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The marks of a true disciple.
God’s work goes on. His Word goes forth. Always and forever.
The narrative of 2 Kings 2 brings to our attention that which was first hinted at in 1 Kings 19 — namely, the succession of Elisha as Yahweh’s prophetic voice among his chosen people. The suggestive symbol of Elijah throwing his mantle over Elisha’s shoulders (1 Kings 19:19–21) is now, in this text, fully realized, bringing the story of Elijah to a fitting conclusion. Such, I think, is what the opening verse indicates by revealing to us the chapter’s prevailing concern: “And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal” (2 Kings 2:1). Consequently, this twenty-five-verse narrative is one continuous episode in which God’s people are made to witness his ongoing work in them, among them, and for them — even when his primary voice is ushered out of their presence for good.
For the moment, though, my present concern will focus on the first half of this account, specifically noticing the ways in which Elisha epitomizes a true biblical disciple. The brief scene at the end of 1 Kings 19 alluded to Elisha’s resolve to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. “Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him” (1 Kings 19:21). Here, though, the historian offers an extended portrait which highlights the depths of Elisha’s affections for both his earthly and heavenly masters. And, to be sure, even though Elisha’s prophetic career would be one that would soon be brimming with the miraculous, as this text makes plain, the fundamental ingredients of his life aren’t all that dissimilar to ours. The life of Elisha isn’t as antediluvian as it might seem on first glance. Indeed, just as Elisha was called to embark on the rigorous path of ministering as Yahweh’s voice, we, too, are called to trod the narrow road as God’s representatives (Matt. 7:13–14).
Like Elisha, the calling on each and every one of us is to perpetuate the truth with which we’ve been entrusted — to, like Timothy, “guard the good deposit” which was conferred to us “through the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). Such is what the apostle Paul means when writes in his second letter to the Corinthian Church that “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). And such is our calling, too. But what does it mean and what does it look like to represent the Lord of glory along the “narrow way”? And how does the life of Elisha demonstrate what it means to be the Lord’s “ambassadors”? I think these inquiries are resolved by 2 Kings 2 in the notice of three particulars.
A lesson about devotion.
It is apparent, in the opening verses, that the time of Elijah’s departure had been made known prior to the events recorded in the chapter. The prophecy in verse 1 was, in all likelihood, a publicized decree among the “sons of the prophets,” or at least was prophetic knowledge that was making the rounds, seeing as they approach the eminent prophet’s pupil, Elisha, with words that might belabor his misgivings at the notion of his master’s withdrawal. “Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day?” they prod (2 Kings 2:3). Elisha did know, of course. “Yea, I know it,” he barks; “hold ye your peace.” I get the sense that for however indisputable and imminent Elijah’s retirement was, Elisha wasn’t quite ready to accept such a reality. Even still, he is committed to his mentor to the bitter end. Such is what verses 2–6 bring to light:
And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Bethel. And Elisha said unto him, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets that were at Bethel came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace. And Elijah said unto him, Elisha, tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho. And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they came to Jericho. And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he answered, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace. And Elijah said unto him, Tarry, I pray thee, here; for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan. And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And they two went on. (2 Kings 2:2–6)
This trilogy of scenes discloses a myriad of truths for us. We aren’t told the reasons why Elijah insisted that his student stay behind at each new locale to which he was brought. Perhaps it was to preserve Elisha from the pain of witnessing his forthcoming departure. Perhaps it was all an elaborate examination of his student’s faith. Perhaps both. Perhaps something else. Regardless, Elijah’s bidding to “tarry here” merely allows Elisha the opportunity to express his undivided devotion, with his declaration in each instance being, “I will not leave thee” (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). Elisha’s resolve is, to be sure, a consequence of his relationship with the prophet himself. But it’s also, decidedly, a concomitant effect of the calling to which he had been called, as each time we’re told that he prefaced his resolution to follow his master with the words, “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.”
Elisha was emphatically committed to the assignment put upon him by Yahweh through the prophet Elijah. He wasn’t interested in leaving his master’s side, nor was he about to flee the occupation God had given him. Indeed, even when his contemporaries, those short-sighted “sons of the prophets,” conveyed their best logic for Elisha to remove himself from Elijah’s company, Elisha wasn’t hearing it (2 Kings 2:3, 5). The collective sentiment of the “sons of the prophets” seems to be a “what’s the use” sort of mentality. “What’s the point in continuing to follow that outmoded prophet? Why are you following that fossilized man of God? He’s past his prime. His time is up.” And yet, to each remark, Elisha is resolutely devoted to Elijah and, more significantly, to Yahweh. “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.” Such was his heart. Such ought to be ours as well.
There’s a sense in which, I think, we’re made to see Elisha as the “anti-Peter,” who instead of disavowing his master is seen dedicating himself three times over (cf. Mark 14:66–72). Unlike the troubled apostle who denied his Lord in his hour of crisis, Elisha affirms his affiliation with his master in the waning hours of his life. This, I’d say, is one of the signal marks of God’s ambassadors. God directs the course of our lives, which often leads us to unexpected places. The pastures to which our Good Shepherd guides us aren’t always the ones we have in mind. In fact, they rarely are. But as we follow our Lord and Savior, we, like Elisha, are brought face-to-face with new events and new environments in which our faith and devotion are put on trial. Perhaps you have already felt the pressures of our day to retreat from following such an outdated book as the Bible. There are, certainly, a maelstrom of voices around us that seek to convince us that we’re wrong for devoting ourselves to the church, to Jesus, to this “old time religion.” If you haven’t yet, there will likely come a day when you’ll be forced to weather a torrent of slander for devoting yourself to this book and the God of it. What will you say when that day comes? As Elisha evinces, Christ’s ambassadors are marked by an undivided devotion to the truth of Yahweh’s Word and the gravity of Yahweh’s glorious calling. May the song of Elisha’s resolve, then, be ours as well: “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.”
A lesson about wisdom.
Elijah and Elisha are, then, brought to banks of the Jordan River, where many of their forebears had likewise been brought. Indeed, this scene is teeming with Israelite lore that bespeaks a seminal move of Yahweh in, for, and among his people as he had done in previous eras (Exod. 14:14–22; Josh. 3:1—4:24). With an audience of “fifty men of the sons of the prophets,” Elijah proceeds to roll up his cloak and strike the waters of the Jordan, which suddenly causes the river to divide itself into two walls. The two men of God, then, walk across the riverbed “on dry ground,” as did their ancestors, with the waters recoiling at the presence of Yahweh’s power (2 Kings 2:7–8). I often wonder what the “sons of the prophets” thought of this scene? I wonder if they remembered Joshua centuries before them, or even Moses before him, who had likewise evidenced the might of Yahweh on behalf of his people by traversing over water “on dry ground”?
Nevertheless, with the Jordan affording the two a moment of relative seclusion, Elijah asks his pupil what he can do for him prior to him being ushered out of his presence. “Ask what I shall do for thee,” Elijah says, “before I be taken away from thee.” The moment is surely a somber one, with Elijah’s home-going feeling as near as his next breath. With that invitation, though, Elisha replies with a most weighty request. “I pray thee,” he says to his aged master, “let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me” (2 Kings 2:9). “Bestow to me,” he essentially says, “that which has sustained you throughout all these long, laborious years of ministry in the name of Yahweh, that is, Yahweh’s Spirit.” Elisha’s ask is one that’s both noble and humble. He requests that he be conferred the first-born share of the inheritance of mentor’s ministry (Deut. 21:17) — which produces a most curious response from the incumbent prophet:
And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so. (2 Kings 2:10)
There are a few things, here, that necessitate a bit of unpacking. Contrary to how it might sound on first reading, Elijah isn’t taken aback by his disciple’s remarks. At each geographical interval, his “tarry here” was countered with a definitive “no way” by his pupil. All those previous testings and trials, then, were meant to encourage and develop Elisha’s faith for this precise moment — the moment of his master’s departure. But also, be sure to note that it wasn’t Elisha’s request for the “double portion” that was deemed a “hard thing” by Elijah. This isn’t meant to suggest that the act of conveying his prophetic office to his student would be difficult. Rather, the “hard thing” to which Elijah refers is the prophetic office itself. “Thou hast asked a hard thing,” Elijah says (2 Kings 2:10). “You’ve answered the call for a fierce assignment,” we might render his words.
The task that was ahead for Elisha would surely prove to be a most difficult one, a very “hard thing” indeed. Elijah anticipated as much. The Israel in which his student would represent Yahweh was one that was even further down the “broad way” of idolatry and iniquity. Elijah had witnessed the rejection of Yahweh at nearly every turn his prophetic career. The stubborn rebellion that prevails throughout the kings Elijah served certainly didn’t bode well for his heir apparent. Baal was still the highest regarded deity of the day. But, even still, as previously noted, Elisha wasn’t about to be dissuaded from Yahweh’s call on his life. Neither the arduous assignment that rested on his shoulder, nor the ominous sight of sight of his master’s heavenly translation could scare him off.
And [Elijah] said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so. And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:10–11)
Elisha’s eleventh-hour-ask of his prophetic teacher is characteristic of all those whose calling it is to represent Yahweh in the world, a.k.a., believers, the church. He wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety or status or prestige. He wasn’t attracted to any earthly honor or temporal station. Indeed, rather, Elisha’s heart and mind considered the heavenly more important than the earthly. He consciously understood, I think, the immense errand put upon him by Yahweh himself. And in the face of such a task, he rightly sensed his inadequacy, his weakness, his inability to carry it out on his own. Such is why he insisted that he be imparted that which he knew had sustained his master’s prophetic marathon — namely, Yahweh’s indwelling Spirit.
In all of this, Elisha bears witness to a wisdom that was beyond him. The “hard thing” that was in front of him was, likewise, the right and necessary thing that he endeavored to pursue. For you and I, similarly, there is a “hard thing” in front of us. We’ve been called to represent the God of all glory and grace in a world that is diametrically opposed to him and his Word and his truth. We’ve been saved by the Savior’s mercy and summoned to the Lord’s side as his globe-trotting ambassadors. What’s the most needful thing we could ask for our in our day? Nothing less than what Elisha insisted on: “a double portion of thy spirit.”
As the “church of the living God,” you and I have an equally momentous assignment put to our charge to live lives that are representative of “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We are exhorted to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1). Which begs the question, how do we do that? I think the wisest man who ever walked this earth settled that question for us when he concluded that “the whole duty of man” was simply, “Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). What our day needs is a host of sinners who have resigned themselves to God’s wisdom, which Scripture everywhere reminds is begins with “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 9:10; cf. Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 15:33). The wisdom our world needs isn’t evidenced in a ballooning intellect. It’s not necessarily found in a résumé that’s littered with degrees and titles and accolades. No, the truest, sincerest evidence of wisdom is a heart that fears the Lord above anything and everything else (Col. 3:1–2). The wisdom that’s needed for all the hard, fierce things that lie ahead of us is found as our affections are turned heavenward, not earthward.
A lesson about power.
This scene on the banks of the Jordan constitutes a decisive moment, both personally for Elisha and nationally for Israel. The dazzling rush of Elijah’s translation into heaven was, no doubt, accompanied by a very loud silence. In a flash, a heavenly chariot appeared and the prophet of the Lord was taken into glory “by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). When the flames finally dissipated and the winds died down, there stood lonely Elisha, struck to the core with exponential feelings of shock, awe, and wonder. He cries out in anguish at the sight of his raptured teacher. “And Elisha saw it,” records the historian, “and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces” (2 Kings 2:12; cf. Gen. 37:34; Josh. 7:6; Job 1:20). Elisha’s heart-wrenching grief is indicative of the relationship he and Elijah enjoyed. They were more than merely master and apprentice. They were father and son.
But while Elisha lost a father, Israel lost their horseman. That phrase, “the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen,” you’ll note, is in reference to Elijah himself (2 Kings 2:12; 13:14). It’s effectively a pseudonym for that great, boisterous prophet, who had become, by God’s appointing, the voice of defense for Yahweh’s chosen people. He was Israel’s rider, the one who manned the chariot of God’s Word for the precise purpose of pushing back the darkness. Throughout all those long years of service in the name of Yahweh, Elijah had stood in the gap and stood for the truth, hazarding his own life for God’s cause. Now who would serve as Yahweh’s sentinel? Who would keep watch over the citadel of Yahweh’s truth? The obvious answer is Elisha. But, for the moment, that mantle was still in doubt. Such, I think, is what vexed the “sons of the prophets.” Notice their concern:
And [the sons of the prophets] said unto [Elisha], Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send. And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not. (2 Kings 2:16–17).
Their overriding concern after the events at the Jordan was to find out where Elijah had gone. They were convinced that his withdrawal was merely the latest in a long line of disappearances — this was just another “mountaintop removal” at the hands of the Lord’s Spirit. “Surely,” they say, “the Lord has taken him to some such mountain or some other valley. We must go find him!” They insist, then, that Elisha dispatch “fifty strong men” to go and find the M.I.A. prophet. Elisha, of course, is aware of the truth of it all. His master hadn’t gone A.W.O.L. He’d been ushered into Yahweh’s presence. He’d witnessed it firsthand. But despite his resistance to such a venture, he eventually concedes, sending those men on a veritable wild goose chase. After three days, the men report back that they “found him not.” Of course they didn’t! “Did I not say unto you, Go not?” Elisha says in a disapproving tone (2 Kings 2:18). “He’s not here!”
The “sons of the prophets,” you see, were still beholden to Elijah and everything he represented. His exodus was, seemingly, the end of an era. Their words are laminated with a grim future. How could they go on now that their guide, their mentor, their master was taken from them? “What do we do now?” I imagine them saying. Their furious search for Elijah was evidence of their denial and, perhaps, even of their mistrust in Yahweh’s involvement in this moment. How could this be from the Lord? Such is what disappoints Elisha. He is “ashamed” that they’d so quickly fawned over Elijah’s legacy, having forgotten that the “Lord God of Elijah” was yet in their midst. Elijah might’ve been gone, but Yahweh hadn’t left. His work in, for, and with his people wasn’t done. Not yet.
[Elisha] took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; and he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him. (2 Kings 2:13–15)
Elisha taking up the “mantle of Elijah” is more than a little symbolic. As he wraps that cloak around his shoulders, he thereby fills the vacant prophetic office. The former farmer is now the voice of Yahweh himself, the spokesman for Israel’s One True God. And he corroborates the prophetic authority vested to him by doing exactly as his predecessor had done. He rolled up his cloak, slapped the waters, and walked over the bed of the Jordan on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 14). The “sons of the prophets” see this and are enthralled. Another man is in their midst doing marvels, performing miracles. “The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha,” they declare (2 Kings 2:15). It’s interesting to note, though, how soon after this confession they’re given over to finding Elijah’s whereabouts. I think, though, that this scene merely reveals a plague which still, to this day, imperils the Christian faith.
Our society is enamored by names, by the spectacle of “very important people.” There’s a reason the headline news cycle is driven by the reporting of every latest celebrity rumor. We are addicted to the idea of nobility, fame, and personality. We are attracted to the luminaries of our day, waiting upon their every word. Far too often, though, the church has fallen into the same pitiable pattern, lionizing certain voices and elevating certain men to very precarious pedestals of notoriety and acclaim. Even a brief glance at recent church history would reveal a laundry list of pastors and religious speakers who’ve come and gone. And there’s a tendency, sometimes, to believe, similar to these “sons of the prophets,” that with so-and-so’s departure, the work of God is going to be different and fundamentally more difficult. I often wonder if that’s what the students of John Calvin thought as they conversed with their beloved teacher as he reclined on his deathbed.
The form of that stalwart Genevan reformer was now frail, with illness after illness ravaging his body — a sure sign that his time was almost up. For those who aligned themselves with that eminent pastor-theologian, I wonder what filled their thoughts? I imagine it being something akin to the “sons of the prophets” in our text. “What are we going to do now?” Calvin, perhaps sensing this looming anxiety at his impending departure, made sure to do what he could to quell such tension by ensuring via the terms of his will that his death not be accompanied by any such ceremony. He objected to any procession of mourners to his grave and insisted there be no grave-markings. It seems unthinkable that such a celebrated and revered man of God like John Calvin would receive such an unceremonious memorial. But that’s how he wanted it — precisely because he knew that God’s work in, with, and for his church did not stop with him. His time might’ve been over, but the gospel of the living God would still go forth. And the same holds true in our day, as well.
You and I don’t serve some other version of God. The God of Moses is the God of Elijah, is the God of Elisha, is the God of Paul, is the God of John Calvin, is the God of Billy Graham, is the God of this hour. “God’s power is not tied to a particular era,” comments Dale Ralph Davis (32). “The God of yesterday is the God of today,” Rev. Alexander Maclaren similarly affirms (2:2.318). Contrary to popular opinion, there’s never been a “golden age” for being a church member. There’s never been an “opportune moment” to faithfully, sacrificially serve the Lord. For as long as the church has existed, there have been ample reasons and excuses to retreat from serving him and living for him. But so long as we entrust our lives to his service, come what may, we’re afforded a front-row seat to God’s eternal power. Davis continues:
God is still saving and sanctifying his people, still keeping them from the evil one, and the Holy Spirit is still leading wandering Christians to repent and to renew their obedience. These works are not limited to Pentecost or to the Reformation or to the 18th century revivals. The historical God is also the contemporary God. (32)
For however much we’re given to despair when men of God pass on and new generations of ministers take or leave the mantle left behind, we can still be encouraged because our God has not changed. And he never will (Heb. 13:5). We need not lose heart. God’s work goes on. His Word goes forth. Always and forever. Notwithstanding the ceaseless march of the ages, with servants of God rising and falling, God’s power is everlasting. “Our help is in the name of the Lord,” writes Dale Ralph Davis, “not in the charisma of his servants. God’s leaders change, God’s power persists” (32–33). The religion of Yahweh isn’t a man-centered system. It’s not dependent upon those who are “great,” only those who are willing. And the willingness which carries on this work is that which witnesses the power of God displayed throughout every age of mankind’s history.
That power is true for you and for me and for everyone, even today, even right now. We don’t have to wait around for some great “hero of the faith” in order for God to move. His power and grace are just as available today as they were in Elijah’s day. The Spirit of God rests upon each and every one of those whom the Son of God has redeemed. Which means that if you are saved by God’s grace, God’s power is in you. Do you consciously believe that? Or, more to the point, are you living in light of that? Living in accordance to God’s power and God’s wisdom is what it means to be his ambassador. We devote ourselves to him because he’s ceaselessly devoted to us. That’s the mark of a true disciple.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).