Luke 1:17 NIV. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah….
John would be a man, according to the prediction of the angel, “great in the eyes of the Lord.” He would never touch wine, indicating a lifelong devotion to God, in the manner of a Nazarene. He was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth, which was an extraordinary concept for his father, who thought of the Holy Spirit as something that came on people only temporarily for special purposes of God; Zechariah was beginning to realise that his son’s whole life was to fulfil a special purpose of God. Furthermore, John was, according to the angel, to “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.” What could that mean?
Elijah was a prophet that was well known to the people of Israel. He was prominent in the minds of all Jews, and his name was synonymous with power and authority. His story is told in the Old Testament in the books of the Kings (1 Kings 17-19, 2 Kings 1-2). It is a story of miraculous healing, fire from heaven, signs and wonders. It is a story lived out in an Israel that had turned its back on God, an Israel that had chosen instead to worship other gods. When Zechariah was told that his son would live “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” he knew that John would grow to be a man of authority, a man willing to stand up to false gods, a man passionate for the name and the honour of God. That he would “go on before the Lord,” suggested that he would be preparing the way for something, someone, even greater.
So much for John, but what does this say to those of us who also want to pursue greatness in God’s eyes, rather than worldly greatness? What should we aspire to? For Elijah’s story is one of supernatural power that would seem today to be the stuff of myth and legend. Do we need to have miraculous powers to be people of God? What are the marks of Elijah that we should pursue?
The thing that stands out for me is that Elijah, and later John, were men whose passion and purpose in life was to present God in all his power and wonder to an unbelieving generation. They were proud of God. They were confident in God. They were willing to stick their necks out for God. They took risks, speaking out against the godlessness of the age and calling people to return to the one who had created them. It is easy to get focussed on Elijah calling down fire from heaven, or to wish that we, like Elijah, could bring children back to life by the simple act of crying out to God. There is enough evil in our world to justify the first, and enough suffering to justify the second. But we need to remember that these were only signposts to the most important thing, and not the most important thing itself.
It was not the apparent power itself, but the source of the power, that impassioned Elijah and John. It was their preoccupation with the Creator, their obsession with him, that made these extraordinary acts possible. That should be our focus too. We need to be proud of God, we need to boast about him, we need to be confident in him. We need to be willing to challenge the world around us to worship him and him alone. Like Elijah we live in a world that has placed its trust in other things than the Creator and Father of mankind. Our trust is in ourselves and our own wisdom, and in the things we have created. But like the Baals of the Elijah story these are false gods, without any real power, certainly without the power to save. We, and the world around us, need to redirect our trust, our faith, our hope, and our worship, away from the temporary things of this world, and back to the one who created the world and everything in it. Great in the eyes of the Lord is not primarily about being able to employ the power of God; rather it means to be passionate for God and all that he is and to be willing to declare that to an unbelieving world.