Gospel Pattern: Old Testament Stories & The Grace of God: The God Contest

Sermon by Kevin Phipps on July 10, 2014

1 Kings 18:17-40

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We are continuing tonight our series, “Gospel Pattern – Old Testament Stories and the Grace of God.”  And what we’re trying to do on Wednesday nights this summer is to look at the famous, popular Old Testament stories and see the pattern of God’s grace and how they point us to the Gospel.  Last week, Kelly Jackson, our college coordinator, preached from 1 Samuel 17 about David and Goliath and there we saw a contest between the Philistines and the Israelites and they each sent out a representative.  Today we’re going to look at a passage in 1 Kings chapter 18 and there’s another contest, but specifically this one is a god contest.  It’s a contest between Baal and a contest between the Lord of Israel.  And so as you grab your sheet and you find your way to 1 Kings 18, let me open us up in prayer and then we’ll read God’s Word together.


Our heavenly Father, we are thankful for an opportunity to gather together to sing Your praises, to hear Your Word, and to call upon Your name.  Lord, I ask that just as Billy has already prayed, that You would focus our hearts, that we would not be distracted, that we would hear Your Word and that Your Spirit would move among us.  Lord, open up the eyes of our hearts that we may see the great glory and the grace of our Creator God who is our Redeemer.  We thank You for all Your good gifts that You have given us in the Son.  We thank You for the power of the Holy Spirit and we ask that You would be among us tonight.  And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.


Now let’s hear God’s Word from 1 Kings chapter 18 beginning in verse 17 and I will read through verse 40:


“When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ And he answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father's house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table.’


So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel.  And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ And the people did not answer him a word.  Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal's prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it.  And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ And all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken.’  Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’  And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made.  And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’  And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.  And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.


Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me.’ And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down.  Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name,’ and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed.  And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.’  And he said, ‘Do it a second time.’ And they did it a second time. And he said, ‘Do it a third time.’ And they did it a third time.  And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.


And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’  Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.  And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.’  And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”


Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its truth on all our hearts.


A Blowout Contest


So far, 2014 has been an interesting year for sports fans.  And if you’re not a sports fan you’re going to have to tolerate this for just a little bit.  But so far 2014 for sports fans can be described as “The Year of the Blowout.”  And what a blowout is, is one team has a lopsided victory over the other.  So think about the Super Bowl – Seattle Seahawks vs. the Denver Broncos.  The Seahawks won 43-8.  Wow.  Just a couple of weeks ago, the Spurs in the NBA playoffs – that’s basketball – beat the Heat, the Heat were the two-time reigning NBA champions and the Spurs beat them four games to one in the best of seven series.  It really wasn’t close the last couple games at all.  And just yesterday in the semifinals of the World Cup, Germany beat the home team, Brazil, 7-1.  That’s like a real football touchdown versus one point.  So far it’s been “The Year of the Blowout” and what we have here in this god contest between the Lord of Israel and the Baals is an absolute blowout.


Now as we read the story it would seem that Elijah and the Lord, they are the underdogs.  And as you even read the story Elijah gives the advantage to the prophets of Baal, right?  He says, “You go first.  We’re going to set up these altars; you choose which bull you want.”  And so they choose their bull.  And he says, “Look, whoever’s god answers by fire then everyone should follow that god.  So you know what?  You guys, you go first.  You call on your god.”  What was at stake?  Well if Baal answers by fire, Elijah doesn’t even have the opportunity to compete.  He doesn’t have the opportunity to call on his God.  But in the end of the story what was it?  It was a lopsided victory; it wasn’t close at all.  God prevailed.  God showed Himself to be the one, true God.  So I want to highlight some of what we learn from this passage for us and then show the Gospel pattern in this passage.


King Ahab

Before we do that, we need to think about who are the main characters.  The main character, the first one, is King Ahab.  In the book of Kings there’s good kings and bad kings.  Overall, the message of 1 and 2 Kings in our Bibles is meant to show the failure of earthly kings and have us longing for the righteous heir of David to take the throne again.  And Ahab is one of the worst kings that we have in the Old Testament.  In 1 Kings 16 it says this about him, and this is kind of a paraphrase – it says that Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him, as if it had been a light thing for him.  His wife was Jezebel, the daughter of a pagan king, and together they went and served Baal and worshiped him.  Furthermore, 1 Kings 16 there at the end of the chapter says, “And Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  He did more to provoke the God of Israel.  What is it that he did?  Well, he followed in the steps of Solomon and he took a foreign wife and then he embraced her gods.  Now he didn’t outright deny the Lord; he just embraced the Lord and the Baals and the Asherahs.  So it was a mix.  It was a mix of idolatry.  It was a mix, and this provoked the Lord.


The Prophet Elijah

And what did it provoke the Lord to?  Well, see Baal was supposed to be the fertility god, and what that meant was that he was the god of the storm.  He was the god who would bring the rain. He was the god who supposedly would cause your crops to grow.  So God sent His prophet, Elijah, in chapter 17 of 1 Kings and he declared there’s going to be a drought.  And this is in accordance with God’s Law in Deuteronomy.  God said, “If you turn to idols once you’re in the land, I’m going to send a famine, I’m going to send a drought.”  And Elijah just shows up out of nowhere basically and prays.  And for three years there’s no rain.  And so that’s the set up leading into where we are.  Elijah the prophet has, by the Word of the Lord, said there’s going to be a draught and now he confronts Ahab; he confronts the Baal prophets and he says, “Let’s see if your god can really bring the rain.”  Being that he was the god of the storm supposedly, Baal was also the god of thunder and lightning.  So he’s saying, “Let’s see if Baal can send lightning down on the altar or let’s see if my God is the God.”  Those are the main characters; there’s the background.


The People of Israel

And then there’s the people – the nation of Israel.  They have tolerated a king who has brought in and raised up Baal worship in their midst and that is what is at stake.  Elijah is confronting the prophets of Baal but it’s really confronting the people who their hearts have wandered from God. 


I. The Confrontation


So that’s the first thing I want you to see from this passage.  In verses 17 to 21, there’s the confrontation.  Elijah confronts Israel; Elijah confronts the people.  What did he say in verse 21?  “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.  And the people did not answer him.”  So what do we learn about the people there?  Well, they’re limping between two opinions.  They’re not full-on Baal worshipers but they’re not totally aligned with the Lord God.  They’re limping between two opinions.  They’re going back and forth.  Another sports analogy – they’re literally fair weather fans.  You know what a fair weather fan is, right?  It’s when you jump on a team’s bandwagon when they’re doing good and they’re playing well.  And those kind of fans, don’t they just bug the tar out of you?  There are some things that are just not right.  You can’t be an Auburn fan and an Alabama fan.  In basketball you can’t be a Lakers fan and a Celtics fan.  In baseball you can’t be a Yankees fan and a Red Socks fan.  In football you can’t be a Saints fan or a fan of that team from Atlanta.  It’s not an option!  No one likes fair weather fans that just go with the team that doing well. 


But this is kind of where the nation is.  They’re saying, “Well maybe we should give Baal a shot.  It hasn’t been raining; he is supposed to be the god who brings the rain but we don’t want to reject the God of our ancestors.”  And so they’re limping between two options.  When you’re limping you can’t run after either one.  And so Elijah confronts them and he says, “Declare your allegiance.”  We’re confronted with the same question.  In a world where it’s okay to believe a little bit of everything, it’s okay to have a mix and match of a custom religion – to your liking and according to your needs – we’re called upon to declare our allegiance.  Notice what Elijah tells them.  He says, “Which ever one is God, be done with this limping and follow Him, go after Him.”  Ralph Davis says it like this.  He says, “Theology leads to discipleship.” What does he mean?  He means that what you really believe will show up in the way that you live.  So Elijah’s telling them, “What you really believe is showing up in your limping.  You’re not aligned with Baal completely, you’re not aligned with the Lord completely; you’re just limping between the two.”  And he says, “Which ever one is God then let your life show that; go after it wholeheartedly.” 


A Gospel that Demands Our Allegiance

We are confronted with the same question – Where is our allegiance?  Where is your allegiance?  It may not be the Baals but it may be a little bit of this and a little bit of Jesus.  It may be a little bit of materialism and a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of lust and a little bit of Jesus.  And today the same confrontation with God’s Word smacks us between the eyes and says, “Where is your allegiance?”  We’re called to a Gospel allegiance.  You see, there’s a power of God that comes from the Gospel of knowing the love of Christ that rids our hearts of all of their allegiances.  The apostle Paul says it like this in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this, that one has died for all therefore all have died.  And he died for all that those who might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  He says that disciples of Christ, they are to be dead disciples; the love of Christ kills all rivals for Christ in our hearts.  We need to be reminded of God’s love for us in such a way that the things that rival, we see them for what they are, we see the Baals for what they are, and we turn our hearts and our allegiance wholly to the one who gave Himself for us; we no longer live for ourselves.  So that’s the first thing – the confrontation.  Where does your allegiance lie?


II. The Contrast


The second thing I want to point out is that there is a clear contrast between the prophets of Baal and the prophet Elijah.  There’s a clear contrast of how they try to get God’s attention.  Notice in verse 26 that word “limping” comes up again and it says, “And they took,” speaking of the prophets of Baal, “the bull that was given them and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice and no one answered.  And they limped around the altar that they had made.”  So previously it was Israel that was limping between two opinions and when Elijah said, “Whose side are you on?” no one answered.  And now we see the prophets of Baal limping around the altar they made and yelling trying to get Baal’s attention.  It kind of reminds me of a little thing that we’ve all done or at least we’ve seen happen.  It’s called the temper tantrum.  My daughter is eighteen months old and she, in her short life, has gotten pretty close to perfecting the temper tantrum.  Her tactic is this – she can hardly say like maybe a couple words but she points at something in a general direction and then she just throws herself on the ground, buries her head in her hands and starts yelling and crying.  And what she’s doing is that she knows that she’s not really crying but she’s trying to get our attention, trying to throw a temper tantrum, trying to say, “Mom, Dad, this is what I want!  You can’t hear me?  What are you doing up there?”  That’s kind of what the prophets of Baal are doing at this point.  Think about the activity, the energy that is spent.


Baal: A Ministry of Abuse from an Idol who does not Answer

But the truth is that idols can’t answer prayer. They demand our energy, they demand our allegiance, they demand our all but they cannot answer prayer.  Phil Ryken says it like this.  “Idols abuse their worshipers.”  Idols abuse their worshipers.  The idols of our day demand our energy, demand our attention, but they can’t answer prayer; they can’t come through.  The idol of success, to be driven, to make a name for yourself, to be known, to be respected, to be honored, to demand your all but it can’t answer your prayer.  The idol of pleasure demands your allegiance, demands that you shed blood for the sake of pleasure, but it can’t answer prayer.  Go through the many idols that some, if not many, if not all of us have brought in here tonight the idol of appearance, the idol of the physical outward appearance will drive you to extreme measures but it will not answer your prayers at the end of the day.  Idols only take.  Idols abuse their worshipers.  


So what does Elijah do?  And this is quite the turn. Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal.  It’s quite the move.  He taunts the prophets of Baal and what does he point out?  He says, “Do you realize that the one you call god, he acts more like a man than a god.  Maybe he’s sleeping!  Maybe he’s away!  Maybe he’s distracted!”  He’s saying he’s more like a man than a god.  Elijah taunts them.  And that’s where the contrast is really drawn out.  He shows that the Baal is kind of like the wizard on the Wizard of Oz.  He seems to be this great and mighty powerful wizard and then Toto pulls back the curtain and he’s not what he seemed to be.  But in fact when Elijah pulls back the curtain on Baal he’s just absent; he’s not there at all.  So they’re going through, the prophets of Baal are trying to get Baal’s attention. 


Elijah: A Ministry of Prayer to a God who Answers

What does Elijah do?  Well, we see that Elijah rebuilds the altar of God.  He rebuilds it with twelve stones.  At this point the nation is divided between ten tribes and two tribes – the two tribes of Judah and the ten tribes of Israel.  And as he rebuilds the altar of the Lord he reminds the people of their covenant God and that they are a covenant nation, a covenant one people, and then he pours four water pots three times over the altar.  That’s a total of twelve pots being poured on.  He’s reminding them of who they belong to.  He’s reminding them of their heritage, of their people, of the promises of God as he’s doing this.  And another thing he’s doing is that when he’s pouring water on that altar he’s making it clear that he is not conjuring up anything, that if God is to consume the sacrifice it is God and not Elijah.  So what does he do?  He prays.  Elijah prays.  No temper tantrum, no limping around and yelling; he simply prays to God. 


And let’s look at his prayer, verse 36 and 37 again.  “And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.”  Verse 37,  “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’”  See when we contrast and compare the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophets of Baal are trying to get Baal’s attention and Elijah said, “God, You get Your people’s attention.”  You see, prayer is a response; prayer is not trying to force God to do something for you, it is a response to who God has revealed Himself in His Word and it’s calling upon God to say, “Answer the promises of Your Word.”  God gets His people’s attention and His people respond in prayer. 


And this is one of the most important things that we’re supposed to learn from this section of the book of Kings is that Elijah does miraculous things but his ministry was primarily a ministry of prayer. It’s a ministry of prayer.  And James, at the end of his book, he points us to Elijah and he says, “Be encouraged that Elijah was a sinner saved by grace just like you were and God heard his prayers.”  James 5:16-18.  You’re familiar with the passage; I’ll read it for us.  “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.  Elijah was a man with a nature like ours and 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’re supposed to come away from this passage as people of prayer who are confident that our God hears.  He doesn’t take a vacation.  He doesn’t need to be wakened.  He doesn’t take naps.  Our God hears. 


III. The Call to Worship


So the confrontation, the contrast, and now finally the last two verses I want to call our attention to, verses 38 through 40.  The last three verses that we see – there is the call to worship.  The call to worship.  God answers Elijah’s prayer – how?  With fire.  Not let me remind you of three other occasions where God answers by fire.  Leviticus 9 – the establishment of the tabernacle.  Aaron and his sons are consecrated to the Lord, they have the sacrifice there on the altar, and fire from heaven consumes the sacrifice.  In 1 Chronicles 21, David offers a sacrifice on Ornan’s threshing floor which is consumed by fire.  That threshing floor is the future sight of the temple.  In 2 Chronicles chapter 7, at that same sight Solomon has not built the temple and he’s prepared a sacrifice and God answers by fire from heaven. All these occasions are there to show that God is accepting the sacrifice and here in 1 Kings 18 He’s rejected the prophets of Baal’s sacrifice because they did not call upon His name and He’s answering Elijah by fire.  He’s showing approval of Elijah’s sacrifice.  Here God is saying, “I am the one, true God.  Come to Me.  Declare your allegiance.  Be wooed back, be drawn to My greatness, be drawn to My goodness.  I will not have any rivals.”  And though they were teetering back and forth, limping between two opinions, God sends fire and says, “Today is the day that My people come and draw near and worship, come and know their God.”


A Penalty for False Worship

But there’s also the condemnation for the false worshipers in verse 40.  Elijah seizes the prophets of Baal and doesn’t let anyone escape and he slaughters them; he executes them.  Now to our modern sensibilities we’re like, “Whoa! Elijah!  You did really good, you were doing really well and then you had to go kill 400 plus prophets of Baal!  What type of witness is that, Elijah?”  Well, Elijah was fulfilling God’s Word.  In Deuteronomy 13 that’s exactly what God instructs His people to do. He says if there’s anyone who leads you away in idolatry this is the consequence.  So here at the end of the passage we see God accepts the sacrifice and we see the penalty for false worship; we see the penalty for idolatry.  It seems harsh but we, we all have rival gods in our heart; we may not call them Baal.  And we should be condemned for false worship.  We should be condemned for half-hearted allegiance.  We need a sacrifice on our behalf in order that we could draw near to the God who answers by fire.


A Gospel Pattern

You see there’s a beautiful Gospel pattern all throughout this passage.  In King Ahab we see an evil king and we see a king that has led the people astray and it makes us long for the King who will be faithful to the Lord.  It makes us long for the righteous heir of David who will reign over His people.  In Elijah we see a prophet who calls God’s people to repentance and reveals God’s will for salvation.  And here we also see a sacrifice must happen in order that the people could be reconciled to God.  It’s reconciliation through a sacrifice.  And Jesus, He is our King.  He is our Prophet and He is the Priest who offered Himself as a sacrifice.  And so as we are confronted with our sin, as we are confronted with our limping, we run to the foot of the cross, to where our Prophet, Priest and King has made a way for those who have been unfaithful to their Lord to be restored and to walk with Him. 


Let me pray for us.


Our Lord God, we thank You Lord that You are God who does answer by fire.  You are a God who does not slumber.  You are a God who does not leave us.  And You are a God who, in order to redeem sinners, sent Your own Son to be the sacrifice in our place.  Lord, what other god could we turn to?  What other god could we lay our allegiance, our confidence and our hope but the God of the Bible, revealed in the Gospel?  Our hope is in Your Son.  Help us to pray now, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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