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Turning Religion into Revival

When revival comes, we leave a life of complacency and corruption to follow Jesus. The question is, will you follow Jesus?


Nehemiah 9: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites[a] separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. On the stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.


“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.


“And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea, and performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted arrogantly against our fathers. And you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day. And you divided the sea before them, so that they went through the midst of the sea on dry land, and you cast their pursuers into the depths, as a stone into mighty waters. By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day, and by a pillar of fire in the night to light for them the way in which they should go. You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.


“But they and our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt,’ and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.


“And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner. So they took possession of the land of Sihon king of Heshbon and the land of Og king of Bashan. You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and you subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and became fat and delighted themselves in your great goodness.


“Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering they cried out to you and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest they did evil again before you, and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies. And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey. Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.


“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.


“Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.” (ESV)


People with a Hollywood version of Christianity think that pastors like me take confession, offer absolution, and only work on Sundays. The truth is no one can offer absolution of sin, but we cannot experience God unless He awakens us from spiritual sleep by turning religion into revival.


The problem is that when we associate God with religion, we mistake a religious experience for experiencing God. We turn to religion for a pardon of sins, but what we really need is to learn how to turn religion into revival to experience God for the pardon of sins. Does that make sense?


This passage, Nehemiah 9, is the continuity of Nehemiah 8 where after 141 years revival broke out by the reading of God’s Word. Once Israel experienced God they were no longer interested in religion but God. This passage describes how holy discontent turned religion into revival.


The big idea here is this: in religion, we go through the motions, but in revival, our conscious awareness of God is restored, and God’s gracious work is revealed to release us from guilt, shame, sin, and condemnation because we have experienced God’s presence. Do you want to be released from guilt, shame, sin, and condemnation? If the answer is yes, then stop chasing religion and pray for revival.


Nehemiah 9 gives us three principles that turn religion into revival: when we confess who we are, when we profess who God is, and when we express what God has done.


Confess Who We Are


We turn religion into revival when in humility we confess who we are. Verses 1-3 say, “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.”


What we are looking at is the longest prayer, the longest confession, and the longest reading of the word in search of truth, lasting 6 hours. Notice their confession was comprised of fasting, sackcloth, and dirt on their heads that represented hunger, hurt, and humility. All of this was the visible expression of the internal revival because of God’s presence. Therefore, verse 4 closes, “and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God.”


When was the last time you personally or the church as a whole confessed and worshiped like them? We worry more about what we will eat, what we will wear, and what people will think of us than who we are before God and how it affects our eternity. The Bible teaches, without Jesus, by nature, we are children of wrath and enemies of God (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 5:10). In humility if we confess who we are, our hunger for food dies and hunger for God grows, and comfort becomes unbearable because it hurts to know our sins nailed the Son of God, Jesus, to the cross where He bled and died to save us.


I was talking to a supposedly Christian man who came in for financial help. When I said have you asked God to forgive your sins, the man without hesitation said that he does not sin. It did not surprise me because our reaction to sin often varies from ignoring to deflecting to denying to hiding to celebrating it. As a nation do you see we have normalized sin by celebrating it and condemning God’s standard of moral values? As individuals we blame others, “I am the way I am because of my circumstances and my upbringing.” We compare, “my sins are not as bad as others.” Even the word “sin” bothers us. So, we soften the language with words like “I messed up” and “I made a mistake.” Pride is the reason why we do not want to confess who we are and do everything in our power to rationalize our sinfulness.


The application is this: Confess your sins and do not let pride get in the way of revival in your life. While humility draws us to confession, pride pushes us away.


Profess Who God Is


We turn religion into revival when in humility we profess who God is. While verse 4 was a call to worship, verses 5-15 have the content of the worship as Israel professed and praised who God is. Their declaration of “who God is” covered four areas that deal with His creation:


First, God is sovereign. Verse 5 says, “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.” The point is that God is sovereign because He is the Creator, so He alone is worthy to be Worshiped.


Second, God is righteous. Verses 7-8 reflect on God’s promise to Abraham: “And you [God] have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (8). The Hebrew Word saddiq means “just” and “to be in the right.” God is always just and in the right in all of His judgments.


Third, God is faithful. Verses 9-12 reflect on God’s faithfulness to Israel and his descendants. Verse 10 says God delivered their ancestors to make a name for Himself, and verse 11 says, God divided the sea to deliver them and drown their enemies.


Fourth, God is a provider. Verses 13-15 describe how God provided them with His law to meet their spiritual needs and food to meet their physical needs. Verse 15 says, “You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.” This recounting of historical stories in the public profession about who God is through prayer is a great way to tell others who God is.


In our house, I do that all the time. As a result, my children know God is more precious than anything. The other day Asher began to ask all of us one by one if we would rather take a million dollars or God. He asked his mom, she said God. He asked me, and I said, “God.” He asked his brother who also said God. Then he turned to my two-year-old girl Zara, who without hesitation, also said God. Her twin sister Shiloh said she’d take the million, but we’ll work on her. God initiated everything from creation and as verse 10 says, God did all that for His namesake.


The application for us is that when you read God’s Word, do not search for your truth but rather search for God’s truth. Only when we come face to face with the reality of who we are can we see who God is and acknowledge what He has done is just and righteous.


Express What God Has Done


We turn religion into revival when in humility we express what God has done. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel constantly rebels against God, yet God constantly forgives them for His name’s sake. Here we see what God has done for Israel ever since He took them out of slavery to make His name is further reinforced by God’s response. In verses 16-38, we have seven areas where they repented because of what God had done:

  1. They repented of their generational sin of pride in verses 16-17 because of what God has done. Verse 17 closes with, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”

  2. They repented of their generational sin of idolatry in verses 18-25. Verse 18 says, “They had made for themselves a golden calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt.’” Notice what God did in verses 19-25: “Yet, you in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness.” Church, we don’t need to worship idols to be idolaters; whatever takes priority and consumes most of our time is our idol.

  3. They repented of their generational sin of disobedience and rebellion against God in verses 26–27, but notice what God did. Verse 27 says, “Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer. And in the time of their suffering, they cried out to you, and you heard them from heaven, and according to your great mercies you gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.” Church, God does that to us too despite our rebellion. When we repent and cry, God hears our prayers in the name of Jesus and delivers us.

  4. They repented of their generational habitual sin of being repeated offenders. Verse 28a says, “But after they had rest they did evil again before you.” Notice what God did again in verse 28b: “And you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they had dominion over them. Yet when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many times you delivered them according to your mercies.” The theme of God’s mercy is repeated over and over again because they repented.

  5. They repented of their generational sin of taking God for granted. Verses 29b–30a say, “They acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments but sinned against your rules.” What did God do? He offered grace over grace. Grace is something we do not deserve but we are given anyways to hold back what we do to deserve God’s just punishment. Verse 30a says, “Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets.”

  6. They repented of their generational sin of lack of confession and repentance in verses 30b–31: “Yet they would not give ear.” So, what did God do? Verses 30c-31 say, “Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” So, church let us never resist repentance or take God’s grace for granted.

  7. They repented of their own sins and the sins of their officials and faith leaders in verses 32-35. Verse 33 is the key to their repentance, no more excuses: “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” The chapter closes with a plea and a reminder that they are back where they started. They are back in slavery, the very place God delivered them from to make His name. So, we read in verse 36, “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins.” In our text, the word sin is translated from the Hebrew word khata, which means “missing a mark” or “to fail.”


My wife Sarah and I were recently invited to a supercharge go-cart race. She came in fifth, and I came in 21st, but we both lost. Whether we miss hitting the target by a little or a lot, it is still missing the mark. Whether we sin a little or a lot, it is still sin against God, and the Bible teaches the wages of sin is eternal death which is separation from God.


Verse 38 says, “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.” They documented this repentance. Why? Because they did not want to repeat the sins of their forefathers. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning toward God. So, they made a covenant to never turn away from God.


So, the application is this: Confess and repent of your sins. Confession is good, but repentance is what really matters. Confession feels good, but repentance makes us good before God. This whole chapter is a picture of God’s faithfulness and man’s unfaithfulness. Yet when we repent God forgives us repeatedly. However, if we do not confess and repent, God’s judgment stands against us.


A colleague of mine from Liberty University shared a story about a woman who met with him and his wife. She became convinced that she could never be forgiven. She went through a long list of sins and every time she mentioned a sin that seemed worse, she said that surely God cannot forgive me for this. Every time my colleague reassured her Jesus has paid in full for every sin no matter the nature of the sin or whether you are a repeat offender or not. There is no sin God cannot forgive and there is no place to hide if we don’t confess and repent. So, confess who you are; profess who God is; and express what God has done for you.


Here is an action step: Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Every time Israel rebelled, their sins drew God’s judgment, but every time Israel confessed, their repentance drew God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s blessings.


As we close, my appeal to you is do not chase religion. It will do nothing for your soul and enslaves you to work. But if you seek revival, it will awaken your sleeping soul to enjoy the presence of Jesus.


So, turn to Jesus in confession and repentance. Turn to Jesus and leave the life of religion and sin behind to experience salvation in the everlasting arms of our savior Jesus. Church, our religiosity, our knowledge of the Bible, and our good deeds may impress us and others but not God. The only thing that impresses God is when we turn to Jesus in confession and repentance. Then we hunger for Jesus more, thirst for His Word more, and fall in love with Jesus all over again. That is revival. When revival comes, we leave a life of complacency and corruption to follow Jesus. The question is, will you follow Jesus?


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