“Elijah, Jesus, John & You”
Elijah was a mighty prophet of the LORD who arose during a time of crisis in the northern kingdom. He courageously opposed the wicked leadership of Ahab and Jezebel and played a vital role in a significant victory over Baal-worship at Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs. 17-18). He was a man of great faith but like all biblical heroes of faith (bar one) he was also flawed.
After facing some unexpected opposition from the queen, Elijah retreated from conflict and nearly cast aside his faith, looking to lay down his prophetic mantle prematurely (1 Kgs. 19:1-4). At Mt. Horeb, God gently reminded him he was only one servant among many (1 Kgs. 19:5-14). He continued to serve God (1 Kgs. 21; 2 Kgs. 1) but he displayed moments of definite reluctance (perhaps even disobedience?) (1 Kgs. 19:15-21; 2 Kgs. 2:1-10). Things were smooth when they happened the way he expected but when the going got rough he did not handle the disappointment well, let alone smooth the way ahead for others!
Elijah appeared “in person” in the NT, standing on the mount of transfiguration along with Moses and Jesus (Mt. 17:1-13). The significance of this meeting is much debated but the main point was to show that Jesus is far greater than both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, Elijah explicitly prefigured Jesus. Like Jesus, he was a mighty prophet who embraced the Gentiles (Lk. 4:24-26). But there are implicit connections to Jesus as well. Angels ministered to them in the wilderness (1 Kgs. 19:5-8; Mt. 4:1-11); they opposed Baal(-Zebub) and dealt with the possessed (1 Kgs. 18:20-40;2 Kgs. 1:2-17; Mt. 12:22-28); they worked miracles of provision and healing (1 Kgs. 17:7-24; Mt. 14:13-21; 15:29-39); in the end, they both ascended into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:11; Acts 1:2). The portrait of Jesus in the NT is building on and perfecting the portrait of the great prophet Elijah in the OT.
However, for all the connections to Jesus in the gospels, Elijah is more closely associated with John the Baptist. Elijah’s preparatory role to pave the way to God’s victory over the powers of darkness (1 Kgs. 19:15-18; Mal. 4:1-6) is likened to John’s role as the forerunner to the LORD. John appears on the scene before Jesus dressed like Elijah (2 Kgs. 1:8; Mt. 3:4) warning of the coming kingdom of God. It was John, not Jesus (Mt. 16:13-16; 27:45-49), who was identified as the Elijah to come (Lk. 1:11-17; Mt. 11:1-9; 17:11-13). This led some to think that John the Baptist was literally the Elijah from the OT, which he flatly denied (Jn. 1:19-34). This confusion is understandable considering the circumstances of Elijah’s fate in 2 Kgs. 2:1-18. John was not Elijah in any literal sense but he was Elijah in the figurative sense; he performed Elijah’s task without actually being Elijah.
Elijah not only functions as a type of Jesus and John but also of us. He was “a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). He was one of the people of God. And we, as people of God ourselves, can learn many lessons from studying his story.
We learn how God works with the “remnants” of His people (Rom. 11:1ff). Elijah went up against 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and he prevailed by faith in the power of the LORD. But he had sunken into a depressed state at the cave at Mt. Horeb believing he was all that was left of the faithful. There are times we may feel we are all that are left of the LORD’s army. But there will always be a faithful few scattered throughout the world engaged in the same conflict against the powers of darkness (1 Pet. 5:9-10). God’s people have always been in the minority. Think of Noah, Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, the apostles and early Christians. Most of all, think of Jesus, who was truly alone on the cross but who won the victory for all who put their faith in Him!
We also learn about what it means to endure hardship “by faith.” The Hebrew writer references Elijah in a list of those who endured life’s difficulties by faith (Heb. 11:32-40). The Lord said that persecuted peacemakers are “blessed” because they are in the company of faithful prophets like Elijah (Mt. 5:9-12). We ought to “rejoice and be glad” when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake” “for [our] reward is great in heaven.” When we get backlash from the world for living out our convictions we are proving our spiritual DNA and are counted with the faithful.
We learn about the power of prayer. Paul says we are to “pray at all times” (Eph. 6:18). James says we are to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, and when we’re sick (Jas. 5:13-14). James points out Elijah as an example of the power of faithful prayer. He was a man just like us, with the same spiritual resources. “He prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” We should recognize that the power of prayer is available to all who are sincerely following the Lord (“righteous”) and not just to a special few. (cf. Jas. 5:16b-18)
One of the greatest lessons we learn from Elijah is to have a sense of perspective on one’s life of service to God. No one should think he is greater than anyone else in the kingdom (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; Phil. 1:12-18). We are all only part of God’s plan and not the plan itself. Elijah needed some convincing of this at Mt. Horeb but John the Baptist humbly grasped this truth right away (Mt. 3:11-15; 11:11; Jn. 3:27-30). We must understand, while we all have an important place in the kingdom, that place is never ahead or above anyone else (Mt. 20:20-27).
Elijah is a powerful teacher for us both in his success and in his failure. God can work with imperfect people like us so long as we are humble and faithful to Him.