Read: 2 Kings 2:1-18
Elijah was a tremendous hero of faith. But like all men, his time eventually came to an end. But despite the spectacular way in which he left the world, the lesson for us is quite an ordinary one: God’s servants—even the greatest of them—pass on, but God’s work goes on.
Human beings have a hunger for significance. We want to find meaning and purpose to our lives, and we will sometimes go to extreme lengths to find it. You can have everything else—money, health, happiness, possessions, even love, but if you don’t have meaning in your life, it leaves you empty. We need to live lives that matter, that count for something, that make a difference. It’s a terrible feeling to think that I might live and die without ever making a mark on anyone or anything. I want to be able to say, “Look, I am somebody. It matters that I exist. My being here has importance and purpose. I’m not just the chance result of some evolutionary process. I have significance.” The desire to matter, the hunger for significance, is a good thing. It’s a mark of our creation in God’s image. It’s a testimony to the fact that we really do matter. Each one of us, every single human life, is important, important to God and important to God’s kingdom.
A Story of Transition
We have been following the story in recent weeks of a man who really did matter, whose fame and importance are obvious to even the most casual reader of the Bible. He is the prophet Elijah, a figure who towers over the Old Testament like a colossus. Today the focus shifts to Elisha, Elijah’s successor and a great figure in his own right. But I think the emphasis in the stories told about these men isn’t meant to be just on their extraordinary deeds or their heroic achievements. One thing we can be sure of whenever we read the Bible—whatever the story, whoever the individual characters, however their actions shine, the living God is the real hero of the tale. And those who know this God, no matter who they are, whether famous or anonymous, discover that their lives have infinite significance as a result.
Both Elijah and Elisha have been serving together as prophets of God for some time. A number of years have passed since Elijah, at the Lord’s command, anointed Elisha as his successor. We may imagine that the younger prophet spent those years serving a sort of apprenticeship at the side of the elder. But now things are about to change. Elijah knows that the time of his departure is at hand.
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” (2 Kings 2:1-3)
There they go, treading all across central Israel, Elijah and Elisha together, engaging in this curious sort of dance. They walk from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho, and at each stage Elijah tries to leave Elisha behind—perhaps to release him from his vow of service? Perhaps to test Elisha’s resolve and commitment? And each time Elisha sticks to Elijah like a burr on a long-haired dog. “I will not leave you.” Like faithful Ruth in an earlier generation, Elisha won’t be shaken off; he will not turn away. With dogged persistence he follows his master to the end. Meanwhile, at every place they visit, the sons of the prophets—a sort of Old Testament equivalent of a seminary of student ministers—warn Elisha that he is about to lose his master, a fact of which the younger prophet is well aware.
The climax of the story comes when Elijah and Elisha move across the Jordan river out into the wilderness across the river. This was Elijah’s home territory, just as it would be for his latter-day successor John the Baptist. But even more striking are the parallels that now emerge between Elijah and Moses. Moses and Elijah are the two outstanding figures in Israel’s Old Testament history, as evidenced by their appearance to Jesus together on the Mount of Transfiguration in the gospel (see Matthew 17:1-13). Now Elijah will pass from the scene in a way similar to Moses, and in almost exactly the same place. As Moses parted the Sea with his rod, so Elijah makes a miraculous way through the waters of the Jordan River by striking it with his rolled up cloak. And as God took Moses to himself, hiding his body so it would not be found (see Deuteronomy 32:48-52), so he will take Elijah out of the wilderness in an even more spectacular fashion, bypassing death and translating him directly to heaven.
Now the moment approaches. Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him. “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me,” answers Elisha. He was not asking to have twice the power so that he could be twice as great a prophet. No, according to Old Testament law, a double portion was the inheritance due to a first-born son. Elisha is simply asking to be allowed to be Elijah’s spiritual son and heir. He wants to be Elijah’s successor in ministry, to take up his mantle – as he literally does.
Chariots of Fire
“You have asked a hard thing (says Elijah); yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so.” One final prophecy from the old man, and so it turned out. The biblical narrator reports that:
As they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. . . . And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. (2 Kings 2:11-14)
Elisha’s call is confirmed; his request is granted. He witnesses the awesome spectacle of Elijah’s ascension into heaven. The supernatural chariots and horses of fire—symbols of God’s sovereign glory—are revealed to him. God’s invisible presence and awesome power are made manifest. For a brief moment the boundary between this world and the next becomes transparent, and the spiritual powers of the unseen world become visible. “He makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire” (Psalm 104:3-4). Elisha is given a gift few mortals are ever granted; he is allowed to see beyond the shadows of this world into ultimate reality. He witnesses Elijah’s translation into heaven.
I wonder how Elisha felt in those first moments after the horses and chariots of fire disappeared, and the whirlwind that carried his master to glory died away. It must have left him feeling at least a little bereft, and alone. But Elisha did not stand around gazing up into heaven. He knew that Elijah’s ministry was now his, that his life too had significance. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. And the answer soon came: Elijah’s God was now with Elisha. God’s servants pass on, but God’s work goes on.
In every generation it is the same. Several years ago I enjoyed immensely watching the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. It tells the story, as you may recall, of Eric Liddell, who won a gold medal in the 400 meters in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games despite his refusal to run a race on Sunday. A year after that race Liddell gave up fame and glory in his native Scotland to become a missionary in China. For twenty years, first as a teacher and later as a rural evangelist, Eric Liddell labored to bring the gospel to the people of China. During World War II Liddell and many other western civilians living in China were interned in a prison camp by the Japanese.
Langdon Gilkey was a young American teacher who was being held in the same camp. In his book Shantung Compound, Gilkey relates how Eric Liddell was the hero of every boy in the camp, and many adults as well. Tirelessly he worked to lift people’s spirits, sharing his Christian faith and life, as much by his unselfish actions as by his words of witness. In February 1945 Eric Liddell died in that internment camp of a brain tumor. He was 43 years old. Where was the God of Elijah then? Why no miraculous deliverance from Shantung Compound? Where were the chariots of fire? Of course, they were there all the time, as was the Lord. But an Elijah-type deliverance is the exception, not the rule. In fact, it’s unique. It only happened once. After all, even Jesus only ascended to heaven by way of the cross. It is for us to follow our Master in serving right up to the end, not expecting to be delivered from death, but confident that when our work is done we will be delivered through death into the Lord’s presence.