By Andy Alexander
“Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14). This was the answer given by Jesus’ disciples when he asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
As the Jews in the first century watched and listened to Jesus proclaim God’s message, they were reminded of the great prophets of old and of John the Baptist who had just recently been in their midst. In this article we want to focus on the preaching of Elijah and notice some of the similarities between his preaching and our Lord’s preaching that would cause people to think that Elijah had returned.
The Jews would be particularly interested in studying Elijah because in Malachi 4:5 it was prophesied that he would return before the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” His life was filled with many events that would leave an impression upon one’s mind.
While Jesus was not Elijah, Elijah did return as prophesied, but the people did not recognize him (Matt. 17:12). John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ who fulfilled the prophesy in Malachi, but John was not what many of the Jews were looking for and they rejected him just as they rejected Christ (Matt. 17:12-13).
Concern for Lost Souls
Elijah was sent by God to rebuke Israel for their sins. In doing so, he used various methods of teaching to try to convict them. He issued a public challenge to the prophets of Baal, then ridiculed them as they failed to produce any evidence that Baal existed (1 Kgs. 18:23-24,27).
Why did Elijah call all Israel together to witness the confrontation between himself and the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:19)? Was he trying to make a name for himself, was he in it for the money, or was he concerned for their souls? There were probably accusations similar to the first two previously mentioned, but Elijah’s real motive was to restore Israel to the Lord God whom they had left (1 Kgs. 18:21).
The people were steeped in sin and error and had become indifferent toward the truth, and Elijah was trying to wake them up. He wanted them to sober up and see their true condition before God and repent before it was too late.
People are like cars in that we need something to drive us or make us go. Cars need gas and our physical bodies need food, but what drives us to teach God’s word to the lost or to try to restore one who has fallen away? If it is not a sincere desire to save the lost, then we will never preach like Elijah.
Willingness to Confront Error
Another trait which Jesus and Elijah had in common was their willingness to confront error. They did not sit back and wait for those in error to come to them. They were aggressive; they went into the strongholds of error and exposed the false religions of their day.
Elijah had some formidable opponents. He was up against a well established religious system that was sanctioned and supported by the government (1 Kgs. 18:19). The wealthy and affluent were aligned with this false system, as well as the majority of the population of Israel.
Baal worship was also an emotional type religion and this would be an appealing factor to many (1 Kgs. 18:26-28). Elijah was a fiery, emotional preacher, but his zeal for the Lord was based on knowledge and not in the unreliable feelings of the heart. Elijah brought no new doctrine to the people. He, like Jeremiah, was trying to get Israel to return to the “old paths” where they could find rest for their souls (Jer. 6:16).
In the confrontation on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal, Elijah pressed his case by teaching that there was a right and a wrong religion (1 Kgs. 18:21). One could not be saved in error, even if he sincerely believed it. Public proclaimers of the gospel, as well as private teachers, can preach like Elijah by emphasizing the contradictions in false religions and by appealing to the Scriptures as the final authority for determining the truth on any given practice.
Take baptism, for example. It is essential for salvation or it is not essential for salvation. The Bible teaches that baptism is one of the conditions that man must obey in order to be saved (Acts 2:38). The vast majority of religious denominations today teach that baptism is not essential. Both cannot possibly be right. These two positions are exactly opposite to each other and someone is wrong. Who is right? Press the case and use the Scriptures to prove the point. The honest of heart will accept God’s word and be thankful (Lk. 8:15).
Jesus was an aggressive teacher in his day. In Luke 13:10-17, he challenged the leaders of one of the synagogues on the Sabbath by performing a miracle. He knew that this would generate controversy because of the false teaching that was being promoted by the religious leaders of his day, but his goal was to teach the truth so the people could repent and return to the Lord.
On that day Jesus did not convert the hypocritical leaders of the synagogue, but he did reach the audience that witnessed the event. Listen to the conclusion from Luke 13:17, “And as he said this, all his opponents were being humiliated; and the entire multitude was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by him.” Neither Christ nor Elijah enjoyed humiliating the false teachers of their day, but they were teaching truth and exposing error in the most effect way possible. People need the truth, even if it hurts (Jn. 8:32).
Dealt Severely With False Teachers
In dealing with the prophets of Baal, Elijah was very careful to destroy every single one of them. “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape,” was his cry when the contrast was over (1 Kgs. 18:40). Then he led the people down to the brook Kishon and proceeded to kill every single one of them (18:40).
Emphasis should be placed on the fact that Elijah did not want any to escape. He knew the harm that just one false teacher could do and wanted to prevent that if at all possible. Since the kingdom of Christ is purely spiritual, we do not use a physical sword to oppose false teachers today. Still, “the weapons of our warfare are . . . mighty through God” and our attitude toward error ought to be just as fervent as Elijah’s (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 5:11). The sword of the Spirit must be drawn against every false doctrine and every teacher of false doctrine.
Christ severely rebuked false teachers and issued a grave warning to those who would lead his children astray (Matt. 23; 18:7-11). We cannot improve on the methods of the Master Teacher. We must strive to follow his example in dealing with those who teach error.
Some Christians in our time see no need in rebuking and reproving those who promote error. “Attack error, but leave the teacher alone” is their cry. “Do not call names, someone might be offended.” By teaching the truth and exposing error Jesus offended the hypocritical Jews, but he did not change his methods to fit the “soft-sell” approach that some of his disciples thought would be better (Matt. 15:12-14).
All people who are in denominationalism are in error, and they need to be awakened to that fact. No matter how pious their leaders profess to be, they are leading them into a pit from which there is no return. We must expose the false teacher and save the flock, if at all possible.
The most dangerous rock that one encounters while mowing grass is the rock that is hidden in the grass. The rocks that are exposed to view pose no great threat to the man mowing the grass. So it is with false teachers. When they are exposed for what they are, the man who carelessly follows has no one to blame but himself.
Christ exposed false teachers, Paul identified men who were leading the saints astray, and John called Diotrephes by name in order to warn the saints in the first century (Matt. 23; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17; 3 Jn. 9). Can we be in any better company than this?
When Elijah met King Ahab just prior to the contest on Carmel, Ahab accused Elijah of being a troublemaker (1 Kgs. 18:17). Christ was falsely accused of misleading the nation of Israel and teaching that they should not pay taxes to Caesar (Lk. 23:2). Had they just taught that nominal obedience was all that was necessary, refrained from calling names, and made only general application in their teaching, they likely would never have been persecuted. Their teaching cut to the heart of their hearers, and those who were unwilling to repent struck back with viciousness.
Danger of Despair
Sometimes when reading about men like Elijah, we tend to think of them as super-human, but James states that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours (Jas. 5:17). He had feelings and emotions just like we do. After the great contest on Mount Carmel, he ran away scared and asked God to take his life, because he thought that he alone was left to follow God and the authorities were going to execute him anyway (1 Kgs. 19:10).
The case of Elijah reminds us that we must guard our hearts against discouragement. Like Elijah, we may suffer false accusations when we are trying our best to do good. Seemingly unsuccessful attempts to win the people over to righteousness can be frustrating. Even the strongest of Christians can be tempted to throw up their hands and quit at times. This is just another one of the devil’s traps to try to stop the preaching of the gospel. The Pharisees tried to scare Jesus into running for his life, but Jesus saw through evil plans and would not run (Lk. 13:31-32). Even though Jesus seemed to convert only a few, he kept on teaching the truth of the gospel (Matt. 11:20-30).
We must never despair when standing for the truth, because God is on our side (Rom. 8:31). Peter taught the first century disciples to resist the devil and be firm in the faith, “knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:9-10).
Beware of Satan’s Traps
Every teacher of the gospel wants to be effective. We know that every person who responds to the call of the gospel is translated out of the power of darkness and into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). This is a wonderful change and causes even the angels in heaven to rejoice (Lk. 15:7).
However, in striving to be effective we can be lured into adopting carnal means to attract people to Christ. The denominations and liberal churches of Christ succeed in attracting large numbers through carnal methods and this can cause us to lean in that direction. We certainly must guard against the wicked devices of Satan.
Another equally dangerous trap is preaching to soothe the ears of those who need to repent. We are living in the time that Paul described to Timothy when people would heap to themselves teachers after their own lust (2 Tim. 4:34). Paul pointed Timothy to the inspired Scriptures because they equip the man of God for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The Scriptures contain the record of preachers like Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. Around us today we have examples of men like Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, and Billy Graham. These modern orators are careful not to reprove or rebuke anyone, except in the most general way.
These men will not engage in a religious debate, would not call names of people or denominations which they regard to be in error, and will not teach by any stretch of the imagination what true repentance is. These things would offend their followers and dent their hefty bank accounts.
These men preach to please the world and the world hears them (1 Jn. 4:5). Some Christians including preachers, elders, and members – have adopted the same strategies that these men use with the result that congregations now exist which are worldly to the core. We must fight with every fiber of our being the attempts of Satan to silence the gospel.
Preaching in today’s world must be like preaching found in God’s word if it is to accomplish what God would have it to accomplish. People of the world and worldly members of the church will not accept plain gospel preaching, but “we must speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4).
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 3, pp. 72-74
February 6, 1992