This excerpt is from the blog back in September 2007. Phil explains why he keeps being drawn back to the record of Elijah's life.
My fascination with Elijah goes back to my college years. My freshman year at Moody Bible Institute, Moody Press released a very thin but potent book by Howard Hendricks on Elijah, drawn from Hendricks's messages at Founders Week the year before. I loved Hendricks and loved his book.
Then a year or two after that, the Moody Church Choir did a performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, and that blew me away. Believe it or not, Mendelssohn made me notice several things about Elijah I never thought about before. I became captivated with the prophet's life and ministry.
[L]et's...take note of Elijah's first appearance on the pages of the Old Testament text.
He just shows up suddenly in 1 Kings 17 without any prelude or introduction. He appears out of nowhere like Melchizedek, without any lineage, without any explanation of his background, and without any account of how he was called or what qualified him for the task he was given.
His appearance is as unexpected as it is abrupt. He arrives on the scene at a time when we might least expect to see a great prophet in Israel— during a time that was arguably Israel's worst apostasy ever.
It was as if the divine Author of Scripture deliberately wanted to surprise us with the appearance of this man. Without any warning or prologue whatsoever, Elijah stands dead center in the narrative, and dead center in Ahab's court, delivering an ultimatum. Matthew Henry says it is as if Elijah dropped from the sky like an angel. But he is no angel. He is every bit a man—and in some ways he might even seem like the most unlikely man for the task God gave him to do.
Elijah was both an ordinary and an extraordinary man. The apostle James stresses his ordinariness in James 5:17: "Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are." He was first of all a fallen man, with the same sinful passions you and I struggle with daily. He was also a common man, without any unusual credentials or special status. And he was a zealous man, living in a decadent culture (with many similarities to our so-called postmodern culture), and hating the spiritual apathy, false religion, and outright contempt for the truth that so dominated that society.
In fact, I suppose one of the reasons I like Elijah is that he is so easy to identify with. His character flaws are not obscured or papered over in the biblical account of his life. (Scripture never does that. The Holy Spirit always paints people warts and all. Elijah is no exception.) We see him panicky, and angry, and frustrated with God. All of that makes his outstanding courage all the more remarkable. Elijah was a fallible human being, just like you and me.
But he did not remain ordinary. By God's transforming grace, Elijah became one of the most extraordinary men of the Old Testament. It is significant, I think, that of all the great men of God we meet in the Old Testament, only two make a personal appearance in the New Testament: Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3). That's pretty elite company.
And at the end of his life, as if to signify how truly remarkable this man was, God took him alive to heaven in a flaming chariot. No one in all the Old Testament supersedes him in greatness. In fact, Elijah was so extraordinary that liberal commentators like to treat him as a mythical figure.
But—and this is James's point—there was nothing mythical about Elijah. He was a man subject to like passions as we are. In fact, we could use a whole lot more of his passion.