17 Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
a byword among the nations.[a]
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Through the Bible: Joel 1-3
The short book of Joel is difficult to place chronologically. It mentions no kings, no enemies, and no specific sins of God’s people. Chapter 1 is either a prophecy of a devastating plague of locusts that had not yet happened, or a description of one that had already happened and which Joel was using as an illustration of a coming invasion.
Joel’s most well known passage is 2:28-29. Even if you aren’t as familiar with the Old Testament as you are the New Testament, you may recognize the passage as the one referenced by Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). It says,
28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.Joel 2:28-31
What a passage! It begins with God pouring out his spirit on men and women, enabling men and women to prophesy in the streets (which is another blog post for another day). It ends with “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” a verse that was referenced by Paul in Romans 10:13.
But as compelling a vision as Joel 2:28-31 is, revival doesn’t begin with God pouring out his spirit on all flesh.
Revival begins when ministers stand between the vestibule and the altar and weep.
At my church, the vestibule is the area inside the front door of the church. It is where most people come inside before entering the sanctuary. Our sanctuary looks like every other sanctuary in every other church: rows of pews facing the altar, which is at the foot of the stage. So between vestibule (or porch, in the KJV) and altar is where the people sit every Sunday morning.
Joel says that before God’s sons and daughters prophesy in the streets, God’s ministers are to weep between porch and altar. They are to weep and cry out and beg God to spare His people.
Leonard Ravenhill (1907-1994) was an English evangelist whose entire ministry character was characterized by two consuming passions: prayer and revival. His influence on Western Christianity was profound. He was a mentor to Keith Green and an influence on Charles Stanley, Paul Washer, David Wilkerson, and countless others. One of his well known sermons was entitled “Weeping Between Porch and Altar” You can listen to the sermon here. It is based on Joel 2:17. Ravenhill rightly notes that the most popular text about revival is 2 Chronicles 7:14: If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray… then I will hear from heaven.” He suggests that’s an easy one for us preachers to use because, if revival doesn’t happen, the preachers can say, “Well, the people just aren’t repenting. It’s the people in the pews that aren’t humbling themselves and seeking God’s face and praying.”
But Joel forces us to deal with the fact that the reason we don’t see revival is less about the people in the pew, but the pastor in the pulpit. We pastors tend to think that our sermon is the most important thing we do. Wrong. The most important thing we can do is sit down in an empty sanctuary and weep for the hearts of the people who sit there. Weeping for our church members. begging God to spare them. Crying out to God that no one would be able to say of Christians, “Where is their God?”
Ravenhill said this in his sermon:
You cannot standardize revival. I am not thinking of a church revival; I’m thinking of a national revival. There is only one hope for America and that is that we have a Divine intervention in the nation. Forget your denomination, forget your empty seats.
Let’s see first of all how God grieves over the sin of the people, and after all, when you look in the Old Testament, God’s argument was not with the Amalekites, and Hitites and all the other “ites”. God’s problem in the Old Testament was Israel. God’s problem today is not communism, Mormonism, Moonism or any other “ism.” God’s problem is His church today. We are so worldly.Leonard Ravenhill, “Weeping Between the Porch and the Altar”
Oh, pastors, priests, and ministers: if we ever hope to be in a full sanctuary, we need to spend time in an empty one. We need to sit between porch and altar and weep for God’s people.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your sanctuary. Imagine the center aisle, the stage, the communion table in front of the pulpit. Then imagine the stage. The pulpit. The piano on one side, the organ on the other (or, if you like, the drum set and the guitar stands). Imagine the choir loft and the baptistry. Imagine everything from the back wall to the front door.
Now consider how much of your week is taken up with what will happen between altar and baptistry–everything onstage.
Now hear this, every preacher and music minister, every organist and pianist guitarist and drummer. Hear this, every praise team member and first alto: When Joel called on the priests to weep, he didn’t say to weep between the stage and the the baptistry.
God calls us to weep where the people are–between porch and altar.