The tests of the prophet - 2 Kings 2:15-25
I'm sorry to have to do it but inevitably this evening I shall have to mention the E word!
There will be Uni & school students here tonight who have come to forget about Exams but it's been hard to get away from them this week. The news has been full of the error on the Edexcel AS level maths paper & all its implications.
Yet these days it's not just older students who face these ordeals. The E word affects others too - Even 7 & 11 year-olds face tests with their Primary school SATS with pressure on to raise their school's place in the league tables.
Exams & Tests are generally unpleasant things but the theory is a reasonable one. It is necessary to see if someone has the required knowledge or ability in order to receive a qualification or to see if they are suited to a role or to asses what further learning is needed.
Tests are of course applied in other areas. Metals & materials are tested to see if they're strong or pure enough for required use, safety teats are regularly undertaken & yet even more importantly the Bible says God tests our faith in him.
In the morning services here we've seen that the Apostle Peter reminds early Christians that the trials they face "have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold be proved genuine & may result in praise, glory & honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1Pete1:7).
Faith is tested not because God sadistically enjoys seeing his people going though the mill he is our loving heavenly Father, nor because we have to pass tests to be his children that relationship is a gift given us through trusting in his son, but the Bible is clear, faith when tested can be strengthened, we can grow in holiness & our reliance on God & His love can be deepened when it is put to the test & exercised. After all as someone has put it "Difficulties & trials should not make a Christian lose their faith but use their faith."
If you've been here the last 2 weeks you'll know that we've begun to learn from the prophet Elisha in the books of Kings in the OT.
Elisha has been handed the baton from his master Elijah after Elijah was taken up to heaven by God at the end of his ministry.
The task before Elisha (as it had been for Elijah) was a huge one. God's people in the N Kingdom of Israel were in rebellion against their God. God in his great love had drawn them in a special relationship, a covenant relationship, but time & again they were ignoring & offending God by their attitudes towards him & their lifestyle. In particular they were taking on the fashionable ideas, beliefs & practices of their day things they had imbibed from the pagan nations around them. As we've seen, the 9th C BC was in many ways similar to our own with it's self orientated materialism, its "anything goes" immorality & its love for spirituality's opposed to the one, true & living God.
God sent Elijah to bring his word to bear on their rebellion, now the younger Elisha has to carry on the work in succession to him. So far we've seen Elisha called to serve the true God & commissioned to serve Him receiving God's equipping for the role.
Tonight we reach v15 of Chapter 2 of 2 Kings (p369) & we're going to see how God was to test & prove the reality of Elisha's faith as he steps out to serve God. Whilst we are not like Elisha non of us are OT prophets after all - I trust we shall learn something for ourselves & also see how this man points us irresistibly to one who came some 800 years later who was tested & yet was found perfectly faithful in serving the true & living God.
There are 3 tests Elisha faces; Look at v15 for the 1st;
[1) Company of the prophets: Trusting God's word when others follow a half-truth. v15-18]
15The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, "The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha." And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16"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."
"No," Elisha replied, "do not send them."
17But they persisted until he was too ashamed to refuse. So he said, "Send them." And they sent fifty men, who searched for three days but did not find him. 18When they returned to Elisha, who was staying in Jericho, he said to them, "Didn't I tell you not to go?"
Each of Elisha's tests comes in the guise of a group of people. Here it is the "company of the prophets from Jericho". We met them last week. They seem to be genuine, keen followers of the true God who brought his word to the people, along with Elijah & now Elisha. They had warned Elisha what was to happen to his mentor & here they show respect & recognition for the leading role Elisha now holds, v15 "The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha." [They say] And they went to meet him & bowed to the ground before him".
Yet despite what they had seen & heard of God's word they fail to grasp it's significance. They knew God was going to take Elijah they'd told & reminded Elisha of that in 2; (vs2,5) but by assuming he might be taken away simply to be dropped off again in the heat of the countryside & therefore might be found again, they show they only had grasped part of the truth.
These keen men were allies in an otherwise difficult world. But in this case they seemed to have only a partial understanding of the truth. Rather than recognising Elijah had been taken to be with his God after the end of his faithful ministry, they show they hadn't really grasped God's character & what he had made known.
When confronted with this challenge Elisha trusts in God & his word. End v16 ""No" Elisha replied "do not send them" (to go & look for Elijah). Don't go God has taken him as we had been told he would.
(Yes he does seem to go along with them (v17). But after their failed mission he says v18 "Didn't I tell you not to go?")
Elisha stuck with what he knew of God & his word & in this he is an eg to us.
Sometimes others, who are only working with a partial truth, sometimes even religious friends, or religious groups that should know better, can challenge our resolution to stick with God's word I wonder if such a challenge confronts you at the moment?
Well, this incident with Elisha points us forward to another man of God recently commissioned to serve this time through baptism in the Jordan River. A man thrust into the desert & facing traumatic temptations to choose another route than that God had for him. A man who replied to each of the devil's offers (sometimes couched in terms of partial truth) with the clear word of God his Father; "It is written, (he said). It is written. It is written."
So remember this when tested - we follow one who perfectly trusted God, who always came through a challenge. We are in union with one who always lived by God's wordJesus the one who fulfils the promise of Elisha.
2nd test comes through the men of Jericho;
2) Men of Jericho: Bringing God's word of mercy in a needy situation v19-22 19The men of the city said to Elisha, "Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive." 20"Bring me a new bowl," he said, "and put salt in it." So they brought it to him. 21Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, "This is what the LORD says: `I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.' " 22And the water has remained wholesome to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.
These "men of the City," presumably leaders, come to Elisha for help. The nation is in rebellion against God but these leaders come to Elisha & call him "our lord". They respect Elisha even if their city is not fully committed to Elisha's God.
These men have a big problem. The water source is polluted & therefore the land is unable to support crops. v19The men of the city said to Elisha, "Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive."
This impure water was symbolic of the way the nation & Jericho as part of it, had turned away from God & broken his covenant. God had offered many many blessings to those who kept his covenant yet he warned his people (Dt 28:15f) "If you do not obey the LORD your God & do not carefully follow all his commandsthese curses shall come upon you" Curses which included the unproductively of their agriculture the very problem the City faced & which their polluted water had created.
Well, Elisha, using a new clean bowl & preserving salt as visual aids but through the pronouncement of God's powerful word, sees the Jericho water source become pure: v 21 "Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, "This is what the LORD says: `I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.' " 22And the water has remained wholesome to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken."
The flowing water above ground had its source underground, so salt being thrown into it is clearly symbolic of cleansing (as it often was in ancient Israel eg Lev 2:13). What brought about the cleansing & the healing was the word of God spoken by Elisha.
We shall see a repeated formula as we continue to learn from the prophet Elisha over these weeks see it here in v21; "This is what the LORD says". God speaks & when he speaks it is done!
This is true in the way we are given new life & brought to be God's children. We could never have repented & believed ourselves, God enabled us by his Sprit as we encountered his word. God has spoken & his word is effective. When we speak we can persuade, teach, even plead. But when God speaks it is done!
What was it God achieved as his word was brought to bear?
Back in the time of Joshua (6:26) 100s of years before, a curse had been pronounced on the city here it is effectively revoked by the one who shares a name with virtually the same meaning. Joshua "the LORD saves", Elisha "God is salvation". I hope you're making more connections in your mind. For there was to be another some 8 or 900 years later who had a yet similar name. Do you remember what the angel told that Nazarene carpenter worried about his young fiancsurprise pregnancy? "You will call him Jesus (Gk Joshua) because he will save his people from their sins".
Here was a town Jericho, known historically for its sin now finding cleansing & life here is God's mercy to the undeserving. Don't let anyone con you by the old heresy that the OT God is different from the NT God. Rubbish. God is always the same - He is a God if grace.
This situation with the polluted spring of Jericho is in many ways a cameo of the situation the world is in. The earth is "well situated" blessed by God with so much in terms of beauty & natural resources, yet "the water is bad and the land is unproductive". The earth is not what it should be, there is a fault line running through the created order since humanity has rejected the God who made it. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8; 20 "was subjected to frustrationYet when Jesus returns he will finally restore the created order. Not only will people be rescued & redeemed, the heavens & the earth will be renewed "the creation was subjected to frustration (Rom 8:20-22)the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay & brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God".
Well, Elijah faced his test. For the 1st time since he'd been left on his own he responded to the need with God's word. He'd been with his master now the succession has taken place & he can't lean on his old boss. God's word comes to him as a prophet & through it effective change is brought; cleansing, healing of the water.
In this Elisha is an eg to us. Are we able to bring God's word to bear in situations of challenge? We're not prophets like Elisha but we are those entrusted with the gospel.
We have God's word in our Bibles when opportunities arise to communicate the gospel & to answer people's questions.
This incident with Elisha points us forward to another man of God. A man confronting Human need. A man able with a word to bring healing to a paralytic, a man able through God's word, to bring cleansing to those considered cursed by skin disease. A man who spoke the message we read from John's gospel; "the water I givebecome (in him) a spring of water welling up to eternal life"(4:15)
So remember this when tested - we follow one who perfectly trusted God, who always came through a challenge. We are in union with one who always was able to bring God's word to bear & bring positive change. Jesus the one who fulfils the promise of Elisha.
3)Youths from Bethel; Warning of judgement. Concern for God's reputation
v23-25 23From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" 24He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. 25And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
This 3rd incident is regarded by some as one of the Bible's worst horror stories. Some children give Elisha a bit of the old verbals & he calls down a curse, which results in 40 odd of them being killed. Well actually when you read the story more carefully you see this is not exactly what happens. But there is a serious reality behind the incident which ought rightly to make us think soberly.
We're told "Some youths" that is young men without full adult status came out of the town of Bethel & started to jeer at Elisha. There was probably a large number of them because the later mauling by 2 bears resulted in 42 being injured presumably many more scarpered when they saw 2 huge bears coming towards them!
What these youths were doing was not merely engaging in a bit of friendly banter with the folically challenged Elisha! These young men knew what they were saying. They had hostility in their hearts towards this man because he was a prophet of the true God & therefore they were expressing their hostility to God himself.
The town in question here, Bethel, had been a place of blessing back in earlier history. It's name means "house of God" but it was soon to be known to the faithful as "Bethaven" "house of foolishness". It had become a, if not the centre for pagan Ba'al worship. Here was a city, which symbolised godlessness. Many were followers of the pagan god Ba'al. These youths were against God & they pour out their aggressive anti God feelings on God's prophet. v23 they "jeered at [Elisha] "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!"
They mock the one, God has sent to bring them a way back & they continue to show they reject God "Go on up, you baldhead!"; "Clear off baldy we want you out of here with all your talk of YHWH the true God you're not welcome we want our idolatry, our immorality our materialism. We're in charge - Go on up; you shoot off back up in the sky like your mate (Elijah)."
Grasping this puts this story in a different light. The bears mauling 42 of these rebellious young men (notice they were mauled not all killed) is very serious. This is no warning to be more respectful of the balding people we know!! God is not to be mocked. He will deal with those who reject him & refuse his word.
This was no fit of pique by Elisha his concern was the glory & honour of his God. His God who will judge all evil & opposition one day & who on occasions in history allows some judgment to fall as a warning of what is to come. Better to meet a wild bear on earth, than face a righteous God in eternity whist still a rebel!
---In this Elisha is an eg to us not that we are to call down curses, but rather to be concerned for the honour of God & where appropriate warn from the Bible of what is in store for those who reject God in this life.
There's is a warning for God's people here too in the contrast between the 2 featured cities. We saw with Jericho a town known for its sin experiencing through God's mercy cleansing & life. Here with Bethel we find a town known for it's godliness now having fallen away from God, experiencing judgement. Some of the saddest stories I've heard are of churches known for their spiritual liveliness & commitment to Jesus & his word who within a period of time become unfaithful & decline. Here's a warning, a reminder of the danger of complacency.
This incident with Elisha points us forward to another man of God. A man who faced appalling mocking & opposition. A man who warned his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem where people would "mock up, & spit on him, flog him & kill him(Mk10:34) A man who when being killed on a cross didn't curse knowing that he had come not to condemn the world but to save it. For as Jesus died he was being judged in place of those who would later turn to him. For those who continued to refuse him judgement would come later so he didn't retaliate, instead "entrusting himself to him who judges justly" he prayed for God's enemies & "bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might die to sins & live for righteousness". (Lk23:34,1Pet2:23ff)
We began with the E word. Maybe some of us here will never have to sit another exam in our lives (hope I'm one of them!!) but there will be tests of other sorts. Like Elisha, as God's servants we'll face challenges to trust God & bring his word to bear in situations.
But let's keep our focus on the one who was always perfectly faithful to God. We follow one who fully trusted God, who won through all the tests he faced. One who gained for his people through his perfect life & saving death a secure relationship with God that enables us to face all things as we seek to live for his honour, of course that is Jesus the one who fulfils the promise of Elisha.
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