When Martin Luther was called to appear before those who charged him, he stood alone. All the clergy of the time, and all politicians stood against him. It was the same in the time of Wycliffe and John Huss some years earlier.
Truth cannot be judged by the numbers of those who confess it: the Devil has ever had the vast majority on his side. And is it any otherwise today?
This was the case with Elijah. During his time of prophecy, church life dropped to an all time low. It was almost as if he was the only one left.
There were a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets hidden away in a cave, but what were they worth to His cause? Were they afraid to side with Elijah? Maybe they were still locked up. Out of the four hundred and fifty-one prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Astarte assembled on the mount that day, Elijah only was on the side of Jehovah. The people were hovering on two minds.
What if we were put in the same position?
Who is God/god?
Now was the time when things must be brought to a head. It was of the utmost importance that the people of Israel should be challenged to stop jumping between who they would worship as God/god – that’s what the word “limping” or “halting” means.
The three years’ drought, at the word of the prophet, that God could withhold rain at His pleasure had already proven that Baal could not reverse it or produce either rain or dew.
Now a further test was needed, a trial by fire, something Baal worshippers would understand, since Baal was worshipped as the lord of the sun, and his worshippers performed their allegiance to him by “passing through the fire” (2 Kings 16:3).
The test by fire was also a lesson for the Israelites: On many a glorious occasion in the past had the Lord answered by fire!
That was the sign given to Moses at Horeb, when “the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” (Ex. 3:2)
This was the symbol of His presence with His people in their wilderness wanderings:
“The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” (Ex. 13:21).
When the covenant was made and the Law was given, God appeared in fire, for
“Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace” (Ex. 19:18).
This too was the sign God gave of his acceptance of the sacrifices which His people offered upon His altar:
“there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed the burnt offering upon the altar and the fat; and when all the people saw this, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24).
This is what the gathering on Mount Carmel was about: God’s acceptance of their sacrifice.
Sacrifice of atonement
You might ask, why didn’t God answer by water? Would it not better for Elijah to straight away pray that God would open the windows of heaven to show that He is God? The prophets of Baal could not give rain, and God’s answer by giving rain would be more direct and it would have had the same impact. So we think!
The drought was a Divine judgment upon covenant breaking of God’s people; his wrath must be settled before His judgment could be averted. And this leads us to the deeper meaning of this remarkable drama.
Let’s not focus on the antics of the Baal prophets. It is, however, rather amusing to see how Elijah taunted them – even alluding to the fact that Baal might have some time out thinking deeply on the toilet! When their dancing and limping got to nothing, Elijah stepped in.
Did you notice the phrase “evening sacrifice” in verses 29 and 36? Did you notice what Elijah did before God answered with fire? The Bible says:
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. (1 Kings 18:30, NIV)
There used to be an altar for the Lord on Carmel, but is was torn down – it did not just fell in disuse. Elijah used twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel – the people whom God was in covenant with. Their covenant-breaking had to be restored first. The issue of the drought and prayer to end it was of no primary importance on Carmel.
The Bible teaches very clearly, and this is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that there can be no reconciliation between a holy God and sinners apart from atonement, and there can be no atonement or remission of sins except by the shedding of blood. Divine justice must be satisfied: the penalty of the broken covenant must be dealt with – either on the sinner, or upon an innocent substitute.
And this important but basic truth was unmistakably set before the eyes of the assembled crowd on Mount Carmel. A bull was killed, cut in pieces, and laid upon wood, and God who caused fire to descend and consume that sacrifice showed Himself to be the true and only God of Israel. For the justice and righteousness of God his fire of wrath must fall either on the rebellious people or on a sacrificial substitute.
Fire descending from heaven on the sacrificial victim was not only the manifestation of God’s holy wrath: it consumed the offering on which sin rested. Further, it was also the public confirmation of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice, as it ascended to Him in the smoke as a sweet-smelling sacrifice. It was therefore proof that sin had been dealt with, atoned for, put away, Divine holiness was satisfied.
The miracle was not fire descending from heaven. Revelation 13 tells us clearly the anti-Christ has power to do that too:
And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. (Revelation 13:13, NIV)
The miracle of anti-Christ has no effect on sinner apart from deceiving him even deeper into sin. The fire on Carmel was a miraculous sign of God’s grace and forgiveness. The sin of the people was transferred upon the innocent animal; and only on the basis of shed blood – on the hour of the evening sacrifice – was covenant renewal possible.
So, ultimately the stand-off between Baal and Jahweh on Carmel was the issue of a living relationship between God and sinner through forgiven sin. The prophets shouted, danced, cut themselves to no avail – they tried to get to where Baal was. On the other hand, Elijah’s prayer shows it is not what we can do to invoke God’s attention. Listen,
Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that You, Lord, are God, and that You are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:37, NIV)
To understand this better, look at the words of the next verse:
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones [the altar] and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. (1 Kings 18:38, NIV)
No reference to the bull – it was a sacrifice! Every bit of this verse is covenantal language! God answered from above, and He turned the hearts of the people back to Him – the relationship is restored, covenant renewal happened.
Calvary’s hill with our Saviour on the cross was not a show of force; it was God’s way to turn the hearts of his people to Him.
All preaching should point to the atoning death and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven. Anything less is not the Gospel of God.
Through the atoning sacrifice of Christ the Holy Spirit sanctifies our lives: He unites us with Christ whose sacrifice the Father accepted. Without receiving this miracle by faith our lives are not any different from the worshippers of Baal. We will be running for proof that God can perform miracles like healing, success, wealth, and all sorts of personal desires – even a broken drought – but we will still be ruled by hearts of stone, ruled by unforgiven sin – our path set for eternal destruction.
To God be the glory
Elijah did not mean to draw attention to himself when he called for the sacrifices to be made. The main point for Elijah was the glory of God, that the unbelieving Israel would bow before Him and acknowledge Him. Elijah acknowledged that he couldn’t do it. It was not in his power to change the hearts of people. That is God’s work, but he prayed for it to happen.
We hear invitations to services where people can expect to see miracles. Some preachers claim that miracles make people believe. They assume the role of God and then demand Him to just perform whatever they ask for, as if He was some sort of spiritual slot machine. The attention is on the preacher; people flock see him and the miracle, but sadly they still have not heard about the Saviour. It was so much different with Elijah.
Elijah just prayed, in the stillness of the evening sacrifice. His first prayer for drought was at the command of the Lord – Elijah was not the trouble-maker, as we saw last week. His obedient act of sacrificing the bull on the altar, and his call to the people to repent – to stop wavering – was also an act of humble submission to the command of the Lord. As he trusted God in his first prayer to withhold the rain, he now trusted that God would answer his prayer for the salvation of the people – the prayer for the drought had in mind the repentance of the people!
Elijah did not say: “If I pray and fire fall down from heaven, you better believe me because of the miracle.” No; what he said is that when they realise the foolishness of their allegiance to Baal because he can not even hear the prayer of those running around in circles around the altar like drunk monkeys, let alone send fire, then he can never be in a relationship with them. There is only one other option: turn away from every other thing, and worship God only.
God answered the prayer, as He answered the prayer of his Son on the cross,
“Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.” He accepted the sacrifice and his wrath was satisfied.
My friend, where do we stand? Why are you here today? Is it about what you can get out of religion? Is it about getting God in your corner, or is it about coming into the Kingdom of God? Remember there is only one way: Jesus Christ, his sacrifice, his righteousness. He was an end to all sacrifices, all altars, all priests: Remember our text earlier today:
But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 4 September 2016