While Jesus was upon the earth, He emphasized the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing God’s plan for the salvation of the human race. Jesus Himself had been conceived of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18-20). He had been anointed by the Holy Spirit at the beginning of His public ministry for His mission in life (Matt. 3:16, 17; Luke 3:21, 22; 4:18, 19; Acts 10:38). He was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1; Luke 4:1). And He cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:28).
Moreover, He taught the absolute necessity of being “born again,” or transformed in heart and life by the agency of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5), and explained that God, His Father, was more willing to give the Holy Spirit to those who desired and asked for it than parents were willing to give good gifts to their children (Luke 11:13). Before leaving this world, He reassured His disciples of His continued presence with them through the representative presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18, 25, 26). His final parting word was His promise to them of empowerment by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8). This promise was fulfilled by a hitherto unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the waiting, praying disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), after which they went out into the city of Jerusalem to preach the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ to the crowds of Jewish pilgrims who had come from every part of the Roman Empire to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover (verses 5-13).
First Great Outpouring
This great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal power marked the beginning of the gospel dispensation to the entire world. In commissioning His disciples, Jesus charged them to take His gospel message of salvation to all nations to the ends of the earth beginning at Jerusalem (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8), a charge they exercised “with great power” “and God’s grace” (Acts 4:33). So great was the effect of the Spirit’s outpouring upon the small group of 120 believers that 3,000 converts were baptized in response to a single day’s preaching. The numbers increased exponentially day by day: from 120 to 3,000 to 5,000 (verse 4) to multitudes (verse 32; Acts 5:14), until all Jerusalem was filled with their teaching (Acts 5:28). And still the numbers kept on multiplying (Acts 6:7).
Bible scholars sometimes refer to this great manifestation of divine power as the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit had not been present and active in the world before this time. God’s Spirit had been active from the creation of the world (Gen. 1:1, 2) and throughout the Old Testament period. But in the New Testament the Holy Spirit came into the world in a more special way, and would continue to empower Christ’s church with spiritual gifts for its growth and the spreading of God’s kingdom on earth to the “end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The apostle Paul explains, in Ephesians 4:11-13, that it was Christ, working through the Spirit’s agency and gifts, who appointed apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers to fit the church for faithful service, and accomplish His work of sanctification in us. The Spirit was and still is given “as a regenerating agent” who “makes effectual what has been wrought out by the world’s Redeemer” through His death on the cross.1
Peter’s Pentecostal sermon pointed to this wonderful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecies: “Afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. . . . And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance” (Joel 2:28-32). Peter’s use of Joel’s prophecy shows that its eschatological moment had arrived. Nevertheless, “the great and glorious day of the Lord” did not end on the day of Pentecost. The “early and latter rain” imagery of Joel 2:23 explains the meaning of this phenomenal outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit at that time. It was the time of the early rain. For as we near the time of Christ’s return, Christians around the world may expect the experience to be repeated, only with far greater empowerment. As Ellen White states: “The outpouring of the Spirit in the days of the apostles was the beginning of the early, or former, rain, and glorious was the result. . . . But near the close of earth’s harvest, a special bestowal of spiritual grace is promised to prepare the church for the coming of the Son of man. This outpouring of the Spirit is likened to the falling of the latter rain.”2
Every Christian who follows the example of Christ should be preparing through prayer, the study of the Word, through witnessing in service to God and neighbor, and through fellowship with other believers, to receive and be used by the Holy Spirit’s power that God promises to give to His people. This empowerment will be for the ripening of earth’s harvest, perfecting believers for Jesus’ return. As with the early Christian believers, so now in this age the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be expected only in answer to earnest prayer and sincere heart searching. Then revival and reformation in the church will follow, and glorious will be the result.
Appeals Through the Centuries
Both the Old and New Testament record how God sent His people earnest appeals to revival and reformation, who then sank into complacency, worldliness, corruption, or apostasy. Elijah’s showdown with King Ahab and the 400 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel provides one strong example. Other calls for reform and reformation occurred under Judah’s and Israel’s writing prophets. As far down as the fifth century B.C. the Old Testament reports religious reformation taking place under Ezra and Nehemiah. In the New Testament one finds the apostle Paul urging reforms in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5; 6), as does John the revelator to the seven churches in Revelation (Rev. 2; 3).
Down through the years of the post-apostolic church period to the time of the Middle Ages (A.D. 500-1500), reforms occurred periodically within the Catholic Church. In addition there were reforms that occurred under the Waldenses in Italy, under Wycliffe in England, and Huss in Bohemia. Eventually the spark of the Reformation in Europe flamed into a blaze in the sixteenth century under Luther, followed by other Reformers such as Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and Wesley. The need for revival and reformation among various Christian groups has often been recognized. However, what was also recognized was that if revival and reformation were going to be genuine and effective, they had to take place under the ministration of the Holy Spirit.
Why? Because though revivalists and reformers may be well educated and eloquent, charismatic and possessing every natural ability, without the Holy Spirit’s power and influence no sinner would be truly converted to Christ. Jesus taught that it is the Holy Spirit’s work to bring conviction to the heart and mind about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11), and to effect the “born again” or conversion experience in a person (John 3:5-8). Believers in Christ do not and cannot convert sinners, or reform and sanctify saints; that is the Holy Spirit’s work. The believer’s privilege is to bear witness to the truth about God and Jesus Christ, and to bring glory to Him (Matt. 5:16). The Holy Spirit, through that witness to Jesus, brings about conversion to Christ, renewal of life in Christ, and progress in sanctification. It is the Holy Spirit who conforms us for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:32).
Defining Revival and Reformation
What difference is there between the two experiences of revival and reformation? The two concepts should not be confused. Revival signifies a renewal of spiritual life and a deepening of a person’s relationship with God. Reformation signifies reorganizing one’s ideas, habits, and practices of life in ways that witness to true godliness. Reformation develops out of a spiritual renewal and is a visible change in the way a person lives. As Paul explains in his letter to Titus, “the grace of God . . . that offers salvation” “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Although there are differences of understanding about the two concepts, they work hand-in-hand and complement one another. As believers in Christ we need both experiences of revival and reformation of heart and life. Both must be the result of the Holy Spirit’s work. He is more than ready to give us both experiences, if we will but seek for them with a sincere heart and fulfill the conditions God lays down for reception (Luke 11:9-13).
When It Happens
What happens when we receive the Holy Spirit? Many glorious things: He illuminates the mind (John 14:26) to reveal to us the things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). He is the official and only safe interpreter of Scripture (John 16:13), strives with sinners (Gen. 6:3), convicts of sin, guides into all truth (John 16:13), regenerates the sinful mind and heart (Ps. 119:37, 40, 88; Rom. 8:11), justifies the sinner (1 Cor. 6:11), produces sanctification (1 Peter 1:2), is the source of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:7), bears fruits of righteousness in human hearts and lives (Gal. 5:22, 23), comforts us in all our afflictions (Acts 9:31), helps us in our praying (Rom. 8:26), and is our only hope for revival and reformation of true godliness.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal power will (1) fit us to go forth to the world as witnesses of God’s salvation; (2) help us to resist Satan and sin; (3) bring Christians into the unity of the faith; (4) provide the power for the finishing of the proclamation of the gospel to all the world to hasten the soon coming of Jesus; (5) open new doors so that Christians can reach more of the unreached; (6) bring all other blessings in its train.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the days of the apostles was the former rain, and glorious was the result. But the outpouring in the time of the latter rain will be an even more glorious triumph of God’s love and power. Let us realize that “a revival of true godliness” is the “most urgent of all our needs.”3 Let us think of it, pray for it, talk of it with our fellow believers and with those with whom we come into contact. We must have the experience of both revival and reformation, and it is our privilege to have it even now. It is the only way that the gospel can go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people on this earth. Satan cannot stop it from happening any more than he can shut the windows of heaven so that “the rain” cannot come upon the earth. But he will try to prevent it from happening if he can. Will we allow him to? Indeed, we must not!
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 671.
2 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 54, 55.
3 Ellen G. White, Last Day Events, p. 189.
Alan Phillips, now retired, served 35 years teaching in schools, colleges, and universities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He lives in South Africa. This article was published February 16, 2012.