God’s grace in substitution

God’s grace in substitution

The top of Mt Carmel in the Kingdom of Israel was a tense place to be in 1 Kings 18. A challenge had been set up between the 450 prophets of Baal on one hand and Elijah the prophet of the LORD on the other. The citizens of Israel gathered around to watch. We are not quite sure what they were thinking. We know from later in 1 Kings that thousands of people in Israel had never bowed the knee to Baal, but most of them seem to have been active participants in Baal worship. For sure, many might have been bullied into this new worship by their scary Queen Jezebel who murdered anyone who publicly supported the LORD.

When challenged, the people refused to choose one god or the other. They didn’t declare their hand. They wouldn’t admit to trusting the LORD. We know what God’s judgement on them will be. They are guilty. They have turned from the LORD. According to the covenant curses in Deuteronomy, all kinds of terrible things would come upon them for their rebellion.

In fact, when the fire did come down from heaven, the fair outcome would be if the fire fell on the people of Israel. There was precedent for this. In ancient times, the city of Sodom was destroyed by fire that fell from heaven because of its sin. The sin of these people was just as bad. What they should have had from God was fire.

Yet the fire didn’t come on the people. The fire fell on the sacrifice Elijah had offered. This fire consumed not only the meat but the stones and water and everything! God poured judgement on the bull and not the people. They watched on, seeing the power of God, and only after this did they confess that he was God. And only after the sacrifice was burnt up did the promised rain come.

This is a picture of the gospel in the Old Testament. Here are people who deserve death for their sin. They stand before God guilty. Yet God doesn’t destroy them, but he demonstrates his love and power through the sacrifice of a bull in their place. They deserve death but receive life, and even blessing in the rain, that they did not deserve. They watched on as a substitute died in their place. And the response they made was the only realistic one; they fell on their faces in worship.

Jesus died in our place. Jesus took what we deserved. He died so we could live.

Unfortunately, this ‘devotion’ to God was short-lived. The people of Israel, overall, never returned to the faithful service of God. Even after seeing the sacrifice burnt up in front of their eyes. God showed them such grace, yet they never truly turned to him in faith.

1 Kings 18 is not only a demonstration that our God is the true God. It is a picture of atonement, of God providing a sacrifice instead of pouring his judgement out on our heads. We should always be astounded at the depth of God’s love for people like us.