Last week we considered the conversation between Jesus and Moses during the transfiguration experience. We saw that Moses warned Jesus to control his temper so that he would continue to demonstrate his love for the Father by being obedient to the point of death at the hands of those who opposed his ministry. This week we consider what Elijah had to say to encourage Jesus to persevere.
Elijah succumbed to a different kind of trial in his ministry. He did not respond by lashing out in anger when he met opposition; rather, he told God that he quit. In the beginning he had been successful in demonstrating that he was a “man of God.” He prophesied God’s judgment on Israel concerning the years of drought; and God validated him by making his words come true. When he raised the widow’s son from the dead, the woman affirmed his calling by commending him: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Eternal in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). But after the victory of God over the prophets of Baal, Elijah fled—not at God’s command this time—into the desert in order to hide from Jezebel. However, he did not just go there to hide: “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and sat down under a juniper tree. There he requested that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O Eternal, take my life’” (1 Kings 19:4).
While he was in the desert, God sent an angel to feed him. Then God sent him on a journey so they could meet together at Mt Horeb, where Moses had received the tablets more than 500 years earlier. He walked for 40 days in the strength of that food. Protected by God, he had time to think about the glorious works God had done through him. He had time to reconsider his position. But when he arrived at the mountain, God asked him why he’d come. Instead of answering with renewed faith, he complained again with self-righteous self-pity that he was all alone. Even though God sent “a soft whisper” to convince Elijah that he was working in spite of appearances to the contrary, Elijah’s response did not change. So, God relieved him of his office.
It might seem as though God just overlooked Elijah’s failure to treat him as holy, regarding it as if it were nothing. He did not. Elijah’s insult, while private instead of public, was just as bad as Moses’. God sent him off on one last mission: 1) to crown two kings who would mete out God’s judgment and 2) to anoint his successor, who would also be an agent of judgment, thus relieving Elijah of all his responsibilities. To cap it off, God corrected Elijah’s misperception about God’s providential work to preserve a remnant of faithful people: “I have kept 7,000 in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). So, Elijah, like Moses before him, completed his task—including one last confrontation with Ahab—and then handed the mantle of his ministry to Elisha.
Therefore, it is completely fitting that Elijah be one of those whom God sent to encourage his Son before he went to the cross. Moses warned Jesus not to take matters into his own hands, but to act publicly in a way that pointed people to the God he obeyed; and Elijah warned Jesus to stay privately strong in his assurance that God would orchestrate the situation so Jesus’ mission would succeed, despite how many were arrayed against him, and how few seemed to stand with him. Elijah could authentically tell Jesus not to quit, not to give up even though the situation seemed hopeless. I suspect he knew the testing Jesus would face as the day of his final rejection drew closer and even the disciples fell away, truly leaving Jesus all by himself.
In sending these two men, God showed an extraordinary kindness to the Son who had pleased him so much thus far (Matthew 17:5). Others of God’s leaders had failed in other ways, David and Solomon being the most obvious. But their situations were not the same as what Jesus would soon experience. Joseph and Joshua never failed. They remained faithful throughout their long and challenging ministries. So, God did not send them to talk with Jesus. No, God knew what he was doing, he sent the two men who had life situations similar to his Son’s, men who had been successful in spectacular ways, but who, when the crunch came faltered in their faith. Jesus needed this because he was a man, a man who had to live by faith in order to be righteous—just as we must, a man who was tested—just as we all are, and especially as Moses and Elijah were. The Bible is full of examples of people from whom we can learn so that we can pass the tests of faith we encounter. And, by God’s grace, we might be able to encourage and strengthen other believers from our own failures.
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