igniting what John Piper calls the ‘the most important historical development in the last two hundred years.’1 It is the modern missionary movement and it is still unfolding.
These are big things that God has done. But they didn’t just happen. They had roots. Deep roots.
When Jesus sat in that synagogue he had centuries behind him. God had promised. The patriarchs had believed, the prophets had spoken, the priests had ministered, the kings had ruled, the Psalmists had sung, and the faithful had waited and prayed and suffered.
When Peter stood on the day of Pentecost, he had the whole of heaven behind him. It was the risen and ascended Christ who was pouring out his Holy Spirit. Behind him too stood the prayers of Isaiah calling on God to rend the heavens and come down, and the prayers of Joel asking the Lord to restore the years the locusts had eaten, pleading that the people might rend their hearts not just their garments.
When Whitefield and the others did what they did, behind them stood the labours and the broken dreams of the persecuted Puritans a century before. Robbed of their pulpits and silenced by prison walls, these Puritans prayed and prayed for better days. God was answering their prayers.
When Carey lit the fuse of the modern missionary movement, behind him and before him lay the influence of a transatlantic prayer movement. The movement began in Scotland around 1740. In 1744 a group of ministers called for focussed prayer every Saturday evening, every Sunday morning, and on the first Tuesday of each quarter. In 1746 they issued a call to prayer to the church worldwide. Jonathan Edwards, in what is now the USA, wrote a famous treatise to promote the idea.
The place of a movement of prayer
The results were not instant. Edwards was to die ten difficult years later. But the vision lived on. In Princeton University it ignited many student awakenings over the next hundred years. In 1789 the treatise was republished in England. Carey embraced it. Later, it became the ‘manifesto’ of a second great awakening, and a third, beginning around 1857. Its effect was truly global. In 1897 John Mott wrote of ‘concerts of prayer’ among the student volunteer movement in forty different countries. David Bryant asserts that those prayer initiatives generated 90,000 missionary recruits.2
The theology burning in and through these prayer movements was magnificent. It was a vision of the risen and ascended Christ to whom the nations had been given. Bryant writes ‘Edwards knew that the ultimate answer to every prayer [is] that the Father, by the Spirit, gives us more of the fullness of the Son . . . all of it beginning with the reintroduction of God’s people to the majesty and glory and supremacy of Christ.3 These prayer movements had life because they were fuelled and shaped by worship, hope, confidence and expectation.
In Carey we see the vision in action. When I left England’ he says, ‘my hope of India’s conversion was very strong; but amongst so many obstacles, it would die unless upheld by God. Well, I have God, and his Word is true . . . though I were deserted by all and persecuted by all, yet my faith, fixed on that sure Word, would rise above all obstructions and overcome every trial. God’s cause will triumph.’4 Carey said of the first convert ‘He was only one, but a continent was coming behind him. The divine grace that changed one heart, could obviously change 100 000’5
So here is the question for us: as ‘A Passion for Life’ unfolds over the coming months, what will stand behind it?
What if, behind it, was the risen and ascended Christ pouring out his Holy Spirit? What if, behind it, were the prayers of God’s people calling on God to rend the heavens and come down, asking the Lord to restore the years the locusts had eaten, and pleading that the people might rend their hearts not just their garments? What if behind was a movement of prayer, a vast network of people and churches committed to praying together, ablaze with this vision of our glorious Lord.
Think of the big things God does. They don’t just happen. They have roots. Deep roots.
- https://tristatevoice.com/2020/07/28/the-ongoing-impact-of-jonathan-edwards-call-to-united-extraordinary-prayer-and-its-connection-to-revival/ This article is the source for the story retold in the last two paragraphs.
- Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, Banner of Truth, 1971, p140
- ibid. p141