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The Gospel according to Elijah

Elijah seems to stand alone at the serpentine synod. But a man who walks with God is never alone. He beings to pray before the King, the crowd, and the counterfeit clergy. His prayer reflects the eternal gospel. This is why we can look to Elijah: his life points us to Jesus. Elijah’s gospel is ours. This is true in three ways.

It is a gospel of repentance. Elijah’s message to all of Israel was to turn from idols, sin, and turn back to God. He sought to persuade them to action. This word of repentance is the first word of the gospel. It was the first word out of Jesus’ mouth at the start of his public ministry (Matt 4.17) and the first word from John’s. We are exhorted, ‘Repent, and believe the gospel.’

John the Baptist is not a figure that we can relegate to the Old Testament era. Jesus said, ‘the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John.’ To communicate the gospel, we need a prophetic word of repentance. We need the echo of an Elijah, of a John in our witness.

This is more than regret. A man or woman may look back and regret their sins and the consequences of their foolishness. But to be saved, a person must turn. It can be much easier for a church leader to get the congregation critiquing the faults of power structures, politicians, or big business rather than repenting of their own sin. Repentance involves realising that our deeds are evil and that they have offended a holy God. Only this produces the deep contrition that one needs to be fully born again by God’s Spirit.

When we preach, we not only confront people with the truth about who God is, but we seek to persuade them to turn to that God. Elijah appeals to the crowd’s reason, ‘If Baal is God serve him. If Yahweh is God, serve him.’

It is a gospel of atoning sacrifice. The Elijah ministry does more than issue a call to turn from sin. It’s a call to turn to Christ. The climax of John the Baptist’s ministry was in saying ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.’ Elijah himself also points us to Christ at the climax of his revival ministry on Mount Carmel. There he called down divine fire upon the mountain to consume a sacrifice that he had made for Israel’s sins. He did this so that the hearts of God’s people might be turned to Him. 

And this points us to the gospel. Jesus said in John 3, ‘when I am lifted, I will draw all men unto me.’ His sacrifice will turn people’s hearts to God. But what sort of sacrifice will this be? It will be a sacrifice like Elijah’s. Jesus says in Luke 12 ‘I am come to bring fire to the earth―and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptised with―and how constrained I am till it is accomplished!’ Using typical Hebrew parallelism, he repeats the same thing in a different way for effect. He speaks of a baptism of suffering and of bringing fire to the earth. What does he mean by this?

The fire and baptism are one in the same. He speaks of the Cross. In his sacrifice, he brings the fires of divine judgement upon himself. The fires and fury of God’s violent punishment against sin descend upon the sacrifice. Jesus is offered the cup of hell and he empties it. He drinks damnation dry.

As we repent of and battle against the immorality of our day, we must always avoid moralism. We do not preach a world of good guys and bad guys. We are all bad guys and the one good guy was a sacrifice for us all. We do not preach the potential of human goodness. Our good deeds cannot erase our guilt before heaven. Only Jesus saves us from the coming wrath. Liberal theologians that are not centred on the Cross may see the fabrics of moralism as lovely and sophisticated serviettes to place on their philosophical dining tables. But, in reality, it is only Satan’s personal menstrual rags they’re wiping with.

It is a gospel of weakness. Like Jesus, Elijah chooses what looked like weakness. He chooses to be up north in Baal territory. He chooses a high mountain, the place of the Baals. He chooses a test well suited to Baal as a lightning god. He has given Baal all the advantages. To finish it off, Elijah handicaps himself by offering up his sacrifice in complete weakness by drenching it in water. Surely the Baalites thought Elijah was mad. They were spiritually insane, but not stupid. They knew that wet stuff did not burn.

But then the fire falls like a small, tactical nuke. The weakness of the sacrifice invites the power of God. Jesus’ sacrifice also seemed like an act of weakness to the world. It was an impossible act. Yet God’s power is made perfect in weakness―both in the weakness of Elijah’s sacrifice as well as the in the cross. Elijah’s story is our gospel: God saves through what looks to be ultimate weakness and ultimate folly. 
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This post is an extract from the book Elijah Men Eat Meat: Readings to slaughter your inner Ahab and pursue Revival and Reform 

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