From a sermon series on 1 Kings by See Huang Lim, a missionary at IBF.
Today’s story is a dramatic one. 1 Kings 18 is about the fiery contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. During this time, Israel had turned away from worshipping the one true God, in exchange for gods like Baal. Elijah’s mission was to bring them back to the God of Israel.
[Read 1 Kings 18:1-40]
There are 3 characters I would like to reflect on from this passage:
1) Obadiah shows we serve God in diverse ways,
2) Elijah was just a servant of God,
3) God demonstrates his power and judgment.
With each character, I will suggest a key question we can reflect on.
Obadiah: Serving God in diverse ways
First, let me talk about Obadiah from the beginning of chapter 18. He reminds me that we can serve God in diverse ways.
The kind of service we see in Obadiah is quite different from Elijah. Obadiah does things behind the scenes, whereas Elijah’s ministry is public and confrontational. Obadiah worked for the government, while Elijah was free to move around anywhere. Obadiah served the Lord by protecting and feeding God’s prophets, while Elijah delivered messages from the Lord.
The Bible doesn’t tell us to be clones of Elijah. Serving God doesn’t come in one flavor. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
Let me give a personal example. A Christian in Malaysia once told my wife she should do the same kind of work as me because I’m her husband and she should assist my ministry. But there is no biblical basis for that belief. Sometimes God leads a married couple to the same work, but more often he does not. For example, God led me to be an English teacher, while he led my wife to be a writer and editor.
There are so many ways we can be useful in the world for God’s purposes. It is not just to draw people to know Jesus but also to support society through useful endeavors. God has led each of us to a unique position in the world. He has given us different gifts and personalities.
My key question here is: How can you serve God with the unique identity he gave you?
Sometimes, we get distracted from serving God joyfully when we look at others enviously. One of my students was a Christian teen. He told me he felt inferior to his friends, because he wasn’t talented like them in things like playing guitar or leading worship. He was upset that God didn’t give him those talents. I encouraged him to discover his own abilities and to focus on who God is. I pray my student will know God loves him and doesn’t value him less than his friends.
In the end, the attitude of our heart towards God is more important than what we can do for God.
Elijah: Not the star, just the servant
And when we serve God, we should pay attention to the God we serve – not focus how talented or great we are. Our talents should not just draw people’s attention to ourselves, but rather to God.
This is what Elijah did. His words showed that he was just a servant. The real star of this drama was God.
It looked like Elijah was the one summoning God’s fire. But even Elijah acknowledged that it was not his own plan or his own power. In verse 36-37, he prayed, “. . . let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord… so these people will know that you… are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Elijah made it clear that the purpose of this miracle was to turn the hearts of people back to God.
We can also learn servanthood from the way Elijah prayed. As Christians, we have the joy and privilege of knowing that God listens to prayer. Unlike the followers of Baal, we do not need to shout or bleed or offer sacrifices, hoping to be heard. We do not use prayer like a form of magic to manipulate God.
Rather, we pray as servants asking for the master’s will. In the end, it is about seeking what God desires. 1 John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”
My key question here is: How can you pray more like a servant of God, rather than expecting God to be your servant?
God: His power and his judgment
Through Elijah’s service, the reality and nature of God was revealed to the Israelites. From this story, I’ll just observe two things about God: the power of God and the judgment of God.
First, the power of God:
God isn’t limited by geography or anything physical. In ancient paganism, gods only had powers in certain places. Baal’s seat of power was Mt. Carmel, where the contest took place. Yet on his own turf, Baal lost to the God of Israel.
Furthermore, God isn’t limited by numbers. 450 prophets of Baal made no difference against one prophet of the true God. It didn’t matter that Baal was popular and the God of Israel was unpopular during that time. In Japan today, Christians may feel they are a minority with little influence. But God’s power isn’t limited by our small numbers.
Second, the judgment of God:
We see this at the end of our story, in Verse 40: “Then Elijah commanded them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!’ They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.”
This may strike modern readers as very severe. Did the Baal prophets really need to be killed? After all, in verse 39, the Israelites already acknowledged the true God and prostrated themselves on the ground.
Actually, according the laws of Moses which Israel had, they were supposed to put to death false prophets. This is recorded in Deuteronomy 13:5: “That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.” Verse 6 even says, “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’… (verse 9) You must certainly put him to death.”
That is how seriously God views the question of whom we follow.
Speaking of God’s wrath, this topic came up when I talked with a judo friend. He bought a house recently and told me about the ritual called jichinsai. In Japan, before a house is built, a Shinto priest blesses the land with an offering to the gods. The offering is to appease the gods, to ward off their anger.
My friend asked me if Christians have a similar ritual. I said that we also have the concept of God’s wrath. For Christians, Jesus became that offering to appease God. By believing in Jesus, who took the punishment for our sins, we can escape God’s wrath.
I think we cannot take God’s judgment lightly or believe it doesn’t exist. Some people say that the Old Testament shows a God of wrath whereas the New Testament shows a God of mercy. But that is untrue, because both halves of the Bible clearly show God’s judgment as well as mercy. Besides, the idea of mercy doesn’t make sense without the idea of judgment.
The topic of judgment came up very often in Jesus’ teachings, such as in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.
Jesus also hinted at the reality of judgment in Matthew 10. This when he talked to his disciples about the persecution they would face. In Matthew 10:28, he says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
But Jesus goes on to assure his disciples that God cared for them. In the next verse he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father… (verse 31) So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
In passages like these, we see both God’s judgment and God’s love.
The only reason we are accepted into God’s embrace of love is because Jesus suffered judgment on our behalf. Romans 5:25 explains it this way: “God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance, he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.”
It’s not that we are worthy. It’s simply that God has mercy.
My key question here is: Do you believe in God’s power and his coming judgment? If so, how does it change the way you live?
Elijah challenged the Israelites: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
Let me conclude by asking: What does it mean to follow God?
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Come and follow me,” his words had a certain meaning in ancient Jewish customs. During that time, people could choose to become the disciple of a rabbi (a rabbi is a Jewish religious teacher). The disciple would live with the rabbi, observe him, and learn from him. What the rabbi does, the disciple copies.
For Christians, our rabbi is Jesus. Jesus’ life is our model how to follow God. As his disciples, we live with him, observe him, talk with him, and join in his work. We do this through prayer, reading our Bibles, being part of a community, and involving him in every part of life. The result we hope for is to know God more and to be like him. It is a lifelong journey.
Let’s end by reviewing today’s questions: (1) How can you serve God with your unique identity? (2) How can you pray like a servant of God? (3) Do you believe in God’s power and his coming judgment? If so, how does it change the way you live?