The main question the prophet Elijah was commissioned to answer was “Is there really only one God?” and, “If so, which God is the right one?” Elijah’s name gives away his answer, “Eli-jah” in Hebrew means “The Lord is God.” The climactic answer takes place in the showdown on Mt Carmel. Elijah is outnumbered 850 to 1. What Elijah revealed about the true God there, or, rather, what God revealed about himself, is as relevant today as it ever was. Jehovah is distinct from the ba’al’s, and every false god our culture puts forward, in at least four ways, two of which I’ll share with you here, and two of which you’ll have to listen to the whole sermon on this passage to get!
1. False gods require strenuous efforts; the true God is known by grace through faith.
False gods require strenuous dancing to please them. We see it in the prophets of Ba’al, who danced around the altar in their attempt to get their god’s attention (1 Kings 18:26). That is how every false religion operates: if you obey well enough, then you will be accepted. Thus religious ‘gods’ like Allah say, “Are you dancing hard enough? Are you keeping the commandments well enough?”
But secular gods are just as demanding. Popularity, money, or beauty demand that you dance like a slave to please them. So if money is your god, you dance like a slave for it, to get into the right school, to get the right job, to get that promotion. If beauty is your god, you dance—sometimes literally—so you’ll feel good about your body. If popularity is your god, then you dance for your circle of friends, desperately seeking to gain their approval.
The prophets of Ba’al danced, but all Elijah did was pray in faith (1 Kings 18:36–37). That is because Elijah knew the true God, the God of the gospel. Every other religion says that your acceptance is based on your obedience, but the gospel is unlike every other religion. The religious say, “I obey; therefore I am accepted.” The gospel reverses that: “I am accepted; therefore I obey.”
2. False gods mutilate us; the true God mutilated himself for us.
The prophets of Ba’al begin by dancing around their altar. They end by slashing at themselves until their blood runs (1 Kings 18:28). False gods always push us toward destruction: “Work harder. Do better. Obtain more. You still aren’t getting my attention. Slash yourself!” So we slash at our bodies by going through crash diets to attain that perfect figure. We slash at our families by overworking to make extra money. We slash at our souls by compromising our integrity to get someone’s affection.
False gods push us to mutilate ourselves, because we desperately want to win their approval. But only one God was ever mutilated for us—Jesus Christ.This story ends with a magnificent fire coming from heaven, but as Jesus himself points out to his first disciples, the fire was not intended for sinful humanity (Luke 9:51–56). It was ultimately intended for him: of all the characters in this story, Jesus is not Elijah, calling down fire; he is the sacrifice who receives the fire of judgment.
At the cross, Jesus took into his body the fire of God’s justice so that we could take into our lives the fire of God’s love. Other gods demand dancing, slashing, mutilation. But Jesus Christ is the only God who was slashed and mutilated for us. As Tim Keller has said, “Every other god will make your blood run; only the true God bleeds for you.