“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”—Isaiah 40:3
The prophets of Israel were revivalists, men who called God’s people to repentance. Isaiah, of course, was one of these, and his appeal for revival is capsulized in chapter 40 of his book, and really in the first five verses. The principle he presented to people who were separated from their God by their sins (note Isaiah 59:1–2) was simply this: if we will prepare Him a highway, God will come back to us. See this in verses three through five:
Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
Revival is the work of God by which He brings His people back to where they ought to be. It is the Lord restoring us to spiritual health, to the condition where He can bless us again. In the New Testament, the Apostle James describes it as God lifting us up (James 4:10). When He lifts Christians up from carnality to spirituality, from worldliness to loving Christ, and from a life of self-will to a life of dedication to God, these wonderful changes constitute revival. And God will do this for us when we prepare the way. He is not hard to get along with. The prophet Zechariah declared, “Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you” (Zechariah 1:3).
The New Testament promises, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8). When we seek Him for revival, He will always respond. This puts revival within our reach. The prophet Isaiah said that if we will prepare the way, God will come.
This is also what another great revivalist said. He was John the Baptist, and the New Testament Scriptures associate him with Isaiah 40 (Matthew 3:1–3, Mark 1:1–4, Luke 3:1–6, John 1:19–23). He too was a voice crying in the wilderness, calling for his people to make a straight highway for God.
Essentially, a revival is the same in all ages. Old Testament revivals produced different results than New Testament revivals do, based on the covenants; but essentially revival is always the same thing. The Old Covenant promised certain blessings for the nation of Israel when they were obedient and faithful to the Lord, and the New Covenant promises other blessings for believers in Christ in this age when they abide in Christ.
We find these New Covenant promises in the discourse of our Lord recorded in John 13 through 17, and given to His apostles the night before He died. When Israel fell into disobedience and apostasy, revival brought them back to where the blessings would come (read Deuteronomy 30:1–10). When believers fall below the standard of “Abide in Me,” they wither until God lifts them up (see John 15). However, regardless of what covenant the people of God were living under, or in what era they lived, they could always be revived, no matter how far away from God they had gone. The offer of Isaiah 40 still stands. If we will build Him a highway, God will come.
Now a highway must be built in four phases, according to this chapter: the valleys (low places) must be “exalted” (brought up); every hill (high spot) must be “made low”; the crooked places must be “made straight”; and “the rough places plain.” These four phases of preparing for the return of God are found throughout the book of Isaiah, and they made up the substance of the preaching of John’s call to repentance. Read about that call in Luke three, and follow it all the way through verse seventeen. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (verses 5 and 6).
When John the Baptist preached for revival, the result of the people preparing the highway was that God came to them in the person of Jesus Christ. Many churches languish in death and spiritual poverty, lacking the presence and power of God in their meetings, but they could remedy this problem by seeking the Lord, and by preparing a highway for Him to come. He has promised to come if and when we prepare the way in these four phases:
1. Fill up the Low Places
This is where the prophets told us to start. We are called upon to deal with our sins. Jonathan Goforth stated in his remarkable book, By My Spirit, that “all hindrance in the Church is due to sin…the appalling fact is that every sin which is found outside the Church is also found, although perhaps to a lesser degree, within the Church…All sin in the believer of whatever kind, mars the redemptive work of Christ.”
It was the confession of sin in the lives of believers that brought on the great Manchurian revival of 1908, in which Mr. Goforth played an important role. The sins that Christians have not confessed and forsaken are the reason the book of Acts is not being reenacted in more churches today. We must raise the level of our living if believers would expect a visitation from God in their church.
When the people who heard John the Baptist preach asked him, “What shall we do then?” he answered, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:10–12).
God knows what is going on in our lives and in our churches. Christians who live double lives and cover up their sinful activities are not hiding anything from Him. For God to come, we must deal honestly with our sins, and get clean.
Notice in Luke 3 that the sins John told the people to give up were not the kind that are generally denounced in our pulpits today. They were Sermon-on-the-Mount sins, the sins of selfishness, lack of mercy and failure to love. It is not only the scandalous sort of sins that will need to be forsaken for revival to come; we must also deal with attitudes and actions that contradict Christlikeness. Start by filling up the low places.
2. Bring Down the High Places
We are also told to bring down the mountains. When a highway is built in a mountainous area the hills and mountains are blasted away with dynamite so that the highway can pass through. Obviously the prophets are telling us that in order to prepare for God to come, we must deal with our pride. Read his inspired preaching about this in Isaiah’s book: “The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low: and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day” (2:17; see also 5:15 and 57:15).
The apostle James laid down a vital divine principle in one of the most critical revival passages in the New Testament: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble”(James 4:6, but read through verse 10).
When “the multitude” came to John asking him to baptize them, he insisted that they humble themselves and repent of their sins (Luke 3:7–9). God is offended by human pride, and will not come to us until we humble ourselves.
3. Straighten out the Crooked Places
There are many ways to cheat nowadays. When “publicans” came and asked John, “Master, what shall we do?” he told them, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you” (Luke 3:13). Publicans were tax-collectors who got rich by cheating. They regularly insisted on people paying more than the Romans actually required them to pay, and the publicans kept the difference.
Even now, revival waits for us to straighten out the crooked places in our lives. Have you cheated? Have you taken more than you should or kept something you shouldn’t? Have you told a lie?
God’s arrival at your church (and in your life) waits for the time when you finally straighten out what is crooked. It may cost you money, or your reputation, or even your freedom, but straightening out what is crooked will give you a clear conscience, and it is essential in preparing for God to come.
4. Smooth out the Rough Places
There are some hindrances to God’s blessing that are not very easily classified as sins. When “the soldiers” came to John the Baptist, asking, “And what shall we do?” he told them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). He was not telling them to quit the army. The Bible is not a pacifist book! The Greek word translated “do violence” is not talking about waging war or killing people. It is a word that means “to intimidate.”
The Roman soldiers served as the police force in Roman-dominated Palestine. John was telling them to give up intimidation, false accusation, and discontent in the performance of their duties. Often the blessing of God is not hindered so much by sin, or cheating, or pride, as it is by imperfections in the lives of church-members or the pastor.
Christians who are crude, or sloppy, or rude, or nervous, or sullen, or jumpy, or sarcastic, or defeated by phobias or neuroses do not adequately represent Jesus Christ. And Jesus came to remedy our flaws as well as take away our sins.
Remind yourself what the New Testament scriptures say about perfection by reading Matthew 5:44–48, Second Corinthians 13:9, Second Timothy 3:17, Hebrews 13:20–21, and James 3:2. Now Christian perfection in the Bible is not sinless perfection in this life, but it does imply completeness. Jesus came to make us whole. And we must come to Him with our imperfections, our rough places, and trust Him to stamp His image in their place.
The Word of the Lord promises that if we prepare the way, God will come in the mighty power of His manifest presence. A congregation can gather for the purpose of preparing the highway and can expect God to come. A revival campaign can be organized with this lofty goal in mind. The Lord really will come in a way discernable by His children when they fill up the low places, bring down the high places, straighten out the crooked places, and smooth out the rough places. And this coming brings revival to the individual believer or to the church that has prepared the way.