LIVING IN REVERSE PART II: ELIJAH AND THE TRUE SOURCE OF LIFE
1 KINGS 19:1-13. JOHN 6:26-36
There is a story from the Old Testament that has always fascinated me. It’s about the prophet Elijah. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. Even so, he hid from the king and queen for most of the time of the drought.
At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.
Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and the cloud formed and a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.
Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.
The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done….ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further. Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about show Elijah His presence.
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence.
Many translations say, “a still small voice.” But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” What is a “silent voice?” But what is fascinating, is that when Elijah heard the silent voice, he went out and listened to the Lord. The presence of God was in calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.
There was a great wind – strong enough to split rocks. Obviously God’s presence was around, but the heart of God was not in the wind. The same was true of the earthquake and the fire.
Now, why did God do this? Why send the wind and the earthquake and the fire. Did he need to impress Elijah? And why send those things, if that was not really his presence?
I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.
Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed in drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing!
But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.
You see what was going on? Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.
We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”
God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”
And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send your fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.
Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.
We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still.
We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn to how cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense. Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life from Externals.
We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks here on earth. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). The word for “tested” or “tempted” is the Greek word pronounced “peiradzo.” Some English translations say “tempted” but it doesn’t really mean just temptation to sin. It means undergoing trials to determine an outcome. In other words, this is life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt .
If Jesus could not throw a lasso around life and make it behave for him, do you really think you can?
Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – that can be a daunting idea. You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going live holy again.
The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life out of our behavior. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.
Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there. There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.
There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.
To understand all this fully we need a brief lesson on our human anatomy, at least from God’s perspective. There are three essential parts to a human being: body, soul and spirit.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 (ESV)
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
We each have a body. We know what that is. Our body life is what our body does – what we do and say, how we behave. We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” which have changed in English to “psyche.” Just like that English word, the soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions.
The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with God.
Your soul provides the connection between spirit and body. It functions almost like a valve through which the life of the spirit can flow to our behavior.
We are aware of our bodies. We are aware of what is going on in our souls. But we are less aware of our spirit. Just like Elijah.
One of the problems with living our lives with an external focus, is that we can only get external results by doing that. Jesus pointed it out to his disciples:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-7 emphasis added)
He says the same sorts of things about other observances. Notice the contrast – the people who focus on externals get an external reward – that is, they get the result of their behavior here and now on earth. Their reward – at best – is temporary. Those who focus on the spiritual reality get an eternal reward from their Father in heaven. When we live our life from externals, then that’s all we get – the external result. That’s our reward. And that is temporary, not eternal.
God says the Spirit is what is most important.
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
And it is from the spirit – connected to His Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus – that life comes; real life, life that does not change and fluctuate and sometimes desert us. Once we are in Jesus, that life is always there. It is always available, though we often forget it. That is because it doesn’t come from our behavior. We can’t control it by manipulating our circumstances, or even our own actions. It doesn’t come from our thoughts or feelings. It comes from the spirit – a place that Elijah found was still and silent, and the voice of God is quiet. And the only way we can access it is by believing that what God says is true. We receive it only through faith.
Jesus talked about this with some people one time. They had just eaten a big meal that he provided for them. We call it the feeding of the 5,000. He said to them:
“I assure you: You are looking for Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on Him.”
“What can we do to perform the works of God? ” they asked.
Jesus replied, “This is the work of God — that you believe in the One He has sent.”
“What sign then are You going to do so we may see and believe You? ” they asked. “What are You going to perform?Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the real bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Then they said, “Sir, give us this bread always! ”
These people experienced a little of how Jesus could change their body life and maybe their soul life. But they don’t know anything about the spirit. Jesus challenges them on it. He says “don’t work for food that perishes.” In other words, don’t look for life in the body or the soul.
So they said, basically, “what should we work for? How do we get life?”
His reply is crystal clear: “This is the work of God — that you believe in the One He has sent.” But they utterly miss the point. They go right back to looking for body and soul life. They say “show us! Prove it to us in the body. After some more conversation, Jesus again makes it clear:
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. But as I told you, you’ve seen Me, and yet you do not believe.”
The life is not in your behavior. It is not in your thoughts and feelings. It is in Jesus, and the only way to get it is to believe he offers it to you!