A couple of weeks ago, we studied 1 Kings 19:11-21 in Bible Class at my church. I have some thoughts on the passage, and would like to explore them in a short series of posts.
The passage begins just after the story of Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal, whom God proves to be frauds and subsequently executes by the hand of Elijah. God proceeds to finally send rain upon Israel, bringing an end to the three-year drought He has imposed as a judgment upon the land. This should be a great victory for Elijah, but his triumph is turned to despair when God's victory produces not repentance, but rather greater evil from the queen Jezebel, who vows to kill the prophet. Despairing of life, Elijah flees into the wilderness. This passage begins with God first speaking to Elijah, and then sending many signs: fires and earthquakes and tempests. But God Himself is not in any of these. Finally, the still, small voice of God comes to Elijah, saying, "What are you doing here," and the prophet responds,
"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I onlly, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away."
God's response is an exhortation to Elijah but also a comforting word of promise that does not merely answer the prophet's situation but also prophecies God's deliverance and provision for believers today. Let us examine the words of the Lord.
"Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus."
God does not say, "Enter the city," but rather, "Return to the wilderness," a distinction that speaks volumes both to the prophet and to the church today. For, in speaking to Elijah, God also speaks to us, His church. We have been saved and delivered from sin, death, and the devil; Christ protects us and will not allow anyone to snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28). He has won the final victory and in Him we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). But we still live in the midst of great trials and afflictions. Sins still plague us, evil men still oppress us; the world still hates the Gospel and persecutes the church. As the hymn proclaims, Christ has "brought His Israel [the church]...through the Red Sea waters" out of slavery in Egypt through His death and resurrection, and yet we still must wander in the wilderness before we reach the promised land: the great city, the New Jerusalem, which Christ will found at His return. We live not in the bondage of slavery nor in the raptures of paradise, but rather in the wilderness journey. Thus, we should not seek to avoid the realities of this our present life, but should rather traverse boldly through the wilderness in the confidence of salvation and the hope of future glory.
"And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place."
God does not leave us alone in the wilderness of this world, but rather makes provision for our protection and guidance. As in the past He anointed kings through His prophets, He now anoints ministers of the Word through His church. Although this passage foreshadows God's establishment of earthly authorities in our time for the condemnation of evil and the commendation of good (Romans 13: 3-4), it has a higher meaning in that it prophecies the office of the holy ministry, by which Christ comes to us in power through human vessels: pastors who exercise His authority to preach the Word, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments. In this office, He provides for "apostolic succession," not in the twisted sense taught in the Roman church, but in the sense that each generation, by the grace of God, hands down the faith to the next by the teaching and ministry of pastors and preachers.
"And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death."
This apostolic succession will come, not through lineage or institution, but through continuance in the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42), that is, through the Word. For Peter's confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is the rock on which Christ has promised to build His church (Matthew 16:15-17), and the sword with which ministers in the church shall put men to death is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17). With the stern proclamation of God's Law, preachers will spiritually put to death rebellious sinners, condemning their sin and warning them of judgment, awakening in their heart the terrors of conscience.
"Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."
But still, as Isaiah proclaims so often in His prophecies, God will leave a remnant of the faithful who remain steadfast in His Word. For although the sword of the Law kills, the Gospel has power to raise repentant sinners to life. When the ministers of the Word put their hearers to death with the sword of the Law, many will remain obstinate in their sins and die eternally. But God preserves a remnant, those who, having been killed by the Law, are risen again to new life when they repent and believe the Gospel. This remnant is His church, the Body and Bride of Christ, the fellowship of believers, the figurative "7,000" who bow to the Lord and not to Baal, the "144,000" who have not received the mark of the beast but the seal of Christ (Revelation 7:1-4). The Church is the assembly of God's people in the wilderness of the world, who endure tribulation in the confidence that they are sealed with the salvation won for them by Jesus.
These words of the Lord are a prophecy of His Kingdom on earth. The Kingdom comes by the Word, in the church, through the holy ministry. This Word, this church, this ministry operate in an alien land, a hostile wilderness. The work of the church is carried out in enemy territory, amidst all kinds of trials and sufferings and weaknesses and persecutions and tribulations. It is a dangerous and seemingly futile mission, but not without hope, because our suffering here on earth is a partaking in the cross of Christ, by which He gained our salvation. Therefore, as to Elijah, so Jesus also speaks to us, saying, "Do not despair: I have won; my story will prevail. I have established my church in the midst of the wilderness, and have anointed ministers to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments. You are not alone, but a member of my church; you are not helpless, for I am all the strength you need. Therefore, you also continue in the mission and calling which you have been given, as Elijah did, trusting me in the confidence that I will preserve you to the end."