God’s prophets played a major role in the Old Testament kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These men and women cared for people’s everyday needs, confronted kings and priests over their evil, and performed many miracles. Today, many of the prophet’s obligations are carried out by those who faithfully and obediently proclaim God’s Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
The prophet Elijah was one of God’s great prophets. He suddenly appeared on the scene at 1 Kings 17 to serve the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah faithfully proclaimed God’s Words to the people and was wholeheartedly devoted to God. He had a loyal assistant or apprentice named Elisha, also a prophet. Elijah trained Elisha to continue his ministry to Israel. At the end of Elijah’s life on earth, Elisha inherited a double portion of Elijah’s anointing or spirit (see 2 Kings 2:1–9:13; 2 Kings 13:14-25). God directed Elijah to anoint Elisha to be his successor (1 Kings 19:16-21). Elisha’s name means “my God saves,” “God is salvation,” or “God saves” and salvation was the essence of his ministry. The name Elisha evokes memory of Joshua as Joshua’s name also means “the Lord saves.” Elisha and Joshua are very similar names, Elisha meaning “God saves” and Joshua meaning “the Lord saves.” Jesus’ Name also means “the Lord saves” (Matthew 1:21) and comes from the Hebrew name, Joshua. Elijah is given Elisha to finish his work as Moses was given Joshua complete his work. In crossing the Jordan as Joshua had before him, Elisha is shown to be Elijah’s “Joshua.” Elijah came like John the Baptist, while Elisha followed with a quiet ministry like that of Jesus (see Matthew 3:1-12 and Matthew 11:16-19). In the New Testament, John the Baptist was followed by Jesus to complete God’s saving work of grace and mercy to His people.
In the Old Testament, the principal foundations of Elijah’s life are found in 1 Kings chapters 17 through 19; 1 Kings 21:17-29; and 2 Kings chapters 1 through 2. Key events in Elijah’s life include raising the widow’s son, the contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal, the encounter with God on Mount Horeb, and his departure from this world in a chariot of fire. Elijah was not a sophisticated preacher like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Instead, Elijah was a rough yet and courageous reformer. Elijah challenged the people to abandon their Baal worship and their evil ways and return wholeheartedly to God. Elijah’s name means “The Lord is my God,” “Yahweh is God” or “my God is Yahweh.” Yahweh is the Hebrew Name for God. Elijah’s ministry proclaimed that God was the only true and living God and this declaration was the essence of Elijah’s message to the people (see 1 Kings 18:21, 39 cf. 2 Kings 2:14).
God sent Elijah (and after him Elisha) to serve as His representative to call the people to repent of their sins, to stop disobediences of His commands, and turn to Him as the true and living God (1 Kings 18:18, 21, 39). Wicked King Ahab of Israel had allowed his evil wife Jezebel to bring the worship of Baal into Israel (1 Kings 16:31-33). Baal was the Canaanite fertility god of storm, rain, and bountiful crops. People believed Baal could control the weather and the fertility of the crops, animals and people. Baal was the alleged god of weather who was often depicted carrying a thunderbolt. So, like Solomon who accommodated the idolatrous practices of his pagan wives (1 Kings 11:1-8), Ahab submitted to Jezebel's evil worship of Baal worship in God’s promised land and even built a temple for the people to worship Baal (1 Kings 16:32-33). Even worse, Jezebel installed 950 prophets of Baal in God’s promised land of Israel.
So, God through the prophet Elijah sent a drought upon Israel (1 Kings 17:1) and that drought lasted for three years (1 Kings 18:1). The drought was not only divine judgment on a nation that had turned to idolatry (worshipping false gods), but also a demonstration that even though Baal was considered the god of fertility and the lord of the rain clouds, he was powerless to give rain (cf. Leviticus 26:3-4; Hosea 2:5, 8). Moreover, God wanted the people to know He was the true Source of their blessings and not a pagan god. God then took Elijah away into the wilderness for three years of apprenticeship (1 Kings 17:3), and miraculously provided for him. In Zarepthath, Elijah learned that God’s power is superior to all the powers of humans (1 Kings 18:10).
In the third year of drought, Elijah designed the contest with Baal at Mount Carmel to expose Baal as a false god. Elijah challenged Ahab, Jezebel, and Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel to prove that God is the only true and living God of the world (1 Kings 18:1-40). The prophets of Baal called on Baal in vain while Elijah made fun of them. When Elijah had his turn, he poured water over his sacrifice and prayed a simple yet powerful prayer. Immediately, God sent fire from heaven and revealed He was the true God and not Baal. Then Elijah prayed for rain, and the drought ended (1 Kings 18:41-46). Elijah’s life illustrates God’s kindness and the effectiveness of prayer (Luke 4:25-26; Romans 11:2-6; James 5:17-18). Elijah learned the power of prayer to transform situations (see 1 Kings 17:22; 1 Kings 18:24). With simplicity and dignity, Elijah rested his case on the certainty that God answers the faithful prayers of His righteous servants for HIS GLORY and honor (1 Kings 18:36-37; see also 2 Chronicles 7:12-15; James 5:16).
In Israel’s religion, Elijah stood firmly in the tradition of the Mosaic faith and faithfulness to God. He warned against syncretism because true faith in God would be lost if fused or mixed with other religions and philosophies. Moreover, Elijah emphasized the intimate relationship between faith in God and obedience to God’s commands (morals or ethics). The incident of Naboth’s vineyard illustrates Elijah’s morality. In this incident, Ahab and Jezebel envied Naboth’s vineyard, and later lied, stole, and murdered Naboth to take away his land (1 Kings 21; see also Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21).
In later Judaism, Elijah came to be seen as the forerunner of the Messianic age based on the prophecy of Malachi 4:-6. Only six chapters of the Old Testament record Elijah’s life and ministry, but the remainder of Scripture, especially the New Testament, remembers him as a model of faithfulness and the forerunner to Jesus the Messiah (Christ). The Old Testament comes to an end with the expectation that Elijah would return (Malachi 4:5-6) and prophecy went silent for 400 years.
The New Testament begins with John the Baptist. John the Baptist continued the prophets’ Old Testament message of calling the people to turn from their sins and to turn wholeheartedly to God. At least in part, John the Baptist fulfilled Elijah’s expectation (see Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:4). John the Baptist prepared people's hearts for Jesus by urging the people to repent of their sins. He is often compared to the great prophet Elijah, who was known for standing up to evil rulers and turning to God (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10-13). The angel Gabriel promised John’s father, Zechariah, that his son would anticipate the Messiah by ministering “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came upon individuals temporarily for some special task (e.g. Numbers 11:25-29; Judge 3:10; Judges 6:34; Judges 14:6, 19; 1 Samuel 16:13), but John the Baptist was to be filled with the Holy Spirit his entire life. Jesus clearly stated that John the Baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” and fulfilled the role prophesied for Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10–13; Mark 9:11–13). Jesus’ statement that John the Baptist is Elijah indicates that He saw the ministry of John as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah at Malachi 4:5–6. Jesus declared that John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets as his ministry’s impact was far-reaching (cf. Acts 19:1–7).
John the Baptist is one of the most important and unique persons in the New Testament. He wore odd clothes, ate strange food, and lived in the wilderness like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:1-8). People were unsure of John the Baptist’s identity. Some believe John the Baptist was (1) the prophet predicted by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), (2) Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6), (3) the Messiah, or (4) a false prophet. Indeed, many people thought that Jesus Himself was Elijah (Mark 8:27-28). John the Baptist denied he was literally Elijah (John 1:20-23). Instead, John the Baptist personally identified himself in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD’” (Mark 1:2-3 citing Isaiah 40:3). John the Baptist applied the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 to his own ministry of calling people to repent in preparation for the coming Messiah (Christ) to unite the generations in loyal and obedient service to God (cf. Genesis 18:19). John emphasized that he had come to prepare the way for and introduce the Messiah to the world. John the Baptist was not the resurrected Elijah nor Elijah returning in the flesh, but he took on Elijah's prophetic role — boldly opposing sin and pointing people to the true and living God (see 1 Kings 18; Malachi 3:1). He functioned like that Old Testament preacher of repentance and was therefore a fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6 (see also Luke 3:4-6). In fact, John the Baptist’s role was almost identical to that of an Old Testament prophet — to encourage people to turn away from sin and back to God. In essence, John the Baptist fulfilled the promise of Elijah’s return as a forerunner of Jesus Christ and took on Elijah's prophetic role (Matthew 11:7–14; Matthew 17:10–13).
Even more amazing, Elijah and Moses have many similarities. Elijah was with Moses and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). The Transfiguration revealed Jesus’ glory, identity, and power as God’s Son (2 Peter 1:16). Three of Jesus’ disciples (Peter, James and John) had the opportunity to observe the dramatic scene of God’s approving His Son Jesus (Matthew 17:5). Elijah and Moses were the two greatest prophets in the Old Testament. Moses, the first great lawgiver, represented the Law, or the old covenant and the promise of salvation. He wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and he predicted the coming of a great prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Elijah represented the first great prophets who predicted the coming of the Messiah and the restorer of all things (Malachi 4:5-6; Mark 9:11-13). Moses' and Elijah's presence with Jesus at the Transfiguration confirmed Jesus' Messianic mission — to fulfill God's Law and the words of God's prophets (Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 24:13-35). God's voice exalted Jesus above Moses and Elijah as the long-awaited Messiah with full divine authority. The apostle Peter described the impact of this experience in 2 Peter 1:16-18. Some biblical scholars believe that Moses and Elijah are the two witnesses described in Revelation 11:1-14.
The author of Kings highlights many parallels between the ministries of Elijah and Moses. Elijah and Moses were both faithful servants of God with great faith in true and living God. Also, God appeared to both Moses (Exodus 24:12-18) and Elijah (1Kings 19:8-18) on mountains. Moreover, God sent Elijah beyond the Jordan, like Israel in the desert in the time of Moses. Both Elijah and Moses opened bodies of water – Moses opened the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 21, 26) and Elijah the Jordan River. Even more, Elijah and Moses both did the following:
- called down fire from heaven (Exodus 9:24; Numbers 11:1; Numbers 16:35; 2 Kings 1:10);
- saw the Lord God provide food – Moses the manna (Exodus 16) and quails (Numbers 11); and Elijah the oil and flour for the widow, plus his own meals (1 Kings 17:1-16);
- prayed and God altered the weather – Moses prayed and God altered the weather, and Elijah prayed and God stopped the rain and then three years later started the rain again;
- associated with mountains (Mount Sinai and Mount Carmel);
- journeyed through the wilderness and sustained by God (Exodus 24:18; 1 Kings 19:8);
- had unique endings – God buried Moses in a grave no one can find (Deuteronomy 34:4-6; and God carried Elijah to heaven by a whirlwind with chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:11);
- present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33).
In addition to the Holy Bible, Elijah is also referred to frequently in the Talmud – a collection of Jewish writings consisting of the Mishnah and Gemara. Elijah is believed to be present in the contemporary Jewish ritual of circumcision. Also, many Jews have an empty chair is set out for him as his presence symbolizes faithfulness to the covenant. The Jews remembered that Elijah had not died (2 Kings 2:11) and believed that he would come back to earth to announce the end times. Continuity with the Jewish tradition can be observed in the New Testament references to Elijah. Many Jews hesitated to accept the message of Jesus, claiming that the Kingdom could not come until Elijah had returned. Jewish eschatology based on Malachi 4:5-6 held that Elijah must appear before the coming of the Messiah. Jesus indicated that Elijah had already appeared in the person of John the Baptist (Mark 9:9-13). Also, Elijah is a significant figure in Islam, being referred to several times in the Koran. His attempt to turn people away from the worship of Baal, back to the true faith, is used in Muhammad’s preaching to exemplify true prophecy.
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