Chapter 1. Idolatry Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

Read 1 Samuel 18 and 1 Kings 16:29-17:1

When my wife, Elaine, and I were ministering in Hong Kong, we often saw people bow down to idols. Since only a small percentage of the population even claims to be Christian, the majority of these people are still involved in pagan worship. Their temples and shrines are filled with hundreds of images. Many people have household gods placed outside the entrance to their homes or inside on "god shelves." They believe these idols will bring them peace, protection, and prosperity.

Witch Doctors in Guatemala

I'll never forget our visit to several church structures while ministering in Guatemala. Though we had often heard how people in various parts of the world mix Christianity with pagan religions, we were shocked to see witch doctors performing idolatrous incantations in the main sanctuary of one of these churches.

Earlier, Elaine and I had visited a cave on a mountainside just outside that particular town. The inside walls of the cave were black from the smoke of burnt offerings. The floor was strewn with the remains of animals— chicken feathers, bones, etc. Christian crosses were crudely sketched on the soot-covered walls. This place was well-known in the community as a "witch doctor's cave"— a place where these men engaged in ceremonial rites, praying to evil spirits, and, at the same time, "worshiping" the cross of Christ.

It was startling enough to see Christianity and paganism practiced as a unified religion in a cave on a mountainside, but when we saw it practiced inside a "Christian" church building, it was even more shocking. Seeing this firsthand also helped us to understand more clearly how the children of Israel blended their old idolatrous habits with the worship of the one true God. This is called syncretism, and it is still prevalent in many parts of the world.

A Man Who Suddenly Appeared

God commissioned the prophet Elijah to confront idolatry in Israel. Without background or fanfare, he suddenly appears on the pages of the Old Testament. He's simply identified as "Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead" (1 Kings 17:1).

We know nothing about Elijah's parents and his early years, and we can only speculate regarding his prophetic activity prior to this moment in his life. We can't even pinpoint the place where he was born. Archaeologists have never been able to identify with certainty the location of Tishbe, Elijah's hometown.

In some respects, this is rather startling since Elijah is very prominent in the New Testament. In fact, it was Elijah— along with Moses— who "appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus" on the mount of transfiguration (Luke 9:31; Matt. 17:3). This is one of the most important events in biblical history. God the Father spoke directly and specifically to Peter, James, and John about His Son Jesus Christ. Embodied in this miraculous revelation is the essence of Christianity— the incarnation (God becoming a man), the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and His ascension back to the Father after having completed His work on earth.