Preparing God’s Way

Preparing God’s Way

This morning we come to the last of the Elijah stories in our series in which he passes his prophet mantle—literally—on to his spiritual son, Elisha. As our passage opens, Elijah’s prayer that the LORD take his life, which we looked at last week,[1] is about to be answered. In fact, as stated in verse 1 Elijah’s being taken by the LORD provides the setting for the entire passage: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind.” What is interesting about this statement is that the LORD had disclosed this imminent incident to all his prophets—and all who are mentioned in our passage are prophets of God. So as prophets, all were aware that this was the day in which Elijah would be taken from them.

As far as the relationship between all of these prophets is concerned, at this time there were bands, or companies, of prophets—or “sons of prophets” in some translations[2]—who served the LORD. These companies of prophets were apparently religious communities that sprang up in the face of a general indifference and apostasy in Israel which we have seen throughout all of the Elijah stories. The relationships between the bands of prophets with the great prophets mentioned in scripture—Elijah, Elisha, and Samuel before them—was understandably close, with the greater prophets serving as a kind of mentor to the companies of prophets.[3] In this passage from II Kings, we see mention of a “company of the prophets at Bethel” (3) and another “company of the prophets at Jericho” (5).[4]

What is also evident here is Elisha’s attachment to Elijah.[5] When Elijah tells Elisha to stay at Gilgal[6] since the LORD has sent him to Bethel, Elisha replies, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (2) and both end up going to Bethel together. While there, the first company of prophets came out and said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” Elisha did know, of course, and asked them to say no more of it (3).

Elijah next told Elisha to stay at Bethel for the LORD had sent him to Jericho. And again Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (4) and so they went to Jericho together. And, as occurred at Bethel, a second company of prophets came out and said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” and he answered in the same manner as with the first company, acknowledging that he did indeed know and asking them to hold their peace (5).

Lastly, Elijah told Elisha to stay at Bethel for the LORD had sent him to Jordan and—not surprisingly—Elisha’s answer didn’t waver: “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (6) and so the two continued on. It’s at Jordan that the LORD would finally take Elijah. And Elisha wasn’t the only witness for “Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan” (7).

Once Elijah and Elisha arrived at the Jordan River, Elijah, in an action that seems like a miniature reenactment of the parting of the Red Sea by Moses when he and Israel were fleeing from Pharaoh and the Egyptians,[7] “took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground” (8).

Now before leaving his spiritual son, Elijah turned to Elisha and asked, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha replied, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” (9) Now Elisha isn’t being greedy here. This is the language of inheritance at the time. Inheritance law assigned a double portion of a father’s possession to the firstborn son[8] though in Elisha’s case, he didn’t ask for an inheritance of property or land but a spiritual one. Nor was he a biological son, but, again, a spiritual one. And Elisha wasn’t asking for a ministry twice as great as Elijah’s, rather he was expressing his desire to carry on Elijah’s ministry, which very thing the LORD had called him to do.

Elijah indicates that this is a difficult request. We don’t know why he says this. It may be that it’s difficult because such a request isn’t his to grant, but the LORD’s. So he tells Elisha, “if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not” (10) thereby solidifying Elisha’s refusal to leave him at any cost. And then we have a final miracle in Elijah’s life, recorded for us in verse 11: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” So Elisha is present at this wondrous event and cries out “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” (12), never to see his spiritual father again this side of heaven. The “chariot of fire and horses” mentioned is a manifestation of the LORD’s heavenly host, his army, that is always present even though we may not be aware of it. And this isn’t the only time in Elisha’s life when he will see the Lord’s host, his army. There’s a wonderful recurrence of this host later on in his life. At a time when all hope seemed to be lost and Elisha and his servant were surrounded by the king of Israel’s horses and chariots, the servant understandably panicked saying, “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” (II Kings 6:15b). And Elijah replied, “Don’t be afraid… Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (6) and then we read the following: “And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (17). Though we live in an age that rarely speaks about spiritual warfare, it’s worth remembering that there are realities our eyes cannot see but that nonetheless exist and may be used by the LORD at times to protect those who are his.

Now traditionally, the taking up of Elijah into heaven—as well as Enoch being whisked away[9]—have been understood to mean that of all the people mentioned in Scripture, these two never experienced an earthly death. But we needn’t be sidetracked by this phenomenon since the fate of all who know the LORD is that we are given the amazing gift of never being separated from his presence and love—not even by death—and that we will be with and enjoy him not only during our earthly lives but also for all eternity in heaven. [10]

Another point I want to briefly highlight is something I learned from Dr. Stuart’s preaching. Though he wasn’t the first to make the observation, he did coin the phrase “repetition of endearment” to indicate that when someone in Scripture—in both Old and New Testament contexts—states a person’s name twice—as Elisha does here in referring to Elijah as “my father, my father,” it’s an indication of an intimate relationship between the two. Though as we’ve already noted Elijah wasn’t Elisha’s biological father, he was his spiritual father, father being a title of respect for someone in authority.[11] And the tearing of his garment in two is a clear expression of the distress and grief Elisha feels over Elijah’s being taken from him. The tearing may further indicate a leaving behind of his old life—represented by his torn garment—as he then put on Elijah’s mantle which had fallen from him when he was taken up by the LORD in the whirlwind, in verse 13.

So Elijah’s mantle, or cloak, is literally passed on to Elijah who picks it up and stands on the bank of the Jordan River. He takes this cloak and, as Elijah had done (8), strikes the water with it with the same result Elijah had had—the water divides and he crosses over (14). The band of prophets from Jericho are witness to this and observe, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha” and they went out to meet him and bowed in reverence before him (15). In so doing they were letting him know that they would be loyal to his leadership even as they had been to Elijah’s. But they requested permission to go look for Elijah: “Look,” they said, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley” (16). Elisha initially turned down their request but eventually relented. The fifty prophets unsuccessfully searched for Elijah for three days and when they returned to Elisha he, in effect, said to them, “I told you so,” and so our passage ends (17–18).

As we wrap up the Elijah portion of our series this morning, it’s worth asking ourselves what we can learn from his life and teaching. There are both connects and disconnects between his life and ours that are important for us to take note of.

First, the disconnects. Elijah, along with Moses—and last week we highlighted a number of similarities between the two[12]—are connected in the mind of God’s people because of what God discloses in his Word. In the book of Malachi in the Old Testament we read about a pivotal association that is made between the two. In chapter 4, Malachi is addressing the day of the LORD when he will come in judgment and make all things right once and for all. Malachi prophecies:

1“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Both Moses and Elijah played pivotal roles in God’s plan of redemption, in his plan to restore his shalom to all of life, which involves both judgment of the wicked and reconciliation with those who turn to the LORD.

This backdrop—this understanding—in the minds of the Jewish people, God’s chosen people and nation whom he created for himself, informed their understanding of a key New Testament event involving not only Elijah and Moses, but also Jesus at his Transfiguration—in his radiant appearance in glory to three of his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John. In Mark’s version of this event,[13] it states in part:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus…. Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

Here Elijah—representing God’s prophets—and Moses—representing God’s law—are witnessed as being present with Jesus indicating that the day of the LORD has arrived for in the person of Jesus Christ, God has entered history in the flesh. And the Father’s voice from heaven further confirms that in his Son, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, has arrived. Whereas the LORD had passed his glory before Moses and Elijah in their lifetime, Jesus Christ is the glory of the LORD for Jesus Christ is God.

So what are we to make of all of this? Does God expect us to be like Moses and Elijah? I don’t know. For most of us I think this would be highly unlikely. But I think there are a number of important things we can learn from this passage.

First, though we are not a band or company of prophets, Scripture clearly teaches that because of what God in Christ has done, we are a family, a spiritual family, much like Elijah was Elisha’s spiritual father. As I look around this morning I see fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and children in the Lord. And as family, we are called to have an intimate relationship with one another—as intimate as that which we have with out biological families. We’re called to care for each other—to help meet one another’s needs—to be present with one another. We should be able to say to each other a repetition of endearment, “my family, my family” indicating the deep bond the LORD has given us by calling us all out of darkness into his wonderful light. Brothers and sisters—brothers and sisters!—we are not alone. God is ever with us and he’s given us each other to uphold and sustain one another in good times, bad times, and in between times.

Second, like the Old Testament prophets, we, too, are called to live faithfully in a culture that similarly often displays a general indifference and even apostasy—an abandonment or renunciation of belief in Christ—in our day. Though we may be not used by God in the same manner as he used Moses and Elijah, God nonetheless wants us to live faithfully before him and others. He wants our family to expand. He wants us to bear witness in word and deed to those who don’t yet know him. We’re all called to remain faithful in our generation and symbolically pass on the mantle of faithfulness to Christ to those who follow. And even if we may feel discouraged and hopeless and alone in our attempts, sometimes meager, to testify to God’s presence and goodness, we need to remember that we are not alone. God and his host are with us. As Paul states in Romans 8: “31bIf God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” So let us take heart!

Finally, our passage reminds us of the reality of death—and of eternal life. There isn’t a person present this morning who hasn’t experienced the loss of someone we love. But as followers of Christ, when we lose someone we grieve, yes, but not as those who have no hope.[14] Elisha’s grief over having Elijah taken away from him was real, as all grief is. But even if those we love aren’t taken from us by a dramatic chariot of fire and horses of fire—even if we don’t see that sweet chariot Ben sang so beautifully about coming for to carry our loved ones or us home—we nonetheless can rest confident in the fact that our loving brother, Savior, and Lord, Jesus will return for us. Listen to these words from John 14:

1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” [And, jumping ahead,]

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Brothers and sisters, isn’t is amazing to know that our Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has loved us so much that he not only made us in his image but, when we turned from him, he chose to remain faithful to us in the midst of our faithlessness? That despite our rejection of him, he nonetheless chose to redeem us by giving up his life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ, that we might not ever experience death—that we might not ever experience separation from him? And, as if that weren’t enough, isn’t is incredible to realize that it’s impossible for us to be separated from him? Not only because he fills the universe he made—a world which cannot contain him—but also because he has given us his Holy Spirit who even this morning indwells us and is with us both individually and as a family?

So let us pray for the will and the strength to live faithfully as a family,

Let us pray for the will and the strength to live faithfully in a culture that all too often doesn’t desire to know God,

Let us pray for the will and the strength to love our LORD even as he loves us with his undying and eternal love.

[1] I Kings 19:4b: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

[2] ESV. i.e., the prophets were members of a kind of guild.

[3] NIV under I Kings 20:35 and II Kings 2:3 notes.

[4] ESV: Jericho was in the Jordan Valley about 10 miles northwest of the Dead Sea. It’s the city the Israelites first conquered in Canaan. This group of prophets is the same as the one mentioned in verse 7: “[f]ifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance” A third company of prophets was located at Gilgal—II Kings 4:38: Elisha returned to Gilgal and there was a famine in that region. While the company of the prophets was meeting with him, he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot and cook some stew for these prophets.”

[5] Elisha has been devoted since his initial call, leaving his family to become Elijah’s servant. I Kings 19:19–21: 19 So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. 20 Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” “Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?” 21 So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.

[6] NIV: The “Gilgal” mentioned probably isn’t the well-known town in the Jordan Valley since they “went down” from it to Bethel. This Gilgal is more likely located eight miles north of Bethel.

[7] Exodus 14:16, 21–22, 26–28: 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground….21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left…. 26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

[8] NIV. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 21:15–17: 15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

[9] Genesis 5:21–24: 21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. 24 Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away; Hebrews 11:5–6:By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

[10] Romans 6:22–23: 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[11] ESV. See, e.g. (Joseph is the speaker)—Gen. 45:8: So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. This same term is later used of Elisha, II Kings 6:21: When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”; 13:14: Now Elisha had been suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. “My father! My father!” he cried. “The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

[12] Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai—Elijah fled from Jezebel for 40 days; the LORD passed before both men in a time of great discouragement and opposition from their enemies; and here as Moses parted the Red Sea, so too Elijah and Elisha parted the Jordan River.

[13] Mark 9:2–13: After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” 12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” The Transfiguration account is also provided in Matthew 17:1–13 and Luke 9:28–36.

[14] I Thessalonians 4:13ff.

Leave a Reply