I love the famous confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al in 1 Kings 18. It’s a dramatic scene (one that I am still holding out hope will make it into a feature film about Elijah), and it is just as relevant for modern readers as it was for ancient Israel. We are bombarded with claims from false gods just like they were, but the one true God stands apart.
1. False gods require strenuous efforts; the true God is known by grace through faith.
False gods require strenuous dancing to please them. We see it in the prophets of Ba’al, who danced around the altar in their attempt to get their god’s attention (1 Kings 18:26). That is how every false religion operates: if you obey well enough, then you will be accepted. Thus religious ‘gods’ like Allah say, “Are you dancing hard enough? Are you keeping the commandments well enough?”
But secular gods are just as demanding. Popularity, money, or beauty demand that you dance like a slave to please them. So if money is your god, you dance like a slave for it, to get into the right school, to get the right job, to get that promotion. If beauty is your god, you dance—sometimes literally—so you’ll feel good about your body. If popularity is your god, then you dance for your circle of friends, desperately seeking to gain their approval.
The prophets of Ba’al danced, but all Elijah did was pray in faith (1 Kings 18:36–37). That is because Elijah knew the true God, the God of the gospel. Every other religion says that your acceptance is based on your obedience, but the gospel is unlike every other religion. The religious say, “I obey; therefore I am accepted.” The gospel reverses that: “I am accepted; therefore I obey.”
2. False gods mutilate us; the true God mutilated himself for us.
The prophets of Ba’al begin by dancing around their altar. They end by slashing at themselves until their blood runs (1 Kings 18:28). False gods always push us toward destruction: “Work harder. Do better. Obtain more. You still aren’t getting my attention. Slash yourself!” So we slash at our bodies by going through crash diets to attain that perfect figure. We slash at our families by overworking to make extra money. We slash at our souls by compromising our integrity to get someone’s affection.
False gods push us to mutilate ourselves, because we desperately want to win their approval. But only one God was ever mutilated for us—Jesus Christ. This story ends with a magnificent fire coming from heaven, but as Jesus himself points out to his first disciples, the fire was not intended for sinful humanity (Luke 9:51–56). It was ultimately intended for him: of all the characters in this story, Jesus is not Elijah, calling down fire; he is the sacrifice who receives the fire of judgment.
At the cross, Jesus took into his body the fire of God’s justice so that we could take into our lives the fire of God’s love. Other gods demand dancing, slashing, mutilation. But Jesus Christ is the only God who was slashed and mutilated for us. As Tim Keller has said, “Every other god will make your blood run; only the true God bleeds for you.”
For more, be sure to listen to the entire sermon here.