There was an expectation of the “power of Elijah” in the ministry of Jesus – as with John the Baptist – but we need to see that the greatness of Christ came most powerfully in weakness, service, and death on a cross.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
What a powerful prophecy spoken of the not-yet-born John the Baptist’s life and ministry… a ministry carried out “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Elijah’s ministry looms large in people’s minds as we reach the end of Luke 9. Some people suspect Jesus to be a returned Elijah figure, or a resurrected John the Baptist (9:19). Even the disciples seem starry-eyed about “the spirit and power of Elijah,” offering to call down fire from heaven upon those who refuse to accept Jesus (Luke 9:54).*
This is the kind of ministry people expected from Jesus. Powerful, exciting, victorious, spectacular! Just as they remembered Elijah’s ministry to have been: calling down fire from heaven, raising the dead, and returning to heaven dramatically in a chariot.**
The problem is: the disciples had Elijah-shaped rose-coloured glasses on. It seems they’d forgotten Elijah’s own weakness and utter dependence on God (1 Kings 19:1-8). Indeed, Jesus himself came with a power and authority surpassing Elijah’s… but it wasn’t the main way he showed his greatness. He welcomed little children and said that whoever was least in the kingdom was the greatest (9:48). He promised that the way to save one’s life is to lose it for his sake (9:23). He called his followers to daily take up a cross – just as he would, to win the ultimate victory through weakness.
This is the great surprise of the gospel. This beautiful reversal, where the least are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and true power is found in our deepest weakness.
Yet, I don’t know about you, but I’m so like the disciples. Even knowing this, and having my Lord Jesus daily before me, my heart can still be pulled away by the world’s vision of greatness. The vision of feeling capable, significant, and in control.
We don’t like feeling needy, weak, and dependent on others. We don’t like feeling immature in our faith and our emotions. We feel guilty for not knowing something we think we should know… for not being the mum we should be. The friend we should be. The husband or worker or evangelist or growth group leader we should be. For not being the Christian we should be.
It can be painful to come to the end of yourself… to the end of your own resources. But this place is where true power is found. Jesus said to Paul, and says to you today: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Jesus wasn’t afraid to have a ministry of humility and service and even weakness… and because of him, we can know true power – which is never ours. It’s his. That’s why it’s in our weakness that we find his power.
* Compare with 2 Kings 1:9-12, where Elijah brings down fire from heaven upon the soldiers of the evil and idolatrous king Ahaziah.
** See 2 Kings 1:9-12; 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 2:11, respectively.
Head: Why do you think it’s so hard to let go of “world-shaped” longings for significance and control?
Heart: Where are you feeling frustrated or weak or incapable at the moment? Consider how Jesus himself might be your delight and your strength today.
Hands: What practical help might you need to receive from – and offer to – others this week?
Prayer: My Father, please forgive my desire for greatness – to be capable and significant in what I do. As I sit at the feet of Jesus today, make me like him in his servant-heartedness – content with weakness, that I might know the only true power – his. Amen.
A song to listen to: No Other Name