The Ascension of Elijah
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An Exposition of 2 Kings 2:1-12
It has been said: “No one leaves this world alive.” Everyone knows what this means. Everyone is going to die. But what does one do with this knowledge? Some would turn the saying into “You only live once; so go for all the gusto you can.” “Live life to its fullest” is another way to put it. This is a little better from the first conclusion in that if one is motivated to make this world a better place to live in for others and for one’s descendants is more noble than living for one’s self. But the Bible has a different turn on this phrase: “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27). Yes, all will die. But to leave off the truth that the judgment follows is catastrophic to human behavior. I might also add that some people have left this world alive. We know of Enoch as well as Elijah whom we will be looking at this morning. They left this world alive. So did Jesus, even though He had died. After the resurrection, He ascended alive to heaven. The Bible also says that there will be some who are alive and remain to the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The truth goes even further. There will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust. Some will rise to eternal reward in the presence and others will be condemned to eternal punishment. It is important to have this in perspective.
In the text this morning, we will be learning about the ascension of Elijah in a fiery chariot into heaven. This event has captured the imagination of many. We can think of the movie “Chariots of Fire” and a spiritual like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” How spectacular that must have appeared to Elijah’s younger partner in the prophetic ministry, Elisha, who would ascend to Elijah’s ministry upon his master’s departure.
Elijah had a long a productive prophetic ministry. We first come across Elijah when he comes to the evil King Ahab and declares from the LORD that there would be no rain in the land until Elijah gave word. Elijah had to flee and was his by the LORD in the wilderness where the LORD commanded ravens who were unclean and not the sort to share anything to feed Elijah. Later on, Elijah was sent to Zarapath in the land of Phoenicia to be fed by a Gentile widow woman. The LORD provided that the little meal and oil they had would provide food for Elijah, the woman, and her son until the rain returned. Elijah later returned and told Elijah to assemble all the priests and priestesses of Baal and Asherah to come to Mt. Carmel. There was a contest between Yahweh and Baal as to which was the true God. Ahab was himself confused, although Jezebel his wife, was firmly committed to Baal. Baal and his consort Asherah were thought to control the storms, rain, and fertility. By the failure to bring down fire (lightning?) upon the sacrifice to consume it, it proved the priests of Baal were powerless which said Baal either did not care or was himself powerless. Elijah then doused his altar with precious water, it had not rained in three years. When Elijah prayed, the fire came down and consumed the sacrifice. The people cried out “The LORD, he is God” again and again. Many other deeds and wonders did Elijah perform.
Now it was time for the elderly Elijah to bring his ministry to an end. The LORD provided Elisha to take his place. Elisha followed Elijah in mentored ministry much as Jesus led and taught His disciples to take His place after He ascended. Not only did the LORD have Elisha, but He had at least two schools of prophets as well which are mentioned in this text. A prophet is one who speaks the words of the LORD to the people. Some of these might be the declaration of future events, but prophets are not mere fortune-tellers. Much of what the LORD says speaks to issues that were current to the hearers. We make a mistake when we see prophets as primarily telling of future events. In reality, this is a secondary role of the prophet. We also tend to see the miracles that prophets like Elijah and Elisha performed as prominent. But we also must remember that John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and role of Elijah and was called by Jesus the greatest of the prophets did no miracles at all. (John 10:41) He spent his entire ministry preaching a baptism of repentance and preparing the way for Jesus. Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God” had the primary task of telling Israel that Yahweh and not Baal was their God, their only God, because He is the only God. Let the occupation of todays prophets be to proclaim Jesus is the Christ. If God wishes to confirm these words with signs and wonders, that is well and good. If God wishes to warn His people concerning future events, that is well. We should be faithful proclaimers of the LORD’s word with or without these.
There comes a time in the life of God’s ministers that they need to move on and be with Jesus above. God prepares those who will take our place, and it is important that we equip them for ministry as best we can. God ordinarily uses human vessels to accomplish these purposes. This, too, is the work of the prophet. God calls our replacements, we equip them, and then God calls us home. It is unlikely we well leave the world in such a spectacular manner of Elijah, but that is not what is important. The importance is that heaven is spectacular, and we will spend eternity with Him.
The fact that Elijah was going to be taken up that day was one of the worst kept secrets in history. It is hard to keep this secret when there was Elijah the prophet and two schools of the prophets who knew what was about to happen. Did Elijah know that Elisha knew? Why did he want to go off in secret? He wanted his death to be more like Moses’. Did he simply want to disappear? Or was he doing this as one last test for Elisha? The role of a prophet is full of danger as well as times of discouragement. Anyone called to the ministry needs to be prepared for this. One has to know he is called even when times are at their worst. At any rate, Elijah’s actions would test the mettle of Elijah.
Elijah showed his commitment to the ministry when he was called. He invited his neighbors to a great feast where he sacrificed his twelve yoke of oxen. He burned his bridges. There was no turning back. He followed Elijah as a servant which seems to have included caring for Elijah’s infirmities of old age. It must have been an incredible act of will for Elijah to walk first to Gilgal, then to Jericho, and then to cross Jordan. When He told Elisha to remain while Elijah went to Gilgal, Elisha refused and like Ruth declared his intention to go with Elijah. Gilgal is where the men of Israel were circumcised after they had crossed the Jordan. (Joshua 5:2-12) It is amazing that the men of the wilderness had not been circumcised. This was a commandment given to Abraham and his descendants. It was necessary for their reproach to be removed. The Children of Israel also had come to Jericho where the LORD threw down the wall around the city so the city might be destroyed, save Rahab and all who were in her house. The Children of Israel also had crossed the Jordan, whose waters divided when the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of the presence of Yahweh. So, Elijah retraces this journey. Each time He commands Elisha to remain behind. Twice, Schools of the Prophets informed Elisha that the LORD was going to take away Elisha’s master, Elijah. Twice, he silences them.
So after Elijah divides the Jordan with his mantle, and they cross over and exit Israel in the process, Elijah asks Elisha what he wants. He asks for a hard thing, that his ministry be twice as fruitful as Elijah’s. It reminds us of Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Greater works than these shall you do because I go to My Father.” (John 14:12) Elijah tells Elijah that he is asking for a hard thing but if he was to see him depart that it would be granted. Then the fiery chariot came down to pick Elijah up and take him to heaven is a whirlwind. Elijah’s mantle fell from the chariot and became Elisha’s. Elisha’s request would be granted, and Scripture records that he performed twice the miracles of Elijah.
Elijah had left the world alive. He would have also been changed in the process just as we will have to be transformed. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:53, mortality must put on immortality and corruption incorruption. In this, Elijah stands as a symbol of the return of Jesus and the transformation of those who are alive and remain.
The ascension of Elijah into heaven by the fire and the whirlwind is a theophany or a demonstration of the presence of Yahweh much as the dove that descended on Jesus at His baptism or the tongues of fire which came down upon the believers at Pentecost. It is Yahweh and not Baal who controls the storm. Elijah was safely borne above the storm. This should encourage us in times of opposition and discouragement.
One also sees a shadow of the ascension of Jesus Christ as well. That was also a dramatic spectacle witnessed by the Apostles. He ascended in brilliant clouds of white. In this way Elijah prepared the way for Jesus’ ascension. His appearance at the Transfiguration also is a sign that Jesus would return as well. In these two events, Elijah literally fulfills the prophecy of Malachi. (Malachi 4:5)
This is not all. Another follower in the spirit of Elijah came to fulfill this prophecy, one greater than even Elisha. This is John the Baptist. Peter, James and John thought of this when they saw Elijah standing next to Jesus with Moses on the other side. They had seen a dazzling display of the presence of God. So afterward, the disciples asked about Elijah. “Why does it say that Elijah must come first and restore all things? In other words, they were making inquiry of Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus answered that Elijah does indeed come and restore all things, but they killed him. The disciples then realized that Jesus was talking about John the Baptist who even dressed like Elijah. These were separate people, of course, but they were called by the same Spirit, that is the Holy Spirit. This is the proper Spirit of Elijah. It was the Holy Spirit which would be given in double measure to Elisha, in even unmeasurable amounts in Jesus Christ, and to us who believe on Jesus as well to equip us for the work of ministry. It is this Holy Spirit who empowers us. Elijah was a person of like passions as we are. He had times where he showed forth how powerless he really was in himself such as when he fled from Jezebel so soon after he had called the fire down from heaven. The works of Elijah were not done in Elijah’s spirit any more than our work in the ministry is empowered by our ability. The works of Elijah were done by the Holy Spirit. The same must be true of our works as well.
We are called to be in mission. Do we dare ask for a double portion of the Spirit who worked in Elijah. Know that this is indeed a difficult thing to ask as we should also expect a double opposition by the enemy. He has not given us power to call down fire from heaven. (Luke 9:54) Instead, He has given power for us to suffer for His name’s sake. We see this in the passage before the transfiguration where we are told that we are not worthy of Him unless we take up our cross and follow Him. In this suffering, we also have the blessing that we have been commissioned to bring people to Christ. It takes a double portion of the Lord’s Spirit to be able to do this. This is not a time to be timid. These “Days of Elijah” are upon us. People have forsaken Christ and are following Baal. Others try to serve two masters. We must teach them that it is the Lord who is God. Lord make us to be willing to ask for this double filling. Amen.