The commissioning of the prophet - 2 Kings 2:1-15

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 20th January 2002.

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In February of 1997, Deng Xiaoping, China's modern day emperor, died at the age of 92. And the question on everyone's mind at that time was what will happen to China now its great leader is dead? How will the country cope? The obituary in one paper put it like this: "By living so long.... Deng has probably condemned China to one of two tragic courses; either a harsh re-imposition of controls by a party or a strong individual, or else the very chaos he, like all Chinese, feared the most." And often when great leaders die or move on there is the inevitable question asked: What happens now? Who will take his or her place?

Now if you were here last week, you’ll remember that we began to look at the books of 1 and 2 Kings. These books tell how Israel went from being a great nation to being a conquered and exiled people for the simple reason that the kings and their people went after foreign gods. They forsook the God who had rescued them and brought them into the land and they turned to other gods. And the particular god on the menu of popular religion was Baal. Almost everyone in the land was hooked. This age was one of rampant idolatry and materialism, where people lived for themselves and did what they wanted. God didn’t get a look in. And yet even in that situation, God had not left himself without a witness. He had raised up men like Elijah the prophet who would proclaim God’s Word to the nation. But the problem is that Elijah is about to be taken into heaven. And the question is who will replace him? Will the nation be left without a prophet to speak God’s word? And last week, we saw that God would not leave his people in the lurch, but he would provide another prophet, another man of God called Elisha. He was to carry on Elijah’s work to call the nation back to God, to stop them sliding into godlessness. And our passage tonight from 2 Kings 2 tells the story of Elijah’s leaving, and Elisha’s beginning. And we’ll see that the man God has lined up has all the credentials necessary to lead God’s people in those uncertain and dark times.

Now you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that we are living in very similar days. Our own country for hundreds of years has had a wonderful Christian heritage and we have been greatly blessed by men and women who have proclaimed God’s Word. And yet our nation is in rebellion against God. It is slowly sliding away from its Christian roots into the idolatry of materialism, immorality, and rampant selfishness. While we don’t worship Baal, we get as close to it as you can, but just call it by different names. And it is in that situation that God calls his people to stand up for his ways, to proclaim his Word and to be light in a dark place. And while we need to realise that Elisha was unique in many ways, and has a special place in the Bible’s story, yet there are some important principles that we can learn as we seek to live for God in our age and nation. But these stories about Elisha are also more than stories to encourage and challenge us. They are there to tell us about Jesus. Because in Elisha we see a foreshadowing of the one who was both Prophet and King, the Lord Jesus Christ. For the NT tells us that the OT scriptures teach us about Jesus. So let’s turn to this chapter from 2 Kings as we literally see Elijah’s mantle pass to Elisha. And we’ll learn four things:

 

1) The Commitment of the Prophet

2) The Equipping of the Prophet

3) The Trust of the Prophet

4) The Fulfilment of the Prophet

1) The Commitment of the Prophet

So first, then, we see the commitment of the prophet. Now when we meet Elijah and Elisha in chapter 2, the writer tells us at the start what is going to happen. Verse 1: "When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…." So what do the two men do? They go on a tour of the theological colleges. The Principle, Elijah wants to see that all is well and perhaps pass on some last words to his young protégés, and maybe to sell a few last books and tapes on the way. So they go from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan. But at every stage of the journey, Elijah actually tells Elisha not to come. It comes in verses 2, 4 and 6: "Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel, or Jericho, or Jordan…" Now we’re not told why Elijah wanted to go alone. Maybe he was testing Elisha’s allegiance. Maybe he simply wanted his last tour to be on his own. But whatever the reason, Elisha shows his commitment to Elijah. Leaving is not an option. He is absolutely committed.

And in the passage there are two reasons which Elisha gives for sticking with Elijah, which he repeats three times. "As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you." The first reason is his knowledge of God. "As surely as the Lord lives," he says. He swears his allegiance to Elijah on the firm foundation of the eternal nature of God. Now Elisha knew God and would not have made that oath easily. What he said he meant. Because Elisha knew that God was unchanging and faithful, so he, Elisha, God’s servant, would be faithful. He knows God and he acts like him. As surely as the Lord lives, I will not leave you, he says.

But the other reason that Elisha gives is his personal love and respect for Elijah. "As surely as you live." As long as you are around, Elijah, I’m sticking with you, he says. I’ve made a commitment to you. In fact it has been very costly. You remember how in 1 Kings 19 he had to leave his family and his livelihood behind. That’s how committed to God and God’s prophet Elisha was. And there was no way Elisha was leaving him now. In fact, it is clear throughout the passage that Elisha had a great deal of affection and respect for Elijah. He refuses to allow the three companies of prophets to chatter about Elijah’s impending departure. "Do not speak of it," he says to them three times. And when in verse 12 Elijah is finally taken away, he cries out "My father, my father." So Elisha’s ties to Elijah were more than skin deep. He was committed. And nothing would come in the way. He was committed because of his knowledge of God and his love for Elijah.

Commitment- it’s a word that sums up Elisha’s attitude in this passage. And yet it is a dirty word today, even, dare I say, among Christians. The Apathy Society once put up a notice in the university where they were based which said: "There will be no meeting of the Apathy Society today. We cannot be bothered to meet." Lack of commitment is seen in many areas of life. You may know that many scouting and Guiding groups are finding it hard to recruit leaders because of the commitment involved. I guess many of us will be owners of supermarket loyalty cards, but how many of us have more than one? If you think about it, it’s a contradiction in terms. But more seriously, commitment is no longer the word we use when speaking about relationships of all sorts, be it in marriage, in families and in friendships. Instead what prevails is a take it or leave it attitude which says my feelings and wants come first. Commitment is a dirty word.

But not so for the Christian, for the man or woman of God. Commitment is the mark of the Christian because it a characteristic of God. Imagine if God were to say to me: "Actually, Nathan, I’m not sure I’ll forgive you this time, because, well frankly I can’t be bothered." Or if he were to say to us, "actually I won’t be with you in church this evening, because I’m wanting to do something else which sounds more fun." It is almost blasphemous to say it, isn’t it, because it goes against the very character of God. For Elisha God’s character was a spur to him to be committed, as well his love for Elijah. And it’s our knowledge and love of God and our love for others that is to spur us on to be committed in every area of life. We should be known as people who are as good as their word. Commitment is to be a characteristic of the Christian in our various relationships to a spouse, a child a parent or a friend. Commitment is to mark our attitude to church, to Homegroups, to our student meetings and Bible studies. We need one another. And we cannot rely on one another when our commitment is low. So take a leaf out of Elisha’s book. He was committed. He truly knew God and he loved his master Elijah. That’s the first thing. The prophet’s commitment.

 

2) The Equipping of the Prophet

But then secondly we see the equipping of the prophet. If Elisha is going to be committed to his God and carry on where Elijah left off in preaching the Word of God, then he is going to have to be equipped for the task. And that is what happens in verses 9-12. They’ve come to their last stop on the journey, and Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him. Verse 9: "Tell me what can I do for you before I am taken from you?" And Elisha replies: "Let me inherit a double portion of your Spirit." Elisha’s request is to be equipped for the job he will do. That is what he most needs. And his request is for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, that is a double portion of God’s Spirit that is at work in Elijah. He needs God’s help to do the job. Now when he asks for a double portion, he’s not being greedy or wanting more than his due. Rather he is referring to an old law in Deuteronomy which said that when a father dies he is to give to his firstborn a double portion of the inheritance. The firstborn son was legally allowed the majority share of his father’s riches. So here Elisha is saying that he wants the firstborn’s allotted inheritance from his spiritual father Elijah. As he is taking on his spiritual father’s role, so he needs what is rightfully his- His share of God’s Spirit at work in him. And Elijah rightly says that it is a difficult thing to ask for in verse 10. I think what is behind Elijah’s cryptic words in verse 10 is simply the point that God’s Spirit is God’s alone to give. Elisha must be dependant on God to equip him. And in verse 15 we find that that is exactly what happens. The other prophets see that Elisha has performed the same miracle as Elijah and they say: "The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha." God has truly equipped his servant.

And throughout the Bible we find if God gives his people a task, then he equips them to do it. And it is the same for his people today. God doesn’t tell us to do something we are not equipped to do. Imagine for a moment that I am on a plane going on holiday, and all of a sudden there is an announcement on the tannoy: "Could Mr Buttery sitting in seat B6 please come and help fly the plane because the pilot has forgotten what to do." It would be ridiculous wouldn’t it! If I am asked to do something then I need to have the skills and ability to do the job. Well God never leaves his people in the lurch. When he asks us to do something, he helps us do the task. In fact, not only does he equip us by his Spirit, but because it is his Spirit, then he is there with us in the situations we face. So not only does he equip us, but also he’s with us.

And there are all sorts of things that God asks us to do. This morning here at St. John’s we saw that God commands us to be holy. Well how can we have the strength to be holy in every situation we face. How can I be a godly husband or a godly son? On my own I’d be hopeless. But by his Spirit God is shaping me and helping me to be a godly husband and a godly son. By his Spirit he has given me the tools for the job. Another example. God commands us to be witnesses for him in the places we work or the where we study. How can we do that? On our own we’d be hopeless. We may well say: "It’s just too hard, I cannot do it." And yet how many of us here today can testify to God helping us and equipping to have the words to say in a particular situation. It may not make it any easier, but what we do know is God will equip us to do his work. We could go on with many other examples. But the point is this. When God gives us a task to do he equips us for that task, whether it is the task of being godly in every area of life, of being a witness for him, of being a parent with trying children. Whatever it is, he will equip us. That’s the second lesson we learn from Elisha- his equipping.

 

3) The Trust of the Prophet

But then thirdly, we see the trust of the prophet. Because we may be tempted to think that it is pretty easy. We just sit back and wait for God to equip us to do his work and then with a whiz and a bang it gets done. Elisha teaches us that there is the practical step of trusting God. Yes God will equip us to do his work, but he also expects us to get on with the task of trusting him and doing the work. See what happens to Elisha after Elijah is taken up to heaven. In verses 11 and 12 we are told that Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind accompanied by a chariot and horses of fire. Elijah sees this and tears his own clothes apart, perhaps partly in grief, and then he picks up Elijah’s old cloak. Elisha literally takes up Elijah’s mantle, his cloak. He knows that one era has passed and the next is here and he must bear the flag as God’s spokesman. Elisha is now God’s prophet. And the job starts now. There’s no time for reflection or time for a pastoral retreat in the hills of Judea. Immediately Elisha is faced with a test. If you remember, the last trip that Elijah did with Elisha back in verse 6 was to the Jordan, and they were able to cross it because Elijah hit the waters of the river with his cloak and they parted. Well now Elisha must get back to Judea. He’s on the wrong side of the Jordan. There’s no bridge and the water is deep. So what will he do? He must trust the Lord to do the same. See what he says in verse 14: He takes Elijah’s cloak and strikes the water and says: "Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" In the end Elisha has simply to trust that God will hear his request. And the answer is clear, as the waters divide. The God of Elijah is with Elisha in just as great a power. Elisha’s trust in God is seen to be well founded. That’s the trust of the prophet.

And again there is a challenge here for us. We may well be gifted by God and have read all the books and have prayed for the strength we need to do God’s work, but at the end of the day there comes a time when we simply need to trust God and get on with it. To be willing to put ourselves in the situation when we are forced to trust in the God who has equipped us. A few years ago I tried my hand at abseiling. For those who don’t know, abseiling is the ridiculous sport of walking down cliffs backwards. It sounds daft and quite frankly it is. But the thing about abseiling is that in order to do it properly, you have to lean right back so that you are perpendicular to the rock face. You don’t climb down, you walk down backwards. And unless you lean right back so that your back is parallel to the floor, you end up simply scrapping your hands and knees against the rock. And the hardest bit of all is taking that first step backwards over the cliff. Once you’ve done it, it’s fine. But you need to trust the other guy on the end of the rope and take that first step over the cliff.

And that’s the challenge for the Christian. To be willing to give ourselves whole heartedly to God’s work in evangelism, service in the church, and to practical holiness in a way which shows that we trust the Lord fully and are willing to use the gifts he has give to us. And it’s not until we do trust him, and if you like take that first step over the edge, that we will see he will strengthen us and uphold us in whatever he asks us to do. Only then will we realise that he is holding on to us and won’t let us go. And if I may say so it is the younger generation that particularly need to take this to heart, those in their teens, their twenties and thirties. For our generation is so taken up with the desire to please ourselves and to do what we want, that even in the church there is a serious danger that faithful Christianity will be a thing of the past. If the gospel is to be taken to our generation then it is people like you and me who will need to consider our lives cheap for the sake of Christ. Like Elisha we will need to take risks for God and be willing to show our trust in him in radical and costly ways. Listen to these words of the Christian writer John Stott: "Where are the evangelical young men and women who are determined by God’s grace to stand firm in Scripture, refusing to be swept off their feet by the prevailing winds of fashion, who are resolved to continue in it and live by it, relating the Word to the world in order to obey it, and who are committed to passing it on…." Well there are many here, if you are up for the challenge. Look at Elisha- the Trust of the Prophet.

 

4) The Fulfilment of the Prophet

And then lastly and briefly we see the fulfilment of the prophet. And the fulfilment of the prophet is seen in Jesus Christ. You see the NT makes it clear that the OT looks forward to Jesus. In the OT we see the sufferings and glories of Jesus predicted. And the person of Elisha is no exception. The prophets of the OT looked forward to a time when Elijah would return. And he would make ready the way for the Lord himself to come. John the Baptist was the one to fill Elijah’s shoes, the one to prepare the people in the way Elijah had for God to come in salvation and judgement. And so just as Joshua followed Moses, and Elisha followed Elijah, so Jesus followed John. And in Elisha we see a foreshadowing of our great Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He is the one who was committed to his Father’s will 100%. He is the one who was equipped with the Spirit at his baptism to do God’s work. He was the one who showed his trust in his Father’s plan as he gave himself to death, even death on a cross. And unlike Elijah and Elisha, he is the one who reigns supreme as the risen Lord. It is to him that we must give an account of ourselves and our commitment to his work. He is the one who gives the Spirit to the church. He is the one that upholds us as we do his work. Jesus the second Elisha. Ultimately the stories of Elisha point us to Jesus, the fulfilment of the prophet.

Well leaders come and go, but God’s work goes on. He raises up another to take the place of the last. And so it falls to us to carry the baton and keep up God’s work. So let’s learn from the commitment of the prophet that we too must be committed people. Let’s learn from the equipping of the prophet that God equips his people for his work. Let’s learn from the trust of the prophet that God asks us to trust him as we do his work. And let’s learn from the fulfilment of the prophet that ultimately we are pointed to Jesus in all his glory and majesty.


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