Sermon preached on 1 Kings 18:20-40 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/26/2020 in Novato, CA.
Reformed theology – Christian theology – has long emphasized that we need God to save us. No man, on their own, would ever turn toward God. We need God to change our heart, to make us born again, and if he does, then we will certainly come to him in faith. This is a long-held position of our faith. Though, it has had its opponents. An ancient and infamous critic of this doctrine was someone known as Pelagius. He believed man could choose God and come to God by his own free will, without any need for God to work in his heart. Well, Pelagius and his teachings were officially declared heretical by the church in 431 AD at the third ecumenical council. Of course, this doctrine that we need God to change our hearts is what Jesus explained to the religious leader Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Jesus told him that unless one is born again from above he cannot see the kingdom of God. Jesus explained that this was a sovereign work of God’s Spirit who works when and where he wishes. Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for the fact that he was a religious leader among Israel and should have already known this. Well, how could Nicodemus know such doctrine? How could he know that it is God who changes people’s hearts and turns them to himself? Well, one way that Nicodemus could know this is by reading our passage for today in 1 Kings.
We begin our passage for today by observing Elijah’s challenge to Israel. Recall from last week that God sent Elijah back to Ahab since God was about to lift the long three-year drought. Recall that God had sent that drought on Israel as a covenant curse because they had begun to worship the false gods of Baal and Asherah. King Ahab at the inciting of his wife Jezebel had introduced this pagan worship into the ten-tribe nation of Israel. For three years, God allowed the people to suffer without rain or even dew. Their false god Baal was supposed to be the god of the storm, the god who sent rain upon the earth – that was at least the claim by Baal worshippers. In actuality, it was the LORD, the one true God, who sends rain, or in this case, withholds rain. Three years into the drought that Elijah had declared in the name of the LORD, you would hope that the people of Israel had finally come to their senses. You would hope that they would have repented of their Baal worship and had back to wholehearted worship of the LORD. But at the start of our passage we see that is not the case.
You see, Elijah had King Ahab gather the nation and all the Baal prophets to Mount Carmel for an epic faceoff between Baal and the LORD. That’s when he offers this challenge to all the people in verse 21. Notice that it says that Elijah draws near to the people. He had called for them and now he draws near to them and speaks to them in the name of the LORD. He confronts them for limping between two positions: between the LORD and Baal. This language of limping refers to someone being lame in their feet and thus unable to walk normally. Elijah’s point is that by trying to worship both the LORD and Baal they aren’t able to walk in service to either well. But Elijah goes on to clarify his bigger point. Elijah says that what the people need to do is determine who really is God. If Baal is the real God, then sure, worship him and him alone. But if the LORD God is really God, then worship him and him alone. Notice how the people respond then to Elijah as he puts this question to them. Verse 21, “And the people did not answer him a word.” They are silent in light of his probing challenge to them. So, at the start of this passage, this reflects the state of the people’s hearts. They won’t speak up to choose the LORD God over Baal. Yet, God through Elijah is confronting them here.
As a point of application, we are reminded here that God call us to be a monotheist. We are to have one and only one God. The people thought they could have a little Baal and a little of the LORD. But that’s exactly what the 1st Commandment speaks against. I like to point out to people that when the 1st Commandment says to not having any other God before the LORD, it doesn’t mean “before” in the sense of “ahead” of God. It’s doesn’t mean you can have other gods as long as you don’t make them a higher priority than God. No, the word “before” in the 1st commandment means “in the sight of” God. God doesn’t want to see any other gods in your life, regardless of the priority we assign to them. The LORD God is not just supposed to be the greatest God in our life. He’s supposed to be the only God in our life. Israel had failed majorly in this regard, and when confronted by Elijah they had nothing they could say to answer him.
So then, Elijah proposes this test. Two bull sacrifices, and the “god” who could consume it by fire, he is the real God. Realize that from the perspective of Baal worship, that should be a challenge that they should have felt pretty confident about, if they actually believed their religion. You see, everything in this challenge seems to play into the supposed advantages of Baal. First off, they are on Mount Carmel. This was just south of Tyre and Sidon, along the coast overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. That Mount had long been recognized by the Phoenician pagans as a major holy site for Baal. From there, they could look and see, as they thought, Baal send the storms from over the Mediterranean onto the land. So, Mount Carmel might have seemed like the home field advantage for Baal. To further make the point, apparently at one point the Israelites had also built an altar for the LORD there too – it would have been one of their high place worship sites where they had coopted a pagan worship site and made it a spot to worship the LORD. But we see in verse 30 that the altar that had been there for the LORD had been torn down. So, at that time, this was really only a Baal worship site. Furthermore, while Baal was credited as sending rain, what came along with that was his ability to throw down fire from the sky, i.e. thunderbolts. There is an ancient memorial stone originally from that area and now currently displayed in the Louvre museum in Paris. It’s known as the “Baal with thunderbolt” stone since it depicts Baal as the storm god with a thunderbolt. So, not only should Baal in their minds been able to have sent rain, but he should have been able to send fire down from the sky to consume this offering. Lastly, we might also mention the seeming advantage that Baal had 450 prophets in attendance and the LORD just one.
Well, with all these seeming advantages, the Baal prophets apparently accept the challenge while the people watch. Elijah lets the Baal prophets go first. They prepare their bull and all morning long cry out to Baal. By the afternoon they get more desperate and start cutting themselves too – pagan worship is ridiculous! The text even describes them as limping around their altar – same language Elijah had used of the people limping between two gods. As the day wears on, Elijah begins to taunt and mock them. The text is very clear of the outcome of their petitions to Baal – there was no answer. Like the people were silent before when Elijah challenged them, so too Baal. Baal is silent in response to the Baal prophet’s petitions. Of course, we know why he was silent. It was because Baal was a false god. He wasn’t real.
So then, it becomes Elijah’s turn. He begins by repairing the fallen altar to the LORD. Notice the symbolism used here by Elijah. He repairs the altar not with ten stones but with twelve. Verse 31 tells us that this was to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. That’s surely a rebuke of sorts in itself. The ten-tribe nation of Israel existed in its current form by a rejection of the tribe of Judah and having effectively ran out the tribe of Levi from them. Elijah’s altar to God shows that God is still dealing with all Israel as a whole. God’s covenant had been made since the beginning with all the sons of Israel. Surely God desired for the people to be united together, especially in their worship of him.
Well, after rebuilding the altar, Elijah then places another disadvantage of sorts on his side. He has 4 jugs of water poured on his altar and sacrifice, not once, not twice, but three times. That makes 12 water jugs by the way, and maybe gives a little subtle identification of Israel with the sacrifice too – atonement is being made for them. This is so much water that it fills up a trench around it. By the way, I can’t help but almost cringe with them when I hear that much water seemingly wasted when they are three and a half years into this major drought, Of course, they needn’t worry because God was about to send them a major rainstorm, but probably most of them didn’t know that yet. But clearly that much water on the sacrifice would have seemed to make it all the more difficult, from a human perspective, for this offering to catch fire on its own!
So then, we see God’s response. Unlike Baal, God is not silent! All it takes is Elijah’s one short prayer in verse 36. Not hours and hours of prayers and pleas. Like Jesus would later say in Matthew 6:7, it’s the Gentiles who think their prayers will be heard for their man words. But Elijah gives one simple prayer at the time of the evening offering, and God hears and responds. In an awesome show of power from on high, the LORD sends fire from the heavens. It not only consumes the bull, recognized in verse 38 as a burnt offering which it was, but the fire also consumes all the water.
And I love how Elijah’s prayer again references the patriarchs, this time all of them, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This again brings to mind the whole nation, not just the ten northern tribes. But it also brings to remembrance the covenant promises God made to the patriarchs for which they are beneficiaries. Burnt offerings were given under the covenant for the purposes of atonement. And so, this atonement offered to God and received on behalf of Israel is effectively a time of covenant renewal.
Notice the people’s response. Now they speak! Before they were silent like Baal. But now after God speaks through Elijah and the fire from heaven, now they speak! And I love the twice repeated words. Verse 38, “The LORD, he is God! The LORD, he is God!” Amen! Notice they fall down on their face too. They obviously have come to the right conclusion based on Elijah’s challenge to them at the start of this passage. Elijah called them to worship only one god, and that it should be the real God. Here, they come to the obvious conclusion that Baal, he is NOT God. And the LORD, he really IS God.
Let us then make sure we don’t miss the important and obvious point. Look further at Elijah’s prayer in verse 36. His prayer not only references the patriarchs, but it asks that God would confirm certain things by responding to consume the offering by fire. He asks that through that miracle would confirm that not only was the LORD the God of Israel, and not only was Elijah his true prophet, but that the LORD was the one who turned their hearts back to him. That’s at the end of verse 37.
That’s this crucial point we said at the beginning of our sermon today. Think about it. Nothing in this passage nor in the surrounding context suggests that Israel was looking to be renewed in their relationship with the LORD. They seemed like they were content to go about their religious pluralism: a little worship of the LORD, and a lot of worship of Baal. More than three years of divinely instituted drought hadn’t awakened them to repentance. They weren’t the ones to call for a test to find out who really was the Lord or not. When confronted with their sin, they were initially silent. But the passage says here an important truth. God used this miracle to turn their hearts back to him. This is like how the Apostle Paul would later say in 1 Cor 1:23 that no one says Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit. So too here; Israel exclaims that the LORD is God because the LORD had worked in their hearts. In the mystery of God’s election, God chooses a people to save and works in their hearts to draw them to himself such that even their faith is a gift from God.
I do find something very interesting about how God was working in their hearts here through this fire that consumes an offering. Of all the miracles for God to do to turn the people back to him, this is a very interesting one. It’s interesting because God did it a few times before in rather significant moments in Israel’s history and relationship with God. The first time we see it is back in Leviticus 9 at the inauguration of the Levitical priesthood when Aaron is consecrated as the priest. We see it again with David when he first acquires the land which would ultimately house the temple (1 Chronicles 21:26) and again when Solomon finally dedicates the temple (2 Chronicles 7:1). And so, in contrast, God interestingly does it again here – here on this high place. It’s very clear that God didn’t want high place worship here. But God graciously, mercifully condescends to receive their offering here on this high place. And by doing it with fire like those other times, it surely calls Israel to remember what God was saying to them in all those previous times. God used that fire before to confirm the Levitical priesthood. God used that fire before to confirm Jerusalem as the place among the twelve tribes that he was putting his name. It’s connection with David and Solomon should remind them as well of God’s promise to establish the Davidic throne.
And so, while Elijah was most immediately confronting them with the sin of Baal worship, there is also a clear underlying message implied through all this. They not only need to put off Baal worship, but God would have them to remember what they needed to in turn put on. They should look to reunite with the other tribes of Israel. They should reembrace the worship of God through the Levitical priesthood. They should reembrace worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem where God had chosen to put his name. They should submit themselves again to the throne of David. This fire so graciously given by God at Mt. Carmel pointed them to the heritage that they had forsaken. Mt. Carmel should point them to Mt. Zion.
Unfortunately, that’s not something we find Israel doing. Not here in this passage, nor later in their history as a ten-tribe nation. But they do begin to put off the Baal worship, at least initially here. What I mean is that Elijah calls them to seize the prophets of Baal and they do. Elijah then proceeds to execute them all. The law for Israel given by Moses in Deuteronomy 13:5 made it a crime punishable by death to promote false religion in Israel. That law had not been enforced under Ahab’s rule. But here Elijah, the authorized prophet of God, working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, enforces the law of the land. Before when the people were silent and Baal was silent, the Baal prophets weren’t. They spoke many words – words that fell on death ears. But now they are silenced permanently in death.
Well, if this fire from heaven pointed the people back to the earthly Mt. Zion, it should point us to the heavenly Mt. Zion. We see such fire from heaven again in the book of Acts. It comes upon the promise of the seed of David, Jesus Christ. Messiah King Jesus promised the disciples now under the new covenant that he would be sending them the gift of the Holy Spirit. God poured it out upon them in the earthly Jerusalem. It served to fit them for the heavenly Jerusalem. Those flames rested upon the disciples, signifying in part that the people of God were the new temple of the LORD – that is where his Spirit dwells on earth. But the book of Hebrews helps us to understand the full significance of that fact. The Lord’s presence in us by the Spirit reflects that we are called heavenward to the spiritual Mount Zion in the heavens. This is ours in Jesus Christ. Heb. 12:22-24 says:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.
God’s ministry to Israel through Elijah made them remember their heritage which means it also made them remember what God’s plans were for them. Those plans are culminated in Christ Jesus and a heavenly kingdom and a heavenly temple and a heavenly worship. They also include the gospel going out to the pagan nations and turning many Gentile’s hearts unto the Lord. The end result is one united people of God, made up of all the elect among the 12 tribes of Israel and even the elect from among the Gentiles. We are a united people in Jesus Christ, by his atonement offered for us and accepted by God. We are a united people then in this new covenant by the precious blood of Jesus.
For us then today, may this work of covenant and heart renewal that God was doing back then among his people, may it remind us of what he continues to do today. Today, here and now in this place, the Lord is again renewing his covenant with you his people. Today, he is at work through the power of his Word to turn your hearts afresh toward him. Let us embrace Jesus Christ as our Great High Priest and King. Let us rejoice in worshipping God through him and by his Spirit. Let us declare again today, “Jesus Christ, he is Lord! Jesus Christ, he is Lord!” To the glory of God, the father! And as we do so, may we know that it was the work of God in our hearts. Not to us, but to God be the glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.