The Days of ElijahPublished on: 18.10.2021
By: Jurgen Buhler
Elijah will come!
For many – both Jews and Christians – Elijah is the most prominent prophet that ever ministered to Israel. Elijah is the most mentioned prophet in the New Testament. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, he had a visitation with Moses and Elijah talking with him about “his departure” (Luke 9:31 – NASB). One of the great expectations in Judaism until this day is that Elijah would come as a forerunner of the Messiah. It is God Himself who announces through the Prophet Malachi: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5-6). At every Passover Seder, therefore, a chair is kept open for Elijah. Thus, it was no surprise that both John the Baptist and Jesus were considered by many to be the Elijah who was to come (Luke 9:19; John 1:21).
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple and announced the birth of his son (John the Baptist), he informed the stunned priest that his son would go before the Messiah “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). And Jesus himself affirmed this ancient tradition of the coming of Elijah. When returning from the Mount of Transfiguration, his disciples asked for his opinion on this ancient Elijah tradition. Jesus responded clearly:
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:11–13)
Jesus seems to speak about two comings of Elijah, one which lies in the future “to restore all things”, and another one in their immediate past concerning John the Baptist.
Finally, the book of Revelation speaks about two witnesses that will appear in the last days with a special end-time ministry. Their ministry as described in Revelation 11:1-14 bears the hallmarks of Elijah and Moses. They are referred to as the two lampstands and two olive trees (v. 4), an imagery that is symbolising the Church (Revelation 1:20) and in Romans 11:17ff as symbolising the one new man, consisting of an olive tree of noble and wild branches. But they can represent as well the ministry of unique individuals who will minister in Jerusalem in the power of Elijah.
But what all the above passages indicate is there will be a ministry that will manifest itself in the last days before the return of Jesus which will prepare the people for the coming of Messiah. And this ministry is needed today as much as it was needed in the times of the kings of Israel.
The Days of Elijah
When Elijah started his ministry in 1 Kings 17:1, Israel had reached a pinnacle of ungodliness. It was in many ways the worst of times, not economically or politically but spiritually, regarding Israel’s relation to their God.
In the years before Elijah arrived on the scene, the second great dynasty of the northern Kingdom of Israel had just been established. The preceding dynasty of Jeroboam was brought to an end after four generations because “they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 15:34; 16:11ff). After a series of short-lived kingdoms, Omri as chief of staff rose to power and established again a stable kingdom for Israel. The Bible testifies of Omri that “he did more evil than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:25).
When Omri died the kingdom was passed on to his son Ahab, who set a new standard of wickedness, “doing more evil in the sight of the Lord than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). Not only did he exceed the rebellion of his father, but he engaged in a fatal relationship. He married into a leading political and economic power-house of the region, the house of Etbaal, or Ithobal as he is known in history books. This Phoenician clan ruled over the city state of Tyre and controlled much of the Mediterranean trade. One of the most famous trading posts they established was the ancient city of Carthage. Ithobal also united in his person not only the office of king but he also was the chief priest of Baal and Astarte in his kingdom.
Ahab might have felt it would benefit his kingdom financially and politically to marry Jezebel, the extravagant daughter of Ithobal. But what looked like a great political move opened the doors of hell in Israel. The daughter of the king-priest and shipping tycoon not only brought a political cloud to Israel but also a cloud of wickedness and ungodliness that Ahab could not control. Jezebel appointed 400 priests of the pagan gods Baal and Astarte in Israel, established shrines for these demonic gods, and persecuted the prophets of the God of Israel. It was the darkest hour for Israel.
The ancient ways of the God of Israel still existed, but they now had powerful competitors. Old biblical traditions were scoffed at and ancient borderlines were overstepped. One of the profiteers of this ungodly rule of Ahab was Hiel of Bethel. Dismissing it as foolish talk, he defied the ancient warning of Joshua not to rebuild the city of Jericho: “Cursed be the man before the Lord who rises up and builds this city Jericho; he shall lay its foundation with his firstborn, and with his youngest he shall set up its gates.” (Joshua 6:26) So Hiel of Bethel was a double fool, as he rebuilt the city at the cost of his oldest and youngest sons (1 Kings 16:34).
The God who judges
According to rabbinical tradition, it was at the funeral of Hiel’s youngest son when Elijah appeared. He approached the king who had attended the funeral and challenged him: “Do you see how God honours the words of his servant Joshua? How much more will He honour the words of His servant Moses who declared: “If you will not obey my words … your heavens shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron…” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 23ff). And here the biblical account continues:
“And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.” (1 Kings 17:1)
Here, suddenly out of nowhere, the prophet starts his mission declaring the judgement of God upon Israel. The drought that followed caused a season of unimaginable hardship on Israel. For three-and-a-half years, the sky would be cloudless and rain was withheld. From here, Elijah fled the wrath of Ahab – first to the river Cherith and then to a city called Zarephath, close to Tyre – and God provided for him.
This contains lessons for us today. First, we need to understand this initial start of Elijah’s ministry in declaring judgement was not just a typical trademark of a harsh Old Testament God, yet the book of Revelation also tells us that the end-time ministry of the mysterious Two Witnesses will portray exactly this authority to withhold rain from mankind (Revelation 11:6). It should remind us that the God whom we serve is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). He does not change but is the same yesterday, today and forever! Jesus himself declared that everybody who would not repent is doomed for God’s judgement (Luke 13:2-5). The cities of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida were warned by Jesus of divine judgement because they refused to repent (Matthew 11:20ff).
When Peter preached his very first sermon to a gentile gathering in Cornelius’ house, he made a remarkable statement. Speaking about Jesus, Peter said:
“And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:42ff)
Peter states that Jesus explicitly instructed his disciples that he, Jesus, is both Judge and Saviour. For our secular world today, the concept that Jesus came to save us is met with derision. “Save us?” they ask, “From what?” Today’s increasingly prosperous societies, with full medical care and multiple retirement funds, do not think they need to be saved and feel they are better off without the limitations of old-fashioned religion.
Unfortunately, many believers also have forgotten that Jesus came not only to give us a more joyful and meaningful life, but to save us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). We have forgotten that without Jesus, a man is not just lacking the comfort and peace found in Him but that “the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). They are doomed to eternal damnation.
This final judgement of God already cast a shadow in the days of Elijah. Three-and-a-half years of a God-sent drought spoiled the plans of economic growth for the people of Israel. God judged His own chosen nation.
All too often, I have heard over this past year that God definitely did not cause the coronavirus to come. God would not allow this, I have heard. While I have no divine revelation on who or what caused the COVID-19 outbreak, we do know for sure that God caused the drought in Elijah’s time. It is the prophet Hosea who calls upon Israel: “Come let us return to the Lord; He has torn us that He may heal us; He has struck us that He might bind us up.” (Hosea 6:1) And of the church in Thyatira, Jesus himself rebukes “that woman Jezebel” who infiltrated the church with her immorality: “Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2:22)
Maybe God indeed uses this corona period to draw us back to Him, closer to Jesus. I am encouraged that within our own ICEJ global family, prayer has dramatically increased during the corona pandemic. A well-known pastor in Germany also told me that this past year he has been asked far more than ever to speak about the “fear of God”.
The trouble of Israel
When Ahab finally met Elijah at the end of the drought, he greeted him: “Here you are, you troubler of Israel.”
In our post-modern world of ‘woke culture’, where everything goes and no absolutes are allowed, it is the believer in the holy God of the Bible who is the modern trouble-maker. A God who places radical demands upon His disciples is not compatible anymore with a world which defies absolutes and celebrates “openness,” “diversity,” and “inclusion.” But it is in exactly this time that Elijah’s voice needs to be heard again.
A ministry of power
To be clear, Elijah’s main calling was not to release judgement upon Israel, but it was the means to turn the hearts of his people back to her God. Elijah’s ministry – and after him that of Elisha (upon whom rested the spirit of Elijah) – brought forth one of the greatest seasons of signs and wonders in Israel. It was later only exceeded by the Messiah himself.
Both Elijah and Elisha demonstrated the miraculous power of God more than any other prophet before or after them. They raised the dead, healed the sick, defied laws of gravity, divided the river Jordan, multiplied food, blinded the eyes of the enemies, and opened the eyes of God’ people. It was a singular time when God revealed Himself to His people in unparalleled ways. This was not a ministry of ‘cheap grace’, but one where God challenged His people to make up their minds whom they wanted to serve – the God of Israel or Baal.
Jesus then announces that Elijah will come and he will “restore all things”. When Jesus said these words, I believe he did not have the Roman or Babylonian empires in mind, but his own people, the people of the Kingdom of God. This means we can expect – even in the midst of turbulent times – for God to conclude His purposes with Israel and the Church!
The God before whom I stand
One last point… We might ask ourselves: What was the secret behind Elijah’s power and ministry. Elijah himself reveals it to us in the very first words he utters to King Ahab: “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand…”
In Elijah, we meet a man who took his stand before God. He carried out his ministry from out of the presence of God. His words were not formed by the theological schools of his days, nor by the great orators, but they came straight from the throne of God where Elijah took his stand.
And here lies the challenge for us all. The times in which we live need people who will stand before God. People who will respond to the call of Jesus from Gethsemane: “Can’t you watch with me for one hour?” We need to remind ourselves that all the great revivals were birthed by prayer. Azusa Street had a praying William Seymour; the Welsh revival had the prayers of Robert Evans; and the revival of the Hebrides was birthed by the prayers of two elderly women.
Our world today urgently needs people who can say “as the Lord lives before whom I stand!” In a time when millions of babies are being sacrificed on the altar of prosperity, family values are being trampled upon, and both Israel and the Church are being marginalised – we are encouraged to have hope. As the world seemingly grows darker, Jesus encourages us that he will build his Church. And as we take our stand before him, the gates of hell shall not overcome us, but rather he wants to empower us for a ministry in the spirit of Elijah.