The Gospel of Luke contains one of the more unforgettable declarations of the Lord Jesus on the matter of discipleship. Speaking to a massive multitude of people, the Teacher from Nazareth offers some clarity on what it means and what it looks like for one to follow him. “If any man come to me,” he says, “and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). On its own, this locution of the Lord Jesus is easily one of the more unyielding ones in the canonical Scriptures. The Savior makes his standard for discipleship rigidly clear, enlarging upon this idea with two subsequent parabolic anecdotes about an architect and a king (Luke 14:27–32). And while it’s not my intent to digress into a lengthy discussion as to Jesus’s use of the word “hate” in relation to one’s own family, the gist of passage is clear: discipleship is an all or nothing game. Following Jesus meant absolute surrender. He wasn’t looking for fence-straddlers. “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
As uncompromising as these words are, I find it fascinating that we as the church are so quick to assume that we can live up to them. With such unyielding criteria in place for who can and cannot be his disciple, you’d think that we would cower under such weight. But we don’t. We go right on singing that beloved hymn, “All to Jesus, I surrender,”1 without even a moment’s pause to see if that’s true. Don’t get me wrong: “I Surrender All” is a cherished mainstay at the conclusion of worship services in my particular sphere of Christendom, and I’m glad for it. But I wonder if we ever consciously contemplate the ramifications of what we’re singing? “All to Jesus I surrender, / All to Him I freely give” — who can say that that’s always true, all the time? No one, that’s who. For as long as the good Lord lets us live, there will always be a part of us that remains unsurrendered.
Be that as it may, we are right to sing such choruses with hearts that are resigned to faith in the Lord’s words above all else. “All to Jesus, I surrender” is a prayer of the soul. It is the vocalizing of what our hearts strive for, even if we’re never able to achieve such a standard. Even if/when we fall short. Such a prayer commits us to living by faith (2 Cor. 5:7), yes, even (and especially) in the realm of discipleship. Our understanding of discipleship largely springs from what we find in the New Testament, but we do ourselves a grave disservice if we sequester such studies to only the last 27 books of our Bibles. The Old Testament contains a smattering of narratives which tend towards this discussion — none better, perhaps, than the last few verses of 1 Kings 19.
So [Elijah] departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth: and Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle upon him. And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee. And he said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee? And he returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat. Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him. (1 Kings 19:19–21)
The surprise of God’s call.
Elijah’s dismay over Israel’s idolatrous and iniquitous condition has been answered in full by the Voice of Yahweh. That “still small voice” nourished the prophet with words of duty and hope (1 Kings 19:15–18). What’s more, his lament that he was all alone as Yahweh’s only remaining faithful representative is successfully dispelled by the tandem announcements of a replacement and a remnant (1 Kings 19:16, 18). Elijah’s distress is heard and acknowledged the Lord of all, who subsequently informs him that Yahweh’s plans and purposes are still in effect, still ongoing, and that he has a part yet to play. Elijah, then, departs from Horeb and eventually spies the man he is commissioned by God to seek out, the one he was to “anoint to be prophet in [his] room” (1 Kings 19:16): Elisha the son of Shaphat. He finds him hard at work in the fields, “plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him” (1 Kings 19:19). And so, while Elisha goes about his business, Elijah passes by him and throws his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, prompting the young farmer to drop his plow and sprint after the prophet to assert that he will follow him (1 Kings 19:20). There are several details worth unpacking, here.
First of all is Elisha’s means. With agriculture being the primary industry of the age, we aren’t surprised to find Elisha in the fields plowing. But what is worth mentioning is that his dad, Shaphat, had “twelve yoke of oxen” to his name, which was no small feat. It suggests, actually, that Elisha hails from a family of considerable wealth. Shaphat Farms, if you will, was likely a well-to-do operation functioning at full capacity, with Elisha, perhaps, standing to inherit it all one day. (I’m just surmising, here, but still.) Yet it is to this successful albeit simple farmer that God’s wondrous call to prophetic representation comes. It’s fitting, though, that he’s found plowing. Part of what makes Elisha’s subsequent ministry so captivating is just the unassuming nature of the one called. He’s a farmer. He’s a man of “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”2 That’s where Elijah “casts his mantle upon him” (1 Kings 19:19). This, you see, was emblematic of a transfer of power, authority, and office from one individual to another. In this act, Elijah was publicly pronouncing his heir apparent. Elisha would be the “prophet in his room” (1 Kings 19:16), the one who would come after him to carry on the ministry of Yahweh’s prophetic voice among the people of Israel.
I wonder, though, what Elisha thought about all this? Let’s take this sequence of events from his perspective. You wake up at 4 A.M., as you do every Tuesday, and go about your business around the farm. Milking, herding, planting, fixing, plowing, etc. — there’s always something that needs tending to. And there’s nothing particularly special about this day. Actually, it’s rather ordinary. There’s a buzz about the farm, though, because a prophet has been seen on the grounds, making inquiries about Shaphat’s sons. Suddenly, you see him. Out of the corner of your eye, you see his figure in the distance. You think nothing of it and continue tilling the field in front of you. You have to get it ready for planting soon. A few minutes pass and now your plowed lines have gotten a little more off-center because you’re so distracted — the far-off prophet has come nearer, nearer still, and seems to making a beeline straight for you. And he is. He does. He approaches you and, without a word, throws his cloak over your shoulders and leaves. You understand what’s just occurred but you’re so stunned you don’t know what to say. You finally come to your senses, drop your plow, and chase after the mysterious prophet to pledge your allegiance to him.
This is a moment of sheer surprise in Elisha’s eyes. He didn’t wake up expecting his life to be entirely reordered and reconfigured. But that’s exactly what happens. That’s exactly what this call entails. This random Tuesday has now become a day of reckoning, wherein Elisha’s response to the call of Yahweh hangs in the balance. It’s all so sudden, so surprising — at least, to Elisha (and to us). But not to God. He’s not surprised at all. What appears to be the startling interference of Yahweh in Elisha’s life was, in fact, in accordance with all of Yahweh’s plans and purposes. This was his sovereign intention, to claim from the fields a voice to proclaim salvation to the nations. This, I’d say, is how God continues to work. He does things which shock and surprise. “Suddenness,” writes Dale Ralph Davis,3 “is the wrapping paper in which sovereignty sometimes arrives.”
There are times when, from our perspective, he appears to be a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” God, who does things impulsively. But that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s not Yahweh. He never operates on a whim. He only ever operates in divine wisdom. And though we, too, might be greeted with the surprising call of God on our lives, we can rest assured that this isn’t happenstance. God’s plans are always moving forward. His kingdom is marshaling in unstoppable array and he’s enlisting us, calling us for his service. What might God be preparing you for? I can’t divine that for you. But what I can say, decidedly, is that your present circumstance might just be the preparatory field out which God will call you to some other service. How will you respond?
The scope of God’s call.
Elisha’s response affords us, I think, the best estimation of the caliber of his character. After Elijah tosses “his mantle upon him,” Elisha drops his tools and runs after him. “And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee. And he said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee?” (1 Kings 19:20). This sequence warrants our attention. Elijah hears his new protégé’s plea and says, in effect, “Sure, I haven’t done anything to prevent you from doing what you ask. Go ahead.” But what has Elisha asked for? In short, he wants to say goodbye to his mom and dad. He requests time to bid adieu to his old life.
Now some have made mention of the similarities between this scene and that which Jesus describes in Luke 9:
And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:61–62)
There are obvious parallels in both passages, what with both largely being about following and farming and what constitutes true discipleship. But despite these mostly surface-level similarities, some still insist that Elisha’s appeal to go home and kiss his family goodbye prior to following the prophet is evidence of his unwillingness to answer Elijah’s (Yahweh’s) call on his life. But the reticence of Jesus’s nameless farmer-disciple, who garners the Lord’s reproach, is not at all akin to the response of Elijah’s new pupil. Elisha’s farewell visit with his parents isn’t analogous to him “putting his hand to the plough, and looking back” — precisely because he burns his plow!
The historian tells us that while he was back home, Elisha “took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat” (1 Kings 19:21). This going away party was, I’m sure, bittersweet. He was taking his leave from the only life he had ever known. The comfortable moorings with which he grew up were now to be unfastened. Managing Shaphat Farms wouldn’t be in his future, but something more glorious would be. At least steak was on the menu that night. It’s not immaterial, though, that we’re told what Elisha used as kindling to roast those ribeyes — namely, “the instruments of the oxen,” the apparatuses used to link the oxen to the plow. The flames they used to make dinner that night were ignited using Elisha’s old yokes. He’s literally burning the equipment that defined his old life in order to begin a new one. “This farewell feast was a token of joy at his new calling,” notes A. W. Pink, “an expression of gratitude to God for His distinguishing favor, and the burning of the oxen’s tackle a sign that he was bidding a final adieu to his old employment.”4 You see, Elisha is not a double-minded-disciple hesitantly looking back. He’s definitively marking the start of a new chapter.
We are made to understand, then, the scope of the call of God, on not only Elisha’s life but ours as well. He isn’t satisfied with partial devotion. He doesn’t want part of us, he wants all. He deserves all. He’s owed all. “Jesus paid it all, / All to him I owe.”5 Those words, while belonging to another hymn, are actually a prayer, too — a prayer of God’s children to remember and resolve to live in open-handed faith, knowing that all the wondrous benefits that God gifts to us in the person of his Dear Son are infinitely greater than anything we could amass for ourselves. We who’ve been redeemed by God are called by God to live not for ourselves but for the glory of God alone. We are freed from relentlessly clinging to what we can gain, from white-knuckling our lives, precisely because surrendering to the Lord’s call on our lives necessarily means dying (Luke 14:27; Matt. 16:24–26). And it is only as we die to ourselves and the lives we think we can manufacture that we truly grasp what it means that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). Such was Jesus’s mission. He came to this earth, as the beloved Robert Capon so notes,6 “simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”
But to what, exactly, was Elisha surrendering?
The significance of God’s call.
Following the meal, Elisha collected himself and “went after” his new teacher, and, we’re told, “ministered unto him” (1 Kings 19:21). At first, this might not strike us as particularly noteworthy. But it’s worth pausing to contemplate what’s actually happening, here. Remember, Elisha’s call to follow Elijah (Yahweh, really) would end up seeing him bring to bear the news of Yahweh’s power to heal, restore, and save. Whereas the ministry of Elijah almost entirely revolved around the premise of demonstrably proving that Yahweh was the one, true God; Elisha’s ministry would hinge on the promise of Yahweh’s salvation. This can be noted just from observing the meaning of Elisha’s name, which is, “God is salvation.” Such was to be the thrust of his prophetic office. “The work of Elijah was chiefly a protest against evil,” A. W. Pink comments, “while the work of Elisha was an almost continuous testimony to the readiness of God to relieve the distressed and respond to the call of need wherever that call came from.”7 What God had in store for Elisha — the good works God had prepared beforehand for him to do (Eph. 2:10) — was infinitely more than he could ever fathom.
But notice how this paradigmatic work begins. “Then [Elisha] arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him” (1 Kings 19:21). He wasn’t given advanced standing. He was called to “minister,” that is, to serve and attend to Elijah specifically. While the task God placed on Elisha’s life was certainly momentous, one that would eventually reach the furthest limits of the Promised Land with the testimony of Yahweh’s deliverance, the early days of his ministry were engrossed in service. He goes from potentially being the inheritor of a substantial agricultural estate to washing the hands of an unpopular prophet, whose life was marked by the monarchy as one to snuff out (2 Kings 3:11). As is often the case, despite the apparent scale of Yahweh’s call, Elisha was entrusted with small seemingly unnoticeable assignments first. He was given the opportunity to show himself faithful in little (Luke 16:10), which would eventually give way to something much, much bigger. Such is God’s way.
We aren’t always, if ever, called by God into some spotlight position that’s accompanied by accolades and applause. For some that might be the case, but more often than not, God’s calling means serving him in relative anonymity, in ways that often go uncredited. I think of my Poppy (my dad’s dad) in this regard. He passed away a few years ago after three-decades of working in the realm Christian education and nearly half-a-century of pastoral ministry under his belt. He was tirelessly faithful and doggedly resolved to the Word of God. But who other than, perhaps, my immediately family will remember him years from now? Not likely anyone. Such is the profundity of surrendering to the call of God’s service. It necessarily involves engaging in small mostly unseen tasks over a long period of time.
But you know who does remember servants like my Poppy? You know who does see those small acts of kindness and compassion and consideration that never get attention? You know who notices all those hours of sleepless prayer and burdened wakefulness? God does. He has regard for the unnoticed and remembers the unrewarded. We can surrender to the “high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), and that entails, precisely because “his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” in Christ alone (2 Pet. 1:3). Consequently, even though we may never have a statue made in our likeness, or a building named after us, or a charity left behind to carry on our life’s work, the sovereignty and sufficiency of Christ extends to relieve us from the pressure of making a name for ourself, knowing that our name is securely written on the palms of God’s hands (Isa. 49:16). This is what we’re surrendering to. This is who we’re surrendering to.
I wonder to what God might be calling you? Regardless what that is or what that looks like, he has promised to be with you in and through it (Heb. 13:5), and has assured you that he is sufficient for all things (2 Cor. 9:8). Entrust your life, then, to the only One who can ever truly and fully sustain it. Surrender your grip over your little life knowing that there’s One surrendered everything for you.
Judson W. Van DeVenter, 1896.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 10.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 273.
A. W. Pink, Gleanings from Elisha: His Life and Miracles (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 19.
Elvina M. Hall, 1865.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 158–59.
Pink, Gleanings from Elisha, 11.