What Our Churches Need!
Archibald G. Brown, May 19th, 1872, East London Tabernacle
"What does this mean?" Acts 2:12
This was a question that leaped from the lips of thousands, and was asked in almost every then-known language under the sun. We do not marvel at the amazement that prompted the question. We would have equally wondered and asked for the same explanation if we had been one of the throng. There was a new thing on the earth — a marvelous thing — an inexplicable thing — a thing not to be accounted for by any human reasoning. A company of illiterate and obscure people, several of them having been formerly fishermen, was now to be seen preaching in languages which a few minutes before were unknown to any of them. It must have been a sight strange beyond all description. Here were men who did not know the alphabets of the languages five minutes back, declaring with fluency the wonderful works of God. Words of burning eloquence were pouring from their lips in a tongue the very existence of which was perhaps unknown to them until they began to speak it. Here was a royal road to learning indeed.
What did it mean? Where did they acquire their instantaneous knowledge? Who gave it to them? What did it portend? All kinds of explanations were offered, and among them the stupid one that the men were drunk. Had they been, it would nonetheless have been a marvel, for drunkenness generally makes it difficult to speak one language, not easy to speak many. Satan will give any explanation of God's work, however preposterous, rather than allow the authorship to remain unchallenged.
The simple explanation of the marvel was that an ascended Christ had performed His promise — poured out His Spirit, and given gifts to men. For ten days the disciples had been praying and waiting for the power from on high, and now it had come. Through their midst had gone "the sound of a mighty rushing wind." Act 2.2. On their heads had rested tongues of glowing flame. They were different men through it. From that baptism of the Holy Spirit they came up giants. The timid spirit was made brave, the faltering was made steadfast, and on those lips through which the simplest Galilean brogue had only passed, were words of wisdom, and none could dare question their power. Yes, the blessing had come. "Pentecost" will ever be associated with the outpouring of the Spirit, and "Pentecostal" will ever remain the best description of a great revival work.
Today is Whit-Sunday, the church and world declare, and it is being kept in a variety of ways. But what is Whit-Sunday? It is simply a contraction of "White-Sunday." Centuries back the primitive church used to have a great baptism on this particular day. The candidates (as the word implies) were dressed in white — hence the origin of the name. This is the day when the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is commemorated.
Alas, how the word has become corrupted and dragged in the mire. Whitsuntide!! How little is there now in that word to suggest white-robed saints professing their Savior's name. Whitsuntide!! It suggests debauchery and drunkenness, more than baptism and blessing. Whit-Sunday!! It is the Sunday most removed from being a 'white' one. Did you mark the crowds of shouting Sabbath-breakers as you came here? You know what the road will be like when you return. It is black Sunday, and tomorrow, to tens of thousands, it will be blacker Monday. Let us thank God if by His grace we have learned to find our joy in Him; and let us seek this evening to get our own soul revived, as we meditate on the marvels of that day which made a wondering multitude exclaim, "What does this mean?"
I will first notice three things immediately preceding the outpouring of the Spirit,
then the blessing itself, and
lastly I will try and answer in a few words the question of our text.
I. Notice three things immediately preceding the outpouring of the Spirit.In looking at the assembled group of disciples, I can see three things which, if not the direct cause of a revival, always precede and herald it. They are the shadows cast by the coming blessing. They are like "the sound of marching in the top of the mulberry trees" 2 Samuel 5.24 that told David it was time to "bestir himself."
1. I see first in that gathering, a complete congregation. In the first verse of the chapter you read "they were all in one place." No absentees. None were away. Now this signaled earnestness, for it was rather early in the morning. The Spirit had come, and Peter had commenced his notable sermon, before nine o'clock in the morning; for he says, "It is but the third hour of the day." It was in fact an early Sunday morning prayer meeting, and every one of the company was present. Glorious fact — I am not so surprised now at what followed. Always before a great blessing there will be a revived interest on the part of Christians in the services of the sanctuary.
The half-truth, "I can worship God as well at home" (which is a lie when the man is able to come to the Sanctuary and does not), will not be heard. Zion's palaces will possess a beauty in the eyes of Zion's children, while their tongues will sing, "I was glad when it was said to me, let us go up into the house of the Lord." Psalm 122.1-2. When there, no weariness will be felt, no longing desire for the worship to conclude and to have the blessing dismiss them. No! They cry, "Our feet shall stand within your gates, O Jerusalem." There will be a trooping to the house of the Lord, and the "tribes" will go up in company. Indifference to the public worship of our God is a fatal sign. Where there are numbers of absentees, there is but little probability of having a "white" Sunday.
But, O Sir! Is it not lamentable to find what trifles often serve to keep some professors from being gathered together each Sunday morning? What a shame the cause of their absence often is. Things that would never be permitted to interfere one moment with their work, or delay one minute an anticipated pleasure — are reckoned sufficient to warrant staying home from church.
Many find eleven o'clock on Sunday mornings too early to come to worship — but they have no problem catching the eight o'clock excursion train on Saturday mornings. They have no intention of missing that — even if they missed the Savior's worship, and although it requires a three hours earlier start. These worldly professors are a sad blot on the church, and signal a lack of spiritual life.
But let the blessing come, and before the full power of the revival sweeps through the church, there will be a near-approach to a complete congregation — all being present who possibly can. This is the first thing I notice as immediately preceding the outpouring of the Spirit.
2. But secondly, I see a congregation one in desire and motive. They were not only all there — but all there "with one accord." No two motives had drawn them. They came to receive the promised blessing. That and nothing else than that had brought them from their homes to the early morning meeting. Go ask them, "What do you seek here?" They all answer "The Comforter." The prayer of one, was the prayer of all; the expectation of one, was the expectation of all. Every heart was giving the same echo. They were banded, welded together, in their common desire.
Ah, I do not marvel now at anything that may happen. A church that is all present and all agreed may expect anything, dare anything, accomplish anything, receive anything. Is it not the lack of this spirit of unity, that is the weakness of the churches of the present day? In putting my finger on this, do I not indicate the secret disease that preys on Zion? Is this not what robs her of her bloom — enervates her strength — gives paralysis to her arm — and worst of all, hinders the blessing from falling, and makes the sky above her head hot and as dry as brass?
Unbelief is not the only thing that keeps Christ from doing many mighty works. It might with equal truth be said of many a church, "He did not do many mighty works there because of their squabbling, petty, selfish spirit!" They never come with one accord, and therefore they never have a Pentecostal season.
It is sad beyond description, to see the paltry pride and miserable jealousies that find their way within the courts of the Lord's House. There are men who will be nothing, unless they are everything; and who will, without compunction, sacrifice a whole church's prosperity on the wretched little altar of their own unsanctified ambition! Instead of all being baptized into one spirit, it looks more as if every one had been baptized into a different spirit — and every spirit an evil one. Doubtless some of you may think this is rather an over-drawn picture. All I can say is "I would to God that it was," but we speak what we know, and testify of what we have seen. With all our heart we have pitied the pastor of these "units." We have felt he was engaged in a well-near hopeless struggle.
While these fruits of the flesh, "emulations, variances, wrath, and strife," hang on the boughs of any church, there can be no White-Sunday for the preacher — there can be nothing of Peter's success in winning souls. But when the reverse is seen, then rejoice, for the dawn of the White-Sunday breaks. When one desire spreads from heart to heart, and that is the desire for greater holiness and more conversions — when all differences become drowned in one overwhelming passion, and that is the passion for saving souls — then let the church lift up her head, for the day of her revival draws near. Pentecost has almost fully come. The sacred tide has risen to the very top of the bank; it must sweep over shortly.
Oh beloved members of this church, let us see to it that we are more than ever of one accord. Thanks, ten thousand thanks, be to God, that for years we have been knit together, not as a society, but as a family. Never was there truer love or more determined unity in any church. Yet I cannot doubt that hidden away among nearly one thousand members, there are some evil feelings and unworthy bickerings. Is it so? Can it be, dear friend, that except for your lack of accord, the blessing would be even greater than it is? O, away with it!! In spirit let us now grasp hands and Pentecost shall come again.
I pray God, that riding over the revival we have had for five years, there may come another. A wave leaping on wave, bearing all opposition down. May the sacred flood roll and rise, rise and roll, until it sweeps like a deluge over the topmost peaks of the mountains of our selfishness — drowning all our littlenesses, and bearing this church upon its bosom, high and higher still, until it floats like the ark of old, above the highest hills!
3. The third thing I see is a congregation steeped in the spirit of prayer. This I gather from the previous chapter. Kindly turn with me to the fourteenth verse and you will read "these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." This was directly after the ascension of our Lord. Ten days have passed since then. They are praying still. They had a ten-day prayer meeting. Do you wonder that they had a white Sunday? I would have wondered, if they had not.
Here I wish to speak with all the plainness possible, for God knows we are in earnest about this matter. Fearless of any contradiction, I assert that the general prayerlessness of the church is simply deplorable, dreadful, and humiliating. I wish that I could find stronger language to describe the evil; it cannot well be exaggerated. Here and there exceptional cases are to be seen, where hundreds come to prayer. But take the general run of prayer meetings. Drop in on a Monday night, and at most sanctuaries; what do you behold? A paltry forty or fifty out of a church of four hundred members; and half of these perhaps are members of the congregation, and half not members of the church at all. It is not an uncommon thing for churches to have to give up prayer meetings because so few come, and they hold a half-preaching and half-praying meeting in the middle of the week. In the majority of churches, the prayer meeting is a disgrace, and while this remains, it is no use talking about having a revival in the world.
O, that a cry might go through the land, "To your knees, to your knees, daughter of Zion;" for until she does, no blessing will come. Members of this church, do let not your prayerfulness decline.
The Pentecostal blessing we are now enjoying may be traced to our gatherings for prayer. It is not alone the preaching; it is nothing of the man; it is your praying that has won the day. For five years you have flocked to the prayer meetings, as consistent as the world flocks to its pleasures. I implore you, if you would have a second Pentecost, then still pray. Let everything else go rather than the meetings for pleading with God. Think! Might the blessing here not be tripled by more prayer? We have not yet had all our God can give us. He still waits with both hands full. Then pray — pray — pray.
While meditating on this subject in my study yesterday, the fire burned within — desires too big for utterance filled me. Restlessly I paced the room, thinking what God's church might have, if only it would band itself together to pray, and with one accord determine to give Heaven no rest until the day of Pentecost gladdens this century. I could not study — but I wept and cried, "O God, do make tomorrow a White Sunday in that Tabernacle!" and then I thought I heard my sighs echoed by you — the same fire of longing desire burned hot within you — and you said "we will have a second Pentecost, if we have ten days of prayer to get it!" O sirs, the blessing is ours if we like to take it. It is only a matter of waiting. God cannot withhold from a seeking people. If we do not get it one day, let us pray the next, and the next, and the next — but get it. May this spirit of prayer — this pioneer of revival — be ours now and ever as a church. Thus have I tried to show you the three things immediately preceding the outpouring of the Spirit. Let these three things be found in any church, and the certain result is "Pentecost."
II. Let us notice the blessing itself.
I observe first, that it came at an appointed time. It was "when the day of Pentecost had fully come." God has a time for everything. Never is He one moment behind that time — nor ever a second before it.
The disciples doubtless expected the blessing sooner. They had to learn what we have learned, that there is a sovereignty in revivals. Man has no power to command one. He can only cry out and wait. The sovereignty displayed in the salvation of individual souls, is not more marked than in the revival of churches. In both cases "one is taken, and the other left;" Mat 24.40 and the only reason faith can give is "even so Father, for it seemed good in your sight." Mat 11.26.
Over one church a cloud of blessing hangs, continually letting showers of refreshment fall. Beneath its influence, all is verdant, fresh, and lovely. The saints are joyous, with the dew of their youth abiding on them. On every hand young converts are springing up like flowerets. The music of the river of God is heard flowing through the place, and the time of the singing of birds seems always there. Every sermon bears its fruit. Every class yields its tribute. The church meetings have the joy of Heaven in them, as case after case of returning prodigals is reported. The whole is like a golden harvest field, and the song of the reapers rings out far and wide.
But yonder is another church, the very contrast to this. The heavens above it seem like brass — and no cloud as big as a man's hand can be discerned. The piety of its members seems to lack freshness and their leaf withers. Converts are almost unknown. Everything droops, especially the spirit of the pastor. How is it that in one place all is fertility — and in the other sterility?
The answer cannot always be given by pointing to any one thing possessed by the former church, and lacking in the latter.
Some time back I heard a statement made by a brother minister, that I felt compelled to take exception to. He said that "If the minister's heart was right with God, there was sure to be a revival in his church." Ah, friends, I know many whose hearts are right with God, and who are walking a life of fellowship with a risen Christ that I have admired and envied, who yet see but little blessing on their labors. I have heard them cry, and seen them weep over the coldness of their churches, and wept with them as they prayed over and over again, "O Lord, revive your work in your church."
Do not let those churches that have the blessing, despise those that lack it. The only difference is that the time to favor the first "has come, and the time to favor the others shall come." I do not speak here of those cold and highly respectable churches which never had a revival, never want one, and in all probability never will have one. But I speak of those churches where, though little blessing is seen, there is intense desire and prayer for more.
It was mercy to the greatest number, that delayed the desired blessing. God was waiting until Jerusalem was at its fullest. While the disciples in the upper room were praying, troops of people were flocking into the city. God was heaping the fuel for the fire to fall on. It was worth waiting for such a grand result.
Observe secondly, that the blessing came suddenly and in a moment.
With man's work, the process as well as the result is visible. If a temple is to be built, the plans are exhibited, the foundations dug out — the scaffolding reared, and for months the chipping of the stone-mason's chisel and the clicking of the bricklayer's trowel are heard.
But God can build His temple in a night, and like Solomon's, no sound of tool is heard. At any moment, without any previous warning, the revival may come.
If I had time I could give many a proof of this from the history of the church in all ages; but I forbear and only mention one instance, the remembrance of which must ever be precious to us as a church. Do you remember a handful that were meeting in a small sanctuary in this neighborhood? Do you remember how quickly it became the thousand, and now the thousand has become three thousand? Can we ever forget that Sunday evening over five years ago, when the blessing swept through the place which has remained with us ever since? This church then had her White Sunday and thank God, many a one since!
Note, thirdly, that the blessing spread far and wide. If it commenced with the disciples, it did not end with them. From the upper room it soon flew along the streets of Jerusalem like an electric current. The crowds gather — they surge around the building — curiosity is aroused and all cry "What does this mean?" Peter preaches. The power goes abroad. The right-hand of the Lord does valiantly. Three thousand find out what a revival means.
O, Sirs, there is no telling where the influence of a revival in a church may spread. It finds its way where nothing else will. It creeps into homes shut against the tract distributor. It glides into the darkest places of vice. It penetrates the whole neighborhood.
A revived church will be certain to draw the multitude together. Let a revival but come and the dreary waste of empty pews to be seen in many a sanctuary will be gone. This is the secret of getting at the masses. Our churches do not need cleverer or better ministers — but revived ones. Our ministers do not need richer or more respectable churches — but revived ones. Have a revived pastor and a revived people — and no building will be too large for the congregation that will gather.
A revived church is a magnetic power. The people must come to it. If, beloved, God would but give us from this evening a fresh outpouring of His Spirit, the blessing will not stay here — Bow, Limehouse, Ratcliff, all the neighborhood will come beneath the power. If our God would but let fall a spark from Heaven's altar into our midst tonight, as quick as in the dry prairie, the flames shall run along the ground until far and wide there shall glow a belt of living, purifying, blessed fire. O God, do so!
III. Thirdly and briefly I will try to answer the question of our text."What does this mean?" Why, it means that Christ is ascended. It means that the glorious prophecy has come to pass. "You have ascended on high, you have led captivity captive; you have received gifts for men; yes, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them." What does this mean? It means that Jesus of Nazareth, the despised of the people — He who died a felon's death — is Lord and Christ and sits on high, head over all things unto His church!
Do you not think, dear friends, that an ascended Christ is too overlooked by the churches of this day? "Lovely mournful Calvary," must never be separated from the glorious throne of honor; nor must He who stooped to death, be separated from Him who is highly exalted. An ascended, glorified Christ, warrants the Church to expect any measure of blessing, and any number of conversions.
"What does this mean"? It means that all instrumentality is nothing without the Holy Spirit; but the poorest instrumentality with the Spirit, is mighty enough to accomplish anything. Alas, what an amount of powerless machinery we have in the so-called "religious world." Powerless, because it has no unction. Powerless, because it is the work of man — not the working of God through the man. Powerless, because it is dry and artificial. Powerless, because it is done by men who have never "tarried until they were endued with power from on high." Instrumentality is almost worshiped — while the Holy Spirit is well-near ignored.
O, I wish that it were more realized by us all, that apart from the blessed Spirit, our acquirements and preparations are nothing, and can do nothing. God's church is hindered, not helped, by any instrumentality that lacks the Holy Spirit.
But see what the Spirit can do by the feeblest means. As a sermon, Peter's discourse had nothing about it to account for the extraordinary results that followed; but God was in it and that accounts for everything.
White Sundays will come in all our churches when the Holy Spirit is more honored, when unction takes the place of mere oratory, and witnessing for Jesus takes the place of frozen proprieties.
"What does this mean?" It means that God is pleased to work on the world through the church.
Far be it from us to call into question the good that has been accomplished by many of our "societies," but we believe that half of them could be spared with ease if a greater unction would but rest on the church. Societies composed of the church and world combined, never seem to me to be very likely to have a Pentecost. And as the Holy Spirit only dwells in the church, it is to the church that we must look to do the work of God. Worldly cooperation, though it brings wealth, will bring a more than counter-balancing weakness.
"What does this mean?" It means that these are the seasons that God's church is to seek at His hands.
I will close with an illustration. In the early part of this week I was standing on the seashore, watching with great interest the "launching" of a fishing boat. I saw in it a union of work and dependence that charmed me. The fishermen brought the craft down the beach as far as they could and then left her awhile until the tide which was flowing neared her. Meantime, two anchors had been cast out to sea, from which there were ropes to a windlass in the center of the vessel. Soon the surf (for the sea was fresh) began to surround her as she lay a dead weight upon the shore. Then the waves began to curl over and break upon her side. The men at the windlass took a turn and made the rope taut. And now every moment the tide had more power over her. She was never still. Twenty times I said, "Now she is off;" and twenty times she settled down again on the shore, and twenty times the men at the windlass put on the strain. Of course they got a drenching — but then men don't mind that when they want to get a vessel off. At last, one wave swept higher than any before; she shook — rose — glided down towards the deep — the men turning the handle of the windlass quickly as possible. A wave that she met threatened to sweep her back on the shore — but the anchors held her, and right through the surf the men wound her, and half-an hour after, she was flying away before the breeze, a very contrast to the dead weight she looked upon the beach.
Friends, that vessel is the church. The Holy Spirit is the tide. The ropes and the windlass are human agencies only to be used in dependence on the tide. The tide is coming in. The church feels its power. She moves — she rises. O God, send the billow that will float her now, and send her careering on her course, and careening with the breeze of the Spirit. Let us now conclude by a united cry to God to make this day a White Sunday to us all.