With all of the talk of a potential revival sweeping the nation right now, I think it’s a good time to discuss the difference between “the fire of spiritual revival” and “the whisper of daily obedience.”
While we all want to see a spiritual awakening sweep the nation and the world, we must recognize that God’s normal work is in the steady obedience of his fully committed remnant.
There’s nobody who knew this better than Elijah. He learned the lesson toward the end of his prophetic ministry, and the process of it was painful.
When we catch his story in 1 Kings 19, it’s after he scored a major ministry victory in what I love to call “the showdown at Mt. Carmel corral.” What happened at the top of this mountain? He issued a challenge to the prophets of Baal, a duel of sorts—their god versus his God.
For years now, Baal worship had been normalized in Israel. King Ahab and his evil wife, Jezebel, had made it the norm. Across the Promised Land, the Israelites had broken the promises they’d made to God and Baal worship had replaced worship of the one true God.
Elijah was sick of it. It infuriated him. So the news was sent out that there would be a showdown between him and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. It must have looked as though everyone in Israel showed up to Mt. Carmel that day. On one side was the camel-fur-wearing prophet, Elijah, and on the other side were the 450 prophets of Baal.
Surrounding them, thousands upon thousands of Israelites were waiting to watch who would win. That’s when the somewhat cranky prophet took center stage:
Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’1 Kings 18:21
Then Elijah issued the details of the showdown: Build an altar, make a sacrifice, and whosever god answers with fire and burns up the sacrifice with fire from Heaven would be crowned as the one true God.
The prophets of Baal went first. They prayed confidently, knowing that Baal, the god who rode clouds and loved storms, would soon bolt to a victory by sending down lightning to consume their sacrifice in a flash. But as they prayed and prayed and prayed, morning turned to noon and noon turned to afternoon. And still the sky was quiet.
Elijah taunted them, and soon their praying turned to shouting and then to feverish screaming. They even started cutting themselves, trying to get Baal to answer.
But he did not.
So, at the time of evening sacrifice, Elijah pushed the sweaty, bloody, exhausted prophets of Baal aside as he made his way toward the old, broken-down altar of the LORD that was on top of Mt. Carmel. Then he slowly and methodically rebuilt it, and dug a trench around the altar.
Next, he put wood on top of the altar, slaughtered the bull, cut it up in pieces, and arranged them all on top of the wood. Then he asked for four large jars filled with water and had them poured over the sacrifice and altar again and again and again, until the altar was drenched, the wood was wet, and the trenches around the altar were full.
Then he prayed a 60-second prayer. To put this in context, the prophets of Baal had prayed for six hours straight. Do the multiplication of 450 prophets of Baal praying for six hours—that’s 2,700 man-hours of prayer versus Elijah’s one minute.
But Elijah’s prayer was answered in a flash, literally. God sent the boom and the fire so powerfully that not only was the bull consumed, but so was the wood, the altar, the soil under the altar, and the water around the altar.
Shocked and frightened, the people collapsed to the ground and started chanting, “The LORD—He is God! The LORD—He is God!” But Elijah wasn’t finished. He commanded the people to kill all the false prophets of Baal. and that’s exactly what they did.
Elijah scored his victory in an instant. Not only did he win the showdown, but he also wiped out the competition. In that moment, he must have been convinced that the fire of revival would strike in Israel, just as that lightning bolt from Heaven had struck the sacrifice.
Instead, it led to a death threat from the evil queen Jezebel, whose prophets he had humbled and slaughtered on Mt. Carmel that day.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’1 Kings 19:3-4
Fueled by terror and adrenaline, he ran, and then walked, and then slogged, ending up in a cave 280 miles away from Mt. Carmel, in the middle of a desolate wilderness. It was in the pitch black of that cold cave that he finally fell asleep, after 40 straight days and nights of weeping, wondering, and wandering.
After he awoke the next day, God gave him an earth, wind, and fire object lesson he would never forget.
The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. …
The LORD said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.1 Kings 19:11-13; 15-18
At the mouth of the cave that day, Elijah learned the difference between the fire of spiritual revival and the whisper of daily obedience.
We must learn that same lesson, especially as it seems “the prophets of Baal” (the world, the flesh, and the devil) are being defeated at Asbury University and that young people across the nation are increasingly chanting: “The LORD—He is God! The LORD—He is God!”
We all love the fire of revival. We all love it when God seems to send a lightning bolt of awakening, and the people, especially young people, hold high the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. We all love it when there seems to be a move of God that sweeps.
But what happened at Mt. Carmel didn’t translate to a true revival that transformed the culture and truly turned it back to God. It was a flash in a pan, and soon after, things went back to the norm.
What does the object lesson God gave to Elijah have to do with all of this?
We tend to look at God’s work primarily as the hurricane force wind that brings in the Spirit of God and sets everyone’s tongue ablaze with the Gospel (Acts 2:1-4). Or the earth-shaking power of God that rattles the building when His people pray (Acts 4:31). Or the lightning bolt of fire from Heaven that consumes the sacrifice (1 Kings 18).
But, as amazing as those experiences are, they aren’t God’s primary modes of working. Of course He uses those to accomplish His will and, sometimes, to launch spiritual movements. But His primary mode is in the whisper of daily obedience.
Elijah thought he was alone (“I am the only one left…” 1 Kings 19:10). He thought he’d failed at launching a revival (“I am no better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:4) and that his ministry hadn’t made a difference. Why? Because his dramatic victory on Mt. Carmel didn’t lead to lasting revival.
But God showed him something different. He whispered encouragement into his soul.
He reminded Elijah:
‘Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’1 Kings 19:18
What at first seems to be a rebuke turns into a flood of refreshment for Elijah’s revival-thirsty soul. God had reserved 7,000 who had refused to compromise and worship Baal. God had reserved a radicalized remnant who, like Elijah, were fully surrendered to the true and living God.
And guess whose preaching had inspired them? Elijah’s!
Guess whose example had inspired them? Elijah’s!
Guess who was not only their hero, but also the hero of a hundred prophets hidden away in caves (1 Kings 18:4)? Elijah!
Guess who most likely inspired the thought of launching a school for prophets? Elijah!
God had used the whisper of daily obedience in Elijah’s life to produce a radicalized remnant of the few rather than triggering a sweeping revival of the many. And God was reminding him of that.
He had made a difference.
And that difference had been made long before the showdown on Mt. Carmel.
What does all of this mean for the current revival happening at Asbury and in more and more spots across the nation and around the world? It means we need to keep being obedient, no matter what. We need to be daily fixated on Jesus in our everyday jobs or school classes. We need to make the grind a godly one. We need a relentless consecration of self and dealing with sin in our own lives, making sure we’re not “kissing the baals” of our culture. We need to have a steady flow of outward activation for the Gospel, sharing God’s message with everyone.
If this fire that struck Asbury University a few weeks ago is from God, it will continue to burn. But either way, we must continue to practice what Eugene Peterson calls “long obedience in the same direction.”
And God will use your relentless obedience, boldness, and faith to raise up a radicalized remnant to change the world.
Praise God for the spiritual hurricanes, earthquakes, and lightning bolts when they happen. But don’t underestimate the transforming power of God’s whisper in the dust of everyday life.