For a study on 2 Kings 2:1-11, please see the Elijah series, lessons 18-19.
How we respond to the situations of life, whether pleasant or painful, is tremendously illuminating. Our responses expose our true spiritual condition. How we respond reveals something about our beliefs, values, priorities, and our spiritual condition and focus at any particular moment. And even if our beliefs, values, and priorities may be right or biblical, if our focus is wrong or if we have been walking by our own abilities (really weaknesses) then we will surely act in ways that contradict our basic beliefs.
I think this is why Peter describes the variegated trials of life as “the proof of your faith” (1 Peter 1:7). “Proof” is the Greek dokimion, a word used of the smelting process for refining and testing precious metals to either remove the impurities or prove the quality of the metal. Dokimion comes from a word group that was used of the test or trial itself, or of the results, the proof, the pure gold that was left.
Because we live in a fallen world, every day is filled with trials, obstacles, and irritations--things that test us. As with the smelting process, they not only expose our true spiritual metal at any given moment, but, by God’s design, they are designed to purify us. Someone once said, “talent is formed in solitude, but character in the storms of life.”
Phillips Brooks is quoted as saying, “O, do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”
The translation of Elijah was a test designed to reveal the character and qualification of Elisha to be the successor to Elijah. In 2 Kings 2:12-14 we see Elisha’s response to the painful loss of his mentor and teacher. It is a response that tells us even more about the spiritual character of the prophet Elisha.
2 Kings 2:12-15 And Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan. 14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters and said, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over. 15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho opposite him saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
“And Elisha saw it.” This focuses our attention on the fact he met the condition given by Elijah in verse 10. This is perhaps not as easy as it might appear. If he had looked off for just a moment he could have missed the departure and the blessing, but Elisha had been faithful to stay with Elijah and to faithfully watch for the translation. He would be the one to take on the responsibility of his mentor. How many times do believers miss God’s will because they become preoccupied with their problems, or people, or success, or, well, you name it. Elisha could have become occupied with himself and the new position of authority and responsibility that he was about to receive, but his response as seen in the words he cried out as he saw Elijah pass from the scene demonstrates a different heart, one that exposes the young prophet’s heart and perspective about life itself.
Notice how, as an apprentice and student, Elisha called Elijah “my father,” which was a term of endearment, respect, and submission. This stands out in stark contrast to the independent spirit of self-willed rebellion so often found today in our society. Ours is a day when all the accepted authorities (parents, school, university, state, church, Bible, pope, God) are being challenged and resisted. The prevailing mentality is, “I am going to do my own thing in my way. Nobody has the right to tell me what to do.” Now, I am not for a minute promoting blind submission to authority. There is certainly a need for responsible, mature, and wise evaluation of those to whom we submit and why. But clearly a vital element of any strong society is careful discipling or mentoring that promotes spiritual maturity and ministry in others.
By the words that followed along with the tearing of his clothes, itself a sign of mourning, we get a glimpse of the pain he felt at the loss of this warrior in Israel and his faithful mentor. It truly demonstrated Elisha’s love and respect for his teacher. It demonstrated Elisha’s attitude regarding the importance of such a man as the prophet Elijah to the nation.
But what about the strange statement that he made at Elijah’s departure, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”? What does this mean and what does it say to us today?
The chariot and horsemen represented one of the strongest military instruments of ancient times. It stood for military power at its greatest. If you recall, God’s power and presence are pictured by horses and chariots encircling Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:15. There it portrays God’s power and His ability to protect and deliver Elijah and His servant.
Here, however, Elisha was speaking of Elijah and declaring that the real strength and the ultimate protection and defense of Israel lay in the ministry of this great prophet. Why? Because he was a herald of the Word of the Lord. He was also the head of the schools of the prophets, the place where other teachers of the Word were trained and prepared to minister the Word to others.
Not only did this demonstrate Elisha’s perspective and faith in God’s Word, but it demonstrates a vital principle, one echoed over and over again throughout the Old Testament: On the one hand knowing, believing, and obeying the righteous principles of God’s Word produces wisdom and justice and brings blessing and the prosperity of God to a nation. On the other hand, ignorance, unbelief, and disobedience to God’s Word leads to foolishness, unrighteousness, injustice, and moral collapse. This in turn eventually brings God’s discipline and the fall of a nation unless there is repentance and a return to God.
Hosea warned: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos. 4:6).
Isaiah likewise warned Judah: “Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst” (Isaiah 5:13).
The ultimate defense or source of blessing for any nation is never its military or economic policies. Its ultimate defense always lies in a godliness based on biblical absolutes. I am reminded of a statement made by Francis DeToqueville, a French philosopher, at about the turn of the century. He had just returned from touring America to discover for himself what had made America great. When asked what he found, he replied that the secret to America was its pulpits ablaze with righteousness. In other words, it was the preaching of the Word of God and its impact on the lives of people.
Proverbs 14:34 reads, “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people.”
Psalm 33:12-19 says:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance. The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; From His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth. He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works. The king is not saved by a mighty army; A warrior is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His loving kindness, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
Psalm 127:1-2 echoes a similar principle.
Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.
Certainly nations need to be strong militarily and they need wise and just social and economic policies, but for that to be effective, they must know the righteous principles of the Word; they need the absolutes of God’s Word as a foundation for morality. More importantly, if this is going to take place, people must be prepared spiritually to know, believe, and obey the principles of God’s eternal Word. For that to happen, people need men who are trained and skilled in the proclamation of the Word, men who are adept at wielding the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
Our nation has fallen to its present state in part because many of our seminaries departed from the Bible as their primary focus and trust, and put their trust in the philosophies and ideas of man. And surely this was aided by the fact the church sat back and did nothing about it. We let down our guard and allowed men in our pulpits who were not sound in the faith. My grandfather (who died in 1940) was a conservative, Bible-believing pastor in the Methodist denomination. In fact, I came to know the Savior in an old-time camp meeting where he was one of the preachers. But even back in the 1930’s, a liberal theology that was denying many of the truths of Scripture had a strong hold on his denomination and was a cause of great heartache to my grandfather.
Obviously, if we are going to have a nation of godly leaders, men and women of integrity instead of capricious politicians (cf. Isa. 2:22-3:5), and a constituency of people who know the Lord and are sound in Scripture, we need schools and churches that are committed, not to a social gospel or some watered-down version of what God has called the church to believe and be, but to the faithful proclamation of the truth of the Bible (cf. Acts 20:28f; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Jude 1:3-4).
So, with Elijah gone, how would Elisha respond? Would he go back to farming? Would he complain and question God’s timing in removing Elijah. After all, was not the nation still in a degenerate condition; and who could truly replace the great prophet?
Please note the very first words of verse 13 are, “He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him . . .” What can we learn from this?
The mantle of Elijah spoke of the prophetic office and gift, and of God’s call of Elisha to this ministry and responsibility. For Elisha this meant responding to God’s call on his life. It meant carrying on and taking Elijah’s place as the head of the schools of the prophets, a daunting task to say the least.
Note that the text says, “He also took up . . .” The word I want us to focus on is “also.” Though he had experienced pain at the loss of his good friend and teacher, this did not neutralize him or make him bitter or feel that all was hopeless. Rather, Elisha saw this as a call to move forward and carry on the work that Elijah had been engaged in. I’m sure you can see the obvious application here. (Compare Phil. 1:12-14.)
This is not only a challenge to church leaders--to elders and deacons--but to all of us for we are all called to be ambassadors and ministers in the service of the Savior.
Now let’s not miss the picture here. Looming before Elisha was the River Jordan, which stood as a barrier to his entrance back into the land where the other prophets were also waiting for his leadership. Isn’t this interesting? Before he could begin, God put Elisha on the other side of the Jordan. Historically and biblically, the Jordan River was representative of the barriers and problems of life which would stand in the way of Elisha’s ministry, and which likewise stand in the way of our ministries today. So Elisha’s actions, striking the water as Elijah had done previously, demonstrated Elisha’s faith in the power and provision of God and his willingness and determination to fulfill the calling and ministry to which God had called him (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-5).
Now let’s recap and note the movement of the events of these verses.
(1) Elijah is taken away leaving a vacancy and a need. Note that though Elijah was taken, his mantle was not. His mantle was left which meant God was calling Elisha to pick up where Elijah left off. So today, God takes men and women who have ministered to us, but not their mantles or the need of others to step into their places of ministry. This is why it is so important that we each be not only involved in ministry, but in building and multiplying ourselves in others.
(2) Elisha cried out and tore his clothes in mourning indicating he recognized the value and importance of men like Elijah to the nation. His parting was painful, but not fatal to God’s work and purpose.
(3) In faith, Elisha picked up the mantle, which represented his calling and gift, moved to the Jordan, which represented the barriers he would face in ministry, and then cried out, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” By this question he was not questioning God’s presence or actions, but demonstrating three things: (a) his faith and dependence on the Lord, (b) that, regardless of his gifts, Elisha knew he was totally insufficient in himself to be and do what lay ahead of him, but also (c) that, as God had been with Elijah, so God would be with him. He knew that power and sufficiency for ministry always belongs to God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5).
(4) The waters parted and he walked across on dry ground. This demonstrated that the Lord was truly with Elisha as He had been with Elijah.
(5) The sons of the prophets saw this and became convinced of Elisha’s character and qualifications to lead them and they bowed in respect to demonstrate they recognized him as Elijah’s successor.
Elisha was a gifted and capable man. In addition, he had excellent training as the apprentice of Elijah. He may have had many other exceptional qualities mentally and physically, but being blessed, gifted, and well trained in the best schools or churches is simply not enough--essential as that is. So what does this mean?
(1) It means we must each be faithful to draw upon our resources in the Lord so we can develop true, honest, godly and faithful character (Heb. 12:15; Phil 4:13).
(2) It means we must be genuine in our walk with God and be willing to deal honestly with those things in our lives, which if unchecked, ignored or rationalized, will hurt our walk with the Lord and our ability to serve.
(3) It means we must each look for the Jordan Rivers in our lives--our fears, our excuses, our lack of involvement, or whatever, and become willing to trust God to remove them so we can take on the ministries He has called us to.
Here we see the effect of reality in a man’s life. The prophets recognized he was Elijah’s successor and truly qualified to become their leader. Elisha had proven the reality of his walk with the Lord and demonstrated he was qualified for the ministry he was called on to do.
It is never enough for us to make claims to giftedness or qualifications for ministry. People need to see the reality in our daily walk over a period of time which tests us in the ups and downs of life. It’s far too easy to fake it and play the game of religion, but if we are authentic in our walk with the Savior, in time, the reality of our walk with God will show through as we are faced with the tests of life. This is why Scripture warns us against laying hands suddenly on someone without prior knowledge of their faithfulness or without the time needed to test their qualifications and the quality of their walk with the Lord. How do we do this? Through appointment via the recommendations of others or prior knowledge through those who know (Acts 16:1-3) and through appointment via observation over time (Acts 6:3; 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; note especially vs. 10).
It is hard to determine if a person is qualified for ministry when they are sitting on the sidelines. Elisha was a man who was involved and his involvement provided opportunity for both his growth in the Lord and for the manifestation of his gifts and his godliness.
One of the most harmful and debilitating diseases in the church today is what some have called spectatoritis. Sometimes people are afraid to get involved because they are afraid of making mistakes or they are afraid of failure. But we all make mistakes and we all fail. Often failure to get involved is the product of a wrong view of the church, of ministry, and of the pastorate, or what people expect of a pastor.
In his book, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, John Miller quotes Richard Lovelace who writes,
. . . Pastors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregations’ pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed and their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has cheerfully turned to his own way.16
Miller also speaks about what he calls the religious cushioning:
The local church was intended by Jesus to be a gathering of people full of faith--strong in their confidence in Him--not a gathering of religious folk who desperately need reassurance. Perhaps seeking personal comfort is not wrong in itself. But it is desperately wrong when it becomes the primary reason for the existence of the local church. When that happens, the local church is no living fellowship at all, but a retreat center where anxious people draw resources that enable them merely to cope with the pains of life. The church then becomes a religious cushion.
This religious cushioning may take a number of forms. In its liberal variety, its primary concern is to comfort suburbanites with a vision of a God who is too decent to send nice people like them to hell. In its sacerdotal form, its purpose is to tranquilize the guilt-ridden person with religious warmth of its liturgy. Among conservatives and evangelicals, its primary mission all too often is to function as a preaching station where Christians gather to hear the gospel preached to the unconverted, to be reassured that liberals are mistaken about God and hell, and to renew one’s sense of well being without having a serious encounter with the living God.17
Elijah and Elisha form good examples for what God wants in each of our lives. Depending on where we are in our Christian walk and growth, there are a couple of obvious applications here:
(1) The Lord wants us to be mentoring others and preparing them to take up our mantle, i.e., to become reproducing believers. Are you mentoring others? Are you available to teach, train, or disciple others in their walk with Christ?
(2) He wants us to pick up the mantle that has been dropped in front of us, to face the Jordan-like barriers that may stand in the way of ministry (our fears, ignorance, indifference, lack of training, finances, etc.) and cross over by the power of God to serve the king.
16 C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986, p.19, quoting Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, 1979.