This morning we’re going to start a 4-week series on one of the most dramatic figures in the Old Testament—Elijah. His story is found in 1Kings17-2Kings2. Elijah explodes on the stage with a making a bold announcement to Israel’s king Ahab (read 17:1). In order to understand the significance of this announcement, we need to understand its historical setting.
The year is about 870 BC. Israel has been split into two kingdoms for over sixty years: the southern kingdom, Judah, and the northern kingdom, Israel (MAP: Tishbe; Samaria; Kerith, Zarapheth & Mount Carmel).
Ahab is the idolatrous king of Israel. This is not a big deal in a democracy, but under God’s Old Testament arrangement with Israel, its kings were obligated to lead and protect the worship of God. In fact, Ahab has led the Israelites away from God in an unparalleled way (16:29-33). He not only permitted the worship of false gods; he also married the Sidonian princess Jezebel and they established the worship of Baal as Israel’s official religion, also executing God’s prophets (18:4). Baalism was an extremely depraved form of idolatry (MORE NEXT WEEK).
“Elijah” literally means “YHWH is God.” Elijah is a prophet, an official spokesman for God to remind his people (including kings) of the agreement they entered into with him, and to call them back to him. He stormed into Ahab's presence in Samaria to announce that because Ahab had broken this agreement, God was bringing a drought on Israel as a disciplinary consequence. This was part of the original agreement (Deut.11:16,17)—Elijah was simply announcing it beforehand so that Ahab and the people (hopefully) turn back to God when it happened.
Thus begins a conflict (tension is a key element in any good story) between Ahab and Elijah (which personifies the deeper conflict between God and Baal), and which will reach its dramatic, public climax on Mt. Carmel three years later when Elijah takes on Ahab and several hundred prophets of Baal (NEXT WEEK). In the rest of chapter 17, God hides Elijah from Ahab and prepares him for this “show-down.”
As we read through this chapter, you will notice lots of details that you probably can’t relate to. This is what we would expect, since God works with individuals in ways that are uniquely suited to who they are, their place in history, and their roles in his plan. But there is a pattern in the way God works with Elijah—and God follows this same pattern with everyone. This pattern consists of four elements...
God’s pattern with Elijah
LESSON #1: The first thing Elijah receives is a COMMAND from God (read 17:2,3). Kerith means “to whittle” or “to file down”—which may be more than coincidental (God is shaping him). Kerith was in a desolate place, and God evidently ordered him to go there without any provisions and for an indefinite period of time. With the COMMAND, God also gives Elijah a PROMISE (read 17:4). He is aware of Elijah's physical needs, and he will provide for them through both ordinary (brook water) and extraordinary means (special delivery bread). In 17:5, we see Elijah's response (read). It is a response of FAITH—he trusted God's promise by obeying his command. What if Elijah had replied, “I believe you will provide for me”—but then moved into a condo in Jerusalem right next to a Giant Eagle? We know that Elijah trusted God’s promise because he obeyed his command. In 17:6, we see the result (read). God supplied his physical needs, just as he promised. Elijah experienced the FULFILLMENT of God's promise—and undoubtedly his faith in God’s power and faithfulness also grew. Eventually (and ironically), the drought that God had brought on the land through Elijah’s word dries up the brook, so God moves him to another site for a second lesson.
LESSON #2: God issues Elijah another COMMAND (read 17:8,9a). “Zarephath” means a “crucible” or “smelting place,”—again, probably more than coincidental because God is shaping Elijah through this event. Going to Zarephath required Elijah to travel right through Israel (where Ahab was hunting for him), and into Sidon (right in the heart of Baal country). Once again, along with the command, God gives Elijah a PROMISE (read 17:9b). He will provide for him through a widow there. (“Commanded” [tsavah] can mean “ordained,” which makes more sense in the following context.) 17:10a narrates Elijah’s response of FAITH (read). He trusts God’s promise to provide for him by obeying his command to go to Zarephath (read 17:10-12). What follows is fascinating and instructive (read 17:13-16). Elijah teaches the widow (who is probably a Baal-worshiper), how to relate to God through the same process (identify the same four elements in 17:13-16). Thus, in addition to experiencing the FULFILLMENT of God’s promise, he also influences the woman toward faith in God (refer to 17:17-24).
So through these two events, Elijah learns that God will provide for him and protect him. Elijah also learns that God is superior to Baal.1 Finally, he learns that God will work through him to influence others toward him. These are exactly the things Elijah will need when God sends him to square off against Ahab and the whole Baal-worship system on Mt. Carmel (see same pattern in 18:1,2). Elijah had no knowledge at this point that God would call on him to do this—but God knew, and he was carefully preparing him for it.
God’s pattern with us
What does all this have to do with us? Lots! As I said earlier, while the details may differ, God works with all of us in essentially the same way he worked with Elijah.
First, God has the same basic purpose for your life as he did for Elijah. He wants you to know him personally as the only true God and experience his faithfulness, and he wants to uniquely demonstrate the reality of his existence through you to others who don’t know him (cf. Matt.5:16; 1Pet.2:9).
Second, God leads you into his purpose through the same pattern that we saw in this passage. If you want to recognize how God is working in your life, you need to look through the “lens” of this pattern. It is never mechanical because God is a Person and relates to you as a unique person; but this personal relationship takes place within this framework that we can recognize and cooperate with.
He is going to reveal his COMMANDS and PROMISES to you through his Word, the Bible. As you give attention to God’s Word, his Spirit will draw your attention to the specific COMMAND and PROMISE (in either order) that relate to your life right now.
Then he will challenge you to put your FAITH in him, to trust his PROMISE by obeying his COMMAND. This step is usually scary, because it’s new, often contrary to your thoughts and feelings, and involves giving away control.
If you choose to trust God in this way, then you will experience the FULFILLMENT of his promise in your life.
Let’s see how this works with starting a relationship with Christ. Many of you can remember how you met Christ through this pattern. Some of you are considering this right now. Take a look at this passage (read Rev.3:20).
What is the PROMISE? That Jesus can somehow come into your heart so that you can know him personally (“share a meal”). This promise implies that Jesus is presently on the outside of your heart—but he desires to come in so you can know him.
What is the COMMAND? It is implied in “Open the door.” Decide that you want to know him and ask him to come into your heart so you can do this.
So it’s your move—will you trust Jesus’ PROMISE (that he will come in and that knowing him will be good) by obeying his COMMAND? Will you take the step of faith to ask Jesus to come into your heart? This is always at least a little bit scary: “What will he think about/do with the crap in my “home?” So you have to weigh that risk with his assurance that it’s worth it (and the testimony of others who have taken this step). I’ll add my own testimony, for what it’s worth—this has been the best decision I’ve ever made. Why not take this step today, so you can experience how good it is to know Christ?
Now let’s consider your spiritual development after you receive Christ. You only need to receive Christ once, but spiritual development involves following his personal guidance through this same pattern in other areas...
This is one reason why learning the Bible is so important (through personal reading, teachings, classes, discussions, etc.). In the Bible we find God’s PROMISES and COMMANDS for every major area of life. Sometimes they are in the same passage; often they are not. But as you learn them, you are learning the “vocabulary” through which God’s Spirit can speak to you and guide you into spiritual development. So keep an eye out for PROMISES and COMMANDS!
As you learn God’s Word, he will orchestrate situations that give you the opportunity to exercise FAITH. He does this by “connecting the dots” between your situation and the PROMISE and COMMAND, and challenging you to take a “scary step of faith.” When you do this, you experience God’s faithfulness to his PROMISE—your confidence in God grows, you become more prepared for (and sometimes more aware of) God’s purpose for your life, and you often influence others to put their trust in God. The best way I can describe this is to cite some examples from my own life.
Not long after I received Christ, I heard a teaching on Heb.10:19-22 (read). The PROMISE is that Christ’s death forgives all of my sins and makes me acceptable in God’s presence. The COMMAND is to go into God’s presence on that basis, not on the basis of how good or bad I’ve been lately. Coming from a drug background, I knew God wanted me to quit getting high. But sometimes I would fall to temptation—and then I felt like I had to avoid God until I put some time between me and my fall. One night I got smashed, and when I awoke the next morning with a guilty conscience, this passage came into my mind. I realized that God was asking me come into his presence right away rather than hide until I felt less guilty. Even though my feelings told me I was unwelcome, I chose to talk to God. I simply thanked him for forgiving me and told him I wanted to resume following him. I discovered that when I did this, I experienced God’s forgiveness and restored closeness with him. How revolutionary this was for my spiritual development! This was a crucial element of getting free from drugs, and it became a lesson I have applied over and over again when my conscience is guilty.
A little later on, I discovered two different passages that God tied together for me in a life-changing way. One was a COMMAND in Jn. 13, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and told them to serve one another. The other was a PROMISE in Phil.4:19, where Paul promises that God will meet all of our needs through Christ. Shortly thereafter, I was feeling a lot of self-pity over unrequited love. As I was complaining inwardly about this, God reminded me forcefully of Phil. 4:19. I sensed that he was saying: “Either tell me that you trust that I will meet this need, or be honest and call me a liar!” I wrestled with this, and then told God that I trusted that he would take care me in this area. Later that evening, as I was sinking back into self-pity, I sensed God saying to me: “If you believe I will take care of you, go wash someone’s feet.” I was so sad that I felt utterly unable to help anyone else—but I went to the Bible study downstairs and did my best afterward to encourage a hurting brother. That night, as I lay in bed, I realized that God had restored his peace and hope and even some joy. I learned a lesson that night that changed the course of my life. How liberating and life-changing it was to learn that my happiness didn’t depend on others loving me the way I wanted to be loved, but that I could be happy in any situation by trusting that God would meet my needs and serving someone else!
I could go on and on with many other examples (e.g., sharing Christ; forgiving others; being generous; teaching the Bible; sharing my struggles; etc.)—but I think you get the point. This is the main way God developed me spiritually—and it is the main way he wants to develop you. Are you regularly getting into God’s Word? What PROMISE and/or COMMAND has struck you lately? What scary step of FAITH is he asking you to take? What have you experienced by taking that step? This is the heart of a healthy relationship with God that gradually transforms your life and attracts others to Christ!
1 Ugaritic texts identify Baal as the god who controls rain (yet 17:1,7), grain and oil (yet 17:6,14-16) and resurrection (yet 17:21,22). See Bruce K. Waltke, Understanding the Old Testament: A Syllabus (Grand Rapids: Institute of Theological Studies, 1976), pp. 37-39.
Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt