The showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is arguably one of the most exciting stories in the Old Testament. A solitary man stands up against a group of false prophets and proposes a challenge that will prove who the true God is. Elijah was made for encounters like this. He did not accidentally find himself in this position; his whole life had pointed him in this direction.
Elijah lived as a man set apart, and John the Baptist in the New Testament lived a life that mirrored Elijah’s. Or perhaps the better way to say it is, Elijah’s life foreshadowed John the Baptist’s. They both wore coats of animal hair and leather belts (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4). They both fasted in the wilderness for long periods of time (1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 3:1). And they both called Israel to repent.
Elijah was a man set apart because his mission was to call Israel to live as a people set apart. His calling was to promote loyalty to God in a pagan culture. Elijah knew Israel had a purpose for existing: to worship God alone, and to make God known to the world. Part of Israel’s call to loyalty included the responsibility to preserve their one true faith. Preserving that faith meant opposing the infiltration of idolatry or the blending of their worship with pagan practices and traditions. This was Elijah’s fight, to preserve the purity of the covenant God established with His people.
In opposing false prophets, Elijah lived as someone who was always opposed. Apart from the protection of God, he would have been doomed. But as we see in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, God displayed His power through Elijah’s ministry in ways that not only prevailed over the false prophets, but caused people to think twice before opposing Elijah.
Elijah came to be regarded as a symbol of continued faithfulness, a perception aided in part by his strange exit from this world. He did not depart in the traditional way, but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind of fire. He went up, and he didn’t come down. Israelites anticipated his return. The prophet Malachi even prophesied his return (Malachi 4:5), which was fulfilled in the birth of John the Baptist, who came with a similar mission—to make straight the path of the Lord in a crooked world (Luke 1:17).
Elijah’s mission to call God’s people back to the Lord continues on through the finished work of Christ and the local church on earth. Elijah reminds us, as do John the Baptist and Christ Himself, that we are not free-floating in the cosmos, untethered from any sort of belonging. We were made for a relationship with God. It is as St. Augustine said: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Written by Russ Ramsey