We are nearing the end of our study of the letter of James to the scattered people of God, followers of Jesus from the twelve tribes of Israel who had been scattered because of persecution. James has been teaching us, encouraging us, correcting us, and reminding us of who we are and who we are called to be in this world that is oftentimes difficult, adversarial, and painful. He’s told us to “count it all joy when we encounter various trials because the testing of our faith produces perseverance,” it builds our dependence and trust in Jesus. He has told us not to show preferential treatment to one person over another. He’s reminded us not to take advantage of others who are vulnerable, not to withhold payment to those who work for us because “the cries of the workers have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). And also, in the fifth chapter, James has taught us to call upon our leaders to pray for us when we are sick; physically sick, spiritually sick, mentally and emotionally troubled. The elders are to pray and we, as a church, are to pray for one another. Then, near the end of his letter, James writes,
16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18 NIVO)
James calls the church, not a building, but men, women, boys, and girls who belong to the Body of Christ, to confess their sins to one another and pray for one another. Then he writes, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” If you’ve been around here for any amount of time then you know that biblically the word “righteous” means to be “rightly related.” To be righteous is to be rightly related to God first and foremost, but it doesn’t stop there. We are to be rightly related to one another. Sin separates us from God and from one another. Let me give you an example. Turn to Isaiah 59:2 and let’s read together. Isaiah writes,
2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIVO)
Sin also separates us from one another. We don’t need examples of this truth because we have lived it, some of us are separated from family members, co-workers, or neighbors at this very moment because of sin, either our own sin that has driven a wedge in our relationship or the sin of others that has driven the wedge. James writes, “The prayer of a rightly related person is powerful and effective.” The prayer of the person who is rightly related to God and rightly related to those around them is powerful and effective.
After James states this truth for us he gives us an example of a righteous man, Elijah. I love how James introduces us to Elijah. He writes, “Elijah was a man just like us.” The word James uses to describe Elijah is found in only one other place in the New Testament and it is in Acts 14. In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man who had never been able to walk. Paul told him, “Stand up on your feet!” The man got up and began to walk. The people who witnessed the miracle immediately began to shout, “The gods have come down to us in human form” (Acts 14:11). They called Barnabas, “Zeus,” and Paul they called, “Hermes.” The local priests of Zeus even brought bulls and wreaths to the city gate to make sacrifices to them, but Paul stopped them when he said,
15 “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:15 NIVO)
Paul and Barnabas were not any different than any other person walking the streets of Lystra. Before James tells us what Elijah did, he first tells us what Elijah was–”Elijah was a man just like us.”
If you know the story of Elijah then that might be a tough truth to swallow at first glance. God used Elijah to confront the wicked king Ahab, his even more wicked wife, Jezebel, and her 450 false prophets of Baal. God used Elijah to restore life to the dead son of the widow who lived in Zarephath. Elijah prayed and it didn’t rain in Israel for three and one half years, then he prayed and the rains came. Elijah is the one who rolled up his cloak, while he and Elisha stood on the bank of the Jordan river, he struck the water, and we read, “The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground” (2 Kings 2:8). And if all of that weren’t enough, Elijah didn’t die. He was walking along and talking with Elisha one day when Elisha saw something he never would never forget. Turn to 2 Kings 2:11 with me and let’s read together.
11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2 Kings 2:11 NIVO)
Elijah was a man just like us? Really? Just like us, really! Elijah was a man like you and me and yet he is one of the most revered and loved of all the prophets by the people of Israel. Each year, in every Jewish home that celebrates Passover, they have a seat at the table, along with a cup of wine, for the prophet who they believe will usher in the age of the Messiah. The tradition is based on the final words of the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Malachi where he wrote,
5 “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6 NIVO)
Elijah was a prophet of God. Elijah stood up to the most wicked king. Elijah performed miracles. Elijah was caught up, didn’t die, but was caught up to heaven. Elijah was a man just like us. I want us to become familiar with what made Elijah special, even though he was just a person like you and me. The first mention of Elijah is found in 1 Kings 17:1. Turn there with me.
1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” (1 Kings 17:1 NIVO)
That’s a pretty bold first step isn’t it? Step up to the king and let him know there will be no more rain until I say so. No mention of Elijah as a prophet at this point, he’s just Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead. We don’t know the exact location, but Gilead was located in modern-day Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee and north of the Dead Sea, across the Jordan River. That’s all we know about Elijah at this point.
Ahab, on the other hand, we know so much about him and what was taking place in the land of Israel during his 22 year reign. Fifty-eight years had passed since the Kingdom had been divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Ahab was the eighth king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. There were 20 kings of the North in all and every single one of them was bad, but Ahab was the worst. Idolatry had taken over the Northern Kingdom, but when Ahab married Jezebel, the worship of idols rose to an all-time high while Jezebel did everything in her power to stamp out the worship of YHWH.
Jezebel was a princess from Tyre, the daughter of Ethbaal, the King of Tyre. Ahab had married her for political purposes, but Jezebel was on a mission to spread the worship of Baal, a Canaanite deity, throughout the land. In the Canaanite fertility cult Baal was the god over rain, wind, and clouds. Through Jezebel’s influence the people were convinced that Baal was the new god over Israel. Elijah shows up and says, “There won’t be a drop of rain until I say so.” I’m sure Ahab rolled his eyes and said, “Whatever…” as he walked away.
Elijah didn’t see Ahab for another three and one half years. Where did Elijah go? Well, if you read 1 Kings 17 you’ll read, “Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah.” Each time we read that phrase in 1 Kings 17 it is followed by instructions from the Lord. The first time God directed Elijah to the Kerith Ravine where he was fed bread and meat by the ravens in the morning and at night. He stayed there for some time, until we read, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land” (1 Kings 17:7).
In the next verse, “Then the word of the LORD came to him.” This time God told Elijah to go to Zarephath where a widow with food would feed him. Elijah did as he was told and when he met the widow she was gathering sticks to make a final meal for she and her son before they died. All she had was a handful of flour and a little jug of oil. God worked in a miraculous way. Elijah told her the flour and oil wouldn’t run out until the rains returned.
Some time later the woman’s son grew ill and died. Elijah stretched out on the boy and pleaded for God to restore life to the woman’s son. God answered Elijah’s prayer and then we read something we need to take note of. It’s found in 1 Kings 17:24.
24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” (1 Kings 17:24 NIVO)
Isn’t that interesting? When we first met Elijah he was just “Elijah the Tishbite from Tishbe in Gilead.” Ahab had no idea, Elijah was just a guy. Nobody had ever heard of the guy, but now he is a “man of God” and she recognized “the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” What had Elijah done to bring about this change? Had he gone to seminary? Had he been ordained by an ecclesiastical body in Gilead? Had he had a Damascus road experience with the Lord? We don’t read about any of those things taking place in Elijah’s life, but what we do find, as we read 1 Kings 17 is that Elijah did what God told him to do. When the word of the Lord came to Elijah he sought God, he did what God said to do, he was rightly-related to God.
Let’s go back to the opening verse of 1 Kings 17 for just a moment. Elijah told King Ahab there would be no more rain until he said so. Where in the world did he come up with that? I’m so glad you asked. Turn with me to Deuteronomy 11. God didn’t allow Moses to enter the Promised Land with the people of God, but Moses did remind them of how important it would be for them to not turn away from God once they entered the land and became comfortable. In verse 11, Moses said,
16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you. 18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:16-21 NIVO)
What would God do if the people turned away from Him? It’s right there in 17, “…he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you.” My point in sharing this with you is to show you that all Elijah was doing was announcing what God had already promised. If you turn away from God the rain will cease. And it did. Elijah wasn’t like some of our modern-day prophets who say all kinds of things with no scriptural basis whatsoever. He spoke God’s Word and so should we.
Now let’s fast-forward to 1 Kings 18 where Elijah called for a showdown with all of Jezebel and Ahab’s false prophets on Mount Carmel. I won’t go into the details of the showdown because we don’t have the time, but I want to show you just a couple of details about the showdown. First, when all of the people of Israel gathered on Mount Carmel for the showdown between Elijah and the hundreds of false prophets of Baal, Elijah spoke to the people who had turned away from God. Listen to his words,
21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. (1 Kings 18:21 NIVO)
“If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” It was quite simple and it’s no more complicated in our day. If God is God then follow Him. If He’s not, then do as you please.
The false prophets called on their god, Baal, to answer by fire and burn up the sacrifice. Hour after hour went by with no answer. They did everything in their power to summon Baal, but no answer. So, it was Elijah’s turn. Elijah stepped forward and prayed. We can read his prayer in 1 Kings 18:36-37.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (1 Kings 18:36-37 NIVO)
Why did Elijah call for the showdown with the false prophets? The people were vacillating between serving the One True and Living God and a pitiful imitation of God who was no god at all. And why did Elijah call on God to answer by fire and burn up the sacrifice? Was it so he could launch a new “Prayer of Elijah” campaign in Israel? So the people would hoist him on their shoulders, place him in a convertible, and parade him through the streets of Samaria? Not on your life! He tells us why he cried out to God. He prayed, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” There were really two reasons weren’t there? First, he wanted the people who were undecided and unconvinced to know that there was only one God…and it wasn’t Baal. Second, he wanted God to turn the hearts of the people back again. No profit for the prophet. That’s a big difference between so many modern-day prophets and Elijah. God answered Elijah’s prayer and the people cried out,
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD– he is God! The LORD– he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39 NIVO)
Now, we have to remember, there had not been one drop of rain in three and one half years. The supposed controller of the clouds, Baal, had failed to deliver and the land was suffering from a severe famine. Now that the false prophets of Baal had been defeated and Baal had been shown to be an imposter Elijah spoke to Ahab. He said,
41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. (1 Kings 18:41-42 NIVO)
“…There is the sound of heavy rain.” If that was the case it sure couldn’t have been Baal that was stirring the waters because he had been proved to be no god at all. Furthermore, at the time Elijah “heard” the sound of heavy rain there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We learn that from reading the next verses. Read it with me.
43 “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked. “There is nothing there,” he said. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.” 44 The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.'” 45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:43-45 NIVO)
When Elijah sent his servant to check on the atmospheric conditions wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Seven times Elijah said, “Go back and check again.” Finally, the servant came back and reported there was a tiny cloud, the size of a man’s hand, rising from the sea.
I want to show you something you might miss. What was Elijah’s posture as he prayed? The NIV says Elijah “bent down to the ground and put his head between his knees.” The New American Standard says, “he crouched down on the earth, and put his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42 NAS). That probably doesn’t mean a thing to you because of the day in which we live. Today, if a woman is getting ready to have her baby she goes to the hospital, assumes the position with her feet up in the stirrups, and begins to push through the labor until the baby is born. In biblical times, and in many places in the world today, women crouched down to have their babies. Birthing a baby is hard work…that’s why they call it “labor.”
Elijah crouched down with his head between his knees and he prayed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky so he pushed in prayer. Still no cloud so he pushed and pushed and pushed, he labored in prayer until the rain came.
Prayer is hard work. The struggles of this life are real and sometimes really tough to deal with and yet we so easily give up on praying and crying out to God. We are not only to labor in prayer for our own needs, but we are to pray for others as well. Paul wrote to the people in Galatia and told them,
19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (Galatians 4:19 NIVO)
Paul wrote to the people in Colosse and he told them about the prayerful laboring of Epaphras on their behalf.
12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. (Colossians 4:12 NAS)
Elijah crouched down, put his head between his knees, and prayed. James tells us Elijah was a man like us. Nothing special about the man Elijah, just a guy, but a guy who knew God and knew his total and complete dependence on God. Leonard Ravenhill, in his sermon, “Where Are The Elijah’s of God?,” writes,
We know Elijah was ‘a man of like passions as we are,’ but alas! we are not men of like prayer as he was!’ One praying man stands as a majority with God! Today God is bypassing men—not because they are too ignorant, but because they are too self-sufficient. Brethren, our abilities are our handicaps, and our talents are our stumbling blocks! (Ravenhill, Leonard. Where Are The Elijah’s of God?)
We can learn much from Elijah. How about our prayer lives? Do we labor? Do we continue to push and push, refusing to give up or give in, until we’ve “birthed” God’s answer? Now, you need to know that “God’s answer” isn’t what you want or what I want, it is God’s will. Spurgeon points out the power of Elijah’s praying,
If you read the life of Elijah through, you will see that whenever he takes a step it is preceded by, “The word of the Lord came unto Elijah the Tishbite.” He never acts of himself, God is at his back. He moves according to the divine will, and he speaks according to the divine teaching, and he pleads this with the Most High—“I have done all these things at Your word; now let it be known that it is so.” It makes the character of Elijah stand out, not as an example of reckless daring, but as the example of a man of sound mind. Faith in God is true wisdom; childlike confidence in the word of God is the highest form of common sense. To believe Him that cannot lie, and trust in Him that cannot fail, is a kind of wisdom that none but fools laugh at. (Spurgeon, Charles. Elijah’s Plea. November 9, 1884)
Someone here this morning is on the verge of giving up. You’ve prayed and prayed and there’s still no cloud in the sky. Assume the position and push, keep pushing in prayer, never give up praying. He will strengthen you. He hears you and help is on the way. It may not be the answer you want, but He will answer you and show you that He hasn’t abandoned you if you keep praying and seeking Him with all of your heart.
If you’ve never surrendered your life to Jesus then I’d invite you, plead with you, to do so this very morning. Draw near to Jesus and He will draw near to you.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 5, 2018